I started writing this on my birthday trip to visit my son, Steve, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. I was 77 last Sunday. Three weeks ago my son was 56. He is still a surprise, a worry and a joy to me.
For 9 months after he was born I got no sleep. He still sleeps only fitfully.
He hated the idea of finishing high school. At first he went from a private middle school to a boy’s prep boarding school in New England. After 3 months at boarding school he called up and begged to be allowed to come home. He hated boarding school. I was teaching at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.
I couldn’t send my son to public high school, because the public school required that hair be cut, and he refused. Those were the hair days. So I sent him to a Catholic school in Lakeland and he lasted there for two years. They didn’t care about hair, but when they required him to take theology he refused again. I solved this problem by sending him to live with my father in Washington for his last 2 years of high school at a “progressive” private school. By means of some fancy manipulations after the first year he managed to get that school – I think it was called the Canterbury School – to say he could graduate if he would write a paper on economics. He came back to Florida, and after about a year and a half he sent the school a couple of pages about economics and they sent him a diploma. He declared himself sick of going to school.
I said, either go to school or get a job.
He threw himself wearily on the sofa and said, “Okay, get me a job.”
I got him a job working on the ground crew at the college where I was teaching, which had a beautiful campus to complement the Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings. We lived in Tampa, and after about 6 months of gardening, school looked less disagreeable. He went to The University of South Florida where my second husband was teaching, and stayed in school for the next 10 years.
One day he and a friend (the son of a psychology professor) decided that it would be entertaining to steal a book from the bookstore. Stevie got caught. The other boy got away.
I was young I was slim, and I was pretty. I put on a nice dress, grabbed a handkerchief, and went off to have a good cry in the Dean’s office and so the university dropped the charges and Steve continued, fitfully, to study.
Years passed; he finally graduated and immediately began graduate school. In his 30’s he got a PhD in mathematics. He taught for 3 or 4 years, and then decided that the pay was poor, and deans were sometimes inclined to tell him what to do.
The solution was simple: get another degree, this time in medicine, since the pay would definitely be better. The problem was that he was 40, and it’s hard to get into medical school at 40.
He went to medical school in Grenada, the Caribbean country Reagan invaded, supposedly to save American medical students, most of whom said they didn’t want to be saved. Stevie went there after that tiny war, but he said there were still bullet holes in the wall of his room.
He had a grand time, developed a love for the Caribbean, did well, and was able to transfer to a school in the U S after 2 years. This was followed by a residency in anesthesiology. He didn’t like anesthesiology. The hours were bad and surgeons told him what to do. He thought a fellowship in pain management (more school) would be just the ticket. By the time he started to practice in his chosen specialty he was 50.
Now he lives in a fine old house 2 blocks from the hospital where he works. He is married to a beautiful black woman 3 inches taller than he, who comes originally from Trinidad and Barbados, so he gets to go to Barbados for Christmas almost every year.
Early every morning he sets out on his bicycle for his favorite coffee shop, where he reads books on mathematics and physics and works on a book he is writing about mathematical models of pain neurology. He tells me that pain is exceedingly complicated, contrary to the popular idea that it is simply a matter of deadening nerves to suppress it. After a couple of hours of study and writing he comes home and gets ready to go to work.
When his work day (seeing patients and doing procedures) is finished, he goes to the gym. He has been hyperactive all his life; unable to sit in a chair without jiggling a leg, and he is plagued by anxiety and depression. The strenuous daily workout daily keeps all that under control. He gets home at about 8.
When I visit I try not to interfere with the routine. The first day of my visit I hung out with Michelle, my daughter-in-law who had taken the day off work.
We talked a lot and went grocery shopping. I cooked steaks for dinner, and a friend of Steve’s from the gym came over. This friend has the interesting profession of hiding telephone towers.
The next day was Saturday. All three of us walked to the coffee shop where Steve goes every morning. That’s about a mile and a half each way. I loved the coffee shop, where every customer had a notebook or a laptop and was writing away. On the way home Michelle and I shopped for a new top to go with my skirt for our evening dinner. That was my birthday present.
Later Steve and Michelle went to the gym and I went for a walk. I took many turns, and eventually I realized that I was lost. It was a dilemma, because I couldn’t remember Steve’s address. I thought, if I (with my gray hairs) stop some passerby to say I’m lost and ask directions, and then I can’t remember the address of the place I want to get to, they may have me carted off. Steve and Michelle almost never answer their phones, but I tried calling. Of course, there was no answer. Michelle’s mailbox was full; she says she keeps it that way so her boss can’t leave messages on it. Eventually, I reached Michelle, who had not yet noticed my absence, and she gave me directions to get back. I had been walking for about 3 hours.
We walked to the restaurant for my birthday dinner, which was another mile and a half. Steve loves where he lives because he can walk to everything. The restaurant was very elegant – the kind where the waiter puts your napkin in your lap. You pay a lot for that, but Steve likes to bestow a bit of largess now that he finally belongs to the group of people President Obama calls “rich.” I had oysters on the half shell and seared tuna. Another friend was with us, the co-owner of an antique shop on King Street who is helping Michelle get furniture for the house. When dinner was over we walked home. I think that day I must have walked at least 10 miles.
The next morning (which was my actual birthday) I walked with Steve to his coffee shop. They gave me a piece of caramel cake, and everyone in the shop sang happy birthday to me. Steve was embarrassed, but I enjoyed it.
That night was the best treat of the trip. We went to the house of another gym friend, Ken, a bachelor from Trinidad where Michelle had lived as a child. He cooked us a dinner of Caribbean food. The starter was “Souse” which is pig’s feet boiled and then pickled with thin sliced onion and cucumber. It is eaten with fingers (messy, but good.) The dinner was spiced chicken, rice with a spinach sauce, corn pudding, and some other dishes I containing eggplant and okra. I tried to find some of them on the web, but was not very successful.
Ken’s house was perfect. It was a small tract house which he had lovingly improved over years, using found objects, refinished and recovered dump and roadside pickups. The colors were muted beige with pale orange accents, décor I would call minimal but perfect. There was a friendly, elderly cat.
Another couple was there, more gym friends, a Canadian doctor and his wife from Tobago who was a strikingly beautiful woman whose hair was snow white, I guess in her 60’s. She said she was descended from East Indian indentured servants in the islands.
I had a great time, but I am oh so glad to be home. Jerry took me out to dinner the night I got back, and the poodles were ecstatic when I crossed the threshold of my house.