For nearly twelve years I have pondered the lives of our sons Kyle (now 21) and Mike (now 19), who joined our family early on at the ages of 11 and 8, respectively. Kyle entered our home full of rage and noncompliance, diagnosed with Conduct Disorder. (At the time we didn't understand our diagnoses very well and thought that CD was less serious than Oppositional Defiant Disorder; it didn't take us long to realize our misunderstanding. CD is ODD to an extreme level). Mike, Kyle's birth brother, joined us with numerous diagnoses, the most challenging of which (FASD) was not officially diagnosed until he was thirteen.
Those who met both boys in the early years predicted that Kyle would be our most challenging child, and that Mike would surely come around. They were only partially right. Kyle was very challenging, and Mike only became progressively less reachable. Today Kyle is a college graduate, teaching a third grade class. His biggest difficulties have been resolved, and he will undoubtedly be OK. Mike may never get there.
Ironically I received communication from both boys today, an email from Kyle (from his classroom) and a letter from Mike (in his jail cell).
Kyle's subject line was "quick word." I opened the email to find this message: "is the base word of 'repeat' really 'peat'? that makes no sense at all. Kyle"
I had to chuckle, because it so represents Kyle's personality. He is pretty much a take-charge, use as few words as possible, let's get it done kind of person. He had a question and so he asked me. There were no pleasantries, no other information, no niceties.
My response was equally as direct, though perhaps more prosaic: "Dear Mr. Fletcher: The origins of 'repeat' come from the Latin repeto which means literally "to do again." The Latin verb "to do" is "peto" ... so yes, the base word would be "peat" but only as it means something in Latin, not from English. Your Language-Savvy Father."
He makes me smile. Although I would love to hear more from him on a regular basis, I am satisfied with even a simple email like this that reminds me he thinks his Dad still has some value in his life, even if it is as language resource.
Mike's letter arrived this afternoon from a nearby County Jail. "Hey, Pops, how's it goin? Well I'm still in lockdown. I've spent 27 days in lockdown at this jail so there really isn't any point in coming to try and visit at all. They like to play their mind games with me."
I read Mike's first several sentences and smile, as I do with the brief email from his birth brother, but for different reasons. I smile with sad recognition that little has changed for Mike, who has been in treatment centers since the time he was fourteen, in legal custody since he was eighteen. Every time it is the fault of the institution. It is bad staff, or unfair guards or impossible rules. Mike seems impervious to change. I try to remind myself that Mike's FASD diagnosis accounts for much of his challenges, and I cannot help but think how his life might be different if his birth mother had chosen not to drink. For whatever reason his older brother was not so affected, but Mike was. To see two boys with the same genes and having had the same adoptive parents for the same length of time move in such different directions in life saddens me.
It saddens me because I love both equally, differently but equally. I want to believe that each have the same opportunities to succeed, but I know they do not. I want to believe that if I could do for Mike what I was seemingly able to do for Kyle there would be a similar outcome. But they are different, brothers conceived in and born from the same womb, but affected so differently because of what happened in utero during those precious first nine months of life.
Mike's letter continues. He tells us that he needs a place to live where there is no drinking or drugging if he's ever going to get out on parole. He asks us if we can help him with that. He requests a family picture, mentions the daughter of a neighbor he remembers and says, "Could you let her know [that] I'm in here and maybe she could be my pen pal?" Thinking of his future Mike tells me that he will get his GED when he gets out, and wonders if "I would get something for it," appending "don't think I'm being materialistic."
Oh, Mike. We've been down these roads so many times before. We've repeatedly allowed you to move into our home, only to have you steal your siblings' video games and your parents' video camera and iPods. We worked to find a place for you to live a year ago and within three days your drug friends were hanging out there, and you had to move. And no, Mike, we don't think our neighbors would want you to solicit their daughter to be your prison pen-pal.
It's so tragic. It's like receiving the Christmas list of a ten-year-old, a child nearing adolescence who hopes (but doubts) that there is a Santa Claus, but wanting to make sure asks Santa for a gift, just in case. Developmentally, Mike is probably about 14 or 15 now sitting in a jail cell designed for those twice or three times his age. But the law only recognizes chronological age, taking no account for brains that were damaged due to no fault of their own.
And so Mike concludes by telling me what he is able to do. "Well, I weight about 170 now. I've been doing my push-ups and sit-ups and I'm up to 1500 push-ups and 700 sit-ups a day. ... Hope to hear from you soon."
Two boys. From the same womb, yet different, one that was safe and one that was awash in alcohol. From the same adoptive home of nearly twelve years. And two such different paths. WIth one thing in common.
Their father's continuing, though frustrated, commitment and love.