Many people consider their children heroes because they endure devastating and sometimes life-threatening health circumstances with grace and courage.
Many parents see their children as heroes because they overcome bullying, criticism, social cruelty, addiction, bulimia ... and triumph.
Some parents consider their children heroes because ... they die or endure harm for that which they believe. I would consider my child a hero for dying for that which he or she believed but would not live to blog about it (see blog to come -- Why I Committed Suicide and How).
I consider my eldest son a hero.
A beautiful and blessed babe, a funny and quirky little boy, he grew up a jerk and a bully, a too-smart, overbearing, deceitful, self-centered slob.
He still is a slob.
My son didn't have learning disabilities or hearing aids or a tumor on his leg. He had a tumor in his heart -- a black mass. It was the loss of his dad when he was barely nine years old. However, he didn't grieve and vow to persevere in his father's name, to find a cure, to win the race. He didn't just react as though the world owed him an apology. He reacted as though the world owed him a living AND frosting -- forever.
Long ago, I went to speak to a group of middle-school kids. A very tall robustly heavy lad I vaguely recognized approched me and said, "I know your son."
I smiled and said, "You do?"
"Yeah," the boy said. "He's a dickhead."
In that room, in that moment, my face reddened as the face of a relatively dark-skinned person hardly ever does and I felt the tears rise up from my throat to my sinuses to the corners of my eyes. I wanted to cringe, to crouch, to run. Instead, I bit the inside of my cheek, gave a cheery little talk and left. In the car, I put my head down on the icy steering wheel and sobbed. The kid who ambushed me was a dickhead -- son and brother of even larger and more opinionated dickheads. But he was correct about mine. My son was the kind of person who sneered and ran people down, even the undeserving, even the weak. He stole pencils from the school store and quarters from his brothers' piggy banks. A soccer ref, he delighted in throwing down the foul cards and seeing the little kids cry. He enjoyed nothing, except once, winning the Pinewood Derby in Boy Scouts (which I'd encouraged him to join although he hated it, I later learned, in part because of the three fat dickheads and six or seven other militarists of their ilk, in part because he was constitutionally unable to like anything.) While I knew, intellectually, that these were signs of despair, they moved me only to rage and fear. I was a young widow. I had no money. I had about as much chance of the novel I'd just written (The Deep End of the Ocean) making any money as I had of being asked to solo with the Joffrey Ballet. I didn't only not need this pain. I wanted to actively deny it.
Then he set a fire. It was (thanks to the Boy Scouts) a controlled fire, with sand and stones around it, and not near any structure, but on a railroad easements.. However, for 45 minutes under intense questioning by the Arson Squad (?), my 11-year-old explained the fire as "spontaneous combustion" and admitted he had himself never seen the like of it. When he finally gave it, he said the arson detective was an idiot for not getting it sooner.
An edge of denial had been just possible until then. But denial is not really in my molecules. That night, in cold terror, I feared was raising the next generation of Dahmer.
Off we went to counseling. My son cheerfully admitted he hated me and yes, he did blame me for his father's death (from early onset colon cancer) and yes, he hated school and yes, he had no friends -- because I had cost him his best friend. (The child's mother had called one day, upset, and confided that my boy really wasn't "behaving that nicely" and that she would prefer that her Alex no longer play with him. In a floundering attempt at protectiveness, I told my kid that Alex really lived too far away for an everyday play date.) No, our son went on, to the counselor, he had no desire or hope to change. For her part, the psychologist did not believe him to be suicidal, drug-prone or a budding psychopath. My late husband and I had struggled with infertility. She said, "You treated him like the Messiah when he was born. And you're surpised he plays God?"
We muddled onward toward adolescence.
One night, when I heard him crying, I went into his room. "Honey," I said. "Do you think you're gay?"
He said, "I'm not gay, Mom."
I asked, "Are you sure? Have you thought about it?"
"Have I tried having fantasies about other guys? Not so much Mom. I don't think you have to try," he said.
So whenever my son would open a crack the facade -- when his voice would tremble and he would say, "I don't want to go to the beer parties with those freaks and jocks, but I want to be asked ..." I tried Outward Bound and Super Outward Bound. He loved the wilderness. Nobody loved him.
With just a few credits left until graduation and an IQ that measured out at 160 when he was twelve, my son dropped out of high school and went off not-to-college. Because of a kind of savant ability to speak fluent French, he got a job as a tech specialist and downloader for a big music company. He got a job as a computer bitch, actually -- making $14 an hour for what the girl he worked for, whom he also briefly dated, got $35. College, he said whenever I gingerly brought this up, was out of the question. Only another collection of the recessive gene pool. Why should he bother? And why should I care? He told me to leave him alone -- to concentrate on my other kids, the ones who "needed" me.
