Some parents consider their children heroes because they endure devastating, even life-threatening health conditions with courage. Some people see their children as heroes because they overcome bullying, criticism or social cruelty.
My son Rob is a hero to me because he faced the fact that he had made a mess not only of his life but of his very character. The road to that recognition began when I threw him out of our house one sweltering summer day almost three years ago, when he was 23. At the time, both of us thought this was an ending, not a beginning. As Rob slammed the door behind him that day, he never looked back. He took the first steps of a 10-mile walk back from our house in the country to his crummy apartment in the city. I ran from window to window, struggling to catch a last glimpse of his brawny form and characteristic springy step. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the longest walk of Rob’s life.
At the time, all I thought was that I would never see my firstborn again.
Once I had believed that Rob might be the only child I would ever have. Because I’d had trouble conceiving, Rob was specially treasured and the darling of his father’s heart. When the next two came along, Rob seemed more put out than the usual older sibling. Then Dan died at 44, cancer claiming him as swiftly as a brush fire, leaving me with three little boys and precious little else. Rob was only nine. The younger boys clung to me, but Rob withdrew into an ever-darkening cloud of self-absorption. Of course, I wasn’t the mother I should have been or wanted to be. Emotionally and economically, I almost cracked under the strain. But I tried to fight back, with all the stamina and creativity I had. After a full day at the university where I worked, I seized every freelance assignment I could find and was also—crazy as it seems to me now—trying to write my first novel. All I wanted was to keep life “normal” for my boys, not understanding that life would never be normal again. The youngest, Marty, was just three and wistfully told me that I should work at the Dairy Queen, where they had four-hour shifts. But even Marty seemed to know that this harried and weary woman was doing her best.
On the other hand, Rob blamed me for everything from his father’s death to the loss of his best friend, Eric. What really happened with his friend was this: The boy’s mother, a minister, called me and said, “I really hate to tell you this, Jackie, but I don’t want Eric playing with Rob anymore. Rob is just not being . . . very nice. He’s throwing rocks at cars -and calling names.” I should have confronted Rob on the spot. Instead, I chose to believe that my son would never indulge in such destructive behavior—or if he did, it was boyish mischief. Was I too frightened to face facts? Now I see that I was. Facts demanded consequences. I had no strength for them. I lied, telling Rob that Eric’s mom wanted him to spend more time with church friends. I might have saved him then with the truth. But hadn’t Rob already suffered so much? And how many more blows could he and I bear?
As the years passed, I wished more than anything that I’d had the courage to come down hard on Rob after that phone call. Instead, I tried to compensate, giving love in return for nothing, not even acknowledgment. Rob’s hostility and apathy grew in direct proportion to his height and strength of will.
Two years after Dan died, and against all reason, I adopted a baby daughter, Francie. A couple of years after that, I remarried. Chris was a father waiting to happen (we would go on to have five more kids) and was undaunted by marrying a woman 12 years older and having to fit into a fully formed family. The younger boys and Francie turned to Chris’s gentleness like flowers after a frost. But not Rob.