“What hurts?” I would ask, hoping that once, just once, he would betray another emotion besides self-pity.
Invariably, he would answer, “You. Get out of my life.”
But he wouldn’t let me get out. Whenever the world disappointed him, when the first girl he loved dropped him after a month, when we persuaded him to go out for soccer and he was cut the first day for refusing to try, Rob got in my face with a vengeance that began to terrify me.
Imagine loving someone who is actively, cruelly unloving, who towers over you, shrieking vile names and describing eloquently why your life is a fraud. Do you know how it feels to remember nuzzling the bottom of that person’s boxy little baby feet and hearing him chuckle deep in his belly, recording his first full sentence, giving him his bath, reading him Goodnight Moon? Do you know how it is to long like a lover for just one touch from the miserable, scowling, resentful hulk that your chuckling blond baby became? It is worse for a child to be on drugs, making you fear for his very life, than to have him hate you. It is worse to have a child be mortally ill and have that child adore you. But having your best beloved repudiate you is an agony so exquisite, it hurts like birth, like a dry birth from which nothing sweet comes.
Two classes shy of a degree, Rob dropped out of high school and got his own apartment. Because of a kind of savant ability to speak fluent French, he got a job as a tech specialist for a big music company that did business with French Canadians. To him, college was a joke. He called it a gathering of the recessive gene pool. Concentrate on your other kids, Rob advised me, the ones who “needed” me, my “tribe,” as he called his siblings. He said he’d never need me. Never.
I should have been hardened, after years of these kinds of slams. But the words still took my breath away.
When he was small, Rob always liked his eggs sunny-side up. Sometimes he would say, “Mom, you’re my sunny-up egg.” This self-pitying bully was the same human being as that tender child.
Yes, the world owed him an apology for his father’s death. Yes, our lives had been hard, even austere, for a long time afterward. But Rob believed that the world also owed him a living with a cherry on top. By contrast, his brothers, the ones who had the same history, did not. They had been younger, so their loss was not so shattering. But that didn’t explain everything. They showed ambition and mercy, even though Danny had to overcome learning disabilities and Marty battled chronic asthma. Kids dealt far worse cards somehow thrived. Instead, Rob seemed determined to build a future in which he was the kind of obnoxious, disdainful, deceitful, moody know-it-all that people cross the street to avoid.
Finally came that hot day in summer and the blistering fight that prompted the final break. At first, it was no worse than dozens like it. Marty, then 18, wanted to leave our family cookout to go to a friend’s graduation bash. My husband, Chris, had picked up Rob because his lousy car was once again out of commission. “Your brother just got here,” Chris told Marty gently.
“All the more reason,” Marty muttered.
Then Rob shoved Marty, who sprang back at him like a terrier.
“Mama’s baby boy,” said Rob. “I’ll break your face.”
At last, the wall of denial I’d mortared together so carefully over 10 years crumbled: Marty was wrong, but he also was right. A party with Rob was like a picnic with the town bully. We brought the potato salad. He brought the belligerence.
“Stop,” I said, coming between them. “Stop it, Rob, or leave. This is an abusive relationship. And if you leave, you can’t come back until you show me the love that I show you.”
“Well,” said Rob, “that’ll never happen. If I leave, it means I never have anything to do with this family. And I mean never.”