When an 18 year old began to consider joining the army, his mom forgot her aggravation at his piles of dirty clothes, fights with a younger brother, and stench of Axe. She longed to keep him safe at home.
The card was sitting on my desk, along with my son’s bus pass and some loose change. His toothbrush lay nearby, white toothpaste residue encircling the head of the toothbrush like a halo. I’d have missed the business card except for the large letters, “ARMY,” marching across the card, the recruiter’s name printed just below.
I picked it up gingerly. I’d always checked, “Do not share information with military recruiters” on Ryan’s annual school forms: the military seemed a dangerous post-high school option. As I looked at the card, memories flashed across my mind like an old microfiche reel: 4-year-old Ryan playing Legos, 7-year-old Ryan trading Pokémon cards with his friends, 9-year-old Ryan emerging from our backyard woods, covered in mud, grinning widely. All whirled past as I stared at the card, wondering how to keep my boy safe, away from that recruiter.
It took everything I had to focus on dinner preparation when all I could think about was why Ryan had that card. Maybe the recruiter had been a guest speaker that day at school. Maybe a friend gave it to him. Was it an accident he’d left it on my desk? Unlikely. He loved to annoy me, and it was next to his toothbrush. On my kitchen desk. Where it didn’t belong.
Just then, Ryan walked in the back door.
I snatched the card off my desk. “What’s this?” I waved it in his face.
“Oh, that. I met this really cool guy,” he said, peeling off his backpack, heaving it onto the middle of the kitchen table.
“What do you mean?” I pressed. “How did you get it?”
“He gave it to me on the way out of Starbucks a couple days ago, Mom.”
“The Starbucks by the high school? You mean he approached you?” Now I was really upset: I thought recruiters weren’t supposed to approach high schoolers.
“No, I introduced myself to him.” He grinned that wide, toothy grin he used when he knew he was getting to me.
“Ryan! What the hell?”
“I asked him about his cool tattoo…” his voice trailed off. I tried to get more information, but he was foraging for food.
“Dude! Almond butter!” Ryan exclaimed, emerging now from the pantry with a loaf of bread. I chopped more fervently, recruiter in mind as Ryan plopped cage-free eggs in the pot to boil, smeared expensive almond butter across half the loaf, and popped a clump of fresh, organic grapes into his mouth. I thought I could hear the stems crunch.
Soon he was hovering, vulture-like, eying me as I chopped the peppers, tomatoes, and cilantro.
“Are you almost done?” He edged nearer.
“Hey, this is also for my lunch. Back off!” I hunched closer to my cutting board, trying to puff myself up the way the horned lizard enlarges itself to deter predators. I imagined Ryan swallowing the taco salad whole before I’d finished making it.
And then he was gone, armed with his food, playing some video game downstairs whose blaring bass notes I felt through the floor.
Gone. That would be Ryan soon if I didn’t do something, and fast. I finished cooking, and, too hungry to wait for the rest of the family, decided to google “18 year olds joining the Army” while I ate. What I found fed all my fears. According to the Army website, he could enlist on his own at 18.
I got up to grab a glass of water and recoiled at the dried spit in the kitchen sink. Examining the faint borders outlining the crusted food residue, I could hear the sucking, then spewing sound my son made as he “hocked a loogie.”
“Ryan!” I hollered. “Come clean the sink!”
When he came upstairs, I tried again. “You’re not really going to see that recruiter, are you?”
“Yeah, I’m meeting him this week.”
“Why?” My heart beat faster.
“I’m taking a test.”
“A test? You’re not joining the Army?” I bit my lip. Unsure about his direction after high school, Ryan might just seize upon the military.
“He said the test shows what you’re good at, so I can get any job I want when I get out.”
Rather than a post-military job, all I could picture was the inherent danger of active service. “Sounds good? Do you even get what you’re saying?”
“I can do what I want, Mom. I’m 18!” His long, greasy hair sticking out of the baseball cap was the last thing I saw as he left the room.
