The heavy geode that sits on my desk is the size of a grapefruit and shaped like a jagged bowl, with a distinct concave hollow, as though the rock once held something precious in its center. Its dull brown casing could be that of any rock. But on a sunny day, its inner mineral layers glitter like a freshly cleaned mirror.
The rock was hand delivered to me by my son, Max, when he was 17, after he returned from a three-week Outward-Bound hiking trip in the Colorado Rockies. His therapist recommended the trip, said it would be “good for him,” after a junior year of high school that had gone something like this:
- One arrest for smoking pot in our church parking lot (with the pastor’s son).
- One hospitalization, for heart palpitations and hallucinations after smoking “Black Widow,” -pot laced with amphetamines- with a different friend.
- One D, in English, for refusing to read his folk music essay in front of the class.
- Multiple detentions, for tardiness.
- A general withdrawal: dropping out of wrestling and cross-country to game in dark basements with boys named Pork Chop and Jell-O who did not want to go to college. Max was going to college, or at least that had been the plan.
I’d told the therapist I didn’t feel good about the guys Max was hanging out with.
“He needs to have friends,” he said. “It’s far more important that he knows you guys love and accept him.”
My husband and I tried, the way parents try to help their teenage boys.
We told each other:
- He’s really a good kid.
- Remember when he was the sixth-grade chess champion?
- He just needs to find a real passion- something other than video games.
- The science says boys don’t reach emotional maturity until 26; some studies even say 28! There’s plenty of time.
- He has two high-achieving sisters; maybe he feels different and “not enough”?
- We raised all our kids the same way…didn’t we?
I found myself withdrawing from good friends whose boys were Max’s age, whose sons had been Max’s friends before he met up with the pot smokers. I couldn’t take it, sitting silently in anguish, as my friends discussed visits to prestigious colleges and wondered whether to accept the scholarship at a Division Two school for more playing time or whether National Honor Society was worth the volunteer work. They fretted over problems that were the culmination of hard work, independence and success- when I was worried over my son’s very existence.
Nights were worse. My mind churned in the darkness, fears morphing into terror. Sometimes I would wake up my husband to vent. Scott listened patiently and encouraged me to go back to sleep. He’d recite things the therapist told us, that Max was growing too old to control, that he needed to learn from his mistakes, that this stage would pass. But night’s darkness disagreed, telling me a different story.
I resented Scott’s ability to intellectualize our problem, his faith in the therapist’s advice. I resented that he could sleep.
Sometimes I gave in to my fear, doing exactly what the therapist told me not to do, which was to frantically text Max, searching for reassurance that he wasn’t doing drugs or hanging out with the “bad” friends. I’d lie in bed waiting for a message to light up my screen, a cellular beacon of confirmation that Max was fine, and I could sleep.
Sometimes Max would respond to the texts, but soon he stopped.
“No one else’s mother texts them at 11:00 p.m.,” he’d spit at me. “Justin thinks you’re insane.”
Justin was the friend who had access to the drugs.
I was insane.
The days leading to Max’s Outward-Bound departure were tense. He received a long packing list, including special mountaineering boots and cookware and a fire starter. These were expensive and not easily available in Chicago. We traveled to Denver a day early and rushed to an REI store that carried the boots, and found the rest of the items, including a Rocky Mountain rattlesnake bite kit. The helpful store manager said it was unlikely Max would need it, but “better to be safe.” He told Max to wear the heavy boots for the rest of the day to break them in.
That night, in the hotel room, we packed, unpacked, and repacked Max’s backpack, putting the heavier items in the bottom and the clothing on top, and clipping the sleeping roll to the outside. It weighed over 50 pounds. Max became testy and negative, clomping around in the boots, claiming his therapist had “roped” him into this, and how did we (his parents) even know if Outward Bound was safe?
“Ryan Schmidt’s brother did it, and he hated it,” he stated flatly.
“Maxi,” I said, invoking the childhood nickname that he had outgrown years before. I desperately wanted him to calm down and go to sleep, to let me sleep, and to wake up fresh and ready to start this trip. I told him that Outward Bound had been around for generations, and that I’d gone to high school with kids who went and returned safely. I told him that one of my classmates said it’d been the best experience of her life- though I left out the part about the thick, bloody, non-healing blisters she’d come home with that had required her to wear clogs all year.
I sounded more encouraging than I felt. I had no idea how Max would fare. Growing up, he’d been quick to make friends and try new experiences. He’d walked into the first day of first grade and tackled his teacher with a huge hug. He’d liked summer camps, learning to canoe and take “morning dips,” jumping off the dock into the cold lake with other naked boys to wake up. He’d enjoyed teaching younger kids, and earlier in high school, he’d worked as a volunteer chess camp counselor, teaching kindergarten boys to play chess, inventing fun games and tournaments.
But now, as I gazed down at the piles of camping equipment- rain gear, sleeping bag, meal prep, a first aid kit, anti-diarrheal medicine, the rattlesnake kit- I had to work hard to imagine my son knowing how to use any of these.
