My teenager wasn't a flight risk. But I was.
At age 55, I set out alone to hike the Camino de Santiago from Portugal to Spain. Like so many pilgrims, I came home both reflective and giddy, eager to share my experience about walking the sacred Way, and what it meant to me.
Here’s what I never talk about: I left my 16-year-old son home alone while I did it.
I left the country, strapped on my backpack, and abandoned my teenager to fend for himself for several weeks.
In my defense, Cameron adamantly refused stay with relatives; he had school, he said, and his part-time job at the burger joint, his speech competitions on Saturdays, and his theater rehearsals. He wasn’t budging.
So I ran away to Europe and left him. Alone.
The youngest of my three children, Cameron is our family wild card. He has never understood or shared my restlessness, my longing to be somewhere else. He hated missing even one day of school, and exploring the Japanese market in Chicago on weekends — a 45-minute train ride away — was plenty of adventure for him.
His sister, on the other hand, started traveling solo at 18. Because of her misadventures — she barely escaped Hurricane Katrina, was stranded in Nicaragua, quarantined in India, and barricaded in her Cairo apartment by civil unrest — I quickly learned the fine art of detachment.
Cameron’s older brother doesn’t travel, exactly. He relocates. With no warning, he’ll announce he’s leaving. When? Well, tomorrow. Once he simply got up, sold his car and moved to Hawaii.
But Cameron is the practical kid. He’s the one who knows we’re low on laundry detergent, and when my car needs an oil change. So before I ran away, I froze meals for him and stocked up on cold medicine. I upgraded my travel insurance in case I needed to get home fast. I left cash, a credit card, his insurance, my itinerary, and big sign on the fireplace that said Don’t Even Think About It.
Then I took off.
My daily routine on the Camino was both physically and emotionally challenging, and I didn’t have much energy left for anxiety. Cameron and I talked every day. I sent him pics of the tiny hostels and the majestic cathedrals. He kept me up to date with his social life and school, and family members checked in on him regularly.
If the Camino changed me on a personal level, it also marked a sea change in my relationship with my stay-at-home son. For the first time, I couldn’t supervise his decisions or choices, or protect him from any bad consequences. I started to see glimmers of the man he would become.
Cameron took his freedom seriously. I’d been a single mom all but the first few months of his life, and the drastic age gap between him and his siblings meant that for most of his childhood, it had just been the two of us. I’d been his playful mom, his understanding mom, his mean mom. Now I was his runaway mom, and he discovered he was perfectly capable of living his life untethered from mine.
Not long after my adventure, he came home from school with a pile of paperwork. “Hey,” he said, “I’m going to Japan next summer.” He dropped the pile on my lap and charged up the stairs.
I sat in stunned silence, absorbing the fact that all my children apparently wanted to get as far away from home as possible. (I’ve since decided to view this as proof of effective parenting.)
While he was touring Japan, he called home a grand total of twice. I knew he was alive because I could see him on Facebook. When he returned, he re-taught me to cook rice. (I’d apparently been doing it wrong for 30 years.) I learned a Buddhist meditation and how anime will change the world and what to say in Tokyo if I want a whiskey instead of a beer.
Later, when he headed off to college, he chose a school close to home. My family thought maybe he wasn’t ready to be out on his own. But I knew the real reason.
“My mom’s kind of a flight risk,” he told his high school guidance counselor. “I gotta keep an eye on her.”