The summer of 2008 was a huge shift in my life. In July, my beloved 14-year-old golden retriever, Jake, passed away. In August I drove with my 18-year-old son to Los Angeles, where he was going to live by himself in a 700-square-foot apartment while attending Musicians Institute, a contemporary music college located in the heart of Hollywood, CA. Certainly a would-be rocker’s dream. Not a mom’s dream. At least not this mom.
My only child was raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul and went to small, religious schools his entire life. My boy had no clue how to do laundry or cook anything other than microwave mac and cheese. When he was growing up we affectionately called him “Prince Nathan” because he expected us to wait on him hand and foot. When most kids were learning to tie their shoes and would push an impatient parent away from doing it for them, my son would prop his foot in my lap for me to tie his shoes. As a teen, sitting in front of the TV, he’d call out, “Moooooom, bring me an ice tea.” [long pause] “Please.” How was this child going to survive a) living by himself b) in the second-largest city in the United States? Just to put an exclamation point on my concerns, the night before we left the Twin Cities for L.A. my son went out with his High School buddies to say “good-bye.” At 11 p.m. he called me. He had not paid to park in the public lot and his car was towed. Could I come get him? – Oh, and bring $215 to get the car out of the impound lot. Cash. They didn’t take credit cards or checks. Yeah. This child. How was he going to survive in the City of Angels?
The worse part was I couldn’t even be mad at him. I was so sad that he was leaving. I was so scared he had picked such a big city to move to and on top of that, a college that didn’t even have dorms. I wanted to be mad at him. Instead, I was scared for him. He didn’t even know what he didn’t know. He was an 18-year-old with a big dream and a belief that he could handle anything that was thrown his way.
The next day we loaded all of his worldly possessions in his brand new Ford Escape which I had bought him for his High School graduation present. [Or did I really buy it as peace of mind for me? To alleviate one of my many worries; him in an old car broken down in the big, bad city without me there to go get him.] We’d buy a bed, sheets and comforter, couch and dining table, TV, dishes, pots and pans, silverware, all the household goods when we got there. And yet, the SUV was packed to the gills. Door to door. Back to front; even with the back seats folded down. Guitar amps, guitars, suitcases of clothes, skateboard, bicycle. It didn’t seem like much when it was in his room, but when I saw it all in the Escape I felt like it was more than my only child moving out. It felt like the life, the energy, the joy was moving out of my home. “Keep it together,” I kept telling myself. “Keep it together.”
We had decided to make a road trip of the 1900-mile drive. Our first stop was Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. I had always wanted to take Nate to Mt. Rushmore when he was growing up, but I couldn’t reconcile an eight-hour drive to see a mountain with carvings on it. So we were finally going to see Mount Rushmore. After the fact, all I can say is, I’m so glad we didn’t bother to take this trip as
a final destination. Nate and I looked up at Mount Rushmore, looked at each other and said, “Yep. That’s Mt. Rushmore.” We made the requisite stop at Wall Drug; the world-renowned, cheesy tourist stop. It’s everything it’s said to be. We even bought the sign that says “[blank] miles to Wall Drug” to hang in his L.A. apartment. Imagine the juxtaposition of Hollywood and Wall Drug. The Corn Palace. How in the world does that place stay in business?
Last stop on this leg of the trip: Custer Park to see the roaming buffalo. As the sign says when you enter, there’s no guarantee you’ll see the buffalo. They may be by the road. They may not. We drove for what seemed like forever and started to think it was going to be a “bust” for us. Then, as if a script in a movie, we rounded the bend to see hundreds of buffalo! The Americana tug of the heart that I eluded me at Mt Rushmore grabbed me here. We put the car in park, sat in silence and stared at these majestic creatures. We shared this moment. Mother and son. Never to be taken away from us. Never to be forgotten. “Keep it together,” I again told myself. “Keep it together.”
The next stop was Colorado Springs, Colorado to visit one of Nate’s good friends from High School who was attending the Air Force Academy; followed by an overnight stop at a motel in Green River, Utah and then into Las Vegas, Nevada.