Do you know what it is like to love someone who is actively, occasionally cruelly unloveable, who towers over you and yells at you, who calls you names, who says eloquently why he thinks you're stupid? Do you know how it is to remember nuzzling the bottom of that person's boxy little baby feet and hearing him chuckle deep in his belly, recording his first full sentence,. giving him his bath, reading to him Goodnight, Moon? Do you know how it is to long like a lover for just one touch from the miserable, scowling, complaining hulk that sunny blond baby became? It is worse, I suppose, for a child to be on drugs and fear for his very life than to have him hate you. It is worse to have a child be mortally ill and have that child adore you. But having your best beloved hate you is a particular agony so great that it beggars ordinary language. When I finally banished him from my life, one Father's Day, telling him after a vicious set-to that really was not his, but his brother's fault, that I could no longer endure a verbally abusive relationship, I nearly lost my reason. And he, he cheerfully agreed and walked ten miles in 100-degree weather to crawl back into his squalid apartment. For three months, I brushed and flossed my teeth, read to the younger kids and lay down to cry. I picked up the telephone two hundred times. I lay and mourned in hard silence, like birth labor: I would waken with my hair so damp that it was as if I'd had a swim before bed. To give in would have meant that I'd lose not only my boy, but the respect of my other children, forever.
Then came the day our third son left for college. Through the open kitchen window, I heard the sound of my eldest's utterly crummy car chugging up the hill. To my shock, he kissed our youngest (whom he'd always called a "sissy" and a "Mama's baby") and held him close before his brother left. He came inside. I was making spaghetti sauce, making my hands busy because my heart was breaking and tearing into so many chunks and layers.
Because I could not say, oh, how I missed you and he could not say, I was so wrong, I said, "Would you taste this? I think it needs sugar."
He said, "It's perfect."
He stayed six months.
Sleeping on a mattress in the basement, in the middle of the rec room, he paid off his aggravated parking tickets. With a score equalled only by five others in the history of the state's HSED test, he got his high school diploma and a Pell grant as well as a partial scholarship. With fear and will, in that hideous car, he set out for Florida where he began college. He has never got less than a B+ and only one of those. He sends me his report card, which he had never, in his childhood, ever even let me see.
Almost each day, my son would send me a funny link or a joke or a bit of trenchant political commentary. He would sign off with love. And once he said it took training to stop being angry and cynical -- because it was so much easier. For his friendships, which are now friendships instead of loose connections with other callous, useless people, he fought, forcing himself to be vulnerable and betray his own latent sweetness. People find him one of the most delightful young men they've ever met. And he is.
For two decades, since he learned to read at three, I never had the chance to brag on my boy -- only make dry jokes to cover my alarm and shame. It is as if a clenched muscle in my breast has finally relaxed.
When, just weeks ago, I was victim of a hideous Ponzi scheme, losing vritually everything I had, it was my son who stayed up all night and used his prodigious gift as a hacker to uncover details about the cowardly miscreants who did this -- secrets even the SEC and the CFTC didn't know. It was he who consoled me, instead of blaming or grieving, like many others in my family. It was he who volunteered to stop out of school until he could earn enough to pay for his every expense, although he has just 11 months left.
It is almost impossible, or at least damnably hard, to break an addiction permanently -- whether it is to drugs, food, cigarettes or booze.
The addiction to hopelessness and cynicism is just as tenuous.
My son had to overcome his impulse to retreat into the familiar sneer, the cherished rage -- his long-ingrained first reaction to any disappointment -- and face the very real change that there would be people who would never forgive him and would always think of him as an asshole. There are indeed people who still hate him.
I adore him.
He does not make fun when I sign my notes "Mommy" because for so long, he would not even let me call him "honey" or "dear."
All my children are beloved of me but my eldest son now is the kindest to my feelings -- the most solicitious, the one who tears up over gifts from us, who promises me sports cars and fancy clothes when he's rich.
For this, yes, he is my hero. He came back from being one of the worst things a human being can be, a ruin, a boy with potential consumed by waste.
Come, said the ancient herder, for, though a hundred of my sheep are safe, I have found the one that was lost. Come and rejoice with me.
Causes Jacquelyn Mitchard Supports
National MS Society, Women Against MS, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, One Writer's Place