I was preparing for The Big Day. Bracing myself for The Goodbye Hug. Steeling myself for The Turn and Go.
Turns out, it was the effing lawn equipment that hit me like a haymaker.
Pulled into the driveway after work on the Tuesday night, and there, arrayed in the back yard … his motley collection of rescues, resurrections, and acquisitions … all fired up and running full throttle to drain their gas before he left for college the next morning.
What may look to the untrained eye like a few weed whackers, mowers, trimmers and an air compressor, registered to my emotional Jell-O as Summer’s F*cking Death Scene.
I began borrowing from the stacks of emotional resolve I’d stockpiled for the next morning.
Didn’t see him at first, until I looked over and there he was, one yard over, having pulled out our old Cub Cadet for his last Official Neighborhood Mow. Boy was all business. I met his gaze and nodded, and he returned the gesture, so solemn I had to turn away for the tear rolling down my cheek.
Hadn’t even made it into the house and I’m reaching for the total meltdown hotline, which put me in touch with its flashback division.
It connected me to a memory 15 years ago, the signal crisp as yesterday. Practically the same scene, ‘cept this time I’m mowing. It was the first time I looked over and there he was, a stout little three-year-old, a couple rows beside me. He’d pulled out the self-growling mower he’d gotten on his birthday and was putting all he had into matching my pace, his two steps to my one.
Boy was all business back then, too.
I looked over and nodded, and he returned the gesture, so solemn I had to turn away to hide my smile.
When we were done, I thanked him for his ‘help,’ and joked to Karry that I hoped he maintained his enthusiasm long enough to eventually relieve me of my duties.
As soon as he grew tall enough for his upstretched hands to reach the top of the old Club Cadet, he began lobbying hard to take a turn. I remember Karry and I debating whether it was a good parenting decision or not, compromising on letting him tackle the flat rectangle where the flower bed starts in the back.
He put every thing he had into it – muscling a running start, locking his arms, and digging his feet into the ground until he willed it forward. When the boy sets his mind to something, he doesn’t let it go. From the first, he mowed straighter rows than me, which as Karry will tell you, isn’t saying very much.
By his second year in high school, he was handling a rotation of 3-4 neighborhood lawns, which earned him an invitation to help his aunt at her cattle farm. For his pre-driving self, that was the equivalent of making The Show. Once a teenage boy sees the world from atop a tractor, the world never looks the same.
He became as fascinated with the equipment as with the work. Soon he was poking around barns and sheds, discovering discards and broke-downs from summers past – an old mower here, an old weed whacker there. Took a shine to a years-abandoned riding mower. Drove his aunt nuts for about two weeks as he futzed with it, before reluctantly admitting what she’d known from the start: that it wasn’t worth saving. But with other stuff, he negotiated a deal with her that he could borrow whatever he could get running. We began noticing our two-car garage getting a bit crowded for the strays he’d bring home. The heart his Mom has for animals, he has for lawn gear.
He stuffed this last high school summer full with work, fun, and yard work (a summer-work-fun trifecta). He and his buddies took on some landscaping gigs for relatives and neighbors. It gave him an excuse to root around his friends’ garages and sheds, salvaging equipment that had given up the ghost. He pulled a busted mower that had sat idle for years and brought it home to work on. Like the first time his tiny hands wrapped around the bar, he put everything he had into it. Every day that week, whenever I’d ask Karry where the boy was, the answer was, “The garage.” ‘Til I came home from work one night, and he was in the driveway blaring his music. He skipped “Hello,” for “Watch this,” and with one pull, and a little smoke, the sonofabitch roared alive. He beamed the biggest smile walking me through what he’d found wrong and how he fixed it. I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so proud of an accomplishment. He couldn’t wait to return it to his friend and re-create the moment. When he did, they whooped and hollered so loud, the neighbors came over to make sure everything was all right.
Eventually, I pulled myself together and made it into the house. After he finished at the neighbor’s and got cleaned up, we enjoyed a humble meal of his choosing — grilled hot dogs and onions, accompanied by foil-packed buttered potatoes, a respectful nod to scout camps’ past. We ate quietly, contentedly, on the back porch.
And much too soon for our tastes, the late summer sun dipped behind the houses across the street, calling us inside for cleanup and the final preparations for The Big Day.
As we carried dishes to the sink, the last of his weed whackers gave a final cough and ran dry in the dark back yard, yielding the evening’s soundtrack to the crickets … silencing a season 18 glorious summers in the making.