My son turned 18 this week and graduates from high school on Saturday. I ought to be overjoyed, cheering the accomplishment, buying rounds for the house as I brag on my kid, who is headed to college in August.
Instead I’ve pushed through the double-doors of Nostalgia, where I’m on a first-name basis with the maître d.
There I ponder the ants.
It is my favorite story, the one I tell perfect strangers about my son, Holden. The one that tells you everything you need to know about him.
It was late 2001. I was divorced, again, splitting custody of Holden with my ex. He was 3 and his mom had found us a tiny basement apartment in southwest Portland, Oregon, which sat on a park. There I would spend the best three years of my life with my little boy.
One Saturday, before Holden woke, I spied a troop-train of black ants, sugar ants, hundreds and hundreds of them. They were crawling out of a tiny opening beneath a cabinet and hiking, in a dazzlingly precise formation, across the stone tiles of the kitchen floor; their leaders had disappeared under the refrigerator and were clearly urging the multitudes to follow them. I could only imagine the bacchanal in that tiny space under the fridge, a lone gumdrop turned black with ants, Linkin Park playing over tiny speakers.
I made a note to buy ant poison at the Fred Meyer grocery store, and to make sure Holden didn’t see me buying it. I was a newspaper reporter then, writing about extremely conscientious vegans who went out of their way to avoid killing any form of life, including insects.
Maybe I felt guilty, very mildly, about my plans to wipe out the local ant colony.
When we got back to the apartment, it was nap time. I carried Holden in through our only door, which opened into the kitchen, carefully stepping over the black migration patiently making its way to the party under my fridge.
When I got Holden to bed, I put away the groceries, studied the directions to the ant traps and made plans to place them under the sink and fridge after he went to bed that night.
With Holden napping, I sacked out, too.
When I woke, I discovered he wasn’t in bed. I found him on his belly atop a patch of carpet next to the kitchen. His chin rested on his hands and he stared hard at the tile floor, watching the ants at ground level.
“Hey buddy,” I said.
Holden looked up. His eyes were moist, a little red. And he turned back to the ants, mesmerized.
And then, after a long moment, he spoke.
“Aren’t they beautiful?”
There was no killing the ants. Not then, not ever.
I sat my little boy in front of one of those forbidden cartoon shows, probably Powerpuff Girls. Then I spent 30 minutes sliding sheets of white copy paper under the ants and transporting them to the garden until only a few remained – those nibbling on whatever it was under the fridge.
Later that night, I threw out the ant poison.
To this day, I don’t use it.
Holden was right. They were beautiful. Achingly so.
And so is he.