When the doctor said my son had bronchitis, my eyes opened wide and my jaw dropped a little. A bit melodramatic, but she laughed and said most people had that reaction but it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. She prescribed an inhaler because his breathing and coughing were so bad. I stumbled on my questions like how? And why? Mostly, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t something I could’ve prevented. A negligence on my part. “It’s just a virus. He breathed it in. It happens all the time,” she said.
Parents have so much power. Some of it false, with an illusion type quality. I never want to feel negligent.
When we lived in Harlem from the time he was 2 years 9 months until he was 7, he seemed to always have a cough. For most of that time, in our two bedroom apartment a block away from the 6 train, it was just the two of us. In retrospect, I realize it was probably the mold in the walls that made him cough like that. There were always all sorts of leaks in our building, but I felt lucky to be able to live there.
Walking into that apartment, there was a room to your left that was too small to be a bedroom but large enough to be used as storage or a walk-in closet. I often think of the moments that occurred at the entrance of our apartment. The bathroom was to your right by the front door. I’m sure people thought I beat my child because when I’d bathe him, he would scream and cry as if I were hurting him. (He hated washing his hair. Still does actually.) I have pictures of him with paint up to his elbows from a time he was finger painting and things got out of hand. But the moments I don’t have pictures of are the funniest. One morning, standing in that closet in a thong, looking for something to wear, my son on the way to the bathroom saw me. “Don’t worry mommy, that happens to me all of the time,” he said, and kept about his business. My little kid totally thought I had the most vicious wedgy. I had to hide I was laughing so hard.
In the mornings, he liked to eat toast with peanut butter for breakfast. We were always in a hurry to get him to school, but there was one morning that I discovered two clumps of peanut butter in his hair as we were walking out the door. When I asked him how it happened, he said he had no idea. I had no time to wash his long hair so I did the best I could to get it out quickly. But my favorite memory is probably from the morning of my wedding. When I stood in the bathroom, brushing my teeth, and heard him running to me. He opened the door in a hurry, looked at me with two thumbs up and sang, “Mommy, WED-DING DAAAY!” like he was the fucking Fonz from Happy Days.
Naturally, for every good, funny memory, there are also bad ones. Last year, as he was entering middle school, he was also going through changes in his relationship with his biological father. It’s not like it happened over night. It really started years earlier but things were getting worse and coincided with that shift that happens in a kid when entering middle school and the beginnings of puberty. Before I knew it, during a time I thought I would have more time for myself, I was dedicating almost as much time to him as when he was much younger. I don’t go into details of his experience here because I have felt that much of it is up to him to tell one day, if he chooses to. Though we talk about what he’s okay with me including in my writing, there’s a line and I try to keep things from my perspective. But he has told me a range of stories, some infuriating, some that simply have made me shake my head and say, “Honey, you’ll have plenty to write about when you’re older. Good Lord.” We laugh when I say this. I try to encourage him to write, but his thing is art and music. He loves stand up comedy though and I feed into this defense mechanism of laughter. Dark humor rules our household.
A week before Christmas, a boy that was just a year older than my son, took his own life. They went to the same school. “We weren’t friends or anything but it’s still sad,” he said. We talked about it. A lot. They took the same bus to school and went to the same after school club once a week. I realized that my son had just talked about this kid a few weeks prior. I, in turn, obsessed for weeks. Thinking, searching, scanning my mind to moments from last year. When my son broke down, fell apart. What his anxiety still looks like. It’s inevitable to think of all the people (usually family) that think you’re exaggerating when you’re concerned or all the people that don’t think you’re doing enough. No one ever wants to believe the signs. Sometimes there are none.
For days, my son was unusually quiet. And for days, I asked him if he was okay. “Something just feels off,” he’d respond. When I told a friend of mine, she said, “We have a hard time when a celebrity we like dies. Of course he feels off.”
I wore grape purple sweatpants when my parents rushed me to the hospital at 15. A Freshman in high school, a few days after my birthday, I took a bunch of pills and then immediately regretted it. I called my older brother. Before taking me to the hospital, my mother cried, my father told me I was going to kill her, and my older sister said, “What’s wrong with you? You have everything.” None of the above was very helpful to the situation. Or my life in general.
When they pump your stomach, you essentially shit black tar. It’s like a newborn’s shit. I don’t think this tidbit of information would prevent anyone from not ingesting something that could kill them but for some reason, these are the facts that stick out. Things like, the doctor helping me was cute. I was embarrassed. I was on 24 hour watch. I couldn’t shower alone; there was someone right outside the shower making sure I didn’t hurt myself. Doctors asked me if I heard voices and I was coached by family on how to answer to make sure they didn’t send me “away”. I don’t know why it bothered me that my mother picked me up alone when I was discharged. Though it seems obvious. I didn’t want everyone mad at me. I needed support. I know it was a weekday. Everyone was probably at school or working. She didn’t bring me a change of clothes and I wondered if it was to teach me a lesson or because she didn’t think it mattered. Knowing my mother, though, it might have been a mix of both. I had to wear those hideous sweatpants out of Lenox Hill Hospital and wear them home. The same hospital my son would be born at eight years later.
I imagine the lack of support my mother had. The hows and the whys. At some point, she told me this story: while riding the Third Avenue bus to the hospital, a woman observed and approached her. My mother says she wasn’t crying but this woman obviously noticed the distress on her face. She told her everything would be fine and my mom felt like it was angel sending her a message. Probably because that’s what she needed in that moment. To believe everything would be fine. I imagine she pictured all of the innocent things I did as a kid, like making cards for my aunts and uncles, talking to my imaginary friends, or opening an umbrella every time I pooped. (Yeah, we still don’t know what the hell that was about. I was weird.)
I spent most mornings of eighth grade trying to breathe, sometimes with my head between my knees, sometimes into a bag. Consistent and constant panic attacks. This was also the year I would begin to binge and purge. By graduation, I was also looking to consistently and constantly drink. At 17, two friends stayed up with me all night to make sure I didn’t choke on my vomit. They called my mother and asked her if they should take me to the hospital. I’m pretty confident in saying my mom took a gamble when she told them no. She also told them they were responsible for me for the night and to call her if anything else happened. Good night. I’m also pretty sure she thought, “here we go again.”
It is inevitable that a parent ask why or how. I know my parents have never fully understood any of my choices. They have never wanted to talk about my past. There was plenty that followed that suicide attempt but they have never wanted to examine all the shit that happened in between. And I get it. I don’t blame them. They come to their own conclusions, tell themselves a story that either makes them feel better or worse but might feel better than the truth. I know at the core of avoiding that conversation is that they’re afraid. They have always been afraid that their children’s failures and our misery have been a reflection of some sort of deficiency, a reflection of where they went wrong.
In my own way, and given the opportunity, I have tried to tell them that this isn’t the case. Parents influence, but they do not define. Depending on your perspective, expectation, and experience, that thought can either be scary or a relief. Either way, life is much more complicated than that.