With apologies to those who read this blog, knowing that we have twelve children, and hearing me blog almost incessantly about our son Mike ... I continue to do so for at least a couple of reasons: (1) it gives meaning to what I am attempting to do in helping Mike, (2) it helps educate people who do not understand or who have not lived with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and (3) it provides support for other families encountering similar experiences.
Here is a synopsis of today's connections with Mike.
It is 4:45 PM, I am in my church office awaiting the arrival of a 5:00 PM pastoral counseling appointment and my cell phone rings. I answer it, knowing it will be Mike. "Dad, can you give me a ride to work? It's me, Mike."
"Mike, I'm getting ready for an appointment right now; I can't give you a ride at this moment."
"You can't give me a ride now?"
"No, Mike, I have a commitment right now."
"Umm. So how am I going to get to work?"
I do my best to be positive and self-differentiated, reminding him that I cannot help him at this moment. He is agreeable enough and hangs up.
An hour later my cell phone rings again. I have just finished my appointment, so I agree to pick Mike up and transport him to his job. I have another commitment at 6:30 PM, and it is already 5:55, so I am anxious to finish the ride. As I pull into the driveway of the home where Mike has been staying there are three other people on the steps with him, a young adult male, and a young adult female with a young child on her hip. Mike bounds out to the car, "Think you can give [my friend] a ride to [location several miles out of my way]?"
I glance at my wrist, deduce that I have just enough time if we leave immediately and agree. I am not happy about doing this, but I feel it is one of the ways I can show appreciation to the people in question who have allowed Mike to live with them for the past week. Mike's friend ambles into the car, we exchange names and I deliver his friend to the specified location.
He thanks me, and we depart for Mike's place of employment. I ask Mike about his friend. It turns out that Mike is actually the friend of this guy's brother (the guy is actually in his mid-20's). There are four or five other "kids" living in the home with their mother. "Pretty ghetto, huh?" Mike asks me. I simply smile and shrug.
I have learned to be a lot less judgmental over the years, especially as it concerns Mike and his friends. There was a time when both Claudia and I tried to help Mike make better friend choices, but because of his disabilities he has typically moved to the lowest rungs of human life and living situations. They are, after all, the only ones who will accept him and help him in times of desperate need. Rather than recoil at the interactions, I have had to reframe them in my mind, reminding myself that it was people at the margins of life that Jesus was most frequently with (and it was the "religious" people, in fact, who most criticized Jesus for that). I remind myself as well that in the ethos of my denominational history (Methodist) it was with those who were most challenged and challenging that John Wesley (founder of the movement some three hundred years ago) spent much of his time. I am in good company (Jesus, John Wesley) spending a bit of my time each day with people who are so very different from myself.
Before I drop him off for work Mike says, "I'm not sure how long I'm going to be able to stay there."
"Why is that?" I ask.
"Well, everyone there is cool with it except his sister. [The 17-year-old with child on the hip and another on the way]. She's pregnant and she's drinking, and I keep telling her what a bad idea it is. She doesn't like that."
Since Mike knows firsthand the effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, I can only imagine the way in which he confronts this drinking teenage mother. I'm sure his approach is less than tactful or respectful. It is, I am sure, direct and pointed. In any case, I have to respect my son's desire to prevent others from his fated existence.
It is several hours later. I have dropped Mike off for work, tended to my 6:30 commitment and have arrived home to take a walk with our dog. Midway into the walk Mike calls, asking for a ride home from work. Since I have made a personal commitment (internally) that I will do whatever I can to empower Mike's clean and sober lifestyle, I agree to pick him up. I arrive a few minutes later at his fast-food restaurant work site. As I pull up to a parking spot I can see Mike sitting at a table. Upon seeing my car, he stands up, grabs a bag of food on the table and begins to exit. Before he reaches the outside door I can see him stop, turn around and look. I wonder what is happening.
Then I see him dart back to the table and pick up the soda he had forgotten. I smile to myself in a sardonic fashion ... even when he is doing his best, Mike's scattered nature will always haunt him. I need to see those situations to remind myself that much of what Mike has done is impetuous and without malice or intent. If I can remind myself of the way his brain functions (or doesn't function) it helps me to be more patient and gracious toward him.
He jumps into the car where I witness yet another dysregulated response.
"Hi," I say.
"Hey is for horses," Mike responds, which would have been a very appropriate response had I said, "Hey," but I had said, "Hi." I choose to smile instead of correct.
"Do you think you could take me to [local grocery store that cashes paychecks]?" he asks, a sense of pride emanating from his voice.
"What do you need to do there?"
"I need to cash my paycheck." He nearly beams with pride at his accomplishment. In nineteen years Mike has never before received an honest, earned paycheck.
"Sure. How much is it?"
"Not very much." He is not deflated, just factual. "It's only $51."
I commiserate. "Yeah, by the time they take out taxes and stuff there's not that much left, is there?" I decide not to go on and on about how working less than 15 hours a week at a minimum pay job isn't going to produce much profit for him. I decide to let him enjoy the fact that he has earned his first paycheck.
It turns out that the store in question will not cash his paycheck without a photo ID. They will charge him $2 to cash his check in any case, and I decide that I will offer him a gracious out. "Well, Mike, if you will endorse your check to me I will swing by the ATM and give you the cash. I'll just deposit your check and you can keep the $2 for yourself."
"So, your bank is open tonight?" When he reveals innocently his naivete about the workings of life it makes me realize just how alone in the world my adult-son-who-is-really-just-a-kid is.
"No, Mike. But the ATM is always open. I'll just take your check and give you the cash."
I have brought Mike a couple of homemade brownies I made earlier in the afternoon. I ask him if he likes brownies. "Yeah. Did you make them?" I respond affirmatively as he takes the small plastic bag with two brownies in it from my hand.
"You know what this looks like Dad?" he says, a glint in his eye.
"Umm. Yeah. But these brownies aren't going to cost you $60 [which I learn is the going rate for good weed in a plastic baggy like this in our town]."
"Well, if I fail my UA it's your fault," he says jokingly.
"Well, you've blamed me for a lot of things over the years, so I guess if my brownies make you fail your UA I'll take the blame again."
The irony does not escape me. Mike is nineteen, has just earned his first "real" paycheck, does not fully understand the functioning of a 24-hour ATM. Yet he understands all too ably the nuances of packing and selling illegal substances. When I began this parenting process twelve years ago with older kids, I never thought I'd be in this situation, rejoicing that my nineteen-year-old has a job at a fast food restaurant making minimum wage. Years ago I thought I would be disappointed in such an outcome, but with all we have been through with Mike over the past few years, even this feels like a small victory.
It has now been nearly ten days since he exited jail. He is clean and sober. He is working a legal job. He has a place to stay for the night. We can communicate with one another in tones of levity. It will be an OK night after all.