As I write this, our 15-y-o son is on a plane from Paris to Prague. We left him at the airport yesterday -- him and 60-some other Minnesota teens, plus chaperones, a handful of priests, and Bishop Sirba of Duluth.
They're on the way to World Youth Day in Krakow.
He's carrying the same green canvas backpack that Mark carried when he did his solo Eurailpass-and-hostel tour in college, 21 years ago (a drinking age ago?). That's a good bag. It has one broken strap-clip and a cracked zipper pull. Still works fine.
He woke up in the morning and said, "I'm finally getting excited to go. Up till today it's just been getting ready for something that will happen in the future. Now it's real."
I kept myself busy by randomly poking my head into the room, and asking, "Did you think of [thing]?"
"Yes, I have one." "I decided I didn't want to bring that." "They said we didn't have to." "Yes, Mom, I have two."
+ + +
Several years of Scout camping trips have made it easy for me to relinquish control over my older boys' packing for trips. We gave him the list and let him worry about it, offering to help track down any stray items. We already had almost everything on the list. Travel wallet on a string? Borrow Mark's (come to think of it, I think that travel wallet is also 21 years old). Sleeping pad for the night in the field? The 12yo Scout, who likes to roll ultralight, lent him his superthin inflatable. Do we have mylar emergency blankets? Do we have mylar emergency blankets? Take two, they're small. Cash for a snack in the French airport? Mark opened his wallet and pulled out a fifty-euro bill.
The 15yo raised an eyebrow and said to his dad, "You carry fifty euros around with you in your wallet?"
"Yes," I teased him, "something like that would never come in handy!" He shook his head.
+ + +
"Did you think of phrasebooks?"
"They're on my phone, mom."
"In German and Czech and Polish?"
"Do you remember how to say thank you in Polish?"
[suppress with great effort the urge to demand he prove it]
+ + +
I took him shopping at The Mall (you know I live in the Twin Cities, right? Yes, I mean That Mall) a few days ago for less-beat-up-looking sneakers and shower shoes. It seems a bit silly, but I honestly had such a good time walking with my teenage son from store to store, chatting about various things. He showed me how the Pokemon Go app worked and told me a story of the time he was at the mall and spent his last half hour playing Ingress there, changing portals from green to blue; then his phone buzzed all night with notifications as someone in the mall ("probably an employee or a security guard," he said) walked around changing them back from blue to green. The shopping trip made me ridiculously happy.
Also, I got credit for finding the shoes he wanted at a 20 percent discount. Nordstrom Rack FTW.
+ + +
After we left him at the airport, I asked Mark if he didn't mind going out for dinner, because I wasn't feeling great (nothing big -- just a headache and general malaise, but I had had it all day). Friday night it's hard to get a table for six, so we wound up at the family restaurant in our neighborhood -- the one that's been around for nearly sixty years, the one with the pie specials. I ordered soup and toast, and Mark the fish and chips, and the 10yo had waffle fries and an egg; the rest got standard kids' meals.
While we were waiting for dessert an older gentleman dressed in painter's clothes and carrying his bill stopped by our table, and complimented us on having said grace at the table in the restaurant. He said he lived with his son and his grandchildren, and that his son's family with their small children always says grace in a restaurant ("They're not Catholics like you," he said, "but they have a strong faith and they walk with the Lord"). We nodded and thanked him. We told him about having just sent our son off to Poland. He told us that his brother was a missionary in Poland.
He lingered, and told us a little bit of his life story, marked by not a little tragedy. I looked away, fed the 2yo French fries, feeling a twinge of discomfort from a stranger's sharing of details; and then I forced myself to turn back and look him in the face and to listen, really listen. It is not that I was not interested, it's that I have a sort of automatic avoidant reflex. You don't know where this sort of thing is going. I probably worked harder on looking like I was listening than on actually listening, but Mark kept the conversation up. I was concentrating on suppressing signs of visible alarm that someone had breached the Upper Midwestern wall of polite detachment and was trying to make a human connection with me, with my family; concentrating on connecting back.
When he was about to leave I reached out my hand and grasped his, and looked him in the eyes, and said, "It was very nice meeting you."
+ + +
A few minutes later, after dessert had been served, the waitress stopped by, her arms stacked high with plates, and said, "That man who stopped by your table? He just paid for your dinner. Dessert too."
+ + +
Mark and I stared at each other for a long time. "I guess we won the game," he said.
"We should have bought his dinner," I said, thinking back over the story he told.
"I guess we pay it forward," said Mark.
+ + +
I exchanged texts with our son later in the day, complete with photos from the pre-WYD tour of Prague, and was sure to pass the story on to him. Grace is where you least expect it sometimes.
Wonder what the next ten days will bring.