The next morning, we waited outside the Denver Hotel Doubletree with other anxious middle-aged parents, three pretty teenage girls (who looked poised and mature), and ten teenage boys, who looked bored and pissed off.
“They were supposed to be here at nine,” Max said.
“They’re only ten minutes late,” I replied, crossing my arms over my roiling stomach.
“I still can’t believe you guys think this is a good idea.”
Max looked down at the ground, twisting the dangling straps of his pack around his thin waist, crossing and retying them. I hoped and prayed he wasn’t crying.
“You’ll be glad you did it,” I said. “Only the tough do Outward Bound.”
“Whatever.” He looked up dry-eyed. “This better not suck.”
At last, three young trail guides, all men, dreaded and tatted, entered the lobby.
“Say goodbye and pile in!” they said and pointed to their pick-up trucks.
Max and I embraced for a minute. Then he pulled away and followed another skinny boy with shaggy hair to the waiting truck. They climbed in.
I watched my son talking to the boy, who laughed at something Max said. I wondered whether the boy knew how to camp and whether they would be friends. I wondered if he smoked pot. I wondered how many of the campers would return more resilient and confident and how many would find trouble.
Finally, the kids rode off like cattle, and I felt my heart move to my throat.
With Max was gone the house was eerily quiet. Outward Bound wouldn’t contact parents unless there was a serious injury, or the camper needed to come home. I knew it was unlikely that Max would come home; he had never been one to give up easily. I wondered if he was miserable, whether he was connecting with his fellow campers, whether he was eating enough, whether he hated us for making him go.
I did not sleep much better than when he was home. I’d lie in bed dreaming of rattlesnakes in police stations and hiking mountainous trails along cliff edges.
Three weeks later, I pulled up at Midway Airport. A slight, stooped figure waited at the curb. The boy looked sort of like Max, but I wasn’t sure. He seemed taller, too thin. But I pulled closer, I recognized the blue rain jacket and the red mountaineering boots.
Garbled parent-speak spewed from my mouth. “Max! You made it! I am so proud of you!”
I clutched my boy into my arms, before realizing I had never smelled anything so nauseatingly horrible in my life.
Max threw his pack into my car and climbed into the front seat. He began digging into his pack. As he unzipped it the stench increased.
“Mom, I found this for you when I was hiking.” He pulled a glittering rock from his smelly backpack, unable to repress a smile.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, cupping the geode in my hands. I turned it over in the light, appreciating its icy crystals, its smooth shell, its weight.
“I can’t believe you lugged this thing all the way home!”
“Yeah, but as we ate the food our packs got lighter. Plus, I lost my canteen.”
After Max had eaten and showered, we emptied his pack in the laundry room, peeling out the damp bedding, stiff clothing, unwashed cookware, and unopened first aid kit. It was impossible to identify the source of the smell.
Finally I asked. “Did you like Outward Bound?”
“It pretty much sucked,” he said. “The guides were clueless and mad at us a lot. Like if we read the map wrong, they would just let us hike for hours in the wrong direction to teach us a lesson.”
“Was that the hardest part?”
“No, the solo challenge.”
This, he explained, involved going off alone for two days, with only water.
“You’re only allowed to return to basecamp if you’re hurt or something.”
“Are you serious?”
“It was optional,” Max said. “But five of us did it.”
“Weren’t you hungry?”
“I was dying. It was freezing so I stayed in my sleeping bag the whole time. I think I was hallucinating, mostly about cheeseburgers. We were supposed to contemplate how we could be better people. I thought about all the people I’ve screwed over.”
I thought about the plastic pot bags that had been left in my car. I thought about the hours in the therapist’s office and the sleepless nights. I thought about my husband at the police station at 3 a.m. to meet our pastor so the boys could be released. I said nothing for fear he would shut down.
Finally, I told him I was proud of him. “Not many people could do that.”
It took most of the day to get through the dirty clothes. In between cleaning up, I wandered around the house, trying to find a special place for the geode. I finally placed it on my desk, where the light of the computer screen caused the rock to dance and cast shadows against the wall, radiating brilliant colors into the dark study.
That evening when I went to get the clean laundry, I noticed Max’s red mountaineering boots, kicked off in the corner, caked with mud. There was a piece of masking tape on the right boot, covering the toe. WOW was written in black marker.
Carrying the basket of clean clothes, I stopped by Max’s room where he was sitting on the floor going through his pictures. He had showered and was wearing gym shorts. I saw that his long legs were covered with red bites. I asked him about the tape.
“Why do your boots say wow on them?”
“It doesn’t say wow, he said. “You’re looking at it upside down. We had to dedicate the solo challenge to someone.”
Anne Glaser is a health care attorney living with her husband outside of Chicago and slowly dedicating more and more of her empty-nesterdom to writing. She has taken several creative non-fiction classes and writes about parenting, Central America, and global health. She loves being a mother to two college students and one recent graduate.
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