My son is walking across the campsite, carrying a burning stick toward a huddle of ducks at the beach’s edge. Flames blow into the wind from his makeshift torch. “What are you doing?” I ask. Without even glancing my way, he shouts, “Nothing” and continues marching on towards the ducks.
This is 12.
We are camping in Vermont at a campground that has special meaning to us. We discovered it as a mother-son team four years ago, when he was eight. He had just earned his very first jackknife, and I rewarded him with a trip to a secluded campground where he could whittle away at every tree branch he encountered. We’ve been coming back every year since, and this is the first time we have arrived again as a mother-son duo, without father or sisters. As we set up the campsite, he argues with me about whether a long-sleeve shirt underneath his sweatshirt will actually keep him any warmer. I realize we may be in for a different kind of experience this year.
On this trip, instead of a jackknife, he has a new hatchet. After a short banter, I win the “Can I throw it at the lean-to” argument (definitive decision = no). Instead, he works up a sweat attempting to chop up a pine log that has been cut down by park rangers. His fluorescent yellow sweatshirt hoods his head, and a pair of sunglasses protect his eyes while his arms flail up and down furtively against the pine log.
Out for a hike, he sticks his flat brim hat atop my head and giggles, “You got swagger, Mom.” I laugh and break into a gangsta-style swagger, with a bounce in my step, exaggeratedly swinging my shoulders. “Oh my god, stop,” he declares, his joy quickly turning to horror. “That is not swagger. You are so embarrassing. Stop it!” He looks around to make sure nobody is watching. We are in the middle of the dense Vermont wilderness—nobody is around for miles.
Later in the afternoon, he flies by me on his bike as I work at pedaling up a hill, laughing at how slow I am. But further up the hill when his chain falls off, and I keep pedaling past him, he starts screaming indignities about how neglectful of a mother I am—that I cannot even stop and make sure he is okay.
This is 12.
He argues with me about wearing shoes. Brushing his teeth. Pooping in the woods. Eating vegetables. Filling the water. Farting in the tent. He is admirably relentless about defending the wrong in order to vindicate himself from being anything like me, not knowing how very like me that character trait is. He is so determined not to be like me, that after he catches four marshmallows in a row on fire and I kindly offer him one of my perfectly fawn-tan-toasted, gooey-middled ones, he sighs. Rolls his eyes. “I guess so,” he mutters and sticks out his hand as though I am forcing him to devour live insects. It is painful for him to actually eat the marshmallow.
He lies around in the camp chair complaining about how tired he is when I suggest we get out for a canoe ride. He groans when I make him walk before dinner. He’s so tired. He’s too tired to read or walk or bike or paddle or hike or get wood. I just don’t get it. But when I settle down in my own camp chair after dinner to read, he starts thumping away on the picnic table, dancing and rapping out a “You got owned” song over and over and over again. Because yes, he just beat me in his first game of cribbage ever. He struts around like a goose, crowing in repetition. He starts messing around with the hatchet again. He jumps and pushes himself off from rocks and tree stumps. He beats his hands on the lean-to, logs, the water container, his chest. He repeats “you got owned” until I want to take the hatchet and use it to adhere the hood of his sweatshirt against a tree so he can no longer dance around.
This is 12.
My little boy who once so openly adored me is masked by pre-teen, eye-rolling, heavy-sighing adolescence. Before we left for camping, he—the very boy who comes to life in the woods and atop mountains—said to me in the whiniest of voices, “Mom, I don’t even like camping.” I raised an eyebrow at him. He paused. “…during the school year,” he hesitantly tacked on.
Mothering this child has never been easy, especially now, and camping with him takes a special kind of patience. This is not the first 12-year-old I have raised, so I happen to know that if I wait out the eye-rolling and sighing, the child he really is will indeed bubble back up to the top in a few (six) years. But I also know that if I stay calm and watch carefully, I will be graced with rare, precious glimpses of him in the meantime. Although looking for those moments is sometimes like staying up all night to see the Northern Lights.
We are in the tent, huddled together on this 30-something degree night under a hundred pounds of blankets, getting ready to read chapter 21 in The Da Vinci Code. He giggles a bit as I adjust the flashlight to see the pages. “What’s so funny?” I ask him. He lifts the blankets and a rancid smell fills the tent. “Seriously?” I snap at him. “There are no stinky farts in the tent.”
“Bummer for you,” he giggles more. “It might be a long night, then.”
This is 12.
I begin reading to him. Four chapters later, he signals that he is ready to fall asleep. “Can you read more tomorrow?” he whispers, his eyes half shut. “Of course,” I answer. Then he turns his still-young body into mine, puts his head on my shoulder, wraps his foot around my foot, and reaches over for my hand. He squeezes it tight and then hangs on while the day’s adventures and exacerbations twitch out of him. “Thank you,” he whispers. “I love you.” He falls asleep, and I dare not move, lest I disrupt his snuggling, his gratitude, or his sweetness. It is one of those rare glimpses where I’m terrified that any motion I make could end it as unexpectedly as it came on. I hold my breath while his finds its gentle, rhythmic pace of sleep, his face unwrinkled and at peace.
I close my own eyes and decide that this is what I would like to remember today: a herd of scared ducks running from a torch, a stinky fart trapped in an impermeable nylon tent, and a boy who, in the frail, truthful moments of falling asleep, admits that he loves his mother.
Because this is 12.