Every weekday morning, I get a text message that reads:
I’m going up the mountain. If you don’t hear from me by 6, text me. If you don’t hear from me by 6:30, call me. If you don’t hear from me by 7:30, call the research center. If you don’t hear from me by 8, call search and rescue.
It’s from my youngest son, George, who has a summer internship with an ecological research program in the high-elevation mountains in Boulder County. The times in his text change every day, but the message is the same. And the “call search and rescue” line is always as alarming.
This boy has always been an explorer. As a toddler, I’d find him dismantling bookshelves, taking his toys apart to see how they worked, pushing buttons and pulling levers that he’d been told not to touch. He was a LEGO master. He could assemble advanced sets in record time, and he couldn’t get enough of them. He loved working with his hands, noticing the little things that everyone else passed by. One Christmas, we bought him used electronics from a thrift store so he could take them apart and examine their innards, oohing and ahhing over every new discovery.
George was also my cuddler. He always wanted to be near me, touching me, underfoot, sitting in my lap. He was all bony elbows and knees then, and I’d tell him to stop wiggling because he was hurting me. He’s told me as an adult that he can remember his legs and arms falling asleep because he tried so hard not to move. That he didn’t want me to make him get off my lap. That revelation broke me a little. I wish I had a few of those days back, to hold him and let him wiggle to his heart’s content. But at that point in my motherhood journey, I was tired and stressed. Four babies in five years is no joke, and although I loved them all so much it felt like my heart might explode, I was also exhausted. And probably more than crabby. He’s 6’3” now, and I’m pretty sure sitting on his mom’s lap is the last thing on his mind, but I think about his sweet toddler face, and it makes my heart skip a beat.
When George first asked if I would be his emergency contact for the summer, he approached me carefully. “I don’t want you to be stressed out, but I thought you might be less stressed out if you knew everything that was happening every day.”
“You’re right, G,” I said. “I do want to know everything that’s happening.”
But I must admit that it’s stressful. There’s a two-hour time difference between us, so I start checking my texts around 5:00 EST every day. When he sends the text that he’s “Back in Boulder,” I give it a heart emoji, and I breathe a little easier.
But as stressful as it might be, it’s also so incredibly exciting. This kid is living his best life on the mountain. When he’s not working, he loves to hike and look at plants and rocks. Now he gets paid to do what he loves. It’s the perfect fit for him, and I try to be happy that he’s been trained in first aid and mountain rescue and various and sundry other survival tactics. I like to think about the fact that he’s well-prepared, not the fact that he needed to take those courses in the first place because his job presents an array of different dangers every day.
He told me some of the greatest risks are lightning and mountain lions. He’s a tall kid, so the lightning is a scary thought. And I don’t even think about the mountain lions. I mean, he’s fast, but not mountain-lion-fast. The research center has a “TundraCam” that I visit multiple times a day. If the weather looks ominous, my anxiety level rises. On beautiful, sunny days, I think about how happy he must be, on top of a mountain, wind in his hair, examining flora and fauna.
He sends me pictures of flowers regularly. When I ask what they are, I get answers like “Eritrichium nanum” when I’m expecting something more along the lines of “bluebells.” (His work is way above my pay grade.)
When he told me last year that he wanted to switch his major from violin performance to ecology, he was nervous. He’s an exceptionally talented kid, and when you build that kind of legacy for yourself, I think it’s hard to step away. But the program wasn’t fulfilling him any more, and he didn’t want to lose his love for the instrument and the music. What filled his cup was the mountains. It was nature. It was hiking and discovering rocks and moss and identifying flowers. It was the great outdoors with his rescue dog, Henry, by his side. How could I be anything but happy that he’d found his great calling? Shouldn’t we all be so lucky?
My boy will always be an amazing musician. And although it’s much more calming for me to sit in a concert hall and listen to him play than it is for me to think about him on a mountain top surrounded by lightning and mountain lions, there is nothing I want more than his happiness. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for my kids: happy, fulfilled lives. And their lives are about them, not about me.
The four of them are vacationing with their father and his new family next week, and my kids are taking a little side journey to a nearby national park where they’ll hike and camp. I asked George if he thought everyone was prepared. I mean, not all of them hike more than ten miles a day like he does.
“It’s all good, Mom,” he said. “We’re not hiking a fourteener or anything like that. And if something happens, I’m thoroughly trained in first aid.” He continued, “I mean, I can stop heavy bleeding and splint things. The truth is, if someone has a potentially fatal injury far out in the wilderness, chances are they’re not going to make it.”
(Sidebar: I wish he’d just stopped at “I’m thoroughly trained in first aid.”)
I mean, I’ve spent my entire life doing my best to keep these kids fed and bathed and clothed and safe and loved. Now it’s their turn. I’ve got to let them go; got to let them live; got to let them find their own happiness. They’re out there in the world on their own, but for a glorious week, the four of them will have each other. They’ll laugh and joke and drink lots of beer and they’ll probably argue and say mean things as siblings do, but what a gift they’ll have to be together again.
And where they’re going, there are no mountain lions. So I’m breathing a little sigh of relief.