Runaway Mom

My Teenager’s Not a Flight Risk. But I am.

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.

That’s right. I left the country, strapped on my backpack, and allowed my teenager to fend for himself for several weeks.

In my defense, it was all his idea. 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 hates missing even one day of school, and exploring the Japanese market in Chicago on weekends — a 45-minute train ride away — is 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 apartment in Cairo 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. (He likes to surf, so …)

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 pre-cooked meals and stocked the linen closet with toilet rolls and 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 how the neighbor’s dog pooped all over the sidewalk again. 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 started seeing him as a man instead of a child. He changed too; he learned he could trust his own judgment, even if it differed from Mom’s. We developed this mutual “I’m proud of you” vibe.

Not long after my adventure, he came home from school with a pile of paperwork. “Hey Mom,” 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 for a few minutes. So, now all my children 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 gone, 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’ve 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.

He’s headed off to college in the fall in Chicago, planning on an East Asian Studies program, and a Japanese study abroad option. He chose a college near home because he wants to keep an eye on me.

“My mom’s kind of a flight risk,” he told his high school guidance counselor. “I gotta watch her.”

He’s probably right. But my backpack is ready, just the same.