I was raking up dead prickly pear under a beautiful old mesquite at the side of my house when I uncovered a small metal toy that looked curiously familiar. I set down the rake, picked it up and wiped the dirt off.
I recognized the tiny yellow toy monster truck immediately. My son David loved that irritating thing. I had stepped on it too often to forget it. I still remember Legos I’ve stepped on in the dark while making my way to the kitchen for a late night glass of milk. Some trauma a parent never forgets.
And then the stupid moist sentimental emotion hit me out of the blue. David’s nearly a man now. I’ve had other children go off to college. Get a grip old man.
Usually when I find something of David’s it’s part of the standard trail of teenager litter: shoes, socks, pens, pencils, caps, T-shirts, empty pizza boxes and half empty soda cans. None of those objects ever moved me to do anything but yell at him. This dirty miniature gas hog was different.
The shame is he’s leaving just as he’s becoming a pleasant man to know, a young adult, tall and broad-shouldered. When my giant is feeling mischievous he picks me up from behind, “cracks my back,” and sets me down like I’m a small pet, convinced he’s doing me a favor. Thanks, Paul Bunyan. I assume it’s turnabout for all the times I picked him up and played “flying baby,” zooming through the house. Welcome to “Honey, I shrunk the parents.”
Should I show him the truck? The boy has become the man who put away childish things.
“I’m stoked. I can’t wait to move into the dorm.” We’re “stoked” too. No more fretting every Friday and Saturday night waiting for your safe return. Now it will be just one year-long fret. (We’re praying his roommate is a cross between Jimmy Neutron and Mitt Romney, a nerd who says things like “Let’s study,” and “Hey, watch the language, dude.”)
His younger brother, Matt, can’t wait to see his nemesis leave. Dave can’t wait to get away from the pest. The house will be quieter. When you have more than one kid you have multiple suspects at the scene of every crime, all claiming innocence. Who shot a pellet at the window? Who threw that rock? Who attacked my cactus with a machete? At last, my days of playing Inspector Clouseau are behind me.
I’ll keep his room preserved as an archaeological exhibit of how teenagers lived in 2014. The door, alone, is a work of art rivaling the stele of Hammurabi; a collage of cut-out “Zits” comic strips pinned over miniposters, bumper stickers and graffiti such as “There is no wealth but life.”
Cartoonists are cursed to see everyday objects, leaves, trees, cars and even toy trucks as animation fodder, creatures possessing life. The rusted toy truck in my hands has a heart and squinting eyes that saw my son crawl, cry, walk and talk. That toy truck heard us wish our chatterbox had never learned to talk. That toy truck got thrown at daddy’s head by a very bad boy. That toy truck waited for him to get out of timeout like a buddy waiting at the prison gates for a parolee. That truck made sure I’d step on it late at night in the dark. The demonic thing had a bite.
A few days after I moved out of my parents’ home, I went back home to see them.
“What did you do with my room, Mom?”
“Come and see for yourself!”
“Did you change it?”
Yes, she did. In the middle of my now barren room there sat a framed picture of her beloved dog next to a bouquet of flowers atop a small table.
“My room is a shrine for your cockapoo now?”
“I thought this would be nice to look at for a change.”
The toy truck in my hand reminded me of the 10,000 changes that carried me on this journey so far away from my own childhood. I tried to imagine the time when I would gleefully get on my hands and knees to play with a toy truck in the dirt. Too old now. Swing low sweet chariot. I pocketed David’s orphaned toy and kept the memories to myself.
When he moves out in August, we’ll say our “good lucks” and we’ll exchange man hugs. I’ll put on my “proud of you” face and let go. Later that night he’ll be sleeping elsewhere for the first time in our lives. I’ll put the toy truck on his nightstand in his room where it will wait for him. And I’ll leave the door open.