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My grandfather, my son and the right thing

I was 9 years old when I noticed that my grandfather dropped my grandmother off for church services every Sunday but never went inside.  Oh, he went to church for weddings, funerals, fairs and Saturday bean suppers.  But he never once attended Sunday services.  My grandmother would say he didn’t like sitting in the pew or that she simply needed a ride.  I asked my mother about it, feeling a little anxious, trying to make it fit into my limited understanding.  “Your grandpa doesn’t believe in God,” she explained, “But he believes in Good.”

I sucked in my breath and my little-girl understanding shifted.  Until then, I had Good, God, having morals, doing good deeds and being a good person firmly super-glued together in my head.  You couldn’t have one without the other, right?  I began to understand the different shape of each thing and how they were not identical.

I saw in my grandfather, whom I adored, a warm, generous, very kind man who adhered to a strong code of conduct.  If you left a dime at his house, he returned it to you at the next visit. But he was agnostic, not religious. I noticed others who did the “right thing” every time, even when it was uncomfortable or a stretch for them, but they had beliefs about the world that startled me.  I gradually became comfortable with the idea that our inner guidance systems are unique and help us navigate the world in singular ways.

Many years later, this would help me understand and love my son during the hardest times.

My son was 7 when I realized that he saw and heard things that no one else did.  He was too old to label it magical thinking and his therapists and teachers were reluctant to call it psychosis.  What he saw and heard often scared him and that fear followed him all day, often even into the night, resulting in nightmares.  His fear, frustration and despair would overwhelm him and he would lash out or fly into a frenzy, hurtling objects and even hurting himself.  In those hours, he changed into someone else, shedding the things that gave him joy: his laughter, his creativity and his curiosity.

Sometimes the voices and visions told him to hurt his younger brother and I would hold him tight while he raged.  I would urge his smaller sibling to close himself in his bedroom, to be safe and out of sight. We did this again and again over the years, our family’s version of a safety drill.  His younger brother went from telling people that “I have a very, very good brother who does very, very bad things” to simply announcing that his brother was bad.  Very bad.  Once, when someone asked what his brother was like, he replied, “I have a bad brother and he is a very bad brother to me.” In his mind you couldn’t do such bad things and not be bad yourself.

It’s hard when you are in the midst of daily chaos to unstick the superglue that binds together your ideas about what children are like, especially your own children.  I thought children were naturally resilient, absorbing life around them, sometimes being silly.  That wasn’t my son’s life at all.  He was emotionally fragile, sometimes lost in his own world and unable to laugh. It was my job to untangle my assumptions and instead put in plain view the things I wanted others to see.   It was my job as a parent to paint that picture, showing the world outside my family that my child could be good and do bad things.  That my child had lots of moments where he was brilliant and vulnerable and caring.

He could be loving and smart, hold my hand, give great hugs and say funny things and still have moments and hours where he made me cry, made me angry and pretty scared for him.

There were no guidelines to understanding my son; I had to create my own.  I began to understand that while he did not always understand what was real, he could understand what was right. Even more, he cared about that. Often, after his rages and being lost in his phantasmic world, he would feel deep remorse.  (He was still unable to stop himself the next time though.)   His sense of what was right and wrong vied with the voices and destructive impulses.

When he was a little older, he announced he had made what he considered a better moral choice.  He began directing the raging and hurting only toward himself, sometimes viciously, sometimes persistently and away from his brother and me. His inner guidance system was trying to make peace between the storms in his mind and his sense of what was right.

We are all nuanced people with complicated beliefs.  It doesn’t get any better when you throw mental health issues into the mix.  On those parenting days when I came up for air, I would channel my mother.  I would talk about my son saying, “My son is not always sure what is real, but he loves knowing what is right.” Then I would add a story or two which showed the shape of our lives, hoping to unstick others’ ideas about good children and bad behaviors.