When brothers become good friends

My son and I surveyed the stacks of clean clothes on his bed. Did he have everything he needed for his second year in college? And what about his guitar propped against the wall? Should he bring that along too? We bantered back and forth about packing details and I tried to imagine what it was going to be like for my son to move into his first apartment off campus this year.

Then Miguel suddenly turned to me with a bigger question. “When can TJ come visit me?,” he said, referring to his 16-year-old brother. “I don’t want to wait until his spring break or anything. That’s too far.”

This wasn’t a question I was fully expecting. But I was thrilled to know that Miguel wanted to spend time with TJ. It makes sense. This past summer my boys bonded in a way they never have before. It wasn’t something I planned or anticipated.

“I challenge you to a game to 21.” It’s one of the more frequent statements I heard this summer. Thus would start a long night of ping-pong games that would easily last until 2 or 3 am. I made sure to close my window before going to sleep so the tap tap of the balls of the balls didn’t wake me up. And this would be after a day of playing online games and perfecting various grilled cheese sandwich recipes for lunch.

It wasn’t always this way. Although my kids did a lot together when they were little, they developed different interests as they got older. Miguel likes cooking, exploring new places and golf. TJ is a gamer with a cohort of online friends across the country. By the time Miguel got to high school and TJ was in middle school, they rarely did activities together. It’s not that they didn’t get along; they just lived in separate worlds much of the time. I was sad they didn’t do more together.

All of that changed this summer. In June we took a family trip to Guatemala and the last hotel we stayed at had a ping-pong table. The boys enjoyed seeing the sights –ancient Mayan pyramids and beautiful jungles–but what they really liked was the ping-pong every night at the hotel. The day after we got back from our trip, they drove over to grandma and grandpa’s house, loaded up their old table in a friend’s van, and set it up on our patio.

“Isn’t it great we’re so evenly matched,” TJ said to me after a few weeks of playing.

“The only problem is that our friends can’t keep up,” Miguel said.

In hindsight, I now realize my boys’ relationship didn’t change overnight. It began to shift last year, when Miguel was away for his freshman year in New York. The boys spoke frequently on Facetime, mostly talking about the latest music and videos, which had always been Miguel’s domain. Then Miguel began to take an interest in TJ’s online gaming world and joined his chat forum, where he got to know TJ’s friends.

For spring break TJ and I visited New York and the boys appreciated each others’ special qualities.

“TJ is so funny. He made all my friends laugh,” Miguel reported after TJ had spent the night in his dorm room.

The next day we were walking down Fifth Avenue and I commented that it could be fun to take a double-decker tour bus around the city.

“We don’t need to do that,” TJ said. “Miguel is an expert New York City guide.”

Those moments made my heart swell. I relished the fact that my boys saw the positive sides of one another.

Ironically, if it had been up to me, I may have quashed my boys’ bonding this summer. Early on I was worried they both had too much unstructured time and several times I suggested they both do more “productive” activities. At one point I asked them if they had any goals.

“No, I don’t have any goals,” said Miguel. “I just want to spend time with friends and TJ. I’ll get an internship next summer.”

“I agree,” said TJ.

I didn’t give up so easily though. I schemed with my husband about how he could hire them to do some office work at his accounting firm. This kept them busy for a week or two but then they finished the projects and it was back to hanging out at home. (Miguel did have a catering job, but it was mostly on weekends.)

Fortunately I decided to back off and their relationship deepened even more. At midnight one night between ping-pong games, Miguel invited TJ on a road trip with a friend. The plan was to leave at 6 am the next morning and drive to a national park five hours away. Uncharacteristically, TJ readily agreed, leaving his computer behind for several days. They camped, tried mountain biking for the first time and floated in inner tubes down a river. After years of planning family vacations together, I was glad to see the boys could execute a wonderful vacation by themselves.

I’m not sure where my boys’ relationship will go next. They have so much to face still in life—college, relationships, careers. If they are like my brother and I, they will bond just as much or more over the low points than the high points. I’m just glad they have reached a solid point of friendship that has blossomed despite the distance and their differences. It gives me solace to know they are taking a genuine interest in one another and can support each other in the years ahead.

Missing Miguel

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There’s something about a fall evening that makes me just want to curl up on my sofa and stay inside. Partly it’s the early onset of darkness, as the sun sets quickly, even before I’ve had dinner. Partly it’s the rain, filling the sky with grey clouds and making the streets slick. Partly it’s sadness that my older son is no longer at home.

