The Good Son

My birthday used to be celebrated as if it were a national holiday. From the backyard pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey days to the touch football games on the beach at Easthampton, July 16 was a date inscribed in infamy.

My children forgot my birthday at their own peril. So they never did. Even when my son, Jason, was living in Australia, he told me that he could feel my disappointment when his card arrived two days late. “Mom, lighten up; I’m thousands of miles away,” he said by phone on the 16th. No slack was cut.

This July, my son, a Portland, Ore., deputy district attorney, announced that he would be prosecuting his most important case — 11 counts of assault and harassment against a wife beater. “I’d like to see you put this guy away,” I said. He told me to come up and said that we could celebrate my birthday too.

I was in a courtroom when I went into labor with Jason. I was watching his father, an independent candidate for New York’s 5th District congressional seat, defend himself against a challenge from the Democratic Party over a ballot slot he had won by petition. My mother was with me, and when I announced that the baby was coming, she said: “Hold on, let’s wait for the verdict.”

The verdict was an 8-pound, 2-ounce boy who held his head erect from the moment he was born and who began sizing up the world immediately. He let out a big laugh when he was less than 2 months old and has pretty much kept me laughing for 28 years.

Jason was born with an internal appointment book that knew, automatically, when he was going to tackle the challenges of life. I was his mother, not his personal schedule maker, so he learned according to Jason time, not mine. My task was, as he so aptly says now, to watch over him — not to be mistaken for overprotecting. I was, essentially, his defense attorney. To his credit, he never came to me with a bogus case.

There was the time when he received an acceptance letter from UC San Diego and was notified a week later that it was a mistake. He called me at my office in Los Angeles, and I told him to get his paperwork together, that we were driving to San Diego.

Right before we entered the registrar’s office, Jason turned to me and said: “Let me handle this. I’ll give you the signal if I need you.” We walked in, and I immediately checked to see if the windows would open high enough to throw a desk out.

Jason presented his position to a righteous clerk who quoted University of California education rules. He asked to see the code that she was using to determine his future. She lugged out a large tome crammed with small print and opened to the necessary page. Jason read the material to himself while I tried to gauge which piece of furniture I should affix myself to when the campus police tried to take me away.

Quietly, my son pointed out to the clerk that the rule about grade-point averages didn’t apply to grades which were achieved in honors classes — marks which are automatically rated higher — and that he more than qualified for entry. She read for herself.

“Well,” she said, “we’ll have to call Sacramento about this.”

“Call now,” he gently requested.

She did. Sacramento concurred with my son.

“You’re one lucky young man,” she said. “We’ll send you the paper work.”

Jason looked my way. “No,” I said, “I want to pay his fees and know his dorm-room number before we leave today.”

A few days later, Jason told me about a dream: “I was pulling a heavy rope that was attached to a huge cage. You were in the cage, Mom, and I announced to no one in particular that if I wasn’t taken seriously, I was going to unlock the cage, and there was no telling what would happen.”

As I sat in the Portland courtroom and watched him select a jury, make his opening argument and approach the bench to dispute a defense statement, at some time during the proceedings, I wasn’t watching my son anymore. I was watching a man responsible for the consequences of someone else’s life.

At the recess, he asked what I thought about the jury, and I took out my notes, and we agreed that No. 8 had to be bumped. I felt honored to be asked.

“Happy birthday,” he said to me when he dropped me off at the airport. “Happy Birthday,” he sang to my answering machine.

Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the Los Angeles

Times, is the co-author of “Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom,” due out his fall from Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved by author