I sit in my office working, as new text notifications pop up repeatedly on my computer screen. The texts aren’t for me, they’re for my oldest son, a freshman in high school. It’s been a wild year so far; my first baby is an ex-child. Each new day gives convincing evidence that he is crossing the rubicon between boyhood and manhood. This past weekend, he bought a corsage for a girl, and went to his first homecoming dance (Actually, I bought it, but I’m docking his allowance to cover what he owes me, so after four easy payments, those now dead flowers will be his). His texts come through on my computer, and he knows this. It happened automatically when we synced our cell phone accounts, so his dad and I decided to keep it that way for a year or so because, according to the cell-phone contract we typed up and had our teenage boys sign, we are the rightful owners of their phones and are permitted to read their texts anytime.
We don’t helicopter as much as you might think. Most of the time, we don’t read their texts and we trust them to self-regulate. But once in while we assert our right to be parental, to help them out, when it is clear they are struggling, relationally or otherwise. We sit next to them and wade through emotions turned to digital words, in an effort to show them the proper way to respond to others, as well as to correct potentially harmful digital behavior. Once in awhile, when I see one of my boys getting himself into a pickle, I’ll bring it up with him and see if he’s willing to share. Today, I when I see the text exchange between our oldest and a girl he has a secret crush on, I realize he is on thin ice, walking dangerously close to the edge of total falling-flat-on-the-face embarrassment. As a woman who was once a 15-year-old girl, I know how badly this can end for him. He does not. I hold my breath and wonder what to do. Then, just as I’m about to pick up my phone to text him “STOP!” I remember this summer’s trip to the lake house.
This past summer, our family went with the neighbors to the happiest of happy places: the lake house. We don’t own the place, but we’ve been welcomed so warmly by the people who do, it feels like it’s all ours when we’re there. It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve been there before, or what season it is, the lakehouse is a dream world, a place where magical things happen for our family. We take bags of groceries and plenty of sunscreen, movies and books and flip flops. We unload like the own the place, find our usual rooms, and take a big cleansing breath when we walk out on the back deck, breathing in the view of the pristine, private lake that is, for the duration of our stay, all ours. This summer’s trip was no exception. After a busy end to the school year, we all needed it. We ate and drank and splashed. We caught fireflies and smiled as the kids jumped off the floating dock, and stayed up late listening to cicadas and paddling around in canoes with nothing to guide us but the glow of the moon reflecting on the water.
The lakehouse is remote. It takes over an hour on the highway to get there, and much of the drive is through rural farmland. By the time you reach the gate you’ve been driving so long on a narrow dirt road you wonder if you’ve passed it. Just a quarter mile down the slim gravel driveway, it sits, the place Jeremy and I have always experienced as a “thin place,” where the boundary between the visible and invisible, the temporal and eternal world becomes paper thin. It’s easy, when you’re so isolated, to notice any other visitors. Whether it’s the snake who likes to hide under the cover on the grill, the fish jumping in the late afternoon sun, or a passing flock of birds, it’s not unusual for us to form some bond with the animals, the only other living creatures within miles. One trip, I spent the entire time speaking to, and interpreting the movements of, a family of deer. This past trip, we noticed the geese.
They arrived on our second day, appearing out of the overgrowth on the opposite side of the lake, two adults and three goslings. They plopped into the water and paddled slowly around, getting out and back in, the parents honking at the babies to keep up. We were delighted to have them join our party. For two days our group of nine watched and cooed as the family of geese swam, ate, sunbathed, and played right in front of us. It was as if we had front row seats to some secret show put on by mother nature, and the intimacy bonded us with the geese family. Maybe this is why, when the family got separated on the third day, we felt it was our place to intervene.