I actually had a plan tonight, to go hear an author talk about her book profiling 100 women entrepreneurs and artists. The book is filled with short interviews of accomplished, fashionable and creative women who have forged their way in the world of art, fashion, writing and business. I was looking forward to an inspirational talk. Maybe this talk would fire me up to do some of those creative projects I’ve been meaning to do. But I couldn’t muster the energy to go. I felt like it might take too much energy to hear about all these energetic women. So instead I decided to stay home, heat up some packaged Indian food from Costco, and have a glass of wine.

Fall is a busy time for most people and it certainly has been for me. I sent my oldest son, Miguel, off to college two months ago and then welcomed an exchange student from Spain for the next two months. Sending Miguel to college in New York city was difficult–so many memories, so much love. Having an exchange student for a few months distracted me from my emptiness. Now that she’s gone I am more aware of Miguel’s absence. He filled the house with energy and joy, always ready to tell me a story, ask me about my day or try a new recipe with me. There’s nothing that can replace my son’s presence. Instead, I reminisce about the special times we had and look forward to new ones ahead. In the meantime, Facetime is great. We talk several times a week and text frequently. I am confident our relationship is on steady footing. He’s gained his independence, living on the other side of the country, but we’re still intimately connected. That feels wonderful, even unexpected. I really didn’t know what to expect parenting an adult child.

The truth is, this new season of parenting has been revealing itself gradually. Like the houseplant I bought six months ago that is blooming little purple buds for the first time (and I just thought it was a plain green plant), my relationship with Miguel has grown and developed in the last few years. His first year in high school, I remembered being worried that he wasn’t getting out enough. He still preferred spending weekends with the family, watching cooking shows with me or playing golf with dad. By his last year of high school those days were long over. He was out of the house constantly with a job, sports and friends, and I spent many nights waiting up for him to come home. I’d often be a little annoyed that he was so late and my bedtime was delayed, but then all those feelings would be erased as we chatted about the day. He may have spent less time at home but our conversations were often richer. When I finally dropped him off at college this fall and we went out to an expensive dinner, I realized we were talking as two adults. He shared with me some of his dreams (lots of travel, eating at nice restaurants and marriage someday were some) and he and I observed the other diners around us just like my husband and I sometimes do when we’re out.

As for Miguel, he seems to be doing well on his own. He’s been kayaking on the Hudson River, been to a few concerts in Central Park—one with Cat Stevens, taken trips to Philadelphia and Amherst, Massachusetts, and located some excellent late night food destinations. More importantly, he gets along well with his roommates and is enjoying his studies, especially his screenwriting class. His high school girlfriend is nearby at another New York city school and she’s been a good companion through it all. He misses home a bit—his parents, his brother and his dog—and sometimes yearns for the natural beauty of California.

I now calculate life a little differently. How will I make it through Thanksgiving without Miguel? Or his birthday right after that? How long is it until winter break? Fortunately, life’s response to these questions (or God’s perhaps) is often sweet. I have another son at home who fills my life with warmth and new adventures. In December he and I will be going to Austin, Texas to visit an online friend he’s known for three years but never met. It’s the second time my younger son has cultivated a friendship with someone from Texas. Meeting his first friend turned out to be a great experience–and they’ve continued to be good friends. Hopefully this one will follow suit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from parenting, it’s that you don’t stay in one state of mind very long. You never know what new thing may come your way. I’ve grown to like that.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

A week ago my son and I went to the DMV at 8 am so he could take his driving test. It would be his second try and I waited nervously in my hard plastic seat while a computerized voice called out numbers over a loud speaker. I tried to read the newspaper to distract myself, but I kept wondering how the test was going. Would Miguel make a big error and automatically fail like he did the first time? Would he forget to do a few simple things like turn on his blinker and lose points? Miguel was a good driver but sometimes the testers were extremely picky. In fact we went early with the hopes that the testers would be rested and cheerful.

As it turned out, the second time was a charm. The text taker was friendly and polite. In what seemed like about 10 minutes, Miguel was done, proudly showing me the paperwork that showed he passed. He got in line to take a photo and that was that. He was a new driver. At age 18, he had finally gotten his license. We celebrated by going out for gourmet donuts on Telegraph Avenue.

Having a new driver in the house has been one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced as a parent. It’s changed our family dynamics in the space of a week. On the one hand, it’s good: I am no longer the shuttle driver for one of my kids. I can sit back and relax while he takes himself places. He’s driven to see friends, spend time with his girlfriend and even visit his grandparents. On the other hand, I feel wistful. Trips in the car were always a good time for conversation. I think of all the places we’ve gone—school, soccer games, baseball practices, swim lessons, friends’ houses—and realize we have spent hours and hours traveling together.

