I suddenly had a lump in my throat. I had taken the the dog to a nearby park and as we got in the car to leave, I noticed a young man walking across the parking lot. He was heading to Ski Rixen, a lake cabled for water sports, with his wakeboard under his arm. He looked a lot like my nephew Spencer. Same stocky build, blond hair, flowered board shorts.
Spencer was 16 when he came to live with Donna and me. It was his punishment. He got caught smoking pot in the field across from his high school—the one where his father taught German, and where he was mostly failing all his classes. He was suspended from school. We made him come out to live with us not entirely because he was smoking pot, but because he displayed incredibly poor judgment by smoking pot in the middle of the day in a place where everybody could see him. And also to keep his mother from killing him--or herself.
Neither of us had ever raised kids, although we both spent plenty of time with them. We still lived in Colorado while my sister, Spencer’s mom was getting a divorce from Spencer’s father. We kept all three kids at our house a lot, so their parents could argue and sort things out without excessive collateral damage. The kids were already in bad shape. Spencer’s middle sister, to whom he was very close, suffered from anorexia, and his oldest sister was trying to kick a drug habit.
Spencer was the one we spent the most time with. He was the youngest, at 10 years old, and the most heartbroken. He spent numerous weekends at our house. We took him trick-or-treating and sent him to baseball camp. Donna taught him to fish. I have pictures of them dressed in identical fishing vests and hats, baiting hooks with long black worms, Spencer’s tongue hanging sideways out of his mouth, like it always did when he was concentrating.
After we moved to Florida, we flew him out for visits. He was still depressed about his parents, and we did our best to cheer him up. One morning we were at a character breakfast at the Happiest Place on Earth (Disney World). Spencer was suffering from a very bad attitude, and consequently, so were the rest of us. Donna took the waiter aside and asked him to give the kid a hard time. The waiter took one look at Spencer’s sullen face and immediately sized up the situation. He tormented Spencer for the next hour. By the time we left, Spencer was laughing and the waiter was 40 bucks richer. We spent a fine day at the Magic Kingdom.
When he came to live with us we sent him to summer school to catch up his grades. We found a private school in Palm Beach that would accept him on short notice. After he went to bed every night, Donna got out the math and science books and I read all his English and history books. The next night when he got home from school we worked with him on his homework. After he aced all four courses, Donna bought him polo shirts and khaki pants. More punishment. He had to go to work with Donna for the rest of the summer and pay us back for the cost of his plane ticket.
We started cooking whole meals every night and talking with him at the table. On weekends we took him to play video games and on airboat rides and we ferried him to concerts where he met his friends.
One Saturday we took him wakeboarding at Ski Rixen. The first time we went he had to rent a knee board, like everybody starting out. Donna and I and the dog found a picnic table in the shade where we could observe.
Spencer fell in a hundred times, never making it around the first curve. He swam to shore with his board and hiked back the long trail in the sun, glowering and complaining. He argued that if only he could stand up he would do much better. But you couldn’t get a regular board until you made it around without falling in.
He was unrelenting in his complaining. That afternoon, while I was walking the dog, Donna took him into the Ski Rixen proprietor and purchased a wakeboard, as well as a wetsuit and other seemingly “essential” equipment.
The next time we went, Spencer put on all his new gear and waited in line and took off. The next thing we saw was him in a faceplant a few feet from the dock. He repeated this several more times and then he came over to where we were sitting in the shade and sat down and put his head in his hands. He wasn’t good at this. He was never going to be able to do it. He was giving up.
By then we had adopted a sort of bad-cop/good-cop routine. Donna blew up. She chewed him up and spit him out and generally frightened him so much he was far more afraid of her than of not going back in the water. I, of course, did my good cop thing. I told him that many successful athletes spent some time visualizing success and I asked him to close his eyes and see himself successfully wakeboarding. Eventually he got up from the table and got in line again.
We didn’t see him for awhile because he kept falling in and then all of a sudden Donna said very quietly don’t look he’s up.
I stealthily moved my head a fraction to the right. I saw him standing up on his wakeboard, zipping by and looking over at us to see if we were looking. He made it around two corners before he fell in. Then he ran all the way back to us beaming and he asked if we had seen him. We saw you, we said, casually. Good job. He sauntered over to get back in line and we beamed at each other and celebrated with sodas. We bought him a season's pass and he learned to spin and grab and master a few other basic tricks.
When he started regular high school, there were football games and music lessons and parent meetings. All new to me and Donna, but we navigated through it, little by little. There were more blow ups, of course. He secretly ordered a martial arts knife on the internet, not realizing that, unlike his mother, we had the ability to track his electronic movements if needed. As a result, he lost his mailbox key and involuntarily traded his new toy for a far more mundane Swiss army knife (all at a very high decibel level). We bought him a car he hated and he ended up in traffic school for speeding, and we all lived through that too. We all kept up with our homework duties, and his first report card was mostly A’s and a couple of B’s.
Finally, after several months of increasingly acceptable behavior and good grades and abject begging on his part, his sentence was commuted. He was allowed to go home to Colorado to complete his senior year.
His wakeboard leaned against a corner of his bedroom collecting dust. We finally shipped it to him several months later.
That was five years ago.
Recently, a group of extended family and friends met in Boulder to attend his sister’s wedding. The venue was an historic building, and weddings take place on the huge curved landing of the antique staircase. The bride, preceded by her attendants and flower girl, descends dramatically down the hundred-year old stairs to the landing.
The youngest member of the family, my great niece, was serving as the flower girl. Hannah was born with a number of problems, including cerebral palsy and developmental delays, and it wasn’t easy for her to make her way down the steep stairway carrying a basket of flowers and trying to hold on to the banister. She can be uncooperative when she’s tired. The bride was a little worried when her flower girl simply sat down at the top of the stairs and screamed during the dress rehearsal.
Nobody told him to do this.
The following day, about an hour before the wedding, I observed Spencer and Hannah making their way down the stairs. Spencer, the size of a Marine recruit, looking handsome in his wedding attire, held the beribboned white flower basket in one hand, carefully shepherding the little girl slowly down to the landing. They stopped at each stair so that she could remove her one useable hand from the banister, select a few flower petals, and scatter them on the stairs. When they finally reached the landing, Spencer picked up each flower petal, placed them all back in the basket, and they began again at the top of the stairs. By the time she made her entrance at the wedding, Hannah had become a perfect flower girl.
And Spencer had become a Mensch.