Saturday, March 01, 2008

Heavy Stuff Part 2 of 2

But the problems didn't go away. Carl and I, meanwhile, were finally gaining a bit of financial ground, and had found a place, not too far from where we were, that we decided we'd like to live in. There were a few hurdles to overcome, but we felt that this move could end up being the last one for a long time.

Right around the time we made the decision and began the preparations to sell the house, I began getting e-mails from Doug. The situation with Wally had not improved. Doug was worried that the tension would kill his marriage, and he was very committed to his wife. Since I was available and obviously very fond of Wally, Doug was thinking that if things didn't get better, Wally would have to move back in with me.

The next six months were a three-ring circus. We were trying to sell the house we were in, buy a house in the other town, and prepare for the possibility of Wally coming to live with us. By this time, I was very worried about Wally, because Doug had escalated things to the point that Wally was using a prescription medication that is commonly prescribed for psychosis. He, Doug, and Doug's wife had participated in several sessions of group and individual therapy to cope with the conflicts between them. None of it seemed to do any good. Her son, by the way, had moved in with his father just before the wedding, and reportedly, he was not doing well, either. There was talk of heavy drug use.

At one point, Carl and I concluded that the move was not meant to happen, because we'd been derailed in our efforts to sell the house. We'd also been unsuccessful in negotiating the purchase of a house in the other city. It became a solid agreement that Wally would move back with us during the Christmas break in 10th grade.

I knew how miserable Wally was, having to leave the place he'd come to think of as home and move back to a home where he'd be picked on incessantly by Carl and where he'd feel completely out of place. But I was also feeling protective of Wally, half believing that Doug had backed him into a corner and put so much pressure on Wally that Wally was now half out of his mind.

We made arrangements for Wally to come and live with us, reconfiguring the spare room that was once his when he lived with us. We knew Wally’s sloppy habits hadn’t changed and were hoping to enable some improvement. Boxes began arriving from New Jersey, containing random items from Wally’s room. I didn’t know if they’d been piled in there by Wally or his father.

When Wally got off the plane, he looked like he was in shock. It was all he could do to keep from crying. I did my best to comfort & cheer him, but he was silent all the way back to the house. Finally, he let his misery out a little. The happy core of his life was not in my home or his father’s; he felt like his real self among his friends, and in school. Without those two elements, he just drifted.

At the house, we tried to establish routines and rules, though without more than one or two friends, and those living some distance away, he had little to do.

We enrolled him in school, and he did the best he could to maintain a routine. But he couldn’t get over the contrasts between the entire environment here versus what he’d gotten used to. North vs. South, English-Irish and African-American Christian versus Jewish and Italian Catholic, lower midde-class versus affluent. He hated his new school and had nothing good to say about any of it. But he did the best he could to conform to our expectations; he was so miserable and depressed, it was easier to just drag himself through the day instead of trying to assert himself.

However, as the months went by, things did change gradually. After about 2 or 3 weeks he asked me if I would mind if he stopped using the prescribed medication. I said it was up to him. He’d already cut the doses in half because a full dose made him sleepy. When he stopped taking the pills, the difference was a subtle one. There was more sarcasm, a bit more “attitude.” But it wasn’t anything radical. He was an intelligent teenager who didn’t want to be where he was.

Soon after Wally arrived, we finally got a solid offer on our house. We soon took another trip up to our prospective new home, found a house and got both transactions rolling.

We’d been through this two other times, and decided to stay put until Wally’s school year ended. The people who were buying our house certainly would have preferred to have us move sooner, but they understood what we needed and agreed.

I would so have loved to make this last move without having to uproot Wally yet again, but due to Doug’s insistence (or his wife’s) on having Wally move out of their place as soon as possible, we had no choice. So once again, we were packing his things and getting him ready for yet another school.

