Nearly six months ago our now-seventeen-year-old son Mike left our home. He had come home from more than a year in institutional settings in December and lasted less than two months in our home before his historic, predictable behaviors got the best of him. We realized we could not keep him safe, nor did we want the continuing negative influence upon our other children. He was placed in foster care, from which he left less than two weeks after his arrival. His behaviors in foster care were nearly identical to those in our home -- disappearing for hours at a time with no explanation and the like. He was placed in a group home, from which he ran continually as well, and finally managed to violate his probation as the result of a tell-tale UA ("urinary analysis"). He was placed in detention until a court hearing, which occurred June 1.
The June 1st hearing is the one where Claudia and I discovered the lengths to which Mike was able to manipulate and deceive even trained professionals. His primary therapist (although he had not seen this therapist for more than nine months earlier) submitted a report which indicated that Mike should never return to our home, reunification should never be attempted, and that "he deserves a loving family who really cares." The judge determined that Mike should complete a Department of Corrections consequence-based, work program in northern Minnesota. Mike is now within days of his anticipated September 15th graduation and discharge.
On Tuesday I drove the seven hours to visit with Mike. Along with me were my mother and three of our children. We had received three letters from Mike and in the past three weeks have been cleared to have telephone contact with him again. The telephone conversations have been pleasant, but I was a bit anxious about what the face-to-face visit would be like.
Over the past three years I have visited Mike numerous times in institutional settings, and his typical response to visits has been challenging. Historically there have been moments of enjoyable conversation, but also many hours of badgering, whihning, complaining, threatening and manipulating. It has not always been pleasant to visit with Mike, but between Claudia and me we have always seen to it that he has been in regular contact with us. Except for the past six months, we have connected with Mike regularly as allowed by the institutions and his social worker.
Thistledew is located in the middle of nowhere (or "everywhere," as they sometimes say in desolate parts of South Dakota). The nearest town of any size (population 20,000) is over twenty-five miles away. For miles in any direction of the camp is swampy, northern Minnesota timberland. They have few runners, and I doubt they have ever had a successful "escape" as it were. While it is operated by Minnesota Department of Corrections, it is not a lock down facility. There are uniformed officers and signage to remind residents and visitors that it is, indeed, a corrections facility, but it "feels" relaxed and therapeutic.
Upon our arrival we checked in and Mike was summoned to meet us. He arrived quietly a few minutes lately and waited anxiously for us to acknowledge him. We greeted him and went to a small area with picnic tables and pine trees. This fifty-foot-diameter area would be our visiting grounds for the next 2.75 hours.
The visit was surprisingly pleasant. Mike seemed calm, focused and at ease. His eyes had a clarity that I have not seen in him for some time. In the past he has often presented as depressed, scattered and nervous. But this visit seemed very different. In most visits he asks "Am I coming home?" or "Will you buy me a new pair of shoes?" But in this visit he initiated no such talk. He asked about our familiy members, what was going on at home, whether we liked our new church and community. After an hour's conversation he pointed out the dorm, the dining area, the part of the camp dedicated to adult women offenders ("they can't even look at us our they're out of here," Mike described, indicating that those in his all juvenile, male program were separated from the women, most of whom he said, "are here on drug charges, nothing violent"). Then he pointed out the small chapel, "That's where we go to church." I couldn't resist asking, "So, Mike, do you go to church?" "Yeah," he replied in tones that indicated he thought I was foolish to ask the question. I had to follow up, "And are you required to go to church?" "Nope." This time with a sparkle in his eye and a slight smile of self-satisfaction Mike waited for my approval. "I'm glad to hear that, Mike. And I'm proud of you," I said.
Our chapel-related conversation reminded him of something else. "Oh, yeah. I made something for you." His hands, calloused from hours of work with cutting saws and splitting mauls, reached into his t-shirt. He pulled out a hand-beaded celtic cross, green and white, with a black necklace. "This is for you," he said. As I took it into my hands I thanked him, acknowledged that it was a celtic cross, and told him I would wear it the first time on Sunday when I preached. (Perhaps it is because of his red hair and freckles, but Mike has always sensed an affinity for what we assume to be his Irish genetic roots).
A few second later he pulled out another necklace, a smaller celtic cross, manufactured of metal, but matching identically the color and style of the gift he had made for me. "I have one, too," he said, with a look in his eyes I have not seen for a long time, maybe never. It was a look of attachment, the kind of look a child gives a parent when s/he feels a connection deeper than the surface, "I'll love you for what you can do for me" psuedo-attachment many adoptive parents have experienced.
"No," I told myself in the fleeting array of synaptic processes occuring in my lambent pscyhe. "Mike is the least attached of all of our kids, so I must be imagining this." I know that psychologically sometimes we humans dream into being what it is we want to see, whether or not it is factual. From my momentary stir of emotion I quickly moved back into a logical frame of thinking. I have been too long stymied my Mike's challenging and manipulating ways to be seduced again into hope.
