Looking at my 13-year-old in the car today, I saw what’s become the norm lately. Blonde, alpaca-like hair hanging in his face, a few small pimples dotting his nose, a tiny shadow starting to fill in his upper lip. His blue eyes are no longer wide with questions but adamant with the answers he thinks he already knows. His face has started to change as his braces do their work, but the dimple in his left cheek will always leave him looking younger than he is.
I’ve learned the importance of time together in the car even if it’s just on the ride home from school. I’ve grown accustomed to his canned, “It was fine” answer when asked how his day was, although I still fight the urge to press him for more. He starts out slow, but if I leave him alone long enough, I’m usually rewarded with a rapid-fire of who, what, when, and wheres. I have to be careful to keep up though or risk the conversation abruptly ending.
He’s not necessarily rude, but I haven’t gotten used to the combination of his voice changing and a certain tone saved for middle school boys. I keep up the best I can, listening for signs of bullying or exclusion, whether to him or from him. I make sure not to side with the “unfair” teacher but make a mental note to follow up. I don’t mention grades since I can check those myself and again, a conversation stopper for sure.
I stop at the red light downtown and suddenly this profound sadness spreads over me. I find myself thinking about the little boy he was just a few years ago. The towhead with the same dimple, running to me squealing “Mommy!” when I picked him up from daycare. He couldn’t wait to tell me all about his day while I strapped him into his car seat. I used to wonder how he could even breathe with as much as he had to say.
This sadness, though—it wasn’t the typical nostalgia everybody warns you about. This was something different . . . as if I were grieving a loss. My heart felt heavy and my eyes filled with tears. Even though my child was sitting right next to me I felt this sense of loneliness. The old adage “Time is a thief” rang in my ears as I realized just how short the days really are. The feeling left as fast as it came, and I returned to him saying how he wished he could sit next to his best friend in gym class.
An hour later, he offered to go with me on our Rottweiler’s walk. I was hesitant to let him take the leash of our 130-pound baby but noticed how his long legs now outpaced my short ones by a mile. His grip on the leash was stronger than it was just weeks earlier. His deeper voice got our dog’s attention faster. He ran ahead of me and turned around, a wide smile on his face, “See mom, I told you I could handle him!”
“I see that!” I said, my excitement matching his own.
I watched him jog down the trail and a new realization hit me. In another few years, I’ll be stopped at another red light, this time as a passenger in his car. I’ll look over and see sandy brown hair, still a bit in his face. The shadow of a mustache will be thicker and his teeth finally straight. He’ll tell me a story and his dimple will flash as he laughs at his own joke. Then out of nowhere, a thunderbolt will hit me as I remember, not the days of daycare pickups, but of the middle school ones.