Recently, I went to visit my son, currently serving in the Navy. He just returned from his first deployment, having entered the Navy right out of high school.
And here’s the thing: early on, this kid was written off as stupid. Just because he had a different way of seeing the world, he was considered unworthy of a ordinary seat in an ordinary classroom. That meant he was pushed aside, given far less challenges than other students. He got bored and acted out. Luckily, his parents (me and my ex) knew better than to give in. With extra help from us, tutors and whatever our school district could provide, he eventually caught up.
We also nurtured his sense of adventure. My parents lived at the New Jersey shore, where I grew up. Every time we went to visit, we couldn’t pull Son out of the water or off the beach. Never got seasick, either. He fished, dug in the sand, wandered around, ever curious about what lurked over the next jetty or dune.
Museums of every kind held his interest. Loved exploring the galleries in natural history museums as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It fascinated him to see what the ancient Egyptians were up to, or the Romans, or the British. A talented artist, he appreciated whatever graced the walls, be it a Botticelli or an Erte.
Son always harbored a fantasy about seeing the world via the oceans and other assorted waterways. So naturally, when the Navy showed up at his high school, he expressed interest. Six weeks after he graduated, he entered Boot Camp and never looked back. Now he serves as a helmsman on an aircraft carrier. Although COVID-19 hindered his ability to play tourist in the countries his ship visited, he considered himself very lucky to travel there anyway. So much for his early teachers writing him off.
As I drove down, I thought of the journey of his achievement. My sister joined me on this trip, because I didn’t want to go alone. From time to time, we’d think of something Son did that was utterly brainless or a stroke of genius. Mostly, these stories made us laugh. But it also reminded me of my own particular journey.
It’s tough letting go of a marriage, even though something inside of you knew it was dying. Part of that is the family you’ve become. Father, Mother, Son, Cat. We were a unit, bound by love. Until we weren’t. Father dropped off first. Then Cat (poor thing!). Son left to live with Father, and I started a new journey on my own. Alone, I traveled a new world of job insecurity, rough finances, a cranky old house in a new town. Like Son, I started out on a new adventure, except I wasn’t looking for one.
But somehow, Son and I wound up at the same place, on the shores of a new life.
There’s a big homecoming ceremony at the Naval base, set up to welcome 3000+ sailors and officers back from their journey. My sister and I skipped it, on the advice of Son. It was blazing hot and we’d have to take a shuttle bus. That, and just try to pick out anyone in a sea of identical white dress uniforms. Son met us at our hotel instead, where he’d join us for a couple of days. Since I hadn’t seen Son since December 2019, I was a bit emotional and squeezed the life out of him. My sister got a little teary-eyed too.
After dinner, Son and I took a walk. He wanted to know how I was doing. He was concerned about me. How did I manage to keep myself in one piece through the COVID lockdown. I was truthful with him. Said I nearly cracked up. Was I lonely, he asked. Yes, desperately so. He asked me a lot of questions about the dissolution of my marriage. I gave honest answers. Son said it hurt to see a house of laughter dissolve. How our home went from familial to fraught. But when faced with a frightening situation, you have to figure a way out if you want to survive. Starting over in one’s fifties is rough, but not impossible. And I’m proof it can be done.
Son talked about adjusting to life on a ship, where privacy is a concept (he shares a space with 40 men), work hours constantly shift, the food sucks and there’s no wifi for video games. He misses seeing his family. Yet, he’s traveled halfway around the world. When COVID lets up, he’ll see more. He plans to make a career out of the Navy and see where it takes him. He’s living his dream. At least for now, he thinks.
I smile. Just standing next to him makes me beam with pride. How can this little boy become a man so quickly? The same way I’m growing more confident about myself. We’re both on our life journeys, unsure of where we’ll end up but somehow reaching sunnier shores.