Read Part One 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.
George Booth cartoon version of those parents, one-downing each other with troubled teen anecdotes over coffee and muffins: “My kid didn’t go to school for six months straight!”; “My kid overdosed on his antidepressant!”; “My kid snuck out so much we padlocked his bedroom door and put bars on his windows!”
The instructors talked to us about how the wilderness provides therapy and natural consequences in the hope of fostering self-reliance and self-agency. Life slows down. There are no computers, cell phones, or TVs to distract yourself with. If you refuse to put up your shelter and it rains, you get wet. If you didn’t pay attention when you got the lesson on building a cooking fire, you go hungry. If you hold up your group because you refuse to hike, you piss people off and maybe you get clobbered. If you run, you recede into a mountain-ridged expanse of juniper trees, dirt, and rocks. The Staff will find you sobbing in the dust. You will have to hike all the way back to your camp site, bone-tired, stomach growling, only to have your shoes confiscated so you won’t run again.
Several times during the seminar, when the instructors wanted to give an example of how the Field Staff handle scenarios involving particularly resistant kids, they asked me politely if they could reference Luca. After awhile, I began to feel kind of a perverse kick: Look at me! I’ve spawned the most stubborn, most attention-seeking kid here!
“You’re Luca’s mother?” a dreadlocked, tattooed, face-pierced female Staff asked me. I started to sink in my chair until I got a hit off the calm, higher-plane aura emanating from her. “I’m so glad to meet you. I have had the honor of working with your son.”
She, like the other staff members, were truly superior human beings. Spiritual beings willing to forego showers and recognizable food for a week’s stretch, willing to get down in the dirt with raging, non-compliant teenagers, deflecting insults and curses via some sort of Tai Chi psychic energy.
They were a sharp contrast to us frazzled parents, who began admitting the things our wits-end existence had driven us to. The things no “good parent” would do to their kids. Some of us screamed. Some of us cursed. Some of us took every possession out of our kid’s room except for his bed as a punishment. Two dads confessed they had pushed, shaken, and hit their kids.
The instructors leading the Parent Seminar nodded. They’d heard it all. They were here not to tell us how to “fix” our kids, but how to fix ourselves. The best way parents can help their kids, they said, was to get along with their co-parents. I eyed a divorced couple in the room, a formerly contentious couple who said they had resolved to be on the same page for the sake of their son. I sighed, wistful, and envious.
I had forgotten about a cockamamie clause in our custody agreement that required me to notify Prince 7 days in advance of any meeting I scheduled at Luca’s school or residential placement. When Prince found out I was flying out for the Parent Visit, he fired off e-mails to Luca’s therapist and me stating that I was “breaking the law!” and “in violation of the court order!” This, after Prince had sat in this very room, listening to the same directives about getting along with co-parents, married or divorced. Clearly, there was no page big enough for the two of us.
So I would have to focus on the only thing I could control, the thing the instructors asked us to write about in a “Collusion Letter” that we sent to our children a few weeks earlier. In this letter, we came clean to our kids about the things we do to invite them to behave badly. We have inconsistent boundaries. We rescue. We ignore. We act like martyrs. We lecture them endlessly about their faults. All of these things I have done to varying degrees, and I told Luca so in my Collusion Letter.
At the end of the Seminar, we got strict instructions on what to do and not to do during the next day’s visit to our kids’ camp site. Don’t bring gifts. Do create space for your kid to open up in the family therapy session. Don’t let your kid bully you into taking him home early. Do let him be your guide, as he is now a wilderness expert. Whatever you do, don’t give him your car keys!
And most important: if your kid argues with you, don’t argue back. Walk away. The instructor told a story about a mother who flew all the way from Ireland only to have her stone-cold kid refuse to talk to her. When she left, the kid bawled harder than any kid the instructor had ever seen.
Suddenly, I was crying. I looked up and saw the couple across from me, sobbing. They were the ones who said they were afraid their kid would die if he kept traveling down the same path.
“Sam might die,” acknowledged the instructor. “This is his journey. You can’t save him.”
He likened the wilderness camp experience to a walkabout, the 2000-mile long trek aboriginal teenage boys embarked on hundreds of years ago, to mark their rite of passage into manhood.
“Imagine, the tribal elders come take your kid, telling you it’s his time to go. He’s got to walk 200o miles through the outback. Maybe he comes back, maybe he doesn’t. You, as the parent, have no control over whether your kid lives or dies. You watch your kid walk away and wonder if that’s the last time you’re going to see him.”
A silence came over the room, a silence that united parents who had flown from Florida, Texas, California and Mexico, to meet up with their kids on their modern-day walkabout. We all knew what it was like to hand over our children to tribal elders–in the form of wilderness program staff–who escorted them onto a journey they had to take without us. We all knew what it was like to feel we were booted out of our parenting jobs, to have our parent-child relationship severed too soon. We had spent years trying and failing to reign in our children. They were lost boys and girls, propelled away from us by unseen, unknowable forces into a realm of chaos we couldn’t reach.
None of us had been able to save our children. So we handed them over to strangers who had some success in turning around treatment-resistant kids. But there were no guarantees.
The next day I slathered myself with sunscreen and pulled on cargo pants and a white t-shirt. I hopped in a rented 4-wheel drive and followed Jim, Luca’s therapist, through 150 miles of sun-scorched earth.
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?”
Part Three coming soon…