As a growing and rapidly maturing soon-to-be teen, my previously easy-going son unexpectedly morphed into a sullen, contrary, very private young man and he and I argued constantly. Sean yelled, screamed, easily and constantly became upset, slammed doors at the drop of a hat, and I began to wonder just where on earth my child had gone. After loud arguments my previously happy-go-lucky child would angrily slam his bedroom door, only to happily re-emerge a few hours later acting as though nothing had happened. I found myself constantly in turmoil, never knowing from one moment to the next if Sean would be happy, sad, angry, argumentative, easy going, relaxed, sullen. He bounced rapid fire and seemingly randomly from one end of the spectrum to the next and I felt as though I was always playing catch up with him. It was a hapless and helpless feeling for a mother because the reality was that I WAS playing catchup. This young man looked like and sounded like the son I had known and loved all of these years but I did not recognize him at all, and for the next few years he and I did nothing but butt heads. Who WAS this person, and what had he done with my son????
As the boys continued to rapidly make the transition from boys into men I lost too much sleep wondering about my words, my reactions, my ability as a single mother to keep them on the right course. I became more disciplinarian than mother, constantly reigning in their behavior and their words, constantly through necessity being the "bad guy", constantly second guessing myself. It was a role that I hated but intrinsically I knew that it had to be done.
I only had one chance to raise them. I had one shot at it. One shot and no more. One chance to instill values, morals, discipline, self-control, drive, the desire for education and a good life. One chance to teach them how to love, honor and respect. One shot to teach them self-respect. One shot to try and turn them into good men. I knew that if I failed as a mother, that it would be my beloved sons who paid the price and that was unacceptable. So the loving, nurturing, sweet mother that I wanted to be with my two sons fell by the wayside. Just like the old deodorant commercial - never let them see you sweat. I never let them see me sweat. But at night, when my boys were sleeping and the house was quiet, I realized just how tough it was to stay the course, and I constantly questioned how I was actually doing in the role of mother.
A couple of years later I was married for the second time, and my American husband and this immigrant woman made the decision to move to the States. Unemployment at the time was 10% in Canada. The red hot economy in the US meant that unemployment was under 5%. High school was not too many years in the future, and then hopefully college, and we both believed that the boys would have a better and brighter future in the US. And so we moved as a family from Ontario down to Tennessee.
I was not what I would call "in love" with my husband. But by that time I was heading towards my late 30's, had had a couple of minor relationships but nothing serious in a few years and they had ended badly, the boys seemed to like him, I liked him, and they were now at the age where I really wanted the boys to have the influence of a man in their lives. It was "time". It was a pragmatic decision that made sense at the time, although it all sounds pitiful looking back on it now. I had been around the block often enough that I was entirely skeptical about the concept of "man/woman love", and was resigned (in a way that caused me no distress) that this was "as good as it gets".
I enrolled Sean in middle school in Tennessee and my boy settled into school well. We were living in a very nice upper middle class bedroom community north of Nashville, renting at first and then a year later we bought a house in the same community so that the boys could stay in the same school district. During middle school and most of high school Sean was a mediocre and disinterested student except for physical education where his grades every semester ranged between 98%-100%.
Late in middle school my oldest boy, who was beginning to finally (and thankfully) get a grip on his wildly fluctuating emotions joined the football team. I went to every practice and even though Sean played very infrequently also went to every game. I have this strong and clear mental picture of my very handsome and by then dark-blond haired son, dressed out for each game and standing on the sidelines with his team.
Sean would inconspicuously look through the stands searching for me and when he saw me would give me a very quick (VERY quick) wave before turning away from me and focusing his attention back to the game again. He always looked for me, always gave me a quick smile and a quick self-conscious wave. I always hurriedly smiled and waved back, trying not to make a huge deal because I knew that at that age it would embarrass him, and he never ever failed to soften my heart. For Sean's sake I wish that he had played more, and I went to every game. But all I saw the entire time I sat in the bleachers was my child. Nothing else mattered. Not the game, not the cheerleaders or the band or the noise or the whistles or the lights. Just my child.
He was growing up and although he wasn't done yet, so far he was turning out OK. Actually he was turning out better than OK. And I deeply and truly loved this beautiful, so very beautiful, growing young man, still falling in love with him all over again every day. He and his brother brought me a quiet and contented joy every single day simply by their very being.
