THE ONLY CHILD
From The Checkpoint Podcast (May 2020)
by Mary Volmer
My son, Owen, is lonely. The thought woke and kept me up most of the night. The irony, if you call it that, is that five weeks ago I had been worried that he was over-scheduled and too dependent on other people for company and entertainment. He is an only child, but we live in an apartment in a first year residence hall at Saint Mary’s College. On a normal day he is surrounded by young people who are mostly happy to stop what they’re doing to play and talk with him. Where we live, he’s everybody’s little brother. Then there was school, of course. First grade with Mrs. Strohmeyer. Baseball three times a week. Chess on Tuesdays. There were hours at the afterschool club, playing complicated made-up games with other silly, loud, impulsive, kids. Now, he’s stuck with his dad and I, and we are not enough.
I feel like a new parent, again. I feel the same uncertainty and exhaustion. The same desperate love. We have cocooned ourselves away from the world, nursing this new life until it’s safe to go out again. But what will we find when we do? Who will we be? Each morning we “do” school. Owen’s dad and I trade off hours at the office. We both work at night. Tag team parenting. Together we play catch on the chapel lawn, and dribble basketballs down the colonnades listening to the offbeat echo of the ball.
Gone is the crush of students in the halls between classes. Gone, the clatter of voices in the dining hall and student union. There’s no music in the quad. A few students remain in townhouses across campus. A skeleton crew of custodians maintain the facilities. The administrators, like squirrels are always here, and always mysteriously busy. The brothers continue their devotions. The turkeys rut, and the doe with the dark patch on her forehead has twice brought her twin fawns around to the patch of grass behind our building to say hello.
But most of the time, we are alone together. When alone I find myself touching both of my men on the shoulders, on the knees, on the head (which Owen hates). I hug him when he lets me. I touch them because I can and because I didn’t understand, before, the luxury of touch.
Owen knows the world has changed. He feels the threat of it, but is too young to mistake the change for a personal insult, unlike some adults I know. He disappears into origami projects. He is learning magic from a YouTube star, one of those perpetually pubescent men with a channel of their own. We ZOOM with his teacher, and with his friends, and with his cousin Brogan with whom he falls about in giggle fits to fart jokes. Alone, in his bedroom, he has long heartfelt conversations with his stuffed elephant. He’s discovering new worlds inside himself, which is wonderful; but with it I feel in him a sense of loss and fear that wasn’t there before.