Missing a Surrogate Son

Hello from my office,

As we move into, and through, the fall, it is difficult for me to not remember where things were a year ago and how both my house and my life was changed, and transformed, by a somewhat unexpected and yet somewhat planned, young Dane, who took his own chance to spend a year away from his Copenhagen suburb. I still remember looking at paperwork about a youthful Danish person, scrambling to get my own paperwork completed, and ordering items to make Anton more at home. When I picked him up at the airport, he was both excited and exhausted from a flight that took him from Copenhagen to Frankfurt, then to Chicago and back to Philadelphia. He had been up for probably 36 hours and he was in a new place. We got his suitcase and as it was late, the trip back to Bloom was not that interesting to him because it was dark. I can imagine he felt like the ride was insufferably long, but when we got him to this room, he seemed pleased and was asleep in no time. The next morning, I let him sleep until he chose to get up and then I took him to Cracker Barrel for his first American breakfast. I would learn he loves breakfast (including scrapple). During the first weekend, he accompanied me to some significant social events and he was very social and enjoyable and he conversed with people easily. I learned almost immediately how capable and thoughtful he was. At the end of that Labor Day weekend, he would begin school and he was a bit concerned about whether or not people would like him. Suffice it to say when he came home with band magnets, female phone numbers, and notes from people the first day, I knew he would do fine.

While he had no formal musical training, he was a drummer and as such decided to participate in marching band. It was the first important decision I think he made because it provided access to an entire social group and during the fall as I attended my first high school football games in decades, it was evident that he fit in quite well. He had quite the little group of people interested in him (mostly female it seemed; amazing what an accent and personality will do!). Mr. Haile, the band director at Central Columbia, was incredibly understanding and even went so far as to offer Anton lessons to read notes. I can say without reservation that band was one of the most important things that happened to Anton, but he was also a strong student in general. He did struggle with a Trig class, but all in all, he did quite well in all of his classes. During the fall, he found our Halloween traditions fascinating and was more than willing to experience as much as he could. I will not post any pictures here, but he did make quite the amazing nun as he marched in the Catawissa Halloween parade. As I write this, it is almost a year since his birthday. His parents were so good at sending things to help him hold on to Denmark, while simultaneously working to Americanize himself to some degree. This birthday he becomes an adult. That is no small thing, but he is, perhaps, the most incredibly mature and profoundly honest young man I have ever been blessed to meet. He questioned things regularly, but he was never afraid to be honest about something, even when it did not go as planned, or when he had a concern. He never lied to me once. That is beyond what I could have hoped for a person his age. He was simply and purely honest. He made it easy to care about him and love him. As I write at this point I am wiping tears away. I can still walk into his room and I miss seeing him there, though it is a bit less messy than when he was around. I remember once saying to him as I walked into the room, “It looks like a frickin’ bomb went off here.” He smiled, and said, “Impressive, huh?” I could only walk away.

Probably most unexpected was the fact that we had similar senses of humor. I think it was both helpful and a curse at time because he could throw things back at me faster than I could get them out at times. It made for some interesting moments. I still smile when I asked him about how going to dinner with six girls at homecoming went and he said, “Loud.” and nothing else. I almost laugh out loud when I think about the time I asked him to try not to charm anyone at musical practice that day, and without missing a beat, he turned and responded, “Fuck off, Michael.” I could only smile as he walked away. He shut me down and his retort was not disrespectful, but merely flipping right back on me what I had tried to flip on him. Regardless of what he did or said, it was almost impossible to be angry at him. This is not to say it never happened. I think there were, however, only two or three times that entire year we were really frustrated with the other. He taught me so much. I doubt, at least to the degree, he realizes the profound impact he had on my life. I am still realizing it myself. What Anton taught me was to be more thoughtful, more patient, more open to possibilities, and perhaps, most importantly, to not be afraid to give of myself to another. That might sound a bit surprising for someone who gives quite a lot, but it was different. When I give in other situations, I can control the boundary; I can determine what I will or will not do. That does not happen so easily when the other person has a mutually dependent relationship. You might think I understood that, but just maybe that is why my marriages did not go as well as they might. I was afraid to give so unconditionally. Somehow, Anton made that sort of giving easy. Perhaps it is because he willingly gave back. Again, Anton is thoughtful, considerate, cautious to a degree, but able and willing to share of himself. He thinks before he speaks, before he does, and yet, he can be as spontaneous as anyone else. He has a playfulness that gives you insight into the little person still inside his 6’0′ frame, with long slender legs, and a bottomless-pit-of-a-stomach. He put up with my giving him spice after spice, and he was open to trying new and different things than the Danish cuisine that was so much of who he was. And he loved Taco Bell!

I think about the changes in me as a result of being a surrogate parent; they are even more profound because it took me until my 60s to accomplish this, but I am not sure it would have happened, or certainly not as profoundly if it had, without Anton coming to live on the Acre. What is more impressive about this single individual was the profound effect he had on others, and not just his schoolmates, but on my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Seldom does a week go by that someone does not ask me if I have heard from him or spoken with him. As I have been over to people’s houses, which, of course, is not as often as before the pandemic, if he was part of that experience a year ago, people are asking about him. I guess the other thing that has held true is what I anticipated about his family. He has a mother, father, and one sister. They too are incredible people. They have been so gracious and I was not just blessed by a young man, but by the entire family. Whenever we have an opportunity to FB video or other options, it is such a joy to speak to all of them.

