I met my stepchildren after their dad and I had been seeing each other for a few months. My son was seven at the time. My stepdaughter was fourteen and my stepson, twelve. I wasn’t keen on rushing the introductions between us and our three children; this was serious business. So we confined our time together to “non-kid” weekends when our children were with their other parents.
One of those weekends long ago, we went out to play in the creek and left Thomas in his crate in Travis’s living room. When we got back to the car, Travis had a text message from his daughter. “Who’s the big puppy?” she asked. Taylor had just returned that day from vacation with her mother, and she wanted to see her dad. Finding him away from home and having forgotten her key, she simply broke into her bedroom window. Once inside, she found the dog who would eventually become one of her family pets. And so my effort to keep the brakes on the kid-mingling was short-circuited by Taylor’s directness. This self-direction has served her well, and back then, provided me with yet another lesson that life is not always within our control.
When his sister informed him that she had met Dad’s new girlfriend, twelve-year-old Deryk was not happy to be left out. The cat had not only gotten out of the bag but had shredded it on the way out. So we scheduled a proper time for me to meet Deryk.
I have thousands of memories of my stepson filed away in my mental cabinets: when I made him ice cream and he stuck his head into the base of the ice cream maker to lick it clean; the time he brushed all my hair into my face to make me look like Cousin It; when I caught him eating a tablespoon of cinnamon just to see how it would feel, and reddish clouds of dust puffed out of his nostrils, like a spice-breathing dragon. I was horrified, later, to find that eating cinnamon was a thing, and that kids could hurt themselves doing it. Someone was always catching Deryk doing something dangerous just when it was too late to stop him.
But the memory that has been playing over and over in my head this week is from the day I met him for the first time. I came to Travis’s house and we made dinner for the four of us. After saying hi to the kids and getting the intros out of the way, we went into the kitchen to cook. Two minutes later, Deryk wandered in. “Can I help?” he asked. So we tasked him with grating some cheese. While he did so, he told me about himself, and asked me questions about my life. I wasn’t used to preteen boys having a genuine curiosity about the lives of adults they don’t know, but this one did. Over the years, there were times he seemed to know me better than Travis or my own son. When we moved into this house, he took one look at the tiny galley kitchen, screwed up his face and said, “Jen. Are you sure about this kitchen?” And he was right; the kitchen is still the sore spot with me.
Deryk has always been interested in what others are doing and is eager to involve himself. He enjoyed tripping the shutter on my camera after I’d composed a shot, and was always helping me cook. One night, after we made chocolate fondue and found outrageous things to dip into it, I told him he was my sous chef as well as my photography assistant. He corrected me between bites of pickle dipped into fondue: “No. I’m your sous-tographer.” He put the pickle down and picked up a tortilla chip to plunge into the chocolate.
My sous-tographer was always happy to get in front of my camera, too. I have so many images of him with the dog – petting him, brushing him, snuggling him, putting his T-shirt on him. “That’s my boy!” he would say when he walked in the door every other weekend to Thomas’s prancing delight. “Pretty sure he thinks you’re his boy,” I would laugh. It went the same way every time.
I also have scores of images of him pretending to annoy his father in a thousand silly ways. I was always the one who laughed at Deryk; I couldn’t help it. Who could? And he responded as anyone does when their behavior is validated – he escalated. Travis pretends to be annoyed by it. He isn’t. Still, he turns to me and says, with an air of manufactured weariness at his son’s light mockery: “This is your fault.” I return this with a blank and serene stare of innocence: “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
His sensitivity, charisma and intuitive ability to know people does not, however, come with a corresponding softness or sense of restraint. This kid has been an avid thrill-seeker from an early age. He jumped off roofs and broke bones; smashed his face on a skateboard; carried an injured bat into the house when he was two. We call him Der for short. It’s pronounced “Dare.” That’s always seemed appropriate to me.
Eventually, as all children do, my stepkids grew up. Travis’s nest began to thin when Taylor went to college three years ago. It was a little easier than usual, though, because she attends the university in the town where she grew up. Travis still sees her once a week for dinner, and the transition from non-custodial dad to parent-of-college-student wasn’t terribly stark. She was entering a world we knew and understood when she matriculated at Purdue University, where we both graduated. She studies entomology, and takes regular trips into the natural world to collect her specimens. She just returned from Costa Rica in May. We get this; we understand it on a core level. The self she has developed is like ours in many ways we recognize.