Sean, in addition to school and football began to take a lot of interest in a card game called Magic. I never really understood the game (which had a Dungeons and Dragons feel to it in my untutored opinion) but Sean collected Magic Cards every chance that he got, traded them when he could, and spent at least one weekend day every weekend at a card store a few miles from the house, where he hung out with other Magic-Card--nerds. He now smiled easily again, was relaxed again, had friends and interests, and it felt very good to slow down on being a disciplinarian and just be able to simply and uncomplicatedly love my boy again. Many weekends we had a bunch of kids play Magic at the house, and I would frequently go downstairs to the basement early on a weekend morning to find bodies everywhere - young men sleeping soundly on the couch, upright in the chairs, all over the floor.
When Sean began high school he eagerly joined the football team again along with many other players he had known in middle school. Sean was younger than the other members of his team and while most were growing taller, gaining muscle, gaining weight, Sean was smaller and lighter than most. He began to get beaten up a lot, both during practice and in games. and soon the practices stopped being fun for him. That first year (before school had begun but after two-a-day practices had already started in the depths of a Tennessee summer) my son threw up during every practice, and other members of the team unceremoniously but good naturedly began to call him "Projectile Boy". Sean soon quit the team and I don't think that he regretted it.
Around this same age Sean began to take an interest in cooking. When I brought groceries home from the store he would gleefully dance around the house singing "food food food food......food food food food" while he made deliberately ridiculous arm and hip movements, and I realized with amusement that I liked this uninhibited and goofy side of my child.
When I cooked Sean would laugh and smile at me and happily declare "You're my favorite mom in the whole wide kitchen". The first time he said that I laughed at him and wondered "how the hell does he come up with these things??".
He loved sports and art and card games, was intelligent though unremarkable in school, and now he was at the age where (occasionally) he could also be a goofball.
Sean also began taking food into his bedroom to eat at this age, which was fine except for the fact that dishes went in but dishes never came out. When I found that I had clean dishes in neither the cupboard nor the dishwasher I would reluctantly venture into the hovel that was my oldest sons' room, look on the floor beside the bed and predictably find all of the dishes that I was missing. Cereal bowls, dinner plates, smaller plates, cups, glasses, silverware - all lined up in piles against the edge of the bed. I could not even count how many times I would try to pick up a spoon and a bowl with come with it - the two stuck together after who knows how many weeks of sitting on the floor. Yuk.
I could not count how many times I would look at Sean and tell him........."go clean up your room, it's disgusting." He would look at me with those big eyes, give me the smart-ass smirk that he had perfected by that age, point to his own face, and then circle his face with his finger telling me "the face of someone not caring". Trying not to laugh, and trying to play the stern mother role but not really fooling him because our personalities were so much alike, I would tell Sean to "just shut up and go clean that room!".
In truth as long as his mess did not extend beyond the doorway of his own personal space I was fine with his chaotic room. But once in a while it would have been nice to just find a clean spoon in the drawer in the kitchen when I needed one.
We had a way about us, Sean and I. He knew when I was really angry and he knew when I was messing with him. After the challenging pre-teen years when Sean and I did nothing but argue and stare each other down for a few years, we had somehow come to understand one another. I loved him and he knew that. I would always support him and he knew that. I was always on his side. And he knew that as well.
I gave Sean a fair amount of leeway as he grew up because he was growing into an intelligent, caring, thoughtful young man. But when he crossed the line with me he knew it, I called him on it and he loved and respected me enough to back down. Always. We were loving and friendly with each other by that point, but never friends. He was always my son. I was always his mother. But somewhere in Sean's early teen years we both realized just how much alike we really were in so many ways.
Sean loved to watch the Food Channel, taught himself how to cook, and found that he enjoyed it very much. Which was great because by that time I was busy with a career and adventure racing. I had always been able to put together decent and basic foods but over the years had neither the time nor the interest to become a better cook. By the time Sean and Chris were young men they were doing their own laundry and cooking all the "fancy stuff" and also by this time I remember frequently leaving messages on the counter in the kitchen for my boys that read "Gone for a run. There's food in the cupboard and fridge. Find something to eat. Love you guys! Mom XXXX".
