“Didn’t you see him?” I asked him carefully, trying hard not to trample upon the emotionally raw side that had woken him up this morning.
“No, I didn’t!” he retorted, “This heat is killing me!”
“Why don’t you go outside and cool off, sweetie?” I proffered in my kindest, most reassuring motherly tone I could muster. Two days into our campus trip, he was already nervous and annoyed.
“No, I don’t want to,” he replied, somewhat caustically. Of course, you don’t, I thought. Why would you want to make life easier for yourself, sigh? Ivan, my younger son, had been a ball buster since the age of two when he almost got kicked out of preschool for stomach butting kids, and punching elderly teachers. Not much had changed since then.
Unfortunately, my maternal instincts kicked in and I was overcome with the urge to teach him something, to shield him from his worst self. So I continued.
“Well, I just want you to be able to get over little annoyances that always bug you and focus on the positive. We’re here at your favorite school. We just toured around. We bought you some great swag.” And of course, I had to add in, “Your dad and I are sacrificing a lot for you to go here so a little positivity would be actually nice.”
Dead silence. That last line was too much for his self-centered adolescent self to take. After all, he was my explosive guy. The one that the day care center director said would be “a leader in the community if he could just channel all that energy in a positive direction.”
“Well, when you get hot when we’re in a store, you always say, ‘OMG, I have to get out of here, I’m so hot!’” he reminded me. “How is that any different from my complaining?!”
I took the bait, unfortunately. “Ok, so I had a hot flash while we were in the bookstore but you didn’t hear me complaining about it, did you?” I said, defensively. Maybe we were cut from the same cloth.
My husband, trying to play the peacekeeping role that he was accustomed to, tried to defend me by saying, “Well, your mother’s situation is a bit different…”
“How?!” Ivan asked sarcastically. “Really, how?!” Then he proceeded to go on about how I let little things bother me and that he was no different. He was right. We were the same. Maybe that’s why I got so heated with him in arguments. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t ignore his provocations the way my husband could.
I was a glass half-empty person and let things get to me when I was younger. But as I matured, I had really tried to change that and become more positive. But I knew he wasn’t. And I felt responsible for that. Of course he expected everything to be perfect. I had set his life up like that. As the second child, we catered to his needs, me especially. He didn’t want to eat what his older brother ate? Well, of course, I’d make him a special meal. He didn’t want to drink warm water that his brother did? Well, of course, I’d give him ice cold water. He didn’t want to learn how to wash his clothes? Of course, I would do that for him. He didn’t want to clean his bathroom sink of toothpaste stains? Of course, I would do that for him as well.
With both of my boys, I made them the center of my universe because I had not been the center of my parents’ world. Alcoholism and mental illness had displaced me from that role. But I was determined to make them my leading men. And I succeeded, FWIW. But I fear that I overdid it with him. I routinely catered to his childish culinary tastes, making him his favorite microwave chicken nuggets with microwave fries. No oven baked for this kid. I cooked him “fresh” meals most every night. He hated leftovers and I knew that. I went to bat for him with my husband to go to an out-of-state school even though we pledged that our kids would go in-state for undergrad for financial reasons.
“Look, lopov, I’m just trying to say that I wish you had some coping techniques to not let the little stuff bother you,” I said as we exited the store, my face flush from yet another hot flash. I was thankful for the strong wind and greenery.
“Oh, okay,” he replied, never one to offer more information than he absolutely had to. “Sometimes you just annoy me.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes you annoy me too,” I said, while giving a small chuckle, hoping to alleviate the tension a bit. “We’re a family and that’s just how it is. We can annoy each other but we still love each other.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he replied somewhat absentmindedly.
We made our way to the field house for our last stop on the trip. I wiped the sweat from my brow and thought about why I was so on edge myself. Then it came to me. Unlike my older son, he didn’t seem to actually like hanging out with his father and me. He truly seemed to revel in his independence. He chose a school 11 hours away from us by car. Maybe that was on purpose? What if this move meant that he would stay there forever? What if he didn’t want to come back to us? My biggest fears were being realized by letting him go.
But that’s life, right? You do what you can for your children and you move on. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean that you signed up for any of this. But you just keep going, somehow, and hope that one day, he’ll come back to you.