I went back to the Army website, but my mind wandered. Was my perimenopausal irritability driving him away? Was my constant nagging to blame? I cringed at the litany of criticism I’d volleyed. “Pick up your clothes; quit leaving your shoes on the kitchen table; why can’t you flush the toilet; stop bugging your brother!” And most of these verbal volleys began with my hollering his name at top volume.
“Ryan!” I’d hollered another morning, months earlier, tripping on his running shoes as I’d hurried upstairs to get ready for work. Following the trail of pungent, sweaty athletic shorts, socks, and underwear marking his route upstairs like breadcrumbs left to find the way home, I’d scooped up each still-damp piece of clothing to fling the disgusting pile into his room.
All I’d been able to think about then were the sink-spits. The piles of dirty clothes. The greasy hair. And no letup in sight from this testosterone poisoning because Ryan’s uncertain “plans” included living at home, maybe working, maybe the local community college. We’d have to live with clothes on the floor and the stench of Axe until he finally, if ever, grew out of it. It was time to start charging him rent, I’d vowed.
Now, all I could think about was how I could keep him here. I emailed my father and brother, both of whom had military careers. Any time we’d ask my dad about his years in the Air Force, he’d say solemnly, “That was three years, five months, and eight days I don’t want to repeat.” And my brother had been ready to move on after his Navy years, too. Surely, they’d give me good ammunition to dissuade Ryan from the military.
Emails sent, I closed my laptop. And I worried.
A couple of days passed. When I brought it up, Ryan was cagey.
“When do you see the recruiter?”
“I told you, Mom. This week.”
“Well, remember what Grandpa said: you can’t quit if you don’t like it. They pretty much own you once you sign up.” What I didn’t share was my dad’s advice that the structure might be good for Ryan.
“I know, you told me.” He tied his running shoes. “I’m meeting Casey for a run. See ya!” And he was out the door.
My stomach churned. I hated this out-of-control feeling.
Just to keep myself busy, I carried some clean clothes up to his room. Surprised by its order, I saw that his shoes were lined carefully in rows at the base of his bookshelf, belying his sloppy behavior elsewhere. A row of running medals hung above the shoes. Two huge, scary, clown masks, relics of not-so-distant days spent trick-or-treating, leered on the shelf just above.
I smiled at the old soccer trophies thrown into a cardboard box. Nestled among those were his Pokémon cards—jealously traded, painstakingly collected, and now just another bit of childhood cast aside as he shed, at least outwardly, the trappings of his former self and prepared to molt into his new form, whatever that might be.
I thought about the clever pranks he liked to pull, his teenage efforts to connect. He loved to sneak some joke into my life, then wait, sometimes weeks, for me to notice. Added to the compulsive, 14-item lists I made, I’d find his handwriting: “15. Go to the bathroom.” Or I’d see my initials “approving” items he’d crossed off his chore list on the refrigerator. Or the cookbook whose title had mysteriously morphed from Frozen Assets to Frozen Ass, courtesy of a carefully placed post-it-note the same color as the cookbook’s spine.
My eyes filled with tears as I wished for the toddler years, the Pokémon years, the soccer years.
It’s so much harder now, this parenting of teenagers. So much to dislike and criticize that it’s easy to forget what we like, who it is that we love. So much to let go of, and so much beyond our control.
I knew I couldn’t persuade him not to go to the appointment, any more than I could persuade him to pick up his clothes, wash his hair, or leave his brother alone. All I could do was hope for the best—and not what I thought was best, either. Now this decision, and all the others like it to come, were up to him.
Susan Vaughan Moshofsky is a mother of three (ages 27, 20, and 15) and a full-time teacher who writes in the moments stolen between mothering and teaching. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine; Huffington Post; Mothering.com, and The Oregonian. Her Pushcart-nominated essay, “The Boob Tube,” was featured in Brain, Child’s recent e-book, Brain Child Writers on the Joys and Challenges of Breastfeeding, for which she wrote the introduction. In May 2015, she read “Bringing Him Home,” her essay on adopting her son, in the Portland edition of the national Listen to Your Mother Show. She can be found at her blog , on twitter at @suemopdx and on Facebook .