How to Love a Boy tells the story of one woman's journey to help an adopted son from a traumatic early childhood find happiness through acceptance, love of nature, and the friendship of rescued dogs. She discovers that happiness may be elusive, even unattainable, but love - if you chose it - can be ever present.
The book is written in narrative prose. It contains several poems and some chapters occur as list essays. It reads like a good, old-fashioned story.
HOW TO LOVE A BOY
In the branches of a Giant Sequoia about an hour’s drive from home, my teenage son hung himself. His body dangled from a rope, unnoticed for as many as twelve days, until a runner spotted something odd and jogged closer to investigate. The he dashed off to find the sheriff. Among belongings found in the discarded backpack was a camera. On the camera, a video. On the video my son had recorded himself in the branches of the Sequoia reciting a rap-style poem: Death by Choice.
In what used to be Brandon’s room, I’m curled into a blue recliner watching big white flakes flutter past the window. A rare winter storm covers Portland in white; my office is closed, school is out, Portland has come pretty much to a halt under two inches of snow. With a white fleece blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I cradle a mug of turmeric and black pepper tea between my palms, warmth and spice against the chill. Our six-year old brindle dog pads into the room. He touches my hand with his wet nose in a brief hello then leaps onto the bed and curls into a ball. My chest and belly expand with a deep breath. I’m glad I still have his quiet company. I don’t have Brandon and like mothers of dead sons everywhere, I’m grieving mine.
Two years earlier, my nineteen-year old vacated the room he’d painted black-and-blue at sixteen. My optimistic Blueberry Milkshake walls, Goldfish trim, and Bright White ceiling hid under a moody bruise. He went to live with his birth mom. Returned. Left, returned. After another argument about missing money and the knife and hatchet dangling from his belt, he stalked off in a huff of anger. Black jeans and black converse tennis shoes moved away from me, down the side of our paved but sidewalk-less street, a big, blue, long-trip backpack bouncing above two moving legs cloaked in black. No torso, neck, or head visible. No arms. Just the bulging backpack, stuffed with things we’d later find: clothes, shoes, books, sleeping bag, camera, a neatly folded copy of the results of a recent tox-screen (not a drop of any drug in his system), his hatchet, and bowie knife. Coiled on top – his fifty-foot blue and red striped climbing rope. He strode away without telling us where he was going or what he planned.
I talked to the police.
“He’s an adult,” an officer told me. “He can go if he wants.”
“You don’t understand, he has nowhere to go.”
Over the next nineteen days, Kim and I – the two moms who adopted Brandon from foster care when he was six-years, nine months, and seven days old – had no idea where he slept at night. If he had enough food. He wouldn’t go to a shelter. We’d tried that during a recent spell when he was conflicted about whether to live with us again after a difficult stint living with his birth mom.
He struggled with our rules:
1. Leave that knife and hatchet in your room. It scares us to see them on your belt.
2. Stay in your room from 11pm-7am. No skulking around the house. We need to sleep.
3. No stealing cards or money from our wallets. We have to be able to pay our bills.
“I’m not sure I can stick to those rules.” He’d replied, stringy-haired and weary-eyed. “I think I’ll go back to my birth mom’s.”
“I thought you said you weren’t safe.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s fine.”
Kim drove him by a youth shelter, but he wouldn’t go in, not even for a peek, too scared of the people who might be inside. She drove him to the hospital, but he wouldn’t go in there either.
In the days after Brandon strode away, feet turned out like duck feet, blue backpack on top of black legs growing smaller and smaller on the street, we left voice messages on his cell phone. Tapped out text messages. None were returned. We hadn’t expected him to answer; we think he threw his phone away a few weeks earlier when he thought someone was using it to track him. But we had to try.
Neither Kim nor I had glimpsed of any of his friends in months, nearly a year. We dialed the few numbers we had for friends and acquaintances, left messages if the numbers connected. No replies.
Brandon’s birth mom texted me. I texted her. Have you seen him? No. Have you? For a time, I’d struggled with who to believe – birth mom or Brandon. In the past two months, I’d leaned heavily toward birth mom as more reliable. But now she had less idea of Brandon’s whereabouts than we did, didn’t know that after living with her for a few months, he’d snuck back home, asking – demanding – that we not tell her where he was. His stories sounded nutty. His fear was palpable.
“Someone put cocaine in my scrambled eggs,” he told me, face drawn and pale, eyes hollow and dark.
