By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Most of Will's socializing prior to this point had consisted of birthday parties that featured those giant, inflatable bouncy things you can rent for the back yard by the hour, or a trip to Magic Mountain plus a sleepover. But the bar mitzvah invitation indicated a whole new universe of social intercourse. "I'm supposed to mark whether I want steak or salmon for dinner," he noted as he held the RSVP card delicately by its corners.
The next day when I picked him up from school, Will was still ruminating about the invitation. "I think I'd like a bar mitzvah," he announced. As far as I knew, he'd barely heard the term, and even now had only the wooziest idea of what such an event entailed. I think some of his interest stemmed from the fact that a friend at school had told him one raked in big bucks at these affairs.
"Honey," I said, "if you wanted a bar mitzvah, you should have planned a lot further ahead." He shot me a suspicious look. "You should have worked it out to get yourself born into a Jewish family."
"You have to be Jewish?" he asked, narrowing his eyes as if he thought I might be manufacturing this restriction just to torment him.
"Well, yeah," I told him. "It's kind of a religious thing."
"That sucks," he said.
JUST ABOUT EXACTLY A YEAR BEFORE, WILL WENT through a rough period emotionally when pre-adolescent hormones invaded his body like spring floodwaters and he bobbed and thrashed miserably in their thrall. In addition, he'd graduated from our nice, low-key community Topanga Elementary and was attending a middle school for gifted kids where the homework load had begun to produce in both him and me a nightly case of irrational dread. And on top of everything else, there was the father issue.
At that time, a friend who knew I was worried about my kid suggested that I hold some kind of welcome-to-manhood celebration for him. "Boys need a rite of passage," said the friend, who is not at all your sensitive New Age guy but an ex-Marine with a slightly surly demeanor. "It'd be good for your son, especially since he doesn't have a dad to, you know, show him the ropes."
Actually, Will does have a dad. But George, his father and my ex-husband, suffered a cerebral aneurysm several years back. A tiny vascular balloon exploded in the left temporal lobe of his brain, damaging the mechanism that encodes and decodes speech. Now when he talks, his words are a jumble of English and a language of his own device. George does his best to reach to Will from inside the bubble of his psychic terrarium. They sometimes play cards together, or chess. George can play chess. But he will never again be a father able to show his son any kind of ropes.
A week or two after the aneurysm occurred, when we knew at least that it was likely George would live, I took Will to meet with a neuropsychologist, who explained in simple terms the range of recovery one could expect. Will sat next to me listening quietly, his body listing against mine like a tree blown against the side of a barn. Whatever his dad's progress, the psychologist said, it would most likely top out at three years.
The truth, as bad as it was, seemed to help Will gain some kind of emotional footing. From then on he would tell anybody who asked, "My dad is recovering from a stroke." But in the spring of last year, the three-year alarm rang inside Will and his terminology changed abruptly. "My dad's mentally disabled," was now the way he answered all father-related inquiries.
To me he was even more specific. One night, I asked him why he was in a bad mood, assuming a squabble with a friend or a difficult day in class. His cheek twitched, and he turned away from me bitterly. "I'm in a bad mood because I need a dad and my dad's half dead."
Another night, I was battling a nasty case of single-mother overload and blurted to him in exasperation, "Look, I'm sorry, but I'm only one person. You can't always expect me to do everything that two parents do!"
"Yes I can!" he screamed back at me, his face glossy with tears and fury. "I don't have a dad! So I have a right to expect you to be two people! I have that right!"
Even the sunniest of kids have moments when they believe the sky is falling and the universe is plotting against them personally. But Will's unhappiness came more frequently and with greater force. He began talking about himself as unlucky. "I don't understand what I'm living for," he remarked one day out of nowhere.