I wrote about the sluggishness that came in the aftermath of my son’s initiation… into the family… tragedy. But I didn’t explain that I was equally weighed down by the residue of a respiratory infection. Loitering congestion. In my ears and throat and lymph nodes.
I realize now that this led me to the provocative image that I chose for the piece–or that chose me. After the piece was published, the image continued to play with my consciousness as I found myself responding to a request on Facebook:
Ok, Saturday-night-stay-in’s – if you post a picture i will write a poem about it. Just say, “Hi dug- pic poem, please.”
Kelly Salasin’s Kill Strategy
a pic poem by dug Nap (For Kelly)
Anytime she’s not so sure kelly always goes for the jugular
I was stunned by the violence of this tiny piece. Had the artist read my article? Was he judging me? Why hadn’t he taken a scientific angle on this anatomic study–which could have been on the kitchen table, on any given morning, of my childhood, before my father left for the operating room.
When I went in to see the doctor last week, she put me on the table, and massaged down my throat, coaxing toxins from my lymph nodes.
I hadn’t realized that I was so filled.
Until my son read a single line from the email he received.
(He refused to let me here more.)
I grabbed his laptop. I pleaded:
“Please don’t respond again. She’ll only be more venomous. She can’t handle boundaries.”
My son was amused by my passion. He insisted that I didn’t need to worry.
I shared the spontaneous visions that were occurring in my mind’s eye on his behalf:
Tearing flesh with fanged teeth.
Ripping jugular veins as a three-headed beast.
Becoming a thousand insects, devouring her brain.
Faced with the mythical proportions of his mother’s protective instinct, he turned toward his father:
“Where are your feelings,” he demanded.
“I am so used to this,” my husband explained.
“But she cc-ed you on the Goddamn email,” he said. “She fucking invited you to watch as she kicked your son in the face.”
My husband remained silent.
I was quieted by my inability to help.
We went to bed numb.
As I settled under the covers, it occurred to me that my vision could potentially injure the Other, so I mustered metta to send to the One who had attacked my child.
A week has past, but the meditation on toxicity continues to force itself into another day. This morning, a Mary Oliver line comes to mind:
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.
3:36 pm. The school bus stops at our driveway, across from the pond, but no one gets off.
Our youngest, 14, has just, this very moment, touched down in Liberia, Costa Rica with his Junior High classmates.
When his older brother made the same trip a handful of years ago, I was a wreck; but he was only 12.
Still, I’ve splintered this entire day checking the status updates of Jet Blue and the posts in our parent Facebook group.
We brought our kids to school last night at 2:30 in the morning, and gathered in the parking lot in front of the bus until everyone arrived. We chatted like it was normal to be there, in the dark, in the middle of the night, hanging out. Someone joked about getting breakfast, and we all felt the pull of longing after a long winter that has protracted itself into spring.
The yellow school bus heading to JFK, manned by their classroom teacher, pulled out, on time, at 3:00 am, and two sets of parents cheered. Not for the kids. But for us. We were heading home childless. For 9 days!
By the time I got in the car though, the emptiness overtook me, and when I crawled back into bed, my mind skipped from thought to thought and wouldn’t let me rest.
Aidan graduates this June. People dismiss elementary school graduations as excessive and unnecessary, but they are truly poignant in our community. This particular rite of passage comes after 12+ years with the same peers before splintering off to a number of different public and private schools in the area. (Our town doesn’t have a high school so the tax dollars are applied to a school of choice.)
The graduation is also distinguished by the school itself. Completing your tenure at Marlboro Elementary is a one of a kind experience–steeped in ritual, initiation, rigor and love.
At the graduation ceremony itself, the students proceed through a canopy of teachers and staff joining hands above them; and then the students take the podium to host the ceremony themselves, even secretly choosing the guest speaker in the months before hand.
Theirs is a combined class of 7th and 8th graders, so it’s the families of the youngers who host the reception afterward; and the next day, these 7th graders return to their classroom, on their own, to greet the upcoming sixth graders.
