A Little Better

She sits alone, at the top of the stairway, waiting.  Every afternoon, waiting.  And praying.

Positioned to one side, just down from the top of the staircase, she cranes her neck to see, and yet tries not to be seen.  She cannot hear the bus as it stops along the main highway, but she knows it is coming soon, and she will not allow herself to miss it.

“Please, Jesus,” she prays aloud again, her hands folded.  She doesn’t dare bow her head or close her eyes, lest she miss him.  “Please let today have been a better day.”

Soon she sees him.  Her boy comes running, always running.  He comes into view as he charges down the road, running with his schoolbooks under his arm.  With too much to carry, one slips loose.  He grabs at it, but drops them all instead; books fall and papers scatter across the roadway and fill the air.

She can’t quite understand what’s said, but she can hear catcalls and laughter that follow.

Her boy stops, turns, and stoops to gather his things haphazardly.  He doesn’t look up.  He misses a paper that the breeze carries out of his reach, but he doesn’t bother to chase after it; that would be more for the kids to laugh at.  He quickly heads for home, for his mother, for peace, books and papers jutting out in all directions, as he tries to hold them against his body in a hurried walk towards safety.

Behind her boy and further up the road, several kids finally come into view, three boys and two girls, all of them older, maybe 13 or 14.  The boys are ahead of the girls, with one a few steps ahead of the others; it is he that was doing the chasing, but only enough to make her boy run and only long enough to look tough to the girls.

She is filled with anger and with questions.  What could make this kid so mean?  What is wrong with these kids that makes bullying her boy fun for them?  What’s funny about hurting someone else’s child?

As her son comes up the driveway, safe, she moves to the kitchen, thinking she is unseen.

“Mommmmm!” the boy calls as he enters.

She greets him with some cookies and a hug.  She knows what is coming, but she asks the daily question anyway: “How was your day?”

What follows is a 20-minute stream of consciousness about how school is terrible and the kids are mean to me and I don’t have any friends still and nobody will let me work on the bulletin board like they did at my old school and Blake is not nearly as good of an artist but nobody will give me a chance to show how good I am and at P.E. nobody will throw me the ball even though I played baseball for four years before we moved here and they don’t care and nobody will sit with me at lunch and I don’t even like the food in this cruddy cafeteria like I like the food at my old school and Sean pushed me out of the way at the sink in the bathroom and I wasn’t even doing anything to him and the other kids laughed when I got all wet and I still don’t like my teachers and the way they let people work together and nobody wants to work with me because they think I’m dumb and I hate this whole town and I hate everything and I want to go back home where it was better.

She listens to every word, never interrupting, letting him get it all out.

“I’m sorry buddy,” she says.  She hands him some milk.  “But was it at all better today than it was yesterday?”

“Not much.”

“I’m sorry.”  She pauses.  “But it was a little better?”

“A little.”

What he can’t share with her, what he couldn’t even articulate if he could understand it himself is the profound sense of shame that he feels at not being able to fit in, the shame that comes from running from a bully, the shame of not turning and fighting, the shame that his mother knows that he’s a coward.  All he knows is that the kids don’t like him and he doesn’t like himself much either.

He cries.  It only compounds his shame.

“Why can’t we just go back home?”

“We live here now,” she says.  “It will keep getting a little better, every day.”

It tears at her heart to know that her son, her only child, is so miserable.  She feels responsible for it and helpless to fix it.  She feels like crying with him, but she does not, cannot.  That will come tomorrow, after he leaves for school and she is alone.

“Please Jesus,” she pleads through her own tears.  “Please let today be better.”

——-

“How was your day today?”  She knows what’s coming, again.

“My boss is impossible to deal with.  I don’t even think he understands what he’s asking us to do, and there’s no way I’m going to get that promotion.  There is far too much to do and too little time to do it, and I think I should look for a new job somewhere else.”

“Is it getting any better at all?” she asks, through the phone.

“A little.  Not much.”

“Good!  I’ve been praying it would get better.”

