I am staring at a pregnancy test on the bathroom counter when the phone rings.
Since I have five kids, ages 7 through 14, the e.p.t. stick is no stranger to me; the man calling on the phone, however, is. He says our sons go to school together, that our families bumped into each other at the Bronx Zoo Butterfly Garden some years ago. “You were terrified of a big monarch,” he says.
I remember the episode well—how I might have embarrassed my kids when I screamed—but I can’t recall this man or his son. He says his name is Kurt, and he has news for me, and I know that it can’t be good news when he begins by saying, “I hate having to phone you about this, but hey, listen, if it were my kid, I’d want to know.”
He tells me that his son had seen my son slumping his head into his hands, sitting alone at the base of the flagpole in front of the boys’ middle school. His son’s Frisbee had landed near my son, and when he went to retrieve it, my boy had looked up at him and said, “I’m going suicide.” Hence the awkward but responsible phone call to me, in the middle of a day while I’m waiting for the result of a pregnancy test.
As the man goes on about the incident, I recall last week, when my son Calvin* cried about a classmate who was probably speaking out of honesty rather than meanness when he said, “Dude, why can’t you speak right?” Asperger’s and social conversation do not harmonize well in a world of 13-year-olds. My sweet boy hits a brick wall of awkwardness, a mumbo jumbo of monotone words, his voice deep, his back stiff. At the time, I’d thought this was normal middle school drama magnified by my son’s nature. I’d thought, This is nothing; this will pass. But that evening, he had turned away from me, pulling the covers over his head. “People don’t get me,” he said, his voice muffled through the blanket.
“I get you,” I said. His three younger sisters, knowing their brother was sad, joined us on the twin bed, each of them putting a hand on their lump of a brother under the quilt. “Look,” I said. “We all get you.”
But now Calvin has gone outside the family bubble, expressing his sadness to this boy who is nothing more than a face in the hallway, an acquaintance at the zoo. I strangle my hand with the telephone cord. It’s not nothing; it isn’t passing.
“Hello?” the man says in response to my silence.
I tell him thank you, and that yes, of course, I will look into this and thank you, thank you. I hang up and hurry to my son’s room, searching the history on his computer browser.
He has Googled suicide. Horrific images fill the screen, frightening me so much that I cover my eyes and blindly press Escape. How could I have thought this was nothing?
Moments later, I am wrist-deep in my son’s dresser drawers, churning socks and underwear. I find a small notebook. It is filled with random daily accounts, but one excerpt is about his “middle school hell.” I read every word, sitting on the floor, my back against his bed. The worst part is a detailed description of his own funeral, including what his thoughts would be while lying in his coffin: It’s easier now. I’m better.
The rest of my day goes by in a blur as I research adolescent depression, forgetting about the pregnancy stick until later, when the kids are home from school and my seven-year-old daughter emerges from the bathroom holding it up to me. “What’s this?” she asks. I tell her it is Mommy’s special pen, and thank you for finding it. When she passes me in the hallway, her little body disappearing into the next room, I look at the stick’s result.
The faint blue crucifix means there will be less of me for all of my kids, less of me for this troubled boy, less of me for the newborn. I kneel on the floor and, knowing I cannot be everything to everyone, press my cheek into the carpet and focus on one strand, just one strand. Hundreds of minuscule tangled and twisted fibers make up this one thread of carpet. At any moment the strand can be stepped on, flattened.
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