because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Letting Go of Love: On Grief and Dirty-Faced Boys

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When I was in elementary school, I liked a boy whose face was always a little dirty, a boy who wore corduroys that were always patched at the knees. Somehow, I sensed he had less than I did in this life, and for some inexplicable reason I felt a connection to him.

One afternoon, this boy and I held hands during a roller-skating party in our school gymnasium. It was wonderful, the way he whipped me around the room. His fingers tightly gripping mine, I felt alive, chosen.

I started bringing candy to him, assorted caramels rolled in colorful wrappers, and he happily took my plastic baggy filled with sweets, eating everything hungrily and without much appreciation.

I brought him treats for a long time, until I realized it was the candy he liked, not me.

Apparently, I haven’t learned much since my elementary school days.

Because I did it again.

This one knew how to clean himself up well-enough. He told me that he’d stop smoking cigarettes someday and shared enough secrets to make me feel like I was special. I liked the way he curled around me at night, pulling my body against his, making me feel delicate. I loved watching him sleep, hearing his breath, studying the curve of his face, his perfectly shell-shaped ears.

But nothing was easy. Our conversations were filled with miscommunications, and he was forever hanging up on me when we spoke on the phone.

And yet.

I encouraged him to follow his dreams, helped him with his business, opened my home to him, gave him my heart, my body. Some many offerings.

The point is I see it now, this old pattern, this longing to save someone I like. To make him love me.

I want to say that I’m hopeful that one day I’ll find my person – someone who is willing to accept responsibility for hurtful words, someone who apologizes and makes an attempt to change his future actions, someone who is willing to fight for me rather than with me, someone passionate and affectionate – a partner who possesses all the attributes I dream of and which, at one time, seemed so simple.

Time for me to stop offering up what little sweetness I have left.

Time to love myself and eat all the chocolates.

Ever stayed in a bad relationship for too long? How did you know when it was time to end things?

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Letter to My 12th Grade Son, 3 Months Before He Graduates High School

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Dear TechSupport:

You used to shout at your friends before playing Capture The Flag.

“No burying the flag.”

“No jailbreaks.”

“My house. My rules.”

My son, you love rules.

But over the last few years, you’ve had to accept that man-made laws are not perfect.

Because people are imperfect.

Each night, you watch the news and shake your head.

Now you understand people create laws that can lead to atrocities of human suffering.

Know the question to ask yourself is always: “Would I want this to happen to me or someone I love?” Know also that the answer to this question connects you to the deepest place in your heart as well as all of humanity.

I remember you, slim and long, holding a saber in your hand. Moving with a sense of purpose, you lunged and parried and reposted. This sport – a maddening game of mental chess — requires patience, athleticism, chivalry and grace.

Know that you possess all of these qualities.

That you are able-bodied and strong.

Even if you never fence again.

Know the question to ask yourself is always: “How can I use my strength to help others?”

I’ve always known you’re wicked smart. I’m not bragging. I’m just quoting from the comments that your teachers have made over the years.

Student is a critical thinker.

Student asks important questions.

Student is a leader.

Though I’m forever encouraging you to go with your gut, you’re a scientist, analyzing situations from every viewpoint and trying to make the best, most rational decision you can.

Dude, I don’t understand how you got 100% on the Integrated Algebra Regents.

I mean, I know that you did it.

But you know how I feel about numbers.

To me, numbers are the enemy of words.

But you see magic in numbers.

You love the number 8 because it’s even.

Because it is divisible by 2 and 4, both of which are even numbers.

Because the number is made of two circles. And circles have no sides.

And infinite sides.

If you tip over the number 8, it becomes a pair of glasses.

And the symbol for infinity.

You love how infinity goes on forever.

Like Pi.

Believe me, I’m over the moon that you’ve made friends with numbers.

Please, just don’t become obsessed with 100.

Know that greatness is not about always having the right answer or pleasing others. That greatness is about asking important questions and doing what is right and good, even if you have to stand alone.

{That said, it’s okay to let other people hide the flag in a non-obvious location during Capture the Flag. Seriously, Bubba. It’s a game. Not the time to take a stand. Pick your battles.}

At the end of this academic year, you’ll be heading off to summer camp.

And then to college.

I’m already grieving losing you.

I’ve hardly had time to make sense of it.

I think it started the day I realized you are taller than I am.

Of course, I’m here for you.

But you’ve gotten quieter, less interested in sharing your words with me.

You hand me a Rubik’s cube and tell me to mess it up.

Your fingers touch mine for a nanosecond before you pull away.

I get it.

You’re expending your energy elsewhere these days.

These days you’re probably thinking about that girl and how she uses a green headband to keep her hair off her neck.

Stuff like that.

How did we get here?

Wasn’t I just cleaning up spilled Goldfish crackers and taking care of ouchies.

Explain to me how we got here, my number loving son.

And tell me that I did a good enough job.

That all the formulas worked.

You’ve been on this earth for 6430 days.

I’m paying close attention because I get it now.

This time won’t last forever.

I want you to know that you, my son, have been my greatest teacher.

But can I tell you just one thing?

People don’t ring the doorbell asking you to hang out because they want to see me. They don’t cheer your name when you walk into a room because they like the shirt you’re wearing. They do these things because you are that guy: the one who builds people up and makes them feel accepted and loved. You make weird card games fun.

