THINGS I CAN'T SAY
25 February 2002
I read a journal entry today written by a mother whose child is having some problems--I
won't say which journal or what problems, because I don't know if she reads this and there
are so many mothers out there talking about problems with kids that it could be just about
Reading it reminded me about problems we've gone through with our kids. When I read
things like that particular entry, I always want to write to commiserate, to say
"you'll get through this and so will your kid..." Until 1999, I was very good at
doing that sort of thing. We had weathered so much and everybody seemed to be coming along
just fine. An internet friend whose son was having a lot of drinking/drug problems as well
as being a discipline problem talked about his problems on line. I gave him the benefit of
my wisdom in how we successfully (I thought) coped with similar problems. I was
understanding and wise and felt I could really help him get through this difficult period.
But Paul and David removed that confidence from me. When they died, those fears I'd had
for so many years all came to pass. I no longer can say "you'll get through this and
so will your kid." Because two of our kids didn't get through it.
We've had our share of trips to the emergency room, worrisome illnesses, and angst
severe enough to send a child into therapy. We also had the worry of sending a kid out in
a car, hoping that all those years of preaching "designated driver" will take
hold. Sometimes feeling you've done all the right things isn't enough.
We had four pretty good years of parenthood. Then Jeri broke her leg and we rushed off
to the ER for the first time. It was a greenstick fracture, which meant that the bone was
splintered so that the broken part was sticking up toward the front of her body. It wasn't
a bad break, and to set it, they only had to push the splintered bone back into place and
cast it. But she was 4 yrs old, and they didn't give her so much as an aspirin for the
pain. I had to sit there holding this terrified, hurting, screaming child while some
muscle-bound casting room technician pushed her broken bone back into place. I will never
forget how terrible I felt, and how helpless to keep her from pain.
Over the years, I got pretty good at emergency room procedures and learned that I
handled emergencies fairly well. I could hold a kid while someone stitched up a wound or
set a broken bone. I didn't panic. I even managed David's fall head first into a
campfire and the resulting problems that caused remarkably well.
Medical personnel always assumed I'd be an hysterical mother and tried to keep me from
the procedure itself. I remember one time when they had to stitch a cut in David's lip. He
was quite young at the time and they wrapped him in a papoose board, something like a baby
straight jacket which is fastened with velcro rather than tied. They wouldn't let me stand
with him, but made me stand at the back of the room. From where I was, I could see that he
was working his hands loose, something the doctor and the nurse hadn't noticed. It was I
who rushed over to make sure that he didn't knock the doctor's hands while he worked on
the lip repair.
The screams of a child cut through my soul every time, but I was able to handle it,
knowing that it was necessary. I was also pretty good with the at-home care.
David spent a lot of his early years suffering from ear infections. When he was about
18 months old, the doctor finally decided that he'd just never fully recovered from his
very first infection, at age 6 weeks. The pediatrician doubled up on the antibiotics,
which finally--thank goodness--seemed to do the trick. But the ear infections were so
painful and David would writhe in pain when they struck. One day I decided that if LaMaze
breathing techniques could work for easing the pain of childbirth, why not other pain? I
sat by his side and explained what I wanted him to do and why. Then I worked with him at
concentrating on breathing and relaxing his body. He was so compliant and he discovered
that it really did help. After that whenever he had a pain of any sort, he and I worked
together, getting his breathing regulated and trying to relieve the pain that way.
Through the years, while there was cause for concern at one time or another with all of
the kids (especially when Tom bought a motorcycle), David and Paul were the two who most
consistently caused worry. David was expelled on his last day in junior high for drinking
before class, with his friend who stole liquor from his father's pub (the friend drank so
much he ended up in the hospital). I always worried that David would get drunk, drive a
car and kill himself. I don't worry about that any more. He already did it.
We harped so much on having a designated driver. I remember when he stumbled into the
house, the only time I saw him really drunk. He was headed up to Lake Tahoe and told me
over and over again that his friend hadn't been drinking, that he knew he needed a driver,
and he promised me he wouldn't drive himself, but would leave it to his sober friend.
A year later, he climbed into his sister's car with a high blood alcohol level and
wrapped himself around a lamp post in San Francisco.
I thought we'd handled David's problems so well. When he fell apart in college, we got
him into therapy, and we supported his struggles to get his life together. He and I had
long, in-depth conversations and I always thought that he and I had good communication. It
was a shock to discover that he'd lost his job several weeks before his death and had
apparently gone through all of the money he'd been saving for college trying to live
without a salary because he didn't want to tell anybody--not even Jeri, with whom he was
sharing a house. I also had no idea he was spending all of his time locked in his room
sleeping (and probably drinking). I thought I knew him so well, and in the end I didn't
know him at all.
When people talk with me about their fears for their kids, or tell me that they just
don't know what to do, I no longer have any answers. At one point I got too complacent. I
thought we'd figured out how to cope, how to help, how to support, how to get the kids
I don't think that any more. "Doing the right thing" is a day at a time
thing, and we've learned the bitter truth that just because things went right today, it is
no guarantee that things will go all right tomorrow.
They don't put that in the fine print when you sign that "parenting
I seem to be having a morbid period, given the last couple of journal
entries. I think memories were churned up by receiving my latest Preoccupied Pipers
CD, The Crispy Taste of
Hell. Preoccupied Pipers is a project of people who were once involved in the
band Lawsuit, and their friends (Steve is on this latest CD, for example--he recorded
"Salvation Song" with Ned and some of his friends--I think if you click on the
link for the CD you can hear any of the songs).
There are 3 previously unreleased songs by Paul on the CD, one of which is
called "Tiny Friend". It's a lullaby that Paul wrote for the baby that he
helped raise from age 6 mos to about age 18 mos, until he and her mother broke up.
He loved that little baby so much. I remember his playing that song for me
once, so hearing it on this CD kind of got to me.
I've spent today taking the song and putting it together with pictures
into a slide show. It was a helpful thing to do. There is something about
listening to something like this over and over and over and over again, trying to make it
fit just the way you want it to, which rather quickly removes the emotional impact that
got to you in the first place.