The following story is by guest contributor Shaleen Driscoll.
I always knew you were different. I knew that little boys should play baseball, not Annie, but I was so grateful you had the courage to be yourself, I didn’t care. You were right though. Your father did. He never said it, not out loud, but he didn’t have to. Once, when we were at one of your dance recitals, I found him out back watching a pick- up game. I had run out to the car because I’d forgotten the camera. He missed your first solo. You’d been working on it for months. After the show, another mother made a point to tell me how moved she was by your performance, how touching it was to see your love for the stage. I took solace in the fact that someone else could see what I saw in you.
Don’t get me wrong. Your father’s a good man. Maybe he does drink a little more than he should, but he has held a steady nine to five for twenty years. He fixes things around the house, and he’s faithful. A weaker man would’ve left years ago. Trust me.
You see, when the doctor told us we were unlikely to conceive after our third round of in vitro, I hit an all-time low. We stopped trying, and I stopped… everything. I quit work and curled up in our bed, watching re-runs. My diet consisted of cereal and black tea. I stayed in our room, which of course, became my room while your father resigned himself to the pull-out couch and did all the cooking and cleaning. This went on for months until one night, I guess he couldn’t take it anymore.
“I need you,” he said, and that was all it took. After that, I was ready, and I guess you were too.
We were both so happy the day that you were born. Somehow, even though I had carried you around for nine and a half months, I didn’t let myself believe. I was too afraid you would be ripped away from me again, but the second I saw you cradled in my arms, I knew you were mine.
They say that when you have a child, it’s as though your heart is walking around outside your body. Before you came into this world, back when I was just a kid myself, I imagined what you would be like, hoping you would inherit some of my traits, and praying that genetics would give you a free pass on the rest. You have my eyes and my creativity. Those were the traits I hoped to pass on, but you also have my introspection, which gave you the target on your back.
The first time it happened, you were only seven. When your team lost in gym class, Jimmy Foley told everyone you threw like a girl and got them to say it too. When I picked you up, you burst into tears. Watching you cry brought back every sneered comment that had been whispered behind my back, except the pain was worse this time because it wasn’t me that everyone was talking about; it was you.
I scooped you in my arms, needing the embrace as much as you, and headed towards the park across the street. I placed you in a swing and sat in the one beside you. For a while, we just swung in silence.
“What does it mean to do something like a girl?”
“What do you mean, sweet pea?”
“Jimmy said I throw like a girl, but what girl? There’s eleven in my class, and they’re all really different.”
In that moment, I was glad you had inherited my sensitivity, and knew that I would never love anyone as much as I love you.
I sometimes wish I’d spoken up more when you were young, but you begged me not to. You said it would only make things worse, that you could handle it. At night, when I went over every painstaking detail with your father: the spitballs on the bus, your torn leather jacket, the apologetic looks from mothers who said their sons were too busy whenever I asked about playdates, your father told me I couldn’t fight your battles for you, that boys always find a way to work it out themselves.
The moment I met Peter, I knew I didn’t like him, but you were so excited to have a friend that I let my instinct go. It wasn’t just the combat boots and his general lack of manners; it was the way he looked at you, like you were some sort of stepping stone. I would rant to your father, “Who is this alien that’s invaded our son’s body?” What Peter thought, you thought. What he told you to do, you did.
You quit the drama club. You stopped writing for the school paper. You were never around, and when you were, you and Peter would coop yourself up in your room, playing video games you knew I didn’t approve of. Again, your father told me you were getting too old for the shows, that having a friend was good for you.
You and I had always been so close. I wasn’t ready to give up backyard camping or after dinner Mad Libs. I had grown used to a bouquet of dandelions for no reason, to goodnight kisses, and sketches with scrunched in messages, meant just for me.
But suddenly, ‘my little star’ was moody and smart-mouthed. You blared music all the time and seemed to pick fights every chance you got. What hurt the most was the distance. I would long for the nights when you snuck into our room and asked if you could sleep in our bed instead. You were afraid of the monsters. You said they were waiting for you. I would walk you back to your room, and we would check every nook and cranny: in the closet, under the bed, inside each of your drawers. Then I’d place my shoes in front of your bed. I told you that if a monster saw the shoes they would bolt, thinking it was an adult’s room. Then I’d lay with you until I was sure you’d fallen asleep, watching your back rise and fall. Years later, I would rummage through my closet, looking for shoes, only to find them in front of your bed… I liked being your protector.
