My son, the stranger

The sweet boy I raised is gone, replaced by a sullen, scornful teenager. It may be a phase, but it's breaking my heart.

Published May 22, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott

This is the story I would have most loved to come upon last week, when I was as crushed and hopeless as I've been since becoming a mother.

My nearly 17-year-old son, Sam, and I had a fight last Saturday that was so ugly and insane that it left me wondering if anyone in the history of time had ever been a worse parent, or raised such a horrible child. I believed the answer was no, because I had not read anything that would dispute this, except perhaps for Lionel Dahmer's great memoir of the mistakes he made in raising his son Jeffrey.

Our fight was ostensibly about the car. We have an old beater that I let Sam drive whenever he wants, although because I pay for the insurance, I have some leverage. It's a good deal for him. But I had taken away his car privileges earlier that week because he'd been driving recklessly, hit a curb going 20 and destroyed the front tire. So he felt mad and victimized to begin with, my huge, handsome, brown-eyed son. And actually, so did I. That morning, I asked him to wash both cars, as partial payment for the tire I'd had to buy. It was a beautiful sunny day, and he had other plans, which I made him postpone. Then, with perhaps the tiniest bit of sanctimony, I went for a walk with the dog, to let him work in peace. When I got back, though, the cars were still gauzy with dirt.

I mentioned this, as nicely as possible. "I washed them," Sam said, defiantly. I called him a liar. He produced two filthy washrags: "I'm not a liar," he said. "I just did a lousy job."

And I lost my mind. I slapped him across the face, for the first time in our lives. He didn't flinch and, in fact, barely seemed to register it. He gave me a flat, lifeless look, and I knew I was a truly doomed human being, and that neither of us could ever forgive me.

Then I grounded him for the night.

I felt I had no choice. Slapping him did not neutralize his culpability: It simply augmented mine. He looked at me with scorn. "I don't care what you do or don't do anymore," he said. "You have no power over me."

This is not strictly true: He has little money of his own, and loves having our old car to tool around in. Also, he realizes that families are not democracies, and he's smart enough to obey most of the time.

We stood in our driveway looking daggers at each other. The tension was like the air before lightning. The cat ran for her life. The dog wrung her hands.

I felt a wall of tears approaching the shore and, without another thought, got in my car and left. Nothing makes me angrier and more hopeless than when someone robs me of my reality by trying to gaslight me. I started to cry, hard, and not long after, to keen, like an Irish woman with a son missing at sea.

Recently I have begun to feel that the boy I loved is gone, and in his place, a male person who so pushes my buttons, with his moodiness, scorn and flamboyant laziness. People tell me that the boy will return, but some days that is impossible to imagine. And we were doing so well for a while, all those years until his junior year of high school, when the plates of the earth shifted inside him. I've loved and given him so much more than I ever have anyone else: And I'll tell you, a fat lot of good it does these days.

I should not have been driving, but since I'd restricted Sam's driving privileges, I couldn't make him leave. So I drove along, a bib of tears and drool forming on my T-shirt. Why was he sabotaging himself like this, giving up his weekend, his freedom and his car, and for what? Well, I sort of knew the answer. This is what teenagers have to do, because otherwise they would never be able to leave home and go off to become their own people. Kids who are very close to their parents often become the worst shits, and they have to make the parent the villain, so they can break free without it hurting too much. Otherwise, the parent would have to throw rocks at them to get them out of the house. It would be like in "Sky King," when the family has nursed the wounded animal back to health, and tries to release it back into the wilds, shooing it away -- "Go ahead, Betty! You can fly!"

So even though, or because, I understood this, I cried harder as I drove than I have since my father died, 27 years ago. God invented cars to help kids separate from their parents. I have never hated my son so much as when I was teaching him to drive. There, I've said it, I hated him. Sue me: It's actually legal, because sometimes he hates me too. He always drove too fast, cut corners too sharply, whipping around in the '95 Honda like it was a souped-up Mustang convertible. But still somehow a few weeks ago, he tricked the California Department of Motor Vehicles into issuing him a license. I hate the way most young men drive, so cocky, reckless, entitled. I suppose they hate the way I drive too -- careful, poky, all but shaking my puny fist at them as they pass.

I started letting Sam drive himself to and from school, which I loved, and to his appointments, events, practices. I also ordered him to make emergency runs for milk, and ice cream sundaes. But then watching him leave recently, I saw him peel around the corner nearest to our home, endangering himself and anyone who might have been on the street. I threatened to take away his driving privileges, and he slowed down, for two days. Then he sped up when he thought I wasn't looking, and lost his rights for a week.

