My life got flipped-turned upside down

Will Smith As The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

My Son And The Fresh Prince

My son couldn’t tell me what he was going through, but he found an episode from a ’90s classic that did it for him.

As I stole glances at my 13-year-old son’s face in the television glow next to me, I adjusted the blanket covering our knees. I’d bought this blanket before he was born, before I was married, even, to the man who would become his father, the man I would divorce when my son turned 8. This blanket is our favorite to curl under during movie nights like these, though now that he is taller than me, I worry how much longer it will fit both of us.

This past year, he shot straight past me, and then kept going. For a period of six months, we fit into one another’s shoes; he loved (and I pretended to hate) when he stole my fuzzy slippers, or I’d pop on his clownish Crocs to grab the mail or move the car. Earlier this year we started sharing sweatshirts and hair products and face wash. But then, it abruptly stopped; he preferred privacy to my company, his earbuds to my conversation in the car. It’s as if he were a hologram and stepped into my body, and just as I got comfortable with him inside my skin again, the way we started, he stepped right back out.

Sitting on that couch, sharing a pint of ice ream, I knew that if I looked straight at him, or asked him direct questions, he’d flinch and possibly run away, go up to his room or escape into his music. In many ways, these days it feels like we’ve returned to the “parallel play” stage of his toddlerhood. His younger brother and I can still reliably hug it out — even hold hands while watching a show — but here, on this couch with my oldest, if our hands even graze while passing the ice cream, I’d risk his retreat.

There is so much about parenting that is about loss — you don’t realize something is over until it’s gone and you wish you could snatch some of it back.

He’d had his first date earlier in the day. Or, not a date, because that’s old person terminology. But he made plans after practice to meet up with a girl whose name, said aloud, changes the light in his face. During the date, they got cupcakes, walked Main Street, sat and talked on a bench. Then her grandmother picked her up and he walked home. The date wasn’t what he expected, he said, but it was fine. When I ask him what he had expected, he says he thought it would be more like it is in television shows.

The show we are watching right now is one he’s been watching all week: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Earlier this week, my children had explained to me the show’s premise, as if I didn’t grow up with it as a child of the 1990s, and I let them. They think the clothing colors are hilarious, like to sing along with the intro as much as I did when I was a teenager watching it. I thought it was cute; now, here, next to my son, I’m riveted.

Earlier, after he returned home from the date, he’d packed his red bag like he does every other Friday in preparation for a weekend at his father’s house. Their dad usually picks the boys up in his blue pickup truck after dinner, and before my oldest left the house this evening, we practiced what he’d been planning to say to his father all week: “Can we please have a boys-only weekend?”

The boys had met their father’s girlfriend two weeks earlier; they hadn’t known about her, but suddenly, their grandfather died, and their dad was making plans to take them a few states away for the funeral, and, by the way, my partner is joining us. Partner? None of us had known he’d been dating anyone at all, much less in a way that might be serious enough to call someone a partner. My youngest rolled with it, which is his nature, but my 13-year-old did not. He did not like her hair, or the way she dressed, or anything else, he decided. He and I talked about respectful ways to express this to his dad, and came up with this simple ask: “After the 12-hour drive and long funeral weekend, we need some time alone. Can it just be us?”

I didn’t know what the landscape of intimacy looked like in their dad’s home anymore, but I could imagine the introduction of a new person to their reliable tribe of three must also be like the shutting of a door, the ease and familiarity of those dad weekends gone without warning. They didn’t know they were about to lose something, had already lost something, and I was proud of my son for asking to hold on to it a bit longer, to try and protect it.

There is so much about parenting that is like that — you don’t realize something is over until it’s gone and you wish you could snatch some of it back. You don’t realize the last time you change a diaper or hold their little hand while they climb something. I hadn’t known our last time nursing was the last time, and I mourned not being able to say goodbye to that sweet time on my own terms. It’s impossible now to imagine either of my children small enough to fit into my arms, familiar enough to know every inch of their skin, to remember the way my son’s hands felt as they nestled into my hair. That night, I sent the two boys out the door with their red backpacks, one with a loose hug, one with a shoulder pat, closed the door behind me, and breathed the sigh of gratitude and mourning that single parents all across the land take on Friday evenings after saying goodbye to their kids.

I was suddenly very grateful to Uncle Phil and his sweater vests.