We wondered during those years, a little bit nervously, what Deryk would do when it was his turn. Like his sister, he is extremely bright. But his energy struggles when confined to a classroom, and the idea of college felt uninspiring and limiting to him. We suggested possibilities from our own store of un-met dreams: do a gap year; hike around the country; travel somewhere. But those were our un-lived possibilities, not his, and they never resonated. Instead, he had another idea that had nothing to do with anything in our wheelhouse: he wanted to enter the Army. We stiffened against that idea, worried that the military would extinguish that vibrant, zany personality. We wondered if — hoped, perhaps — the plan would dissipate in the 18 months between when he announced the idea and when he could actually enlist. It didn’t.
We weren’t so much worried about his safety; as I pointed out during one of our many discussions about it, he would probably be a lot safer in the Army doing the crazy shit he wants to do with some training and structure, rather than unleashed in a small Midwestern town with no direction, no focus, little discipline, and all of that buzzing energy. So it wasn’t fear for his life. Although that prospect is unsettling, we know the world is dangerous no matter where you are and what you are doing. Rather, it was the fear of losing who he is, because we love who he is so much.
We have the “Proud Parent of a Soldier” sticker on the car – we put it on the Prius right after we hugged him one last time and watched him board the bus to basic training two days ago – but we are still somewhat ambivalent military parents. Travis is a marriage and family therapist. He spends his days pulling emotion and vulnerability out of men who have buried it for years, or tried to obliterate it altogether. The purpose of basic training, we understand, is to “reprogram children and civilians into warriors.” The extinction of individuality is the point. Vulnerability is not just uncomfortable; it could get a soldier killed.
But the strongest parenting value we share – even over the acceptance of emotion and vulnerability – is that children must be encouraged to heed the call of their true selves, over the wishes of parents, grandparents, friends, and lovers. Because we are the kind of people who hold that value, we’re deeply uncomfortable with any agenda to reprogram his essential self.
But the irony is that the same value requires us to support him if that is what he wants. His self belongs to him. He is an adult, and he must mold it how he chooses; our job now is only to adapt, and to love what develops in him. It’s our job to support him in his work, and be open to the idea that he may know what he is doing.
It’s not a revelation that launching a child is usually a time of grief as well as pride for parents. But as we navigate it, we’re finding that for all these reasons, and the usual ones of realizing that your family will never be the same again, this is a complicated fledging. It’s piercing for my husband in a way I can’t know. He is the parent; I am not. He has memories going back nineteen years; I have seven. Although it’s a loss for me too, I also can’t tell where my own feelings are merging with empathy for Travis’s more elemental loss, and my feelings about my own son’s departure in a few years. It doesn’t matter. It’s all a stew. The role of a stepparent in this process is usually the least interesting and the least poignant; but it is very confusing.
As we sat this week in the Military Entrance Processing Station, known in that acronym-happy military way as “MEPS,” waiting to attend his oath of enlistment ceremony, I noticed that everyone – me, Travis, Der’s mom, Der’s girlfriend, my son Sean – looked unhappy. “I wonder,” I whispered to Travis as we stood sharing a Diet Coke from the vending machine, “if maybe a part of you just dies when they leave.” He nodded in agreement. That seemed right, at least at the time.
A few moments later Deryk abruptly emerged from the baggage room a few doors down, smiled briefly at us, and swiftly walked back to the room where he was finishing paperwork, the look on his face a stark contrast to our hollow expressions. He looked confident, ready, and stable. He knew what he was getting into. He knew he’d be getting screamed at by a drill sergeant in twelve hours. He was moving eagerly forward into that challenge, perhaps propelled by the same spirit that led him to jump off the roof eight years ago. It occurred to me then that he was the only one of our family there who looked happy. That is how it should have been.
In the end he got on the bus, of course. He hugged each of us one last time, and I could tell he had real sympathy for his family’s sense of loss, even as he wasn’t feeling it in the same way. That he was able to leave us to our sadness and get on the bus anyway is a sign, to me, of the success of his dad’s cardinal parenting value: Be you, no matter what. No matter if I like it, no matter if it causes me pain. Be you.
And he was.
He got to keep his phone on the bus and a few final texts flew around as the bus pulled away. I wanted to send one, too, but I wanted it to be lighthearted. So I texted him a photo of Thomas: “Someone is upset that dogs aren’t allowed into MEPS, so he asked me to tell you goodbye.”
The reply flickered into my screen twenty seconds later. “That’s my boy.”
And you are his, I thought to myself.