How My Love for My Son Sent Me Searching Through Trash

Do you know what three-day-old trash from a roller-skating rink smells like up close? I do. It smells like melted cherry and blue raspberry slushies, congealed yellow nacho cheese, old pizza, Dr. Pepper and love.

Four days into my son’s winter break after his first semester of college things were feeling a little heavy. Nothing felt the same. We’d set up the tree while he was home during. Thanksgiving break because we couldn’t imagine doing it without him, but now the needles were dry and brittle and every time we walked past it some trickled to the ground.

We hadn’t made cookies yet because we kept holding off until he got home, but now he was home and there was no time for cookies. Friends and family assumed this much-awaited homecoming was a cause for pure celebration. But, I kept telling them, “Everything feels different. I don’t know how to do this yet.”

We do what we have to do for our kids. (Photo Credit: Ali Wicks-Lim)

I try to choose my battles with my son wisely

It’s safe to say that sentiment extends beyond the holiday season. This is the first kid I’ve launched. I don’t always know where to offer advice and when to stay quiet. I try to choose my words and battles wisely. Sometimes I fail. I can’t get him to wear socks, even as temperatures sink, snow falls and he continues to wear his purple Crocs everywhere he goes.

He is making his way, at times making mistakes, and mostly refusing help. Sometimes I get flashes of a two-year-old version of him boldly declaring that he will do things “By ME OWN self!” In some ways he’s closer to that little guy than he’s been in years, except now he’s not here where I can keep an eye on him. Mostly the past few months have been about transitioning to a ‘new normal’ where everything feels like either a first, or a last, or both. I miss him all the time.

On Christmas Eve day, in search of some levity and fun, we found ourselves taking advantage of a holiday special for discounted rollerskating and a free round of laser tag. Together we cringed about the holiday music at the skating rink, but he and his sister still enjoyed several rounds of tag, looking like giant, fast versions of the kids I remember bringing there just a few years earlier.

We had a great time playing laser tag as a family

Laser tag (something we likely never would have tried had it not been included in the holiday special) brought with it all the strangeness you’d expect from an activity about targeting and being shot at by the people you love most in the world. We liked it more that I thought we would and paid for a second round because it made us laugh and kept me from thinking about the hard things for an entire nine minutes.

On the drive home I looked in the rearview mirror and the backseat looked perfect with a kid on each side. For a moment things felt normal, the old normal not the new one, and I relaxed into that feeling. As we pulled into the driveway though, my son started frantically searching the backseat. When I heard him say his hat was missing, my heart sunk.

My son lost a hat that was very special to him

My son is a rock climber and the hat was given to him when he was around twelve by an adult climber he deeply admires. It has a patch on it that references a collective of some of the best climbers in the world, but most people wouldn’t know that by looking at it – it’s like an inside joke or a secret handshake and it meant a lot to him.

Amazingly this kid who has lost I-don’t-know-how-many water bottles, the same kid who could never find his giant bright purple Crocs even though he wears them every day, had held onto this one specific hat for over six years. He wore it all the time, it had become one of those accessories you hardly notice because it’s just *always* there. That evening as we came in from the car even I felt worried about the missing hat.

I assured my son that we would find his hat

I scrolled through my phone to confirm that the skating rink was where it was lost, passing three photos of him wearing it as he skated and then suddenly it wasn’t in the pictures anymore. It must have fallen off while we were playing laser tag, or been dropped in the area where skates are rented. I reassured both of us that we’d find it in a lost and found after the holiday.

My son left a message at the skating rink and I heard him say “The hat really means a lot to me and I’d love to get it back.” The morning after Christmas he was at the climbing gym but he called the rink right after it opened and then texted me, “They do have a lost and found, but they throw out the hats. I’m really crushed.”

I was determined to find my son’s hat

I pictured him there, climbing without his hat, feeling crushed. I thought about how many problems I cannot solve for him anymore. I began to wonder if maybe this was an opportunity in disguise. It was the day after Christmas and it seemed very unlikely the trash had been picked up. If that hat was in a trashcan somewhere I was going to find it.

I decided to make my own phone call. The woman I spoke to on the phone confirmed that the trash had not been brought out to the compacter yet, but sounded perplexed. Why would I want to go through the trash for a hat? It had been sitting for days, she warned me so it would be gross. I told her I’d be there in a half hour, grabbed a pair of disposable gloves and got in the car.

There are so many conversations I don’t know how to have with my son

On the way to the skating rink I thought about all the conversations I can’t seem to figure out how to have with this new version of my son. I thought about this tug of war we’ve been in where all I want is for him to know I’m still here for him and all he wants is to show me he doesn’t need me to be.

When they go to college no one prepares you for how little you can do for them anymore. I send snacks he will eat instead of going to the dining hall and socks he won’t wear under his woefully-inadequate-for-the-weather Crocs. I remind him of a dozen things a week, with maybe a 2% success rate on follow-through. That’s kind of it.

My son not being at home feels like a phantom limb

Sometimes I think about a documentary I once watched where a person described what it’s like to have a “phantom limb” nerve pain after an amputation that makes it hurt where there is no longer bone or flesh. This launch often leaves me feeling like an interrupted neural-pathway, all the same love and intention with nowhere to go.

When I arrived to the skating rink and the manager lead me to the trash bins. I took a deep breath, put on my gloves and sifted through the stale pizza and sticky soda and cheese that had not aged at all in the three days it sat at the bottom of the bin.

At the very bottom, soggy and smelly and wrapped around a Slushie cup, I found my son’s hat.

I found the hat!

For the first time in the several early, clumsy months of this transition I knew for sure I’d gotten something right. I sent him a quick text, a photo of the hat. Three dots appeared on my screen, and then the words “No way” followed by “UR the best” and then a row of exclamation points and hearts.

In that moment the hat became every word I cannot get my son to hear, every text I can’t get him to return. It also became an important lesson for both of us about how the things we want are often less unreachable than they seem, it’s just a matter of what you’re willing to do to get them and who you have in your corner. He wanted his hat back and in making that happen I showed him I’m still in his corner.

In early January we took a hike together and he wore the new jacket we gave him as a gift, but in every picture I notice the hat first; the patch arranged casually on the front, a subtle nod to fellow climbers and maybe a reminder of that place his forehead I’ve been kissing since he was born.

More Great Reading:

What I Wish I Had Known Before That First College Winter Break

About Ali Wicks-Lim

Ali Wicks-Lim lives in Western Massachusetts where she can usually be found organizing, advocating, teaching, homeschooling, writing, parenting and finding or creating adventures. One of these days she'll find the time to write the book people keep asking her to write. She lives with her wife, their daughter and several high-maintenance pets. She recently launched her son to his first year of college and would very much like time to start moving backwards.

Read more posts by Ali

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