The pandemic has changed plans twice already, and there is no telling how long that will be the case, but in the meanwhile, we will continue to meet in a socially distanced manner (3,905 miles or 6,264 km). That is some serious social distancing. Fortunately, the internet works on both sides of the pond and we are able to get together. I remember telling Anton early on that I was pretty sure if something happened to him, his parents would be furious, but believed Carla would come to America and kill me. His response was a simple statement. “You are very wise,” He said. It is wonderful and evident to see how much they love each other and while this might seem a bit simple, it makes my heart happy. We need people so committed to the other in this present world.

I am sure some of you will ask if we ever bumped heads or if we got put out by the other. Of course, it did happen, but I have to give Anton a huge shout out for how respectful and thoughtful he is. He is a questioning person. He will challenge most anything, but not merely for the sake of challenging, but to better understand. He is thoughtful and analytical, but he is also still a young adult. One morning I came into the kitchen and he had left it a pit (and Anton, if you walked into the kitchen this morning, you would be a bit shocked, but it is a bit of a pit). I was not happy, and to make a long story short, I texted him and provided pictures of my morning discovery as I went to work on my office (this was a Saturday). I told him I was not happy and he was grounded for three days. Then he was not happy. He called me at the office, but I told him we would speak in person and not by phone. He called me 5 times that morning and after each phone call, I remained at the office a half hour longer. Therefore, when I finally got home, after running some errands, he was rather perturbed with me. The long and short of the conversation, which looking back was a bit humorous, was I took two days off the grounding and we came to an understanding. There was another time when he struggled to make his friends accountable and their choices put him in a difficult situation. I was angry that time, but we made it work. What I learned, as did he (I believe), was this: talking it out reasonably took care of the great majority of any issue. Neither he nor I hold grudges and I do get angry, but I have learned (and it has been a process over years) to not get overly heated. I know some will question that, but is it interesting to me that I dealt with situations and Anton as I never had. It is another thing we were able to do together. I am so grateful to him.

The year was a year of learning and memories from travels to Cape Charles, both earlier in the year as well as the place from which he would return to Denmark, much too early to dinners, road trips, and other experiences. And yet, there was so much we had still planned to do. The picture here is of Anton on the next to last day he was in America. He had gained some weight, might have even grown a few more centimeters, and he was a different person in terms of world perspective after living on the Acre of a bit longer than 7 months. A trip to the Upper Peninsula in January created another experience with weather and driving that he probably remembers. First, Houghton, as my UP colleagues know has a lot of snow, and last year was a particularly snowy winter. And, of course, Anton picked up some Michigan Tech swag, so the memories continue. On the way back, barely across the Mackinac Bridge, after spending the night on the UP side because of wind, we got caught in snow through most of the upper half of the Lower Peninsula. Both he and my student considering graduate school had fallen asleep and they were a bit shocked as I drove down I-75 at about 30 mph over a snow-packed interstate. It was not the first time he told me I was a good driver. That meant a lot, but it also reminded me of the fact his family did not drive, own a car, or even have licenses at that time. That was beyond strange for me. There were so many things I still wanted to do with him, but the world would have different ideas. Covid-19 would change a number of plans, including the suspension of his making the Varsity Tennis Team. Fortunately, the musical, which he did finally agree to participate in, had concluded and he was able to experience one of the many things Central Columbia does so well. I think, of the many things that still impress me about Anton, was his ability to do whatever he did well. It did not matter if it was his academics, which he was very accomplished at, being in the band or the play, which gave him new opportunities, or simply meeting people, regardless their age, he impressed people with both his skill and his kindness. The other thing Anton did well was understand most people better than they understood themselves. We would chat and he would share his observations. I can say unequivocally, he is more amazing as a soon to be 18 year old than I was in my mid-twenties. When we found out he had to leave early we both cried. When he made it to the Baltimore Airport at 3:40 a.m., there was no time for tears. However, when I got back to the acre a few days later, I opened the door to his room and it was the cleanest he had ever kept it. His flag hung from the top drawer just as it had when he arrived. I sat in the room and I cried for 10 minutes or more. As I write this in my office, I am so glad there are so few people in the building because once again tears are streaming down my face.

I was blessed beyond words to have Anton as my exchange son. I still am. I miss him terribly and I am humbled by all he taught me. I had hoped to get there at Christmas, but the world continues to fight against that travel. It will happen. In the meanwhile, I will keep him and his family in my heart. I am blessed in so many ways by the renewed Danish connection in my life. It was January of 1981 when I was in Copenhagen. I will get there again with so much joy. Jeg savner dig, Anton, og jeg ønsker dig den mest vidunderlige 18-årsdag. Du har begavet mig med din tilstedeværelse i mit liv og med din kærlighed. Der er ingen ord, der kan udtrykke, hvor vigtig du er for mig. Mange tak for at være den fantastiske person, du er. Dette er den sang, jeg delte med dig, da vi fandt ud af, at du bliver nødt til at rejse tidligt. Det er stadig den sang, jeg giver dig nu.

Thank you as always for reading.


Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

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