For his 17th birthday, my older son asked for a trip to Fargo, N.D.
A rigidly logical and uniquely random boy, he had first consulted the road atlas he received last Christmas and keeps by his bedside to read in comforting bits, like a book of poetry. Then he went online and brought up a colorful Yahoo map so he could chart each area within a 300-mile radius.
After considering the options for a couple days, he chose Fargo because it is exactly four hours from our home in Minneapolis, because it is to the west -- in the direction of Seattle, which he very much wants to visit -- and because he had never been there. I was making dinner when he shuffled into the kitchen, head averted, and presented the request to me in his typically desultory way: spiraling from his desire to leave town and practice driving on the highway to the fact that we could stay in a hotel, have pizza for dinner and shop for new jeans with a 34-inch inseam. "I've decided," he spoke into his shoulder. "For my birthday, on Saturday, if you don't have too much work to do, and you think it wouldn't be too far, I'd like to go to Fargo."
I took a sip of wine, half a dozen questions fighting for space in my head. We couldn't have pizza here? Are you sure you want to go north in winter? How much homework do you have this weekend? Couldn't you find some place closer? And, Fargo? Why?
I opened my mouth to ask. But luckily, by the grace of some passing ghost or because I'd been slowed infinitesimally by the wine, I actually paused before speaking. I looked up -- nearly a foot to the face of the man-size person he has become -- and saw that my son's eyes were darting, the way they do when he is nervous. He'd researched, made a decision and spoken it aloud. This had cost him.
So instead, I turned toward the stove, pushing down the impatience that rose inside me and stretched like some stubborn jungle cat whenever I thought of an entire weekend's worth of writing, housework and spinning classes lost so that we might drive through miles of flat, ice-covered fields in order to reach ... Fargo. I pictured a town as brown and inelegant as its name, squat buildings like fortresses, a constant buffeting wind. "You're sure?" I asked. "That's what you want?"
He nodded, timidly. I stirred the spaghetti sauce and worked to gentle my voice. "OK, that sounds good. We'll leave early, get some breakfast on our way out of town." I was envisioning the New York-style coffee bar in Uptown -- our final glimpse of civilization, not to mention the last decent espresso I'd get all weekend. "Make sure you pack your homework. And your swimming suit. I'll try to find a hotel with a pool."
He drew a deep breath and coughed, the way he often does before speaking. "That sounds nice," he said, then nodded exactly twice and tucked his head between his broad shoulders. The blond curls he's had since he was a baby had grown thick and wild; they were creeping down his cheeks into the beginning of a beard. I made a mental note to get him a haircut and shave in Fargo. We probably would find an old-fashioned barbershop there, and if nothing else, it would kill an hour.
He shuffled toward the stairs, bound for the bedroom where an antiquated double-tape-deck stereo hangs, speakers spread like bat wings, above his desk. But at the door, he turned around and faced me, eyes raised to meet mine with something that resembled confidence. "I like Perkins," he said. "For breakfast."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
In an early review of my first novel, Garrison Keillor called it "a story of mother love and ferocity and doggedness." A close friend of mine read the quote on Amazon.com and sent me the following message: "Congratulations! Great blurb. Fierce and dogged ... I couldn't have said it better. He sure nailed you!"
"No, he nailed her," I responded. "He was referring to the mother in my book. I've never even met Garrison Keillor." But, of course, we both knew that wasn't the point.
I spent my 20s scrapping like a street fighter. First there was the matter of supporting three babies who came before my husband and I were ready, then the sudden, horrifying withdrawal of our older son when he was not quite 4 years old. I rejected the initial diagnosis of autism, certain there was a way to restore the bright, beautiful child who had suddenly become vacant and mute, chewing on his clothes and gazing at a palm that he flapped in front of his face like a delicate bird. For years, I sought alternative treatments -- biofeedback, nutritional therapy, chiropractic and kinesthesia -- and charged into schools demanding, no matter how impenetrable his stony silence seemed, that my son be treated like any other child.
Outwardly, of course, he wasn't at all like other children. While they ran and played, he curled in on himself like a possum, averting his head, chanting the same few syllables over and over under his breath. But he was in there, I was certain, locked away but reachable, and relentlessness seemed to be the key. At home, I held him and sang to him and read him poetry. When he became rigid about his routine, I purposely upset it, serving him his dinner backward with dessert at the beginning and salad at the end. Moving his toy cars into a circle each time he arranged them in a perfectly straight line. And, very slowly, the barriers his mind had established dissolved and a child unlike any I had ever met before began to emerge.
