When a tragedy touched his life she fought to keep him, and almost lost him. In the end she had to wish him ‘safe travels’ and let him go.
“You can’t just leave! We picked Hawaii for you, Jake.”
I walk to the edge of our ocean-view balcony, wondering if flinging myself off for dramatic effect might not be the worst idea. Death? He wants death? I’ll give him death.
At the very least, my one-floor plummet will snap my son out of that “I’m going home” mindset of his. Just imagine…abandoning our family vacation for those friends.
I sound like my own Mother during one of her hideous outbursts.
And then there’s my beautiful Jake. All 6’2” of him; so vibrant, smart, and full of potential. “I’m not stupid, mom,” he responds when I ask him if he’s ever tried drugs. Even though he resembles the sagging, smoking, posse of partiers who follow him around like they’re devoted disciples and he’s their own personal Jesus, I know he’s nothing like them. Well, I don’t really know them, but I’m sure they’re no good.
Yanking him off the slippery slope he doesn’t know he’s on and convincing him to find better friends are the purposes of this vacation.
Aloha. Big Island paradise. Away and alone-together with everyone who matters — my partner Tania and my two adult children—Jake, and Sarah his 23-year-old sister.
By sundown on our first day we’ve beaded shells into bracelets, woven coconut palm fronds into baskets, bought a wooden ukulele, and explored the quaint town of Kona. In between texting their friends back at home, the kids laugh and joke like they did when they were youngsters. They look so pure and free, all my cares dissolve into sea foam.
Traveling back to the hotel for dinner, winding through peaks and valleys of petrified lava flow, Jake removes his headphones and says, “Mom, today was good, but do we have to hang together every day?”
Wait. What’s wrong with spending time with family? But I respond, “Of course we don’t; it’s your vacation too.” A nonchalant flip of my hair disguises my bruised feeling and I start planning a four person submarine ride for later in the week.
Midway through our independent “hotel day,” we three are snorkeling, and my son is down the beach working on his tan. From a distance I see him waving his arms, yelling “Mom!” and rushing towards me.
“I love you Mom,” and he collapses into my arms.
“I love you too, Jake.”
We continue hugging, and he continues shaking, and his big sister puts her arms around the two of us, her sturdy love—the scaffolding holding us up. We help him into a beach chair under an umbrella where he weeps, head in hands. Watching the waves, we wait.
Every so often he repeats, “He texted me. I didn’t text him back.”
“It’s OK Jake, Shhhhh. We’ve got you.” And I rock him like before when he was my little boy. I pat his hair and kiss the back of his head and feel the wall of years crumble between us. My boy needs me. Life is as it should be.
He soon pushes back, “You don’t understand, Quinn’s dead. Heroin overdose.”
We’d known Quinn since 7th grade when the impulsive bespectacled kid started coming over for pizza parties and treasure hunts.
I pull Jake close; away from that, into safety. Sarah huddles into our fold and rubs her little brother’s back like she did when he used to have nightmares. His rigid body slackens and he sobs in ways no 20-year-old should ever have to.
“I need to go home, Mom,” he takes a seat on the bed. Sarah sits next to him, holding his hand, a soft, loving look in her eyes. My skin hurts. Outside, a late afternoon gusty downpour blows a giant palm frond loose, crashing onto the sand with a hollow thud.
“I mean tonight. I have to leave tonight; I can’t be so far away from everything.”
Everything? Isn’t everything right here? I move outside, to hell with the rain.
Choppy waves ebb then flow, never deviating from their steady indifference.
Tania comes into the room and he pleads, “Tania! I’m trapped here and need to be with my friends. We’re the only ones who know how it feels.”
I storm in, wild eyed and frizzy haired. And then my Mother’s voice carries in on the squall, You’re not going anywhere, you selfish ungrateful child. You feel trapped? You don’t know what your feelings are. Do you think you’re the only person who’s ever lost someone?
