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Let me tell you a story.

“Let me tell you a story.”

My dad begins again inches away from my face, his glasses so thick that I think he’s lost the plot on all spatial perception. This is going to be a good one, he tells me excitedly rubbing his thick hands together as if he needs a warm up. I can tell by the wide shape of his eyes and the almost upturn of the left side of his thin lips, that he thinks whatever comes next is going to be funny. I can tell by the way my face settles into its neutral position and I begin regulating my breath slowing my heart rate, that I’ve heard this one before. At fifty, my muscle memory is fortified in strength and knows exactly what to do.

“Tell me a story, Dad.” I extend a small smile. No teeth. No laughter. I have to pace myself for a weekend of moments like this, conserving as much energy as possible for his non sequitur outbursts that demand the room and are not interested in a back and forth. He talks over all voices in his one-sided way. Today’s story is no different. He launches into an often told tale from the early 1960s of helping his own father on a strange job in Susanville, California—an old mining, logging, and freight transportation hub, now known for being a federal prison site, all industry long gone. I mentally check out having heard this particular story so many times, so I am thrown off when his voice changes to a cruel bark and I hear, “Robyn, did you kick him out? Yes or no?” My body tells me his anger is about to escalate. That muscle memory is finely tuned—my exhales automatically get longer to keep calm, telling my heart to hold up, we’re going to get into it, but we’re safe. We are nimble. We can drive away if we need to. 

“What do you think, Dad? It sounds like you know the answer to your question,” I hear the coldness in my tone, but a heat rising within. He does not blink, his eyes dark marbles. I see the familiar door close, me on one side, my dad on the other. He has made an assumption, and I am not to be trusted. I am one of those women. The heartless type that leaves. He does not know the first thing about the answer to his question—the reality of what he is asking but has decided to jump to certain conclusions anyway. 

He is asking about J, my brother’s son and now my bonus child for the past seven years. At 21, J is no longer a boy and not quite an adult; a defiant in-between with his own apartment, stash of Top Ramen, a job, and dreams of grandeur. 


“Robyn, can I tell you a story?” A tiny, garbled voice from the seat next to me breaks my focus. J is thirteen, although looks closer to seven or eight checking in at about 75 pounds. His bright blue eyes are sad even when he laughs or tells a funny story. I keep doing a double-take, his white blonde hair confusing me, bringing up memories of my brother at this age. Other than his sadness, I don’t see traces of his mother; a small kindness to the boy—she has been dead for three months and without the likeness, he does not have to see her memory every time he looks in the mirror. He and my mom are visiting my family in Oregon for the week and I just took him mountain biking for the first time. We are covered in mud, an immediate messy dusting of kinship. 

“Heck yeah, tell me a story.” I smile at him and we both laugh as dirt falls off my bottom lip. We did a great job tearing up the trail. 

Over the years, J will tell many stories. Some true. Some wild and decidedly untrue. Some he will believe. Others he will simply relish in living out the imaginary details. But it is this first story, that is not mine to tell, that will change both of our lives forever. I will listen as he shares through sobs, shaking in his seat. I know not to pull over, to touch him, to reach out and scoop him in my arms. I know that comfort for this type of hurt needs safety first. I know to wait until the emotion subsides, and simply ask, “Do you want to live with us?” The answer is in the relief I see flash across his face.

Calls are made. Tense conversations completed. Guardianship papers drawn up. My mom is sent back to California without him, changing our relationship forever. I know it is the right thing to do, the difference between life and death, to keep this boy, even if it means upending every single one of my relationships and in some cases, severing ties forever.   

There are small signs at first, but we write them off as a boy who has just endured unimaginable pain and trauma and has lived in chaos for the past thirteen years. He doesn’t know how to control himself yet. “It’s okay,” we say, “There’s just more learning to do.”  So, we stumble forward, finding ways to help him navigate big emotions. We laugh, ride bikes, walk for miles, and run off the big things. We slow down, learn not to react to the small things. School happens. Letters are recognizable and then disappear. Numbers are backward. Instructions make little to no sense. He remains good humored for the most part, but his frustration is evident as his understanding wobbles between extremes. We do testing so that we can understand how to support him; so he can understand what is happening on the inside even when his body is miraculous—riding and running at top speeds, winning races, collecting medals that his doctors say shouldn’t be possible. He will graduate from high school, even gain a scholarship to college. We are defying all odds. We are winning until we aren’t. 


“You left me.”

A guard stands outside his door, listening for an uptick in mood.

I sit back in the metal chair. This cold inhumane chair in the corner. With the exception of running out to get a very bad chicken sandwich from Burger King, I have been in this chair around the clock, holding vigil, waiting for whatever is supposed to be next. I keep him safe, translating the doctor’s complex questions; fighting when he cannot. He looks tiny in his hospital gown, electric blue eyes. Unblinking.

“I want to go home.”

“I want to go home.”

“I want to go home.”

The first sounds strong.

The second, a childish wail, followed by hysteria. 

