He breathes in. I breathe out. I breathe in—the antiseptic air burns my nose and makes my mind fuzzy. He breathes out—the hicuppy sobs make him choke and sputter. For a while, this was the only audible sound; breath entering and leaving our lungs. His—shallow and fast paced. The breath of panic. The breath of fear. Perhaps the breath of one who is experiencing withdrawal. Mine—deep and slow. The breath of seriousness. The breath of resignation. The breath of a mother trying to stay steady.
I should be speaking. I should be soothing. But where were the words of comfort? I shut my eyes pretending that my son and I were sitting together on a beach, side by side. I tried to smell the suntan lotion, to hear his staccato laugh as he surfed insurmountable waves, but it was no use. We were not on a beach and we were not alone.
The ever present guard that sat at a small desk in the doorway to my son’s “room” tried to remain inconspicuous, but curiosity often got the best of him and every once in a while he’d glance our way. I imagined he was wondering how this handsome charismatic 17-year-old ended up in the mental health unit of our small town hospital. I wish I could say that I was wondering the same. I winced at the perfidious thought and mentally pushed it aside.
Out of guilt and hope, I reached for my child’s hand. When it was accepted, I laced my fingers through his long and spindly ones. We both squeezed at the same time.
“I don’t belong here,” he managed to squeak out. “You know I don’t belong here right? I am not crazy.”
Knowing that speaking the truth would start another war between us, I answered with the sentence that my trusty therapist had armed me with before I came to see him in that horrid place:
“I am sorry that your choices have put you here. However, I know that you know that your choices can get you out—out of here—out of trouble and back to the life you were meant to lead.”
I held my breath and braced for a response. My lungs burned with hot anticipation. What would he do? Memories tried to uproot the false calm I was portraying. Would he call me names as he sometimes did in texts? Would he tear the clothes off his back in frustration like he used to do when he lived at home with us? Would he trash the place and end up being restrained by the guard like I did once so that he didn’t slice himself with the shattered mirror glass that surrounded us? Or would he be the little boy who once played with my hair for comfort and dissolve into tears as he did when I first walked past the guard and found him curled up on the bed, a ball of sinewy limbs, green scrubs and dark hair amidst the colorless four walls.
He did none of those things, but began to speak.
“I am only here because dad lied. I didn’t threaten to take my life. I mean, mom, I was upset. You would be too if you’d have to choose between drug rehab and being sent away until 18. I know you would. Mom, come on. I know you’d be upset about it too. So I am going to go to rehab. My drug counselor says that I only have to stay the weekend. So that is all I am doing and then I am out of there. Just the weekend. They can’t hold me. I am 17. I get to make my own decisions whether I stay or not. So don’t go getting any of your ‘mom’ ideas because you can’t make me stay longer.”
He was right of course; there was nothing I could do. No one could really do anything; not probation, not school, not me or his father. Once 16, by law, only my son could put himself in a psychiatric facility or drug rehab. It didn’t matter how many drug tests he failed. It didn’t matter how many times he threatened to harm himself or others. It didn’t matter that he would, at 16 years old, disappear for days. It didn’t matter that he was expelled from school for possession of illegal substances. It-did-not-matter. What was there to say? Those “mom” ideas had been shot down time after time for the last year. I was no more than a glorified audience member in my own son’s life.
I grasped my son’s hand tighter, maybe a little too tight. He yanked it away disgustedly.
“Ma! Answer me!” His fists clenched. His voice raised. The guard looked up alert.
“Why aren’t you saying anything? I am not crazy. Ok. I smoke weed but lots of people smoke and they don’t end up here. I can’t wait until I’m off probation. That way, I can just do what I want without people looking over my shoulders. I mean I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for that narc! I mean I did something nice and what do I get for it? Huh? What do I get? I get Rehab or reform school! I was being nice mom!”
I nodded as if understanding, but truly that diatribe could have easily been spoken in some alien tongue. I was in the dark most of the time when it came to my son. Every institution involved in his spiraling life was required to only release information to the people who he chose, and for so many reasons; perhaps that I expected more of him, that I was his father’s sworn enemy, even perhaps real honest to goodness shame (if he was still capable of that) I was never on that release list.
Trying to remain calm, I feigned a memory glitch and said, “Yes. You were being nice. That’s right. How did that all go down again?”
“I gave some of that urine I bought so he could pass his test, but when he was caught he told on me. Can you believe it Ma? I was being nice.”
Bought. Urine. Pass. Test. Those four words were pieces of ice. My bones ached with the cold harsh reality of how far off the path my child had strayed. I resisted the intense need to suck incredulous air through my nostrils. Instead I wrapped my arms around myself and dug my nails in to give me something else to focus on rather than the glacial needles of awareness that seemed to pierce my skin from head to toe. But moms can be martyrs…so I pressed on.
“Yes. The urine.” I nodded continuing my ruse. “Hon, can I ask you where someone gets clean urine?” I cocked my head and blinked innocently trying like Hell to hide the sheer gripping terror that would come with knowing the answer.
He puffed up proud. “Oh yeah. Well you do know that it isn’t real urine right?” He looked almost professorial teaching me the art of crooked drug users. I couldn’t seem to find a steady voice, so I raised my eyebrows and shrugged my shoulders. My head hoped he’d go on and my heart pleaded he’d shut up.
“It is actual urine but it’s made in a factory. It costs $90 an ounce…”
He continued, speaking fast and smooth, using the prideful tone of an expert, his charisma and dysfunctional narcissistic mania on full display. He rambled like some slick car salesman, and I felt an overwhelming need to escape. I closed my eyes and began to breathe deeply to try and mask his incomprehensible bravado with the freight train-like whoosh whoosh that tickled down in the deep recesses of my ears.
“Ma? Did you hear me? Ma? Jesus…am I talking to a wall here?” My palms sweat, heart raced, and tears welled. Trying to halt what seemed like an inevitable breakdown, I turned my head toward the right and noticed that the guard was staring directly at me with a look of pity and disbelief. His sad eyes spoke directly to my mama-soul and it was then that the tears heaved themselves over my protesting bottom eye lids. I quickly dropped my head to hide the distress and the toll of my son’s tangled state.
And then mercifully a new voice sliced through the insanity; sliced through the starkness of the room; sliced through my terror. The guard stated, “You have 5 minutes.”
The declaration pulled my son up short. His voice abruptly quit and he looked at me for the first time of the visit. We turned and faced each other on the bed. He sat with his legs crisscrossed and I with one foot on the floor. His chin began to quiver and his mouth pursed. He eked out a clipped, “Mama…”
The ice in my veins and mind broke into a million pieces. I reached out across the great cavern “right and wrong” that separated us. He let me take him in my arms and I whispered “I love you. I love you,” over and over until I became dizzy with it.
Soon the guard quietly uttered, “It’s time to go ma’am.” I stood. My son stood. We embraced once more. I felt his chest rise and fall against my own. We breathed in tandem like marathon runners—hard, fast, deep as if our lives depended on it.
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