The geese parents and two of their babies had wondered out of the lake, through the property, up past the house, and climbed the long gravel driveway into the large wooded area next to it. Then, an hour or so later, we noticed they had left a baby behind. The lone gosling looked even smaller than before, its undeveloped wings covered in downy feathers with no substance, and its webbed feet moved in fast motion as it combed the beach looking for its family. It started calling for them with the sad squawk of a small bird, and looked like it was in an absolute panic. We sat on the deck and the kids floated silent on the lake while we all watched it retracing it’s family’s steps, going everywhere the group had gone, just going alone this time. After twenty or so agonizing minutes, we decided someone should intervene and try to help guide it up the hill in the direction of its family.
Nate was the group hero, and walked in a sheep-dog-like pattern to herd and direct the gosling through the same path its parents had taken just an hour before. It obliged for as long as it could, while also being skittish and terrified, and eventually ran up the hill, off the path, and into the woods and disappeared. Nate came back down the hill, giving the details of where he last saw the gosling, then laid back down in the sun. He shrugged, “I hope they find each other.” We all felt hopeful and went back to reading chapter books and drinking cold beer, until we heard loud repetitive honking above our and watched as the two parents flew directly over the house, over our heads, and glided in their landing on the lake. They had returned, this time without their other babies, to look for the lost gosling. They swam immediately for the shore and started calling out assertively. We grown ups sat up and all echoed the same thought, “Oh no. What have we done?”
The parent geese retraced the same steps their baby had walked, smelling, calling. One of the parents lay down in the patch of grass where the family had sunned themselves hours and days earlier, and let out a barking call every thirty seconds or so. It sounded mournful. The other parent continued to look for the baby, but the baby never came to the call. We humans knew why. We humans knew we had done what all humans do when they have intervened with their brut strength on mother nature; we had screwed things up. We had assumed our knowledge of the situation was supreme, our perceived empathy was the deepest reality, our decision to act would be universally good and beneficial.
We were wrong. Why? Because we forgot one the main reasons why, in this case, we were inferior: we can’t fly. We forgot that there was a deeper nature at work here that had nothing to do with our human complexes to save the day. These geese were descendents of other geese who knew how to survive, how to keep a flock together, how to migrate and survive the longest commutes in the most dire circumstances. These geese knew that if they lost a baby, it would have that same inner nature to stay and call for them, and they would be able to take to the air, fly back, and find it in a matter of minutes. The geese were fine. We were the problem. The parent geese spent the rest of the day into sunset honking, searching, looking for the baby. They never found it and, before the sun went over the horizon, they waddled defeatedly back out into the water, flapped their wings, and took off. We didn’t see them again.
Even now, I am torn between the example shown by the geese parents – the protective honking and corralling of their children turned to the desperate and heartbreaking search for the lost gosling – and the memory of what happened when we stepped in and tried to help. I am torn between being the feathered mother, guiding my child in the right direction, and the fact that – at some point – I will have to let him go, trusting there is a deeper nature at play here, a current as formative as his biology, that will guide him safely back to where he needs to be. He has been gestating and growing in my protective care for fifteen years now. In a few more, he will be out of my house and on his own. His texts most definitely won’t come into my computer anymore, and all of his choices will be his to make, feel, and grow from. I will have to make the choice to keep letting him go, while letting him know he always has a home within my heart.
Parenting, as it turns out, is full of these choices. As a parent of two teenagers with smartphones in their pockets, with body hair and crushes on girls, with mood swings and daily questions about life and death and sex and money and God and human goodness, I can say the stakes only get higher every day. For now, I am remembering the way it felt when I watched those parents, who had just returned, look in all the right places for the baby we had just “saved” by forcing up the wrong path. For now, I think of my oldest and I remember how many mistakes I made at his age. Those mistakes came with some hard earned lessons and, eventually, a deeper level of clarity and confidence. Failure is a gift we sometimes have to watch our kids unwrap. So for now, I’m telling myself the same thing I told myself that summer afternoon at the lake house, “For future reference, just stay out of it,” trusting if he’s in real trouble he’ll follow the family protocol: stay where you are, call for me or dad, and wait.