You win with humility and lose with grace.

Except when it comes to Capture The Flag.

Dude, that game is your undoing. Cut people some slack. Seriously.

I know that’s more than one thing.

Do me a favor and cut me some slack, too.

Love,

Mom

The Day The Last Baby Tooth Fell Out

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mouth

My son didn’t lose his teeth.

Nearly all of Tech’s chompers came in all “fakakta,” a Yiddish word meaning completely crazy. They just never got wiggly, so each one needed to be pulled by the dentist.

It seemed like such a chore. Why couldn’t my son just loose his teeth the way other children did? Swallow them accidentally while eating cake or donuts? Why did everything have to be such a production?

I always anticipated a fight on the way to the dentist’s chair. And yet, Tech never complained. Sitting on hard black waiting room chairs, he wasn’t nervous. Not even the first time. He just waited for his name to be called, and after the first time, he was a pro. He knew there would be a shot of Novocain, followed by numbness, followed by pressure. But he had faith in the adults around him. And he always appeared, chewing on a wad of bloody gauze, to hand me a tiny plastic container that held his tooth, or – in one instance – four teeth.

Last Friday, Tech informed me that he had a loose tooth. I didn’t think much of it; I figured eventually I’d call the dentist and make an appointment to have it extracted.

But that night, Tech took one bite into a slice of pizza and spat his mouthful of half-chewed food onto his plate and started mining. It only took a moment for him to find the tiny sauce-covered nugget.

That's it. The last one.
That’s it. The last one.

Holding it in his hands, Tech slurred his words. “Dat’s la lass wun.”

And then I realized what he was saying.

My son had just lost his last baby tooth.

I stopped chewing and looked across the table at my husband.

TechSupport is our only child. At thirteen years old, he is in no hurry to grow up. He tells us stories of classmates who have girlfriends or boyfriends, kids who drink and smoke after school or on weekends at parties he doesn’t attend. He isn’t interested in any of this at the moment. He has only just recently become a little teenagerishy.

And while he may not realize it, at thirteen years old, my son has crossed over. Lately, it feels like he is more on the grown up side of things than on the boy side. He’s tall. And with his longer hair, he looks older than he is – especially when he stands next to some of his friends who are shorter and stubbier than he is.

The Tooth Fairy has always left a little to be desired on our house. Tech figured out I was The Fairy at age 7, when his $2 bill came accompanied by a note typed in my favorite font. When questioned, I could not deny it. He had the evidence. A common-sense kind of guy, Tech has never been interested in magic — except to figure out how the tricks really worked.

That Friday night, after the dishes were done, I found my purse and tried to give my son a few bucks.

He shook his head, refusing. He’d seen the news by then. And even though the story was just unfolding, I think he felt the weight of what had happened in Connecticut.

I moved closer to him. We stand eye to eye these days, and I was surprised to see that night his eyes were light brown, the color of cream soda. I pressed a few single dollar bills against his chest. “It’s the last one! And it fell out all by itself.”

“It just knew to stop holding on.” Tech shrugged. “Kind of like you need to stop holding on, Mom.”

I reached out a hand to touch Tech’s shoulder, but he is squirmy these days, and he moved away. Sometimes he doesn’t feel like being touched.

“Will you just put my tooth in with the others?” he asked.

I raised an eyebrow. How did he know about the purple box in the corner of my husband’s closet?

“Dad showed me,” Tech answered, reading my mind. “I used to think it was weird that you guys kept my teeth. But now… I get it.”

I know it's a little creepy, but...
I know it’s a little creepy, but…

I walked upstairs and sat on the floor inside the quiet closet. As I removed the top to the old blue shoebox, I was surprised by the oddities the box held: an old watch, an ancient skull (a gift given from my father-in-law to my husband, before he went off to medical school), and the purple jewelry box with the psychedelic rectangular pattern on the cover. I opened the purple clamshell and plopped the last of Tech’s baby teeth inside before snapping it shut.

I know that most people do not save teeth. I know plenty of people who think saving teeth is pretty disgusting. I suppose I saved Tech’s teeth because the wonky, misshapen bits are little perfectly-imperfect pieces-parts of a person I love, something that I can hold in my hands. I suppose, one day, those little nubs will serve as a reminder of a simpler, sweeter time: a time when my boy wanted cuddles and Goldfish crackers and not much else.

I shook the purple box.

It sounded like diamonds rattling around in there.

And then I thought about all those kids from the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

I thought of their teeth.

I know it’s weird, but grief isn’t logical.

I thought of all those baby teeth that hadn’t yet fallen out.

Of all those permanent teeth that hadn’t yet come in.

How nothing is permanent.

How everything is breakable.

And I wept, alone in the closet.

Because the sky isn’t up there; it is between us.

I have never been a hovercraft parent, but right now, I’m holding on like one of my son’s stubborn teeth: not ready to let go.

What personal mementos of your children are most precious to you?

tweet me @rasjacobson

I’m unplugging until December 27th, but I want to wish those of you who celebrate a Merry Christmas. And to everyone else, I hope you enjoy the time off with family and friends. Let’s get ready to ring in 2013.