In the 1950’s, move from apartment in Queens with stoops, playgrounds and the quick subway ride to streets and parks of Manhattan. Move to the sidewalk-less land of lawnmower, country club, and clean living rooms with two children under the age of five.
Become a green immigrant, illiterate in the new language of shopping centers, ignorant of the way status is signaled here by houses, clothes, children and cars. Conceal from your husband that you don’t get dressed until right before he gets home from work. Go into psychoanalysis. Learn that you are an ambivalent wife and mother. Feel relief at the ease with which your daughter starts school. When your son begins to talk at three and a half, send him to nursery school. Learn that he spends all day in time-out for “disruptive behavior.”
Try to find out, from three-year-old, why. Change schools. Think of your baby boy learning to crawl, think of his lemon brown hair.
Fail to silence the echoes from your childhood, the memory of how you protected your own twin brother, diagnosed at thirteen with schizophrenia. Remember the sick uncles your mother took in, the boarders in the front room who tried to feel your breasts. Recall how you used to escape outside to join packs of kids in the streets and alleys of the Bronx; how you paid, afterwards, for that momentary freedom when you took the blows of your immigrant mother’s invective. You felt the spell of the old world evil eye on you. Realize you feel it still, though you do not believe. Think of your father hiding from his family on nightshift, sleeping away his days. Feel unprotected. Think of your husband hiding at his store. Feel the stigma of your childhood.
Feel like spitting when your son’s pre-World War I kindergarten teacher says, “I just don’t know how two such different children can come from the same family.” Weep for three days. When the school counselor tells you your son is retarded, teach him to read, yourself, in one week. See child psychiatrist who diagnoses autism. Refuse label. This makes you the withholding mother. Accept judgment.
Do not find comfort when daughter’s third grade report card says “pleasure to have in the class.” Your daughter can’t explain or fix her brother’s wildness at school; do not notice her shame. Allow son to be placed in a “special” school for “problem children.” Believe you can do something that will change your son, something that will change everything.
Believe you are the cause; believe you are the cure. Place a violin in your son’s hands. Discover his precocious gift for music. Hold your breath. Think of your baby boy learning to crawl, think of his lemon brown hair. When your daughter is fourteen, believe her when she says she hates you. Retaliate in wounded anger; do not credit the pain beneath the defiance. Experience the relief of years without incident as your son navigates junior and senior high. Watch, amazed, as he teaches himself Hungarian and Chinese. Worry that he has no friends. Send children to college.
Awaken to phone call in your son’s final year. Recognize flat new tone in his voice.
Bring him home. Beg the school to take him back. Awaken again to the phone in the night.
Hear psychiatrist explain the “poetic” meaning of your son’s suicide gesture. Deny to yourself and the doctors that son has delusions. Feel the stigma of your childhood. Believe you are the cause, and you are the cure. When side effects of Haldol make son drowsy, encourage him to stop taking it.
Feel abandoned when daughter moves 3,000 miles away. When son cuts off phone and refuses family contact for six years, send him money every month. When he calls, finally, in terrified agitation, allow him to move home again. Lay awake for nights, listening.
Exhausted, take him to the hospital. Give up fighting labels. Allow psychiatrist to say Schizo-affective Disorder. Hear the new wisdom that biology trumps nurture. Think of your baby boy learning to crawl, think of his lemon brown hair. Do not feel absolved. Feel only grief that you are powerless.