I went back to school to get my mind off the changes at home. I threw myself into my work, and your father gave into the booze. I guess part of me knew you were experimenting with things you weren’t supposed to, but I chalked it up to adolescence and assumed the two of you were just smoking pot in Peter’s basement. I didn’t want to admit something was wrong, not to myself and certainly not to your teachers. So when Ms. White called me in for an impromptu conference, I knew she wasn’t going to give me the good news I was used to hearing.
“Timothy isn’t applying himself this year.”
“I’m not sure what you mean. He’s reading Dostoevsky.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt his intelligence, Mrs. Lambert. To be honest, I’m more concerned about his behavior. Have you thought about consulting a doctor?”
“His behavior? Are you serious? Ms. White, are you aware that my son has had his head pushed into urinals? That his gym shorts were once thrown into the shower, and he had to walk around all day looking like he peed himself? That in the seventh grade someone wrote the word faggot across his locker, and it took a month for the school to remove it?”
Poor Ms. White sat there speechless.
“So if my son is finally sticking up for himself, then forgive me, but you and everyone else at this God-forsaken school should know that I support him one-hundred percent!”
There was a brief period of time where you started talking to us again, like actual talking, not the yelling I’d grown accustomed to, and you were doing things for you again: looking into summer theatre programs. You were moving forward. When I asked if you and Peter had had a falling out, you said it was more of a disagreement. I didn’t press for more. I didn’t want to push my luck.
Your father always told me that I babied you too much. I resented him for it, but I probably should’ve had you fold your own laundry at least once and a while. It was when I was folding one of your shirts just the way you like them, folded in from the sides and then in half, that I found the book, if you can call it that. Really, it was a shrine you had made to Peter, and that was what bothered me, not that you were gay, but that you were obsessed. Inside, the pages were filled with sketches and quotes, which seemed innocent enough, but there were pictures too, and those are what haunt me still. As soon as I saw them, I snapped the book shut, pretending I didn’t see what I had seen: my son holding a gun.
I didn’t tell your father about the book. I didn’t confront you either. Instead, I snooped. I had the cable guy come in and change the parental controls without you knowing. He made it so that I could see all your Internet activity. This is what I found on your Social Number page:
1273: Why don’t you go kill yourself, faggot? We all want you to. Whispers: 221.
I fell back on your bed and just laid there, unable to hold the hate you absorbed on a daily basis. How could a website like this even exist? What kind of sick person would create a space where kids can anonymously say whatever the hell they want to each other? I wasn’t sure what whispers meant, so I looked it up. Every whisper represented another person who liked or agreed with the statement. I wept into the sailboat sheets you’d been begging me to replace until I could no longer bear the burden alone and called your father. He came home early from work. I showed him the screen. We sat sipping red wine on the couch, waiting for you to come home from school, but you never did.
Three years have passed, and I’m still sitting here. Your father and I haven’t gotten around to clearing out your stuff, so every day I sneak in here and fantasize about the future I dreamt for you: Julliard, then an affordable flat in Brooklyn before making it and starring in a Broadway show. I know it’s crazy. I know you’re not coming back, but the passage of time hasn’t made it any easier to accept reality. The facts remain: You followed him; you walked into your high school and gunned down five of your classmates before shooting yourself.
Today is graduation day. I should be watching you put on your cap and gown. I should be snapping pictures and bragging to all our relatives. I should be worrying about how you’ll fare at college, so far from home, but I can’t do any of those things because you robbed me of my should. What’s worse is that you stole the shoulds of five other unsuspecting mothers. How could you do this, Timothy? The worst part is I don’t blame you; I blame me. Maybe I pushed you too hard. Maybe I didn’t push you hard enough.
If I could do it all over again, I would. Of course, I would’ve called the school as soon as I saw the pictures. I would’ve gotten you the help you needed even if it meant medication. I would’ve listened to Ms. White. But there is one thing I would not redo, and that’s you. I love you, son. Happy graduation day.