"You're gone too much," Nick, our 18-year-old, said one afternoon. I studied him thoughtfully. He'd grown 10 fast years past the name Nicky into a lanky young man filled with strong ideas. Ideas that leaned hard on the fierce side of things these days: politics, girls, rowing, the price of gas, the length of his sideburns.
"I don't miss you or anything. It's just that it seems you are never around."
He looked at me defensively and shrugged. My husband Greg and I had just returned from a weekend of working at the family ranch. Nick had declared he was too busy to go with us. He had rowing practice, a paper to write and a marine science test to study for. Besides, he wanted nothing more than to sleep IN on Saturday and NOT deliver calves or lift rocks that had surfaced in the spring thaw. He had bigger fish to fry, like renting Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and playing pool with friends.
We were all busy, for that matter. It had been a spring of travel and speeches that ran late into the night for me. Earnest, even passionate, speeches urging parents to slow down and allow more unstructured time with their families. Often by the time I caught the ferry home it would be after 11, and Nick was in bed.
"Don't look at me that way. You don't have to worry. It's just that when you talk about going to the movies together this week, or going out to breakfast tomorrow, it feels like you are trying too hard or something," he continued.
Nick rested his chin on his arms and gazed up at me. Where did the time go? How did this handsome young man land on my kitchen chair? I sat down and sighed.
Navigating the final stages of adolescence into adulthood is difficult, and in a few short months my time with the family, or lack of it, would be as insignificant to Nick as a pile of clouds on the horizon. I knew this with all my mother's heart. There seemed only one thing left to do, something I always do when confronted with the paradoxes of parenting: I told a story.
"Nick, once when you kids were young, we went to the zoo. We moved slow for once, and stopped at every single animal that interested you guys. Ben loved the bats, we stopped at the monkeys for Jenna, and you and Daniel wanted to look at every lizard and bring them home. Remember that?
"Then we wandered over to the lions. A signboard describing something called 'pride time' caught my eye. Pride time is the invisible, seemingly irrelevant acts where lions groom one another, and sprawl and nap. They rub heads, play and sleep some more -- in a pile, shoulder to shoulder, head to tail. They lick each other, paw, and yawn and stretch and roll in the dust.
"From the outside it seems that nothing important is going on except a whole lot of laziness, but researchers discovered a correlation in the amount of hours spent on pride time and the health of the pride itself. The more time spent relaxing together, the more strength and vitality in the pride.
"I felt a big BINGO go off in my head, Nick. I translated it into human terms and thought about how some of the most fulfilling times in our family were when we moved slow and scratched backs and read books. It wasn't necessarily the big times or the adventures that made us feel loved, it was more in the tiny acts of eye contact and physical affection.
"I think what I am hearing you say today is not that I am gone too much, but that we are not doing enough of the little things these days -- walking Juno, family dinners, saying good night, scratching backs. We always seem in a rush and hurry. Maybe we don't have enough pride time."
Nick pondered for a moment and nodded, perhaps a little impatient with this long and windy explanation of why he felt bad.
"Yeah, I think that could be it," he said. "You haven't made a good dinner for a long time."
Nick's world in a nutshell, reduced to food. We pushed our chairs from the table and embraced awkwardly.
"Well, I don't have any homework tonight and I'm going to catch a movie with my friends."
"What?!" I replied. "I've just spent the last 15 minutes talking about pride time and slowing down, and you're taking off?"
Nick grinned and placed his hands on my shoulders. When had he gotten so tall?
"I'll come in afterwards to say good night and I'll bring that weird head-scratcher thing in," he said.
Nick grabbed the car keys, opened the back door and ran up the steps two at a time. Greg lay on the couch reading the New York Times. "Nanc, let's do the crossword puzzle," he called out. I smelled the rosemary chicken roasting in the oven for dinner. Above it all, I heard our man-boy Nick whistling his way to the car.™
Nancy Blakey has four children and lives on Bainbridge Island. She is the author of the Mudpies Activity book series. Her latest book is Go Outside!