A How-To for Desperate Times

Casey Mulligan Walsh is an upstate New York writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Split Lip, HuffPost, Next Avenue, The Manifest-Station, Barren Magazine, BrevityBlog, and Modern Loss, among others. She writes about life at the intersection of grief and joy and embracing the in-between. Her work also appears at thefhfoundation.org, an organization that raises awareness for the genetic cardiac disorder that has affected her family across generations, and in a monthly patient perspective blog for WebMD. She is at work on a memoir. Find Casey at www.caseymulliganwalsh.com, or on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

When your previously gregarious boy with the infectious smile—the one who at six knew all the big kids in town, who even at fourteen was adored by adults, who was always ready to take on the world—when that young man begins his long, slow decline, you pray.

You sidle up to your fear in the beginning, slipping it in as you chat with God throughout the day. You try not to make too much of it, subconsciously operating under the same rules that allow that if you don’t think about something too much it won’t be real, that, like an ostrich, if it can’t see you, you won’t know it’s there. That sort of stellar logic.

When he stops coming to you for advice and stops spending time with his brother and sister, when he stops bringing his lifelong friends around and starts hanging out with the kinds of so-called friends you don’t bring home to Mom, you pray some more. When he loses his passion for soccer, and his obsession with his fabulous-yet-fickle new girlfriend flips from a joyful high to an abiding aura of rebellion and gloom and depression, the prayers continue, more pleading now.

Soon, you realize that tightening the rules, which may have worked in earlier years, loses out to the combination of his father’s—your ex-husband’s—alternating need to be the preferred parent or a completely absent one. Not to mention the sheer folly of imagining you can lay down the law to an eighteen-year-old.

Eric wearing a teal t-shirt, holding a slalom waterski. His hair is buzzed.After a while—and time is irrelevant here, a while an amorphous measure of whichever number of days and weeks and sleepless nights it takes to arrive at the next stop on this unwelcome, uncharted path—you begin to plan. The planning may save him, or it may not, but at least it gives you something to do, something to focus on in place of obsessing over all that could go wrong. All that has already gone awry.

Being the goal-focused, determined mom you’ve always been, you throw yourself wholeheartedly into this new endeavor. Though he’s a senior and closer than ever to blowing this town and breaking free from the girlfriend and pothead crew that drag him down, his goals are fading and his focus is blurred. Now is the time for action. You ferret out the perfect school, a residential technical college five hours away, with intercollegiate soccer (his sport!), snowboarding nearby (his passion!), drafting and design (his field!), and dorms. The dorms—and the distance—are key, of course, keeping him far enough away to press the reset button on his life and providing the cocoon-like living of a small campus and a watchful coach. There.

Plan A: aborted. You watch as he continues to deconstruct. He fails in classes he previously passed with ease and throws all of his waning energy into patching together his on-again off-again relationship. He agrees to attend the college that could save him, but this becomes moot. His grades have not met muster, and now you pray he graduates high school. These prayers are answered.

During this time, you try everything. When you take him to a counselor, he stomps out of the office in anger and refuses to return. Embarrassed, you find him, persuade him to get into the car, take him home and love him anyway.

The tough love you’ve been advised to employ only amplifies his volatility. One day, you drive home from work worrying about how aggressive he’ll be, more than a little afraid, and make the decision not to meet him in his anger. When he shouts you down, you surprise him by quietly declaring how much you love him and asking what you can do to help. Shockingly, he calms, and for the first time in more than a year you have a real conversation. You both remember, if only for the moment, the love that’s there.

Buoyed by this hope, it’s on to Plan B. You spend every free moment ensuring his attendance at the community college an hour away. You arrange for financial aid and academic support. Cashing in the last few savings bonds you’ve been stashing away since he was a baby and accepting money from a friend, you spend thousands of dollars on a car to get him to class. You find him a room in a nice home near the college, knowing this may not work out, and it’s more than you will be able to bear to watch it fall apart day by day. Your job is to make this possible for him, but only he can follow through. Everything in place, you deposit him there, return home. And pray.

Your bank statements arrive, and hundreds of dollars are unaccounted for. His landlady leaves you a cryptic message about his infrequent presence and the state of his room. You learn he’s quit the job that was a linchpin in your tenuous financial planning for the semester. Then you do the only things left to you. You refuse to believe he’s going to blow this. And you pray.