Driving is a rite of passage for teens in the U.S. and I can still remember the thrill I felt when I started driving. Unlike my son, who has grown up in Berkeley, I grew up in a small suburb in Marin County and almost everyone got their license when they turned 16. I was eager to stretch my wings and explore new places beyond my little town. Soon, to the consternation of my parents, I was driving to San Francisco and Berkeley, both about 40 minutes away. In San Francisco my friends and I hung out in North Beach, discovering funky little shops and good pizza. In Berkeley we walked up and down Telegraph Avenue, sampling more pizza and shops and mingling with college students. We felt sophisticated and free. The world was ours to explore.

I know that driving is one of the many steps toward adulthood my son will make this year. In less than a year, he’ll be on his own, doing his own laundry and keeping track of his money and schedule. He’ll enjoy more freedom, but also more responsibility; I have no doubt he’s ready.

In the meantime, while Miguel is still home, we have plenty to bond over. Miguel keeps me current on technology, music and culture. Last year he got me started on using Apple Music on my phone. I had no idea you could have access to every album ever made (almost), at the touch of button. Now I understand why no one buys albums anymore. On the TV front, recently we started watching an HBO show called “Newsroom,” about a fictitious TV station. We’re watching that via Amazon Prime, which was a revelation (again) to me. I didn’t know that our Amazon membership included TV shows. Through Miguel I’ve also discovered the comedian John Oliver (outrageous but funny). Most curiously, I’ve made many “appearances” on Miguel’s Snapchat feed. Why he likes to post pictures of his mother on Snapchat, I don’t know, but many of his friends meet me for the first time and they already recognize me from Snapchat.  

Fortunately for me, I am blessed with two sons, so I have another one at home for several more years. However, I realized the other day that my younger son could be driving in a year as well. If he’s like his brother though–and lots of other kids in Berkeley–he won’t get his license right away. That’s just fine with me. We have lots to bond over too, such as our shared love of reading (“The Girl in the Dragon’s Web” is on our Kindle now), our pets (dog and bird), and good snacks (peanut butter on banana is the current favorite). Driving can wait a while.

Am I nervous about having a child behind the wheel? Less than I thought. Fortunately children take many small steps between the big ones. Each step prepares them and their parents for the next one. Mostly, I’m happy to see Miguel grow up, enjoy adult responsibilities and make good decisions. I don’t know if I’m yet prepared to see him drive across the country on a road trip (which he has mentioned once or twice), but we have many steps before that happens. Now it’s just across town. Next week he plans to pick up friends at the airport. Next February he’s driving to a concert in Sacramento. We’re moving right along at just the right speed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections after the Paris attacks

 

My first thought when I heard about the Paris attacks on Friday was of my children. What kind of world was this that they would have to live in? Would these kinds of attacks become more and more frequent? Would they become as commonplace in Europe,as they already are in the Middle East? How could my children live and thrive in such a violent world? If I had to do it all over again, that is, have children, would I still do so in today’s world? I had to pause and think about it. So much has changed in the last 18 years since my first son was born.

My children were 4 and 1 when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. I still remember sitting at the kitchen table with them having breakfast when my husband returned unexpectedly from a meeting. He had heard the news and instinctively came back home to be with us and tell us about it. We turned on the TV and saw the image of the crash replayed over and over. I don’t remember what we told the kids about the events or even if we let them watch TV. The truth is, 911 shook up my husband’s and my world, which had never seen this kind of attack before, but for our children, the effect was different. They had no point of comparison. They didn’t know 911 was so impactful. For them now, there is no pre-911 world.

Since 911 there have been countless terrorist attacks in many places, from a hotel in Mumbai to a shopping center in Nairobi to the city streets of Beirut to a train station in Madrid. Unfortunately, these attacks, combined with the many acts of gun violence we witness each year in the United States, has made our world a scarier place. The effects on my children’s world are subtle. After the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012 for instance, their school hired a security guard for the parking lot and installed a camera and buzzer for the front door. Thankfully we haven’t been affected personally by any of these events, but it’s impossible to escape the ever-present images of violent carnage and the caustic debates about gun ownership. Ironically, this violence even seeps into play time. One of my sons loves video games and many of his games feature shoot ‘em up type activity. One such popular game, called Counter-Strike, pits terrorists against counter-terrorists. It’s a little too realistic in my opinion, but when we’ve talked about it he assures me it’s just a game. Two seconds later, he switches to a game in which he’s a virtual teradactyl swooping through a jungle and seems just as immersed in this world.