——-

“How did it go today?” she asks.  She knows what to expect.

“I just don’t understand why she won’t talk to me,” he cries.  “I know divorce is hard on kids, but to have your own daughter refuse to talk to you, that’s tough.  She won’t even answer the phone when I call.”

“She will come around,” she encourages.  “It will get better.”

“I don’t know, Mom.  I can’t see how.”

“It will get better.  I’ve been praying for her.  And for you.”

——-

A mother loves her son.

In spite of seeing him at his worst, she continued to expect his best.  She believed in him when he didn’t believe in himself.  She encouraged him when he needed it, and understood like no one else could.  Because of that, he spent three days writing what you just read.

A Mother Speaks

Ken001

LILBURN, GA – The parking lot is nearly empty as I pull in; ten minutes early, I sit in my car and wait until it’s time.  I had not expected a big turnout.  There are only two other cars here, and a limousine.  And of course, there’s the hearse.

As I enter, an older gentleman, a Baptist preacher, introduces himself like only a Baptist preacher would; he’s a little too glad to meet me and a little too eager to thank me for coming.  Ken was Catholic.  No, he never met Ken he says a little sheepishly, when asked.

“It must be tough to perform a funeral service for someone you haven’t met,” I say.

“The only thing tougher is doing one for someone you knew really well,” he replies, and it’s clear he speaks from experience.  He looks to me for some information that he can use in his eulogy, some golden nugget, some anecdote.

I’ve got nothing for him.  “Ken was kind of odd,” I offer as helpfully as I can, and the pastor’s shoulders fall in disappointment before he goes to seek better insights elsewhere.

Why did I come to this funeral?  Ken and I had not spoken much over the past several years.

———-

We were in 10th grade in Journalism class when I met Ken.  I was the new kid, uncomfortable, unsure, awkward, and out of my element.  Ken was all of those things too, and so we had that in common.  He said he’d moved from Brooklyn, but to a kid from the Georgia hinterlands, Brooklyn seemed a foreign country.  He talked of his old home with enthusiasm, and said he was already planning to return.  Someday.

Ken was interested only in the things that Ken was interested in, which is to say that he would gladly talk about places I’d never been and music I’d never heard, but he wasn’t concerned with  much else beyond his likes.  I found that, like the other kids, I couldn’t really connect with him.  We weren’t close, but I had a sense that he viewed me as being among his closer friends, if Ken ever considered himself close to anyone.

He showed me something he’d written about his memories of Brooklyn.  His writing was good.  Poignant even.  As I read his piece, I was surprised to learn that Ken wasn’t the new kid in school that I thought he was; he had moved more than five years prior.  He had apparently just never adjusted; he still felt out of place.  His writing gave me a feel for the love he had for his old home and alerted me to a sense of pain that he felt within his own skin.

I got lucky.  Something I wrote caught the teacher’s attention, and I was promoted to the school newspaper staff, big time journalism.  It also meant that I’d found my niche, a place where I wasn’t so awkward.

We were talking about what to do with a part of the paper, and I thought of Ken’s Brooklyn piece.  I shared it with my new friend Mark, the editor.  Mark read Ken’s story and thought it was good, too.  He even gave Ken his own column, arranged to fit at the edge of the page.  “Ken’s Corner” he called it, and Ken could write about any odd thing he wanted.  He did.

Ken wrote about whatever pleased Ken.  There were columns about alternative bands nobody had ever heard of.  He wrote about the challenges of getting a girl’s attention.  He wrote about television shows and radio stations and TV Guide ads and other minutiae that ruled the lives of 80’s teens, but always from a perspective that was a little outside the norm.  He seemed to enjoy that space, that place that was just out of reach of mainstream ideas of fashion, of culture, of life.

What he wrote about music offended some kids, and what he wrote about dating, some others.  Ken never flinched.  He would publish one column and immediately begin to think about ideas for the next one.  Writing his own column seemed for him to be an outlet. Ken shared with others – maybe for the first time ever – something about himself.  Kids began to see him in a new light.  He became a minor celebrity with that column, and he seemed to finally find a place where he fit.

