My dog drags me down the same streets we’ve walked a hundred times, excitedly discovering sticks, furry old friends to tussle with and new butts to sniff. For me, the walk is usually peaceful, but today I am mentally at war with my teenage son and I am losing.
Back home, the dog heads to the living room, jumps on the couch and immediately falls asleep; his body contorted in a position that to the human eye could never be considered comfortable. In fact, it is so ridiculous, I think he must do it for my benefit; to add joy and amuse. And it works, for a while at least, until my beautiful son materializes before me in the kitchen.
“Good morning,” I greet. It is almost 1:30pm but only someone paying close attention would note the sarcasm. He, of course, isn’t, and acknowledges me with a grunt that only someone paying close attention (I am) would recognize as ‘Hey.’”
Did you start your college essay?
“So, did you start your essay last night?” I ask it light and sweet, just the opposite of my coffee and the question, which are both dark and bold.
“I told you I’ll get it done,” he says, opening and closing the fridge, barely looking my way.
His nonchalance makes me want to throw the mug I am cradling at his head. But then there might be a visit to the doctor; for certain, a mess to clean, not to mention the loss of valuable caffeine. “You are running out of time, and I am running out of patience,” I say, immediately dropping the charade, riled up on my extra afternoon cup of coffee and the weeks spent passive-aggressively tiptoeing around the topic.
He avoids eye contact and opens the refrigerator again. “I’m hungry,” he finally drawls, bored, and now I want to punch him. Another violent thought. I take a long, procrastinating sip of coffee. Is this normal? I worry, but then assure myself that it is. I am just a typical mom who is ridiculously frustrated with her feet dragging, snark peddling, know-it-all child.
“I’m taking the dog for a walk,” I huff, grabbing a few Milk Bones for the just in case ‘good boy’ moment and a blue baggie for the just in case poop.
For some reason, this gets my son’s attention. “But he just went out,” he protests, hazel eyes wide. For most of his childhood we called them gold, a color which matched his hair and his skin tone and the fact that he was the long-awaited first-born grandchild on both sides. A golden boy.
I have no idea how he even knows this. Maybe he wasn’t sleeping and just hiding in his room instead. “Well, maybe I need a walk,” I snap, struggling to leash the dog, whose tail and entire backside are thumping and wiggling uncontrollably over the unexpected excursion. Even with college advisers, tutors and guidance counselors, it turns out that it’s the dog who is walking me through the stress of college applications. Literally.
“Does this mean you’re not making me eggs?” he calls out after me and I let the slam of the door be my answer.
When my husband and I finally agreed to bring a dog home to our three boys, then ages 15, 12, and 9, I did so with the full understanding that no matter what the kids said, most of the responsibility would fall on me. A dog was yet another messy job on a long list of things young, bright, idealistic me didn’t remember signing up for.
But the minute his soulful brown eyes searched my desperate green ones, all the blown birthday candles and atrophied wishbones of my childhood longing returned, and I knew that somehow this soft, warm animal would fill a gaping hole that my growing boys were leaving behind as they climbed their way out of the rainbow bubble of good night tickles, spontaneous singing and fresh baked cookies and into the mad, mad world.
We named him Rocky, and even though I regularly curse the continuous walks, hairs on the couch, disfigured stuffed animals, shredded toilet paper rolls and chewed up sneakers, I am nothing but grateful for his ageless, unconditional love. Rocky looks back to check on me. “Look mommy,” his deep brown eyes say, “Isn’t this a good walk? Aren’t we having such fun?” Again, he makes me smile and I reach into my pocket and toss him a treat. He is such a good boy.
I wish my oldest son were as easy to understand; that the rules were as clear. He has grown from a quiet, good-natured child who listened and aimed to please into something resembling a man with strong opinions that don’t necessarily reflect his mother’s. I wonder, who is this independent creature who no longer clutches my hand or looks up at me adoringly?
Who is this intelligent and interesting person with broad shoulders and broader horizons who will be off to college this time next year? Something I can barely bring myself to think about. But until then, we are deep in the process of college applications, which is to say, we are fighting constantly about all the things he needs to get done. The tests. The forms. The all-important essay. The leaving.
I walk back inside and my younger boys trample down the stairs, all bounce and smiles; my middle guy, gorgeous and almost unrecognizable with his newly cut, high school hair that finally allows for an unobstructed view of the world and puts his brilliant green eyes on display; and my younger, still with the long curls in the face and fullness in the cheeks, earnestly committed to his role as the baby of the family.
I unleash the dog who immediately greets them with overwhelming enthusiasm, until finally exhausted, he rolls over to his happy playing dead position for some belly scratching.
Rocky is only two. We will stand together next year when my boy officially leaves childhood and me behind to embark on the first of many life adventures. He will be here for me again three and six years later when my middle and youngest sons set off to spread their wings. He will snuggle and provide comfort when the house is far too quiet, their bedrooms dark and I cry, missing their faces, worrying for their safety, hoping their dreams come true. We will watch them all go and wait by the door for their returns with our hearts, tails and whole bodies thumping.
My oldest comes over, giving Rocky a rub around the ears. “I’ll make you eggs,” I say, a peace offering, and he smiles, lighting me up. “And…you’ll start your essay.” The smile dissolves and is replaced with an eyeroll, but I can tell we’re not going to fight.
“Stop worrying,” he says. “I’m going to get it done.”
Like I will ever stop worrying about him. “Soon.” It’s not a question.
“Soon,” he promises with eye contact, and I finally believe him. It is one of many things that will somehow get done this year through walks and wars, compromise and negotiation, love and leaning on each other. Spontaneously, my 17-year-old drops to the floor and lays his 160-pound body on top of the dog. They roll around a bit, then both look up at me, gold and brown eyes glinting happily. I sigh. They are such good boys.
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Alisa Schindler is a mom of three boys and wife to Mr. Baseball. She schleps children, burns cupcakes and writes essays that have been featured online at the New York Times, Washington Post, Kveller, Brain, Child, Woman’s Day, Parents and Good Housekeeping, among others. She is currently a regular contributor to Northwell Health’s The Well. On the side, she writes sexy suburban fiction novels. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.