“Could that even possibly be a thing?” I asked Kim in hushed tones later. “Would anyone do that?”
“They inject my earlobes with heroin while I sleep,” he said as we sat on the couch in our heated living room. He pulled his black knitted cap further down on his forehead, the flaps of his black jacket closer around his neck.
Heroin? Earlobes? Sleeping?
“Who’s ‘they,’ hon?”
Hands clenching in black fingerless gloves, eyes darting, head turning away.
“Fat Cat. Nacho. Other people.”
Fat Cat? Nacho? Were those real people? Were those real names? Why would anyone waste their precious drugs on someone who doesn’t want to take those drugs? Inject it into their earlobes? Could that possibly be a thing?
“My grandpa is raping me.” He stated it simple. A fact. The weather.
I tilted my head to the side and furrowed my brows to see if a slightly different view would shed new understanding. It didn’t.
“Um … he’s old. You’re bigger and stronger than he is.”
All muscle and sinew and hair-trigger adrenalin, Brandon could – and did – fight like a warrior when he felt threatened. Grandpa couldn’t win that one.
“He knocks me out with chloroform. On a handkerchief. He uses latex gloves. Hides all the evidence. No one knows.”
Hollow-eyed, greasy-haired, beyond-tired nineteen-year old. Chloroform, handkerchiefs, latex gloves? I didn’t think so. I slumped and stared down at my lap.
Slowly then, and with a chill, I started to unfurl, each bone of my spine lifting off the one below with a dawning realization. When my head raised up again I stared into my bedraggled son’s weary face. Likely someone had raped Brandon.
Just not recently.
But what if you went to live with your birth mom, whose voice you hadn’t heard since you were three years old? What if she took you to Grandpa’s house, that place you lived from three to five, where after too many complaints from kindergarten teachers, case workers finally pulled you out and put you into foster care? What if Grandpa’s current house was right across the street from the old manufactured home where Grandma and Grandpa used to live and where mom cooked meth and where strangers tromped in and out at all hours doing who-knows-what to two and three-year old you? And what if when you saw it and smelled it and heard those voices, it all came rushing back? What if the past bled through to the present and you lost your bearings? Isn’t that the very definition of PTSD?
What if Brandon was telling the truth?
In the recliner in Brandon’s old room, my hot tea sends a curl of steam toward my face while snowflakes flurry outside and I tuck my toes under my thighs. I miss Brandon. But I don’t want him back the way he was when he left; his lips pressed thin with rage, his dyed black hair stringy from lack of washing, and his eyes darkened by the phantoms with scary voices that only he heard. I don’t want to see that bowie knife or the compact black hatchet hanging from his belt. I don’t want to wonder when or where either blade might find its mark.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon a while before Brandon ran off, twelve-year old Dan and I sat at opposite ends of the couch watching something on TV – Supernatural or The Walking Dead – some gory show he liked and I had learned to tolerate.
Brandon shuffled by on his way to the kitchen, knife and hatchet attached to his belt bouncing against his right hip. Tension rippled out from my spine, gripped my shoulders, and stiffened my neck. Dan leaned toward me.
“Are you ever just sitting here …” Dan asked in a whisper, then pushed thick blond hair out of his eyes, “… and then Brandon walks by,” he went on, “and you get the feeling he might grab you like this.” Dan took a hunk of his own hair in his right hand and yanked his head backwards.
“And go like this?”
The fingers of his left hand sliced across his throat with an invisible blade.
My eyes popped wide. When Brandon walked by, the muscles of my back pulled my shoulder blades together. The tightening happened so often it had become a way of being: tense, hard, on edge. When Brandon entered a room, an invisible cloud of apprehension and anger came with him, like the dust we kick up but only see in a certain ray of light. Still, I didn’t imagine him pulling my head back and slitting my throat.
Sitting in Brandon’s old room, I take another sip of hot tea and allow my mind to wander. My chest ebbs and flows with heaviness but I don’t miss Brandon’s outbursts of raw fury and deep rage. I don’t want to argue with him about grades or stealing or about taking that damned knife off his belt. I don’t want to lie awake at night staring into blackness. Brandon couldn’t survive on his own, yet his mere presence in our house threatened my younger son’s sense of safety and security; may have threatened his actual safety and security. There was a lot I could give up for myself – did give up for myself. But sacrifice one boy for the other? What kind of choice is that?