Linear thinking does not apply here. Prayer, planning, denial, and their counterparts, love and acceptance, often work in concert. Withdrawal and grief creep in, too, unannounced, until it’s tough to discern which are at play at any given moment.

And sometimes you’re the one who needs the reboot. Don’t worry, soon enough your crumbling son will give you this opportunity.

When he comes to you in the middle of the night, having totaled your car or failed out of college, dropping evidence of seemingly unanswered prayers and unfinished plans squarely in your lap like a dog retrieving a dead rabbit, you have a choice.

It isn’t really a choice, though, as there’s never been any doubt what you will do. He’s your son. Your plans have not worked out, but they were your plans. You put aside your fears for a moment, and listen, really listen, to his, maybe for the first time since this all began. In this new place, you guide him through the decisions that you hope will set him on his way up and out of the hole he’s dug for himself.

He listens, too, thinks things through, and decides to join the Navy. He does well on the entrance exams and is set to attend aircraft technician school but postpones his enlistment until he gets a few things in order. You let out the tiniest sigh of relief and allow yourself, for the first time in a very long time, the tiniest indulgence in optimism and the belief that this will all work out.

Days later, there’s a note on his windshield from the local police. It’s your turn to crumble now. An almost-sixteen-year-old girl, who has been removed from the home and is in state’s custody, leaves a journal at her mother’s house. The journal reveals she and your nineteen-year-old son had engaged in sexual relations. In Vermont, where she lives, this is a felony.

Essentially, his life is over.

The months drag by. You watch him fade away, a little more each day, till all that’s left is a shadow. He sleeps on the couch most days and wanders in and out, snowboarding till the snow melts away. Killing time. He looks sad. And old, so much older than his twenty years. His posture and eyes exude a weariness so deep it’s painful to watch.

You accompany him to court to meet with a defender. He continues to insist that this was consensual, that he had no knowledge of her age. You point out that she’s known to the court system as an out-of-control teen. You don’t understand how none of this makes any difference and refuse to believe that this could really happen. That when this comes to trial, your son could be convicted and labeled a sex offender for doing something you would never condone yet is so accepted in our culture. He slept with another teen.

Denial gets a bad rap. It’s ill-advised as a way of life, but when all your prayer and your best attempts at planning have been exhausted and have exhausted you, it can save you. When you’ve spent every penny you had and then some to survive a divorce and to get your son to college, when there’s literally nothing you can do to secure a high-powered lawyer, when every avenue is a dead end and you need to find a way to maintain your sanity for your two other children, for yourself, denial can keep you afloat. Sometimes that’s all you need, a little break in the anguish.

But then you begin to dream about him. Long, meaningful dreams that make little sense but one day will comfort you in ways you can’t begin to understand. There are dreams about teeth sheared off at the middle, irreparable damage that you insist cannot be fixed, yet there he will be, your dream boy, smiling widely in the kitchen, insisting the broken teeth make no difference because he’s happy now, finally happy.

And somehow, with divine intervention and the guidance of friends, with days and months of processing and yes, prayer, with a heart laid so open it hurts when it beats and the willingness to see things differently, you begin to take tiny steps toward acceptance. You learn that prayer is less about gaining a desired outcome and more about accepting whatever comes.

So when you wake up one beautiful morning and welcome your friends for a cookout and a day of fun, when your daughter is with you and your boys spend the day together, popping in and out throughout the afternoon, and your oldest son, the one who’s had it so hard, is talkative and engaging, you take that at face value, grateful for one day without the overriding worry about what the future holds. You accept it all, the struggle and the joy. You look at the beautiful blue sky and give thanks for good friends and for your children.

And when you look back, days and years and decades from now, you are grateful that, as you looked toward the heavens, you couldn’t have known that your son would die that afternoon. That he would be the only fatality in a single-car crash, gone in a great cloud of all he was and all he could have been, leaving you behind to make sense of it the best you can.

You will honor your son, bury him, remember him in a thousand ways at a million different times. You will grieve forever, but within the grief you will find acceptance. And you will let him go in peace, knowing you will carry him with you for the rest of your life.

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