By then, Rob’s ugly behavior wasn’t occasional but daily. He’d stopped doing homework altogether—even at the pricey school for the gifted I sent him to when that first novel somehow became a best seller. I explained Rob’s utter lack of will to try anything he couldn’t master instantly as boredom; after all, his IQ put him in the genius range. I explained his unkindness as an artifact of his grief. I was a virtual ticker tape of explanations for my eldest son’s malice. My explanations were lies. And I knew it.
When Rob was still in middle school, -I spent Career Day at a school in a neighborhood not far from ours. A very tall, robustly heavy lad I vaguely recognized walked up boldly and said, “I know your son.”
Smiling, I asked, “Which one?”
“Oh! Rob-bee,” the boy said, his voice oozing contempt. “He’s a dickhead.”
In that moment, my face reddened and tears spurted. I wanted to run. Instead, I turned away, bit the inside of my cheek and gave a cheery little talk. In the car, later, I put my head down on the icy steering wheel and sobbed. The kid who ambushed me also was a dickhead; I remembered him now. But he was correct about Rob. My son was the kind of boy who sneered and put people down, even the weak. He stole pencils from the school store and quarters from his brothers’ piggy banks. As a soccer referee, he delighted in throwing down the foul cards and seeing the little kids cry. He cared about nothing and respected nothing. Intellectually, I knew that these were signs of despair. But they moved me first to rage and then to helpless grief.
Deep down, I was sick with a cold fear that something was truly, truly wrong with my boy.
Then Rob set a fire at the railroad easement. (It was a safe fire, the kind he’d learned in Boy Scouts, but still a fire.) After 45 minutes of being questioned and insisting that the fire was the result of spontaneous combustion, Rob proudly told the arson investigator he’d just been messing with the man’s head. That almost landed him in juvie. But, again, I rushed in to rescue him. I couldn’t forget that the Rob who once was my sweet and stunningly beautiful baby was still in there, and so vulnerable. At night, through the wall that separated his room from mine, I could hear him crying, “Daddy, Daddy, why did you leave me?” So even when our family grief counselor told me that the greatest gift I could give Rob was to let him fail out of eighth grade, I couldn’t. If he failed, I would fail too. I would be the rotten mother Rob said I was. I kept on making excuses even when he had his finger on the delete button, about to erase my entire second novel if I didn’t allow him unlimited access to the computer. Before he could, I pulled the chair out. Rob landed hard on his rear end on the carpet. Two weeks later, I got a call from Social Services. Rob had told the therapist he was seeing by then that I had abused him. It took seven years to get that complaint expunged.
Soon there was a parade of psychologists. Each offered a new theory. Rob told them all that yes, he hated me. Yes, I had abandoned him to the care of a sitter, spending only six weeks each year at home, then going away to write for six months (it was just the reverse). Yes, he did blame me for a thousand things, including the fact that his father died just 15 minutes before the bell rang on the last day of school, and I’d made him go that day, truly believing nothing would happen in the half hour it took the kids to clean their desks and pick up their report cards. No, he didn’t have any friends, because I wouldn’t allow it. And no, he would never forgive me. The best of these psychologists was tough in her assessment of Rob and of the destructive dance of broken promises, fresh starts and meaningless contracts from which I could not seem to disengage. She did not believe Rob was suicidal or a budding psychopath. Referring to my early struggles with infertility, she called Rob the product of my need, my grief and my guilt. “You treated him like the Messiah when he was born. And you’re surprised that he plays God?”
We muddled onward through adolescence.
Whenever a crack appeared in the glacial front, when Rob’s lip quivered, I would rush in.