“I just wanted help.” he cries. 

I know. I wanted that, too. 

I see now that “help” is not an agreed upon principle. He is 18 years old, and the past has officially caught up to him. He is no longer the tiny 13-year-old boy who came to live with us after his mother died. Five years of stability had provided a cushion between him and the sadness: a childhood of disappointment, interspersed neglect, fetal alcohol syndrome, and of course, the death of his mother. The onset of adulthood and the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic was enough to shake it all loose and taunt the voices that had lay dormant. And now the voices visit him. Shadows lurk in every room watching. They push and prod him, guiding him toward windows and bridges. “Jump,” they say. “You do not belong here.” His hands curl into fists, and sometimes around knives. “Be done with it,” they say, taunting him from the corners, shady figures and voices only he can hear. He is stuck between fighting back and turning the violence toward himself.  

“J, I always come back. Always. We’ve got to figure this out.”

And so begins our real journey through systems well intentioned, but fatally flawed. 

“Stay. You belong here.” I whisper.


Part of raising a J means drawing heavily on the lessons learned from being raised by a Harry Saunders. We meet him where he's at rather than creating unfair comparisons to others in his peer group, even when he can’t do that himself.  Having challenges doesn't mean he can't excel on fronts that belong solely to him. J is a constant reminder of my dad in speech pattern, ability to tell terrible nonsensical stories, the fumbling when words and situations can't be processed, and an explosive temper topped off with a need to save face. On some karmic plane, raising a J feels like traveling back in time and pressing re-replay on the "raising a Harry" button. 

"She loved you so much." I will tell J again and again over the years of his mother. Words I wish I knew to tell my father to ease his suffering; his loss. To my dad, they probably wouldn’t have rang true, but now that I see this pattern, how the scars of a mother welt but don’t wither, I wish I could have done more to slow down this particular pattern from forming, before bruising one generation and then another and then another. I close my eyes remembering a darkened house, off a dusty road perched on a hill in the middle of the desert. It is 2005. Windows broken, mattresses on the floor, limp bodies stirring under covers. A little boy with big blue eyes clutches his mother. She is everything to him. I survey the dirty diapers and rotting food taking over all the surfaces. This is not enough neglect for anyone to intervene just yet. There are rules. Those in charge of children have said so. Those blue eyes. searching, seeing everything but unable to process. When she dies a decade later those blue eyes are left to wonder about all the whys, a mind fragmented between story and reality. In the end, they are both the same, so I reassure him he was loved. She would want him to know this. 

She would also want him to live even if she could not do the same for herself, her mind and body swaddled in sickness and on its own timetable. 

And so, I help J course correct, steering away from the path of his mother and father, fighting biology and history every step of the way. That’s the soundbyte—the do-gooder hero’s journey. But the truth is something messier. There is no end in sight. No light at the end of the tunnel. There is no “aha” moment that will make everything okay. There are finally doctors available after cold calling hundreds to no avail, there are meds always on the move, helping the gaps in his mind shrink temporarily so that he can go through the motions of “normal” life; so that his emotions are less freighted, buying gasps of ease. We are tethered, he and I, in a partnership of survival. It is never enough. I am told by his doctors that I should not think this, that he would not be alive had we not stepped in. But what of the quality of this life? I clutch at moments of safety and beauty, long walks and bike rides, absorbing the details of the natural world—purpled wild camas of spring, the return of hummingbirds, trees once bare now dripping with leaves that will drop in a few short months. The cycles of life and death and all in between inviting me to simply accept what is. In the face of the worst of it—the yelling, the violent mood swings, and delusions—I do just that. I accept and remain calm. My face and voice, neutral until it passes, and he has moved on to the next thing.  I will avoid my husband’s eyes so sorry for the intrusion into the beautiful life we made together. I will explain to my daughter later. I will tell her that I am not being abused. I am not weak. Instead, this is what I must do to keep us safe. It is a mixed message of never let anyone under any circumstance abuse you coupled with we must have compassion for those who struggle with reality. A blurred line that I am not modeling well. At night, once all are asleep, I slip outside under the moon and stars, imagining them looking down on my tiny body. One speck of a larger picture. Not insignificant, but not exactly significant either.  

The day-to-day is often exhausting for all involved. Some days are pure torture and yet, watching him learn to be independent, to love the outdoors and moving with purpose, and not completely beholden to his past, is a worthy labor of what I like to say is love, but I think might be something else. Something more primitive, out of reach of good and bad; of love and hate. A connective tissue constantly evolving. 

So Dad, to answer your question, I did not kick this kid out into the street. 

I did not and will not abandon him. 

His future is not your past.

I am your daughter; not your mother or her mother before.

I showed him what you showed me. 

It is possible to work hard and proudly make choices on how you want to live.

It is possible to kick challenges in the head. 

It is possible to begin to understand a brain impacted by the past.

It is possible to find peace.

It is possible even when the path forward is not well defined. 

It is possible but only if you keep asking questions.

It is possible.

I refuse to believe otherwise.


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