Where do we look for hope amidst the darkness? I found it very hopeful that the day after the Paris attacks, people were out in the streets talking about the need to carry on life as usual and present a united front. In the same way, we need to celebrate all the acts of courage we see in the world. They are all around us. My retired neighbor, for instance, volunteers as an ESL teacher in inner-city Richmond. I’m sure my kids don’t know this. Wouldn’t it be great to invite her to dinner and have her share her experiences? My nephew JP is currently in Nepal, volunteering his time to help rebuild communities destroyed by the earthquake. It would be great to invite him over as well and hear his stories. I can probably think of dozens more people doing good in the world. For every terrorist there are many more good-hearted, courageous people.

As I write this, it is almost the time of advent, the month leading up to Christmas. As a Christian I am called to pause and reflect on the miracle of Jesus’ birth. God sent his son into a world that was marked by violence and war, much like our own. The Romans were brilliant but also ruthless. Indeed, just days after Jesus was born his family had to flee to Egypt because Herod had issued a decree ordering all baby boys in Bethlehem killed. Jesus spent his first five years as a refugee in Egypt. (That’s a point we should remember in debates about welcoming refugees.) In any case, God sent his son with a very specific mission. One of his chief motives was to give us an example of how to live a loving life. Even if you are not a Christian, Jesus’ life is inspiring, filled with acts of wisdom and kindness. He went as far as loving his enemies, even asking for God to forgive his persecutors as he died on the cross.

My prayer this year is that my sons (and myself) can live such a loving life. Despite the violence and hate around us, I pray for courage to face each day with hope and love and also opportunities to recognize those that are already doing good around us. In fact, one goal of my blog this coming year is to highlight the stories of outstanding people. We need more stories of hope to counter despair. And my boys need to hear the abundant good in the world today.

 

The Wonder(ful) Years

The photo on my desk is about 13 years old. In the photo my smiling husband holds my two smiling sons, ages 1 and 4. They are all wearing pajamas. The boys have on their one-piece footie pajamas and I remember the fuzzy texture of those pajamas well. I remember holding them in those pajamas as I read books at bedtime, as I helped them brush their teeth, as we cuddled on the sofa.

The photo was taken in our kitchen, probably on a Saturday morning. When the boys were little we always had pancakes on Saturdays. They loved our ritual. Pancakes rolled up with sugar and butter inside. Some with blueberries and syrup. Others with chocolate chips. It was Daddy’s specialty.

Saturdays then were filled with family activities. In those days before any of us had smartphones and Facebook we spent the days playing at the park down the street, visiting the Little Farm up the hill or going to Grammie’s house. The boys were happy, everything was new and although there was the occasional tantrum or timeout, the problems were relatively small and manageable, like spilt milk or bruised knees.

Now my sons are teenagers and some nights they tuck me into bed. One stays up late texting friends and the other stays up late playing games online. Most Saturdays they no longer request pancakes. One would rather get to the golf course early and the other wants to be with friends. When we do spend time together we don’t go to the park. If we’re lucky they’ll agree to see a movie with us or go out to eat. For Christmas they request money instead of toys.

A lot has changed in 13 years and sometimes I wish I could go back in time. I would love to cuddle up to that 4-year-old in the red-footed pajamas for just five minutes. I would love to see the look of delight on the toddler’s face when he learns to jump for the first time or draws a picture.

Still, I tell myself, every age has the potential to be filled with wonder. Maybe it’s not so dramatic now, but my kids are still impressionable, curious and tender. Late at night, when I manage to stay up with them and they’ve disengaged from their screens, they ask for backrubs. I sit in their dark room, scratching their backs, and we talk about things of no consequence, like what exactly “swag” means or what would happen if you put dry ice in a hot tub.

And if I doubted their ability to show affection, I would look no further than the family dog. Two years ago we got a puppy and he’s become a focus of attention. When the boys come home from school the first thing they do is shower him with kisses and hugs. “Isn’t he the cutest dog in the world?” we ask each other day after day.

I don’t know what life will be like in another 13 years. My mother tells me you never stop being a mother. I wonder what the boys will be like as adults. What will we talk about? Will they have jobs they like? Will they have girlfriends or spouses? What will grab their attention? I could guess at these things but I really have no idea.

Maybe knowing them another 13 years will bring us both closer to the core of who they are, who they’ve become as adults. Maybe it’s like opening a present that contains another smaller present that contains yet another smaller present. As I get to know them more I uncover the essence of who they are and how we relate to one another. And the whole thing is something I knew was coming but is still a surprise.