Catch and Release

Originally published in BrainTeen Magazine 3/2018

I creep my minivan from the school parking lot to the exit drive, having successfully navigated yet another Family Swim. An unstructured hour for families of young children, the program is held on Friday nights, when the high school pool is otherwise unoccupied. Don is away on business, so I am solo, husband-less, with my three sons. None, as of yet, have hit double digits. 

“Mom! Mom!” Evan screeches from the back seat. “Frog! Frog in the road! Frog!”

I press the brakes and glance in the rearview mirror, seeking the eyes of my oldest son, searching for an explanation. Instead, I catch a glimpse of my face, make-up free and too close for comfort. A deep age crease runs down my left cheek. My wet, uncombed hair is matted against my head, the result of swimming with my kids for the past hour. My eyes are rimmed red, due to over-chlorinated water and too many cannonballs.

“Mom, look! Mom!” Evan begs. “Please, Mom. Can I get out and hold him? Please Mom? I can catch him. Please.”

The frog sits in the street, frozen in my headlights. His big eyes plead: Keep pressure on those brakes. I briefly assess the creature’s predicament. It’s autumn. The New England crispness just barely touches the air around us, so I assume the frog is on his way to hibernation, a warm winter abode. 

My sons don’t wait for my approval or an explanation. Evan unbuckles Russell and DJ. They leap out, eager to touch and hold the night creature.

“Look at him! Look at him!” My sons are yelling and laughing, oblivious to the torrents of rain buffeting their heads. The car windows barely muffle their elation. The frog appears to be larger than my biggest boy’s hand; Evan struggles to keep hold of him.

I turn back to the rearview and smile at my reflection. Pushing mid-forties, though I might pass for younger on a better day, the sight of my face in the car’s mirror doesn’t lie. I’m tired, cold, and eager for bed. But more so, I’m overwhelmed by good fortune to witness this latest round of little boy excitement. I’m thankful for the joyful hysteria this chance meeting has evoked in the hearts of my offspring. I know, in this moment, that this encounter is a memory maker. 

Evan approaches the driver’s side window. Raindrops collect on his eyelashes. “Please can we keep him?”

He holds the frog up to my face. “Mom, we want to keep him,” he says. “Please.”

There’s a treasure in the heart of my oldest son, something I didn’t know existed in the male of our species until I had three of my own. He likes to take care of things: brothers, frogs, best friends, old progenitors. I’d credit my natural mothering skills for my son’s strongest character trait, but the parenting of my first born has been experimental, fumbling, guessing, occasionally wishing for a do over. No, Evan’s propensity to nurture is not of my making. I simply got lucky.

“Get in, hold him tight. Evan,” I say, giving in to my urge to please my sons, though keenly aware an escaped amphibian could sully my leather interior. “Don’t let that frog loose!”

Again, I glance in the rearview. My boys are happy; they love this frog. I am happy; I love these boys.

When we arrive home, a festive squealing playdate with my sons and the frog ensues in the bathroom. The frog hops from toilet to tub to countertop, trying to find some semblance of familiarity in this porcelain jungle. The boys catch him and put him in an old aquarium, once the home of goldfish, hermit crabs, a sole guinea pig. I unearth a screen, a makeshift aquarium top, buried under boxes in the basement.

“Mom,” Evan says before nodding to sleep, “I am crazy for that froggy.”

“I know,” I say, because I do. My son has not procreated, nor has he stared lovingly in the eyes of a child born of passion and magic and mystery. Still, this responsibility for another being is a milestone in his short life. By taking the frog into our home, so unexpectedly, and with such tenderness, I see in Evan the very best of what lies within me. 

***

In the days that follow, I buy 20 crickets each morning and 20 more in the evening. Sold in the local pet shop, they come in various sizes. I choose large, guessing the frog will happily gobble them up. As Swimmy swallows each insect, the chirping lessens, until boy laughter again overwhelms the house.

The frog is well loved by all three of his captors, but Evan is smitten. Peeking into his room, listening behind his door, I hear my boy as he whispers, pets, and sings to his new best friend.

“Hey, Swimmy, hey little guy. You want a cricket? Grab the cricket, you can get it!”

Less than a week into the adventure, I notice our house guest becoming more and more lethargic, no longer chasing the insects we provide.

“Babe,” I say. “I think the frog needs more than we can give him. Crickets aren’t enough. He needs more food, different food. He needs to go home.”

“But I love him,” Evan replies, as he holds Swimmy close and strokes his skin.

“He’s a wild animal. It’ll be winter soon. He needs to hibernate. We need to let him go.” I gather my son in my arms, nestle my nose into the top of his head, feel his anguish. “It’s time for him to have his own adventures, with other frogs, not us.”

Evan does not answer. He puts on his coat, gets in the car. The ride is quiet, each of us lost in thoughts of our lives with Swimmy and our lives without him. 

We drive to a local lake. It’s cold and windy. “Good-bye little fellow,” Evan whispers, placing Swimmy on the ground, watching him hop away.

As the frog disappears into the woods, my son’s emotions explode. “I love him, Mom. I’m worried about him. I don’t know if he’ll be OK,” Evan sobs into my neck as I hold him close and let him grieve. 

