Pauline’s son Luca is in the midst of a ‘walkabout’, desperately trying to make sense of a world gone awry. A reunion only adds to his confusion.
This is Part 2 of a 3 part series. Read Part 1, “My Son’s Walkabout” here.
I sidestepped unruly tufts of sage, stopping several times to swing that damn bullroar over my head, wincing as the rope burned through layers of skin on my right forefinger. As I stopped, again, to listen for the hum of Luca’s bullroar, I felt my heart beat wildly.
I’d felt a similar overwhelming anticipation one morning fourteen years ago, as I labored to bring Luca into the world. I’d used the force of that anticipation to ride the freight-train-like waves I was convinced would rip my body apart. What would he look like? What would he feel like in my arms?
Luca emerged from my womb with a full head of shiny black hair. When I held him for the first time, the life I’d known reconfigured itself in an instant. It was as if all the days that preceded were leading to this moment. The loneliness I’d felt as the sole adopted member of my family, the distance I’d felt from my birth family, all of that slipped away as I stared into my infant son’s beautiful face. I birthed Luca, but he pulled me into the stream of life. This not quite seven-pound squirming bundle gave me a sense of connection that I had never known before.
I promised him that morning, silently, that I would protect him. He wouldn’t go through life as I had, with his nose pressed to the glass. My child would know what it was to belong.
Now, fourteen years later, I wandered through the wilderness, waving a bullroar through the air to call forth the stranger my son had become.
What would he look like? And if he let me hug him, what would he feel like in my arms?
“There he is,” said Knox.
Luca stepped out from a thicket into the clearing. He seemed taller than the last time I’d seen him, two months ago. His black shirt and cargo pants hung off his body. His golden brown hair had grown shaggy, half-covering his face.
Jim had appeared, seemingly from nowhere, but he and Knox drifted to the side, keeping a respectful distance.
“Hi, Mom,” Luca said.
As we walked towards each other, I thought at first that he was limping. Then I realized he had slipped the hem of his cargo pants over the soles of his feet to keep sticks from digging into his skin. Later I learned that kids are put on “solo” the day before a Parent Visit to encourage reflection. Since they are away from the group, Staff takes their shoes so they won’t be tempted to run.
I could see Luca smile at me, shyly. I smiled back. I felt uncomfortably contained, almost removed.
Until I wrapped my arms around him. I could feel his bony shoulder blades under his shirt. I squeezed him closer and he relaxed into me. I breathed in sharply and started to sob–a choked, animalistic, thoroughly embarrassing noise. I buried my face in his hair, pressing my lips to his head to shut myself up.
I pulled back, wiping tears away from under my sunglasses, smiling to reassure him that I was not going to dissolve into a heap at his feet.
Knox stepped towards us and explained the schedule: Luca would take me to his shelter, where we would hang out and talk for an hour. Then we would meet Jim and Eric, the Clinical Director, for our family therapy session.
Luca led me to his shelter, a tarp draped over a hammock strung between two trees. He slept in the hammock and kept his clothes, food, and homework assignments in a thin nylon sack. We sat cross-legged in the shade of the shelter. He showed me his food supplies: tuna, freeze-dried concoctions, a cream-of-wheat-like grain meal called Germaid.
“Are you eating, Luca? You’re too thin.”
“The food’s awful. I’ve lost 17 pounds.”
“That’s too much!” I was horrified. ”You need to eat.”
He blinked from behind his hair. He looked vulnerable and proud at the same time. He showed me the things he had made: a wooden spoon with which he ate his meals; a backpack constructed from branches and leather; foam moccasins.
What I learned, in varying degrees of truth:
He showered once a week. Hadn’t brushed his teeth the entire time. Didn’t comb his hair. Went a week without eating once. An entire day without drinking because a mean Staff wouldn’t give him water (dubious).
The conversation shifted to the subject of what would happen after the wilderness program ended. Jim had warned me that Luca would lobby hard to go home instead of on to a therapeutic boarding school. A psychologist had come out to the field the day before to administer psych testing which would help determine the right placement for Luca.
