The latest round of counselors had seemed as exhausted with this kid as I was. When the shock of encountering his illegally-acquired underage pornographic tattoos had worn off, I was just tired. I looked into the face of his psychiatrist and knew that she was thinking the same thing I was: “Why bother?”
But I couldn’t put it all into a folder and stack it on my desk for next week. Under his inked skin and dirty nails, my blood flowed. Or my heart’s blood anyway. He was my adopted son. I wasn’t free to mask my impatience behind a clinical smile and order lunch once he left the room with a fistful of new prescriptions and a reminder card for his next appointment.
Today, we were treating the mental illness. The diagnosis varied from office to office, depending on the professional who occupied the desk inside. But they all agreed on one thing: the boy was unraveled, ill-suited for survival, disturbed.
Tomorrow, we would address the addictions and test the platitudes of yet another peer program. I remembered the poster on the wall at the rec center where the support group met. It read, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
He’d read it and said, “And a trip to hell starts with twelve steps.”
He chained smoked, he said, to cancel the cocaine craving. The cocaine had been for the blackness and anger that arrived shortly before the first diagnosis of a bi-polar disorder, and eventually schizophrenia. He had continued to grow, despite the use of amphetamines, like a plant in the sun that shoots up leggy and thin, pale in its attempt to escape the heat.
I’d pulled strings, but he still lost his place in the special school with the paid tuition, the attempt at a favor done by an agency made hopeful by his intelligence and his verbal skills. He had nodded off in class, and gotten belligerent when awakened. I’d been asked to pick him up, but when I arrived at the campus, he’d disappeared. He came home two days later, his eyes glittering and his speech rambling. I noticed that the enamel was beginning to come off of one of his canine teeth.
“Too much candy?” I asked.
“Tweak,” he replied.
I remembered him as a baby, still in a therapeutic foster home. He’d been a success story, the preemie who had survived when his twin sister hadn’t. The less than two-pound spontaneous abortion who had cried, fought, and breathed on his own.
The adoption worker had matched him with us, his “forever family.” We were asked for the world in terms of guarantees and promises. In turn, we were given a child covered with surgical scars and wearing girl’s shoes, accompanied by less than ten pages of medical records. Strangers at the pediatrician’s office read excerpts to me over the phone when we began to experience phenomena not mentioned in any of the parenting guides. I was to learn years later that he had been operated on many times without benefit of anesthesia, the popular wisdom at the time being that critically ill and very premature infants don’t feel pain. Eventually tests were developed that could determine pain response in babies too weak to react to a knife. But not before his lungs and heart were repaired repeatedly, while he lay still, secured with adhesive tape to an operating table and too weak to make a sound.
Yet he’d lived. And he was finally ours, but mostly mine. His odd walk on pencil-thin legs made wobbly by cerebral palsy. His large head, thin neck, and fat-less little old man hands. His intelligence, his explosions, and his insanity. They were all mine for the asking. And I had asked, repeatedly. Social workers, court hearings, and reams of paper jumbled in files all echoed my request to sign on as his mother. To attach him to me, if not with an umbilical cord, then with enough legal incantations to guarantee that we would remain connected. I hadn’t counted on being chained to a bottle rocket.
His infant eyes had darted as he watched me, a smile frozen on his face as he pushed me back with one hand, as he pushed everybody back who leaned to wipe his chin, or kiss him. It was a simple reflex, this thrusting away of human contact, developed when the hands that reached for the baby-him held needles and scalpels, or vials of medicine. And he was tied down like some sacrificial animal, or kosher-killed chicken.
Yet he was my son, my own. His head still came up when he heard my voice, whether in the sun room of the latest facility, or on the street corner with his back towards the traffic. He left long and rambling messages on the voice mail for the phone in the house, and on my cell phone when the voice mail filled up on the other one.
He moved into an apartment, subsidized by Social Security payments and whatever else I could find for him. I bought him a bicycle so he could go to the library, and he took it apart to make a machine to keep the aliens away. His futon’s frame became some sort of cage.
He lost his clothes, and traded his television for a pack of cigarettes. So once a week I sent his brother with groceries in bags filled with the survival supplies often suggested for purchase ahead of a blizzard -- toilet paper, dry soup mix, powdered orange juice and milk, peanut butter crackers. We live in Phoenix, but my chill went to the bone.
