A Different Kind of Goodbye

max15A part of me is back in California, where the sun shines dry and the smell of the Jasmine flower fills the air. I remember that blast of sun baking my arms so that more freckles would pop by the second, and I remember how the jasmine perfume would carry me along, floating in with each inhale as I walked the dogs along the hilly roads of Saratoga. With each car trip to pick up kids from school, I would catch the California vistas of Silicon Valley…green apricot orchards in the foreground, outside my rented home, and purple-brown mountain ranges in the distance surrounding the valley. This was the California life I had. My oldest, Max, has gone back to that Cali life, walking those roads, smelling those flower perfumes, capturing those views with his gray-blue, almond-shaped eyes.

A month ago, Max ran away from our home in New Jersey, determined to get back to his old way of life in California…at all costs. It was a startling time for the Bollinger family. Max’s decisive act to cut himself off from this family ripped us to the core and was the start of intense self-reflection and deep questions about our parenting. Were we too helicopter in our approach, or were we not vigilant enough to the changes, to the distance, to the increasing aberrant teenage behavior? The act of one of our own running away from us became a driving force in assuring ourselves and our son/brother/grandson of our deep love for him and each other.

We got Max back to New Jersey, to his home in Montclair, for a short while and we took that time to engage in some serious family therapy sessions together, to talk through plans for his move back to the west coast together, to share silences in the same room together, to eat together, to sleep under the same roof together (sometimes…as Max often chose to sleep at a friend’s house), to look at each other, really look at each other and memorize the facial features, the expressions, the various dances of our bodies as they moved together in family formation and then separately, individually, on their own.

I miss many things about Max when he is not here living in this house with us. I miss his sense of humor…it’s sharp, it’s cutting, it’s intelligent. I miss his musical talent…he can make a trumpet sing. I miss his calm…his clear thinking and logic frequently set my chaotic mind at ease. I miss his smile…when it shifts into that crinkly, lip-curled “Bollinger Smirk.” I miss the moments of Max in a room…his very presence embracing me in a hug even if his arms are not.

In therapy, we learned that Max doesn’t feel there was anything “toxic” about his home life, just that he is more than ready to move on…away from us…to secure ownership of his own life. Max has always been way ahead of his peers…more fiercely independent, resourceful and courageous than I’ve ever know any other kid to be. A room full of strangers has never been a problem for him. At age nine, when Max transferred to Hillside Elementary School from Bradford Elementary School, we asked him if he wanted us to come with him to the school office on that first day, so we could find out together where he should go and how to get around the new school. Max said, “No. I’ll just ask people myself. It’s nothing to be scared of.”

In middle school, when he first attended the Mannes School of Music in New York City on Saturdays, Max relished the long breaks in between classes and rehearsals to walk around the city. He enjoyed discovering everything NEW and owning the city for HIMSELF. When Max was two years old, after learning to walk, I remember clearly that he would toddle to the front door of our house and try to turn the door knob. Again and again, he would try to get that door knob to work so that he could open the door and be free. Two of his first words after “Mama” and “Dada” were “door” and “outside.” By three years old, he would make his way to the front door every morning after breakfast and fervently ask to go outside. He would do this repeatedly until we went outside.

Last Wednesday, Max flew into San Jose, the densely populated city that surrounds the small town of Saratoga, where we lived for almost two years from 2011 to 2013. He earned the money for the flight by working on refurbishing the brick walkway and patio in the backyard of our Montclair home. The San Jose/Saratoga area is one that Max knows well. He has friends and a tight circle of teachers from the middle school and high school he attended there. He’s considering finishing his senior year at Saratoga High School. We are working to help him establish residency and to structure a possible guardianship so that he can accomplish life and school on his own…with just a bit of guidance until he turns eighteen.

Although Max has clearly stated his desire to disengage from his family and his Montclair life, I caught glimpses of his love for all the people and this place we call home. The foundation of who Max Bollinger is and who he will become started here in Montclair. During his last few days in town, I watched him capture the look, feel and smell of his home and I was there for many of the goodbyes, when he embraced his family and friends completely and with true love. In a precious letter written to him called “Leave Taking” from his Grandma BJ and Pop Dick Lates, Max’s grandparents implored him to always remember that “we are in this world together,” that he should “always look for opportunities to help others” and that he ought to “keep his heart open.”

My heart is open and bleeding right now. I know it is for Scott too. Despite our sadness and that cavernous feeling of emptiness we’ve been battling each day since Max’s brisk departure to his new life, we are rooting for him…truly, with our whole hearts. I hope you will root for him too.

Even though he may not know it yet, we’re walking those hilly Saratoga roads, smelling the Jasmine perfume and seeing those distant northern California mountain ranges with him. We’re with you Max. We’re with you all the way.


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