I begin with a knock on my son’s door, a knock that I hope he hears as respectful but impossible to ignore.
Cooper’s small, dull voice says, “Come in.” I know what to do. I learned this in nursing school. There are definite steps to take, exact questions to ask in situations like this. Now, what are they? I need to remember them right, remember them all.
The textbook had an outline under a section entitled “Assessment and Intervention” that began with an imperative: When the nurse even suspects a person is feeling this way, he must be confronted.
I open the door into my twelve-year-old’s world. Jeans lie crumpled in binocular-shaped piles on the floor. The soldier blue bedspread Sears advertised as “almost indestructible” clings precariously to the end of the single bed against the wall. A calendar published by his summer camp on Cape Cod is propped in the bookshelf, turned to a months-old page. Above the grid of numbers a candid photo shows the tan, athletic body of his younger brother lying dreamily in the long beach grass. Clipped over the open closet door is a Nerf basketball hoop, unused for months now. Raucous pickup games with his older brother, who has two years and six inches on him, used to rock the house.
The half-open dresser drawers hold only “yucky” shirts and outgrown choo-choo train underpants. His acceptable clothes reside in piles on the floor, sorted by some boyish system of soil, ranging from worn-only-once-and-good-for-several-more-rounds to too-valuable-to-take-a-chance-on-surrendering-to-the-laundry-no-matter-how-grungy. The laundry basket with his name painted in fingernail polish on the rim – my feeble attempt at organizing clothes straight from the dryer in a three-son household – holds neither clean and folded nor dirty and surrendered clothes. It lies upside down on the floor beside his backpack bulging with schoolbooks.
My eyes dart to the top of his bookshelf. His .22 caliber rifle is in its case, undisturbed. We had considerable trouble getting his gun on the airplane to take to summer camp where he became an accomplished marksman. The rifle was all he wanted the previous Christmas, causing an agonizing dilemma for me. For years I had an ironclad rule of no guns, toy or otherwise, for my three towheaded, blue-eyed boys. My husband argued persuasively for the gun, citing bucolic memories of his own Southern boyhood and playing the trump card of a father’s unique knowledge of what is best for his son. In the end, I relented and was rewarded Christmas morning by Cooper’s radiant face. But making him happy at Christmas is never difficult. This “old soul” child savors family traditions and the warmth of our being together even more than Santa’s bounty.
Cooper slumps on the edge of his bed, slowly passing the Nerf ball from hand to hand.
Meet the person eye to eye on his own level. I sit down beside him and look into eyes the familiar color of my own.
Be direct and calm. “Cooper, there’re some things I need to ask you.”
He inhales a long breath, stiffening his back.
Acknowledge his pain. “I know you’ve been feeling really sad lately, like nothing is going your way.”
Don’t shy away from asking the question.
From somewhere in the dim warehouse of my mind, under the formula for calculating IV drip rates and the mnemonic device for remembering the twelve cranial nerves, I pull out the exact question I was taught, careful words to articulate the fear that feels like a spool of barbed wire gyrating in my gut:
“Are you thinking of hurting yourself?”
An interminable silence.
“Yeah.” His voice is soft and flat, but beneath the monosyllable, I think I hear the relief of a terrible secret finally shared.
Focus on safety. “I love you very much, and I want you to be safe.”
I push down the acrid taste of panic in my throat. Stay calm. Take it step by step.
Ask about a plan. “Have you thought about how you would do it?”
Find out what in his environment he is thinking of using and remove it. “I want to help, Coop. I want you to tell me what things I need to take and put away so you’ll feel safe.”
Another long pause, a sidelong glance at his desk. “My Swiss Army knife.”
I reach over and calmly pocket the suddenly horrific tool. I keep my hand clenched around it, pressing it against my thigh, determined to take its power under my control.
Be thorough. Give him plenty of opportunity to reveal his plans. “What else?”
“There’s some pills. In the drawer.”
From under a pair of size eight Superman pajamas, I retrieve a green plastic bottle of Tylenol. My mind sees me racing through the house with a trash bag, emptying all the medicine cabinets, not forgetting the pillbox in my purse.
“Anything else?” Please God, don’t let there be any more. I cannot breathe inside this secret circle of my child’s plans for his own destruction.
“How about your gun, sweetheart?”
“No, it’s OK.”
“What if I just took the shells?”
“Yeah, …yeah, that would be good.”
I add the Ziploc bag of bullets to the noxious stash in my pockets, thinking, “I’ve got them now, all the toxins, all the danger, all the death. They can’t get him if I hold them tight to me, take them far away.”
Make a contract for safety. “OK, Coop, we need to make a deal here. We need to be really honest with each other. I promise to keep you safe but you’ve got to help. You’ve got to promise me that whenever you start to not feel safe again, you’ll tell me. If there’s something around you that you’re scared about, you tell me, and I’ll take it away, OK? But I’ve got to know about it. You can’t keep it a secret, sweetheart. That’s the way I can keep you safe. You’ve got to tell me. Promise?”
“I promise, Mom.” His eyes are wet with tears, shining with pain and maybe a glint of hope.
I put my arms around his small, thin shoulders, breathing in the rusty smell of scared little boy.
“I love you, Cooper.”
I stand and pick my way back through the debris on his bedroom floor. Once outside, I lean against the closed door, my pockets weighed down with lethal cargo.
Marjorie Seawell is a retired high risk labor and delivery nurse. She has circumnavigated the globe three times as a Lifelong Learner with the study abroad program Semester at Sea. She is addicted to Facebook, fly fishing, The Biggest Loser (with a side of chocolate ice cream) and the antics of her thirteen grandchildren.
© 2010, Marjorie Seawell