Urbana Farewell

Urbana Farewell

From A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Urbana Farewell

Your children are always your babies, even if they have gray hair.

Janet Leigh

In 15 minutes, a bus is due to arrive at the station to take me back home to Bozeman, Montana. In 15 minutes, my life will turn a corner and my relationship with my youngest son, Keith, will alter.

We drove to Urbana together after Christmas to get him set up in an apartment and a new life. He will attend the University of Illinois on a scholarship to play wheelchair basketball. Keith is a paraplegic.

“Well, Mom, I guess this is it. No more ‘stretchy sing pow.’ ” Keith speaks in a family code. That is his way of saying: “I won’t have anyone to stretch my legs in the morning” implying he’ll have to do other things for himself, too, like dishes and laundry. It’s also his way of acknowledging all the little things we share, like the code itself.

“No more ‘techysing pow,’ ” I reply. That means, “You won’t be able to razz me about the inept way I handle the physical world.” (A “tech” is our family slang for someone, like me, who is allergic to the techno gadgetry of our times.) My “techniness” exasperates him. But it delights him, too, because he never tires of wise-cracking at my expense. To him, I am the “Dorisaurus,” a creature bound for extinction. I must agree, I am an analog woman in a digital world. Our affectionate estrangement is a pattern that started early. Even as a child, when we went shopping together, he pretended he didn’t know me, and walked 20 cool paces before or behind, always glancing out the corner of his eye to keep me in range. Our distance created an ample laughing space we could both enjoy as we bumbled along together.

We are both very aware that our mutually endearing relationship is changing. Fortunately, as a result of the forced intimacy between “caregiver and client,” I learned to banter easily with my son. Many mothers would find the lightheartedness in our relationship remarkable. But for the accident, I would probably be lucky to have three of four stiff phone calls a year from Keith—that’s the way things were going.

Neither of us looks at the other, in fact we both gladly stare anywhere else. We are aware of others in the bus station. I conclude that the traveler across from me only pretends to read his gold-embossed supermarket novel. That way, he can keep a polite distance from what is obviously a private and touching moment. On the other hand, I doubt that the other passengers—a head between earphones and a mouth devouring a mound of deli ribs— notice anything whatsoever beyond a radius of six inches. Still they figure in as an obligatory audience.

I want to have the parting moment behind us, so I move to hasten it. “No use for you to wait here, Keith. It will be half an hour before we’re ready to board. I’ll be fine.”

Keith receives my suggestion with relief. “Okay, then.”

Frankly, I had hoped for a polite protest, one I could overcome with a slightly martyrish, “No, really. I’ll be fine.” But protestations and games of manners are not Keith’s style. He prepares to leave.

Now comes the inevitable part. I bend down to hug my son for what could turn out to be the last time for a long while. Unfortunately, I don’t remember that the only way to hug someone gracefully in a wheelchair is to kneel, and so our embrace feels awkward. We deliver the standard three pats which in our family signifies “It is finished,” or “Go with God,” or in this case, “Free to go.”

For an instant our eyes meet. His eyes are red, but he is not crying. Instead, he laughs nervously. He is officially “on his own” for the first time in his life.

Undoubtedly, Keith would have been independent at 18 were it not for that last surfing safari with Richard, his best friend. They headed up Pacific Coast Highway early one morning in July 1989. Richard, who had only been driving for a few months, sat behind the wheel of my Nissan pickup. Out late the night before, Keith dozed in the passenger seat. Richard took a curve too fast and too wide. The truck spun out on the gravel shoulder and rolled several times. Neither of them lost consciousness, but Keith was pinned in the crushed cab. Realizing they were both alive, Richard joked, “Hey, man! Are you there?”

“Half of me is. I can’t be sure about the rest,” was Keith’s fateful reply. Within the hour, the “jaws of life” arrived and pried Keith out. A helicopter lifted him to one of the best equipped trauma centers in the world. Richard escaped with minor injuries. Keith turned 17 the next day in Northridge Hospital.

The supermarket novel man glances up. Does he see a woman whose last child is leaving her care; a young man going forth in the time-honored way to seek his fortune? I wonder what he sees.

Keith pivots on his racing wheels and heads out smartly, self-consciously, with determination in each stroke. I watch him out the window. When he gets to the car, he swings his body gracefully into the driver’s seat and deftly disassembles the chair. Keith is not a “tech,” no wasted motion. Feeling my eyes on him, he looks up. I wave; he waves back.

That is the signal for the tears I have been holding back. I wonder if Keith is crying, too. “Not like him,” I decide, “but still, not beyond him.” I know it’s a good thing that there are mysterious depths in my children that I need not fathom.

I am suddenly aware of curious eyes behind me. The novel, the earphones and the ribs have lost their appeal.

Attention is focused on me. It registers as compassion.

Keith drives by the front door of the station and signals again. But this time it is not a wave, it is a salute.

Doris W. Davis

For Better or For Worse®               by Lynn Johnston

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE© Lynn Johnston Prod ., Inc. Re printed with permission of UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. All rights reserved .

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