On Friday, I picked up my son from his last day of school to take him to lunch for his 14th birthday. I had not seen him since February, and when he walked down the hall in his white skinny jeans and brown t-shirt, I thought he’d grown taller. I watched as the School Director gave him a hug and said, “I guess we don’t know where you’re going to school next year, huh? Maybe we’ll see you back here in the fall.”
Luca gave her a shy smile and shrugged. I shrugged at the director too. I have no idea where Luca’s dad is planning to send him for 8th grade because, per our recent settlement in which we share legal custody in name only, he is allowed to enroll Luca in any school without my consent, although he is required to notify me and ensure that I am treated like a regular parent: my name goes on contact forms, I participate in school meetings, I receive all school reports.
Luca started to walk past me. “Hey,” I said, holding out my arms for a hug. He leaned into me just a bit and hugged me back tentatively.
We got in the car and began the drive over the long, mountainous road that leads to the other side of the city where Luca lives with his dad. He pulled his laptop out of his backpack and showed me a video game he plays in which he’s building a house.
“What did you put in the house?” I asked.
“Just a bed,” he said.
“Are you going to put anything else in it?”
“I don’t know. Probably. I haven’t decided.”
As we crested the hill and wound along the curves of the road, Luca told me that he rode his bike home from school, down this road. I didn’t say that I thought it was insane that his dad allowed Luca, who is flamboyantly impulsive and does not have good judgment, who broke his knee just the year before when he ran his bike into a moving car, to ride 20 miles of treacherous hillside, with cars zooming by him.
Of course there was the possibility that this trip only happened once. Or that Luca made the whole thing up. I am never sure, when he tells me his stories, what the truth is.
“Are you excited about camp?” I asked. Luca was leaving the next day for a month of the fancy-pants sleepaway camp he has been to every summer for the past four years. The weeks he’s spent at this camp have been the happiest, and most successful, of his short life.
“Yeah. Really excited,” he beamed. “I’m gonna play paintball the whole time.”
“Well, maybe I’ll see you at the bus drop-off on Sunday.”
Franny was going to the same camp too, and I was taking her to the bus early Sunday morning. Luca’s stepbrother Jake was going as well.
“Franny has a birthday present for you. She’s going to give it you at camp.”
I handed Luca an envelope.
“And this is from me.”
Luca tore open the envelope, glanced at the card, and took out five $20 bills.
“Wow, thanks, Mom! This is great. Thanks a lot.”
We pulled into the parking lot of a Japanese restaurant. I turned off the ignition and gazed at Luca’s beautiful tawny skin, his golden-brown hair styled in a Bieber-cut.
“You look taller, Luca. And your teeth are really white. Did you put whitener on your teeth?”
“Mom, no! I didn’t use any whitener. Those are the two things you always say to me, that I look taller and my teeth are white.”
They were? I realized that I am often struggling for things to say to Luca, and that at this point, with just a few visits in the year he’s lived full-time with his dad, he seems like someone I barely know.
We sat next to each other in a booth in the restaurant and ordered chicken, beef and shrimp that we cooked shabu-shabu style, over an open grill at our table. Luca talked more freely now, showing off some of the Chinese phrases he learned on Rosetta Stone‘s language computer program, and boasting about the $750 bottle of wine his dad ordered the weekend before, when he and his long-time girlfriend Sarah got married.
Luca told me about a friend from school, a 17-year-old who had been in rehab “a bunch of times” and how he was helping him make goals to wean himself off heroin.
“I told him to just do it once a week, then once every two weeks, then once a month.”
“Wait a minute…this kid comes to school on heroin?“
“Yeah. One day he came and he was detoxing. He looked awful. His head rolled back and you could see the veins in his arms were kind of throbbing, and his fingers curled back like this…”
Luca demonstrated, twitching and shaking.
“Then he went into a back room and threw up into a basket. I helped him.”
“Why was he allowed to be at school when he was detoxing?”
Luca shrugged. “He was okay by the end of the day.”
“Where were his parents? Why didn’t they come get him?”
“I dunno. His dad drives a Bentley, though.”
I stared at Luca, trying to determine how much of this story was true. The school he attended, Hybrid Academy, is an alternative school for rich kids with learning issues–ADHD, anxiety, autism spectrum disorders–and drug-addicted teens bouncing in and out of rehab. Not a great mix. Luca has learned at least as much about drugs as math and science in this environment. He ended up at Hybrid after he was expelled from an elite private school for bringing pot and an opiate called Norco to campus.
“I’m really trying to help him, Mom,” he said proudly.
“Luca, I’m glad you care about your friend, but you have to leave the helping up to his therapists.” I stared at him, the bottom dropping out of my stomach. “Promise me you won’t try heroin.”
“Mom, I’m not gonna do heroin!”
He gave me a that’s-the-silliest-thing-I’ve-ever-heard look.
“Promise me. I want to hear you promise.”
He rolled his eyes.
“I promise I’m not gonna do heroin.”
I was not remotely convinced. I tried to banish the intrusive images of Luca shooting heroin into his vein, passed out in the back of a car driven by some other stoned kid, then vomiting alone in a back alley, that were ping-ponging in my head.
