Life in Minor Chords: A Letter to My Son on His 16th Birthday

Dear Son,

I remember the day you started playing the piano your grandparents bought us. You approached it with the same casual interest as you do anything new in your life.

You shuffled up to it, made room for yourself, sat down – feet on the floor because you didn’t understand the peddles yet – and plunked at a few notes, curious.

Only moments passed. Plink, plink, plink.

Then, after seeming to absorb all the information available, you rose up tall inside yourself, settled your hands lightly on the keys and skittered off into Beetoven’s Bagatelle for piano in A Minor, Fur Elise.

Just as if you’d been preparing for ages.


You must have been only eight or nine, but looking back, I think this is when you left me behind – became your own (however little) man. Started playing your own tune, living in your own song.

As time passed, your you-ness rang out in front of me just like the notes of that song you taught yourself to play.

Since then I haven’t been able to keep up. I can only describe it as living life upside down.

The Privilege of Sharing Your Song

I know you came from me. I remember the day you were born and the months after when I cradled you next to me, tucked the soft fluff of your hair up under my chin to sleep. Those were the best naps I have ever had – with you so close.

A minor chord is built like a major chord, but upside down. –Vincent Reina

I remember chasing you around our little house when you first learned to run and marveling at the things you said when you first learned to speak. I remember holding your hand to cross the street, taking you to your first (and last) soccer game and whispering strength into your ear on the way to the ER when you broke your arm in a skateboard fall.

I remember singing with you in the car not long before your voice changed, hiking in the woods to keep you and your sister from fighting all weekend and taking your to your first middle school dance. I was so proud to hear you play on our piano and also in the school band.

Becoming your mother was the most defining moment of my life – and I have done a lot of living. I have never been both so proud of and humbled by something I created. I’ve never wanted to work so hard, and I’m sure I haven’t, in fact, worked as hard at anything as I have worked to love you well.

I am so grateful to have had those young years – young for us both – with you as the role of your mother.

Finding Harmony in the Transition

Then, much like that day at the piano, I remember when things shifted again. It was your first high school cross country meet.

Excited, I dropped off your sisters at school, grabbed a surprise, post-race breakfast from your favorite restaurant and hustled across town in morning traffic to watch your first run. When I got there, I locked the keys in the car, dang it, and knowing I’d probably missed the start of your race, I paced the edges of the track for thirty minutes trying to find your team.

Then there you were, covered in mud, tired but satisfied, joking with your friends on the way back to the team bus. I was so happy to see you!

You gave me the cool-kid, head nod as you passed – I get it. But then, it took me a solid minute to realize I was alone in the parking lot, empty handed, surrounded by everyone else’s sons. And unable to go anywhere – in so many ways. I was caught in the pause – you know, the breath in between notes – and it was so quiet. With the locksmith, that lesson in growing up (MY growing up, not yours) cost me at least 100 bucks.

This new rhythm we’re in is never predictable. Now, instead of being in the music with you, somehow I’m riding on it – more and more being jostled around with each new, alarming note.

Sometimes, I’m caught up in your aloofness, your coolness as you breeze by me on the way to something more important. It stings to realize I’m invisible.

Sometimes you are hard – fingers pounding keys. And my mother’s heart trembles, breaking with your ferocity. Your desire to be independent. To be grown up.

Sometimes you are moving so fast I can’t do anything but watch you come and go and pray all the little details that should be happening in between are taken care of.

Occasionally, there is harmony. But it’s often heavy with my own concern and confusion.

Seeing you grow into a young man has been a hard adjustment for me – the hardest – and I know I have not been graceful in bearing it out. For that, I am sorry. Sorry that I’ve made your growing up harder. It was not my intent. I genuinely would like to be more graceful. And I’m just not. Part of me is okay with that.

Part of me still wants you to see me as you used to – your shelter, your healer, your comfort.

Finding My Own Groove

When I realized I was not only going to be a young mom but a single one, I bought two dictionaries of superheros – one for Marvel and one for DC. (Later, I took a parenting course – or several. Priorities.) I knew then that if I wanted to be involved in your life, I’d better learn about “boy stuff.” And I was happy to do it. I still have those books sixteen years later – I can’t bear to give them away.

Son, if I thought it would help us be any closer, I would still be happy to learn “you stuff.” I’d be happy to learn to play Fur Elise. I’d run with you, too, for what that’s worth. But more and more I know those efforts wouldn’t change us.

Instead, I hope you’ll be glad to know, finally, I’m finding the rhythm of own life as the mother of a sixteen year-old boy (who mostly things she’s silly).

This new song of mine sounds a bit like yours – only a little slower, coursing just a few beats behind – maybe deeper, more grounded. It has wisdom. It knows life is good but hard, and that you will have to find your own way through so many things from here. It knows that, at sixteen, you are only moments away from true manhood, whatever that is, and that your life is ever-more ringing out in front of you, building tempo.

Reverberating into it’s own fullness.

My song sits in the front row of your of your life, on the edge of its seat, forward leaning. Breath held. And in it, I am beginning to understand that however much they are similar, my music is at it’s peak. Crescendo.

Yours is just beginning.

I don’t know what comes next for you in your life. But I can say, however hard it has been – and it has been hard – it has also been a beautiful privilege to be the one to watch you play it out so far.

I’m honored to be your mother, to have shared music with you for sixteen years. And I look forward to hearing you strike the next keys truly on your own.

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