It's the final show on Broadway, a place we left behind three months before when Ben joined the “Billy” national tour. For the past four weeks, the tour has been at the Kennedy Center, a 20-mile drive from our house and one of the places where this journey began.
Immediately I flash back to our first train trip almost five years ago, when my little boy was trying to learn Gavroche's song. He didn't really know what he was doing, didn't really understand how the audition process worked, didn't really comprehend what was ultimately ahead.
Neither did we.
The "Les Miserables" audition was not a success, obviously. Nor was the first of many "Billy Elliot" auditions that started when he was 10. But there was progress; he kept getting calls to go back. And he kept going back.
At that point, we had no idea where all this would lead, just that we had a child who had found an all-consuming passion and managed to remain a kid at the same time.
That's our job as parents, striking the delicate balance between nurturing the passion and ensuring that he is a regular kid. The questions Jill and I receive most often are around this subject.
"Has this changed him?"
January 30: Three very long weeks have passed since I started writing this essay, and it’s been since last fall that I’ve contributed to this blog. That happens when you live in a Petri dish of puberty. Change is the constant in your life, and the weeks are long ones.
Today I’m driving to Pittsburgh to pick up Ben and Ginno, the fifth “child” in our household. Ginno, who cared for Ben for the last several months in New York, has been serving as his guardian on the road for the past two weeks. He truly cares for our son; we’ve been fortunate to have him in our lives, along with Brian, Jill’s cousin and another one of the masses that help take care of our little boy.
The 570-mile drive up and back is arduous and long, something I’ve gotten used to as a long-distance parent. For several years when my oldest, Nicholas, was in high school, I made the drive to North Carolina and back on the same, long day. Now Nick can come see us — a blessed development. He has matured so much and, at 19, is rapidly becoming the adult I always hoped.
For the longest time, I have said I’m interested in being friends with my kids when they are adults. With Nicholas, there is reason to be encouraged.
Ben has an Achilles tendon strain, which occurred in a ballet class in Cincinnati, and he’s out of the show for an undetermined period of time. Even though the injury is considered minor, it means he won’t play Michael, Billy’s best friend, because he’s supposed to be training for the show’s lead character.
Billy, the elusive Billy Elliot. A boy who has warmed the hearts of millions and changed a lot of people’s worlds since the 2000 movie and subsequent stage musical. Ben has pursued the part for almost four years now, his first audition coming just after he received his first professional gig in “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre.
That seems so long ago.
February 11: It’s a stressful time, and we’ve become pros at handling stress.
Kate, our oldest daughter, is struggling. It’s something that seems to happen during this time each year, when the days become shorter and colder. She spent 18 days in an outpatient program over Christmas and New Year’s. Her freshman year in high school, which started so promisingly, has deteriorated.
Starting shortly after Thanksgiving, Kate became progressively more manic. Her chances for academic success, which are subject to the cycles that come with being a bipolar teen, seem to be deteriorating as well.
We are trying to transfer her to another school, one that is better equipped to serve students with emotional disabilities. One of her teachers — her case worker, no less — explains that if she would just turn in her work, her grades would be better.
It’s become a familiar drill: Every time something new happens — new school, new meds, new teachers, new counselors — Jill and I have to recite again what has brought us to this point. Diagnoses, family histories, flaws, foibles — all are exposed yet again. Improvement, continuous though fragile, is the long-term goal.
Ten weeks into a hyper manic cycle, we are worried.
I had a chance to talk to Nicholas at length this week while waiting for the kids to get out from a movie. It was great to catch up, learn about his classes — he’s taking a buttload of hours and getting a new roommate — and hear about his upcoming audition. It’s a stressful time for him, too, but I’m proud of how he’s handling it all.
Ben and I went out to take pictures today. It was bitterly cold, and the wind made things that much worse, but it was good to get out for a while. The boy has been housebound largely since he got home, although the PT has gone well and he seems to be feeling better. Ginno has returned to New York; we still don’t know what Ben’s training will look like.
The sunset, however, is beautiful.
February 17: I’m in Houston, visiting my mom for the first time on her home turf in two years, attending a conference related to my work. The weather stinks, but I manage to sneak out and take some pictures. Photography is a source of comfort, especially when I’m having such trouble writing.
