I knew the times down to the minute: six hours in the car without traffic, then an 80-minute commuter flight from San Jose to John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Exactly 365 miles, and I counted them down in my head from the click as I closed the heavy front door and left the house, as I cleared security, waited at the gate, boarded the plane and let the blue coast scroll by outside the oval window. I waited for the moment my 15-year-old son Gabe would walk down the wide, tiled hallway of the well-tended Spanish-style house in his high-top sneakers and slouched jeans, his hair long and pushed off to one side.
I would not cry when I hugged him, here at the residential treatment center. Or during our few hours together at family therapy, sharing a communal lunch with the other boys and their parents, shooting basketball later in the gated driveway. I waited to get back on the plane for that. When I wasn’t counting any longer. When I had to reconcile again, the half of myself I’d left on an exit off one of the many green-lined Orange County highways I traveled each time to get to him. I had to be a mother―but not be a mother―at the same time. I dried the last tears with the back of my hand as I rode the escalator to the baggage claim area, descending steadily to my husband Jack and daughter Liv waiting below, their faces upturned and hopeful.
Sometimes, on these trips, I thought about a Mother’s Day card Liv had made for me, her loopy schoolgirl handwriting praising me as a brave caregiver. You inspire me to get up every morning and grind through the next day even though it might be difficult. You have shown us what true love looks like. Your heart is so pure and forgiving for everything that has happened in your journey so far. I didn’t recognize myself in her kind words. But I kept the card in my bedside drawer to remind myself of the way she sees me. To keep alive the belief that the mother Liv described―beautiful, artistic, brave, protective, dedicated―could exist somehow in me.
She didn’t know I was a fraud, that I’d grown adept at maintaining the outer aspects of normalcy. I smiled along at episodes of The Office on Netflix. I ate the food on my plate and paid the bills and made sure the laundry was folded and put away, the garden watered, the dogs fed. I ran a tight ship. High-functioning, as my therapist described it.
Inside, I was barren. My soul had left my body, hovering above us all, waiting for things to become right again, to return. By then, Gabe had been gone almost five months.
First to an acute care inpatient home for teen boys about 90 minutes from our home, then to one in Southern California for longer-term aftercare. What began as a tough time adjusting to high school as a freshman spread like the destructive red tide of an algal bloom into a severe depressive episode, accompanied by self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. Then to time unaccounted for, texts and meet ups with older kids we didn’t know, a slide into nights of fitful sleep, skipped meals and family events. The closed door of his room, scarred by a ragged hole on the inside he had punched one night in frustration. His face transformed to a blank mask I could no longer see behind. The boy we knew and raised by hand―suddenly gone.
We lived in fear. I was afraid to know. Afraid not to know. By the time we made the wrenching, desperate decision to send him away, he hadn’t eaten a regular meal in days nor slept through the night. He didn’t speak in full sentences, but mumbled through yes’s and no’s as we tried to decipher his silence. He drew murals on the walls of his room in black Sharpie. A single hooded eye looking into the distance, an unshed tear hanging at the corner. Bits of song lyrics about graveyards and death. The word DIFFERENT in slanted capital letters. A broken heart colored in blood red.
He was a ghost of himself and we were his ghost parents, carrying out our duty to protect him in the only way we could fathom. In order to save him, we had to let him go. Entrust him to the care of others, strangers with medical degrees and experience and knowledge we did not possess. We had to say to ourselves: Our love is no longer enough. We are no longer enough.
I had to tell myself: I am no longer enough.
Later, when the fog lifted a bit and the medical and psychiatric team were able to stabilize him, we caught glimpses of the boy we knew on the biweekly Family Days. Jack and I rode in the car out into the country setting where the house was located, afraid to talk too much, or too little. From the car window I surveyed fields of dairy cows and the green hills of Northern California in January, through rainstorms and hail, and one morning a double rainbow across the sky I photographed through the windshield. My life took place in these insulated moments, seen through a barrier of glass. The rain fell on the land and the trees and the fields, but did not reach me, the real world at a remove as I passed like a spirit through the small farming towns.
I wanted to believe in hope. That Gabe could be OK. That the rainbows over the hills signified a change, a destination filled with treasure and light, though I would have settled for a shadow. I willed myself to believe I could once again be a mother, the way I knew how. Or that I would navigate a way through this newly dark unstable universe to become a new kind of mother.
