Chops and Cutlets

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I almost cut an edge off of one of the pork chops left on the platter in the kitchen.  I didn’t really want another helping of dinner, but another bite of pork chop was calling to me.

And then I thought of you.

You would do that whenever we had chops or steaks.  Didn’t take a plate.  Just stood over the platter meant for everyone and took a bite.  Or two or three.   You would salt it, right on the platter for everyone.  Add some hot sauce or steak sauce.  Without worrying whether or not anyone else wanted it.

If it was mentioned to you, you would say that it tastes better that way. (It usually did.)  Try it, you’d say.

Oh, it made Kevin so mad.

So tonight when I thought about taking part of the chop, I thought about you and Kevin.  Thought it would make him mad, even if I did it.  He would act like that chop could no longer be eaten.  He is probably right.

I wondered if I was the one who trained you to do that – to steal that prime piece of meat as if it didn’t really count.

And then I didn’t do it.

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Tonight it is chicken cutlets.  You used to pour lemon juice all over them (too much). Again – regardless of whether others wanted any.  The remaining cutlets swam in the pool of lemon.

I remember Sarah turning up her nose and Kevin cursing.

The bottle of Real Lemon sits out tonight next to the cutlets.

Sarah doesn’t like them now without the lemon.  She knows enough to put it on her own plate.  And Kevin doesn’t comment.

I don’t use any lemon juice.

But I smile thinking of you.

Play Boy

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I’m sorry, Honey, that I didn’t come out to play with you when you asked over and over and over again.  I’m sorry I didn’t come out just to watch – you loved that just as your dad had, and I never did it enough.  I didn’t understand why you would want me there just to watch.

Now I do.

I wish I had scooped up all of the views of you while I could.  I wish I had captured every laugh, every wry smile, every bit of exuberance you had when you were at play. I would like to have them now – all of them.

Watching Conner playing lacrosse (and Loren and Rob watching him) brought me back to your days in high school.  Lacrosse was a club sport, but it was just right for you.  When your Ba came to visit, we traveled to watch you.  We craned our necks to see every play and cheered (not so quietly).  At the game’s conclusion, your arm around Brooke, we both beamed. You were living the life we had imagined for you.

You weren’t a super star with colleges and coaches seeking you out.  You played because you loved it, but I would have loved the glory for you.  I am not even sure now what position you played; I think it was defender.  But I didn’t go to every game as Loren and Rob do.  And, though you asked, I didn’t have the skill to throw the ball around with you.

Oh sure, I played an occasional game of HORSE (usually reduced to PIG) but never stayed outside as long as you wanted me to.  You loved that I could make that one layup shot and how I struggled with the outside shots that you always presented to me.  You wanted me to play more, though, and I guess I thought I was too busy for play.

When you got your first Nintendo system, I could keep up for a while with your five-year-old self.  But soon, even when I practiced after you went to bed, I couldn’t keep up, couldn’t get to those other worlds…and I slowed you down.  You found other playmates who could keep up.  And I stopped trying.

The new principal at my school is only a few years older than you would be.  He and another young male teacher were talking the other day outside of my office about the newest Xbox and PlayStation systems.  I listened as they talked about how they used to play Golden Eye or Madden, the moves they made, the tricks they knew.  I asked a few questions.  I wanted you there to tell them how you had played those games and bettered them; I wanted to be able to tell the story of your playing – but I couldn’t.  I hadn’t watched as you played those games, though I know you would have loved it. I guess I was too busy.

Today we had a paddle tournament in your honor.  The second one since you left us.

Your friends were there.  The day was perfect – sunny and chilly but not windy.  I brought bagels and beers.  The guys played hard – Dan and Basil won the tournament.  Sami put the brackets together, even though she really didn’t know how.  Jeff’s uncle Jim rented the courts for us.  Some people came just to watch and to remember you.  Dan said you brought us the good weather.  All I could think about was how much you would have loved the day.  You would have loved to have had your family there with you, watching you play.  I would have loved that, too.

The guys all knew which paddle you played with.  They knew your moves.  They all would have wanted you as their partner.  I knew that you loved to play and that you were good.  But I don’t know the details.  Didn’t play with you or watch you enough to know.  All I could do was watch the other guys and imagine you there.  I could see you sometimes, running hard and making the best play. Smiling that smile.

