Covid chronicles: life with my 20-something son

I knew something was up when I saw the meat mallet out on the counter.

“Did you use the meat mallet for something?” I ask my son.

“Oh yeah,” he says, with a smile, running into the other room to get something.

He returns with a smashed brown pulpy mass, about the size of a small lime but looking more like a putrified fig.

“What is this?” he says.

I examine the rough surface in my hand.

“It’s a Buckeye pod. You know, those huge things that hang from the tree in back? What were you doing with that?”

“Oh. I found some on the lawn. I wanted to see what was inside it.”

I’m glad. He’s still curious about the natural world. For all his time on the computer in Zoom classes and playing games, I wonder if he’s become immune to that.

And, I am reassured. TJ may be turning 20 today, but he hasn’t changed. He’s always loved taking things apart, whether it’s dissecting worms or old cellphones. Five years ago when my Ipad crashed, he delighted in hammering it apart and inspecting the innards. We gazed at the shiny chips in silence as if we were considering a sacred icon.

I’ve lost count of the times he’s disassembled his tower computer with the excuse he needs to add an additional fan or better graphics card. The first time he did this I panicked at the sight of all the parts and screws spread out across the dining room table. Now I know he is capable of putting it all back together about as fast as it takes me to do the weekly shopping.

I do a little Googling and I can’t wait to tell TJ that Buckeye seeds are poisonous. Buckeye trees like ours are native to California and, according to Wikipedia, native Americans used the poison to sedate fish to make them easier to catch. TJ and I don’t have a ton of topics to discuss, so I’ll jump at any juicy fact to get his attention.

***

It’s a few days later and TJ isn’t impressed by my knowledge about Buckeye seeds. He barely changes expression as I mention the word poisonous.

Instead we talk about air quality. He tells me his good friend can’t play tennis right now due to his lung condition and sensitivity to the bad air. Actually, no one should be playing tennis right now. It’s a shame, because tennis is TJ’s main exercise. I would have never imagined that in 2020, TJ’s sophomore year of college, he would be living at home and we would be in semi-lockdown due to a pandemic and further isolation due to bad air quality.

“Did you know Mom, that the hair in your nose is thicker than the hair on your head?” TJ says suddenly. “Your nose hair is very good at filtering particles.”

Later, I’m unable to confirm this information on the web, though it sounds perfectly plausible.

That evening I ask TJ, “Where did you get that nose fact? From Reddit?” I’m feeling proud I can drop the name Reddit into the conversation.

He laughs. “No, I heard that on a podcast.”

***

The kitchen is our common space. We meet there several times a day. Some days TJ rummages around the cupboards and fridge and creates his own meal, a fried egg and cheese sandwich or a veggie dog on a toasted bun. Other times, he asks if I can make his meal. I’m happy to oblige. He won’t be around forever. Someday the pandemic will end and he’ll move into an apartment of his own.

Today the smell of fresh bread fills the kitchen. I’m making bread in the bread machine. This bread will go well with the shakshouka (stewed tomato dish) we will have for lunch.

I’ve become obsessed with finding vegetarian dishes my son likes. My pandemic brain runs daily loops of possible menus: mushroom risotto on Monday, pesto tortellini on Tuesday, manchego mac ‘n cheese on Wednesday. I’m overjoyed when I talk to TJ’s brother on the phone and he tells me about a new recipe he’s found for spicy tofu tacos (“TJ will love it Mom!”). Meanwhile, trips to the grocery store always involve a stop at the veggie-based frozen food section. We’ve tried everything from Beyond burgers to “fishless” fillets.

TJ became a vegetarian his senior year of high school thanks to an attractive, smart girl in his class. That relationship stayed platonic, but TJ stuck with his new diet. He’s choosing this path not primarily for health or animal welfare reasons, but to reduce his carbon footprint. I respect that and now I eat very little meat too.

While I cook we talk about our cockatiel. For 12 years Fluffy was a constant presence while we were cooking or eating.

“I thought I heard him flying around the other day,” TJ says.

“I thought I heard him whistling,” I say.

There are still breath marks on the one kitchen window I can’t reach, little smudges Fluffy left behind while perching on the sill and observing the backyard.

I replay Fluffy’s last day with us back in June, finding him struggling to breathe at the bottom of his cage. His little body seemed crumpled like a tissue, his normally erect tail and wings flattened. Then I remember how TJ cupped him in his hands on the way to the vet. Fluffy had one final convulsion that caused him to flutter and crash onto the car floor. His tiny eyes, two black dots always so bright and alert, closed into tiny slits. Later we buried him in the garden outside TJ’s bedroom window.

We don’t talk about that sad day. But I know we are both thinking about it.

***

How did my son become an adult, no longer a teen? It’s the small stuff that hits me. It’s finding him ordering fancy Moleskine journals to take notes for his classes. I remember all the years when I had to buy his school supplies. It’s noticing the way he’s lined up his shoes neatly under his bed. I used to tidy his room. It’s seeing him pull on his vest to go skateboarding, timing his ride so he can watch the sunset. I used to nag him to go outside. As the saying goes, in parenting the days are long but the years are fast.

The other day I was driving to the store and when I reached the slight crest at our corner I saw a young man whizzing by on an electric skateboard. Wow, I thought, he’s going fast. Then I looked again and realized it was TJ. Since we both hardly leave the house these days, it felt strange seeing him out of context. I decided right then that for his birthday, I’d buy him a better helmet…and a Costco-sized wheel of manchego cheese.

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.