Sam is 13

I am his mother. We snigger impatiently, we sigh, grip our foreheads, and sometimes we fight.

Published January 17, 2003 8:37PM (EST)

Sam and I are going through hormonal transformations together, and the house gets crowded. There is Sam at 13 -- usually mellow, funny, slightly nuts. But when the plates suddenly shift, there is The Visitor, the Other. I call him Phil. Phil is a little tense. Also, sullen and contemptuous. There is me at 48 -- usually mellow, funny, and slightly nuts; and there is the Menopausal Death Crone.

Some days are great, because Sam and I at these ages are both wild and hilarious and utterly full of our best stuff; but other days, when Phil and the Death Crone drop by, are awful. We snigger impatiently, and we sigh, grip our foreheads, and we fight. Mostly we fight about homework and church, neither of which work for him -- but by the same token, neither does flossing. It's hard for him to sit still for school and church when he'd rather be playing, or on the computer, and I hate to make him, because I want him to be happy, and to find an authentic spirituality; but mostly I hate to make him because his resistance pollutes my home and my worship.

The usual things help: a little distance, prayer, chocolate. Talking to the parents of older kids is helpful, because parents of kids the same age won't admit how horrible their children are. There's a great book on adolescence that I can turn to, called "Get Out Of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl To the Mall," by Anthony Wolf. I tape things to the wall that give me some light to see by: One pink card says, Breathe, Pray, Be Kind, Stop Grabbing. One says something I heard recently, that you can either practice being right, or practice being kind. Screaming in the car helps.

But what helps most of all is walking. I have been going up on the mountain to walk and be quiet and pray nearly every morning for two years now. I started to do this because I had always heard that this is what Jesus did, although my priest friend Tom has recently corrected me. He said we are not sure if this is actually what Jesus did. He said they had to explain his going away by saying he was going up to the mountain to pray, but for all we know, he went off and had a few beers. Then he may have gone bowling, slinging the ball bitterly down the alley until he felt better.

"What would he have done with 13-year-olds?" I asked.

"In Bible times, they used to stone a few 13-year-olds with some regularity, which helped keep the others quiet and at home. The mothers were usually in the first row of stone throwers, and had to be restrained."

I wrote this down and taped it to my wall, next to the pink card. Every parent who saw it laughed and felt better; nothing helps like letting your ugly, common secrets out. And it came in handy during a recent fight.

That Saturday, I was driving Sam to his friend Anthony's house, where he was going to spend the night. I would pick him up for church at 10:30 the next morning. He was furious about having to go to church, although he only has to go every other week. We had had the Visitor, Phil, with us all morning, petulant and put-upon -- what we used to call "bratty" when I was young. For instance, when I'd asked him to wash his breakfast dishes, you'd have thought I'd ordered him to give the kitty a flea dip. When I'd asked him to take out the garbage, it might have been the bodies of his dead comrades.

I didn't try to get him to want to come to church; I didn't try to bribe him, or get him to like it -- or me. I am not here to be his friend. He was awful in the car, mute and victimized. What a horrible life -- Yugoslavia, under Milosevic.

It was one of those long 10-minute car rides that I've usually had with awful boyfriends. Living with a teenager can feel like having to live with an ex, or with a drug addict who has three days clean and sober. I tried to think about how nice it would be not to see Sam for 24 hours. We both sighed a lot. When I pulled up at his friend's house, he got out of the car, and then, without saying good-bye, he slammed the door and walked away. And I blew up. This is one tiny thing they forget to mention in most child-rearing books, that at times, you will just lose your mind. Period.

So I lost it, and I shouted for him to come back, and get in the car. He couldn't believe his ears. He gave me a withering look that turned to desperation. "No, no, please," he begged. "Get in the car," I snapped.

I made him get in the car and close the door, and then I drove away. He was furious, and then teary. He tried begging for mercy. I hate that.

I parked where the road dead-ends near Anthony's, and I got out. I said, "You will not treat me like shit. I'm going to go sit by that log. When you're ready to come apologize, with a contrite heart, you can get out of the car."

I went and sat against an ancient fallen log, and smoldered.

I did not look back at him, 30 feet away. I looked at the log instead. I caught my breath. I thought about what a piece of shit I am, and what a horrible, ruined child he is. I thought about grounding him all weekend, but of course, that meant I would have to spend time with him. I breathed, like it said on the pink card, and prayed, tried to be kind to my disastrous self, and wondered what it might mean in this situation to stop grabbing.

The log had a certain eminence, the majesty of age -- there was rot, and hairy sprouts, like in a grandfather's ears. It was furniture, a barrier, sculptural and grave, not the sort of thing you could argue with.

I could feel Sam's eyes drilling into my head. I felt wrong, and wronged. My head was sticking over the log, so he could shoot me.

