In eighth grade, my son Max joined his school’s wrestling team. I was wary. Max, a cellist, and I, a former flute teacher, shared a common language. I didn’t know the vocabulary for ceremonial combat.
At my first meet, I eavesdropped on the more experienced mothers. “Do something interesting,” one called out. What could that be? Isn’t it fascinating enough waiting for the snap that announces a shoulder or neck has been twisted too far?
“Turn him,” another yelled, as if her son’s opponent were a pancake ready to be flipped.
I heard fathers, too. “Pee on him,” one suggested. “Pull his hair,” another offered. No lessons here.
By Max’s third meet, I had made little progress in understanding my role in this sport. Across the gym, I saw him put on his protective head gear. He entered the ring with confidence. The boys shook hands. Suddenly, they were down on the mat. “Oh, my poor baby,” I whimpered, not caring that my son hadn’t been an infant for 14 years.
First Max, then the other boy, took control. “You can do it, Max,” I mouthed. It was a phrase borrowed from Max’s cello teacher that meant, You can master those arpeggios or a new bowing. It’s translation here was, I’m not really sure if you can do it, but whatever you do, don’t get hurt.
In the final round, Max was nearly pinned; only a raised shoulder kept the referee from declaring him the loser. His thick brown hair masked his eyes, but his red face and clenched jaw broadcast his determination. It was nothing like the expression he wore making music.
“Hang in there, Max,” I muttered.
“Come on, Max,” I said a little louder, but even if my voice reached Max, he was paying attention only to his coach and the boy on top of him.
“Go Max,” I yelled. “You can do it.” This time I meant, You can beat him. I couldn’t tell him how, though. This wasn’t cello.
With only seconds left on the clock, Max gathered all his power, flipped and then pinned his opponent. I was on my feet cheering. I wanted to see him vanquish another enemy.
I was so busy whooping it up that I didn’t notice the other boy. “Did you see him?” Max asked me after the meet was over. “He just lay there on the mat. I felt badly. I’m glad I won, but we were both so tired and it’s worse when you don’t win.”
Who thought I’d get a lesson in compassion at a wrestling match?
At the next meet, Max would be choked into defeat. I saw the boy press his forearm into Max’s throat, but said nothing. I was quiet as Max began slapping the mat with his free hand. The coach screamed at the referee to stop the match, but I remained frozen, waiting for time to be called.
My silence continued as I watched Max rise to his knees, then his feet; he gasped for air, coughed, and rubbed his throat. If this were his asthma flaring up or an anaphylactic reaction to the peanuts he was allergic to, I could go to him. All I could do now was be angry — at the referee, the other boy, the opposing team’s coach. I blamed them for the unwritten law that forbids mothers to go their sons.
I hate this language.
Or do I hate that there is no need for me to speak it? Within minutes of joining his teammates, Max was breathing easily, joking, cheering for the next wrestler.
When we got home, I asked Max why he kept slapping the mat. “I was trying to tap out,” he answered, “trying to get the ref to stop the match.”
“You mean he knew you were in trouble and wouldn’t blow the whistle?”
“I guess he didn’t see anything wrong,” Max shrugged. “He was a bad ref, but it doesn’t matter anymore.”
In music, Max didn’t have many opportunities to surprise me with his wisdom and grace. Yes, I could admire his technique and the way he interpreted a phrase. But he would never win an argument with me about a note value, a tempo marking, or intonation.
Max chose not to wrestle in ninth grade. That was fine with me; I never mastered the art of the cheer. He wanted to “tap out” of cello, too. I gulped and said OK. I was choking him with my dream. There was no point in having the same vocabulary if it no longer illuminated who my son really was. Whatever disciplines await his future, I’ll leave the fluency to him to understand him more.
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