“That’s what I miss,” my friend at work said a couple weeks ago. I recalled this while driving west on the Mass Pike toward I-84 South.
“What’s that?” I had asked, noticing he was reminiscing in a slightly uncharacteristic way. He was not one to romanticize the past, as I do in almost every post here.
“Singing out loud. In the car. You know, when you’re listening to the radio. I miss that.”
True enough, we both now have been silenced going to and from work, unless we want to regurgitate to our fellow subway riders what we’re listening to on our iPods. My friend has produced and sung on several CDs; he might get some spare change and even bills from straphangers. I would be lucky enough to be kicked by a 20-something blonde in Pradas.
So, now in our trusty Honda Odyssey, since my 10-year-year son had fallen soundly asleep behind me—having claimed he’d been awake all night as he played NBA 2K7 on the Xbox with his best friend, Ben T.—I decided to give Sara Evans some back-up support as she sang “Perfect” on WKLB-FM, Country 102.5.
It was a perfect ride in a way. Carter was sitting sideways in his seat in the middle row—Odysseys come with three rows of seats for the 2.2-kid-Nuclear-Family-challenged (we have 3.0 kids and 2.0 adults). He was semi-fetal, his head slumped against his pillow that had the Mater cartoon figure from Pixar’s “Cars” movie printed on the pillowcase.
Moments before, he had been sleeping facing forward, and I had pushed the rearview mirror to the right with my thumb, so I could glance at him while still being a responsible driver. (Being a parent while driving requires two conflicting activities: watching the road ahead for traffic and cops while simultaneously conversing with however many children are behind you—often sight unseen, sometimes in the swiveling rear-view—and acting alternatively as Sage, Diplomat, Supreme Court Judge and Imminent Grim Reaper If There Is No Peace and Quiet. This is a task made all the more difficult for fathers, as opposed to mothers, who do, in fact—as we all know, both from our experience as kids if not women’s own testimony—have eyes on the backs of their heads.
I moved the mirror to compensate for my male evolutionary shortcoming. His mouth was slightly agape; his lips, pink and smooth, looked like they did when he was four, or two, or younger. His face was relaxed and betrayed no sign that he had ever been disobedient or mean-spirited to Karen or me or his two younger brothers. It was a blank slate, and I wrote what judgment I wanted on it according to my feelings over the last decade since he came into the world on the 11th floor of Roosevelt Hospital on New York’s West Side. This is one of the many joys of parenting: that an unexpected moment watching one’s child can encapsulate all that has come before as well as the hope of what’s to come. Time does not matter, for the parent can see all ages and experiences of the child up to that point, in a look.
I now recalled Karen’s nine months of watchfulness and nine hours of pain and labor on March 18. I recall earlier, in August 1998, when Carter was at five months’ gestation, and Karen got dehydrated, started bleeding, and we rushed to Roosevelt to have her hooked up to an I.V. and Carter up to a fetal ECG machine. I remember sitting there next to Karen, on her back, for five or so hours, celebrating each time his heart rate increased to where it needed to be, praying when it dipped. I remember later from the amniocentesis that, as first-time parents in our mid- to late-30s—we wanted just to be prepared—learning that one of the ventricles in Carter’s brain was enlarged and how that was a possible sign of birth defects, and thinking that medical technology gives us so much good yet also saddles us with unnecessary and often burdensome awareness of outcomes, however distant or unlikely they might be. Some of our times in the hospital reminded me that, as King Solomon once wrote, “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” I remember when we lived in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, walking in the early morning with Karen and our second child, Bennett, just an infant, and Carter when he was just over two, and he—spotting some feathery mist hovering inches above the grass—said, “This is ominous.”
This mysterious ability to utter a lovely word in context at age two is a bead on a necklace of memory with the ECG and amnio, with the sucking motion of his lips and wide eyes when he appeared at 9:11 a.m. on March 18, with the use of “buh–” at 14 months to describe any solid object from a house to a boat to his younger brother, with the pride in his eyes at age eight when he passed the 4-hour test for his karate black belt, with the loneliness and despair when his new class at PS 9 in New York found him to be the butt of jokes and not source of them, with more recently finding a friend who promised to teach him two Hebrew words per day, with reuniting with old friends and learning that having one group of buddies doesn’t preclude having another group.
The visor of the Odyssey shielded my eyes as we rode away from Carter’s sleepover at Ben T’s and his birthday pizza party and playground romp with Ben, along with Eric, Ben C., Griffin, Ethan, and JoJo. The smiles and laughs had not been heard all together since December 2007, when Carter moved back to New York City and left at least one of his Third Grade friends in tears. On the walk from Hamilton House of Pizza over to Pingree Park, this same friend said in typical exaggerated yet sincere youthful passion, “I am SO glad to see Carter. I thought I would NEVER see him again!” And at the playground as they formed two teams—uneven at four on one side and three on another, even with the tallest boy on the team with four—to play a game of War with dried pinecones, I spoke with the Lovely K on my cell and she said, “If it was me with my friends, I’d be sad to know that I’d be leaving soon. I couldn’t enjoy it fully. That’s the thing with kids. They are totally in the moment.”
To be sure, there was not a pinecone flung or squeal and flashing glance that seemed to be aware that in 45 minutes the parents would descend. After the playground crew dispersed, and back at his host’s house, Carter stood across from Ben T., both boys not sure whether to high-five, hug, shake hands, fist-bump or—as Carter admitted later in a mature observation—cry: awkward pre-adolescent emotions of separation, closeness, undying devotion borne of the struggles of growing up and of playground rivalries and bonds, of an all-nighter fueled by Coca-Cola and microwave popcorn while trouncing your opponent with half-court dunks over animated 6’9” heads on the Xbox. All that matters is that we are friends and we are here, you and I.