When my son Noah entered seventh grade, his voice deepened and his personality changed. Gone was my talkative buddy. In his place was a sullen recluse.
Mothers with older sons assured me that this was normal. "It will pass," they promised.
It took five years. And although the new Noah laughed freely and did not flee from the dining table before chewing his last sip, there was still a distance between us. My hope that we could fill that void was further removed two years ago, shortly after he turned 20 and slipped into such a deep depression that he spent three months in a mental hospital.
When he was first released, he attempted suicide within three days, which resulted in an additional six weeks as an inpatient. The next time he was released, I was afraid I would let him out of my sight.
I stopped longing for the talkative boy he had once been and daily thanked God for what I had: a son who was alive. A son who no longer seemed to believe that he might as well be dead if he couldn't be perfect. He made it through college living in our family home in Alberta, Canada.
Then came Covid. The job Noah was supposed to start in May was postponed and he suddenly had six weeks with no plans.
"Why don't you build the cedar-strip canoe you talked about?" I recommended.
"Maybe," he said. "But I need tools – a router and a table saw. They're expensive."
"We didn't buy you a graduation present," I reminded him.
Soon he was visiting lumber yards and hardware stores, which remained open as vital stores during the coronavirus shutdown.
He turned our garage into a workshop and asked his unemployed classmates to do the work, usually four of them, to help with the garage door open. Eventually the workforce expanded to include childhood friends, family friends, high school friends, and a friend from his time in the mental hospital. Every day a different group came by to saw, mill, mill, grind and level – all things that I always wanted to learn but never had the chance.
I took breaks from work to help. I held strips of cedar in place. I glued. I took pizza and baked cookies for the kids I called Covid Canoe Crew. On a drizzly day, I joined Noah under a table on our deck (the only dry, dust-free, and ventilated room we could find) to paint the seats he had made from strips of ash.
When packages of rattan got in the mail, he taught himself to beat up the seats and then taught me. At night, side by side on the living room couch, we've woven the strands into an intricate pattern. Sometimes we talked. Other times we sat in companionable silence.
For the paddles, Noah and the crew cut strips of ash, cherry and maple and laminated them. They spent hours planning them by hand. As the shavings fell off, the floorboards at the end of a broomstick turned. Like the canoe, the paddles were works of art. Unlike the canoe, they reminded me of the cutting board my cousin, a shop teacher, gave my husband and me as a wedding gift 28 years ago. I've always wanted to do something so beautiful, but I didn't know how.
"Do you think you could help me make a cutting board?" I asked Noah.
"Sure," he replied.
After a trip to the local lumber yard for maple, cherry, walnut, and a wood I'd never heard of – purple heart that Noah rightly suggested I would like – we got to work. After asking my cousin for advice, I told Noah how wide the boards should be cut. Then we glued the newly sawn strips together and clamped them in place.
When the glue dried and I noticed slight gaps between some of the strips, my cousin advised me to pull the board apart and clean the edges with a planer. At the speed at which I worked with Noah's hand plane, it would have taken years. I complained to a friend about my lack of progress, unaware that he had a workshop full of power tools. He gave me a key.
Noah and I went out at night and came home well after bed sweaty and covered with sawdust. Since we've pulled dried glue off our fingers, we're planning our next visit. We've been spending hours together since mid-June, in the garage, in the workshop, in the hardware store or in the wood yard. We have made more than two dozen cutting boards.
Without trying, we found synergies and a rhythm: Noah likes to measure, saw and connect things that don't particularly interest me. I like to find out, glue, clamp, sand and refine patterns, none of which he is particularly interested in. We both like to plan. He's happy to help if I ask you, and he's full of useful suggestions. When what I thought was an excellent piece of bloodwood turned out to be gone, he figured out how to save it.
Plus – and I really appreciate that – he usually sweeps up the sawdust before I get around to it. The chaos we create continues to surprise me, but the bigger surprise was the effect woodworking had on our relationship. When I asked Noah to help me make a cutting board, I thought it would be a once in a lifetime experience. I never thought that we would discover a common passion.
For me it is a chance to be creative in a different way than in my daily work as a writer and editor. For Noah, who loves doing things with his hands, it is a chance to use high quality power tools that he would otherwise not have access to.
When Noah came home from the hospital two years ago after several suicide attempts, my husband, daughter, and I discussed what to do with the kitchen knives. Ultimately, we decided not to hide her: we wanted Noah to know that we were trusting him with his life.
Now he's the one protecting me. When he taught me to use a jointer in the workshop the first night, he scolded me for putting my hands too close to the blade.
It seems trite to put a silver lining on the cloud that is Covid-19, but my relationship with my son is anything but trivial.
None of us have any idea how or when Covid Time will end. I also have no unrealistic illusions about mental health: As the daughter of a man who died of suicide and the mother of a son who wanted to, I believe that good mental health is something to be thankful for can take care of something and maintain it. And Noah is open to his experience; He gave me his blessing to tell this story.
The boards that Noah and I make are only as strong as the materials we use and the time and care we put into each project. The gaps in this first board were formed because two strips of wood did not fit together properly. Before they could become permanent, we had to change them.
The same goes for me and Noah. When my friends insisted 11 years ago that he wasn't gone for good, that he was just growing up, I held on to hope that they were right. I wanted the change to be quick. If there had been a power tool to speed up the process I would have used it.
It had never occurred to me that I would change too – and that Noah would be the catalyst by opening my eyes to what I could do and what we could achieve together. The little boy he was lives in a special place in my memory. The young man he has become, who enriches my life in ways that I had always hoped for but never dared to expect – he is the one I now enjoy.
Debby Waldman is a writer, editor, and aspiring woodworker. As an ex-Pat-American, she has lived in Edmonton, Alberta for 28 years.