Some Things are Cheap at Costco, but Not This Conversation

Not even two weeks back in Michigan I hit a pothole and blew out two tires. Off to Costco for replacements. As synchronicity would have it, Yuval Harari’s Sapiens was for sale.  Martin read it for book club; Emma devoured it and wanted to discuss it. I’ve been wanting to read it for eons. Thank you, book angels. 

I found an empty table in the food court and began reading when along came a woman who’d been a few tire repairs ahead of me. She had spent the interim time shopping with her teenaged son.

“You’ve found yourself a cozy place to read,” she said.

“Yes,” I agreed.  “This book is terrific.” Only ten or so pages in, I couldn’t share much info but raved just the same. Her son had wandered ahead so I kept my response brief so as not to delay them.  

“I’ll have to get it,” she said. I went back to my book, but she was still standing there. If you’ve read other posts about some of my interactions with strangers, you know that right about now the conversation is going to veer from mundane into marvel.

“My son is fifteen,” she said nodding at the lanky boy who was pushing their cart toward the exit. “I don’t know who he is any more. He attends the IB [International Baccalaureate] school and his grades are tanking. I don’t know what to do. I didn’t raise him in a church but I raised him with God’s Word. He doesn’t listen to me.” I could feel her hurt, bewilderment, frustration.  I remembered it too.

Nineteen years has softened, but not erased, my memories of this difficult year in our son’s life. Fifteen was simply awful. Elliot was oppositional. Defiant. Distant. I could do no right. He was slipping away. I had a recurring nightmare somewhere in that year — Elliot would sleep each night beside my bed in a little nest of blankets, the way he had in childhood. But in my dream he was now an addict. Every morning I would wake and have to watch him die of an overdose all over again. I’m a master at horrific nightmares. Just ask Martin.

Writing these words nearly two decades later I see the metaphor so clearly. My sweet little boy was “dying.” The man he would become had withdrawn into a chrysalis of conflict and contention. Every day that 9th grade year, he slipped farther and father away from me. Yet seven years hence he would write me a poem in which he reflected on the entire arc of our mother/son relationship. In the stanza recounting  high school, he penned the line, “I didn’t know where you belonged/between boyhood mother/ and mom go away.” A decade after that poem, he would return to Michigan with his newly-pregnant wife. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined where we are now.   He sleeps nested beside his beloved in a home not even seven miles away. Their child is the light of our lives. 

I told this tall and attractive mom that when my son was fifteen, I felt that a body snatcher had spirited him away. That it was our hardest year. That it would get better.  And then I stopped advising.  I had no idea if it would get better or where this year of mother-son tension would deliver them by his 16th birthday, much less his 22nd. I had no idea if their future held a multi-verse poem, a multi-year jail sentence or something in between.  Instead of advising, I told her what I knew was true. “It’s a frustrating time, a terrible time. But stay strong. He needs to push against something, against someone. That someone is you because you’re safe, and even if it doesn’t feel like it, he loves you, and his love for you makes this transition all the harder for you both.” 

A hug would have interrupted the rhythm of the conversation; I was seated, she was standing.  I offered her my hand instead and clasped hers in both of mine. “He’s a good boy,” I said. “Keep faith.” My words seemed so ephemeral, even as I said them. Faith can get us through, but there’s no guarantee faith will deliver us where we want to be. She went to catch up with her son and I sent a prayer after them both and turned back to Sapiens.

We human beings have evolved mightily but fifteen remains a horror of a year for parents of sons and daughters. I’m waiting to read what Sapiens says about it. Or what evolution might say about the wonderful ease with which women find common ground,  bearing their hearts, offering and accepting wisdom and comfort whether they find themselves sharing a threshing floor or waiting for tire repairs at Costco.

 

 

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8 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Vernr says:

    You are an angel and spoke words of wisdom to this woman and probably gave her exactly what she needed at that moment.

  2. Nancy Kalef says:

    I have had many conversations like this with total strangers. Airplanes are one of the best venues! After such an encounter, I usually sit back and think about the ‘answer’ I have given. I feel that I was channeling the words placed in my mouth by someone much more inciteful than I am. It’s a beautiful feeling to make a stranger walk away taller and stronger than when you first met them or her.

    Thank you, Debra, for putting your experience into words for others to see. Maybe you’ll inspire someone to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Everyone wins in that scenario.

    • Knowing you as I do, Nancy, I can see how easily someone
      would open up and speak to you. And I agree, everyone wins
      the we strike up conversations with one another.

  3. Elizabeth Morley says:

    I recently has this conversation with a friend of mine who has a 16 year old son. I told her, around that age, both of my boys told me that they couldn’t wait to leave the ‘mommy nest’ and that they were never coming back! You know how that worked out.

  4. What a beautiful encounter and essay. You’re a marvel, Debra.

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