A couple of years later my husband first lost his job and then found another one 100 miles away and we sold our house and bought another one in the country just outside of the very small historical town (and home of Jack Daniels) in Lynchburg Tennessee. By that time my husband and I were coldly and quietly polite to each other and not really anything more. We lived in the same space. Also by that time I had resolved in my mind that I would not ever move the boys again. They had moved too many times already. I had taken Sean out of high school and enrolled him in another for only his senior year, and I hated that fact. Chris was GOING to stay at the same school. I resolved that no matter what, no matter what, no matter what, we would not move again.
I had been in the early stages of starting a consulting company while living north of Nashville and it had slowly but surely been building in success. Consulting paid well when it paid, but now we needed my regular income and so I accepted a position in the neighboring town of Tullahoma. I stayed with that position for 7 1/2 years until accepting a position in Juneau Alaska long after both my boys had left home and I had gotten divorced.
I had assumed that Sean would want to learn how to drive as soon as he turned 16 but he surprised me by seeming to have no interest in learning until he was almost 17 years old. I taught Sean how to drive, in the same Chevy Cavalier that he ended up owning and driving into the ground while commuting first to Huntsville Alabama for two years and then to MTSU for another year, and then driving for a few more years until he finally graduated.
Sean learned quickly, was a cautious and considerate driver, and I remember so clearly as if it was yesterday the day he drove out of our driveway alone for the first time after getting his license. Sean got his license, drove me home and immediately pulled out again, eager (as they always are) to enjoy his first true taste of freedom behind the wheel. As my child happily and excitedly drove away my stomach dropped and there was true fear in my heart. I knew that my teenage son was a good driver. It was everyone else on the road that scared me.
By the time Sean was in his senior year of high school he already had all the credits he needed for graduation, and so he spent all of Grade 12 taking courses that simply interested him. He loved all things related to science, to physical education, to criminal justice and to art. He was 17 1/2 when he graduated from high school. I had not spoken to Sean's father in a number of years and without Sean knowing I contacted him by email as it got closer to the end of my son's senior year. I invited his father down to Tennessee to attend Sean's graduation. He was our oldest son. He was our first son to graduate from high school and this was a true milestone in our son's life. I told Sean's father that I knew that it was expensive to travel so far, and that he was welcome to stay at the house. I never received a reply back. Sean's father did not attend his first born son's graduation.
I registered Sean at the University of Alabama in Huntsville as an Undeclared, with my growing child being still too young to really have any idea what he wanted to do with his life. That first year of college he was the youngest student enrolled at that small college campus.
My husband and I hoped to get Sean through college debt free. We could afford to pay for tuition and books, some gas and food. We could not afford for him to live away from home and so Sean drove to Huntsville and back every day. In addition to school my son also got a job at Burger King in Tullahoma to help pay for some of his expenses. And in between school and commuting and work Sean also somehow managed to find the time to become a very good basketball player. He spent a lot of time at the local community center in Tullahoma playing pick-up basketball games with others he ran into regularly at the center.
Sean was a good basketball player, but he was an even better trash talker. I swam regularly at the same center and would stop into the gym every once in a while to watch my son. He could talk trash like nobody I had ever known and to these guys (who were his friends and fellow players) he would yell obscenities about them, their mothers, their lousy basketball skills, and anything else he could think of to distract them from their game. Being the creative guy I knew him to be, my son usually succeeded in shaking them up and forcing errors. It was all in good fun, and he and his friends played out this same guy-routine a few times a week, every week until Sean finally moved up to Murfreesboro just before his second year at MTSU.
Half way through Sean's second year at UAH he walked into my office one day, sat down in the chair across from my desk and told me that he had decided on a major. I had fully expected him to move into Business Administration because all the signs during this early time in college had pointed in that direction. Or at least I thought they had. Sean informed me that he wanted to be an Athletic Trainer. I sat back in my chair at this unexpected news and was caught completely off guard because he and I had never discussed Athletic Training. I did not even know that he knew what a trainer did. Did not even know that it had been on his radar. I asked Sean what he knew about the field and in typical Sean fashion the boy had done his homework.
He had researched the field extensively - knew what job options he would have once he graduated, knew about the overall health and growth of the field, knew what the job entailed, knew what the salary range was, knew what prerequisites he needed to get before he could enter the program, knew that he would have to transfer to MTSU. Alright then. Athletic Training it was.
