In short, he was never quite the shining model of conventional success that I’d envisioned on first hearing those Apgar scores. Not that it stopped me from continually trying to mold him into that mythical being, or from suffering, loudly, when he wouldn’t conform.
Buzz calls me in now, to watch him preen before the mirror. At every other bar mitzvah I’ve ever been to, the boys have worn respectable, sober, dark suits. It’s only my son who wants to look like a vanilla popsicle.
Nevertheless, I smile back at him, and nod with what I hope looks like approval.
Nothing about this bar mitzvah journey has been easy. Throughout this past year, Buzz fought against going to his tutoring sessions, and from what I can tell, hasn’t once studied at home. Nor has he, even at this late date, decided on his requisite philanthropic “mitzvah project,” even as so many of his peers are already well along, tutoring underprivileged schoolchildren or raising money to send to Darfur.
My worst embarrassment came at the mandatory bar mitzvah parent–child retreat, last spring, which Buzz had furiously resisted attending. The program would be boring and irrelevant, he argued; the food would be awful; the kids would be mean to him, and all the cool families would ignore the “mandatory” part and stay home. He’d turned out to be right about all of this—I must admit, there have been several times when he saw things more clearly than I. At the time, however, I dug in my heels and insisted he attend, on pain of a month with no electronics, even as I anguished: Why couldn’t we be the kind of family for whom this kind of thing is a piece of cake? And why did they have to plan the retreat on a night my husband was working?
At the woodsy Jewish campsite, I spent a miserably sleepless night on a stinky bunk-bed mattress, in a dorm room with five other not-particularly-friendly women. Buzz refused to sleep in his own dorm, sneaking away at night to camp out in our car with his flashlight and a Rick Riordan novel. In the morning, he demanded that we leave a day early.
“Look,” I said, bleary-eyed and already starting to cave. “Let’s negotiate.” “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!” he wailed.
Back at Celebración, Buzz pops out from behind the curtain, back in his jeans and T-shirt. Cedric meets me at the tiara display. I inhale slowly and write out the check.
What I can’t know at this moment, of course, is how our rabbi will respond, tomorrow, when I finally get up the nerve to warn him about Buzz’s planned attire. “Yasher koach!” Rabbi Michael will say, which is Hebrew for “more power to him!” after which, bless his heart, he’ll tell me what he wore at his bar mitzvah.
Nor can I possibly predict, as we pack up The Contender to take home, just how splendidly Buzz will recite his Hebrew blessings (did he study in secret?), or how proud he’ll make us all with his thoughtful concluding speech, including its last-minute revelation of his plan to send a large part of his gift money to an old babysitter who’s fallen on hard times. Or how ultimately fine he’ll look in that tux, its whiteness no longer gaudily absurd, but more like what white so often represents to the nonjaded: hope triumphant.
On this afternoon at Celebración, I have no grounds whatsoever to expect such good fortune. It’s really all I can do to wave aside images of disaster. But wave them aside I do, because of what finally stands out so clearly: that Buzz, in his distinctive style, is now careening toward manhood, with his bar mitzvah ushering in the imminent end of my role as keeper of great expectations, and of yaysayer or naysayer. Left in its wake is a new, simpler dream: that Buzz will somehow manage to keep finding allies, out there in the world, who say “yasher koach!” to the best of his improbable ideas.
Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent and the author of four books, most recently, Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, a memoir about raising a child with AD/HD.
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