My husband and I were gone for ten days, traveling back east to visit old friends and family, to attend a conference in honor of a colleague, to see a 4 month old great nephew for the first time and so on. When we got home, there were many things we needed to get done. The mail was piled high, there were loads of laundry and unread emails to beat the band. But unfortunately, we were coming down with the flu. Yes, we got our flu shots but we got the flu anyway. Instead of doing all the things we needed to do, we went to bed with fevers and coughs and an overwhelming fatigue. Personally, I always find it hard to return from a trip and get everything back in order; the flu really added to my miseries. But that is life; things don’t always go as planned. Lying in bed allowed me to reflect on our trip. Between bouts of uncontrolled coughing, I thought about our many encounters with old friends and distant family members who are not in contact with our daily lives. I thought about the inevitable question that confronted us, “How is your son?”
We are never quite sure how to respond. Those asking haven’t seen our son in many years, perhaps when he was a teenager or even a child. In general, they don’t know him, they only know of him. It is natural to ask. I do it all the time. Sometimes they don’t know about his history of addiction or they have some vague notion that he struggled through his adolescence. On our trip there were some people who asked about him and others who didn’t ask. I do not interpret this as indifference but, rather, I see it as sensitivity. It seems some people noticed that we hadn’t brought him up and they sensed that it might be best not to ask. I was honest with one distant but long time friend who is currently taking care of her elderly frail husband. She was helping me take our luggage up to her guest room. We were alone. She looked into my eyes and asked me how our son was doing. I said, “he’s in jail.” She nodded and said. “I won’t ask any more,” and she didn’t. I appreciated her quick and firm response. I know it’s hard not to ask for details.
In general when people ask someone about their grown children, they are asking what do they do for a living, where do they work, are they married, where do they live, do they have children. Often times the respondent throws in other tidbits such as “my daughter just ran a marathon or my son was recently promoted or they bought their first home.” And usually you can’t help but notice their faces beaming a bit as they reveal their pride in the achievements of their offspring. I get it. I would do the same. We ask, not because we are really that interested in the grown children of our friends, but we ask because we want to provide our friends an opportunity to enjoy telling us, to puff up a bit and to relish the accomplishments of their children. It’s almost a courtesy as much as an inquiry.
I am not ashamed to talk about my son but I know how uncomfortable it can make people when I tell them the truth. He has a drug problem. He struggles. He is in a recovery program or he has relapsed. He is looking for work or just lost his job. He is on probation. He is in jail. No, he isn’t married. No, he doesn’t have children. When he is not in jail, he is living at home. At times I have to say we haven’t heard from him in awhile. Here is what I want to say. My son is an addict. He is currently in jail. Don’t feel sorry for him and don’t feel sorry for us. He is reading and loving all of Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. He has grown a big beard because the razors that are provided are so awful that it was, as far as he was concerned, his only option. He is studying geography because he feels it is a good goal to learn all the countries and major world landmarks and oceans and rivers and capitals and why not? He doesn’t have much else to do right now. I would mention that he is the current ping-pong champion at the Oxbow jail. I would reveal that I love his phone calls because we talk about Sir Conan Doyle or politics or the latest findings related to treatment of addiction. I might say that he has lost weight because the food is so bad and that he tells me not to worry because he actually needed to drop a few pounds anyway. I would let them know that he still makes me laugh and writes me letters filled with love and gratitude. I could mention that he feels discouraged and lonely at times. I would not tell them that he has cried in the shower so no one would see him crying or that at times he feels lonely and discouraged. I would tell them that he is still kind and funny and loves animals. I would tell them that we miss him every day.
And if they were to ask me if I could have things be different than they are, they might be surprised by my answer. They would probably expect me to say that I wished he were not in jail, were not an addict, and would never relapse again. But they would be wrong. If I could change one thing and only one thing it would be this: my son would like himself, truly like himself, in fact, love himself. He would like himself as much as other people like him. And because he liked himself, he would be less likely to be filled with shame and self-doubt; less likely to tear himself down and be filled with despair; less likely to engage in self destructive behavior; more likely to have healthy relationships; less likely to have panic attacks that are almost unbearable. And it wouldn’t matter what kind of job he has or car he drives or cell phone. It wouldn’t matter where he lives or how buff he is or how pretty a girlfriend he has. None of those things would matter because they only matter when you don’t like yourself. It wouldn’t matter if he got married or didn’t, owned a house or didn’t, lived in Salt Lake City or New York or rural Nevada. It wouldn’t matter if he was a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent or didn’t give a hoot for politics. It wouldn’t matter if he had dogs or cats or no pets at all. Because what matters, what has always mattered in the past and will matter in the future, is how we engage with everything around us, how we embrace life and respond to life. What matters is our relationship with life itself. Is our glass half empty or is it half full? Can we bite into a fresh peach and feel that it can’t get much better? Can we laugh till we almost pee? Can we spontaneously stop our car and jump out to look at a full moon? Can we cry? Can we be moved? Can we be human?
My son told me that when he gets out he is going to go up into the mountains. He is going to hike and sleep outside in a sleeping bag. He is going to bring something delicious to eat and a good book. He is anticipating the smell of the air, being absolutely alone, and looking at a star filled sky. He is going to listen to the sounds of nature. He has never been a camping or hiking kind of guy but sitting in jail for several months has changed him. That is now what he longs for.
In his pamphlet, Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly, It is dearness only that gives everything its value…” He was, of course, talking about our country’s fight for freedom during the Revolutionary War. I believe that my son is finding value where he never found it before. And so am I.