There was another Brandon. A boy and young man I sometimes glimpsed. In the sparse moments when he escaped the trauma from his early years in a meth house, he swash-buckled around our back yard like a pirate king, stick sword slashing the air. When for a minute or even an hour he dropped the seething resentment from early neglect that left him pale and skinny, wary, and unable to count to ten at age seven, he donned a thin black cape and turned into a young wizard, using his stick as a magic wand for good. In rare and beautiful moments when he might have imagined himself a Real Boy worthy of home and family and love, he sported shiny hair, engaging eyes, and a winning smile.
We fostered a puppy when Brandon was fifteen, and he sat on the back deck with the pup stretched out against his thigh.
“He’s cool with these tiger stripes. He patted the puppy’s side. “Whaddya call ‘em again?”
“The color’s called brindle, tiger brindle.”
“Brindle, yeah, that’s right.” He gently stroked the dog’s ear between thumb and forefinger. “Can we keep him?”
“Well …” We already had two dogs and didn’t need another.
“Please?” He flipped long sandy bangs out of his eyes. “If it’s a matter of money, I’ll pay the adoption fee.”
For a boy whose history of neglect inspired him to hoard clothes he’d outgrown and toys he’d broken, who bristled when I cleaned granola bar wrappers or the hard plastic packaging from a set of batteries off his floor (“I might be able to use that someday”), for a kid who slipped every nickel, dime, quarter and dollar bill that wasn’t locked down into his own pockets, his offer to spend the little money he’d managed to save over the summer to help the puppy drew an involuntary gasp from my lips.
“Awww. That’s so sweet of you. Not necessary though.”
He took the other floppy puppy ear between his thumb and forefinger and stroked with care, as if handling fine velvet.
There’s a desk beside the blue recliner that Brandon painted and stenciled; I set my teacup there. The brindle dog snores loudly from the bed, the almost-orange tiger stripes of puppyhood faded to tan. My breath does a little somersault under my breastbone before I can exhale. The dog’s still with me six years later. Brandon’s not.
I close my eyes and wonder: what might have allowed the gentle, creative, and kind boy to flourish rather than perish? This is the boy I miss, the young man I long to see again, the sweet soul who would have paid the dog’s adoption fee. His absence aches beneath my breastbone.
This is the story of how we tried to help Brandon and how we failed him. By we, I mean my partner and I, the two moms who made a for better or worse till death do us part kind of pact with him when we adopted him. Our twelve-year journey was better and it was worse and we stayed the course with him until death parted him from us. But there must have been more that we could have done.
And by we, I mean the foster family who cared for Brandon for a year then realized they weren’t prepared to deal with his issues and sent him along. It may have been a good decision for them, a colossal rejection for him.
And by we, I mean the Grandma and Grandpa with whom Brandon lived for two years until child protective services moved him to the relative safety of foster care.
And by we, I mean the several foster homes that intermittently cared for Brandon in infancy and toddler-hood. Did they love him, hold him, give him a thread of hope to hang onto through the chaos and multiple moves?
And by we, I mean his birth mom. The woman who loved her son yet didn’t stop cooking meth and using it, who exposed Brandon to toxins both in-utero and in his environment, who wouldn’t or couldn’t stop even when it meant losing her son.
And by we, I mean the over-arching system, Child Protective Services. There, professional people, paid people, trained people, egregiously overworked people watched over Brandon’s case, ie: his life, for years while it careened irretrievably in the direction of trauma: searing neglect, bruising emotional and physical abuse, and somewhere by someone, sexual abuse.
And by we, I mean all of us. People who foster and adopt and sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. People who never foster or adopt, for good reasons or bad. People who, like one of our case workers, say with a shrug, this kind of thing happens to these kids. People who think bad things only happen to some other kinds of people than their own. Somebody different, somebody less. Someone else’s children.
Brandon was someone else’s child.
Brandon’s DNA doesn’t snake through my living veins, doesn’t camp out in the cells of my not-biological-mother-body. Yet something – a whisper? – of Brandon camps in every wrinkle of my intestines, every fiber of tendon and sinew, every bone hollow, every hidden fold of gray matter.
Brandon was my child.
Outside Brandon’s window, the branches of the Cedar Deodara hang heavy with accumulated snow. I pull the soft fleece closer around my neck. Brandon’s once black walls and bruised navy blue ceiling are now soft tan and crisp white. With paint, I exorcised the same demons he choked to death with a noose. In my mind’s eye, in a black hole somewhere in the universe, Brandon’s hazel eyes twinkle and he winks conspiratorially.