I can’t tell you how often I have given advice to parents about playing with their kids.  You taught me that.  I tell them that they don’t have to offer rewards to their children for doing good work or the right thing.  I tell them that the best thing they can give to their child (one who is usually struggling with something) is time with them.  I tell them how the greatest gift I ever gave you was time alone with me – usually playing a game.  I know this.  I knew it then.  I wish I had done it more. But I was busy.

When you went to Rob’s house for the Fourth of July, you always asked all of us to go with you.  We were shy, didn’t feel comfortable.  You wanted us there with you. Rob won’t mind. His parents won’t mind.  They love me.  You are welcome to come with me.  Billy went a few times.  I went once.  I couldn’t relax and enjoy like you could.

But seeing Rob’s sisters today at the paddle tournament, I know you were right.  They all loved you.  And they would have accepted all of us, have accepted all of us, because we were part of you.

Brian posted on FaceBook about the day.  He wanted to be sure we hadn’t forgotten to get the bagels at Bagel Masters.  We didn’t forget.  But I got them near home at the Corner Bagelry.  I’m sorry.  I know that isn’t what you would have wanted.  But I was busy – trying to get ready to be there. I didn’t want to miss a minute.

And I didn’t.  I stayed until the very end.  And then I couldn’t wait to see the pictures that people posted of the day.  Cory sent me two.  Susan and Sami posted some.  I saw your beautiful face – mutual friend.

I couldn’t resist.

I clicked on your FaceBook page.  Stacy posted about the day there.  There were some Likes.  I clicked on your photos.  I saw you looking handsome, arms around your friends, laughing and loving it all.  I cried.  The tears just kept coming.

Looking at the hard days is sad and heart-breaking.  Looking at pictures of you as a baby and a young boy brings me back.  But it is almost like that was another life.  And I look back from afar.

But looking at the pictures of you as an adult is the hardest of all.  That is the you that I mourn the most.  That is the you just beyond the grasp of my fingertips.  The you that could still be here with me.

Yes, you wanted to play more than you wanted to work.  Yes, you always played full out – too much when it came to the parties.  And it was never enough.  You always wanted more.  But that is the you I want back.  I want more chances to just watch you play.  I want more chances to just give in and enjoy you.

I’m sorry I was too busy.  Nothing will ever be as important as you.

Displaced

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One day prior to the anniversary of my son’s death, I found myself sitting outside in the sunshine trying to conjure images of his youth – happier times.  Some friends had recommended that I do that; moreover, they recommended that I write about those times as a way of providing respite to those reading the stories of his final years.

So, I set out to think, first.

But as thinking goes, I found myself bird walking, moving away from my purpose and pondering other things.

D and I had talked the night before after a long silence. We talked of her writing (she never asks about mine) and of an essay contest addressing the topic of the things we fear the most.  She admitted to fearing the act of writing about the loss of her baby some fifteen years ago.  She had never written of it.

The conversation was still perched in my mind like a bird’s nest tucked between the branches.  I knew it was there.  I peeked between the limbs and noticed the scraps of fabric and twine within it. Tucked into the talk was the advice she had given me when my son had died.  You need to see him, Ellen.

And as the branches snapped back into place, my mind was hurtling back to the days following his death – the storm, the morgue, the decisions I had made.  D had looked at her boy.

As I sought to remember him full of life and fun and possibility, I remembered only the emptiness, the loss. The images I had conjured of his last hours…and beyond were vivid despite the fact that I hadn’t seen him.

I looked around me for something to bring my young boy back to me and saw only evidence of the “bad” times.  This rental house in its entirety highlighted the loss of the home where I had raised all of my children.  I saw the patch on the screen in the back, the place where he had tried to jimmy the window to get in when we had locked him out.  I saw the chaise where he used to sun himself, but with it came the brevity of those moments, the up-and-out and turmoil that engulfed those moments and sucked down the peace.

I took myself on a mental tour of the house, looking for the joy.  I couldn’t find it.

So I went back to another space and time – the house where my children had grown up.  The house had been torn down while still full.  Full of books, antiques, clothes, appliances, memories.

And though there were many happy times there, I could only pull on the images of holes in the walls, blood stains, listening through locked doors, the feelings of hopelessness that had turned a place full of love and hope into an embarrassment.  When it came down, I heard that the dumpster had sections of old cribs that could be seen from the street.  I never saw the wreckage until it was just a hole in the ground.