***

Eventually, Swimmy becomes a regular in dinner time stories and living room lore: the big frog we caught and Mom made Evan release. Swimmy fits in nicely with the tales we tell about adventures we have.

There are camping trips and bike rides and Evan’s first sleepover. There is the 10-mile hike when we forgot water, heads accidentally slammed in doors, and emergency room visits in the wee hours. There are swimming races, relay races, one-footed races, and every possible kind of race that can be won; there are no ties.

There is Russell’s buzzer beater basket, DJ’s top shelf goal. There is Evan’s perfectly pitched baseball game; manhunt in the woods and team tag in the dark.

There are proms and curfews and my infamous don’t you dare roll your eyes at me glare. As and Fs and uncomfortable comments from teachers. Homework missed. Tests dismissed. Consequences. Risky behavior.

Life is fast. Life is fierce. Life is wonderful.

***

Now I am 51; I long for the days of slippery swimming sons and chance frog greetings. As the cliché goes, the days are long, but the years are short. My boys, whose hands I held, shoes I tied, are all taller than me now. 

Evan starts college in September. I ache with the loneliness I anticipate, the knowledge that although I’m not yet ready to let him go, go he must. For as surely as Swimmy grew from tadpole to frog, so must my child lose his tail, grow his legs. I wish for an Owner’s Manual to instruct me on a graceful exit, sayonara, fare-thee-well. Rarely am I without words, but on this day of his departure, yes.

As we prepare for the long good bye, my son and I check his bedroom for missing items. “You have your toothbrush, Evan?” I ask. “And Advil?”

The university Evan will attend has a larger population than our hometown. Hygiene items are readily available in the campus store and the quaint downtown. Still, it is easier to worry about the mundane than Will he be happy? Make the right decisions? Meet good friends, the kind who last a lifetime? Have I given him the tools, the advice, the love he needs to survive, to thrive?

“Be sure to take extra floss,” I say. “The waxed kind.”

Evan hugs the dog. “Mom,” he says. “Please remember to feed him.”

I smile at my son. I have never forgotten to feed our little mutt Otis. 

“Send pictures of him, Mom. Play tug with him.”

Evan holds Otis’s favorite toy out to me and his hand brushes mine. I notice his jagged, bitten nails, a habit since he was little. I feel the roughness of his palm, made so from his summer work in construction, so unlike his tender skin of long ago. I’m lost briefly in the whirlwind of our lives thus far, of him, of us.

“Let’s go!” My husband calls. I gaze out the window from Evan’s room and smile to see Don has lined up our boy’s bags. As he has throughout our lives, I’m certain my husband has completed his ritual of evaluating and measuring the trunk before packing. We’ve had many cars. He’s loaded many trunks: childless weekend getaways, baby strollers, hockey bags, and now this. I silently recount summer-long conversations about what to bring, what to leave, finally settling on a small pile of bags and boxes, and coordinated bedding. 

The ride is quiet; perfect driving weather, blue skies, not a cloud. Evan dozes while Don and I listen to music. I panic for a moment, certain I’ve lost the reservation papers we need for registration and admittance. 

“Where are they? They were just here!” I make Don pull over. I search under the seat, in the trunk. Evan, bleary-eyed, watches, nonplussed, as I locate the missing items in my pants pocket, safely tucked, ready. 

The upperclassman who greets us upon arrival smiles at Evan and points us to the dorm where our son will sleep, will wake. 

When we leave our boy in his room, bed neatly made, clothes put away, life heating up, friends waiting in wings, college laughs yet to be shared, new memories to make, Evan wraps his arms around me. It’s strange to be so much smaller than a child I once held and rocked, sang to sleep. 

As difficult as was Evan’s sendoff of Swimmy the frog, so it is for me, and more, much more. I am not ready to release him, not yet, but release him I must.

“Mom,” Evan says. “Let’s not make this a sad thing. We’ll still talk all the time. You’ll be fine, Mom. I’ll be fine. It will be good.”

I hold onto these words, feel them swirl around my head. I do not believe we have reversed roles; nothing so simple, for he is my child, and I can see his mature self barely beginning. I imagine times he’ll call panicked about a test, or in need of something he left behind, unimportant once, but suddenly urgent. I look forward to driving to Evan’s rescue with a Patriots jersey or boat shoes, his raincoat thrown in the backseat of the car, just in case he needs it. I plan to greet him with wide smiles, ferocious hugs, and other emergency items that can be delivered only by me, only by Mom.

Still, I love his sentiments; they envelope me in ways I’m unprepared, for they are a glimmer of the man he will become. I squeeze my son, too tightly, too desperately, kiss his cheek, feel his skin, comb his hair with my hands. I do not say goodbye to my boy. I do not say anything.

Postscript:  

We have yet to catch another enormous frog, but Evan and I did manage to stumble through his freshmen year of college. Thank God for texting, a shared sense of humor, and Otis, whom Evan rarely survives a few weeks without visiting. Evan looks forward to the adventure of sophomore year, and I look forward to living vicariously through him. 

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