Wally wasn’t completely miserable because he had found a job at a store within walking distance of the house. I discovered something about my son: He had inherited some of his father’s workaholic tendencies. In the two months or so between moving here and getting the job, he had resolved that one way or another, his time with Carl and me was going to be kept to an absolute minimum, and his single purpose in life would be to move himself back to the Northeast. He did reasonably well in school, but the job became all-important. He put in for as many hours as he could, even though he wasn’t even 17 yet. Like most business owners, his manager was more than happy to accept the services of someone who was willing to work 7 days a week.

Carl and I had plenty to keep us occupied as we finalized the plans for the move, which was to take place over Memorial Day weekend. We saw very little of Wally, who went directly from school to work, calling me at the end of the work day to pick him up. We noted with some dismay that his room was the usual chaos – he had done nothing to pack or organize, and all of that was left to us. At one point, we gave him a hard time about it, and he made no bones about telling us that the only thing he cared about was making enough money to save up and go back up north. He worked through the weekend, and I had to take time from setting things up in the new place to make the 150-mile drive to get him from work and bring him to our new home.

He was only with us for two weeks; he had saved up enough money to spend the summer back with his friends, and he did. And so we had a bit of breathing space in setting up the new house, finding ourselves jobs and relaxing before Wally came back to start his junior year of high school.

After a fairly peaceful, quiet summer, the pace picked up when Wally returned. We soon learned that our new city had a school system in chaos. Most parents who could afford it put their kids into private school. This was something completely new to Carl, to Wally, and to me: None of us had ever known anything but public schools. We looked at our choices and reluctantly decided to let Wally continue at the school he’d been assigned to. He was clearly not happy, but he was more determined than ever that this would be the last year he spent with us; his goals were to get a job and head back north for his senior year.

The fall was rough; he and Carl got along even worse than they had before. Carl was protective of this new house we’d moved into. He didn’t want anything messed up, and Wally was a professional messer-upper. I’m sure that much of Wally’s piggy habits were his way of expressing his contempt for Carl and for me, to a lesser extent. He refused to do chores and basically just wanted to stay in his room unless he wanted something from me. He ate in his room and left used forks, dishes and cups there. Carl would go in there regularly and “inspect,” which infuriated Wally. Their constant bickering left me so drained and defeated, that often I would come home from work and get into bed, where I would stay, reading, with the door closed, in order to avoid having to witness any of it. On two separate occasions, Carl provoked Wally to the point that Wally took his fist and pounded large holes in our walls. Spackling only covered them slightly. Carl called the police, but the officer had little sympathy for Carl. There was now a considerable amount of tension between Carl and me.

After the last incident, it seemed like a good idea for Wally and me to get out of town for a few days. We went to visit my best friend and her husband, who lived in a rural part of the Midwest. I was interested to see how Wally would respond to this type of quiet, peaceful environment. It wasn’t upscale or the opposite; it was an atmosphere he’d never had the opportunity to experience. We had a good time for three and a half days; Wally seemed to enjoy the new sights and sounds and this did my heart good.

My friend’s husband invited Wally to go out and target-shoot, which rural folks do on a regular basis. They had enough land to do this safely.

It was a beautiful late-fall day. We had planned to go back home that afternoon, but agreed to stay an extra day so we could meet some of my friend’s neighbors. Ultimately, I wished I’d stuck to the original schedule. The day (and the trip) ended badly. My friend’s husband came back to the house with Wally clinging to his shoulders. He’d managed to shoot himself in the foot with a .22 pistol. Wally could never adequately explain how he’d done it. It seemed he was just “zoning out” as he would sometimes do, and with the gun in his hand and his finger on the trigger, he gave it a squeeze and ended up with a bullet embedded in the bone.

We spent the next several hours at the hospital; they decided not to surgically remove the bullet for a number of reasons. It would have been a complicated and painful procedure; we were hundreds of miles from home and the doctors felt such a decision should be made there; I also didn’t have much insurance beyond inpatient, since I was still working temp.

Once again, I found myself in a confused haze, back in the “one step at a time” mode. Early the next morning we departed, with Wally propped in the back of my SUV, sleeping most of the way, taking painkillers. I met up with my sister-in-law coming back from her own visit to a friend and we were able to keep each other company via cell phone for most of the trip.