As my memories of place failed me, I came to understand something.

I am displaced.

I have no place to call home.

For someone who holds onto the “things” of life as a way to keep the memories, I had come up starkly short.

I had saved some remnants of my mother’s clothes closet, some boxes of antiques.  I thought those would help.

The places of my life are gone.

My childhood home had been torn down – all but a fireplace demolished and a new insta-mansion in its place.

My grandmother’s house in Spring Lake was gone.  I had driven by and seen the real estate sign.  Even dreamed of buying it back.  The next time I drove down the road, I saw the basement – topless.  I could see the stairs leading down to the cozy laundry area.  I remembered the smell.  The hanging clothes.  The rolling wooden toy box with books – Teddy Bear of Bumpkin Hollow, Little Red Riding Hood.  I remembered the coal bin that my cousin had adopted as his bedroom when my grandmother had taken him in after his parents ousted him.  He wouldn’t sleep in the beautifully appointed bedrooms on the second floor.  Maybe he didn’t feel worthy.  As I looked down into the hole full of memories, I saw a cigar box perched on a ledge.  I eased my way down to claim it, to find the jewel of my youth hidden away within it safe from the jaws of the back hoe.  It was empty.

I tried to hold onto place – somewhere.  Short Hills – my grandparents’ house had been torn down.

Highland Lakes.  Kevin and I had searched for the old log cabin to no avail.  My grandparents had sold it when the grandchildren had stopped visiting in favor of being with friends.  I could have made new memories there with my children.  Memories like mine of learning to swim in the clear lake water with hundreds of little fish surrounding me.  Memories of sleeping in a loft and crawling down the ladder early in the morning to swim with my dad.  Trying to canoe out to the island and abandoning the canoe for the rowboat.

That place was gone.

My first home as a married woman still sits on a little hill with a stream running in the back.  But the house has been transformed from a small cape to a magnificent home, bearing no resemblance to the original structure and surrounded by other renovation projects, not the homes that were my neighbors’.

So my reverie brought me to the truth.  I have no place in this world.

I feel displaced because I am.  I have no center.

People would say, have said, “Home is where the heart is,” attempting to convince others that the actual abode doesn’t matter.  It only matters that you are with the ones you love.

My heart is broken, though.

So my “home” is broken, too.

Scrolling through the images of home, searching for the moments of joy has brought me to a newfound appreciation of place as holder of memories.

But it is more than that.  Place grounds your now as well as your then.  Surroundings matter.  You can imagine yourself into the life you build for yourself.  I have allowed mine to reflect my broken heart.  I have quit caring or working to make it beautiful.  Oh, how my mother would cringe at that.  She who was all about creating atmosphere, exuding class and refinement, beauty even.

I have to keep looking back to pull the beautiful and glorious memories from the gaping holes and lost homesteads.  I can see them in my mind’s eye, and I can find them.  I will remember him as he was then and bring him along with me as I continue this journey.

And I must re-place myself in my own space.  Create and imagine it to hold the joys that are still within my heart, the people who are still with me here, the people I have and love as I loved him.

Is this the thing I fear most in the world?  As D fears writing about her lost son? She had looked at him.  I have looked at my boy in a different way, looking closely by examining those hard days and putting words to them.  Maybe we both have seen in our own ways.

Am I ready now to put to rest those difficult images and to remember the beautiful ones?

To find a place again?

Maybe.

Living Without

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I took a lot for granted.

As teenagers we went to Red Bank on Saturdays and I bought Landlubber jeans and Clinique concealing stick. Pot o’ gloss by Yardley had that sweet strawberry flavor and made my lips so shiny. I went to a store on the west side to buy carpenter’s jeans and overalls.  At Steinbach’s I bought underwear and pajamas, the occasional dress.

I wore my mom’s “vintage” clothes and bought new Fair Isle sweaters at Rumson Roulette.

I didn’t have an allowance.  When I needed something, my parents gave me money.  My mom even trusted me to take money from her wallet when I needed it.

I didn’t have a curfew.  Until, standing on the front steps, I leaned against the doorbell while passionately kissing Pate Roy.  The next night I had to be in by midnight.

I swam at an exclusive swim club.  I was on the swim team and did water ballet.  Golfing and sailing weren’t my favorite, but I learned to do both.  Tennis and paddle tennis, too.  I learned to play the piano. I didn’t feel privileged.