That same year Sean was playing basketball at the gym one day and had left his car keys stting on the bleachers. At some point a couple of young people walked into the gym and sat on the bleachers to watch the game. Unnoticed to Sean they walked out of the gym with his car keys. When he was done playing basketball Sean realized that his keys were missing. He walked outside to find his car had been stolen and called me at home to tell me what had happened. After filing a police report I spent the next few days loaning Sean my vehicle to get to and from school while also trying to deal with the insurance company.
Surprisingly a few days after the car was stolen I received a phone call from a motel owner in southern Georgia asking me if I owned a white Chevy Cavalier. Excitedly I asked for details and learned that the car had been abandoned in the motel parking lot, and had sat there for a couple of days before the motel owner decided to investigate. Doors had been left unlocked and the owner dug around until he found contact information and then called me. Sean had a habit of dumping all of his change in the console between the two bucket seats in the front of the car, and apparently the thieves had bought gas and a bunch of junk food with Sean's change. When they ran out of money, gas and junk food they apparently abandoned the vehicle.
A few days later Sean and I happily drove to the neighboring town of Fayetteville where Sean's car was unloaded from a car hauler in the Walmart parking lot. The car was undamaged and we were both very happy to have it back.
About a week later I drove into the local community center parking lot intending to go for a swim, and saw my son's car in a space so knew that he was there as well, very likely playing basketball and talking trash to his friends. I smiled at the thought of dropping into the gym and seeing him for a few moments. As I climbed out of my truck I realized that my son had left his driver's side window down, and feeling vaguely annoyed with him in that moment I walked over to wind up the window and make certain that all of his doors were locked. When I got to his car I was stunned. Both doors were locked. Both windows were rolled completely down. His wallet was sitting on the drivers' seat.
Grabbing his wallet I rolled up his windows, locked his doors, walked up the steps to the front door of the community center and walked into the gym. I watched Sean enthusiastically playing basketball for a few minutes and when he finally saw me he smiled, waved distractedly and yelled "Hi Mom!" I yelled his name and when he turned to look at me I waved my son over. Still half watching the basketball game he ran towards me, then turned part of his attention to me when he was close.
"Are you out of your freakin" mind??" THAT got his attention.
My son turned his full attention to me, surprised by both my words and my tone. "What's wrong???" I wordlessly threw his wallet towards him and Sean caught it, looked down at it, looked up at me, and I could tell by the look on his face that he knew he had messed up. "What is wrong with you?? Car doors unlocked - windows open - wallet in the front seat. Be More Careful!!................OK???"
"I love you kid. Just be more careful". With that I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and then did what I had done a million times throughout his life. I rested my hand on his cheek and smiled at him. "I love you Baby".
"I love you too, mom."
"Be more careful!!".
It was time to go swimming.
In truth I was annoyed but not truly angry (although I did not want HIM to know that at the time). Just dumb kid stuff done by a busy kid who was always running frantically from work to school to gym and who was always thinking three steps ahead of himself. But he had to learn..........
At the end of Sean's second year at UAH he transferred up to Murfreesboro and took the prerequisites he needed so that he could enter the ATC program. By the time Sean had been in college for three years, and had been commuting for three years, and had been working at Burger King for three years he sat down with me at the kitchen table at the house and told me that he wanted to move up to Murfreesboro. He then proceeded to tell me what the costs of commuting were vs the cost of moving up to Murfreesboro were, telling me what he needed me to pay for, that he would continue working at Burger King in Murfreesboro and telling me what he could pay for.
My child..........my first born child.........the first true love of my life..........moved out of the house and into an apartment with two other students when he was a few months away from turning 21. I did not want him to go. But it was time for him to go.
That first year he was gone Sean came home frequently on the weekends, always with a bag of laundry, and within 10 minutes of walking into the house had already opened and closed both fridge doors and cupboard doors and performed a grocery inventory to determine what he could take back to Murfreesboro with him. I still remember sitting at the kitchen table and acting as a guinea pig for my learning son as he enthusiastically practiced wrapping my knee, my ankle, my wrist.
One day during that first year he was in the program I was having many problems with my shoulder after having taken a bad fall. The shoulder had been injured, had healed, but there was still residual pain and I did not have complete range of motion. I asked my son what was wrong with it and while standing in our living room he put me through a battery of simple tests. When we were done I looked at him and said "So.......what's wrong with my shoulder". With a straight face he looked at me and said "I don't know. We haven't learned that part yet".