What has happened? Who is this person? He used to be so sane and positive, so proud of himself. He used to call himself Samwheel when he was 5, because while he couldn't pronounce Samuel, he knew it was a distinguished name. He used to care about everything, but now he mostly only cares about his friends, computers and our animals. He threatens to run away because he wants his freedom, and the truth is he is too old to be living with me anymore -- he wants to have his own house, and hours, and life. He wants to stay out late, and sleep in, and smoke, and because I won't let him do any of this on weekdays, he sees me as a prig, or a dominatrix, John Ashcroft, or Ann Coulter.

I wept at the wheel on a busy boulevard in the county where I live. At first people were looking over at me as they passed in the next lane. I wiped at my face, and snorfled. Then I noticed that people were dropping back. Eventually, there were no cars in my immediate vicinity. I felt like O.J. in his Bronco on that famous ride. I started calling out to God, "Help me! Help me! I'm calling on you! I hate myself, I hate my son!" I wanted to die. But I have to believe that Jesus prefers honesty to anything else. I was saying, "Here's who I am," and that is where most improvement begins.

You've got to wonder what Jesus was like at 17. They don't even talk about it in the Bible, he was apparently so awful.

But then I said the stupidest thing: I said, "I'll do anything you say."

Now this always gets God's attention. I could feel him look over, sideways, and drum his fingertips against each other. "Hello!" I heard him say. "Go deal with this, dude."

So I drove home, wiping at my eyes, and when I stepped inside, Sam said, his voice dripping with contempt, "What do you have to cry about?"

I staggered to my room, like Snagglepuss onstage. I sat on the floor, and thought about his question. The answer is, I don't have a clue, but all the honest parents I know -- all three of them -- are in similar straits. Their kids are mouthy now, and worse; they could care less about school, and some are barely passing at this point. They drive like movie stars from the 50s, like Marlon Brando or James Dean. You can see in their driving that everything in them is raw. No wonder teenagers make such good terrorists.

And me. I think the moment Sam was born, it was all over. I recognized that the things I hated about my parents -- their fixation with homework, and getting into a good college; their need to show us off, and make us perform socially for their friends -- were going to be things Sam hated about me some day. I also knew that I would wreck his life in ways my parents couldn't have even imagined because I was single, broke and barely sober. I knew that God had given me an impossible task, and that I would fail. I knew deep down that life can be a wretched business, and no one, not even Sam, gets out alive.

It turns out that every kid has this one tiny inbred flaw: They have their own skin and their own will. Putting aside for a moment the divine truth of their natures, all of them are wrecked, just like the rest of us. That is the fly in the ointment, and this, Sam, is what I had to cry about.

When I finally stopped my sobbing, I called my friend Father Tom, who is actually one of Sam's dear friends, too. I told him my version. He listened.

"You're right on schedule," he said. "And so is he. And I was worse."

"You swear? Thank you! But it's still hopeless," I said. "What should I do?"

"Call the White House and volunteer him for the National Guard."

"Anything else?"

"Let the hard feelings pass. Ask for help. Mary and Joseph had some rough moments, too. See if you can forgive each other a little, just for today. We can't forgive: That's the work of the Spirit. We're too damaged. But we can be willing. And in the meantime, try not to break his fingers."

I sat on my floor and after a while the dog came over and gave me a treatment. Somewhat revived, I tried to figure out the next right thing.

After a while I went and kicked my son's door in.

"Go clean the cars properly," I said. "Now."

And he did, or rather, he hosed them down. Then he went back inside and slammed the door. I went inside and filled a tub with hot soapy water, and took it downstairs to Sam.

"Go wash it again," I said. "With soap, this time. And then rinse it."

I went inside and did everything I could think of that helps when all is hopeless. I ate some yogurt, drank a cool glass of water and cleaned out a drawer. I took my nice clean car to the market and bought supplies: the new People, a loaf of whole-wheat sourdough and a jar of raspberry jam. I lay on the couch, read my magazine and ate toast. Then when I started to doze, I turned on CNN softly and watched until I fell asleep. I woke up a few times.

The first time, I was still sad and angry and ashamed, and knew in my heart that things weren't going to be consistently good again for a long time. I was willing for the Spirit to help me forgive myself, and for Sam and I to forgive each other, but these things take time. God does not have a magic wand. Also, I kept my expectations low, which is one of the secrets of life.

Then when I woke up again, I saw the last thing on earth I expected to see: Sam in the same room as me, stretched on the other couch, eating yogurt, and watching CNN too.

"Hi," I said, but he didn't reply. His legs hung over the sides of the couch. Then I dozed off again. When I woke up, he was asleep, too, with the dog on the floor beside him. He was sweating. He has always gotten hot when he sleeps. He used to nap on this same couch with his head on my legs, and ask me to scratch his head, and before that to crawl into bed beside me, and then kick off all the covers, and earlier still, to sleep on my stomach and chest like a hot-water bottle. He and the dog were both snoring. Maybe I had been too, all of us tangled up in one another's dreams.

Everything in the room stirred, dust and light, dander and fluff, and the movement of air, my life still in daily circulation with this guy I have been resting with for so many years.

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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