Yesterday, the sight of my sleeping 14-year-old stopped me in my tracks. His curly hair reached pandemic heights, and his cheeks smushed against the pillow. The entire effect made me whisper aloud, “You look exactly like your four-year-old self.”
As sleeping teens are rather defenseless, I pounced on his mattress, kissed his temple, shouted that it was time to get up, and tugged at the window shade on the opposite side of his bed. Sun poured in, and he muttered something to indicate he was conscious. I replied, loudly this time, “My goodness! You looked exactly like your four-year-old self while you were sleeping.”
“You’re repeating yourself,” Miles mumbled.
Evidently he hears me more than I know. I wish he’d hear me when I ask him to take out the garbage or walk the dog.
The pandemic hit just as my son turned 14
The pandemic struck at the precise moment that my adolescent son was programmed to tune me out. Indeed, on March 15, 2020, during Miles’ 14th birthday dinner, Mayor de Blasio announced the close of New York City’s public schools. Miles simultaneously climbed into his adolescent cocoon and COVID captivity.
Miles’ newfound commitment to separating from me was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I needed to work from home all day, and I counted on Miles being self-sufficient. On the other hand, he was my bubble. With his older siblings out of the house and his dad and I divorced, it is now just the two of us.
It might have been nice to share a few more conversations. But teenagers aren’t thinking about what parents want; like being programmed to stop listening, they are programmed to prioritize their own needs.
For many months my son and I barely interacted
For many months of the pandemic, my teen’s need was to play violent video games for as many hours as I allowed. Destiny and Grand Theft Auto dominated our weekends. Friends counseled that our confinement was akin to being on an airplane with a three-year-old. Do whatever it takes to keep them from having a meltdown!
I resisted, holding the line at weekend gaming only. But as remote learning and homework took up weekdays, and video games took up weekends and holidays, we went through spring, summer and autumn without so much as watching a television show together. And then, out of nowhere, my son declared his need to learn to snowboard.
I signed my son up for snowboarding
Snowboarding meant two wins: fewer video games plus leaving the house together. I signed him up for lessons and bought myself ski lift tickets. For seven Saturdays, we drove the 2.5 hours from Manhattan to Great Barrington, hit the slopes, and then drove the 2.5 hours home. My sister met us on the ski hills, driving about equal distance from the Boston suburbs. Turns out that skiing was a great bonding time with my sister but not so much with Miles.
Miles preferred to do a couple of runs with us and then take off for his lesson or to snowboard on his own. Even on those couple of runs, he rode the chairlift ahead of us, choosing to look at his phone instead of talking with his mom and aunt. We understood.
Miles wants to be far, far away when, say, his aunt rolls down a slope or his mom falls off the chairlift. Thankfully, my son’s distance on the slopes was offset by two things: my sister’s presence and the long drives to the mountain and back home.
During our long drives, he finally opened up to me
Driving with teens is an age old intervention. There’s something about the fact that no one can make eye contact. Or perhaps long drives provide enough time and space for teens to sift through their adolescent angst and find some reasonably safe things to talk about. With my eyes on the road, I was captive audience and lame-duck psyche hunter.
I learned so much about 9th grade, new friends, which subjects work well via remote learning (English), which are not so great (Geometry) and which are abysmal (Physics). One day, Miles waxed nostalgic about when there were still enough of us living at home to play Spades, and lost in his memory, he divulged his cheating strategies. I am well armed for the next time his siblings come home.
In our Saturday drives, we also gently touched on the edges of his absent dad. It’s been a year and a half since his dad moved across the country. In between then and now, the pandemic widened the distance. Over seven weeks, Miles moved from a resolute no to an ambiguous maybe in regards to getting on a plane to visit his dad. Having no road map for how hard to push, we advanced and retreated, gaining an inch or two of ground with each ride.
Our drives included two agreed upon playlists: my most liked songs of 2020 and Miles’ curated list of curse-free music. These tried and true songs have been played innumerable times in the 35+ hours we drove together this winter. The good news is that we agree on a lot of music, including broadway shows, movie soundtracks, and R&B.
Without fail, Miles belted out a weekly rendition of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Out of my peripheral vision, I watched him rock it out in his seat. I did not dare join in, lest I scare him back into silence. Instead, I studied the road, barely nodding my head to the beat of the music, occasionally braving a stolen side glance as he pumped his arms high to “mountain” and swung them low to “valley.”
I learned so much about my son as we drove
Our soundtrack goes from rock to lyrical, signaled by Michelle Williams singing Tightrope. Early in the winter, Miles reminded me that The Greatest Showman is one of his favorite movies and we had yet to watch it together. On one of our final ski Saturdays, as Tightrope queued, Miles reclined his seat and pulled my parka over him. “Hey Mom?” he asked. “You know when I first watched Greatest Showman?” I told him I did not. “It was the night you called to say that Grandma died.”
“That was a terrible night,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied.
Later, I wondered if he loves the movie partly because it remains his final memory of my mom, the last thing he was doing while she was still on the planet. But there in the car, neither of us attempted to continue that conversation. That loss is finite; its edges still too fresh to tread.
After the drive up, the day on the mountain, the peeling off of layers of gear…after we got in the car and ate our peanut butter sandwiches and guzzled down a bottle of water each… after we hit the road and the car heated up and the sun set further…after he blasted Marvin Gaye and our playlist turned to quieter songs, Miles reclined his seat and slept the sleep of his much younger self.
I turned down the music, relishing the quiet hum of the car and his breathing. Often, I was carried back to his early life in Northern California when I so needed the quiet of a sleeping toddler that if he fell asleep in the station wagon, I would drive in circles across the Richmond Bridge to the Golden Gate to the Bay Bridge and back round again for however long he napped in his carseat.
Recently, I was struck by the thought that my son will not sleep like this again. He will grow up and nap in other people’s cars. But when he snaps awake, adulthood will come rushing in in the form of his turn to drive, where should they stop for dinner, what does he have to get done that night? He may one day attend the symphony and slip into that lucid state between music and dreams: “the sleep of kings,” my friend Juliana calls it. But this right now, this is the primal sleep. This is the sleep that goes back to toddlerhood and infancy and maybe even in utero. This is the total surrender to being carried along by your parent.
Soon adulthood will whisk my son away
I will not carry him much longer. Miles turned fifteen today. We are figuring out how to make the most of his last three years at home, how to travel this mental space between childhood and adulthood. COVID captivity trained us to give each other physical space in our 800 square foot apartment. It trained us a little too well.
Our winter Saturdays gave us a break from the routine of not only working and schooling from our bedrooms, but also grabbing our dinner plates and retreating back to our well worn desk chairs to binge watch our own TV shows. When the ski season ended, I worried we’d revert to our pandemic habits. And indeed, on our first Saturday home in weeks, Miles barely came out of his room.
Eventually, I knocked on his bedroom door and took a seat in his desk chair. Miles was on his bed, watching YouTube. “This can’t go on,” I said. “We have to get back to eating and doing things together.” Miles gave me a very long stare. It was long enough to make me wonder if I was wrong. “Aren’t most teens slinking off to their rooms?” I thought. But then he surprised me.
“Maybe we can take turns suggesting new TV shows and commit to watching two episodes of each until we find a new show to watch together.”
That sounded good, although I was already tired, already thinking of bed at 8:30 pm. “Sure,” I said. “When do you want to start?”
And just like that, we were sitting on the couch, sharing a blanket that proved useful for hiding during violent scenes. Miles chose Breaking Bad. We watched the first two episodes and laughed and screamed. Right out of the gate, we had found our new show – and a new place to be together, sitting side by side, no eye contact required.