We continued our conversation. Mike talked with his siblings, with his grandmother. He interacted positively and appropriately. Finally I initiated the question. I wasn't sure if it was his question (after all, in previous conversations like this he was always the one to put it "on the table"). This time it was my question. "So what's going to happen when you're done here in a couple of weeks?" I asked.
"I'd like to come home," was his direct response.
"Well, you know Mike, mom and I don't have the last word on that decision. You've done a very good job over the past few months of convincing the people who make that decision think we are bad parents and that you should never even be allowed to talk to us again."
He didn't say anything, but I knew my words registered with him.
I continued. "You know, all this time Mom and I have continued to love you and stand with you. Even though you haven't been able to live in our home, we have loved you, and we always will."
"[My guardian-at-litem] is a liar," were Mike's next words. "He told me before court last time that he was going to recommend one thing, and then he changed his mind and in court said something different."
"Well, [your guardian-ad-litem] has a lot of things to consider, so sometimes they change their minds. And you realize, Mike, that the people who are "the system" are not very good substitutes for a mom and dad who love you."
He said little, but nodded his head in acknowledgment.
"So," Mike asked. "What did you and mom tell [my social worker]?"
"We've thought about it a long time, Mike, and we've told [your social worker] that if the others agree, we would like you to come home."
Warily, his two words quietly punctuated the air. "That's cool."
"I'm proud that you've been able to accomplish so much here, Mike," I said. "But you realize, for some people it's better to be in an environment where there are a lot of controls. A group home or an independent living skills program might be betetr for you, because our home is not a department of corrections facility."
"Yeah, but those programs haven't worked for me, either," Mike said, referring to his stays in a residential treatment facility, his brief foray into a foster home, and his couple of group home stays. "And it's not like a family anyway."
We moved on to other subjects. I asked him whether or not he liked the other guys who were part of his assigned group. "Not really," he said. Inwardly I was relieved. That he had few attachments to the malcontents who were part of this program was reassuring to me. At least he won't feel the need to try to reconnect with them on "the other side." "I don't really trust them at all," he said. "So," you're not going to miss them when you're gone?" I asked. "Not at all," was his quick rejoinder.
Having noticed his calloused hands (a study in contrasts since Mike has long, thin, artistic hands and fingers), I said, "So how much wood have you cut and split." In this program infractions result in the individual "doing a rick" of wood. A rick of wood is roughly equivalent to the amount of cut, split wood it would take to fill the bed of an average-size pick-up truck. "About 35 ricks" he said, a wan smile lifting the corners of his mouth.
"Oh yeah," he said, "I also hold the all-time record for tree-climbing. I climbed to the top of a tree in 5 seconds. And that's bear-style [i.e., no gloves or other helps, just bare hands]."
We were bringing our conversation to a close, and I had to ask him. "Mike, if you come home, what's going to be different this time?"
"I have to focus on finishing school, getting a job and going to college."
"And what about running and stuff?"
"I'm not going to do that anymore."
"Because it gets me nowhere. It's dumb."
I thought about his response. These are not new words. This is the way Mike has always described how his behavior will change once he gets back home. And time after time the result is the same: he flounders, he falters, and he begins a long, long descent until he finally hits bottom. It is difficult for Claudia and me to witness, knowing there is little we can do to intervene (and we try, believe me), and difficult for his siblings to experience his anger, his protracted absence and his defiance. I am reminded of the cliche psychologists toss around, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." I am not hopeful that this time will be all that different, should Mike return home again.
In our conversation I had detected remorse, I sensed that he felt good about his accomplishment, I heard him say the right things. But his history, his disabilities and his patterns are so deeply entrenched I wonder how it might all turn out. In those fleeting moments I sought a sign. Really, I did. As we began to say our goodbyes, my inner being desparately sought something from Beyond. So many times we have done a similar thing. I had driven seven hours one way to visit. Was it worth my time?
I was the first person Mike hugged goodbye. It was a solid, warm, assuring moment. Quickly he hugged the others and began to trot away. "I love you, Mike," I said as I glanced at the back of his head, his flowing orange locks undulating in the tree-refracted sunshine of a late August early afternoon. "Love you, too, Dad."
I didn't see it. I guess I was looking for something else, some other kind of sign. But my mother, as only one a generation removed can do, did. "Did you notice?" she asked.
"I do believe he had tears in his eyes."
It was the sign I had been seeking, and I nearly missed it. To parents of ordinary kids, tears at parting might be normal, expected. But to parents of attachment-disordered children, whose lives have been riven with chaos and upset from the beginning, tears communicate something deep, something primal. Tears, especially hidden tears not intended to manipulate or coerce, are a sign of connection, of attachment ... and dare I say it: of love.
I am not naive. I believe we have more very challenging days ahead with Mike, whether he returns home or to another location. The journey continues, but for right now there is enough for me to have hope. The few misty-eyed tears of a seventeen-year-old young man whom I call son -- tears I nearly missed -- are the rain of God for my tired, parched, parental soul.
Once again God has visited me in a unique way. And once again I am glad that I decided with my spouse nearly nine years ago to claim as our own an eight-year-old, red-haired, green-eyed, freckled, emotional wreck of a child.
Just a few drops of hope, but they are enough.