I didn’t try very hard to keep in touch.  20 years later, I found by accident that we lived just 10 minutes apart in the rural South.  He hadn’t returned to Brooklyn after all.  I saw him a few times, to catch up.  He was older.  Like me, he was heavier.  Ken was still the same Ken though.

He had high blood pressure, and didn’t take it – or his medication — seriously.  Last week he was hospitalized and while there, had a mild stroke.  I visited with him briefly, the first time I’d seen him in three years, and he was optimistic.  He was going to take his medicine, he said.  He was a looking forward to losing weight.  He made all of the resolutions for a changed life that a man makes when forced to face his own mortality.  He went home soon after.

A few days later, he was dead.

———-

At his funeral, there are only seven of us present, including the preacher.  It seems like an awfully small number to reflect on a man’s 47 years.  The pastor, still looking to fill time, asks if we wouldn’t mind talking about Ken some in the service.

I don’t know what to say, but I stand before his mother, his sister, and his uncle at the front of the chapel.  “I knew Ken a lot less than anyone here,” I begin.  I talk of meeting Ken, of our journalism class, and of his high school newspaper column.  I speak about Ken’s unique spirit, the best that I can.  It’s not much.  I tell someone else’s story, the only funny anecdote I have to offer of Ken, of how he was surprised to learn that the Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles.

“Why didn’t I know this? When did this happen?” asks an incredulous Ken.

“1957.”

The story gets a laugh, and with it, I get his family’s confirmation that they too know that Ken was different.

Afterward, there’s a brief reception.  There’s food for maybe 25 people.  Most of it will go untouched.  His family politely thanks me for coming and for speaking, and I’m embarrassed about that, because I wasn’t a good friend.

A parent shouldn’t have to bury their child, no matter his age.  Ken’s mother is devastated, and the day is understandably difficult for her.  She speaks with me for a while about Ken.

“Oh, he was so proud of that column,” she remembers.  “He came home from school so excited, saying ‘Ma, they gave me my own column!  Can you believe it?’” She talks with the pride of a mother, and for a little while, the past 30 years are gone.

“Of course they did, because you are good!  You are a good writer,” she says.  She glows as she remembers the moment, and her face softens.  The encouragement I hear in her words makes me think she tried often to make her boy believe in himself more.

They had left New York for South Florida when Ken was 11 years old.

“He hated Florida,” she tells me.  “He always wanted to go back home to Brooklyn.”

I wonder if his desire to go back was because he couldn’t make friends, or if he wouldn’t make friends because he wanted to go back.  I see in her eyes the doubt of a mother who wonders if things couldn’t have been different for her son.

“There weren’t many people here,” she tells me, “but you know what?  I’d rather have a few people who care than a whole room full of people who were here because they felt obligated.”

It’s an indictment, but she doesn’t realize it.

“He was so smart,” she says.  “He had such a memory.  He could tell you what page an article was on in the encyclopedia.  If you wanted to know where ‘Animals’ was, he would tell you the page, and what pictures were there.”

She’s right.  That’s pretty impressive.

She’s thankful for those who reached out to her son when he was ill.

“When he was in the hospital, people wished him well over the internet.  He called me and he said to me, ‘Ma, all these years I thought people didn’t care about me, but they do.  They’ve been telling me they hope I get better.'”   Her voice echoes the excitement she heard in his.  She knows about my short hospital visit and thanks me for it, but I suddenly feel guilty for not doing much more.

She talks about how her son wanted to be a journalist.  He started college she says, but then lost interest; she doesn’t know why.  The question seems to haunt her, all these years later.

That’s not all that haunts her.  There are unanswered questions about why her son died, and whether or not someone could have done something to get help to him sooner.  Details are sketchy.  There are conflicting stories.

“I’ll never get the answers to those questions,” she laments.

Me, I get the answer to my question.  Now I know what I’m doing here.

A mother deserves the right to talk about her son, and to have someone listen.  For a little while, I can do that.