You are flying over Detroit on a plane to Boston right now, and I am not worried about you.
This is not bravado or bragging; I just know you well enough to know that there’s nothing to worry about. Even though it’s your first time traveling far away from home without family, it’s really more of a midterm exam for what I’ve always called “incremental independence.”
Do you remember how you started staying home by yourself? Probably not, because it was years ago and the origin is probably an imprecise point on the long, blurred continuum of your memory. You were probably eight years old, and I sat you down on the living room couch and told you I was going to leave, and to watch the clock — I’d be back in two minutes. And I’d walk out the door, down the street far enough where you couldn’t see me.
I could still see you, though; I was hiding behind a tree. I saw your tiny face, and Ezra’s really tiny face, pressed up against the window. You did what you were supposed to do: be calm, do nothing, just wait, and two minutes later I came back.
Soon after, we graduated to 5 minutes. I’d walk around the block slowly, out of your sight and you out of mine, for the tiniest little bit. And you quickly learned that not being able to see me was not cause for panic. That with or without Dad, the occasional 5- or 10-minute chunk of life was pretty much the same.
Then 10 minutes grew to 30 minutes, an hour. I could run to the gas station or the grocery store and leave you at home.
Phase 2 was me staying home and you going out by yourself. This one, you certainly recall — going it alone to retrieve our pizza at Papa John’s two blocks away. A short distance but not without adventure, as the store sits on Mt. Rushmore Road, the busiest street in the city.
Again, I hid behind a tree and watched you walk one block, anxiously look both ways and cross one street, then walk another block and disappear into the store. And without fail, come back out awkwardly lugging pizza across the same street and back into the house.
You then graduated to walking to Starbucks, much farther away, and sometimes to other places over a mile away: McDonald’s, Safeway, or downtown to play Pokemon Go, or off to play practice.
Tiny. Little. Increments.
The next increment was to let you explore places unfamiliar to you. Not a ton of opportunity there, but we seized it in airports. You and Ezra got your free time to roam the shops, as long as you made it back to Point X by the allotted time.
All the while, of course, you learned to use that phone of yours for something other than Snapchatstagramming — the reliable “check in” text or call. Before you were good at these, it’s true that I subjected you to the agonizing indignity of a location-tracking app, but then you got good enough at checking in that I ditched that.
As my oldest child, you have the blessing and curse of doing everything first. The good part is: well, you get to do everything first. The bad part is, you’ve had no one to look at before you leap. You just have to keep making leaps while your brothers intently watch you to see how it’s done.
You’ve rubbed off on them very well. Ezra followed in your footsteps, taking the plunge on all of the above at the same ages you did, sometimes earlier. Lorenzo, of course, watched you both and has an independent streak bordering on lunacy. He was furious — the insulted type of furious — when I suggested he might not want to walk to school by himself next year now that Ezra will be off to middle school. (“Of course I can walk by myself! I can walk by myself now! I DON’T NEED EZRA!”)
And now’s the next phase, where you’re off on your own, far beyond my physical reach. You’re your own woman for the next five days, equipped with the power tools of the modern adult: cash, a credit card and a phone.
This is the phase where you realize that you may like having me there — but you don’t need me.
This is a bittersweet moment for a parent, the pinnacle of that schizophrenic conceit for which there is no resolution: we want you to be independent, but it hurts when you get there. We want you to no longer need us, but when you don’t, it feels like someone has driven an ice-cream scooper into our chest and plopped our heart down into a sundae cup.
But thank goodness, it’s only temporary. Because you’re still just 12 and this is not your official Launch Phase that happens after high school; it’s a dress rehearsal, a practice run.
And you think those are just for you, but they’re not. They’re for you and me equally.
For you, it’s the practice run at being an adult. Of not walking off without your bags or leaving your phone in an airplane seat. For keeping your money safe, and checking into a hotel, and not misplacing your key, and not getting on the wrong subway train, or getting on the right subway train but going in the wrong direction. About getting to where you’re going safe, and getting back home safe, every night, all on your own power, not simply following your dad’s marching orders.
For me, it’s the vision, the flash-forward, of you doing all these things without me in the future. That takes a practice run for me, my dear.
That I can’t do all at once.
For that, I need increments, too.
You just crossed into Massachusetts from New York. Enjoy your trip. Don’t spend all the money in one place. Keep your money in one front pocket and your phone in the other. If you need something small, call the front desk.
If you need something big, call me.
And hey, check in occasionally and tell me where you are and what you’re doing.
And don’t try bullshitting me, because I have location-tracking enabled on your phone.