On a perfect summer afternoon in the hills of Bath County, Virginia, I find myself walking down a shaded grass path that winds along past an ice-cold pond and dead-ends at a broad, cool river. I have a lot on my mind. I am on red alert for any movement hinting at snake maneuvers in the high weeds that line the path. I am mesmerized by the balletic circling of two hawks, round and about each other, in the sky over my head. Also, I experience a secret and guilty pleasure that I, a woman of advanced age who should know better, am not wearing sun block because I am sick of putting it on; exhaustion from the trial-by-fire of delayed flights and missed connections between Boston and Richmond; and worry about my son.
Worries about my son are the white noise of my mind, the constant low hum that plays behind all other thoughts and feelings. Recently, I have worried about his SAT scores, a shin stress fracture from soccer, his seeming inability to turn in homework for AP Physics, his having a girlfriend, his not having a girlfriend, his going out too much at night, his staying home alone on weekends, his inability to buy decent Christmas gifts, his inability to complete college applications more than one hour before they are due, the fact that he doesn’t hold the door for me anymore, the fact that he’s grown three or four inches taller in the last few years but has gotten no wider, and the pressing constant worry behind all current worries, the hum behind the white noise, the fact that he is an adolescent boy, a newly minted young man, about to head out into a world rife with parties and fist fights, harvest moons and broken hearts, risks and failures, love and loss.
At the river, a tanned young mother in a red bathing suit floats in an inner tube beside the yellow safety rope designed to keep the kids from washing downstream. Three young girls ride their own tubes down the frigid water that pours into the river from the pond above, yelling with delight. I grab another of the fat, black tubes, hot from the sun, and ease myself into the shallows, inch by inch, letting my body grow accustomed to the coolness. This is how I enter most things, judiciously, checking the temperature, testing the bottom. This process takes a while and as I lower myself slowly, the young woman and I begin to talk. I ask how long her family has been coming to this spot and which are her children. She points to one of the girls, a dark-haired, gleaming beauty.
“My two boys are with their father downriver at the rope swing.”
She and I exchange a knowing maternal glance, a kind of loving eye-roll that takes in the high vicissitudes and rocky pleasures of having sons.
“I was worried,” she adds, “because the river’s so low. I’m not a big fan of rope swings. But I’m a worrier.”
“We’re all worriers,” I say. “How can you not worry about someone whose idea of a good time is to hurl himself into space?” And I tell her my son is about to leave home for college, which has ramped up my worry to a whole new world-record level, that the space into which he will now hurl himself is limitless, the universe itself.
On my dresser at home sits a picture of my son as a young boy of four or five. In the photo he runs ahead of us toward an estuary, where the tide has swelled another river, the Pamet, that feeds into Cape Cod bay. As the picture was being taken, I was calling out behind him that he should slow down, watch out for the current, not go in before we get there. But he pumped his skinny arms and legs without breaking stride or changing pace.
I have spent a lot of time trailing along behind my son. For the past few weeks I have stalked him in our house, dogging his steps, enumerating the things he must take with him to college, things he cannot forget to pack.
I’m not going to Rangoon, he says. They have underwear in Chapel Hill.
Before I left for Virginia, I began insisting that he pack his khaki pants and blue-button down shirt in case he ends up doing something nice during the fall term of his freshman year. My son has no intention of doing something nice during fall term or any other term. In fact, one of the reasons he is so delighted to be going to college is that he plans never to do anything nice again, or at least not until the holidays when I will drag him to Lessons and Carols at our church. But the khaki pants have become important to me. He needs to have them. If he has them, he will be prepared for anything.
Worry is a form of obsession, and as such it is not picky about details. Rope swings, khaki pants, stress fractures, tides, currents, acne cream, mean girls—nothing is off limits to the worry machine. It devours everything in its path, churns it up and spits it out in the form of a convincing fear that keeps me always on the edge of the abyss.
For eighteen years I have followed behind, calling out warnings, being pulled along into the world by his great good nature. He has reason to be wary of people and places; he was born with a physical disability, and other kids have not always been nice about it. But he has started every new camp, each new team, every school year with a kind of optimistic abandon that baffles and eludes me. I was a terrified child and though after many years of lucky breaks and hard work, I’ve been able to leave a lot of that terror behind, I suffer the vestiges. For me, snakes and fishhooks lurk just beneath the surface of every dappled body of water.
But somehow, my son never got the memo. To him, the whole world is home, a sanctuary, the very place he belongs. And he can’t wait to see the rest of it.
After my swim, I head back up to the main house and change for a dinner which includes tomatoes and melons still warm from the sun, grown right there in the kitchen garden. I sit at the long farm table next to a friend whose eighteen-year-old son will also be going to college in the fall.
“This has been a hard one,” I tell her. “I’ve aged about ten years since I saw you last summer.”
She nods knowingly. We share the mothers-of-sons eye-roll. We exchange one or two details. She admits that she sometimes wonders where her son came from, he is so different from the rest of her bookish family.
I tell her a story from my own childhood. When my brother and I were young, our parents often gave us animals for Easter. One year it was a rabbit that got killed by a raccoon. The next year it was baby chicks, only one of which survived to live alone in the laundry yard, where the sheets and towels were hung out to dry in the hot Texas sun. The following year we got a gaggle of baby ducklings that the chicken immediately adopted for her own. She would lead them around the laundry yard, clucking and fussing, while they followed in a neat line behind her. When my brother and I filled our plastic swimming pool, the baby ducks climbed in happily, while the chicken stood on the side, raising a ruckus, telling them in chicken, no doubt, to get out, get out, get out of that stuff and save yourselves. Get out and save yourselves.
My friend gets the analogy. She and I laugh, but the laughter is rueful.
Recently I saw a video of a human heart being removed from a man’s chest, and I was reminded that the bulbous and shiny muscle pumping my blood is not what I think of when I conjure the word heart. I locate that noun somewhere in the center of my being, a series of rainbow shaded concentric circles, filled with the people and animals, books, music, trees, plants, streams, songs and houses I have loved. The outermost circle is porous, almost amorphous, and includes all those folks who come and go, day after day, year after year, and constitute the fabric of our lives: my son’s miraculous third-grade teacher; the neighbor who once drove me to the airport at four in the morning; the woman and girls at the river; also red geraniums in clay pots and the robins who nest in the eaves of our porch in early spring. Each circle is smaller and brighter, spiraling ever closer to the center, where the brilliant glow illuminates the flock of people and things I love the most.
I am a woman who enters the river inch by inch, testing the temperature, trying the bottom. But there in the precious collection at the center of my heart is a child who rushes toward the horizon, who hurls himself out into space with an abandon that leaves me witless.
Or maybe it isn’t abandon, at least not abandon only. Maybe there’s an element of faith. My son appears to know something about the world that I still struggle to learn: that when we see it as a sanctuary, filled with rich adventure, the universe becomes our home. And when we let go of the rope and drop, the water will hold us.