I visited one set of grandparents in Florida every winter. I went to the Bahamas one Christmas.  I skied in the winter and stayed at the Lake Placid Club.  At Easter we went to Tides Inn in Virginia and rode paddle boats with our cousins.  At Sky Top Lodge in Pennsylvania, we dressed up for dinner and played in the game room at night.  We ice skated and skied there, too.

Christmas and birthdays were events.  Santa Claus brought not only beautifully wrapped gifts, but he brought the entire winter wonderland to my house after I went to bed on Christmas Eve – tree, ornaments, lights, decorations.  From zero to amazing.  My grandfather’s birthdays were scavenger hunts for the grandkids; we raced around the block searching for hidden treats. On his 70th birthday the tables were turned on him and a Cadillac convertible was the final gift – this time for him.

I cleaned the bathrooms, vacuumed the carpets, weeded between the flagstones on the patio (I hated getting the dirt under my fingernails.), raked leaves, did the dishes after dinner.  I didn’t get allowance for those chores.  I did them because I was asked to do them.  Not always happily.

I went to college and graduate school at Ivy League schools.  My parents paid for everything.  They gave me money for spending when I needed it.

I worked in the summers.  I worked at my father’s plumbing and heating supply business.  I was a bank teller.  I saved my money and gave nice gifts to my family, friends and boyfriends (especially).

I didn’t overspend.  I didn’t ask for extravagant things.  I didn’t want for anything.

When I became a mother, I did the same for my children.  I had seen that other people didn’t grow up as I had, but, honestly, I still didn’t think of myself as privileged.  My parents’ home was beautiful, but not luxurious.  All four of us shared a bathroom.  My parents drove Chevys – station wagons and sedans.

A year into our marriage, we bought a little cape.  We each got new cars – Fords.  We had jobs as teachers.  And when I had my first baby three years later, my father took over our mortgage so that I could stay home with him.  I knew I was lucky.

I paid the bills the day they arrived in the mailbox.  I made extra money by tutoring and embroidering sweaters for a children’s clothing store.  I bought and made thoughtful gifts for my friends and family.

Birthdays were themed parties with hand-made goodie bags and an embroidered sweater for the birthday boy or girl.  Pin the tail on the purple pony, the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot, the bell on the cat; a farm party at a real farm, a garden party in the middle of winter.  And Christmas always ended with one special gift hidden away and finally “discovered” at the last minute – even Mario 3 (Japanese version) when it hadn’t even come out yet in the U.S.  Santa always delivered.

We joined the same club I had belonged to as a child, and I started liking golf, tennis and paddle.  I went to the pool every day in the summer and taught my children to swim.  They learned to golf and play tennis and sail.  They didn’t feel privileged.  But they wanted for nothing.

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My perspective has shifted.

Now, when I have to borrow money from my girls so that I can buy dinner, I look back and see it all differently.  I can’t go to the outlets or Marshalls and buy something for myself or my kids.  I haven’t been able to indulge my beautiful grandson by buying him things he doesn’t need.

I can’t fix my car that has been hit (and run from) twice in a parking lot.  I can’t get the service that it keeps telling me I need.  Or fix the anti-skid mechanism. I have left two chairs at the upholsterer for more than two years.  I can’t buy fabric to recover them or pay for the service.  My father’s chair has holes on the armrests.

The storage unit is locked down because I can’t pay the bill.  The lights have been turned off twice.  The automatic payment of our auto insurance was cancelled because the payment didn’t go through.  We owe the IRS over $50,000.  There are letters from them that I haven’t opened.

I close my eyes and hope that birthdays and Christmas will pass unnoticed.

Sarah asks for nothing.  What sixteen-year-old girl asks for nothing?  She calls us poor.  I guess we are.

Billy couldn’t take college classes this semester.  He won’t be able to take them next semester.

I have to say thank you more times than I can count.  Friends take care of me in big and little ways over and over again.  And I can’t repay them.  I just say thank you and sink a little further.

One of my greatest pleasures was giving.  Now I give what I can – time, love, advice, company – it feels inadequate and I’m embarrassed.

Every few weeks we run out of money for a few days.  Last week, Kevin didn’t apply on time for his unemployment check.  Then there was a holiday that delayed it even further. So we went from having to live from Friday until Tuesday with no money to having to extend ourselves until Thursday.