There was a rock that looked like an altar, a few feet away, a huge mottled stone head, like a Happy Buddhist god with leprosy. It looked like a lumpy manhole cover, put there to keep whoever's inside from getting out. I tried to breathe beatifically. I thought of my friend Tom, and wanted to ask, "What on earth did Mary do, when Jesus was 13?"

Here's what I think: She occasionally started gathering rocks.

If we take the incarnation seriously, then even nice old Jesus was 13 once, a human 13-year-old. He learned by doing, like we have to. He had to go through adolescence. So it must have been awful sometimes. Do you know anyone for whom adolescence was consistently OK? But in his case, we don't know for sure. We see him earlier, in the Bible, at 12, when he's speaking to the elders in the Temple. He's great with the elders, like Sam is always fabulous with other grown-ups. They can't believe he's such an easygoing kid, with such good manners. In the Temple, Jesus says things so profound that the elders are amazed. They're wondering, "Who's this kid's teacher?" They don't know that Jesus' teacher was the Spirit.

But at the same time he's blowing the elders away, how is he treating his parents? I'll tell you -- he's making them crazy. He's ditched them. They can't find him for three days -- some of you know what it's like to not find your kid for three hours. You die. Mary and Joseph have looked everywhere, in the market, at the video arcade. Finally they find him in the last place they thought to look -- the temple. And immediately, he mouths off -- oh, sorry, sorry, I was busy doing all this other stuff -- my father's work. Like, Joseph, you're not my real father. I don't even have to listen to you.

And what is Mary doing this whole time?

Mary's got a rock in her hand.

I turned around. Sam sat grimly in his seat and I fixed him with gimlet eyes, pinning him to the seat until he could see the errors of his ways.

It seems idiotic for Sam to challenge me so often, since he has no income to speak of, and he can't drive; but this is in his job description. I looked at the face in the altar, toothless and muckled, with a folded over mouth. In the alder branches above me, a little gray bird flitted about, modest but melodious. The leaves of the alder quivered. I started to miss Sam. He's every single good thing, including honest, and openly questioning and angry, which I love so much: The other day he said, with enormous hostility, "We are the only family I know that doesn't display its china." I pointed out nicely that we don't have any china, and he said, "That's my point."

The hills behind me were so close, palomino gold, curvy and feminine. The quaking leaves of the alder sounded like rain against a skylight.

I looked over at my bad boy. He was staring out the window with resigned misery, as if he were going to the dentist. I thought about stoning him. Jesus would have said, "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, and Tax Collectors, and Thirteen-Year-Olds," which means, "You are totally pissing me off." And he'd have said this right before he got a rock.

I bet he had a good arm, being a carpenter and all. I bet he could take a kid out at 150 yards. I thought of Sam's most infuriating habits -- how snotty he can act, how entitled -- his clothes and towels always dropped on the floor, the way he answers the phone; he sounds like Henry Kissinger.

What a mess we are, I thought. But this is usually where any hope of improvement begins, acknowledging the mess. When I am well, I know not to mess with mess right away; if there is a knot, you don't start randomly tugging at loose threads. You try to let silence and time help untangle the knot. There's space between each section of the tangle, although it doesn't feel like there is. You can't untangle it through grinding your teeth and heavy breathing. You fiddle in the mildest way you can, and find out what the movable strand is -- and that, in this case, was me.

I decided to move out from under the weight of his gaze and discomfort, and so I lay down beside the log. There were some tiny antic wildflowers in the grass beside me. I closed my eyes and listened to the little birds, to the alders and the grass. I smelled the hay smell of the grass, toasty, with the hint of distant forest fires, and lots of sweetness, like clean laundry.

I was still and attentive and I prayed and eventually some of my anger dissipated. After a while, I heard the car door open. It was as if, once things were more peaceful in me, the deer or the bobcat could come out of the thicket to case the joint. I heard his footsteps approach, and I sat up. When he came over, he was both, deer and bobcat, tentative, dangerous, and teary. He stood a few feet away, looking back at the car.

Finally he sighed, and began to speak. "I'm sorry I was such an asshole," he said. I'd sort of been hoping he'd say something I could report back to my pastor; but I saw how badly he felt, how lonely. "OK?" he said. I shook my head and sighed. "I'm sorry I was such an asshole, too," I said.

He sat down in the dirt and we talked in a stilted, unhappy way. I practiced being right for a while, and he was sullen; then I practiced being kind. Things improved a bit. My friend Mark, who works with church youth groups, reminded me recently that Sam doesn't need me to correct his feelings. He needs me to listen, be clear and fair and parental. But most of all he needs me to be alive in a way that makes him feel he could bear adulthood, because he is terrified of death, and that includes growing up to be one of the stressed-out, gray-faced adults he sees rushing around him.

"Now can we go back to Anthony's?" he asked, petulantly. We got up and walked to the car. I draped my arm around his shoulders like a sweater.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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