I never asked Doug for any money to defray Wally’s medical expenses, but Doug suddenly assumed the role of protective, righteous parent and threatened to have my friends arrested or sued for negligence. I had no intention of getting them into any trouble, and as a result, Doug cut off the minimally adequate child support payments he’d been sending. He and I had never had a formal support agreement, and therefore it was difficult if not impossible to go through legal channels to get any money from him.

I was able to meet the medical expenses by taking a withdrawal from my IRA. A doctor categorically advised Wally not to opt for surgery: the bullet was firmly embedded and not causing any ongoing problems. Surgery would endanger blood vessels, nerves and bone and create an infection risk. After two months, Wally didn’t even limp anymore, so we were all in agreement that he got off very lucky. But it was just another example of Wally’s occasionally erratic and inexplicable behavior. I found myself wondering if the prescription he’d brought down with him might have prevented this episode, but Wally was utterly resistant at considering going back on those meds.

It took him a surprisingly long time to find a job; he was already into the second semester of the term when something finally came up. I was willing to pick him up late at night when he finished. He still managed to keep up his grades, and that was enough to tell me that the school offered no academic challenges. His year living here cemented his impressions that the South was not for him. One thing I was able to offer him was driving instruction, and he did pretty well with that. In due time, he got his license.

Once he got the job, things moved very fast. Electronic gadgets were kind of an obsession with Wally. He always had his eye on a “better” cell phone, iPod, stereo system. But the cell phone and iPods frequently got lost or broken. As a rule, he didn’t take care of things. He seemed to think everything was disposable. Enjoy it for awhile, but if it gets dirty or broken, you toss it out and get something better. Still, I knew he needed to keep in touch with people, so I got him a nice cell phone and put him on my plan.

Soon, the school year was nearly over and so was the term of his learner’s permit. He was eager to get his license, and then came the time to find him a car. He wasn’t sure how he was going to handle the everyday details of living up North, but he was going to do it one way or the other. There was no point in trying to stop him. He would be turning 18 in just a few months.

He had some money saved up and began inquiring about rooms for rent. We found him a used car at a dealership where you made weekly payments and if you fell behind, the engine was coded not to start. Wally made the down payment and I agreed to make the weeklies for about two years. However, the car was in bad shape, beyond what we were aware. It malfunctioned almost immediately, delaying Wally’s departure for over a week.

But depart, he did, in the usual rush. I saw him at lunch; we hugged goodbye; I went back to work and by the time I got home, he was gone.

A few weeks later I drove up to see him and bring whatever large possessions he’d left behind. He had gotten a rented room and was still looking for work, but he still had his savings.

That fall, the car died; his father leased him a better one and I agreed to pay for the insurance, which was much steeper than what I’d been paying on the policy we got him down here. He started school, found a job, and was relatively stable, but his decisions were still costing me quite a bit of money. The new cell phone broke, but not before he rang up more than $180 in extra calls. So I was paying retroactively for the calls and monthly service on a phone that no longer existed, with a 2-year contract that could only be cancelled with another large outlay. My own finances began to edge into the scarcity zone and were only rescued by a fortuitous year-end bonus at work and another withdrawal from my retirement funds.

But there was more bad news, which brings us about up to where we are now. Wally lost his job. He moved from the first boarding house into another less expensive one, but could not make the rent payments and began making excuses. He did not have a formal lease and the landlord played hardball, keeping his possessions as collateral until he could pay. The options, as Doug pointed out to him, were a) drop out of school and work full time; b) move back down south, or c) move in with Doug, who had moved from the previous home to another state around the time that Wally moved back in with us two years previously. Wally rejected every one of these … and now he’s homeless, living in his car. I have no idea what he’s going to do . The part of the country where he lives has been swept by the serial snowstorms that have been in the news.

And that’s the story of my son. I feel utterly helpless when it comes to Wally, and feel like a dismal failure as a parent.

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