For parents, there’s a first tine for everything. First time diapering a new baby. First time talking about the birds and the bees.
Tonight was my first time sitting up until the wee hours of the morning, worried sick, waiting for my about-to-turn-teenage son to come home.
Twelve-year-old Amir had gone to our synagogue for a party with the other eleven to fifteen year olds. It was the first night of Hanukah vacation and there was no school the next day. I understood from Rafi who was in charge of the evening that they were going to watch “Pirates of the Caribbean.” We gave Amir a key and left him with his buddies.
Now, if the kids started watching the movie by 9:00 PM, I figured they’d probably be done by 11:00, maybe midnight at the latest. As Jody and I brushed our teeth and got ready for bed, I decided I’d wait up until he got home. Just to be on the safe side.
At 12:30 AM, there was still no sign of Amir. I wasn’t particularly worried, more annoyed. It was too late to call any of the other parents: if their kids weren’t at the party they’d be peeved at me for waking them up.
I could swing by the synagogue and check up on him. But that would knock down his status among his friends at least a couple of notches. And I’d probably be branded as hopelessly overprotective.
Besides which, Jody warned me that the second I set out in one direction with the car to find Amir, he’d come walking home…from a different direction. And if I chose to walk, well that’s the moment he’d wind up getting a ride and go the other way.
So I waited, now alone (Jody conked out by 1:00 AM), on the couch near the front door. What started initially as bemusement was rapidly turning into anxiety.
What did I have to worry about, though? Unlike North America, there’s no real fear in Israel that a child will be kidnapped. Israeli teenagers are out until all hours of the night hanging on street corners and nobody thinks to rein them in. It’s part of the laid back lifestyle that we relish here.
And by and large they’re good kids. Sure, there's some drinking and smoking going on, but as far as I can tell (and admittedly I'm not out there on the streets with them), it's a lot less than when I was a kid growing up in suburban California. I didn’t want to do anything to place my own kid outside this mostly positive cultural norm.
On top of which, it was Hanukah, a holiday that celebrates the Jewish people’s national drive towards freedom and independence some 2000 years ago. What a fitting metaphor for strengthening teenage self-identity. Against such a backdrop, who was I to play Greece, the regional heavy during Hanukah's Hasmonean era.
It’s just that this was the first time.
As my agitation grew, I channel surfed. I found an awful reality-cum-documentary called “The Price of Fame,” featuring celebrities being hounded by paparazzi. Unfortunately, watching the likes of Pierce Brosnin and Shannon Doherty take a few punches at cantankerous cameramen didn’t do much to take my mind off the matter I didn’t want to contemplate:
What if this time something was wrong?
There have been isolated incidents, some of them with horrible endings, like the mind-numbing story of thirteen-year-old Koby Mandell who set out to play hookie from school one day and never returned.
Finally I couldn’t take it. Just before 2:00 AM, I gave in, grabbed the car keys and took off for the synagogue. In the scant three minutes it took me to get there, I scanned the streets for any sign of Amir. There were a lot of kids wandering about, in pairs, in groups. But no Amir.
The lights were still on at the synagogue. Rafi looked confused.
“Didn’t you see Amir,” he said. “He left just a minute ago.”
Of course he did. Just as Jody predicted: walking in the exact opposite direction than I drove.
I raced back home, turned the key and…the door had been bolted from the inside.
Good news: that meant Amir was home.
Bad news: I was locked out.
I banged on the door and Amir appeared looking entirely innocent and pure.
“I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he said. “All the lights were on. Where were you anyway?”
“I went out to find you,” I started to explain.
“Were you waiting up?”
This was the moment of truth. How could I convey my concerns without laying a guilt trip?
“So…did you have a good time?”
“Yeah,” Amir replied. “We watched two movies. But the older kids ordered pizza and they didn’t give us any. They made us smell it.”
“That wasn’t very nice,” I said, then added in my most compassionate parenting voice. “Listen, Amir – I don’t mind if you stay out late. It’s no problem at all. Really. I just want you to call and let me know when you’re going to be back. OK?”
Yet even as I mouthed the words, I realized this is just the beginning. He’s still going to need a curfew. Limits. Rules of disengagement.
But not tonight. He can’t know how concerned I was.
He knew anyway, in that intuitive twelve-year-old way. Something was not entirely right and my nodding nonchalance was a coded call for future compliance.
This also gave Amir, as budding an entrepreneur as any twelve-year-old, a unique opening. Playing on his poor father’s moment of vulnerability, he said with a wry smile, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to get me my own cell phone.”
“A cell phone, huh”? I replied, recalling the numerous times he’d already asked and I’d steadfastly resisted. But times had changed. He was getting older. And the street and his friends would beckon again.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”
And we both grinned as we silently acknowledged that this, too, was a first time.