My rage surges, I’m a rip tide being pushed and pulled and yanked and thrown, between my mother and my mothering. Danger. Danger. I could take his wallet. Lock him in the room. I could grant him the dignity of making his own decisions. He’s an adult. Danger Danger. I don’t know what to do.
Over in the corner of the bedroom, the three of them huddle, talking. They’re connected — Jake has stopped crying, Sarah and Tania are leaning in fully absorbed in whatever he is saying. I want to be a part of that talking-listening tribe. I want to join the conversation and learn how they do what they’re doing.
I approach them with the most unobtrusive comment I can think of, “Say Jake, I didn’t know you and Quinn still talked.” They look up at me, the outsider. “I thought you grew apart in 9th grade when you told me he smoked marijuana. Remember our lie down with dogs, get up with fleas talk? You should’ve told me you were still friends with him. I could’ve explained he wasn’t worth a minute of your time, living or dead.”
Tania touches my leg, suggesting I’ve gone too far.
But Mother won’t be ignored, her voice resonating in my head; what kind of mother are you? It was your marriage. Your divorce. It’s all the stupid things you’ve done in your life that caused Jake to collect drugging-low-life friends who shoot heroin and die. This is your fault. Learn something, for once. Do NOT let him leave this vacation!
“Let’s order room service and go to bed early. Keep the window open so you can hear the ocean waves. We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
Please please please please please change your mind.
Down on the beach, a strapping native blows into a conch shell signifying the end of another day in paradise. He lights torch after torch after torch illuminating the night with fires of Hawaiian Tradition. Family. Unity.
The blue black sky deepens, stars appear, and flickering flames brighten various paths in the darkness. After a while Jake joins me on the balcony and we sit in silence. I want to tell him I don’t hate his friends, I’m just scared. I want to beg him to talk to me. To help me understand what it’s like to be Jake.
But my words stick in my throat—pounded into paste by Mother’s iron fist. We are separate Universes, tumbling down into our solitary darkness’s.
Breaking through the silence Jake says, “Mom, please try to understand, I can’t stay here. I need my friends. This isn’t about you.”
He goes inside and I hear him talking on the phone. His voice sounds grown up, efficient. He tells United Airlines it’s an emergency. There’s been a death and he must get to Los Angeles. He thanks them
for their concern, says he’ll be glad to hold.
Ten minutes pass and he’s thanking them again and repeating his new ticket number. He hangs up and I hear hustling and bustling and zippers opening and drawers closing. No. This can’t be what it sounds like.
“Jake, what’s going on?”
“There’s a flight in an hour. No fees or penalties. I’m on it. Mom, I’m sorry. Can you please take me to the airport? If not, I’ll call a cab.”
If you let him go, you are NOT a mother. I cover my ears and search for my keys.
Waiting at the door, I study his movements, hoping, once again, to slow time– attempting to understand who he is, not who I want him to be. He sprays on cologne and locks his luggage in under 5 minutes.
He hands his sister the kukui nut lei he received at the airport when we arrived and asks her to bring it home for him. I’m surprised he cares about that little token. She responds, “Of course I will. And, Jake…I’m proud of you for knowing what you need– and for doing this.”
My boy whispers “thank you,” then opens to Tania and they embrace as well. She says, “Be strong, I know this is hard for you. I’m sorry about your friend. Your mom will be ok.”
I’m watching a sappy movie. Who are these people? So attuned, connected, and full of love. Don’t they see that he’s dumping us? Abandoning our vacation?
“Ok, Mom, I’m ready.” He avoids looking at me. Our long drive is silent, except for the hurricane of new thoughts in my head, many of which involve a new respect and admiration for his gutsy departure. He is, if nothing else, a true and faithful friend. I accompany him as close as possible to the gate, we hug and I watch him go, backpack slung over one shoulder, pants sagging, head down.
You can still change your mind.
He turns and meets my eyes. Could those be tears? And I realize something. He’s torn. My boy is torn. And through those growing pains he’s accomplishing something I never could – he’s becoming his own person.
“I love you Mom. Thank you for letting me go,” he texts from inside the plane.