"I want to go back," he said. So we made the right phone calls and bought a last-minute ticket to southern California (via Las Vegas).
His reasons were good. "I need to know I can do this. I need to finish." And he said he wanted God to break him. So though he'd left the Bible college campus a month shy of finishing his first semester, vowing to never go back, back he was going.
I helped him pack, cooked his favorite dinner, kissed him goodbye, and cried while Dave held me and we watched his friends drive him up our hill. The foursome planned to stay up all night in honor of Zac's departure, and then those same friends would take him to the airport Sunday morning after their usual Denny's breakfast.
Mark and Cathy Rich, my precious southern California friends, would meet him at the Orange County airport, feed him, shelter him for the night, and take him to Murrieta in time for registration. "Once he gets on that plane," I told Cathy, "I won't worry about a thing."
But that's when all the worrying begins.
The first leg is turbulent and full of sudden dives and screaming people. "I feel so sick," he tells me during his phone call from Las Vegas. I remember another flight, a long time ago, when he was little enough to pull in close during those turbulent dips and dives. "It will be okay," I'd told him then. He'd snuggled close, hiding his face in my side, trusting my promise.
This time, he'd made the flight alone.
"Not only that," the 18-year old Zac continues, "but my connecting flight is delayed." He doesn't know any of the new details, so I tell him to talk to someone at the counter and call Mark with the new pick-up information.
We say goodbye, but not long after, he calls again. "I'm so bored, Mom."
"Do you have any movies on your laptop, any games?"
No movies. And he reminds me that his laptop's chess game cheats, which makes him mad.
"Go grab a sports magazine at the gift shop," I suggest.
It had once been so easy, back when my bag of tricks contained crayons and coloring books, puzzles and picture books, finger puppets and Skittles.
"You'll be getting on that plane before you know it, honey," I say. "Maybe you can find a spot near the gate and take a nap."
From nowhere, Shawn Mullins begins to sing, heard only by me.
I want to believe it.
But things get worse. After two hours on the tarmack, Zac's flight to Santa Ana is grounded due to engine trouble. They can't get him on another flight until the following evening. He can't find his luggage. They have no plans to put him in a hotel. And I'm a thousand miles away, and my arms aren't long enough to shake the unhelpful woman behind the counter and force her to care for my son.
Dave takes over. We stay up for hours, making fruitless phone calls, waiting on hold, enduring three suspicious disconnects from "customer service." In the end, we cancel the second leg of his flight, find a bus that leaves Las Vegas around midnight, and instruct him on what to say when he approaches one of the waiting taxis outside the terminal.
"You'll be okay," I tell him.
But it's not over. The bus is full, and he has to wait until the very last second to learn that they found a spot for him. An hour into the drive, the bus breaks down. They have to wait on the side of the road for another two hours before a replacement bus arrives and loads up all the passengers and cargo. He winds up sitting next to a woman who keeps leaning on him. He temporarily loses his cell phone between the seats. He doesn't sleep for a second ... for the second night in a row.
When he tells me he's going to have to transfer buses at the LA greyhound terminal, my stomach lurches. We were there together once, when he was eight, and I was terrified of taking my eyes off of him. I didn't want him in that filthy place then, and I don't want him there now.
I'm powerless. I don't control the wind, or time, or circumstances. So I turn to the One who does. I like to think that around the same time that Zac looked up at the middle-of-the-night sky and whispered, "Well, God, You've got my attention," I was looking at my ceiling and whispering, "I can't protect him, Lord. I'm giving him back to You."
And when I do fall asleep, briefly, it's to a lullaby.