Next week is our son Lee's birthday. He will be 41. We're planning some of his favorite foods for the occasion: Chinese chicken, stir-fried vegetables and brown rice, with lemon cake and cookie dough ice cream for dessert. Dara, who loves celebrations, will festoon the kitchen with crepe paper streamers and balloons. There will be no birthday candles, though, and no presents either, because Lee won't be there.
He left us 20 years ago when he was a sophomore at the University of Arizona, two hours from our home. In all the time since, he has never tried to contact us. Not me or my husband, Bob. Not even his brother Adam, a year older than Lee and his closest friend throughout their growing-up years.
Even with the near-omniscience of Google, I know little about Lee's activities over those missing years. Except that he's changed his name. Not the last name, the one that connects him forever to our family. No, he's changed his first name and now calls himself “Ebony.” A precious wood. Precious indeed; I approve. If he were to show up at the front door now and knock, tentatively, wondering about the reception he might receive, I would call him by his new name, honor his right to choose for himself. But of course he doesn't know that.
Like all well-loved children, Lee had many names. Our favorite for him was Tumnus, after the courageous faun in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia who saves the young heroine, Lucy, from the wiles of the White Witch. As revenge, the witch turns Tumnus into a statue, unable to move, communicate, or relate. Cold. Pale. Impenetrable. Never to be heard from again. In calling Lee by that name we were thinking of his daring, not imagining a future as remote as stone.
When we first met Lee he had already celebrated seven birthdays without us. Even emerging as he was from a neglectful past, his personality radiated curiosity and joie de vivre. Also charm, but as seasoned adoptive parents we suspected that might be a defense tactic meant to ingratiate his vulnerable self to those of us he perceived as holding power over him. With time and trust that charm might turn to depression, defiance, or even rage as he allowed his bottled emotions to surface. Lee's charm, though, was the real thing, a buoyant delight in every new experience and genuine warmth toward everyone he met. It didn't hurt that he was handsome as well, his soft Afro framing dark, unguarded eyes and a perpetual smile. He was an easy child to love.
One of my earliest memories of Lee is that he hated to wear shoes. Indoors or out, he preferred the rugged feel of the ground beneath his feet to the inconvenience of stopping to dress himself in socks and shoes. But this is the desert, and it was summer. In the unrelenting glare of the sun the streets are sometimes hot enough to feel spongy underfoot. Try as I might, I couldn't persuade Lee to don foot protection before heading out the door to play. My constant reminders began to sound—even to me—like nagging. I certainly didn't want something as silly as shoes to threaten the fragility of our new relationship. I switched tacks.
"Hey, Lee, want to go for a walk? I'm taking this notice about the block-watch meeting around the corner to the Browns, if you'd like to come along."
He did. As I expected, the thought of putting on his shoes never crossed his mind, but this time I wasn't planning to remind him. Would he understand what I was saying by my silence?
Our street is a quiet backwater with little traffic, but it's paved in dark asphalt that absorbs even more of the sun's heat than the lighter concrete sidewalk. I strolled down the center of it, Lee skipping sideways beside me, chattering companionably. Fully half a block along his expression changed. Stress, maybe pain. And so did his gait, hopping from one foot to the other with little forward motion. I stopped and looked at him, but I still said nothing. At last he made a dash for the nearest green lawn, where he stood staring at me, eyes wide as though surprised.
"I could wait here, if you'd like," I called across the intervening space.
He nodded and hopped off toward home, sticking to the grassy areas and leaping over any pavement he encountered. Tumnus the faun, bounding through the Narnian landscape. In minutes he was back, shod this time. Well, okay, he was wearing his tennis shoes, no socks, and his laces were flopping loose, but I take my triumphs wherever I can find them. It was enough that he had heard my silence and the patience it took to maintain it, and he understood. I never had to remind him to wear shoes again.
For 14 years Lee seemed to thrive in our family. A non-reader when he came home to us, he soon caught up to his grade level and then went beyond, graduating high school a year early. He was active always, curious, and fearless—not always an entirely safe combination, but one I couldn't help admiring. He learned to ride a unicycle daredevil-style, jumping it sideways up and down stairways and circling fountains on the inches-wide rims that surrounded them. He could be stubborn and sullen, but neither dark moods nor grudges ever lasted long with him. Once in a while we would catch him in a lie, sometimes an elaborate one. But what child has never done the same? Confronted, he always backed down and was quick to apologize.
Even when he headed off to college we stayed close, visiting back and forth and talking over the ups and downs of his life. Then, the year he was 21, he sent me a birthday card with a handwritten note telling us he needed time to himself to figure out his life. He asked us not to try to contact him. We trusted him, and of course we assumed this separation would be temporary, so we readily did as he asked. How could we know we'd still be waiting two decades later?
We had seen him only two weeks before in Tucson. He had a girlfriend we'd never met, though from his rapt descriptions of her I knew I would love her too. Several years later, she called us. And I was right: I loved her. Longed for her, even. They had married, she told us, but when the lies started and she could no longer ignore them, she left him.
"I love him still," she said, "but I don't trust him. That's why I called you. I need to know how much of what he's told me about his family life is true."
Not much, as it turned out. No, he had not been inducted into the local police department at the tender age of 16, nor was he ever in demand for training men much older than himself in skills of self-defense and espionage. And no, we had never hired detectives to track him down with the intention of whisking him off to some distant location and forcing him to accept the career plans we'd made for him, whatever those might be. In fact, we'd respected his request not to contact him, though we'd always expected he would return some day.
It amazed her now, she said—embarrassed her—to think she'd ever believed any of his superhero stories. For my part, I struggled to deal with the welling sense of loss I felt in having a daughter-in-law I would never know, never welcome home with a hug.
"My mother loves him too," she said into my silence. "She really does. I think she misses him almost as much as I do. They were close."
Another mom: Lee's mother-in-law. A woman I would never plan a wedding with, or divvy up of the privileges of grandparenthood.
Lee had such a good life, and he let it go. Let us go.
Her call left me asking myself all those tiresome questions I'd rehashed over the years, the ones that had no answers. How long do you wait to search out the son who has abandoned you—if you ever should? What is a reasonable amount of time for a mother to live in isolation from the son she loves?
Recently, browsing on-line, I found a picture of Lee. Or Ebony. Apparently not Tumnus, at any rate. His hair is short now, dyed blond, and his pierced ear lobes sport discreet hoop earrings. His face is lean and he looks — hard. Maybe troubled. Or is that just mother-angst? All these years the threat of disasters has lurked around the edges of my imagination. I've wondered when—or if—I would hear of some accident, grave illness, jail, death. Why do our minds go only in those directions, as though those were the deepest ruts in this mothering trail? What if, instead, he's actually doing perfectly well, living honorably and happily, soon to return to us of his own volition? Better to trust the love he found here in his family and the life-training that is a part of every hour we spend with our kids. Better to remember the healing power of silence when words are too loud to be heard.
Now, lying awake in the predawn hours, I recall that picture, but my mind has altered it, and Lee's look is soft again—seven years old and barefoot, learning the hard way about hot sidewalks and rough streets. Whatever the lesson he's learning now, I hope he hears it in the silence and understands.
As for Tumnus off there in Narnia, many long and harrowing chapters later he is finally rescued from his frozen state by a single loving breath passing over him, restoring him to the fullness of life: color, warmth, mutuality, memories, embraces. Some day Lee's spell, too, will be broken, I'm sure of it. Or at least I'm sure of the mother-hope I hold for him. Look for it: the silent breath of a loving past, and the flinty stone becoming touchable flesh again. Happy birthday, Lee.