Prior to the graduation ceremony, other rituals take place:
the reading of poetry from their own kindergarten days in the company of the current kindergarten class;
the weekly literature tea followed by an annual game of croquet–with students dressed in their finest hats and light colored clothing (a sight rarely seen in these parts);
a hands-on tie-tying examination which is a longtime rite of passage at Marlboro Elementary;
a private Consortium for graduates and their families where 8th graders step up to the podium in the Town Hall, built in 1822, to share an exemplary personal essay;
a portfolio presentation where an individual graduate (assisted by a 7th grade classmate) presents his best work from each of her years at the school to his parents and select teaching staff;
a Cabaret, put on by the Junior High, and held in the evening, in the theater at Marlboro College;
and my favorite–the last All School Sing–highlighting the favorite songs of the graduates at the final all school gathering.
This past Monday, feeling the departure of my son on the horizon, I attended the weekly All School Sing, and sat across the room from the boy who once insisted on sitting on my lap, and then at my feet, and then just a few bodies away.
Now he has his own chair in the outer circle with the adults while his younger peers take a spot inside the circle on the floor.
I look over at my son from time to time to see if he sees me, but his focus is on his peers until one of our favorite songs is sung: Kindergarten Wall.
I imagine that I began punctuating the lines, “CLEAN UP YOUR MESS,” to his older brother long before I began turning toward Aidan with them; and it’s become a family joke; a duel of sorts; particularly as Aidan turns the song back in my direction with his own emphasis of a handful of lines, punctuating the “grownups”:
But lately I’ve been worried as I look around and see
An awful lot of grown-ups acting foolish as can be
Now I know there’s lots of things to know I haven’t mastered yet
But it seems there’s real important stuff that grown-ups soon forget…
I am relieved to see that at 14, Aidan still plays along, even from across the room; although now he does so with his eyes more than his voice. After school, he reminds me that the part directed to adults is a whole section long; and I smile, happy for the connection, with a tinge of loss, knowing that has already left the messy stage of childhood and had has headed into the foolishness of aging.
The last song sung was another family favorite, one which is always shared at the Sing before the Junior High takes their bi-annual trip abroad:
Leaving on a Jet Plane
Long mistaken as Peter, Paul & Mary’s, my boys and I know to whom this song belongs.
Their sixth grade teacher, a jazz lover, detests John Denver’s crooning, so we make a point to emphasize that this is his song; and David makes a point to leave the room.
Last year, Aidan argued at great lengths with his music teacher about it. She finally conceded in a phone message to our house that evening: “Aidan was right; but Peter, Paul and Mary were the ones to make it famous.”
As we sing, “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…” a lump forms in my throat, just as Aidan motions for me to turn toward the back of the room where David is departing.
I smile and simultaneously realize that Aidan and I have sung in this room together since he was a babe in arms. We sang Leaving on Jet Plane to every class since then.
But when that school bus pulls back into the parking lot next week after midnight, there will only be a few All School Sings left between us.
When I was a little kid not so long ago
I had to learn a lot of stuff I didn’t even know
How to dress myself, tie my shoes, how to jump a rope
How to smile for a picture without looking like a dope
But of all the things I learned my favorite of them all
Was a little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall
Of all you learn here remember this the best:
Don’t hurt each other and clean up your mess
Take a nap everyday, wash before you eat
Hold hands, stick together, look before you cross the street
And remember the seed in the little paper cup:
First the root goes down and then the plant grows up!
Well, it was first, second, third grade, fourth grade, too
Where I had to learn the big things the big kids do
To add, subtract, and multiply, read and write and play
How to sit in a little uncomfortable desk for nearly half a day
But of all they taught me my favorite of them all
Was the little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall
But lately I’ve been worried as I look around and see
An awful lot of grown-ups acting foolish as can be
Now I know there’s lots of things to know I haven’t mastered yet
But it seems there’s real important stuff that grown-ups soon forget
So I’m sure we’d all be better off if we would just recall
That little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall
Now that my boys are bigger than me, I turn my attention toward my younger nieces and soak up their delicious feminine company.
