The Peter Pan Syndrome
A return to Neverland

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, December 16, 2007

The husband is setting the alarm for 4:30 a.m.

"Well, then I'm wearing ear plugs," I say.

"I'm pretty sure that's what you did last year, too," he says.

"Tradition," I say.

Holiday tradition. We've been quarreling about the concept, but only in a way intended to protect each other. My point is that Alex really doesn't need to get up at 4:30 to go pick up Peter, his fully grown son, who is taking the redeye home from San Francisco. Alex insists, refusing once again this year to surrender to the taxi or any other idea I come up with. No, tradition dictates that he'll make the one-hour drive, park, stand there at baggage claim waving and smiling, and then the two will go get sesame bagels at their favorite bagel place in the B Concourse, and they'll talk and reminisce and reconnect.

All very nice. But even Peter admits it's a lot to ask. Peter does not want his father to get up at 4:30 a.m. Peter feels terrible about this. I know because this happens every year. Because Peter waits so long to get his plane reservation, and the redeye is usually the only flight that fits his schedule, and usually there are just middle seats available. We'll hear of this. We'll go around and around on the phone feeling bad for Peter for having to take that redeye with that middle seat, and for Alex who will have to pick him up. And then we'll all say Peter should remember to make his reservation earlier next year so he'll have more choices, and he'll say, yeah, definitely, and then somehow it never happens.

One year, we broke from tradition. I am vague on the details; apparently I went into survival mode and blocked most of it out. I know there were good intentions involved -- there are always good intentions -- and an Avis rental car agreement. There was a lost or misplaced drivers license involved, and Alex driving out to the airport anyway to pick up Peter. I know there was a found license involved, an Avis car in our driveway and something days later about lost Avis keys. There may have been a tow truck and another trip to the airport behind the tow truck. There was almost certainly something found in the washing machine: keys, a license -- a discovery resulting from the best intentions. Every visit, Peter kindly does at least one load of laundry right about the time Alex is understandably complaining that he has no socks left because Peter borrowed them all.

Ear plugs. I am putting in ear plugs. I am not going to get dragged into any of this again.

I should state for the record that, on his own turf, Peter is a responsible young man, successfully holding a big-time job in a huge California hospital system. Whatever dark cloud of bad luck hovers above him when he returns home for the holidays is almost certainly just a matter of the regression that occurs when anyone revisits one's childhood. We have a fascinating discussion about this as we drive around with him aimlessly looking for something to do. Seems he read the paper wrong, and the holiday movie we wanted to see actually started an hour ago. Peter feels bad, and we all laugh and say how we'll never put him in charge of movie times again -- nope! Then we decide to go buy him a cellphone battery because his is dying. The cellphone store no longer carries that model, but the salesperson is able to locate one at a branch 15 miles away, so we have to hurry before the store closes, which it does minutes before we get there.

Ear plugs! This year, I am just not going to get involved.

"Well, I'm going to sleep," I say to Alex. "I really wish you would reconsider this 4:30 a.m. plan."

"Goodnight," he says, turning off the light.

I awake the next day at a gloriously sensible 8 a.m., thanks to my 6-year-old daughter bouncing on the bed saying: "Peter's here! He's here!" She is peering out the window, watching Alex's car drive up. We sit together and prepare for the reunion. We see Alex get out of the car. We wait for Peter. We keep waiting.

No Peter. Alex comes in, carrying a bag of bagels. And a bag from Target. His head is low, his shoulders hunched. He looks like the flat-tire version of himself.

"He missed the plane," Alex says. "He . . . missed . . . the . . . plane." He goes over to the phone to see if perhaps Peter thought to call with this information. In fact, Peter had left a message in the middle of the night saying that he and at least eight other passengers got bumped from that redeye because of an oversold flight; he would be arriving on a connecting flight tonight from Phoenix. "I didn't hear the phone ring," Alex says. He looks at me with his eyebrows all pointy, a look that most certainly says: Why didn't you hear the phone ring?

"Ear plugs," I remind him. I ask him what's in the Target bag.

"Socks," he says. "I bought him his own socks. Because things are going to change around here."

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