Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Dispatches from the House of Teenagers

February 2007

It has been a humbling time in my household, which is always awash with children, both his and mine. His are with us two weeks a month; mine is back from school most weekends and vacations, often with friends in tow. When I tell people what that I'm a social worker, they jump to the conclusion that I must know something about "handling" teenagers. I assure them that I do not. And here is my proof:

Little Miss

Little Miss is 12 years old, with an imperious streak. She insists, demands, refuses, rejects. She is terrifyingly resourceful at satisfying her own exacting standards. Her bedroom is entirely pink and orange, for instance, as she required. She does not miss American Idol, and she will not eat anything "natural." Also, she loves a lot of things her father and I find depressing, including logo-rich clothes, sparkly eyeshadow, and Cosmo Girl. Last weekend she attended a strictly A-list seventh-grade sleepover where she happily ostracized the "pity invite" (who just the weekend before had been an overnight guest at our house). Dizzying drops in social status are common in her crowd — but still, I asked, isn't all the backstabbing a little … mean? She rolled her eyes and inserted her pink iPod earbuds. Goody-two-shoes philosophizing bores her. In truth, I bore her.

The Psychologist

My son, on the other hand, finds me fascinating. Since about kindergarten he's been making exhaustive lists of my flaws. In middle school he composed "The Ten Top Reasons I Hate You," followed that same year by "Let Me Tell You Everything You're About Ready to Say." But that was just child's play, in retrospect. Now that he's 17 and a star student in his high school adolescent psychology class, he's fully armed with paradigms and theories — real facts, not opinions. Lately the facts have to do with the various weaknesses that attend my X chromosome. As a good Psychologist, my son wants to steer clear of gender stereotyping, yet he can't help noticing that I drive — well, like a girl. (By contrast, he drives like a boy, having had two crashes in the six months since he got his driver's license, thereby justifying my through-the-roof insurance rates.) He's also noticed that I have passive-aggressive tendencies, which is also common in females, and that my parenting style is driven by fear and anxiety about his well-being. Another woman thing, it turns out. When he's not dismissing me for irrelevancy or trivial thinking, he's throwing his arm around my shoulders and giving me a protective squeeze. After all, he figures, I need all the help I can get. He's right about that one.

The Panda

This sweet, roly-poly creature is 15, mostly nocturnal, and lives almost exclusively in a virtual habitat called World of Warcraft. He spends dozens of hours a week as a devoted member of The Alliance, slaying enemies, discovering deposits of gold, and earning new magical powers so he can kill yet more enemies and discover yet more gold. We rarely see him except at meals, where until very recently he appeared only in T-shirt and Bart Simpson boxer shorts. (The passage of the Permanent Pants-On Policy, or P-POP, facilitated by the Psychologist and pushed through by an outraged Little Miss, constitutes the pinnacle of our family legislative process.) Mealtimes with the Panda involves intensive work on table manners, including use of fork and knife and napkin. Otherwise, I encourage him to keep his fingers out of the decorative candle flame and pay attention to the general stream of events, to which he often seems distractedly ignorant. He is capable of answering questions (though only in his very own Nizzle-Dizzle language, where "nizzle" connotes the negative and "dizzle" the positive) but for days on end utters only one word: "Whaaa?"

I love these children and occasionally would like to exile them to a land far away. They're wonderful and terrible, bursting with spirit and utterly self-absorbed. The bottom line, though, is that while they may create problems, they're not problems in themselves, and thus, I have to tell inquiring friends, there aren't any solutions. There's no "handling" them, and nothing "works." They're a roiling, vibrant agglomeration of gripes and yearnings and oddball ambitions, as are their parents, and the best we can do is make peace with that knowledge.

So when people ask me — foolishly, hopefully — for advice on coping with their teenagers, I tell them I haven't the slightest idea. Well, maybe I do know one thing: Keep them talking. What my son has to say to me is usually more important than what I have to say to him, because every time he opens his mouth — even if it's just to air his latest list of grievances — he's trusting that I care how he feels. And he is right. I do.

The End of Childhood

June 2007

Three years ago this spring my son's friend Andrew killed himself. He hung himself in the basement of his house one morning, after arguing with his mother about going to school.

The last time I saw Andrew he was standing in his driveway. I had booted him out of our house because my son was late for his guitar lesson, and we had to dash off. Andrew hesitated at first, wide-eyed, a little jarred about being rushed out the door so unexpectedly. I'd seen this awkward uncertainty a hundred times. On the cusp of puberty, Andrew was shy, sweet, always anxious to do the right thing, but wary of the quick change.

Finally he climbed on his bike and pumped down the road and out of sight. By the time we passed his driveway, he was there, watching us, still straddling his bicycle. I noticed he was wearing one of my son's t-shirts. It said San Diego in bright blocky orange letters. The sleeves hung almost down to his elbows. We waved at him as we went by.

