Six years and one month ago, I stood on the street between our house and a small park ringed with redwoods and sycamores, holding a sharp pencil poised in my trembling hand, to stab my enemy in the throat, if necessary.
Regrettably, in the face of all that I have loved most deeply in my life, all that I most cherish and the values I live by, the enemy was my grown child, my twenty-one year old son, Sam.
His two-yearold child was inside the house with his mother. They were playing Legos while I tried not to stab Sam in the neck.
Sam was sneering at me, which was not helpful for group harmony.
We were reaching what some people might call a bottom. I had always heard, since I got sober in 1986, that if you’ve got a problem, go look in the mirror, but it did not immediately occur to me that I could be the crazy one, nice adorable Sunday School teacher me, who was now shouting in the street, brandishing a weapon. It did not occur to me that I was hitting a bottom; only that there was no hope. Just rage and self-loathing and absolute utter depletion.
This is how you can tell it’s a bottom.
Lest you think that I was prone to violence against children, the track record was pretty good. It had been six years since I slapped him in the face, while he sneered at me, stoned, in our driveway. I wrote about it for Salon, because in this terrifying barren situation, we had ended up a couple of hours later taking naps on separate couches in the living room. Talk about Grace batting last: there had been no way for us to get from the driveway, stunned, his face and my hand burning from the slap, to snoring quietly, in the same room.
Grace meets you exactly where you are, at your most pathetic and hopeless, and it loads you into its wheelbarrow, and tips you out somewhere else, in ever so slightly better shape, which feels like a miracle.
I got so many letters of hate from readers at Salon, about how I was obviously not the aging peacenik do-gooder I portray myself as, but rather, an abuser, and in the words of my favorite respondent, “no better than the pedophile priests.”
We had had a treaty in place that had served us well enough since the slap, until the tiny breach, with the sharpened pencil held in the air a foot from his throat.
Don’t get me wrong–when you think you may lose your child to the dark path, there are some severely bad days/weeks/months/years, when the only thing that can help is the experience, strength, hope, and truth of other parents who have been through this, who have come through, whose children somehow survived. Many, many children don’t: Sam had already lost two close high school friends to oxy overdoses, and as it would turn out, would lose three more incredibly gifted, lovely boys.
Because of this, I had sent him away once for 9 months, and let him stay in jail once. People without scary kids said, “You WHAT?”
People with scary kids asked me where I had found the strength. The answer is, I had found the strength in the old formula of terror and grace, the terror that if I fished my kid out, this person I had loved by far more than anyone else on earth, he would die.
“But that is so extreme!” people said. “He could have been hurt. And it is so cold in there.”
“Wow,” I said. “Bummer.”
I believe, to this day, that if I had bailed him out, he would not be here this morning, in the other room, sitting on the floor with his eight-year old son, playing Legos.
Anyway, there we were, in the street, doomed. They say when all else fails, follow instructions, so I prayed: Help. Enter this hideous mess. Take the wheel.
And the thing, the holy breeze, the spiritual WD-40, whom I call God and Sam calls The Cosmic Muffin, tiptoed in, and a moment later, I lowered my weapon. I surrendered, which means I came over to the winning side, of having run out of any more good ideas, of telling God, bitterly, without hope, “Fine–I’m done. It’s all Yours.”
We faced off a minute longer, and then looked away, breathing hard, and after a while I said, “Let me give you a ride home. You just can’t be at my house anymore, with the baby, until you get clean and sober.”
More grace, more God/Muffin showing off: we got in the car together and drove without speaking to his cozy rat trap of an apartment in the Tenderloin.
We listened to a spiritual tape that was in the car’s CD player, Carolyn Myss on the dark night of the soul, who was our cranky angel. When we got out of the car in front of his place, we hugged, still without saying a word.
I drove home to be with the baby and his mom. I didn’t have hope, or not have hope, but I had laid down my weapons. T.S. Eliot wrote, “Be still my soul, and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” But I prayed and prayed for my child to be healed, and for me to be healed of my own insanity, where I thought I was his Higher Power, where I thought I had more Good Ideas for another person.
We didn’t have any contact for a few weeks. Then, on Sept 13, 2011, he called me to say he had a week clean and sober. These sober guys in the city had taken him under their great collective wing, a wing with warm mussed feathers, neck tattoos, and bad coffee. They hadn’t needed anything from me at all, except for me to get out of Sam’s way.