This boy was tentative and unpredictable. He spoke in fragments, struggling to make himself understood with odd clumps of words that didn't necessarily form meaning. His eyes darted wildly, rarely meeting ours. And he seemed puzzled by everything: Shoelaces and scissors confounded him. At 8, he could not pedal a bicycle or kick a ball or follow the plot of a fairy tale. Still, I was certain if I worked fast enough, hard enough, he could be retrieved and retrained in time to catch up with his peers.
His brother and sister were brought up in this determined atmosphere. I enlisted their help, even as I watched vigilantly for signs that they, too, might suddenly vanish inside themselves. Neither did. But they learned, early on, exactly what my rabid style of mothering meant, how immovable a force I could be. Very quickly, the younger ones became my protégés: each had methods for reaching his or her older brother -- reading aloud to him at night under the guise of doing their homework, taking his hand when we were out in public, prompting him to answer when a neighbor said hello. For years, they clung to him nearly as fiercely as did his father and I.
Then, one day, I realized our work was mostly done. By the age of 12, my older son was back -- not "typical," in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders sense, but quirky and funny and quiet and odd. He could stretch his hand out and stay so still, a butterfly would land on it and quiver there for a moment before flying away. He struggled with reading and daily conversation but excelled at math, music and chess. It was time for us to let him become who he was and go back to our own lives, which the children did with great grace. But I was lost. There was fight left in me and it percolated, making me constantly uncomfortable. That store of energy I'd invested in the project of mothering seemed endless. So I upended my life -- all of our lives -- enrolling in graduate school, pouring all of my leftover zeal into teaching and reading and publishing, plus early mornings spent writing a book.
Odd things happen in a family when the people in it change: There are repercussions. But unlike ripples in a pond or dominoes falling in series, they occur in an unpredictable and random way, more like sudden thunderclaps than answering echoes. There was, first, the move to a new city, and the adjustment to a household in which the mother left each day rather than hovering; then the abrupt end of a marriage that had been, according to everyone who knew us, destined to last forever. No matter what happened, I plunged ahead, moving twice more with my children in tow, taking a full-time job in journalism, becoming infamous for my freakish productivity -- producing four or five feature articles a month plus assorted essays and stories. Time passed and I convinced myself that doggedness was my trademark, necessary and admirable. Never mind that I was perpetually alone inside my ceaseless whirl.
The week of my son's birthday had been particularly dispiriting. Monday, the trainer at my gym had ordered me to take a couple of days off, saying my body needed a chance to rest. Tuesday, the editor of the magazine where I work had asked me to join him for lunch and suggested that I work from home more often. "You're just not ..." He began, then drained his water glass and stared at the ceiling for a few seconds. "You're not an office sort of person. The truth is, we all find your level of activity a little, uh, disruptive."
I listened politely to both of them. But inside, the whole time, I was screaming, scared stiff and full of righteous pride. "I sleep five hours a night! I'm a single mom raising three kids, working full time, writing every morning before dawn! Don't tell me to slow down."
The morning of our Fargo trip, I slept past 7 o'clock and did not go to the gym. I felt coiled inside my clothes and was silent as we threw our overnight bags into the back of the van. We drove directly to Starbucks, and the 24-ounce cup of coffee helped; there was that sudden unknotting and clarity that always comes with the first rush of caffeine. By the time we'd been on the road for 10 minutes or so, I could speak. But there was little need.
He was driving: this boy who was born on a frigid evening in February, entering the world soundlessly, large and wide-eyed and wise. And he was playing the tapes he'd brought, filed by year of origin in the side pocket of his suitcase. His current project is cataloging the hits of the 1980s -- the era in which I myself was 17 -- so we listened to Chicago and the Electric Light Orchestra. Billy Ocean, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. When the theme from "Ghostbusters" came on, I felt, briefly, almost light.
It was a clear day. And when we followed the sloping road north into St. Cloud, the streets were clean and empty but for a boxy mail truck parked cockeyed in front of a shuttered storefront downtown. We opened the doors and our van filled with the lemony early-morning sun.
"Do you know of a place where we could get breakfast?" I asked the mail carrier as he approached, a small bearded man whose arms were full of envelopes.