Last week, nine year old Marlo gave me Barbie lessons which were–I have to tell you–simply brilliant.
I sat down beside her in the playroom, and confessed, as one is apt to do with Marlo:
“I don’t know how to play. I’m not very good at it.”
“Oh, you’ve just forgotten,” she assured me, sizing up my anxiety, “I’ll teach you. It’s really simple.”
And thus, I proceeded to receive remedial Barbie lessons which left me wishing that Marlo had been around when my boys were young so that she could have broken down playing with trucks in manageable, adult-friendly steps.
“First, you choose a Barbie,” Marlo began, pushing a large bin toward me. (Which was no small feat as I rummaged through a large collection of legs and hair entwined in an orgy of pale plastic.)
“Then, you decide what she’ll wear, and you start dressing her,” Marlo continued.
As I began to sort through another bin of miniature clothing and high heels, Marlo stopped me to develop my skills. “Take a look at this,” she said, pointing to the Barbie that she had dressed. “Why do you think I chose this outfit for her? What do you notice about her?”
I stammered and sputtered. The woman had long, wild red hair and I was afraid to say something inappropriate.
Marlo helped me out, leading me with answers, and soon enough, I began to enjoy assembling an outfit for my own doll; which was surprising, because I take very little pleasure in dressing myself.
In fact, I was so thrilled with my final fashion statement, which involved 4 top layers, including a flannel shirt and a sequined tank top, that I went downstairs to show my husband and my sister.
When we returned from the mini fashion show, Marlo complimented my work profusely before directing my attention to the next step; but I was distractedly photographing my art from every angle.
Marlo coaxed me back to the play at hand: “The next thing you need do is decide where your doll is going; and then you start talking about it.”
I decided that my doll was a Marine Biologist who was going to the library to research marine mammals despite her shiny jacket and silver go go boots.
I thought this career focus would impress Marlo and raise the bar on Barbie play, but she took my doll’s credentials in stride and made casual conversation between her Barbie and mine.
“The thing about playing Barbies,” Marlo explained, “is that it’s really helpful–for real life. You get to try things things. You can work out problems–without having to talk about them.”
I pulled out the small pad I kept in my purse in order to take notes. (Or maybe I only made mental notes because I can’t find them now.)
“Can you repeat the part about how helpful it is to play with Barbies,” I asked.
“Keep playing,” Marlo said, and then she suggested that I would need additional lessons.
The first time I ever yelled at my son was at our back door on our way out to preschool. I was pregnant, feeling awful, and my steady supply of patience had suddenly evaporated. It was downhill after that. My bubble as a “perfect parent” popped, again and again, particularly once I became a mother of two boys.
That said, I had a strong skill set for parenting. I had been the oldest of eight and an elementary school teacher by profession. In fact, I had been my son’s preschool teacher for 2 years until he fired me: “Mom, would you leave like the other Mom’s do?”
When I left the preschool the following year, I was given the job of coordinating an ongoing parenting workshop in our district. I was an eager participant as well. I explained that I held so much personal power in the home that I wanted to be sure my boys came into their own. The majority of the others complained that their children never listened to them.
“All I do is yell,” confided one mother.
I’ll never forget that admission because her sadness touched me, and I also wondered about it. Why did she yell? Didn’t she bring her boys up to listen to her? It takes persistence, but it can be done; and it’s much more effective and empowering than yelling.
It would be ten years before I realized that I had become that mother. It didn’t happen over night. It crept up on me, like a slow, growing fungus. Frustration played a part, fatigue did too, as did the diminishing return of being a perfect parent.
