This morning my sons posed on the front porch in their new clothes and impossibly heavy backpacks for the annual back-to-school photo. My 14 year old was impatient to be off, excited to finally walk through the doors of that beguiling mystery called High School. My 11 year old . . . not so much. The only thing keeping Jacob from committing hari kari was the thought of reuniting with his school chums. His teacher this year is new, not only to him, but to the entire school community, and anything new is suspect.
He didn’t need us to hold his hand as we made our way through the crowded hallway to his new classroom. Nor did we need to stand beside him while he met his teacher, but we did have to be present, two reassuring figures hovering on the periphery. Once he was safely seated between his two best buds, we were free to go, but only after we had both hugged him goodbye. I probably held on a titch longer than I should have, but I was grateful that he could still allow himself this comfort and wanted to make it big enough to last the entire day.
Okay, so the truth is I was greedy. Grateful. And greedy. A public hug is an unexpected gift at this stage of the parenting game so I held on as long as I could.
On the way home, I was tempted to take a detour past the High School. Maybe, if we were lucky, we’d catch a glimpse of our older son as he walked along with his friends. But I controlled myself. The only acceptable way for me to accompany him on a day like this is in my mind’s eye. And, believe me, I had no trouble imagining him lope down the sidewalk, his posse gradually growing as friends joined in en route. For a moment, I felt lonely for him and then it struck me that I might be at the center of that group in more than just my imagination.
This morning, as I was running around doing last minute chores, he called from the front entrance.
His buddy (who, after 4 years, is used to the morning hug ritual — although not enough used to it to let me hug him) waited in the doorway as Gabriel wrapped his gangly, teenage arms around me.
“Don’t touch my hair,” he said as I kissed him on the cheek and wished him a fabulous day.
And then he was gone, slipping into a not-quite-parallel orbit whose sole mission is to lure him away from the one he’s traveled for the fourteen years since his birth. This new orbit runs in a continuous loop around his friends and has been steadily growing stronger over the years. It worries me sometimes. I know it’s healthy for a child to begin to move away from his parents and start to find his own way in the world. I know it’s normal for them to look to their peers for clues to their own identity. I know all this, but it still worries me. His friends may like him. They may provide acceptance and fun, but they will never have his best interests at heart. They will never invite him to consider his options or hold the big picture steady for him when he stumbles.
So the fact that he asked me for this morning’s hug reassures me that his dad and I are still at the center of this particular constellation. It’s our arms he feels supporting him as he heads off on a day like today, our hugs that sustain him and his brother as they learn to make their way in an ever-more-complicated world. And it is our hugs that will welcome them back home again at the end of this day and, hopefully, many more days to come.