"Me? I'd go to Perkins." He grinned straight up at my son, who nodded at the man, twice, and turned to stare at the sky. "They can feed a big boy like yours."
We left our car and walked over. It was one of those mornings where the quality of light can trick you, its intense yellow making you feel warmer than you really are. Inside we sat in a booth, facing each other over a scarred Formica tabletop. We ordered: monstrous muffins and eggs still slippery from a grill shellacked with years' worth of industrial-quality oil, hash browns crisped and coated with ketchup.
"I'm trying to talk more," my son abruptly volunteered. The dining room was staticky with midmorning noise -- babies chattering, tables of women laughing, couples shuffling large sheets of newspaper back and forth between them -- but his voice pierced through all of it, low and clear. He'd eaten his breakfast quickly and I'd given him mine to finish. He picked up my fork and wiped it carefully with his napkin, turned his head and coughed, then cleared his throat and returned to the plate but stopped, fork aloft, to look at me. I tried not to move. "It's hard," he said, finally.
I struggled to find an answer. But he was still, holding my eyes in a rare and brave way, forging contact through the air over the tabletop. And I realized he had not asked a question but simply stated a fact. I nodded and he nodded back, then bowed his head over my eggs.
I have studied and battled and revered this child. The main character in my novel is not precisely my son: Things happen to Edward (the boy in my story) that did not occur in real life. But it is certainly my older son's spirit that carries the book, his profound remove and sense of quiet. The way he hovers, perplexed but dignified, on the edge of this tangled, noisy world.
The mother of my imagining also was wild to help her son; she loved him with a fury I know all too well. And in some moments we are the same person, she and I. When he was 7, I taught my son to write his name despite one teacher's saying he never would, and my characters relived this scene in painfully accurate detail. I lost a marriage along the way, and it was easy to attribute the divorce to the stresses we'd faced as parents. Yet, there is also the specter of my husband's voice, maybe a few weeks before he left, speaking in a tight whisper: "No matter what happens, you never stop pushing your way through! You are absolutely relentless. How does a person live with that?"
And this is where fiction comes in. Because in the book, my narrator reaches the same frenzied peak I did, but then she softens and somehow heals herself. There is an end, a point at which she is, finally, nearly as quiet and forgiving and gentle as the child. In life, however, I must keep learning his lessons over and over again.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
We are walking, the real boy and I, along a sidewalk in Fargo. The sun has stayed with us all day, but now, finally, it is beginning to wane, turning to the luminous white that precedes dusk -- a wide, empty slate of sky.
This town is nothing like I had assumed it would be. There are galleries and restaurants, a perfectly restored art deco theater, a hotel where a local sculptor constructed a wall from pieces of history: a sheet of yellowed newspaper, an old-fashioned bedpost, the shard of a 1920s-era ceramic bowl. We move in silence side by side, though every 10 strides or so he must pause so I can catch up.
He has already found the pizza place where he wants to have dinner. When I ask where he'd like to go for cake afterward, he shrugs and says, "I've never really liked it when there is cake." I take a breath and begin to argue, then stop, because suddenly I'm remembering this boy at 5 -- sitting at a table in the reflected glow of burning candles, surrounded by people on all sides, staring at the floor and cringing as we began to sing. I exhale, and let go of the cake.
On the far northwest corner of Fargo's six-square-block downtown, there is a narrow, recessed building, painted midnight blue, with the words "Taste of Seattle" written in script over the solid oak door. He notices this and stands still. "I'd like to go in there," he says, and without another word, we do.
Inside there are wrought-iron tables with lamps and books and tapestries in a tie-dye swirl of colors and framed photographs and bottles of simple syrup lined up above a copper espresso machine. On the back wall is a cityscape, familiar to both of us, though we have not yet been -- the tall buildings and omnipresent clouds, the Space Needle with its disk and spire. There is a chess set waiting on a low table, and after we order our lattes and take them, steaming in heavy cups, from the slick marble bar, we sit on either side of the board.
"I'll play," I say to him. "But I'm not very good. You'll have to help me."
He takes a sip of coffee and stares at me for a full 30 seconds. I see something in his eyes like a door opening and catch a glimpse of the boy I've been chasing for 10 years. Settling back in my chair, body loose, I breathe in the mocha scent and give him time to think. "It isn't right to tell you how to move," he says slowly. "But I'll tell you if you do something wrong, and maybe you can take it back."
"That's all I can ask," I say. And I advance my knight's pawn two spaces.