“Seventeen” is a mid-70s love song by Janis Ian– horrible in the way all mid-70s love songs are — but with a message and a universality that has earned it a permanent home on my “Sappy Love Songs” playlist. Because seventeen is when we begin to understand ourselves and our place in this world.
I learned the truth at seventeen…
Today, seventeen is also the age of my firstborn.
Seventeen very short years ago, we met Samuel Joseph, the son who would carry on the Willis family name. I recall with striking clarity Chris whispering in my ear — awe and overwhelm and gratitude clouding his voice — as the doctors pulled our first baby from my belly, “It’s Sam. It’s Sam.” We were so young, so ill-equipped to be responsible for lives beyond our own. But Sam chose to make us parents anyway. As the first of four, we all cut our teeth on this family gig together. He made mistakes, we made mistakes, we all learned and grew and became better human beings.
We danced to James Taylor, Sam and I. “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Fire and Rain” were our favorites. I’d swing that chunky baby around in my arms, memorizing his perfect features, breathing in that sweet mixture of Johnson’s Baby Lotion, Desitin, and rice cereal. We took long walks at the Willis family farm, stopping to talk to the cows and gaze at the clouds.
We all grew up together.
When Sam was three, he still wasn’t completely potty-trained. Wise and eloquent with a vocabulary well beyond his years, he’d argue with us about why he shouldn’t have to sit on the potty. We tried rewards when he complied, and we eventually resorted to punishment — taking away a toy every time he willfully stood behind a chair and grunted, “Leave me alone!” When his room was stripped of all but the necessities — a bed, a pillow, his dresser — he looked at us and said, “You can take away all my toys, but you can never take my penis.”
His current job search has felt like potty-training all over again. He’s hemmed, he’s hawed, he’s procrastinated. He’s done just enough to make it look like he’s trying to find a job without actually finding a job. And so, we’ve had to resort to taking away his privileges. Chris just recently stood face-to-face with Sam (looking up slightly because Sam is just a little taller than his Dad), and said, “Son, I still can’t take away your penis. But I can take your car, and that’s just about the same thing.”
That boy. He is still the hardheaded toddler he was fourteen years ago. He is still sensitive and garrulous and whip-smart and lazy. My love for him is same-same, but different. I no longer breathe in the scent of his hair. It’s sweaty now, and his toenails are too long. He doesn’t dance with me in the kitchen anymore. His music is all thumps and bass. But in those rare moments when he lets me wrap my arms around his tall, thin middle, I am taken back. He towers above me as I hold him tightly and think, Stay. Stay.
The dinner table is quieter on the weekends now. Sam and Gus attend Friday night football games, and Chris and I sit down to a meal with just four instead of six. I am anxious and unsettled until they return home — right on the edge of curfew — safely, soundly.
I watch Sam as he sits at the kitchen table, calculator in hand, working his after-school AP Chem and AP Calc magic. Wasn’t it just yesterday we watched Richard Scarry videos together to master the alphabet? Weren’t we just singing the theme song to “Blue’s Clues?” Didn’t we just finish reading “Where the Red Fern Grows” together? We used to dress him in Notre Dame onesies. Now we have an official visit scheduled. There is a very special bottle of Blanton’s Bourbon in the liquor cabinet, a gift given to Sam on the day he was born. In four short years, he’ll open it to celebrate his 21st.
He is growing up, growing away.
And all is as it should be.
But when he says, “Can my friends come over tonight?” I reply, “Yes! Yes! Come here! Bring them here!” And as they play video games in the basement and raid the Halloween candy and laugh with their deep man-voices, I breathe it all in. The scent of teenage sweat and soft drinks, the sound of laughter and shouting, the blaze of hormones and restlessness.
The promise of young lives just beginning to unfold.
And I think, Stay. Just a little while longer. Stay.