We didn't hear anything from Andrew for a few days, then the middle school sent home a letter with his classmates. In dire, overly calm tones, it requested privacy for the family and warned students against spreading "rumors." I put on my jacket and walked down to his house. A family friend met me at the door, in tears.

When we first moved to this neighborhood three years ago, my son was miserable. Every day he asked me to admit what a mistake I'd made taking him away from his old house and friends. Just admit it, he'd say: if I could at least admit it, he might forgive me. That's how I came to know Andrew. At 11, he was the only other boy in the neighborhood anywhere near my son's age, and I courted him like a beau. Day after day, I invented excuses to go out looking for him. Usually I found him playing basketball in his driveway, or sailing around the street on his rollerblades. Finally, one day, I walked my dog right into the middle of his street hockey game. I assumed a surprised expression, and pretended to notice him for the first time. "Oh – do you live around here?" I asked him. "You ought to come over to our house." I pointed up the road helpfully. "I've got a son just your age." Then I added the clincher: "We've got a trampoline."

It turned out, due to that alchemy that no parent can count on, that the boys hit it off. After two years, Andrew's sneakers and sweatshirts were all over our house, and my son's were all over his. Andrew was the outdoorsman, my son was the tycoon. Together they were a team. They started a short-lived business supplying fresh eels to the fish department of our local grocery store. They shoveled snow together for money in the winter. They built their own paintball course in the woods behind our house, spending hours deep in the shadows of the trees with saws and hammers, buildings bunkers and blinds. They envisioned mighty wars there between opposing armies of good and evil.

Three days before Andrew hung himself, he played the part of Mercutio in a scene from Romeo and Juliet. He was helping my son with an English class project, and he'd joined some other boys at our dining room table, reenacting a bloody passage from the play for an audiotape my son planned to play for his class. I didn't listen to the tape until months after Andrew died, and even then, I could only bear to hear it once.

When my son and I arrived at Children's Hospital in Boston, where Andrew had been airlifted, his sister Emily greeted us at the elevator. She looked dazed and a little giddy. Like a proper hostess, she offered us soda and chips from the vending machine. Relatives had come, and neighbors I'd never met before. We all clumped together in groups hugging each other. Some of us cried, and we all said the same things over and over. We were in that stage where we actually believed that the force of our confusion and indignation would change the direction the story was going.

A few at a time, we went in to see Andrew, who lay pale and lanky among his translucent tubes. He had on a thick neck brace, and silent machines had been wheeled up to his bed to watch interior parts we couldn't see. There wasn't much to say. The mothers around the bed stroked Andrew's arms and legs, and we all commented on the little altar of offerings beside his hospital bed: fishing lures, postcards, special pebbles from favorite spots that his friends had brought for him. Finally, my son mumbled that he wanted to be alone with Andrew, and Andrew's mother shooed everyone out of the room. For a few minutes, it was just the two of them, surrounded by the tubes and the raspy ventilator. And that must have been when my son fished a camouflage-colored Swiss army knife out of his jeans pocket and slipped it under Andrew's pillow. Andrew had left the knife at our house weeks ago, and now my son had returned it. Andrew would have loved the gesture. A knife under his pillow? In a hospital, it had to be the hottest kind of contraband. What's more, he would have appreciated it for the grand, death-defying act it was. He wouldn't have wanted to go into this new, dark world unarmed.

He died a few days later, never having regained consciousness.

How do you keep living when something impossible has happened? For weeks after that, I walked around in an altered state – a place of unending disbelief and crisis. Surely this wasn't irrevocable, I kept thinking. I fought an impulse to grab passersby on the street and shake them. Do something, I wanted to tell them – this is an emergency. Until finally, it wasn't an emergency anymore. Andrew's ashes are on his parents' mantelpiece. Every stray scrap of his schoolwork has been lovingly collected and filed away, every sympathy card read and re-read. His mother has scoured his backpack and bedroom for clues, but there aren't any. By now she's read a hundred articles on children who hurt themselves. She gets up early and pores over the internet. There must be an answer – isn't there always one? But the answer is no, there isn't, and this is what makes the search so futile and so compelling. What he did that morning was an impulse, that's all – a foolish but meaningless act, like running into the street after a ball. Andrew was happy, he had plans, he was doing alright in school, he was unusually well liked by his friends. His family adored him. So how could we really accept that his life had been undone so easily?

My son, now 17, calls Andrew's death the event that ended his childhood. It's what makes him different from every other kid he knows, and why he feels he'll never be carefree and innocent again. (He actually uses these very words, simply more evidence that what he says is true.) All innocence ends, it seems, even the innocence of grief itself. After Andrew's memorial service, I didn't see the neighbors from the hospital anymore. Having come together in our one convulsion of pain, we all resumed our separate lives. That was inevitable, I suppose. Andrew's parents, dazed and wounded, couldn't go on in their usual way, of course. Instead they spent weeks after Andrew died creating a beautiful, complicated flower garden in their back yard. This time of year, I think about that garden, so lush and bountiful in the summer heat. And I think of Andrew.