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Back to School With Narrow Escapes and a Mother’s Love

“You’re doing all the right things, everything is going to work out.”

I’d been repeating this to Ezra over and over, like a mantra, but I’m not sure who I was trying harder to convince, me or them. Ezra, who identifies as nonbinary and prefers the pronouns they, them and theirs, was 19 at the time and was set to return to college for sophomore year after spending a summer in rehab.

The kid’s launch trajectory had been more than a bit wobbly. Even making it through the first year of life was a miracle of modern science. A childhood of medical traumas stemming from a birth defect required surgical reconstructions, along with physical and occupational therapies.

To be labeled a helicopter mother is to be reviled as an overbearing despot, but this was a situation where vigilance, hovering and intervention were called for. My baby could receive nourishment only through a feeding tube in those first months. Later, I had to give supplemental feedings while they slept. Even though it was medically imperative, each time I plugged into the portal leading directly into Ezra’s stomach, it felt illicit.

All this left them with a sometimes unreliable adolescent body. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when they endeavored to manage their frustrations and anxiety with cannabis and other drugs in high school.

Things came to a head the day I saw Ezra hiding a backpack in the shrubbery. It was filled with film canisters stuffed with weed and a stash of plastic baggies, the internationally recognized sign for “I’m dealing drugs.” I was holding the backpack when they returned to retrieve it. “Oh, Mom, that weed? It’s Zoe’s,” they said casually and began texting someone. My cellphone dinged. I looked and down and read the incoming text out loud, “My mom found my weed.”

Balancing a high-wire act of self-medicating, home drug testing and therapy, tutoring and test practices, my ex-husband and I plowed through our dwindling savings and Ezra rallied and got into their first choice college. But during the winter of that first year away, they hit bottom, went cold turkey off drugs and alcohol, and insisted on white knuckling it until they could finish out the semester, return home and enter an outpatient recovery program.

Now I was sending them back to school after only a few months in a therapeutic environment. I’d observed growth and maturity over the summer, but with no foolproof assurance of their readiness to relaunch, I came up with a dubious if quixotic metric for assessing their problem solving, leadership and team building skills.

I signed us up for a zombie escape room on the night before Ezra’s flight back to school.

“O.M.G., mom, this is a metaphor for my childhood,” Ezra complained, when we realized I’d mistakenly signed us up to play the game alone. But before they could make a break for it, our wrangler shoved white lab coats at us and said, “There’s been a zombie virus outbreak. You are society’s last hope. You scientists have exactly one hour to find a cure.”

It was all a bit hokey: The word “Help!” was scrawled across a wall in lurid red paint, and a bloodied plastic hand rested on a hospital gurney. The first clue involved algebra, which sent me into an immediate panic. “We’re all going to die,” I screeched, but Ezra responded with an eye-roll, handling it easily, and dispatched our other clues and puzzles with aplomb.

I was capable of solving only one problem on my own. With a rainbow selection of colored liquids in front of us, I was charged with combining two vials of liquid into a tincture that would be purple in hue. “Red and blue make purple,” I chanted gleefully, ecstatic to be channeling a mastery of kindergarten-level science knowledge.

Finding the final component to our virus antidote depended on the very thing that once threatened to derail my college aspirations. In my senior year of high school, I’d begged my chemistry teacher to award me a C minus, instead of the D I was earning because of my refusal to memorize the periodic table, explaining that I could lose my spot at N.Y.U., where I’d already been accepted. “I’m going to be an actress and I will never need to use the periodic table,” I pleaded.

Now, the future of the world depended on my recalling what element Bh stood for. The sound of zombies banging on the door was getting louder when Ezra correctly identified it as Bohrium. Zombie Apocalypse averted. The kid would be returning to campus.

That night, I slept the deep sleep of a parent who felt secure about their kid’s future. The next morning my ex-husband and I convened to drive them to the airport. “You’re doing all the right things, everything is going to work out,” I repeated, and this time I meant it.

It wasn’t until Ezra was escorted into a private T.S.A. screening room that we learned that they’d lost their passport and were attempting to go through security without ID. And they’d gone to a late night bonfire after averting the zombie apocalypse and hadn’t showered or changed clothes. Traces of chemicals from the accelerant used at the bonfire were clinging to their clothing and hair. Talk about adding fuel to the fire.

Luckily, in a moment of inspired problem solving, they’d handed their fake ID issued under a different name than their plane ticket to my ex-husband. To their credit, Ezra remained calm not only in the escape room but also in this real-life stressful situation. After finding no weapons, and perhaps because of the throngs of other college-bound kids at the airport, our kid was soon cleared to fly. They’d managed not just one, but two narrow escapes in the space of 24 hours. And of course, they were actively eluding an accidental overdose through choosing the path of sobriety, bringing their running tally of narrow escapes to three.

I was angling to catch a glimpse of them as ascending the escalator, when a line from the John Cassavetes film “Love Streams” popped into my head. Gena Rowlands says, “Love is a stream. It’s continuous, it doesn’t stop.” And I pictured the umbilical cord, that awful feeding tube and a river of love connecting us. But a river flows in only one direction. My kid wasn’t looking back at me. Ezra was facing forward, toward their future.

At some point, our children ride the current of love away from us. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Annabelle Gurwitch is the author, most recently, of “Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To.” Ezra is a senior with 2 1/2 years of sobriety and is the student administrator of their college sobriety club.


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