Cambria at Thirteen by Jan Richman

I have always felt secretly selfish about my own compassion for others. My instant tearing at someone else's loss, or sadness, or agonizing over something to do with family; anyone's family. It's not that I feel for them, but that I feel. It is a personal fear that sets in: It could be me; it could be my daughter who is lost forever, my little boy who has disappeared, my heart that is broken. People call me a 'bleeding heart.' I feel that I am fooling the world.
When I adopted my daughter, she was 9 years old and very troubled. That could be a cliché, but nothing about children seems to be clichéd anymore. And her background before coming to me was horrific in every way imaginable. But instead of becoming clichéd, it all falls into its own patterns and becomes the energy and spirit of the child who it is all about. It, of course, being the life that is being lived. The first night we spent together, we were driving in my car and Rod Stewart's "Do You Think I'm Sexy" came on the radio. When the words, "If you really need me, just reach out and touch me" came on, she reached over, poked me with her finger and said, "I really do, you know." And struck by how incisive and risky her decision to utter such a compelling confession was, I responded just as unthinkingly by reaching out and poking her in her leg and saying, "I really do, too." It was my own confession.
Twenty three years later, after many years of estrangements and reconciliation's, we are once again estranged and I am raising her thirteen year old son who has been with me for the most part since he was born. I am his legal guardian. I am his grandmother. I am the only consistent parent he has known. He doesn't like the fact of it, although he loves me every bit as much as I love him, but he lives with it in his own way; sadly, angrily, lovingly.
For the past five or six years we have gone every year to Cambria for the only vacation I could afford as a working single parent. Each year, we go to the same place and do the same things. Each year it was completely different than the year before, he changes as rapidly as I blink. As he grows, as his intellect expands, as his vocabulary develops and rounds into more adult words and verses, so do our discussions of the world. The world of Cambria was always special, but I knew that this year, the year he is thirteen, it might be the last time he would agree to go on a vacation with me, teenagers viewing the adults in their lives with incredible disdain and distaste. With my new husband (of one year) visiting his relatives in Chicago, Gary and I set out on our planned vacation alone together in Cambria.
As we drive, he tells me of his love of fishing. He tells me that Cambria is no longer a big deal because he has been living on the ocean the past few months as a "pinhead" -- an unpaid crew member on sportfishing boats. He makes it sound grown up and unconcerned. But I know that he is feeling the same as me: This trip is a test to see if we can still connect. I don't mean it to be a test, but it feels that way. Have I already lost him, I wonder, to that terrible land of teenagerhood? Does all his anger at me signal an end to our special ways of communicating, of being in touch, of finding the magic in the world around us? Lately, it seems that our lives revolve around our anger: his at me for not being who he wants me to be: his mother, his buddy, younger, healthier, stronger, a friend to his mother. Me at him for not letting me go on being the parent in his life who was enough for so long. He blows up easily, he yells, I yell back. We hurl accusations at each other, hurting each other and hating the hurting. But still, the satisfaction gained in the moment of having the last loud word makes the yelling worth it for that instant until you hear the response. We both show remorse, apologize, move on. It has become our routine and it makes me question everything I think I know.
During the ride, Gary reminds me of some of the music we listened to in previous years, previous rides to Cambria. "Buffalo Soldiers! Coming to America!" he sings. "I Shot the Sheriff! But I Did Not Shoot the Deputy!"
I am astonished. "I can't believe you remember those songs! That was Bob Marley!"
"I know that, gramma!" he exclaims with dripping disdain at the obviousness of my statement. He launches into the theme songs then from many of the TV shows and videos he watched as a toddler and as a pre-teen, including the ever-hateful Barney. Oh my God. I never even watched that show with him, but he explains that he watched it with his sister on some of his visits with his mother. My daughter. He gets to "Winnie the Pooh," and I feel myself soften and get teary.
The indestructible video that was played and rewound so many times, the sound was starting to get warbly. I don't let him see me so that he will keep on singing, so that we build the memory on top of the memories, so that it becomes solid and tangible and will continue on in the years when he won't be so willing to sing them.