A year later I was more seriously injured. Again while training for an adventure race. Sean and my husband both came down to Georgia to get me after I was released from the hospital - my husband to drive me home in the car and Sean to drive my truck back to Tennessee. After he hugged me Sean did something for the very first (and maybe the only) time. He put his hand on my cheek and held it there. Exactly as I had done to him so very many times over the course of his young life. I saw his face. I had scared him badly.
Quite a few months later my oldest son asked for copies of my x-rays (that I had asked for after I was injured, had received and had kept - I joked that I was going to make sun-catchers out of them) and when I asked him why he wanted them Sean told me that he was going to use me as a case study for a paper he had to write. I read the report when it was done and Sean had referred to me as a "non-compliant patient" because I had quit rehab early. It was true. I WAS a non-compliant patient but I gave my child a hard time about his description of me anyway.
That first year in the program I went to a couple of Blue Raider football games that Sean was working. He was still a newbie so was little more than a glorified water boy at that point. When we first arrived I looked down on the field prior to the start of the game and watched Sean as he searched through the people in the stands. As he had done years ago he was looking for me, but rather than being covert about it (as he had been when he was in middle school) by now Sean was mature enough and confident enough to openly acknowledge me. He would come running over to the fence to smile and say hi - just for a moment before heading back to the others he was working with.
I sat in the stands doing the same thing I did years ago. I ignored the noise and the people and the players and the band and the cheerleaders and the lights and the scoreboard. None of it mattered. I sat watching my child. He was all that mattered.
Early into Sean's training at MTSU there were similarities in our respective professional training and knowledge but that changed very quickly. By the time Sean was a sophomore in the athletic training program I realized that his knowledge base was much more extensive than mine, and I looked at my son with extreme pride. He loved athletic training. I could see it in his face and as his conversations with me became more and more complex I knew that he had made a very wise choice in vocations. He loved it.
The summer between Sean's junior and senior year he told me that he was engaged and that he and Jessica were getting married the following summer. Truthfully I was surprised. Sean had not dated a whole lot and I had met a couple of his girlfriends, so when I met Jessica I did not give her any more thought than the others. I was invited to a bar-b-que on July 4th weekend at her parents home (that should have been a clue but I was apparently clueless) and that is when Sean told me that he had asked Jess to marry him and that they had not set the date yet but it would be the following summer after they both graduated.
I did not say anything for a minute and my brain raced with a million random thoughts - they were only 22 years old............they were both still in school...............Sean hadn't dated enough.........was Sean going to continue in school and get his graduate degree..........how long had they known each other?
I was taken so off-guard that for a moment I was speechless and Sean said "don't be sad". Those three words immediately broke through my surprised silence and I looked deeply at my boy's beautiful face. He needed my approval. He needed me to be happy for him. Say something Karin. "Baby I'm not sad. You just surprised me, that's all. I didn't realize that you guys were at that stage." I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek, and pulled away and held my hand on his cheek and smiled up at him. "Baby I am so happy for you. I am so very happy. C'mon - let's go see Jessica". Hugs, kisses, plans, bar-b-que - it was a very surprising but also good day.
By his senior year Sean was studying for his national license and for a good part of the year he all but disappeared. Between school, work, his relationship with a woman that he was now engaged to and studying for his license I saw my son only infrequently. Through the years we had often met in one town or another that was part way between home and where he went to school. We would eat and then go to watch a movie somewhere. But in that last year Sean reminded me of the moles in that Caddyshack movie - mostly he was hidden in a hole somewhere and would only pop his head up for daylight every once in a while. I went to a football banquet at one point, met some of his friends, and even they were good naturedly poking fun at my son and his disappearance. They all knew what he was doing and why he was AWOL.
Both Sean and Jessica graduated in the spring and they were married in an incredibly lovely outdoor garden ceremony just outside of Tullahoma that same summer. Chris (who was in the Air Force at that time) flew down to be part of Sean's wedding party. I was still just getting to know LC at that point and I invited him to the wedding. My oldest son looked so handsome in his tux and he looked so very happy. His bride was absolutely gorgeous. My youngest son looked handsome in his uniform. It was a very beautiful day filled with ceremony and formality and beauty and food and dancing and hugging and kissing. Of picture taking and friends and family. Of love.