Notes to my son on his 18th birthday

Hey Kiddo,

0 to 18. That’s how fast it’s gone, the growing up of you, my one and only child. It’s been an eye blink, a heartbeat, the space of a breath. From that moment in the delivery room, after hours of labor and pushing, when the nurse and your dad were shouting at me to open my eyes – because he’s here, he’s finally here! – I was in love with the 8 lbs, 9 oz, placid, redheaded baby you who nuzzled into my neck.

As soon as you sorted out night from day, you were an easy, easy baby. You slept through the night at 6 weeks. You passed through all those other milestones without fuss, giving up your bottle and pacifier right on schedule; changing over into a big boy bed before we anticipated; walking at 13 months; deciding diapers were for babies when you were not quite 3; losing your first tooth when you were 5 and we were in Washington DC.

You did suffer a stretch of terrible two’s. During that time when someone would displease you, you would scowl fiercely and tell the offender in your sternest voice “Don’t!” We finally got you to add a “please” on to the command, but you were still pretty cantankerous with your “Don’t!…Please!” Other than that, you were a cheerful toddler and child. Your dad and I didn’t think we’d be lucky enough to have a second son or daughter with your disposition. Surely another roll of the dice in the kids’ department would result in hell on wheels.

Parenting you has been the ride of a lifetime. I wouldn’t trade it or give up a second I’ve spent with you, worrying about you, loving you, arguing with you. It’s been 18 years of pure emotion: love, joy, terror. Sometimes the emotion isn’t even mine, but yours. When you’re elated or, worse, heartbroken, I feel those things, too.

You know me, and I’m not necessarily a praying woman. But, it seems, through these last 18 years, I’ve done just that. When I lay in bed at night and count up all the things I’m thankful for, I find I’m also whispering a litany of wishes for you. They go like this.

  • May you be filled with love, share that love freely and boldly, and know little heartbreak (though you need a little heartbreak because it’s good songwriting material).

  • May you be healthy, happy, and safe.

  • May you have success in whatever way you measure it.

  • May you feel my love whenever you need it.

  • May I be the parent you need me to be.

  • May you make wise and healthy choices.

  • May you know how proud I am of you.

  • May you know how sorry I am if ever I hurt you.

  • May you stumble little. If you stumble big, may you right yourself quickly and be stronger and wiser.

  • May you have a life filled with love, laughter, friends, family, dogs, books, movies, music, and travel.

  • May you always know that my home is your home.

On the eve of your 18th birthday, I can’t help but look backward and think about what your presence means to me and how we’ve spent our time. In my mind’s eye, when I travel the timeline of your life, of the minutes and hours I’ve spent with you, here’s a little of what I see.

~ Midmorning, me cradling you in my arms while you take a bottle then drift to sleep with a full belly. Summer sunlight streams into the living room, and Northern Exposure re-runs play on the TV. Mornings with you are still and peaceful.

~ Reading you an endless string of Little Critter books on a bed that once belonged to your grandma, then me, and now you. You surrounded by 50 stuffed dogs, all of which had names and rotating positions of favor.

~ A toddler you in Osh Gosh overalls and bare feet, red hair now the color of sand, doing the chicken walk across the hard wood floor of our first home together. Your dad videotaping you, and all of us laughing and joyful over the silliness.

~ Friday afternoons at the ice rink. Four-year-old you skating around and around wobbly me. You discovering balance and speed, delighted and unafraid.

~ Matinees of James Bond, Jason Bourne, Captain Jack Sparrow, and any other movie deemed appropriate (and sometimes not). The two of us sneaking Slurpees and candy into the theater and eating mountains of popcorn in the dark.

~ Summers of DVDs and Netflix. More Slurpees, candy, and popcorn. The two us stretched out on the floor or the bed, the sound of the window AC unit drowned out by a string of movies and TV shows.

~ Vacations with dad when you were little – Washington DC, New York City, Charleston, Disney World, New Orleans. You’d sit in the back seat, sans DVD player or any other hand held device, and color in your Hot Wheels coloring books, play games, write and paste Scooby Doo stickers in your travel journal, listen to books on CD. You perfected your very fast walk on that trip to New York City.

~ You getting your first guitar and deciding to grow your hair out almost simultaneously. Guitar lessons, and hours of YouTube teaching yourself new songs. Eventually – inevitably – letting yourself sing.