How do I compare my feelings for Gary to his feelings for me? Mine come from above, as if I am multi-stories of a building looking down on a small stone, so high, so high, the stone tiny and vulnerable. I look down on my love for him. It spreads out, is all encompassing, unjudgemental, fully committed, protective; it is a forever and universal love. His, as I see it, is from the view of the stone, small, helpless, directed upward, focused. And splintered. Because to love me is to betray his mother and to love his mother is to betray me and he is caught loving us both. We are the adults, the buildings in his life. We look down to protect, but tear him apart. He manipulates and begs and pleads with both of us for his way in any given situation. I am easier. I give in. His mother says no and hangs up the phone. I am here, in his face. He can crush my heart with a word and he knows it. So he does it. He is more careful with his mother. She doesn't mind his anger or fear it as I do. He has no leverage there.
But we are in Cambria now and Cambria always brought cleansing and peace and calm. Will it still? Will the rolling surf and the rocks jutting through the sea foam and the sea lions sunbathing on the jagged edges of those rocks, and the glinting stones and shells find their way through all of the angst we have endured through the years, and especially now, and help us find a way back to each other? Is there magic in the magic? I am hopeful, but doubtful. He whines a little during the trip, but for the most part is anticipatory and eager.
We arrive and the motel is as we remembered it. The pool and the jacuzzi only steps from our room. The road for us to take down to the tide pools still directly across the street. The owner with the same Scottish accent as in the years previous. Unadorned rooms. Simple, but perfect for us. We are a couple of travelers who have traveled this road before and love the road just as we found it. We are not looking for surprises or new challenges. We want everything to be the same, so that we can be.
"I wanna -- let's go -- can we?" He doesn't know what to ask first. "We'll put the stuff in our room and go swimming for awhile," I say. He's okay with that. "Afterwards, can we eat at the barbeque grill? I'm not hungry yet." He announces. We swim. We race each other and play catch with his baseball cap. A baseball cap that denotes some teenage message that I have never heard of (and am afraid to ask about), but which has nothing whatsoever to do with baseball. It doesn't matter because we fold it into itself so that it becomes compact and once sopped with water, heavy enough to make an adequate throwing device. It brings splatters of water with every catch.
"Throw it short!" he yells. I do and he rises out of the water like a young god, water spraying in every direction , the sun glinting off his shoulders and arms, his hair golden in the light, his teeth gleaming almost blindingly as he laughs with the unbridled joy of the young. That he can take so much pleasure from such a simple action instills me with wonder and joy. He is a beautiful child. He is half child, half man and nothing describable at this stage in his life. But for now, he is happy and that means everything is right in the world. We play for a while, racing and catching and laughing. I carry him in the water and he carries me and we laugh knowing that out of the water it is no longer possible for me to lift him, nor will I ever be able to lift him again. He is now able to lift me easily and that's scary enough for us both. The afternoon sun soon falls behind the Cambria cypress and the shadows begin to form and design their patterns on the poolside deck.
That evening, after dinner, we walk through the West Village and stop in the Soldier Store where he buys himself a crystal necklace that is to bring him luck with his fishing. He puts his arm around my shoulders like a protective son. He is so much taller than me already, and so much larger in every way. At home he will not allow me to kiss him goodbye in front of his friends when I drop him off at school. But here, he will put his arm around me, or hold my hand and repeatedly tell me he loves me. He is at peace and he is feeling safe. We walk quietly, luxuriating in the comfort we have found. Whatever Cambria will be in the future, it remains here and now as our present.
I look at the crystal necklace and see that it is an eagle sitting atop a multi-colored crystal on a long silver chain. He has used his own money to buy it and it was an expensive purchase for him. But he loves it and the crystal is beautiful. I hope that it will bring him luck with whatever he is doing and that it will keep him out of harm's way and ease his growing up and my fears about him. For now, for this time in Cambria, we have done it. We have passed through the anger and the struggle and the sadness and found the peace and contentment of our love for each other.
He is my grandson, sometimes little boy, sometimes young man, half immature, half incredibly mature and knowledgeable and I never know who he will be from one moment to the next. But right now, I know him to be my grandson. The same child, the same person he has been for all these thirteen years. And my heart swells and I know only that I love him beyond anything I ever thought possible. I feel my life through looking at him and know that I am a better person for his having been in my life. Whatever I was before, I am what I am today because he has brought the gift of his childhood to me and what an incredibly wonderful gift it has been.
"What are you thinking about Gramma," he asks me, as I 'fizzle out' on him. "You, my sweetfaced boy. I'm thinking about you as usual." He squirms with embarrassment, although there is that element of pleasurable self-consciousness in it and I know that no matter what, he wants me always to be thinking of him. Some things do not change and hopefully, they never will.