A few people have asked me how our first day of school went. Well, funny you should ask . . .
I once heard that having a child is like forever having your heart go walking around outside your body. That struck a chord with me because it feels just so. I never realized how much I would experience life all over again through my children until it started happening. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I would have signed up for that, because good lord - the angst!
My oldest child started middle school last year, and it did not fail to bring the drama. We experience the highest highs and the lowest lows together because my heart aches when he hurts and soars when he's happy. It's an emotional roller coaster every damn day, multiple times a day. The boy is very much a combination of me and his father. He is emotionally mature and sensitive, but he's also head strong and argumentative. That means he wavers between being a calm, rational human being, and an unyielding, shrieking howler monkey. You never know quite what you're going to get. This past Monday was his first day of 7th grade, in a new school, so I knew to tread lightly. My heart was probably going to take a hit.
Of course I second guess everything I do as a parent. Of course I do. I could be more patient, I could raise my voice less, I could be more awesome on a regular basis. There are a hundred things I wish I'd done differently. Daily. But at the end of the day, I just want my kids to feel safe and loved and to be kind, and most days I think they do . . . and are. Other days I just want to shake them and scream, "Feel loved, damn you! Appreciate it! How do you not get how much we love you???" Mind you, I do not, because I'm pretty sure that would be bad parenting, but what do I know?
Monday was an "other day" with the boy. After a rocky evening routine, he was rude, I was cranky, and I confronted him. I told him it was not okay to be rude and disrespectful to his family. He was mad that I hadn't asked him what was wrong. After an extensive and insane argument between a 12-year-old and a 45-year-old about the distinction between "How was your day?" and "What's wrong?" he decided that I simply didn't understand him and maybe he would be better off somewhere else. Yes, he was leaving. Incredulously, I asked, "Do you honestly think you can find someone to live with who will care about you more and treat you better than we do?"
Here's the thing. Maybe I was right. But you can't reason with a shrieking howler monkey. The end. He pushed past me and was gone. His sister stood there begging him not to go, and I said out loud, "He'll be home before dark. He doesn't have anywhere else to go." In my mind I was telling him, be home before dark. In his mind, I'm guessing, he heard a challenge.
I was once a runner away from home, and I remember those feelings well. I just knew it would teach my parents a valuable lesson about treating me so badly if I disappeared. "I'll show them!" I shouted, shaking my tiny fist to the heavens. I also remember how that bravado faded the farther I got from the property line and the closer it got to nightfall. I never made it far. I was too scared. I was banking on that as I watched my son pedal down our street on his bike. I know him. He just needed time to cool off. He knows the streets in our neighborhood like the back of his hand. He was safe, and he would be back. My heart ached, but I wasn't scared. Yet.
It was 7:00, still two hours until dark. After 15 minutes or so, his sister and I went out and drove around the neighborhood. We saw him a short way from the house, but when he saw the car, he took off in another direction, and we lost him again. I took it as a good sign that he was still in the neighborhood, and we went back to the house to wait. By 8:00, I was worried enough that I had called Ashby home from his evening activity, and he was out driving around. No sign. By 9:00, it was almost dark, so we called the police. By 10:00, our street and surrounding areas were being searched by law enforcement. No sign. His picture had been circulated, friends had been called, all his regular haunts had been checked. No sign. 11:00 came and went.
As midnight approached, I could feel myself starting to crumble. I'm not what you call "good in a crisis" - yes, I put Bennett Brauer-style air quotes around that. I just get paralyzed and shut down. While Ashby coordinated with the police and went out searching, I stood on my front porch for five hours, staring at the street and willing my boy to come back. I watched cars drive back and forth, watched the sun go down, watched police cars converge and then scatter, hoped that every light coming down the street was a car delivering my child home. But it wasn't. Over and over again, it wasn't. The nagging discomfort of having him out of my sight, whereabouts unknown, turned slowly into abject fear. I know this boy and his fears, and all of the harmless possibilities became less and less possible as time went on. My heart felt crushed. I could barely breathe. I got a tiny glimpse of just how broken I would be if anything ever happened to one of my children.
Then, just after midnight, I got a call that I'll remember forever. "Mrs. Ray? This is the manager of the Burger King on Highway 70 in Durham. I have your son here. He wants you to know he's very remorseful."
Look, I'll be honest - I had questions. Not the least of which was, uhhhh, we live in Raleigh, so what the fuck? Like how? And where? And what?? But in that moment, nothing mattered except my boy was alive and safe. Because that. He is my heart. I need that! And I felt it jump back to life. Five hours worth of pent up emotions came spilling out, and I was sobbing uncontrollably, not recognizing the sounds coming out of my mouth, unable to process what was happening as the Durham County Sheriff's Office and Raleigh PD coordinated his trip home.
I haven't felt that kind of raw emotion at least since I first got sober and discovered actual feelings, and maybe not ever, since I'm quite certain my life never mattered to me the way my kids' lives do. And maybe we all needed it - a wake up call, a shift in perspective - to realize just how good we've got it, how much genuine love and affection we have between us, and how we can try a little harder to understand each other better.
A police car rolled up to deliver the boy and his bike home around 1:00 a.m. He was scraped up and smelly, but otherwise none the worse for wear. There are no words to explain how it felt to have him back in our arms. Over the next 24 hours, he filled us in on some of the details of his adventure. Craziness like riding his bike alone for miles and miles down a busy highway (he's never ridden on streets outside of our neighborhood); falling off his bike and pulling gravel out of his own elbow wounds (he's never not fallen apart at the sight of blood); busking in a parking lot for cash and band-aids (he has zero experience as a performer); buying dinner with his proceeds and hanging at a Burger King until closing (midnight - hello - way past his bedtime.) Who is this kid anyway?
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little impressed with how much more successfully he ran away than I ever did, even though the mere thought of how many things could have gone wrong is absolutely terrifying. In the end, I suspect he learned more on his first day of 7th grade than he anticipated. Not one of us imagined his first day of school picture would be used for a missing juvenile bulletin later that night. I think the world seems a lot bigger to him, home seems a lot safer, and he has a better understanding of how much he's loved. Hopefully that's a tool he can hold onto for later.
I like to think I'm always learning. Maybe that's why I second guess so much. I've never been afraid to admit to my children that parents make mistakes. I make mistakes. A shit ton of mistakes. Frankly, most of parenting seems like a crap shoot to me. The way I see it, my mistake on Monday evening was trying to argue the boy into understanding my point of view. Because, shrieking howler monkey. Know your audience, right? I'm a grown up (ish), and I should have let it go (letting it go is hard, you guys!) But what I learned on Monday evening is, when mistakes are made, and things go sideways, I am surrounded by a community that comes together. Friends, neighbors, family, law enforcement - we were completely overwhelmed and grateful to everyone that jumped in to help and didn't quit until our child was safe at home.
When we tucked the kids into bed early Tuesday morning and finally stopped to breathe, Ashby jokingly mentioned that it's too bad I'm an alcoholic because if ever there was a time for a drink . . . And I felt grateful all over again because that thought hadn't even crossed my mind. So today I'm going to hold my babies a little closer and be grateful that my heart is whole. And though I'm still a trainwreck of an alcoholic who can't express and process difficult emotions, I'm going to be additionally grateful that drinking away my feelings was not only not my first instinct, but it wasn't an instinct at all.
So, how did the first day of school go? Not as planned, I suppose, but it could have been a lot worse.