One morning 10 years ago I awoke with a savage headache that rendered me unbalanced and nauseated. My 6-year-old son came in to see why I wasn't up getting him ready for school. He took one look at the situation--his mother in bed, sweaty and lifeless as the guy in cartoons with X's where his eyes should be--and took charge of the situation. Hiking up his pajama bottoms, he said, "You go back to sleep. I can get myself ready."A
He brought me a glass of orange juice, petted me, like little children do, and made sounds of sorrow. I got some aspirin out of the nightstand and went back to sleep. When I woke up again, I heard the TV on in the living room, then kitchen sounds. I called out for a progress report. "Doing great, Mom," he answered confidently. "I made my own breakfast." A
When I next woke, with a half hour left until we
had to leave for school, I called out for an update. "Everything's going great, Mom."
"Have you gotten dressed, honey?"
So I went back to sleep with a wistful and amazed sense of our being partners in this business. Soon he would hardly need me at all. After nearly half an hour more of sleep, I bolted out of bed, my headache gone, pulled on clothes and raced out to gather him up for school.
There he sat, on the couch, with a root beer in one hand, the TV remote in the other, wearing his Power Rangers underpants, beaming.
And the seasons, they turn 'round and 'round, and last Sunday morning when I called out to see if Sam was ready to go out and do some errands, and he said, "Yeah, in a minute," I knew enough to go downstairs and check.
He and three other 16-year-old friends were downstairs in his room, still sleeping, in what smelled like the cafeteria at an elk preserve. One of the friends smokes cigarettes, although not in my house. And the other, John, got busted at school with alcohol and a knife in his backpack. I have known both boys since first grade, and I adore them. They are bright, sweet, accomplished young men, and it is always easy to love and accept them, because they are not mine. They gladly help around the house when I ask them to, like Sam does at their houses, and every single time I thank them for helping, they shrug like cowboys and say, "No problem."
These days some of Sam's lifelong buddies are in trouble with drugs and alcohol, and the girls with food. One young woman we know is in an institution for the time being. A very young man we know is in rehab in Montana. A few months ago, Sam and I went to the funeral of a local boy who died of an OxyContin overdose. We stood in the chill of an autumn dusk at sunset in the old Jewish cemetery in San Rafael and listened as the mother shoveled the first scoops of dirt onto the boy's coffin. It was the loudest sound I have ever heard.
Most of us have gotten off relatively easy so far--our kids are only impossible half the time, screwing up, troubling our hearts, making dumb choices, forfeiting fragments of their dreams, but still basically OK.
But God, they can be annoying. "Sam," I called to him that morning. "You said you'd do errands with me--they're all things you wanted to get done. And your laundry is overflowing--you swore you'd do it yesterday. That's why I let you blow it off the other day. Plus you've got the garbage, and recycling."
"OK, OK! God."
You'd have thought I'd asked him for a pedicure.
John opened his eyes and said sleepily, "Hi, Annie." He is often at my house, part of the smelly Jurassic herd who hang out downstairs in my son's room. He's an amazing person--observant, dignified, funny and tender-hearted, just like Sam is, at other people's houses. John always has done wonderfully in school, without much prodding, and it was his and his parents' shared dream that he would go to a top-flight liberal arts college, where he could pursue a career in journalism; at least, until this semester, when he tanked. Now his parents hope that he can just get in anywhere decent.
I called John's father the other day in tears because Sam was in danger of failing a class. He and I are allies: He listened with the tough gentleness only the parent of another great kid in trouble can muster. He expressed love and respect for Sam. Then he said that John had just flunked advanced algebra, and so could not get into any of the UC campuses.
"He's been working for so long toward getting into Cal or UCLA," said the dad. "And then? It's gone, in the blink of an eye." Neither of us spoke for a long time.
This is obscene, that higher education is so desperately cutthroat that a single adolescent slip can disqualify them from their dream. Haltingly, he continued. "It's just the way it is. We talked about it last week when the report cards arrived--that what we had all hoped for so long was probably not going to happen now. It was a sad conversation for both of us. And later that night, when I was in bed, he came in my room and said to me quietly, in the dark, 'Don't give up on me, Dad.'"