A Different Halloween

Family Fun Magazine, October 2005

It started out as a typical Halloween. Our house was swathed in fake web, looking more like wads of cotton balls than the work of any self-respecting spider. Lopsided jack-o’lanterns, carved with more eagerness than accuracy, were lined up on my steps, their toothsome grins flickering with a macabre goofiness. Inside, black plastic bowls shaped like little cauldrons were piled high with miniature candy bars, giving off a chocolaty perfume every time I breezed by.

Just a few hours were left before the witching hour, when families decide to forego their healthy dinners in favor of getting out to the streets while there’s still some lingering daylight. Ben, my kindergartener, had already tried on his Incredible Hulk costume several times and I could only hope he would still want to wear it by the time we had to go. Nat, my 13-year-old, was going to be Aladdin or something; he didn’t much care which as long as he got candy.

It was Max, my 11-year-old, who was occupying my thoughts today. A few days earlier he had first broached the subject of going out on his own tonight, with his friend Andrew. No grown-ups. He had begged us to let him do this. This was a first in our family because although Nat is the older brother, he has autism and was not ready to trick-or-treat independently. Now, having to make the decision, my head filled with the perils of a Halloween night spent without adult supervision.

“It’s dangerous,” I had said. “It’s dark, and crossing the street is a different thing at night.” After all, he had only just started walking to school, braving our town’s congested streets on his own. Our neighborhood is bordered on one side by a busy street with a bus line. The school neighborhood, only half a mile away, had another such street he had to cross. Andrew, his friend, lived near the school on another fairly busy street.

“I know. I’ll be careful,” he had insisted, with more force than I was used to hearing from him.

Max is a middle child by birth order and personality. With layers of long blond hair, standing almost 5‘6”, he looks like an outgoing young rock star, but he is actually a quiet, intense kid fluent in computerese and filmmaking technology. He’s a boy who chooses his friends so carefully he’d rather be alone than spend the afternoon with the wrong kid. I already trust him to babysit some afternoons for his little brother. But going out unaccompanied on Halloween night: that was another thing.

I was unconvinced. How could he possibly be safe out there by himself? I pulled out another worry from my tangle of fears: his costume, a huge rubber head with a nose full of mucous, the eyeholes cut through the nostrils. It’d be impossible to see properly out of it. I had hated that thing when he had brought it to me in the store, but I had grudgingly bought it and not said anything. Now I could.

“Well, you can’t wear that big mask if you go alone, because you would need help getting around. You can’t see well enough in it.”

“Fine,” he had said, rolling his eyes. “I won’t wear the mask, okay?”

Hmmm… hadn’t seen that one coming. Think! “What about the houses you’d want to go to? You can’t go into people’s houses.”

He had pressed his lips together. “I know. We weren’t going into anyone’s house.”

He had seemed insulted by my implications, which, I had silently admitted, helped his cause. With no other reasons forthcoming, I had agreed that he could go. We would work out the details later.

•      •

Groups of costumed children were beginning to parade through the neighborhood, stumbling over felled branches and errant acorns, clutching lumpy sacks filled with treats. By now, Ned, my husband was home from work, getting the boys ready. Ben, luckily, was still very excited about being the Hulk, not minding his pudgy winter coat underneath his costume or the incongruity of his light-up sneakers. According to our agreement, Max had changed his costume from nose-leaking bemasked creature to Homestar Runner, an internet cartoon character who wears a baseball hat. I reminded Ned that would be going out on his own and was surprised to see how crestfallen my husband was. I guess he hadn’t realized until that moment just how much he loved going out with all three boys. I put my arms around him.

“Hey,” he whispered eagerly, “What if I tail him? You know, go a half block behind him…”

I quickly and quietly rejected this. A deal was a deal. So Ned left with Nat and Ben and I drove Max to Andrew’s house. Armed with a flashlight and my cell phone, the pair would trick-or-treat their way back to our house as planned. I dropped him off and went back home with a heavy heart. This was all so new to me; up until now, I had been able to control so much of what happened to my kids, to Max — or at least I had been blissfully under that illusion. Now I had to face clammy uncertainty and murky vague fear as I let him go into the dark night. I was going to have to trust him, and not anything or anyone else. Was this really okay to do?

I tried to take my mind off Max by dressing up a little. I whitened my skin with white eyeshadow, hoping it would not cause me to break out, and put on dark red lipstick, and a black robe. As I opened the door to my neighbors and their children, the smiles I got helped me feel more a part of things, and I handed out a lot of the candy — probably too much — to those first few enthusiastic groups.

Seven-thirty. Enough time had gone by to call Max. After about ten rings, he answered, breathless. “Yeah, we’re making our way back. Just stopping at one more friend’s, okay?” I didn’t ask him how it was going or much of anything. I was just relieved he was still alive.

I went back to handing out candy. We were really running low. I would have to blow out the pumpkins soon, to signify that we were finished for the night. At around 8 the activity thankfully slowed and I suddenly felt really tired. I went upstairs, washed my face, and changed. I sank into the couch, and sipped a glass of wine while my husband worked a little on his laptop. A low-key melancholy feeling was seeping through me which I tried to convince myself was fatigue. Where was Max right now? I just could not relax. I really wanted him home. It wasn’t that I was worried about his safety at this point — the phone call had taken care of that — it was more a dull, leaden sadness; the dawning realization, perhaps, that I needed him to be home, but he, on the other hand, did not.

At 8:10 came a knock on the door. My husband and I leapt up at the same time and threw open the door. It was our son. “Hi!” we all three shouted at once. I don’t know if I was ever as happy to see him.

“Hey, you’re a few minutes early,” my husband said giddily, clearly feeling the same way.

“Yeah, I know.” My son replied, smiling back at us, a warmth and something else, unreadable, in his wide blue eyes. His round cheeks were pink and dewy. He smelled like leaves and running.

“Well come on in,” I said,”And let’s see what you gotI hope you didn’t eat any of it before I could take a look at it,” I added sternly. Our ritual for going over the candy gives new meaning to the phrase, “obsessive-compulsive.” A tear in the wrapper? Too many wrinkles in the foil? Unfamiliar candy brand? Out it goes.

But he merely laughed — laughed! — at this. “No, Mom. Of course I didn’t.”

And then my constricted throat eased and I laughed, too. But my heart felt raw, vulnerable. Now I knew what it was. He seemed different; he was different. For the first time, he was comforting me, and not the other way around. Somewhere between discarding the ugly rubber mask and reassuring me just now with his grin, he had left some of childhood behind. That boy, whose chubby hand I had once held for a half-hour of trick-or-treating around the block, was now able to smile tolerantly at my foibles. He had proven something to me that night and in doing so, had gently eased us into the tender beginnings of his adulthood.