From time to time, he emerged long enough from his despair to look around and absorb the details of his existence. When that became intolerable, he knocked on doors known only to him and his kin, and his phone calls were punctuated by the cadence of drugs, alcohol, or whatever he’d found to blur the edges.
One day I decided to take him out to eat. I had no particular agenda, and certainly no hopes. I just wanted to see him while I could stand it, while I could complete a meal on the other side of the table from him. I dialed a number he had given to reach him, since he’d thrown his phone against a wall and refused to replace it.
“I want to take you to lunch,” I told him. He agreed, which surprised me. I had half expected him to say no.
But he hadn’t, so I picked him up an hour later. He had stood on the corner of the street that ran by his apartment, and his face never moved when I stopped the car and opened the door.
He sat down, and immediately began to reprogram the radio stations. It was an old habit, and one that I was used to. I had long ago memorized the positions of the stations I liked, and no longer tried to stop him. It kept him occupied while I drove to the restaurant.
It was a nondescript family place, known for its pancake platters and free soda refills. I knew he wouldn’t alarm them, since his mother had asked for a seat in the back, and the bill.
We ate while I asked him questions about how he was. Did he want to try counseling again? If not, how about some vocational training? Volunteer work? Computer courses? Anything?
He ate spaghetti and pudding, and drank three glasses of milk. I noticed that his teeth were worse. I suggested that maybe he would want to call one of the dentists listed in his provider handbook. He said that they were all waiting to extract bits of his brain through his gums.
He went outside to smoke, and I remembered the second mortgage we took on the house so we could build a pool for him to swim in to strengthen his legs and lungs. I watched through the window as he shifted up his sagging jeans over his bone-thin frame, and I thought of the meals I had planned so he could digest them, and the supplements I had coaxed into him so he’d put on a little weight.
I had held the baby close and tried to force the life into him. His first word had been “light.” His second word was “mello”, short for marshmallow. Finally, he had said, “Jell-O.” He was nearly three before “Mommy” came easily, and only if he was afraid.
I paid the bill, and included an extra few dollars for the waitress, who had left us alone except for refilling my coffee cup. He was leaning against the hood of the car, waiting for me and talking to himself.
“Did you get enough to eat?” I asked him.
“Sure,” he said.
I stood beside him. “You look better than you did,” I told him.
“I’m sober,” he said.
“You’re not as thin. You look stronger.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Maybe I’ll buy a computer book. Computer people make good money.”
I thought of the six computer books I had purchased for him the previous year, and just said, “Yes, they do.”
He smoked, and we both leaned, our bodies angled to take in the sun. The strip of grass between the parking lot and the sidewalk began to hiss with the automatic sprinkler heads that turned on low. Little rainbows formed, and a few ragged birds walked stiffly from the asphalt towards the sound.
“Those are Mexican grackles,” he said. “Technically they’re songbirds. Can you believe that?”
“Really?” I said. “How do you know that?”
“Public television,” he said. “They have a whole range of calls, but nobody really pays attention.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“They’re messy, they’re ugly, and they look a lot like blackbirds which are pests. So nobody cares that a Mexican grackle can sing.”
I watched the birds parade through the water, and puff and shake, trilling and calling to each other. “They are trying to attract mates,” he told me. “But all they’ll get is more grackles. All that singing and dancing, and it’s still going to be grackles. People can call them songbirds if it makes them feel better. But a grackle is still a bird nobody cares about.”
He took the last cigarette out of the pack, crumpled the paper and cellophane, and handed it to me to throw away later.
“I’m the human version of a grackle, Mom,” he said. “Ever try to buy a grackle feeder? Ever wonder where they go in bad weather?”
He looked sharply at me, and then said, “Well, maybe you would. But you’re the only one.”
He patted his pockets for his cigarette pack, and then remembered that he was out. “Can you spot me for a box of cancer?” he asked.
We went to the gas station, and he went inside with money I gave him. Returning, he said, “It’s my lucky day. It’s two for one on a brand that actually doesn’t suck.”
I drove him back to his apartment, and noticed a figure in the deep shade by the wall in the parking lot. It moved quickly back, like a ghost or a stray dog. My son had seen it, too, but said nothing for awhile.
“Mom, can I have another $20? It’s really important.”
I knew somehow that whatever was in the shadows had something to do with his sudden request. I said, “Here’s $40. Pay that guy what you owe him, and buy some food.”
He nodded, and punched another button on the radio. He said to me, “What day is it?”
I replied with the only answer I knew for certain, “It’s a Tuesday.”