The younger kids drew a collective breath. They were used to Rob’s outbursts but not to this level of threat. Marty, still panting from the scuffle, left the room. Rob gave us all a tight smile and tipped the brim of an imaginary cap. The real point, Rob explained, was that he didn’t care about any of us—except the little kids who could “catch up with him” when they were older. He said, “I’m sorry if it bothers you. I just really have no feelings for you.” He shrugged. “It’s kind of a relief to stop faking it.”
Rob had one thing right. It was almost a relief. Like watching someone die after a long and painful illness.
I had to be willing to risk the possibility that Rob would follow through. His voice was as lifeless as lead. And after all the insults, whining and swearing—after all the oxygen Rob had consumed in our lives—I could finally see the truth as though the words were written in forked lightning on the glowering sky, about to open in a fierce thunderstorm: Rob didn’t really hate only me; he hated himself for what he had become. He’d become a whiner whose default response to the slightest challenge was rage and blame. I knew at that moment that unless he (and I) stopped forgiving that behavior, he could never change.
The door closed. Our sixth grader, Francie, said, “I hate Rob. He makes you cry.”
I didn’t hate Rob. I still loved him, though I doubted he could ever love me in return. But that love had become an old refrain, a lullaby played on a broken player, a tune only I could hear.
Relief, and the freedom to give all my attention to the rest of my family, was real. But it was pierced by grief.
In fact, I thought I would lose my reason.
For four months, I brushed and flossed my teeth, read to the younger kids and lay down in the gloaming to cry, sometimes waking with my hair so damp that it was as if I’d had a swim before bed. Not knowing if Rob was even still in town, or physically well, or employed, I picked up the telephone 200 times. I put it down 200 times. We didn’t know his few friends: There was no one to ask about him. I couldn’t even have the small solace of knowing he was OK. Chris would never have prevented me from calling Rob, but I knew that he also was at the breaking point. To give in would have cost me not only my boy but perhaps also my marriage and the respect of my other children, forever.
Then came the day that Marty left for college. I was cooking spaghetti sauce, making my hands busy because my heart was tearing into so many chunks and layers. Through the open kitchen window, I heard Rob’s crummy car chugging up the hill. My breath began to come in gasps: What could Rob want? Was he in real trouble? Surely Rob hadn’t come to say good-bye to Marty—the sibling he abused most, calling him faggot, sissy, idiot? Indeed, however, it was just that. In the garage, Rob kissed Marty and held him close, although Marty, mystified and wary at first, held back. Then Rob came into the house. Because I could not say, “Oh, how my eyes have hungered just for the sight of you,” and he could not say, “I was so wrong,” I said, “Would you taste this? I think it needs sugar.”
Rob said, “It’s perfect.”
He stayed six months.
Sleeping on a mattress in the basement, he paid off his aggravated parking tickets and patched up his car. With a score equaled only by a handful of others in the history of the state’s HSED test, he got his high school diploma and a Pell grant. Terrified, he set out for college in faraway Florida. And just this past winter, after studying full time for less than two years, he took his degree in computer engineering.