My oldest was 10 when the fungus picked up its pace. It was time for violin practice, and he not only balked, but refused. When I insisted, with accentuated volume, he had the audacity to leave. He ran out the door and hid behind his rock pile. My husband encouraged me not to follow him.
But when he returned, there were fireworks. I’ll never forget coming face to face with my own powerlessness as we yelled at each other at the top of the stairs; or the desperate absurdity of my next move: “I’m going break all your toys,”I said.
There was a long pause while we absorbed my threat, followed the expansion of our mouths into a smile, and then laughter.
It was time for my role as Commander in Chief to change; and to tell the truth, looking back now, seven years later, as my son rounds out the last semester of high school, I did a pretty good job with the transition. We still like each other; and even though the fireworks have increased over time, they are more frequently followed by understanding and acceptance and even… affection.
Lately, this emerging adult confides that my personal power is intimidating. That even though I listen and consider and even change my mind at times, I have such a commanding manner, that even when I’m giving, I can be taking away.
I resent this. I want everyone to find their own power. I don’t want to diminish mine just to make them comfortable. I’ve worked hard to claim this power in my life; it’s what enabled me to transcend a great deal of pain and to create the beautiful fulfilling life I have now –which includes a positive relationship with my teenager.
It seems a shame to be giving up my voice just when I’m coming into it as a middle-aged woman with dramatic hormonal surges of clarity, but I listen and consider and begin to shape a plan; because that’s how much I love these men–not only my husband and my teenager–but his younger brother, who at 12 is still a sensitive soul who can’t bear these heated arguments.
I know that the last handful of years has taken its toll on my youngest; and that by the time his brother is off to college, he’ll begin his own adolescence. Perhaps this second act will be less intense, simply because it’s no longer a complete unknown. Maybe it will feel as easy as it did when he was born and we had already endured the initiation into parenting so that we spent much of the time coasting. Maybe we’ll be more relax more this time around with a teenager, knowing that we didn’t totally fuck up the first one.
But you never know. Things can be going on swimmingly, and then a tidal wave comes out of nowhere. Like the day before last. When my oldest and I went head to head at breakfast and I banged my fist on the table like I’d seen my father do. My younger son resigned himself to leaving the room, while my husband rebuked us, again and again.
Growing up in what could be a volatile home, my husband was afraid of anger, and rarely expressed it. He was also the middle child, the peace maker, and so his first-born wife was infuriated each time he stood the middle ground instead of rolling up his sleeves to tackle the intensity of parenting a teenager. “I’m raising a man!” I’d rant with all my mid-life fury, challenging him to tell me what he was after.
This is how the intensity built on Sunday so that what started out as a typical disagreement between two parents and their son mutated into ongoing fireworks between husband and wife; only I was the only one launching anything of color. By the time my husband truly engaged, at the tail end of a tiring day, he was fully loaded–with pain. The pain from a lifetime of witnessing volatility, the pain of fear and powerlessness, and the frustration of facing my angst and anger without expressing his own or without being able to communicate how toxic the build up was for him.
The result was–chilling and sobering and a wakeup call–for both of us. His–to more fully explore the pain he never felt or flushed; Mine–to realize the impact that my own volatility might have on my family.
I decide to go on a diet. A volume diet. A power diet. I will not relinquish my hard-earned voice, but I will cultivate it on the inside so that my sons and my husband might have more space to cultivate their own.
I check the calendar and discover that “lent” begins tomorrow. What a coincidence! (I’m not even Catholic.)
When I posted that my teenager was ready to drink and smoke pot, readers offered all kinds of helpful suggestions, including one adamant woman who wrote: “NO, DON’T DO IT!”
Her clarion call continued:
Be the level headed pure kid who saves the others… the thoughtful clear-headed guy that makes the difference. The one who is sober and can be the designated driver, the one who does CPR on their friend when they have stopped breathing because they have overdosed on something they didn’t realize would affect them LIKE THAT… and be the one who has enough wits to figure out how or when to call 911 so their friend doesn’t die this one time because you were smart enough to notice that something just doesn’t or didn’t seem right and that something is life-threatening!