We left the restaurant and I drove him back to his dad’s house. I hugged him and told him I loved him. I think he might have said it back. I don’t remember. But he was smiling. He squeezed my hand.
“Have a great time at camp. And you’re coming with us to the beach over Labor Day, right? Just you, Franny, Marika (the babysitter he adores) and me. We’re going to stay in that hotel you like and ride ATVs in the sand dunes.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’ll be cool.”
I watched him cross the lawn to the front gate and buzz himself inside. Then I drove away. My whole body relaxed. We had made it two hours without a single unpleasant moment. It struck me how happy he seemed, and calm. Maybe it was better for him to live at his dad’s full-time. His dad had the financial resources and time to structure his day so that he never has a free moment. His dad parents like a drill sergeant, and maybe, I thought, this is what Luca needs.
As much as I disagree with the choices his dad makes, and as much as I didn’t want to give up my right to weigh in on schools, doctors and therapy for Luca, I had to admit that it was ultimately better for my son if the power struggle that had been raging for eight years stopped, and he didn’t have to hear from his dad how terrible it would be if I, the unfit mother who was capable of only bad decisions, got to decide where Luca went to school or influence any other significant aspect of his life.
I had spent two combative years trying to convince Prince that I was not the sole cause of Luca’s behavioral problems and that Luca desperately needed a therapeutic school setting before he got deeper into adolescence, when all bets are off. Prince had told Luca that I wanted to “send him away,” a maneuver that signaled the death knell of our already tenuous relationship.
I still thought Luca needed a therapeutic setting but he needed a cease-fire more.
As wrong as it felt to be excised from Luca’s life, it felt more “right” for the war to be over. For all of us to move on. I knew that there was plenty of fighting between Luca and his dad, because I had heard from Franny and from the director of Luca’s school. I was relieved not to have to try to get Luca to do anything anymore.
I put in seven years of hard labor with Luca, being the primary custodian, waging daily battles over homework and chores and basic respect and just about anything else. The battles had almost done me in. His dad, with his endless reservoir of aggressive energy, was better-suited to the full-time job of managing the equally intense Luca. If not for society’s look-down-the-nose stance on non-custodial mothers, what was so bad about being a Disney Mom who took her son to lunch and gave him presents and an occasional trip to the beach?
On Saturday I signed into OurFamilyWizard, an e-mail system used by family courts. The program is designed to facilitate productive communication between high-conflict divorced couples. A year earlier, I had blocked Prince’s regular e-mails because I could no longer stomach the verbal bludgeoning he dispensed electronically, the attacks on my intelligence, my competence, and my parenting. Part of our recent settlement had been agreeing to use OurFamilyWizard to communicate. Since all e-mails in this program are recorded by the Court, Prince has had to turn down the heat of his animosity into occasional passive-aggressive pokes.
The e-mail I got from Prince was not what I expected, but was the best news I could have received.
He informed me that Luca was not going to his beloved bells-and-whistles sleepaway camp, as he had been led to believe, but to a wilderness camp for troubled teens. He left the day after I took him to lunch.
Prince, in a move that struck me as punitive to the point of being sadistic, had chosen not to fly with Luca to drop him off at camp, but to let an escort transport him to an isolated area out-of-state, where he will spend the next two months cooking over a fire he has to build himself, pitching his own tent, and calling out his assigned number while he pees so the guides know he hasn’t tried to run.
Luca will be grouped with several other teenaged boys who have blown themselves out of their homes and schools, who have gone haywire on drugs, who have stolen cars, who have disappeared for days on end, who have spent years arguing with every adult in their path.
Field therapists will trek into the camp site to have individual therapy with each boy. A treatment plan will be developed and parents will eventually attend a Parent Weekend to learn how to manage kids who have been unmanageable their entire lives. Family therapy sessions will be held and the boys will state how the choices they’ve made have gotten them where they are. Bad divorces, struggles in school, boredom — all these things have contributed to the boys’ problems, but ultimately they are accountable for their own actions.
If Luca’s time at wilderness camp is successful, that’s what he will learn. And, I hope, the external structure that will be imposed on him at camp will be internalized so he can reclaim his youth and believe that he has something to offer, that he can make friends, follow directions, tolerate anxiety and boredom, and resolve conflicts without exploding.
The irony that it was Prince, and not I, who sent Luca to wilderness camp has been reverberating through my mind the past couple days. I feel many things: infuriated that it took so much time and money to get here; vindicated; relieved that my son is getting the containment that he needs, broken-hearted as I imagine him thinking of his sister and stepbrother at sleepaway camp, his older stepbrother Jeremy at a presigious journalism camp, while he spends his actual 14th birthday–later this week–trudging up dusty trails with a heavy pack on his back, alongside a group of other terrified, angry, despairing teenagers.
I will be attending the Parent Weekend later this summer. I don’t know if Prince will be there, but even if he isn’t, Luca will finally know that his parents agree on what he needs. After eight years of denying Luca had a problem that could not be undone by extracting his mother from his life, after a combined ungodly amount of legal fees, Prince and I, miraculously, have arrived at the same destination.
I hope Luca gets there too.