I could tell something was wrong with my son, Oliver, age 11. When I asked him what it was, he went into his room, closed the door, locked it, and told me to leave him alone. This made it impossible for me to leave him alone. I wanted to know if it was my fault he was upset since I had just snapped at him for asking me to find him the camera. Both of my kids are always searching for something and they often expect me to find it.
So I banged on the door and demanded he open it. I’m not really sure if this is what you are supposed to do when your kid tells you to leave him alone. Or maybe it’s different for girls and boys. I have read that when females are upset, we want someone to ask us what is wrong and listen while we tell them. This is true of me. I hate when I am lonely and exhausted and suffocating under the drudgery of daily existence and no one notices or cares. They just keep watching TV and asking for snacks.
But maybe it’s different for males. I have read that when they are upset you should leave them alone because that is what they really want, and that seems to be the case with my husband. He says I talk about work all the time and that I should leave him alone. Just because we are both teachers doesn’t mean he always wants to talk about how to get people to properly punctuate a sentence or which novels kids like most.
After our kids go to bed he does not really want to talk about their problems or about the things that are broken and need to be repaired. He wants me to leave him alone so he can watch TV shows about men on fishing boats in Alaska. I don’t want to watch these shows, so I do leave him alone and he is happy.
When he is angry, he does not want to talk about why. It should be obvious that he is tired and frustrated because life is hard. I should understand and leave him alone.
But then, I’ve read and observed enough of impulsive adolescent depression to believe the only thing worse than having a child who is suffering would be watching your child go through it and feeling that you didn’t do enough to try to help. And I’m pretty sure every parent whose child has suffered (so pretty much every parent) has felt this way at some point. No matter what you did, either you could have done more or you could have done something different.
Yesterday I read the obituary of one of my former students in the paper. He died at home. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know that his mother must be devastated.
So I found the camera Oliver wanted, knocked on his door again, and said I would give him the camera if he let me in.
I walked in and sat down on the little green rug that’s been in his room since he was in preschool. The rug has roads on it going from one destination to the next. There’s a school, a park, a police station …
I asked again what was wrong.
He sat down facing the wall, not looking at me.
“I just get sad about my pets sometimes,” he replied.
Oliver has a lot of pets: fish, turtles, lizards, a cat. Sometimes I think he cares more about his pets than anything else, but for him, the pets represent unconditional love and life without the burden of assignments and worldly expectations because pets don’t take or give assignments or care about what kind of shoes anyone is wearing. Shoes are something middle school kids talk about in a way that adults would find rather juvenile. They point at each other’s shoes and ask, “What are those?” This is not because they are curious about where to find comfortable looking shoes. This is to create social tension as a way to stave off boredom and avoid meaningful work.
So pets and wildlife are Oliver’s refuge from stupidity. But sometimes, because animals die, Oliver’s pets also represent the impermanence of everything. Where do they go when they die? What he knows is that when they are gone, he can’t see them anymore, so he tries to photograph each and every one while they are alive.
It reminds me of Poe’s poem, “A Dream Within A Dream,” when he’s talking about the grains of sand slipping through his fingers: “Oh God! Can I not save one from the pitiless wave?”
For two years I volunteered as a Sunday school teacher. I was dependable as far as showing up every week, reading Bible stories, passing out crackers and juice, but I am not at all qualified to be a Sunday school teacher. I am not particularly religious, and I have to try very hard to be somewhat spiritual.
I don’t know what to say to my kids when they ask where animals go when they die. I don’t know what to do when they lock the door and tell me to leave them alone. When I bang on the door and demand to come in, I am trying to save them from the pitiless waves.
What I told Oliver as we sat on the rug in his room, him not facing me because he was too sad to look me in the eyes, was that it is kind of normal to feel this way after Christmas. It’s actually normal to feel this way anytime, even though you see people acting like they’re having such a great time cheering on their favorite teams or dressing up as characters from some movie everyone keeps talking about. Sometimes it’s normal to wonder, what is the point in getting up, getting dressed, making sandwiches, and doing worksheets if everything will be taken away in the end, if change and loss are the only constants?
You feel it more after a major event, like Christmas or graduation, because it took so much to get ready, and you were so looking forward to that climactic moment, which may or may not have delivered, but either way, it passed, so what is left? And you took photos to try to hold on to the moment. You can’t really hold onto a moment, but at least you have a photo.
I was reading an essay yesterday by a woman whose son had died at 22. She still talks to him, not in a crazy way, but in a way that a perfectly reasonable person would talk to her son after he was gone.
I’ve had writer’s block for a while now because there was too much to say and it might have been inconsiderate to say it. Writer’s block is the fear of the truth. It’s also being bored with yourself and feeling that you annoy people by talking too much and writing too much. No one has time for you. You are boring, not funny. And you should stop trying to be funny because half the time, it’s dishonest. Half the time, any humor you impose on the situation is sugarcoating – wishful thinking at best and a cheap sort of flippancy at worst.
Sometimes the most important conversations are the ones we have with ourselves, but sometimes, you also think you might be crazy.
I felt it too, after Christmas, I told Oliver. I had worked myself up to finish grading essays, buy the gifts, make maple fudge and candied walnuts. I literally sugarcoated it. I served fruitcake in class after we read a Truman Capote story about a boy who made fruitcake every fall with a dear old lady friend until he was sent to military school. The boy received letters at school from his friend until they tapered off and eventually his friend passed away. When we watched the movie, the ninth graders noted that the old lady didn’t die at the end.
“I wanted to see her die,” one kid proclaimed irreverently.
This is how 15-year-olds process feelings of sadness in a public forum.
Of course, how we cope in public is nothing like how we feel in those quiet private moments when we wish someone would explain, or at least listen.
Oliver nodded as I talked about how it can be normal to feel empty after a holiday, how I feel it too, the day after Christmas, the day after graduation, sometimes on my birthday at sunset.
And then he picked up the camera and asked to take my picture.