Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Middle Sons & Moving On

Jack arrived home to drop his suitcase and sleep in a room I’d freshly repainted in new colors, chosen by his soon-to-be stepbrother. The posters he hung in high school and college were all pulled from the walls and stored under the bed. I sensed unease. He was in his childhood home, but his bedroom wasn’t the same. I was remaking it.

Each time Jack has come home since graduating college and moving to Denver 2 years ago, the house is a little different than it was before. The kids notice, but what am I supposed to do, keep it a museum to their formative years? So I’ve made changes slowly, pacing myself and giving them time to absorb it. Still, for him, coming home to Cherry Street is a reminder of how things once were, of a life we all once lived together. And with my remarriage the changes will accelerate. How could it be any other way?

Soon the house filled with my oldest, Cal and his Japanese fiancé, Chika, Sean and his wife Courtney, and Jack’s girlfriend Michelle. Sally is already here, home from college for the summer. A low-key, double bachelor party ended with a patio bonfire and late night beers. There was a dinner party and wedding ceremony for Cal and Chika around the pool at the kids’ mother’s house on Friday night, my wedding Saturday afternoon, and a shared reception for all later that evening.  

Jack and I said goodbye at the Asian Grill on Monday. I needed to get back to work and he was going to spend the day with his mom before heading to the airport. But when I stopped at the house mid-afternoon I found him in his room, filling boxes spread out on his bed, cleaning out a cabinet and dresser as I’d asked him to do on the ride home from the airport 3 days ago.

A beer case box was being filled with the Curious George doll he snuggled as a toddler, antique bottles that once lined a shelf – Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, and one that sat on a windowsill at his grandparent’s lake cottage in Michigan from a soda pop company in Battle Creek. I leaned against the open doorway and we talked as he emptied a bulletin board of photos of high school and college friends and faded newspaper clippings from when he lobbied the city for a skate park, and it got built, and a newspaper column I wrote about it. I promised to mail some of it to him and store the rest.

As I was coming down the stairs moments later, Jack had just said goodbye to Cal in the den and was headed toward the front door. He turned to me with tears welled up in his eyes. “You okay?” I asked. He was at the rim of the spillway into a good man-cry, that effervescent sting in the sinuses and clenching of throat muscles, trying to hold back the emotional rush. “I just miss you guys!” he said.  With that, he hugged me and disappeared out the door to his mother’s house and a ride to the airport.

Just a few weeks later I’m in a borrowed truck with my new 15-year-old stepson Caleb. Like my middle biological son, Jack, Caleb’s the middle kid, a hard worker, sensitive to the needs of others, tenderhearted and determined, just like Jack. I put the radio to modern country before he got in, knowing that’s what he likes.

Caleb’s wearing cowboy boots, a camo cap with a big fishhook in the bill and Wrangler jeans. He’s quieter than normal today and has been anytime we’re moving things from the house on River Road. If he could choose, he wouldn’t be moving. I don’t think it’s me he objects to, it’s leaving the acreage, the 30’ x 60’ pole barn and the line of ancient trees that fill the ridge running down to the stream. Everything we haul to storage, each thing we move to my garage on Cherry Street is a reminder that he’s losing his geographical piece of identity – the land, the barn, the trees. He’s only lived there 2 years, but it's what he wanted, what he grew into at just the right time.

He was just going about his own business while his mother and I were falling in love, and was doing what the world expects of a 15 year old when we decided to sell their River Road house and move to my house on Cherry Street. He had no say in it. I don’t know how to fix that or make amends for it. I’m watchful at his brooding silences and fret when I miss one of his football games for a book talk or appointments with real estate clients.

Those boxes of things Jack packed: three weeks later I found myself touching all of it myself, Curious George, the bottles and skate stuff, a letter of encouragement I wrote him when he was 12 and had struggled and failed at something, his high school and college diplomas. I wrapped the bottles in bubble wrap and packed them up to be shipped to Denver.

My 20 year old, Sally looked into the near empty room and gasped, “The Echo! Why does it echo so much?” Every word, ever step seemed to rattle down a hollow metal tube.

“All the blankets, mattress, clothes, posters, knickknacks and soft surfaces are gone,” I said, “it’s all hard surfaces at the moment.”

But within days Caleb was helping move furniture and his brothers’ things into those rooms, filling them again with the soft surfaces of real human life. The rooms I renovated 20 years ago for my own kids have once again been remade for my step kids. We hung a deer head in Caleb’s room and bought him camo sheets. I understand full well it’s meager compensation for what we’re taking from him.

I’m normally a duck-your-head-to-the-wind and take-care-of-business kind of person, but from time to time the chosen burden of being a parent, and not just the fear of doing it wrong but the recognition of how your choices affect your children . . . well, it forces big wallops of tears to well up in my eyes from the shear weight of it all. And so I find myself at a stoplight wiping tears from my cheeks with the palms of my hands on the way to the post office with a box in the passenger seat, Curious George inside, addressed to a house in Denver.

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