I love you. Be careful. As the empty nest mother of a young adult, those are words often spoken by me to my son. Come to think of it, the annoying tweet-in-his-ear habit started a long, long time ago.
In fact, I’ve been repeating these two simple sentences, sometimes several times a day, since the first day my fearless boy rode his Big Wheel away from the house and down the street.
I first heard the well-meaning motherly credo when a very old boyfriend’s mom (God bless Barbara) relentlessly chirped them, accompanied by a classic kiss on the cheek and finger wag, every time he and I would set one foot out the door, lest the egg should fall out of the nest and crack.
OK, there were times she said it when she was the one leaving the house and we were the ones staying in to watch TV. Yes, watch TV. OK, some wine was usually involved … And there were those rare young adult times when we would hardly roam far, because we were too tired from the night before, like when we picked up Chinese food or went to the beach down the street.
Let’s not think about the other times. After all, the kids never do. I think they like to think of us as old and clueless, unless, of course, they latch onto something from our past that they want to throw in our faces when we lecture or scold. All we know is that, somehow, we survived a lot of pretty typical mistakes. Now we’re just hoping the same for our kids. That’s all.
My son, at first, I think was immune to “I love you. Be careful.” It became a familiar chime, like a flat, busted doorbell, in his ear after a while. Clink, clunk, mother talking … clink, clunk … Secretly, though, I think the words have always been his bowl of chicken soup.
When he became a teenager, he became coolly amused at me and dismissive. I’d spew out the words like a trapped parrot, even when he did something as seemingly benign as going to the store around the block on his long board.
Just the other day, he actually cackled at me when I said it to him over the phone. “Be careful? Mom, seriously … be careful? I’m talking on the phone!” he lectured with a “my mother’s nuts” laugh.
I’ve always loved his laugh: so hearty, happy, snide, and, somehow still innocent to me. I had to laugh, too. He was right. He’s out of the nest; and I’m still sitting on the egg. So, I laughed again, until I felt a lump in my throat. I then reminded him and myself why that little phrase was so important and why, aside from sheer mom habit, it had become my mantra.
I have seen a lot as a reporter. And dealing with tragedy doesn’t make some of us more calloused. It makes us identify more with victims and their families — people we may encounter every day in our and their respective insular worlds, but don’t know at all.
We often come to realize that there are really probably only about three degrees of separation, if that, between us, especially when it comes to being a parent who always worries that this often cruel world won’t swallow up our kids and spit them out defenseless, damaged. To think they’re too perfect or well protected by us to ever face adversity is just smug.
The last few days especially, such thoughts have been haunting my mom self with pulsating purpose. Ever since I got word Sunday morning, that there was a possible fatal accident involving teenagers on Cooper Road, the mom lump in my throat started to ache … probably because it was my heart.
Where was my boy? Was he safe? Was he in Middletown? Was he there? Was he anywhere near there?
I flashed back to a time when I was my son’s age and had gone out early. As I pulled down the street, I saw my mother running down the road seemingly in a crazed panic, dragging the dog in tow.
I got out of the car, in which I was blasting some sort of sissy music, to the sound of sirens. Dumbfounded at her freak-out, I looked at her as she approached and exclaimed, “What, mother??!! What is wrong with you?” She gasped and grabbed me, tears in her eyes, as she managed to rasp out of her mouth, “Oh, God! Thank God! I heard the ambulances. I knew you were on the road and I thought it was you. I thought you were in an accident!”
I thought she was nuts. Now I know better. When kids are out of sight, that sinking feeling forever sits in a mom’s gut, gurgling, waiting to erupt, until she sees her kids again and knows they are safe. That lump in the throat is terminally swelled as they walk out the door and you try to swallow your innate, sometimes irrational fears to say, “Have fun.”
Paul Bradley, an 18-year-old graduate of Middletown High School North and Brookdale student, didn’t make it home to his mom the other night. He, instead, became the subject of many a horrific headline on Monday.
Nobody knows exactly what happened to cause the fatal Cooper Road accident that claimed his young life. It is under investigation. No matter to those he left behind. Right now, all anyone knows are the cold facts given them from the authorities: that Paul was the front seat passenger in a car driven by his friend when the driver lost control of the vehicle and it slid sideways into a tree, severing the passenger side of the car, killing him and injuring his two friends.
The photos of the accident site, tire tracks in the dirt, a few tree limbs felled … all cleaned up, were still haunting on Monday. His picture from the funeral home Web site has been emblazoned in my mind since I saw it. The notes of condolence about a young life taken are nothing short of just plain sad. Tragic.
His mother is on my mind. His parents are on my mind. It could have been my son. It could have been anyone’s son. Why can’t we forever just scoop them up and kiss away the hurt when they fall down? Why can’t we just terminally scold them and tote them away on our hip, safely home, when they ride their bike too far down the block? Where’s that little boy with the Big Wheel?
Paul’s funeral was today. I wonder what it was that his mom said to him that he, like most teens, scoffed at as silly; yet, deep inside, held onto like a pilled old security blanket? I don’t know. But there was probably something.
It’s funny, but when my son is cranky and not very outwardly receptive to my quips and questions about his well-being, I’ve noticed that now he may brush off my, “I love you. Be careful,” but he is actually listening and hanging onto it just as tightly as I am, in his own way.
I noticed, the other day, as he made fun of my “Be careful,” because he was doing nothing but talking to me on the phone, he still managed to mutter, “I love you, too, Mom” as he was hanging up. It’s become his habit of late, just as his snide comments about my “clueless” mom musings have.
Moms say the darndest things, don’t they? And, you know what? Kids actually hear them. Don’t be surprised to find out that they even hold onto them …
Shhhhhhh … What was that, Mom? I love you, too.
Rest in peace, Paul. Hold on, Mom …