Can I open an Instagram account?
Can I hang out with friends on State Street?
A bunch of kids are going to the beach, can I go?
Will there be girls?
And so goes middle school. Every day, he asks questions, seeks permission, pushes me to let him do things. Every day, I push back. Everything out of my mouth is no. I’m constantly in the defensive position and it wears thin, on all of us.
"Mom, why won't you let me do anything? Why do you say no all the time?" My seventh grader challenged me a couple months back. And that was when it hit me: I’m uncomfortable with everything that is happening when it comes to him.
"Jeez Mom, I am not a bad kid. I never get in trouble," he told me.
“This is not about you, this is about me,” I explained to him one night. It was an epiphany. “It is really hard for me to let you grow up.”
I’ve thought back a lot on those conversations. You see, I finally said yes. Jackson left for Cambodia with his grandmother to do Operation Smile (a non-profit that funds doctors to fix cleft palettes). That was two weeks ago and, as I write this, he is due to walk through the front door in a couple of hours. This kind of experience was something my mom has always wanted to do with her grandchildren. And when she brought it up to me, I immediately jumped on it. A loud YES.
But the day they left, I sat on his perfectly made bed and cried.
Yes is not an easy word.
From the moment he left, I wondered and worried about him. Was it too soon for such a big trip? Would he be able to handle such an emotional experience? Was he too young, too immature? That was when I started to get the emails. The first from my mom:
“To see these babies come in with holes for their entire mouth and see the surgeon start to go to work and work and work sometimes for several hours and suddenly there would be a stitch and then a mouth!! Nose!! A normal face begins to emerge —it was like magic and every time standing on my feet for several hours that stitch would fall into place and I would cry. The first surgery for Jackson was a shock in that he had to stand very still— it is very emotional to see these grossly deformed babies. He got calmer and one surgery that he was able to watch longer was a man under a local who had a fatty tumor in his back---was fascinating to watch.”
It was fascinating to read. I was starting to see my own child in a new light. Did I ever think he could stand on his feet for hours, no fidgeting, watching a surgery? Or the other experiences like touring S-21 Tuoi Sleng Prison where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured hundreds of thousands of Cambodians? My mom was seeing (and treating) him as a young man; something that I have fought ever since he entered middle school.
That was when I got his email.
“Hey mom it's me, Cambodia has been a blast, I'm having so much fun. I miss you guys so much and I'm really excited to show you pictures and tell you about all the amazing things we have done.”
He sounded so good. So grown up. And then, another update: They took a boat ride from Phnom Penh up the river to Siem Reap. It was supposed to take six hours and it took ten. In stifling heat. With one dim sum to savor. Such is travel. Unpredictable. Hard.
To counter the experience, my mom wrote, Jackson had left for the day on a dirt bike expedition with a guide. Alone. For a moment, my mind screamed no. My god, at 13, he’s in Cambodia all by himself for the day? Then there the irony of the whole thing crashed on me. I don’t even let him hang out at Paseo Nuevo.
Waiting for him to come bursting through the door, I know something may need to give.
My son, whether I let him or not, is growing up. And it is going to be okay. It is time to say yes. And watch him embrace adventure, learn the merits of patience and flexibility, and experience his life with out me.
And such is the bittersweet life of a parent.