The educational consultant Prince had hired had originally thought Luca would thrive at a boarding school in a western state, one that focussed on experiential education: organic gardening, caring for animals, forestry. But the latest thinking, according to Jim, was that Luca needed a higher level of care — an RTC, or residential treatment center.
“I’m afraid he’ll blow his way out of a boarding school,” Jim told me.
I was afraid of that too. But I was more afraid of Luca living with truly hard-core kids, kids who were violent, who set fires, and hurt animals. As defiant and mean as Luca can be, he is at his core a sensitive, vulnerable kid. I couldn’t stand the thought of him walking single file with his hands behind him back, terrorized by deeply antisocial teenagers.
Luca didn’t know about the RTC possibility, and I didn’t let on because the decision wouldn’t be made until we got the results of the testing. As Jim forecast, Luca laid out his case for why he should go home.
“Boarding school is the wrong choice for me,” he said. “I won’t do well there. I need to be home. I’ll do better at home. I’ve figured things out, Mom. I know I made a lot of mistakes, but I won’t make them again.”
I sighed. Even if I agreed with him, there was nothing I could do. Prince had all the decision-making power now and could enroll Luca anywhere he wanted without my consent.
As if he could hear my thoughts, Luca asked:
“Can you get custody back? My dad shouldn’t have all the custody. He shouldn’t be able to make all the decisions. I want you to make them. You’d make better choices for me.”
“My dad lied to me! He told me, if I signed this piece of paper saying I wanted him to have all the custody, that he wouldn’t send me away. He said you were the one who wanted to send me away, not him, and that’s why you shouldn’t have custody.”
The air felt still. And quiet. I was surprised that I didn’t feel angry. Probably because I was feeling too sick to get angry.
I took off my sunglasses and stared at him. He was fighting back tears.
“My dad tricked me! I don’t trust him anymore. I can’t believe anything he says. You wouldn’t do that to me, Mom. It’s not right that you don’t have any custody now. Can’t you get it back?”
I sat there, stunned, trying to figure out what to say. Jim had warned me not to “trash-talk” Prince to Luca, which had offended me. Did he really think I was the kind of parent who would do that? But now I understood why he cautioned me.
Because what Prince had done to Luca was unthinkable. It was the worst kind of abuse of power, worse, to me, than being physically abused. It was silent, insidious, gas-lighting craziness. I had known for years that Prince was manipulating Luca, but this level of betrayal was beyond anything I had allowed myself to imagine.
“Luca, I am so sorry this happened,” I said, cherry-picking my words. “It’s awful, being lied to. It must feel terrible.”
“Why can’t you get custody back?”
“Well…it’s complicated. It would be…I just don’t think it’s possible, Luca.”
“Could you take me to boarding school? I don’t want Dad to take me. I want you to take me.”
“I’ll ask him. I’d love to take you. But it’s kind of up to him.”
Luca started rummaging through his sack.
“My dad’s not doing his work! If he doesn’t do his work, I’m not going to get better! You should see his Collusion Letter,” he said, rifling through papers in his sack. “Parents are supposed to say what they did wrong. He didn’t do that, he told me everything he did was perfect and I was the problem, it was all my fault!”
He looked up at me.
“That’s not what you did in your letter. You told me your part in it.”
“Your dad and I both made mistakes. It wasn’t just you.”
He was silent for a moment.
“You know, I had that testing yesterday.”
“I did really well on the math part. The psychologist told me he could tell I put forth my best effort.”
I smiled, hearing him parrot a phrase that was clearly not his own. I sensed that he was starting to take in what everybody was saying to him, the myriad bits of worldview-changing information that had been heaped on him the past couple months. He was starting to make space for other people’s points-of-view.
“Do you know about this boarding school, Mom?”
“I do. The educational specialist told me about it. And I’ve seen pictures on-line. It seems like a really good place.” I hesitated. “I know you don’t want to go to boarding school, Luca, but I think it would be good for you.”
Luca blinks when he gets nervous, when he’s upset, and he was blinking now. I could sense how hard he was working to calm himself down, not to argue back, to accept something he didn’t want to hear. He looked up at me.
“Will you visit me there?”
photo: nggalai / flickr