Sarah asked for two singles.  I had to say no.

We made it.  The bank charged us half of Kevin’s paycheck for the overdrafts. I got paid on Friday and was able to pay a few bills today. And we went to the grocery store.  I know it is temporary, but I forget the hole.

I have so much.  Compared to others, I still live a privileged life.

I can live without things.  I can live without peace of mind.  I am living without being able to give.

I gave to him.  Beyond what I should have.  I gave him what wasn’t even mine to give.

I thought it would save him.  That was all that mattered to me.  Having him.

When he would lose hope and say he wasn’t worthy of living, I yelled at him.  I told him we had lost too much to lose him.  If he was going to die, he should have done it years ago.  I didn’t begrudge him what I had given (what he had taken) as long as he was still here.

One time I thought I was willing to let him go.  That I just couldn’t take it anymore.  And when he didn’t answer my call, I knew that it wasn’t true.  No price was too high to keep him.

I know it seems like he was selfish.   Maybe you think I made him that way.

But he wasn’t.

Someone remembered him on the anniversary of his death with this comment:  I’ll never forget he took me to Hook Line after work one night and all I had was my Buy Rite shirt on….He takes me his car and gives me this salmon colored polo shirt to wear….I put it on and he goes, “You look almost as good as me.” Guy literally gave me the shirt off his back or van in this case.

If he had, he shared.

What happened those last years churned in his gut.  He hated himself for what he had done.

I can’t be angry with him for putting us in this state.  I don’t even really blame him.

But I hate living without.

Him.

Out of my hands

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That day was different.  Maybe because it was more frenetic than other days.  But more because it was the last day.

A day when things changed – forever.

Several times during the day, I got the call – the call to get money to pay the motel bill…and for other things.  It was always an emergency.  I drove from work to the motel and back and then did it again. He was at high pitch and I was tapped out.  I had borrowed all that I could borrow and there was no more money coming in.  He “forced” (that is really the only word I can use) me to deposit checks from one (empty) account into another in order to withdraw funds that weren’t there.  I was sick to my stomach about it all.

There had been talk (for months) about going to Bergen Pines Rehab.  There’s a bed. There’s no bed.  I can go in two days.  The bed is gone.  He talked to Amber about it and relayed the information that she gave him (her mother had been there multiple times) about how to get in when there was no bed.  But it never seemed to come together.  And because I was the mother of an adult child, I could find out nothing on my own.

Finally, I spoke with Amber directly.  She had been encouraging him to get help, even though he told me that she had not.  She knew how to get him accepted there even without a bed.  He would have to say that he was suicidal – or on the brink of suicidal.  If he was too convincing, they would put him in a straitjacket and give him no meds for withdrawal. He had to hint at it without actually saying it.  By the time we took him there, he didn’t really have to lie much.

I thought that he had gotten enough money during the day.  I thought he was ready to go.  I was wrong – on both counts.

I drove to the Budget Inn to meet him.  I had been there daily for months.  The big red sign taunted me.  The low tan buildings looked all the same.  I wondered who else stayed at a place such as this.  Occasionally, I would see people, even sometimes some children with their parents in the pool.  As I turned the corner behind the office, I would look to see if he was standing on the curb, smoking a cig with his phone tucked between his shoulder and ear. I would usually drive in, meet him in the back, and try to drive away.  Sometimes I actually locked the door so he couldn’t get into my car and insist I drive him to some “connect.”  He would say he didn’t have enough money for a cab. And I had no money to spare.

The same was true on this night.  But I had no intention (and I thought no need) to provide more money.  He had a different idea.  He intended to use whatever he could before we left for Bergen Pines.  The truth of it is that he probably never really intended to go.  Amber was there with him.  He was angry because the two of us were united in our intention.  He was going to go there that night, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

He did what he had done over and over again.  He asked for more money. One more fix.  One more time before he left.  I said no.  I truly had no more resources.  This made him angry.  He became agitated.  He begged for Amber to help him.  He begged for me to do something more.  There was nothing we could do.

He retreated into the motel room.  He refused to go.

Amber and I stayed outside.  She had hope for him that she didn’t have for herself.  She had grown up in “the life.”   She didn’t finish high school, had no skills, no hope of getting out.  Knowing about his past, she believed he could make it out.  He had an education and a family, a strong good family, to support him.  He had lived a life in which he had wanted for nothing.  To her, he had so much hope.

