At a family gathering in Michigan one weekend, Lylah was feeling fully 13 – awkward, unsure of herself and alone in the crowd She started to notice that she was the only one in the room who didn’t have a partner. Matt watched her face darken and walked her out to the porch. Lighten up, he said. You’re cool. Everyone here loves you. Then he purloined some spiked cider and they sipped conspiratorially, the oblivious adults a few yards away.
It probably sounds strange that this news seemed unthinkable to all of us. They were, after all, only 17. Teen love isn’t supposed to last. Still, what a shock. As my kid went fetal in my bed, the smartest thing I could think to say to her was, “He’s a teenage boy, Katy. They’re barely human at that age. They can’t help themselves. It’s not personal. ”
This stopped her crying cold. She glared at me with wet eyes. “It’s Matt, Mom,” she said in a clear, anguished voice. Then she resumed weeping.
When it comes to parenting, you never quite get ahead of the lesson plan. Just as soon as you learn to handle toddler ear infections like a champ, here comes the issue of how to hold the line on TV time. Talking my kid through a morass of middle-school drama left me in no way prepared for stitching up the first real tear in her heart. Nor had it taught me to guard against the unexpected threat of other people’s children clawing their way into mine.
For a week or so, Matt’s family kept the deer in a makeshift pen in the yard and cared for it as best they could with Google-gleaned feeding instructions. Then a holiday weekend came, and Matt’s family went on a trip, leaving him at home with the fawn. No sooner had they gone than Matt discovered parasites infesting the baby’s coat. The sight was a horror. The fawn weakened and cried, and there was no clear route to help. The infestation grew worse over the hours.
Soon after came the breakup at the concert. Then a brief reconciliation. Then an especially painful final blow involving a cell phone butt-dial and a conversation that was never meant to be heard.
Then life went on, as it does. Other boyfriends came and went. One of them was a good-natured gym rat who posts Instagram shots of his meals and his muscles. Great kid. Katy and I agree he’ll make someone a fine partner some day. And now she’s with a grownup boyfriend. They have jobs and cars. They’re on their way to whatever happens next.
A while ago, Lylah sat down at the dinner table and started to tell her dad and me a story. She had just run into Matt at a diner. They talked; it was nice. He was still Matt, six years older, still handsome, funny and smart. He suggested they all get coffee sometime soon – Lylah, Katy and Matt. They really should do that, Lylah agreed. And she meant it, even if she knew it wouldn’t happen.
Matt taught us that our family could expand and contract on very short notice. We made room for this boy to become another kind of man in our house, and he filled a hole we hadn’t even known was there.
Sandstrom, a writer and illustrator, is the former Book Editor at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.