We’ve decided to send Ben back to New York, still not knowing with certainty what will happen with Billy and the tour. He needs to be away, to get back to some semblance of the life he has lived for 2+ years, and we know that. We’re still not sure what the next few months will bring. Even though things seem to be taking shape, we still have questions.
Ben is not used to long periods of inactivity, not surprising given that he has worked steadily for the past three years. He is bored and restless, trying to make the best of the first major injury he has had as a performer. New York seems to be the perfect temporary antidote.
As parents, that can be tough to accept, to realize your child — at the tender age of 14 — belongs in a place so far removed from the nuclear family life. And yet Ben has done the three things we’ve asked of him — stayed engaged in school, acted and worked professionally in a professional environment, and yet somehow remained a kid who still loves and needs his family.
Once he plays Billy, Ben will be only the second child in North America to play the show’s three young male roles (Kylend Hetherington, one of the current Billys on tour, is the other.) That speaks to Ben’s versatility and, ultimately, his will.
I don’t know how he does it. I’m not sure I understand how we do it, either.
The doctor has changed Kate’s meds, but getting her into another school has been slowed by yet another bureaucratic hurdle, as has the process for getting Emma into her high school of choice. Emma has done everything right; she has good grades and exhibits patience at home and school that are beyond her years. But red tape threatens her ability to attend the school where she has thrived.
In Houston, I call an official at the school that both my daughters — for completely different reasons — want to leave behind. Because a long holiday weekend is coming, we won’t get a call back until Tuesday.
February 21: Things are starting to take shape. A plan is moving into place for Ben, who will resume his formal Billy training in Los Angeles in April, then return to New York in May for five weeks before rejoining the tour in June. If we’ve learned anything about life with “Billy Elliot,” it’s that patience is required.
The school official calls. No word on Emma’s placement, but we have a transfer meeting set up for later in the week for Kate. I’m back in Virginia for three days before we head to New York to see the boy and Ginno. The bigger task: moving out of the apartment we’ve had for 2½ years.
One problem: I left my wallet on the airplane when I came back from Houston.
Fortunately, I don’t have a pile of credit cards to cancel, but it’s still painful. And it’s really no surprise, given everything that has taken place over the past couple of months, that I would do something so stupid.
Almost two months before, driving in D.C. with Ben and a very volatile Kate, I had a minor fender bender. No one was injured, but I struck a car that was being driven by a member of the District of Columbia’s law enforcement community. And the car I was driving — a 2002 Volvo with 150,000 miles on it — decided it was time to hang it up.
Things have to get better.
February 27: Today is Kate’s last day at her old school. Later in the week she will start fresh in a new program. She is more stable than she has been since before Thanksgiving, and for that we are thankful.
Jill and I drove up to New York the day before, to start packing the little apartment we moved into when this adventure began with “Ragtime.” It’s a day we’ve dreaded, in part because we’re leaving our son and some wonderful friends and memories there, and because it represents the end of a tremendously significant era in our lives.
One reason Ben is on the tour is because it gives him a chance to play Billy. Another is because he could play Michael, a principal role, when the show was at the Kennedy Center over the holidays. Sadly, the show’s closing on Broadway meant that he made the right move in leaving New York when he did. Happily, going on tour gave him a chance to perform in front of friends and acquaintances that otherwise would not have seen why we do what we do.
Now all we have to do is finish packing.
We’ve decided to let Ben stay in New York for the next month, return to school during that time, and see how things go until he resumes training. Friends that we’ve made because of this experience — Ginno, Carol, Bernadette, Katie, Ruby, Todd, and Carole — are helping us with the transition.
Last night the Oscars were on, and we sat on the couch and watched as they marched predictably to form. Cheers went up when Meryl Streep won in what proved to be the night’s only surprise.
Today, Jill left to help Kate get ready for her new school, and found a surprise — a letter informing us that Emma will get into her school of choice as well. Ginno, Ben, and I continue packing. As day progresses into night, I go to my neighborhood bar with a friend.
While there, I get a message I never expected. Ben is nominated for an award for playing Michael in Washington, D.C. On our last night in New York, he gets recognized in his adopted hometown.
Things indeed have come full circle, tying us in knots at times in the process as we go through the extreme highs and the equally tough lows. These past 50 days have been one of the roughest periods we’ve experienced as parents and as a family.
Fortunately the pebbles we stumble across slowly fill the potholes along the way.