So she went into the motel room to try to convince him to go.

I remained outside.  Waiting.  Uncomfortable and conspicuous.  But I waited.

It wasn’t long.  Amber came back out. She was defeated.  She said he wouldn’t go…unless he could use again – one more time.  It was always one more time.

I called Cory.  I know he would have loaned me money.  I couldn’t take one more thing from him.  I just couldn’t. He had been holding me up in ways that I could never pay back.  I just needed to talk to someone who knew and understood.

I called Lori.  I knew she had used Xanax for her anxiety in the past when it had become overwhelming.  I asked if she had any.  She did.  She even offered to give me some for him.  I remembered the other rehabs he had entered.  They had told me to let him use so that he would be compliant.  So that he would agree to go.  I thought the Xanax might take the edge off enough to convince him to give in.  I didn’t commit to Lori.  I just kept the idea – just in case.

Amber told me I should go into the room to talk to him.

So after months of just seeing it from the outside, I walked out of the warm summer night into the seedy hallway leading to his room.  Room 106. The dark door was slightly ajar.

I entered and saw him laying curled up on one of the beds in the room.  The covers were all swirled up in a ball.  His bed always looked like that.  He slept as if in a whirlwind, tossing and turning, thrashing and moving. The covers never stayed put.  The room was as I could have expected.  It was ugly and tan and maroon.  He didn’t even respond to me.

This is the image I conjure up when I think about him on his last day.  He wasn’t in the same motel, but it might as well have been the same one.  All I can imagine is that ugly room littered with dirty clothes and paraphernalia, with a stiff bedspread crumpled up beneath him.

I sat beside him and begged.  He curled himself up tighter like a snail recoiling from salt.  I got up and paced.  I started to gather his things from around the room into a bag, a garbage bag, not a suitcase.  That is what he had been reduced to.  I walked into the bathroom.  The sink was littered with paraphernalia.  He had not even started to clean up.  I didn’t touch it.  Couldn’t stand to see it.  The scene was like something out of a bad movie, but I had to pretend that it was normal.  Not shocking and sordid.

I offered the Xanax.  He pushed for money.  I told him there was none to be had.

It was hours after our planned pick-up that he finally gave in.  I don’t remember what turned him.

He disposed of his needles and other tools for using in the garbage can outside of the entrance to his room.  We gathered up his garbage bag full of his most prized possessions and got into the car.  Amber was going to come with us.

And then he ran.  Across the highway and into some trees.  We couldn’t see where he had gone.  We got into the car to follow him.  It was as if he had disappeared into thin air.  He had no phone.  We couldn’t call him.  We waited and waited.

We drove up and down the back streets. We went to McDonalds and to the A&P down the street.   It seemed too far for him to have gotten there in that amount of time.

Up and down the dark streets, peering into bushes and behind trash cans, we looked for him.  And then we gave up and went back to the parking lot behind the motel and waited.

Finally, he came back.  It must have been an hour.  Maybe longer.

He and Amber sat in the back seat together.  I drove and tried not to talk.  He was angry.  I didn’t mention the Xanax again.

I had driven the route before.  It was over an hour away, at the northern end of the parkway.  The last time I drove him there (when he said that a bed was waiting for him) he had gone in and come out quickly.  He told me that he had gone to the detox unit but that they had sent him away.  I think he actually just went to the bathroom.  That time I had been naïve enough to bring him back home with me.  I didn’t really believe him, but I didn’t know what else to do.

This time I had Amber with me.  She knew the drill.  She was on a first-name basis with local cops, county prosecutors, rehab orderlies.  She was deeply entrenched in the system.  She knew Bergen Pines.

She told him what he needed to say.  We said our goodbyes.  We watched him as he walked, ever so slowly, towards the doors to the Emergency Room.  It was 3 AM.

We drove away.

He had sold his phone for drugs.  He had no cigarettes, no money.  Only the clothes on his back.  He was about to try to negotiate a place in the detox unit by saying that he was on the verge of hurting himself, mortally.  But not quite.  He had to say he was desperate and depressed, but he couldn’t quite admit to being suicidal for fear of the straitjacket.

As we drove down the highway, I felt a bit like Thelma and Louise.  Two girls out for an adventure.  I felt relieved and hopeful.  I was out of gas so we started looking for a station.  I had been afraid to stop on the way there for fear he would jump out of the car.