~ Telling you your dad and I were getting a divorce. Your worry, your tears, your seeing it would be ok.

~ Your first gig ever at age 14. You performed with JW at the dive-y Quinn and Tuite’s, which was somehow just the right place for such an event. I was so scared and excited for you I could hardly breathe. But, you burned your way through two Bob Dylan covers and an original. When you finished, even I knew life was forever changed for you.

~ Your first girlfriend, then your second. Me terrified of what girlfriends mean to teenage you, but coming to like the girls and relaxing just a bit. Happy to see you so happy; heartbroken when you were heartbroken.

~ Later, there were road trips, just the two of us. The places we’ve been…Austin, Santa Fe, the Rockies, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Devil’s Tower, Acadia. You a trusty and organized co-pilot, always in charge of the music, the DVDs, the Twizzlers, the GPS. A road warrior, you, always pushing to drive another hour into the night because there was so much to see.

Your favorite line: “You should turn it up.”

~ Arguments we’ve had. Mostly over your future, your growing up, me letting go. Me making mistakes, and you forgiving me. Parenting is a confusing job. Turns out, what’s easy and what’s right are nearly never the same thing.

~ Music morphing, bands reforming, and so many more gigs. Watching and listening as you become more skilled, more open, more fearless with your music.

~ Oh, and the concerts we’ve been to, the live performances we’ve seen. The miles we’ve driven and the late nights we’ve endured to pursue this love of music.

As you can see, parenting you has been – and continues to be – an unforgettable and extraordinary experience.

I’m sure you understand in broad strokes that I love you very much. But, you may not get the nuances and subtleties of all that love. That’s okay, because I’m not even sure I can articulate it.

But, you should know it’s there. I don’t just love you because you’re my son, I love you because of the person you are and because of the time we’ve spent getting to know each other – both of us growing in ways we may not have ever imagined. In these 18 years, here’s what I’ve observed and come to love about you.

You feel things very deeply with your big heart. You might not always show the depth of those feelings, but when I catch a glimmer, I know how true those feelings are.

  • You’re a very old soul. Most people agree. I’ve watched you understand things that are years beyond you. And, I’m certain this lifetime isn’t our first one together – I very much hope it’s not our last.

  • You like your music loud. I suspect because not only can you hear it better, but you can also feel it better. “You should turn it up” is your signature line.

  • When you think something is really funny, I can tell by your smile, which takes a different shape and reaches your eyes. It’s a gift to see that smile.

  • Going along to get along sucks. You hate the man, the machine, the system. Rules are better when you’re breaking them. You and I seem to share a little of this trait.

  • People really have to earn your respect. You don’t just hand that stuff out.

  • You love a good story as well as a smart conversation. Controversial subjects don’t scare you. You know how to keep a discussion interesting.

  • You take risks. You might not think you do, but I see it all the time. And, I admire it.

  • When you’re anxious, you’re either pacing around or walking away. Sitting still is overrated, anyway.

  • You think weird is good, not to mention far more interesting.

Holding my breath: You and me after your first gig. I was so nervous for you I could hardly breathe.

As I wrap this post up, it’s with weepy eyes and a bursting heart. You’ve taught me an infinite number of things in your lifetime, but there’s one really big and important thing you’ve taught me.

It’s the music. I have loved watching and listening you learn to play guitar, sing, and song write. When you say, “Hey Mom, listen to this,” and you play something for me, whether it’s yours or another artist’s, I’m always trying to listen. I know I’m distracted sometimes, but I hope you never stop doing that. Never stop wanting me to hear what’s new, never stop wanting me to hear what moves you. Because what you have taught me is to really hear the music.

So, favorite and best son of mine, I wish you a weird, interesting, and happy 18th birthday. The world says you’re man now, and I’ve certainly seen evidence of this. But you’ll have to forgive me a little if I’m not willing to entirely admit you’re an adult. It’s hard for a mom to get her head around such a fact. After all, it feels like it was only last week that you were small enough to fit in the crook of my arm, eyes wide, listening to me sing a little Tambourine Man, and quite possibly, knowing you, wondering what comes next.

Kiddo, I love you with my whole heart. You can count on that for the rest of your life. It’s an honor to be your mom.