At 18 years old, Nate wasn’t yet old enough to gamble in Vegas. Instead, we took in a hypnotist show. Now-famous Anthony Cools was testing his show in a side ballroom at the Paris hotel. Or the Paris hotel was testing Anthony Cools to see if he could draw a crowd before they booked him into their Showroom. We spent the day by the pool debating whether hypnosis was real while Nate shyly eyed the beautiful women in skimpy thong bikinis, followed by a shower, a quick bite to eat and then we were off to the early show. When we walked in the ballroom there were about 100 seminar-style chairs lined up in 10 rows of 10. It looked very amateur-ish. We’d bought the tickets, so what the hell. We didn’t have anything else to do.
Once the show began Anthony Cools asked for audience volunteers. I encouraged Nate to volunteer which he did in an effort to prove he couldn’t be hypnotized.
What we did not know at the time is that Anthony Cools’ show is “Raw and uncensored, x-rated hypnotist. For mature audiences.” Not the kind of show a mother and son typically share. We had been in a similar situation about four years earlier. Motley Crue was playing at the Minnesota State Fair and Tommy Lee took out his “titty-cam” from the stage, pointed it at the crowd where young women raised their t-shirts to expose their breasts and the video was projected on huge screens flanking the stage, for all in the audience to see. Both Nate and I stood in silence, staring straight ahead. Awkward for a 14-year-old boy. Awkward for a 44-year-old mom.
Tommy Lee’s “titty-cam” antics were NOTHING compared with Anthony Cools. Suffice to say that Nathan was hypnotized and I learned a lot about my son’s sexual prowess – as did the other 98 people in the audience that night. The show was videoed and the tapes were for sale. I purchased one for him to see what had transpired on stage though we never watched it together.
Welcome to Los Angeles. Population Almost 4 Million People.
About 1 p.m. the next day, we arrived in Los Angeles to a sign that read, “Los Angeles City Limit Pop 3,957,900 Elev 330.” I immediately burst into tears. Up until now, we’d been on a vacation. This was not a vacation. This was real. My son was going to live in this concrete jungle and I was going to fly back to Minnesota. Alone. Nate reached over, touched my arm and said, “You OK?” So tender. So caring. He was going to get eaten alive in this town. More tears. Faster tears. Heaving chest tears. “Get it together,” I told myself. “Get it together.” “You OK?” he repeated. A deep breath, a wipe of the nose, several blinks. “Yeah, I’m OK,” I said, knowing it wasn’t the truth.
We spent the next week unpacking the Ford, buying the items he needed and exploring his new neighborhood. I met some of his neighbors including the pot-smoking hippy in her 70s, the aspiring model and the gay couple who were my age and lived directly across the hall from him. Jeff and Lee were awesome. Jeff was a retired High School principal and Lee worked for Wells Fargo Bank. They had moved to L.A. from Baltimore. Jeff took Nate under his wing and I was so relieved to know there was someone Nate to call on if he needed help with anything.
I stocked his fridge and cupboards with food. I bought him a cookbook called, “A Man, A Can, A Plan. 50 Great Guy Meals Even You Can Make” which I later learned, he never even opened once. I said a prayer, asking the Lord to watch over my only child. My baby boy. My son. My gift from God. (That’s what the name Nathan means; gift from God.)
It was time for me to leave. Nate drove me to LAX, pulled up to the curb, unloaded my suitcase, gave me a big, tight, long bear hug (or was that me holding on to him?) We told each other “I love you.” He hopped back in the Escape and drove back to Hollywood. I stood on the sidewalk; balling my eyes out. No need to wipe away the tears this time. No reason to keep it together now. All those raw emotions heaved out like the Pacific ocean pounding over the rocks.
Back Home in Minnesota
What does one do in a 2500 square foot house without a child or a dog? Is there even a reason to go home from work? What did I do before I had a child? What do single, empty nesters do with all their time? How do you cook for one person? Over time, I started figuring it out. Not only was it a new phase in my son’s life, but it was a new phase in my life. I was going from being “Nate’s Mom” to “Stacey” again.
Though I couldn’t replace my son, I could get another dog. That’s where I’d start. A new dog. I couldn’t “replace” Jake, though, so I went to the other end of the dog breed spectrum. I got an Olde English Bulldog. I called Nate to tell him all about her.
Also by Stacey Marmolejo here on GMO:
For a parent who is a baseball lover, raising a son who didn’t like sports took effort. How else can you bond if not over sports?
Photo credit: Pixabay