There are fruitless phone calls to the local package store, to the Parents Office, to the main switchboard where a sophomore with a high-pitched voice is sympathetic and sweet and makes suggestions, but none of them will do.
And you wonder why you didn’t manage to find the number for the roommates, why you have no knowledge of his schedule for purposes of a singing telegram, no adequate budget for performing jugglers, for bright balloons and an exotic cake, or what you had in mind originally – twenty-one bottles of beer from Germany and Mexico and Belgium and Jamaica, or at the very least a few six-packs of Sam Adams, lined up at his front door, with a banner for the big day he was waiting for.
It isn’t that you want him drinking and it isn’t that he hasn’t had his share of Cabernet and Calvados and Hoegaarden and Guinness, all of it since sixteen and no doubt before, considering the summers with cousins in Europe and the misadventures you decide are best left to his own mythologizing.
Still, you imagine his grin if only you could execute on this gesture as you kick yourself that you cannot accomplish it from hundreds of miles away. You failed to recruit a co-conspirator in the celebratory scenarios you spin and now discard, each in their insurmountable obstacles as time ticks down and distance stretches the invisible cord between parent and child, naturally, in ways you are still learning to accommodate.
So you settle on a hand-written note even as you wince at language you cannot elevate to originality much less wisdom or eloquence; your mind is a blank except for a thousand images you will never misplace, and you ultimately resort to the ambiguous verb “love” and the uninspired adjective “proud,” then walk your meager offering to the post office and slip it through the metal slot labeled Domestic.
Not only are you unsuccessful at arranging for twenty-one beers or twenty-one balloons or a salute of any notable display, but your wallet is incapable of stamping the day with a monetary statement of significance so he may purchase some marker of his own choosing. This fact is more stinging than you anticipate, as you later hear about the Great Gift received from his father’s Second Wife in the Second Life that you have only the tiniest glimpse of, and when you do, you choose to turn away with your eyes cast elsewhere and your tongue trained in appropriate silence.
He joins you at the holidays and the presents seem paltry though he is gracious, and you know this is your own sense of inadequacy and little to do with his reaction or response. There are two sweaters plucked from the sale shelf at Target, there is a three dollar Slinky because it makes him laugh, there is a chocolate orange because it is family tradition, there are the keys to the car whenever he asks because he loves his freedom and that you can give him and always have, the measure of his judgment and the gift of your trust.
Your parents bestow nothing and everything though even the void is foundational: rage insures that you are small; absence instructs in the art of abandonment. Yes, there are paintings and books that engage the senses, and curiosity to fuel your escape.
If there are mileposts, they stand unvisited on a deserted road you barely remember, admitting to the dirty tricks of the mind’s map-making over the years, and so you treasure one Polaroid with your long dead father, and you cherish a tiny gold box from your long dead mother, still containing a pottery vase for your dolls and a note in her florid cursive – signed with love and decorated with a heart.
You wonder what your son will recall as much as what he will forget or distort; you content yourself knowing that when he is home he claims your sandwiches are “the best” and he fills your narrow rooms with friends; all are welcome, as are the sounds of their laughter. While you may see the freckle-faced ten-year old who roams the neighborhood on his bike, and you may hear the voice of the boy who reassures you he will build a house in the backyard and live there with his family, perhaps “love” and “proud” however banal will be good enough, because they’re all you have in the echo of your shared bonds, in acts of allegiance and of letting go, in your acquiescence, your occasional melancholy, your embrace of aging as the inevitable companion to acknowledgment of his coming into his own.
Perhaps milestone birthdays are less important when the arrival is marked by tenderness and constancy in their path.