We pulled into a truck stop and that is when we got the call.  He said that he couldn’t be seen until 7 AM and that we should come back to get him.  We refused.  It had started to rain.  He was hungry.  I refused.

It was the hardest thing I had ever done – to that point.  But I had Amber with me, and she told him what he had to say.  He didn’t want to say it, probably hadn’t.  He didn’t want to be admitted.

We stood our ground.  We got some gas in the car and headed home.  We had to stop answering the calls eventually.

At 6:30 AM the house phone rang.  I had just gotten to sleep, I think.

It was a doctor from the emergency unit.  He wanted to know about my son.  I gave him some background, making it clear that he was desperate and in need of care, hopeless and without other options.  After a few minutes, the doctor agreed to admit him.  He would be in the program for the mentally ill and chemically dependent, MICA.  He would be taken to a detox unit.  We wouldn’t be able to talk to him for a while.

I had stood my ground.  Isn’t this what everyone had told me to do again and again?  Say no.  Tough love.  It never felt right.  Didn’t feel right this time either.  But I was out of options.  Taking my lead from a broken little girl.  Wanting (needing) someone else to be in charge.

He was in the hands of the system.  I had a moment of relief.

But the system failed him.

I had finally said no to him, maybe for the first time in his life.

It didn’t save him.

Giving

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On several occasions recently, I have heard a teacher read (and teach) the book, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.  I had this book for my children when they were young.  (I can even “see” it in the basement playroom of my now-destroyed home.)  I remember not liking it then.  It seemed sad and inappropriate for young children.

Listening to smart teachers read it and use it to teach children, I have come to see the complexity of the book (though I still am not convinced it is a book for young children) and to appreciate the ways it can be used to teach students to take different perspectives and to argue a side.

But now my perspective is quite different. I am left wondering and trying to come to terms with the tree.  Is she weak or is she strong?  And I am left knowing that life experiences drastically change the way we read a text.

My life experiences pushed me last year to argue that the tree is strong.  I had to believe that what she gave was a sign of her strength, her love, her complete devotion to the boy.  And it was all worth it.  They were both happy in the end, weren’t they?  So I listened and uncomfortably fought against the idea that the tree was weak…even in the face of the text that started to show me otherwise.

I remember my mother trying to explain to me how much she loved me.  She did this several times in my life, probably in response to some dumb decision that I had made which made her concerned for my well-being.  She told me that she would happily cut off her right arm to protect her children.  Happily.

My mother was a strong woman.  She was not easily swayed to my side during an argument.  She stated her opinions on many issues and stood behind them.  People sometimes found her opinionated beyond what was comfortable.  And my children respected her, even while being a little afraid of her.  She was no shrinking violet.  But she would have cut her right arm off for me?  For my sister?

My parenting style was very different from my mother’s.  Yes, I am opinionated.  But I am easier, softer, more accepting than my mother was.  I didn’t judge my children as I felt my mother had judged me. I accepted them and loved them for their own individual strengths and let the challenge areas alone to work themselves out.

And I gave – still give – just as the tree did.  Ignoring my own needs at times.  Ignoring my own wants.  But not really.  Because what I have always wanted is to give my children what they need and want.  That makes me happy.  Just as it made the tree happy to give to the boy.  Even when I have sometimes been left sad and alone.  Mostly, I have not been left.  Because the thing about giving and loving is that it comes back.

So last week, I read the lesson plan of a teacher who was going to use The Giving Tree in her lesson.  I got choked up just reading the plan.  I knew it was going to be filled with emotion for me.  But in our pre-conference meeting, I didn’t mention that.  I listened (as much as possible with my grandson on my lap) and thought about the lesson. Yes, my grandson was with me at school.  My daughter needed me to help out, and I made it work.  And the teacher needed me to respond to her plans for the lesson.  I gave to both as I could…as I hoped would be enough.

The morning of the lesson I drove my son to an appointment and back home again, made him a sandwich, and tumbled myself into the car a little late.  I knew I had to be there first thing for my observation.  I arrived just in time.

The teacher began to read the book.  I tapped away on my computer to script the lesson.  But almost immediately, I needed to wipe the tears while I typed.  I had to think hard –as she was asking the students to do – about whether the tree was weak or strong.  I gulped as I realized my answer was not the one I wanted to give.

