makings of a man

by Elizabeth de Barros

This is a second revision of a memoir I wrote in 2006 entitled “What Child is This?” on the bittersweet task of mothering two sons during the hot sweaty days of their boyhood. This piece is mainly about the eldest, now 18, who has added to my cup the sweetest drop of sorrow by becoming a man seemingly overnight.

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The first thing I used to devour on Sunday mornings along with my bagel and coffee was the old, now defunct “His/Hers” column in The New York Times Magazine. Host to an ever-changing string of authors, the column was my muse, providing inspiration even on the dreariest of days. One particular piece was that of a mother’s cry, at once bemoaning and exonerating her adolescent sons’ taciturn ways, amplified to what sounded in my ear like a prophetic warning.

A decade later, flanked by two boys, 9 and 4, respectively, I am that mother. The four-year-old is a regular chatterbox wherever, whenever — car seat, shower, or bedroom turned magical kingdom. Strange noises erupt from remote corners of the house, and protracted conversations with no one specific trail through the halls at all hours. He has yet to figure out that he’s male and men don’t “talk.” He considers the gurgling noise made from holding down the toilet handle bona fide chit-chat. He’s an Abrams tank en route to the next explosion. But I’m grateful. He tips the scales noise-wise. Helps me feel less outnumbered in a house whose walls are held together by testosterone.

But the nine-year-old is a different story. He began shutting down around eight and a half, simmering to a low boil before we ever had the chance for meaningful conversation. Instead, he relates by flashing hazy reports of school bus shenanigans or blurting out sports scores on TV — “Mom!” “Nats 9, Giants zip!”

To interact, he asks me to pick names, numbers, divisions, and entire teams for world-record fantasy championships played out on top of his clipboard in the kitchen. When he really wants to connect, he says, “What’s in the fridge?” He talks, but it comes out in odd ways. It’s authentic, though, so I’ll take it.

His name, Santos Joseph DeBarros, means, The Lord shall add a saint to the earth. Poetic. His father picked his first name from a baby name book and was sticking with it while I puzzled out whether we could pull off something that exotic for the rest of our lives. Together, we liked the middle name. It was safe — Biblical. And we had no say with the last. It works. Names often tell something of a person; they carry weight. His does both.

An hour after his arrival, before the expected parade of friends and relatives, a routine X-ray revealed a tiny pneumothorax of the right lung. I was a blur after having undergone an emergency C-section — lost in recovery after 16 hours of back labor — barely able to mutter a prayer. I offered up trust instead while we kept vigil. Thankfully, the small puncture, as the doctor described it, disappeared somewhere between the neonatal oxygen tent and his father’s arms. But on day three, another report indicated that his blood gases were “off.” Countless pin pricks to the heel later, the entire medical team gave up after his fifth set of labs. By day five, the doctor discharged him on grounds that his cheeks were pink, saying, “He looks good.”

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On his first birthday, we threw him a party and gave him a Native American tom-tom — Boom! Boom! Boom! — wowing the crowd on first performance. Only difference now is he pounds a lot faster and stronger, like his heart. Rhythm is in his blood; he loves numbers and is good at math.  He’s a list maker, joke teller, peacemaker. Swallows books whole but baseball is his meat. He chews and savors all 125 years of America’s favorite pastime with a bottomless appetite for more stats. He thinks in cartoons but feels and cares deeply. Smiling and slap-happy while reading Calvin and Hobbes, he rules like Garfield, pulls for Charlie Brown, but despises Lucy.  Already knows to tell his future wife “I love you” septillion times — all in one day if need be. When I asked, “Why septillion?” He said, “Because it’s a real number.”

He gets it.

Justice is his cause and Passion his middle name. No matter how much we may moralize, winning still means everything to him, but people must play fair. When they don’t, he turns slightly red in the face and I’m first to hear about it. An old soul, his knowing eyes don’t fit the rest of his body. Strangers smiled when, at three, he bopped to the beat walking into the Gap like he owned the place. Poetry in motion — a gift to the world. No claims here.

As parents do, we sang and whistled away his raw newborn nerves well into the night and taught him his three R’s. Up until sixteen, he didn’t guzzle soda or chew gum, we’ve been hoping it’s just a phase. Early on we divulged the merits of fine chocolate. He’s hooked.

But our greatest aim has been to show him how to walk in ancient paths for a future hope. It’s also been our greatest challenge. When peers demanded a reason why he hadn’t seen a certain movie yet, we supplied a plausible answer with an equal amount of salve for his wounded pride. Told him we were holding out because innocence, once lost, isn’t easily recovered. He nodded while my husband and I exchanged a wistful look from across the table, holding our breath as the teen years loomed.

We also wanted to preserve wonder, so we skipped Disneyland. We desired something with more mileage in the end. The Grand Canyon, or maybe Stonehenge. Even so, the dinner table still proves the most interesting journey. It’s a world of tempting shortcuts, but we took the longer, more scenic route, pointing out the pitfalls and valleys along the way, hoping he’ll be better prepared to get where he’s going on his own.

Fulfilling as all this was, what I really wanted was his heart. Since before he day he was born, I’ve wept over this child, knowing he was never truly mine.  It was his heart I wanted to get my hands on, examine — make sure it was right — gladden with kisses and bolster when low. Sometimes I did. But more often I’d leave him be, let him roil away, allow his heart to strengthen on its own, even break on occasion.

What did I want from him? To sit and sip tea with me, chatting until sundown?  Maybe — but God forbid. I wanted a man to walk out of that heart, so I mourned frilly desires, too. He wanted to be outdoors playing against the wind, practicing his pitch or working his layup rather than be held hostage in upholstered world. He was way too busy pounding out his frame, adding to the foundation we were so busy laying. He had no time to stop, sit, and be a nice boy. His is a vigorous soul, a “tough hombre,” as the obstetrician pronounced at delivery. So I let him hammer out a heart of God’s design, not so much mine.

Now, the time has come when I hardly recognize my own child — he’s become a man, the man I hoped for.

And mourned for.

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Well, the teen years are almost done. He turns 18 today. With a spring in his step and a gleam in his eye; the future is now. Another cup of tea and I’m getting out of the way. He’s serious.

The house is quieter, but in a good way.

“There, now. Everything’s gonna be alright.”  

If these walls could talk, they’d be smiling.