Low light of early evening filters through maple leaves, streams through my son’s bedroom window. He’s sitting on the edge of the bottom bunk. I’m kneeling next to him. He is seven and crying, tears of frustration, or anger, or both. At this point, I’m not quite sure. His hands move around his face, his hair, messy now with sweat and tears. He looks up at me—pale freckled face, one dimple, wet eyes, sandy hair—my son, he looks nothing like me. Through sobs he says, “My heart is a piece of shit.”
Outside, squirrels scurry up and down the maple, their claws dig into the bark.
“Son,” I say. I bring my hand around his head. This is more than scraped knees or a misunderstanding with his sister.
“I mean, crap,” he says, and laughs. Snot runs out his nose. I wipe it with the back of my hand.
“What happened?” I ask.
His face scrunches. I pull him toward me so that our foreheads touch. He whimpers. “Sometimes I just can’t help it,” he says. He tells me that he hurt his friend’s feelings by calling him names, hitting him with a lightsaber, taking away toys, and using words like never—“we’ll [End Page 75] never be friends again”—and repeating them, over and over, until his friend cried.
“Okay,” I say, trying to think of how to address this. The truth is, I’m not sure. I’ve seen this behavior in him in the past; a calm calculated look flattens the expressions of his face. He does what he needs to gain the upper hand.
I hold him tight.
“It’s just that I can’t really help it,” he tells me. He sighs. “I feel like there are two of me, like I can’t control it.”
And this is what gets me. Because this, for me, is familiar.
Once, when I was about my son’s age, I used a wet washcloth to slap a girl’s face. The girl was a year younger than I was: short, cropped hair, freckles, blue eyes. After the washcloth smacked her cheek, her eyes popped open. Her left hand covered the side of her face. She started crying. She shielded her eyes. I could already see a welt.
This girl—my mom babysat her and her older sister. I can’t remember why it happened, why I did this, but even then, I hated myself for it. I felt like it was another person. Like I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself.
Her sister yelled at me. Screamed in my face, “The devil is in you.” And maybe that was true. I was a churchgoing kid and the notions of God and Devil were very real to me. I don’t remember much after she yelled, just that I wanted to cry. For the girl, and myself; for the sense of being out of control. The feeling frightened me.
My son’s tears are that of frustration. He doesn’t tell me, but I know. Frustration for what you can’t seem to control, but want so desperately to stop. How do I console him for a situation that I know (or hope) he’ll eventually grow out of? Something he’ll learn how to control through age, maturity? I tell him I know how he feels, but this response, even to my seven-year-old son, seems trite.
Outside, two squirrels squat on a low-hanging branch. It’s an old, tall tree, trimmed many times. Limbs and branches have been falling into our yard. This year, certain parts of the tree will not grow leaves. [End Page 76] They will remain part of the whole, but exposed, bare, defenseless, vulnerable to high winds.
My son’s friends are still outside, playing, and we can hear their laughing and shouting. He stands. It doesn’t take long for him to realize his way out of this setback. My son—he hears his friends and what was just troubling him is lost, not forgotten, but...