But then, not three minutes later, my older son was at the door again. I thought he’d forgotten his phone or his running shoes, but his face was stone. “He said no,” he reported. No, they could not have a boys-only weekend, because his father’s girlfriend had moved in. And so my older son refused to go at all that weekend, leaving his younger brother and father on their own in the car. It quickly became apparent that he was not going to budge; his father and brother eventually drove away.

Sitting on that couch, I thought about how I’d been so nervous that my son’s date would go down in flames: that she wouldn’t show, or some school pals would sabotage it, or he’d feel insecure about something he’d said or did. I’d made sure to have a pint of ice cream at the ready, in case he needed some consolation before sending him to his dad’s that night. I hadn’t anticipated that a different relationship drama would send him to the couch, to our blanket, to our television ritual.

Bringing my attention back to the television, I realized I’d heard this bit of dialogue before and focused on Will Smith cleaning tables at a café. My son had watched this one before, multiple times that week, and had flipped purposefully to this episode tonight. For the next 30 minutes, my son edged closer and closer to me as we watched Will meet the father who abandoned him and begin to fantasize about a life with him. His father is a truck driver and he’s come to find Will to see if he wants to take a cross country road trip, to really get to know one another and make up for lost time.

My ’90s sitcom-trained brain knew before it happened that there was no way his dad was sticking around. Still, it was painful to watch: “Will, something’s come up, and we’re going to have to put our trip on hold,” the father says. “You understand.”

“Yeah,” Will says, performatively. “Yeah, that’s cool.”

We watch as Will Smith’s teenaged face hardens, as he moves from calling his father “Dad” to “Lou.” After his father leaves, Uncle Phil, with whom Will has been fighting bitterly for days about his plans to leave, says sincerely, “I’m sorry, Will.” Will continues to perform, saying it works out better this way, summer is the best time for hanging out, and his uncle stops him: “Will, it’s all right to be angry.”

My son once lived inside my skin, it’s true; I was his flesh and blood armor. Now my job is to help him build his own.

Will pushes this away, starts in on a monologue about how he’s not 5 anymore, isn’t going to sit up asking when his father is going to come back to him; he wasn’t there to shoot his first basket, but he learned, went on his first date without him, learned how to drive, how to shave, how to fight.

“I had 14 great birthdays without him,” and his voice crescendos: “To hell with him! I don’t need him then and I don’t need him now.” He continues on, listing vehemently all the things he is going to do in life, like go to college, get married, have kids, things he doesn’t need his father for.

Then, his voice breaks and he softens, asks plaintively, “How come he don’t want me, man?” Will’s uncle swallows him up in a huge bear hug and they stand there like that for a long time.

In the dark, my son and I had both stopped breathing. Ever so slowly, he put his head on my shoulder. I hadn’t expected our movie night to be more than the usual — just us eating our feelings under our favorite blanket. I hadn’t expected my son to use a show I’d grown up with to express how he was feeling. The situation was different — his father hadn’t abandoned him. In fact, he wanted very much to be present in his son’s life. But the hurt seemed similar, the hurt of wanting to have one kind of relationship with a parent and not having the power to conjure it.

My eyes, in the meantime, were trained on Uncle Phil, who’d been there the whole time for Will, who was willing to let him leave, even though he wanted him by his side, not just that summer, but forever, even if he knew life wasn’t like that. Phil couldn’t change Will’s father’s decision or words, just like I couldn’t change my ex’s. But Phil could be there that day, and the next.

I was suddenly very grateful to Uncle Phil and his sweater vests.

Parenting a preteen has so far been an exercise in restraint. I constantly have to hold myself back from grabbing his hand in public the way I used to, from assuming he wants my opinion, from defending him. He is beginning to fight his own battles, decide what battles are worth fighting, and it takes everything in me to not run out ahead of him in full warrior gear. This has been a steep learning curve, but it turns out that I have some valuable experience. In co-parenting with my ex, there is so much that is no longer mine to say, to suggest, to demand. Both relationships involve a good deal of letting go of the control I used to have, of respecting that while I once occupied a space at the center of this web, I no longer do. Nor should I. My son once lived inside my skin, it’s true; I was his flesh and blood armor. Now my job is to help him build his own.

My son is bigger than me now, but he is still a child. Even though I am not always sure how to communicate with him, I was glad he’d found a way to share his feelings with me. I knew if he saw the tears rolling down my face, it might spook him, so instead, I stayed silent and we just sat there, in the dark, side by side. One or the other of us reached for the remote control and pressed repeat.

Kelly McMasters is the author of The Leaving Season: A Memoir in Essays.