He was always unfailingly polite during our visits, thanking us for coming, asking about the trip up, across so many highways and a bridge spanning the Bay. He stood so straight and tall those Saturday afternoons, showing us around the house, the basketball court at the back, the fields where horses grazed in the distance, wild mustard coming up in bursts of yellow as the months passed. We watched him surreptitiously as we ate together at the long picnic table next to the barn. I was relieved and secretly joyful to watch him eat a piece of chicken and some rice, then offer to clear our plates for us. I thought back to when he was a baby―always a picky eater―presenting him Cheerios in the palm of my hand, a sure thing. The feeling of pride when he ate a stalk of broccoli or an apple slice. It was like that again.
I watched each movement and listened to each word he spoke for a sign. If he laughed at something one of the boys said―some bit of dark humor about being on lockdown―I would wonder if that meant he could be happy again. We had not heard the sound of his low rumbling laugh in many, many months. When we talked in therapy about how bad things were before he went away, he would look down at his shoes and wring his hands in his lap. I clutched my notebook and transcribed his words, as if these sessions could tell me something I didn’t already know. I saved them to read later, like postcards from a faraway country written in a language I had never learned or heard spoken aloud.
I watched him closely as we said goodbye, imprinting his new face on my memory and felt his limbs grow stiff as we spoke our last words to each other. I did not cry. I did not say, I am not sure I know how to be your mother anymore. I am not sure of anything anymore. I waved and told him we would bring him some clothes next time, a book, a pair of sneakers he’d long coveted. He stood in the long curved driveway of the house, his hand resting lightly on the head of the black Lab belonging to one of the staff. He looked like my son. He also looked like a boy I’d never seen before. Sometimes I would peer back over one shoulder as the car turned at the top of the hill towards home, but mostly I did not.
I just wanted to go home and lie down. Look through old photo albums of our life before. When Gabe played Little League, sweaty and covered with reddish dirt from the field, asking for Gatorade and Chex Mix. Looking up at me from under his dusty baseball cap, as if I had all the answers.
When he was gone, I woke up very early in the morning, my limbs aching as if I’d hiked a mountain terrain in my sleep. I had to remind myself what day it was. I wore the same clothes again and again, because it was easier not to decide. I walked along the hallway past the closed door of his room. I could not bear the sight of his neatly made bed, posters in place on the walls, his desk neat in a way it never was when he lived with us.
As I stood at the back door to let the dog out, I wrote poems in my head. All the things I wanted to say to him, but never did, on our daily ten-minute phone calls, monitored by staff. I was afraid they would not understand a mother who could write poetry while her son suffered miles away, sleeping in a strange bed, managed by strangers who transcribed his every meal, noted his exercise and monitored his medications, his weight, and his demeanor by the hour, if he cried, if he smiled.
But it was all I knew how to do.
Jack coped by focusing on his demanding work at a startup in the City. Liv studied diligently for her Honors and AP classes, worked a part-time job and dedicated herself to her junior year of varsity softball. I watched the light bleed out of the days, suffered through the sameness, the constant feeling of heaviness over my heart as the yellow roses bloomed over the porte-cochère just as they had every year before.
For me, time had stopped on a rainy January morning as Nick, the intake coordinator, helped unload suitcases from the back of our SUV. On the trip up to Sonoma County, Gabe put in his earbuds and fell asleep with his head against the car window. He didn’t see the rain and winter winds battering the fields, blowing the trees sideways. He didn’t hear the car’s navigation telling us which exit to take. He didn’t see me texting Nick when we were just a few minutes away, passing tidy barns and fields of horses, winding down the wet rutted country lanes towards the house.
When we arrived, Nick ran down the wide slate steps with a black Lab and shook our hands. I stood under a black umbrella, perfectly still, as the dog nuzzled my legs and raindrops fell from the sky onto Nick’s kind face. Jack got the bags out of the back.
Then the moment arrived. Gabe stepped out onto the wet gravel. He did not look into my eyes.
Nick said “Hello,” and shook his hand. “I’ll get you all set up.” He put one hand on my son’s shoulder and drew him in.
I don’t recall exactly what I said. It may have been I love you, or You will be OK, or I’m sorry.
Or it may have been none of those things. I cannot recall, and by then Gabe was too far away to hear me.