Monday, September 14, 2009

My Son the Cliff-Dangler

My older son (that gravity-defying dreadlocked guy in this picture taken in Australia last year) is leaving in a few days for ten weeks of exploration across the United States with three of his college buddies.  They're driving and, I think, sleeping occasionally in a Grand Caravan, donated generously to "the cause" by the parents of one of my son's traveling companions.  They plan to make their way to the Pacific Northwest, down thru California and then eastward toward home again, with frequent stops all along the way to rock climb, hike, and camp in America's most beautiful parks and wildernesses.

My son has worked hard, excelled, saved his hard-earned money and deserves this trip richly.  He's dreamed of it, talked of it with his pals throughout college, planned its loose itinerary with care, organized his prodigious collection of climbing/hiking/camping gear, and trained all summer to be in peak physical condition.  Every cell in my adoring-mom body is deeply, sincerely hoping that he'll have the trip of his young lifetime -- a trip of wonders beyond his considerable imagination.

Simultaneously, those same adoring-mom cells are, annoyingly, sending out "SOUND THE ALARMS!!" chemicals, in a desperate attempt to convince me that I should be nearly paralyzed with anxiety about the 101 things that could befall my sweet boy and his pals.  This is an old, old knee-jerk response in me.  I'm determined not to surrender to such a doomsday worldview, but as his departure looms I can feel the struggle raging between "Mom Who Is Thrilled About Her Son's Amazing Opportunity" and "Mom Who Is Totally Eeyore the Donkey".  So I workout, I write, I blog, I cook, I stalk J. Crew sales, I distract myself in any way possible because so help me, I will show nothing, do nothing, be nothing to my son that will dampen his joy -- and my own joy that he's doing this grand thing. 

Just among us, can I say that this is tiring inner work??

But I am used to this kind of internal battle, too.  It's been the story of mothering this child, this being who, from his infancy, has been a take-no-prisoners envelope-pusher.  When he was three months old we videotaped him making propulsive vertical leaps in his doorjamb-hanging "Johnny Jump-Up" -- movements of such power that we thought surely he'd jog his little newborn brain loose.  When he was seven months old (and barely but joyfully crawling -- oh locomotion!!) we discovered that he was vaulting, Olympic gymnast-style, out of his crib.  When he was three years old he mastered riding a two-wheeled bike in one long afternoon, angrily refusing training wheels and ignoring the bumps and strawberried knees that the effort cost him.  We weren't allowed to help, at all.  He was certain -- and correct -- that he could do it successfully on his own.

You get the picture and the pattern, I'm sure.  He played the usual team sports with intensity, but he reserved his real passion for laser-focusing his formidable physical talent and daring nature upon anything that could be considered an extreme sport.  Even the extreme end of an ordinary sport would do.  Roller skates became his first set of wings and as a preteen he would glide along railings and curbs, and leap gracefully off of low-hanging roofs, landing cat-like.

Having discovered what it feels like to be airborne, he was hooked.  He launched himself to new heights on his mountain bike, a slalom water-ski and his snowboard.  Each time he set out to master a new sport or skill, we saw his best innate traits again show themselves:  he was never afraid to try; once committed, he never hesitated; he practiced tirelessly; and he took his lumps gracefully and with no complaints.

Early on he also embarked upon what I know will be a lifelong love affair with untamed Mother Nature.  The path least trodden is the path most alluring to him.  He's never more contented than when he's strapping on his giant backpack for a trek into the woods and a few nights under the stars. 

And then in his freshman year of college he was introduced to rock-climbing, the sport into which his love of all things extreme, exacting and outdoorsy converged in a happily perfect storm.  It demands physical discipline and training as well as mental acuity and puzzle-solving skills; it rewards individual excellence and allows the climber to reach for his own solitary goals while still being in the companionable company of his climbing buddies; it's best done in the most spectacular of Mother Nature's corners; and you betcha it involves a certain degree of mother's-heartrate-accelerating risk.

True to form, within five months of finding his Nirvana of a sport, my boy had become skilled enough to win his first regional indoor competition (at left, he's on his final climb of that "Dixie Rocks" competition).  In the three years since he's continuously worked on improving his climbing skills and he's explored lots of wonderful places -- TALL places -- from which he could dangle, Spidey-like, by a few fingertips.

There just couldn't be a greater irony than the fact that this silver-lining-seeing, steely-nerved, eagle-eyed, cliff's-edge-loving adventurer-child was born to me, a skeptical, nervous, near-sighted, mosquito-hating, snake-phobic, risk-averse, contingency-oriented, detail-planning lover of 500-thread-count sheets and indoor plumbing.

Then again, that's the miracle of it.  I couldn't spend 22 1/2 years in the company of this awesome, fearless, gorgeous creature without changing a little myself, and I like to think for the better.

There was a time when I'd have argued ferociously that his Journey (truly a capital "J" event for him) is ill-advised because it embraces risk and spontaneity and bugs and dirt and many deep dark unknowns -- and certainly I'll worry about him; how could I not?  But I know that for him, this trip, done in exactly this way, is perfect. 

In my son I have witnessed the value of a life spent embracing challenge and quest, and from him I've learned to work a little harder on silencing my inner Eeyore the Donkey and on encouraging my other self -- that cautiously optimistic part of me who truly is "Mom Who Is Thrilled About Her Son's Amazing Opportunity."  I still don't like bugs or dirt, I still prefer to plan my route, program my Garmin, book my sleeping space ahead of time -- and indoors.  I'm never going to be a risk-taker by nature or choice.  But bit by bit I'm pursuing some adventures that fit me.

Safe travels and happy dangling, my sweet boy.  Mama loves you to the moon and back.


  1. This is such a sweet post! I don't have kids (yet) but I'd imagine that you learn a lot about yourself when your children are finding themselves. Your son would fit in well in the town where I's very outdoor-centric with plenty of daredevils enjoying what nature has to offer :) Thanks so much for sharing a little about your family...I enjoyed reading and looking at the amazing pics! :)

  2. That was such a beautiful post! You have every reason to be proud of your son. I have one of these adventure boys myself, a boy who takes a chance at every turn. It shows what a good job you have done as his Mom that he has the courage to follow his dreams! Please wish him safe travels!

  3. My son and his girlfriend just came back from indoor rock climbing! I just had to show them your pics and they were very impressed with your son!

  4. Kathy,

    I remember back in 1981 when that son's father showed up, knocking on the door of our hotel room at 5:00am after having arrived from his travels in India. Oh the stories he had to tell! I guess the acorn doesn't fall too far from the tree. Good luck to all of you.

    Cathie Sekendur
    ps My bichon is going to be 11 on Monday!


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