The tree is weak.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my giving to him.  Was it a sign of weakness?  Had I hurt him, made him selfish and greedy, like the boy in the book?  Was it my fault?

I had been happy to give – for a while. And I would have (and did) give it all, cut off my right arm, to save him.  My mother taught me that.  Even with her tough exterior, my mother would have given it all. Sometimes she did cut off a limb for me.  She may have even fashioned a boat for me.  And what I have given to my girls I have gotten back in so many ways.  I guess I got back from him, too.

I know he loved me.  And unlike the boy in the book, he never left me.

But listening to the book made me worry.

And it made me think.   About being weak or strong.  About giving and loving.  Was I selfish to give as I had? Foolish?

I am trying to come to a place of acceptance.  I think this: giving and loving are signs of strength.  We cannot control the actions of the receiver.  The boy was not kind to the tree.  He left her after he got what he wanted.

At times, my boy was not kind to me.   But he showed me that he loved me, even though he couldn’t do for me as I had for him.

That doesn’t make me weak.

I think the tree is strong.  I love her for loving the boy as she did.  Even if he couldn’t give back.  We don’t give to get back.  Sometimes it is just a happy response.  It is not what makes us do it.

I’m glad I gave (and still give).  I wish I could have given enough to save him. Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to those who said that I was weak.  Maybe I shouldn’t have tried “tough love.”

I’ll never know. I did my best.

The boy does what the boy does.

The tree is strong.

Book Ends

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My doctor didn’t come to see me during my five-day stay after the birth of my first child, my son.

His associate, an older man (Dr. Gray, I’ll call him) came by my hospital room on rounds.  I remember him standing by my bed.  He wore the traditional white coat.  He didn’t sit.  I noticed that he didn’t touch me.  He hoped I would understand that he didn’t want to examine me or to be part of the “situation.”

I didn’t really understand.  But I came to. He was afraid of a lawsuit.  People told me that I should sue.  That I had plenty of grounds.  The early breaking of my water and resulting cephalohaematoma; the hurried delivery of the placenta; the missing anesthesiologist; the loss of blood and limited supply available; the barely averted (by me) delivery of an incorrect dose of the wrong medicine after surgery. All of these were reasons for a lawsuit.

I had no interest.  I was in love.  My baby was perfect.  That was all that mattered to me.  No lawsuit would change that.

My stay in the hospital was wonderful.   I welcomed any and every guest.  I couldn’t wait to share my boy, my miracle.

When you are pregnant for the first time, you believe that there is a baby growing inside of you, intellectually anyway.  But you have no idea, really.  I remember having dreams of giving birth in the hallway of the middle school where I was teaching seventh and eighth graders.  My baby had a tail.

So when the reality set in and my perfect baby arrived, I wanted everyone to feel what I felt.  I guess I acted like I was the first person in the world to ever have a baby.

Then life carried on, changed for me forever.

Until a little more than thirty-one years later.

Again, I would be told that I had a legitimate lawsuit to file.  Again, I would say that a lawsuit would not change things.   This time, it would not bring back my beautiful boy.

People said I had a case.  Why was no one contacted when my son left the protective custody of the institution to which he had been sent by the court?  Why wasn’t more done to keep him from running when everyone knew it was a possibility?  When he had admitted it to his counselor and others in authority?  His counselor thought he was depressed.  She knew he was struggling hard to find a way to let the program work for him, to find a way to live within his new reality.  Why when his counselor had told me that the people at the institute wanted to talk to me, had they instead been stone silent?  Not a call, not a letter, no sympathy, nothing.  When I sent his death certificate in order to stop the onslaught of medical bills for the broken elbow he suffered while under their care, it was returned unopened with a message on the front of the envelope.  No such person was a client at their facility.

Right.  Because he was dead.

Even going back further along the run of his interactions with the “system,” there were so many injustices. And if fighting about them legally would bring him back, I would be all over it.  But that can’t happen.

And so I am left with the book ends of his life, lawsuits imagined and not acted upon.

With some differences.

In the beginning, I was there.  We were together.  I watched him take his first breath.  He didn’t cry.  His eyes were wide open and he lifted his head to see the world around him.

In the end, he was alone.  I wasn’t there to hold him and tell him it would be okay.  I don’t know how it was for him, if he knew what was happening, if he was in pain or scared.

I hate the wondering.