The Last Summer

From afar he looks older, perhaps 15, with his flat brimmed snap back high up on his head and muscular back. But when he turns, and reveals his soft cheeks and hairless chest, his age is more evident. I watch him dig in the sand, focused on making a hole large enough to hold water and a wall strong enough to keep the ocean from eroding the hole. I can’t help but wonder ‘is this his last childhood summer?’

Parenting a teen, I have been told, is an insurmountable challenge. I admit to great fear and doubt in my ability to rise to this challenge. I already lack patience, compassion and the ability to hold my tongue. My experience with teenagers is that they are moody, argumentative and believe they have learned everything needed to be successful in this world. I really do not like them. And yet I am a mother of four and my oldest turned thirteen just three months ago; it’s time I grew up and got in the game.

I find I am watching him a lot lately. I am slightly fascinated by this animal in our home, who resembles my first born yet he has gotten a lot more angular, muscular and challenging. He was never an easy child, always active and questioning the ways of the world. Becoming a teen has intensified all of his characteristics that I already struggled to parent. Partly I watch him to make sure he does not say or do something that will hurt others or himself. With three siblings and wildly vacillating emotions, he often finds a target and attacks without mercy. The sibling is left crying and stunned. I also watch him simply from an anthropomorphic perspective in that he literally grows and changes every single second, and then morphs back into the boy I know. He is a shape shifter in our midst and I fear at some point he will find a new shape and never be the boys who snuggles into my neck when he is sleepy.

On the beach, sunglasses on and large straw-hat wide, I can observe without him even noticing. He runs with his brother, builds princess sand castles with his sisters, and throws the ball with his dad. He does not even flinch when teen girls walk by, though some seem to notice him and slow their pace hoping for a glance. While he cares about how his hair looks, and is picky about his clothes, he still can’t seem to wipe his face while he eats and usually uses the back of his hand or his shirt when reminded. He has not asked to go off by himself and do things without his siblings, yet he has started to ask if he can bring a friend along. He is a teen, but not quite yet. He is still our kid, but not exactly.

He is my first. I mess up a lot with him and hopefully learn from it. The others will benefit from the battles he wages, the wounds we inflict on each other. He still comes to me for hugs, advice and when he is afraid. I still know his friends, his thoughts and his desires. I still have a say in his bedtime, his activities, what he watches and reads. Is this the beginning of the end? Is this the last summer?

We head to lunch and he has been excitedly discussing the sandwich he is going to order. He had selected it from the menu earlier in the morning. We sit to eat, he takes one bite and is instantly agitated and does not like his choice. I tentatively tow the line between ‘that’s life, accept your choices’ and ‘you took a risk, it didn’t pay, how can I make it better?’ I never know what to do in this situation and always choose wrong. His siblings offer up their food, most likely to head off a battle between mother and son. I sense they do not appreciate the battles that are waged in our home these days. He proclaims ‘I chose it, I have to live with my choice’ in an attempt to be a grown-up. Yet, he is instantly surly as the child in him fights with the adult choice. He snaps at each of us, then apologizes and admits to being angry with himself. We all witness and ride the waves of emotions with him. We are all exhausted and want to leave. His patience wans even more and he targets in on the youngest who is still slowly enjoying her meal. Her simple peace and contentment is more than he can bear and he begins to ride her for being slow.

We get home and he has intensified in his neediness, demanding video games and blaming everyone else for his boredom. I suggest a run, which elicits more tears and a stomping off cry of “I can’t handle my feelings.” I am too tired to run after him, to talk it out. I want him to go back to building sand castles.

He eats, a lot. He seems to physically grow each day. His cheek bones have raised, his skin has gotten more taught and he has muscles that only men really have. Yet, his behavior is still of the four-year-old I reluctantly left at preschool for three hours. I spend days wishing he would just grow up already, figure it all out. And then I spend days longing for the time when his biggest problem was his Lego tower had crashed to the ground. It’s the in between that I find the most stressful. But, it’s also the fear that this is it for his childhood.

I missed nearly every one of the ‘last times’ in his life because I wasn’t looking for them. I focused on his firsts, and then on juggling kids and life. I can’t tell you the last time he slept in my arms, nursed to sleep, crawled, held my hand in a parking lot. I did not journal those moments, say goodbye to that part of him. When did he stop calling me mama, asking to be tucked in, asking for a story? He no longer needs me for the things I easily provided. He also no longer thinks he really needs me at all. So if this is it, if this is our last summer, I want to really remember it. I want to look back and say ‘I remember that summer you still played in the sand’ and know I was enjoying it.

Because honestly, as hard as this is for me and as bad as I am at parenting him through this, it has got to be extremely hard on him too. I am raising a teen for the first time, but he is actually turning into a teen and most likely he feels alone. This new faze of life presents a lot of firsts for him and me and I know I will catch most of them. But this summer, this moment, I want to remember the last as well.