Other readers complimented my teenager’s honesty and our family’s openness; while professionals shared the statistics and the risks and the undesired outcomes. One mother took us in a completely different direction with hard-earned wisdom:
“Let go, and trust.”
A lone father chimed in suggesting that we explore both the dark and the light side of partying in order to get after, what my son was after, in making these choices.
Our family’s practice of non-violent communication (NVC) allowed us to do just that. Months ago when he made the proclamation that he was thinking about drinking, NVC enabled us put aside our agendas–to explore each of our needs.
I so clearly felt his need for fun and connection and exploration that I almost ran out and bought the booze myself.
He so fully heard my need for safety and responsibility and respect that he appeared defeated in his desires.
It was then that I realized how important this was to him. Not just the partying, but the relationship.
As the months passed and his desire to explore intensified, I noticed that his need to stay in right relationship with us was competing with his need to stay in right relationship with himself.
As far as I can tell, we are approaching the break. The place where he chooses self over family so that he can move on to create his own life.
As a parent, I have to support that drive. The tricky part will be managing right relationship with myself as he begins to make choices without me.
What’s new is our son. He’s changed. He turned the corner on sophomore year and sprinted into his junior year, and he knew. He wanted to join in. He wanted to drink too. He wanted to get high. (Not everyone is, but his friends are, and he’s missing the fun.)
“Do you want me to hide it?” he asks. “Or do you want me to tell you?”
“I want you to wait,” I say, and he does. Until he says he doesn’t want to anymore.
“I need some time to figure this out,” I say. “How much time do I have?”
He estimates 7 or 8 months, but a few months later, he presses me:
“What are we going to do?” he says. “This is stressing me out. Nothing is changing. You just keep saying wait, and I know I’m not going to.”
I try threats–Military school.
I try thinking outside the box of culture–Moving abroad.
“Well then, be a part of the 1/3 or even the 10% or even the only one. Be different.”
“I don’t want to be.”
His father and I partied long before we were of age. 300 bars in 1 mile at the Jersey shore (our hometown) kind of lends itself that way. If there were people who weren’t drinking back then, we didn’t know them, and didn’t want to.
Neither of us recall our parents saying anything to us about it–before. Of course, the drinking age was 18 which was a dramatic difference. Seniors could go to a bar at lunch time if they wanted.
21 is so unrealistic, and as a parent I can’t hold the course that long.
“Is it just the legality?” my son asks.
“It’s important,” I say. “No matter what, you’re putting someone at risk–some parents’ home, some kid who is driving.”
He tries to hedge around that, but I don’t let him. There’s no arguing this starkness of this truth.
“I want to be safe,” he says. “That’s why I want to be able to tell you so you can help me.”
Where is he getting this stuff? Online? Where’s my stuff?
“It’s also the other kids,” I say. “Maybe you’ll be smart, but someone else won’t. And then there’s the other kids for whom your choices will set the norm. What about their risks? What about that responsibility?”
He doesn’t have an answer. He looks as defeated as I am. We are sitting on his bed. I reach out and caress his shoulder.
“If I thought alcohol or pot were the answers you were looking for,” I say, “I’d go out and get it for you because I want you to have fun. I want you to experience your wildness.”
“I know,” he says.
When I return to the internet for some kind of support with this conversation, I find two extremes–Be clear with your kids about your expectations; OR when they’re heading toward rehab–encourage them to be candid with you.
What about the in between? What about a son who wants to remain in right relationship with his parents, and yet wants to explore the world in ways in which we can’t legally or logically approve?
The devil is in this dichotomy, and neither my son or I can live with that.
‘What about emancipation?” I say. “Then you can make your own decisions.”
“I’m not ready to be on my own,” he says.
“Then save these decisions for when you are.”
“I still need your support,” he says. “Even with this.”