The 20 Year Old Wound

These days I call him “my eldest”.  It’s innocuous enough to not belie his non traditional way into the world, my nearly 22 year old son.  It still stings every time I hear the phrase, “Wow, you look young for your age” (insinuating that of course I must be older than I appear because otherwise I would have been WAY TOO YOUNG to have a child so old).  I’ve got a flip response that I always use to mask the way my heart tugs just a little every time I hear it: “Thank you so much!”  It perpetuates the charade right along with whomever dared to make a comment.  Most people are trying to be complimentary, I’m sure, but it always digs a little that that now decades old but yet still surprisingly fresh wound.

After my 20th high school reunion I tried to put to bed the fantasy that one day things would be different.  That somehow in adulthood Joe and I would find a way to make up for the lost years of Z’s childhood, where he and I found our way through life, growing up really side by side.  His absence there and my conversation with one of his old high school pals reminded me of all the ridiculousness of expecting others to behave as you wanted them to, rather than who they are.  There’s a quote I love that says, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”  After 20 years of waiting, I slowly gave up the watch after that night.

But last November, on a Sunday morning before church, my phone suddenly rang.  It was my eldest, calling from college.  He was in his senior year then, and I hardly ever heard from him on a weekend; they were too full of marching band, football games, and homework.  So my radar was up the second I answered and said:  “What’s wrong?”

A long pause.  “My great grandmother died last night.”

I drew a total blank.  My grandmother, his great grandmother, lived in Delaware and while in her early 90s, was not sick the last I’d checked.  And certainly if she had passed, my father would be calling to tell me,  not Z. His other great grandmother, my mother’s mother, had been dead since the 70s.  R’s grandmothers had both passed in the last few years.  My mind raced and scrambled, and then I realized:  he meant Joe’s grandmother.

I knew he’d met her over the weekend of my 20th high school reunion.  He’d kept up communication with Joe’s aunt and that weekend they’d met for the first time.  I could hardly stomach the idea of him alone with Joe’s family, but I also encouraged it and he’d spent an afternoon at the same home that Joe had lived at briefly while we were dating.   He hadn’t spoken much about it, but every so often Z would pepper conversations with comments about “his aunt” or “his grandmothter” or “the family”.  I asked him once if they ever spoke about his father and he’d said quietly, “No.”

“I’m so sorry,” I responded, taking the phone into the bathroom with me, away from R and our two younger children, who were in the final stages of putting on shoes and tucking in shirts for church.  “What happened?”

“My aunt told me in an email that she’d been sick and in the hospital, but she thought she was getting better.  But then late last night, she sent one to tell me that she’d passed.  I’m so mad at myself for not checking my email when we’d gotten back from the game last night.”

I sighed.  “Well don’t beat yourself up about that, Z.  You couldn’t have known what was waiting in there for you.”

“I know,” he answered.

There was a question hanging between the 700 miles between us.  Z hardly ever spoke about his father, but there had to be a reason he’d called me to tell me all of this on a Sunday morning.  He called home once a week these days, sometimes less.  He wanted to talk about this.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked slowly.



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