THREE WEEKS BEFORE MY SON, WILL, TURNED 13, he received his first bar mitzvah invitation. It was elegantly engraved on paper the color and texture of crème fraîche and came in an envelope professionally addressed in five-dollars-a-pop calligraphy. He waited until he was in his room, then opened it with an expression of awe.
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.
I READ IRON JOHN, ROBERT BLY'S BOOK REGARDING the importance of male initiation, when it came out in 1990 because I was curious about all the best-seller fuss. But I didn't take it seriously until I began researching a book of my own on gang life in East Los Angeles and watched scores of fatherless boys attempt to initiate each other into the mysteries of masculinity with calamitous results. Night after night, I'd find them on street corners, and they'd talk to me about their absent, drunken, strung-out, dead, incarcerated dads, their voices full of rage and longing. I remember one boy who refused to tell me his last name for a year straight, “because that's my father's name, and he deserted us, and I fuckin' hate him for it.” When I asked another tall, winningly handsome boy what he'd do if a genie offered him any wish in the world, he didn't mention money or fancy cars. “I'd ask for one full day with my dad,” he said.
In the beginning, I failed to connect the anguish of these father-starved young men with my own son's distress. After all, Will had me as a mother, did he not? And surely with my superior education and resources I could manage to mend most of the damage inflicted by the loss of his dad's influence. In fact, I'd been nearly alone in raising him for a long time. Even before the aneurysm, Will's dad was an angry, troubled man who wouldn't make anybody's short list for Father of the Year. Then the hormones hit, the father alarm rang, and I discovered the arrogance of my supposition. Suddenly Will began kicking furiously away from me, as a swimmer kicks off from the side of the pool to enable him to speed through the water. But his kicks had a desperate, angry, isolating quality that I recognized from my years with those boys across town. Like Will, I began to see the absence of a primary adult male in the family as a specter of enormous proportions.
One afternoon I went out and bought a pile of new books about the art of parenting boys, hoping for some magic formula. “Coaches can be excellent mentors,” I read. “A grandfather holds a valuable position in the boy's life as the elder of his personal tribe.” But Will had zero interest in team sports. George's dad was dead. And my father, with whom Will had been close, died the year before George got sick.
“Why don't you try Big Brothers of America?” suggested one of Will's teachers. Terrific idea — except that there aren't enough Big Brothers to go around for the poorest kids in the city. So how could I call for my middle-class boy? Finally I did what many mothers cannot afford to do: I marched Will to a therapist. A male therapist. If I couldn't provide my son with fatherly advice the old-fashioned way, I could buy it by the hour.
The shrink turned out to be kind, smart and able to rattle off skateboarding jargon with impressive fluency. A few sessions in, he asked to speak to me alone. “Will says his 13th birthday is coming up,” he said. “Have you thought of doing some kind of . . . uh . . . ceremony for him?”
I KNEW MY SON WASN'T GOING TO PUT UP WITH vision quests or inspirational hikes to mountaintops, so I decided on something simple. A “not mitzvah,” I called it. I set the party for 2 p.m. on the third Sunday in November. Most of the guests arrived looking jumpy about what might be expected of them. I hadn't told Will much about what would take place, just when he had to appear with his hair washed and his room straight. He emerged wearing his favorite skateboard T-shirt over baggy shorts, affecting an attitude of elaborate unconcern.
I pointed at a chair in the living room and instructed him to sit down. Then I picked up my Navajo peyote rattle, which makes a noise like a bunch of sidewinders on amphetamines. “Not the rattle!” said Will, but it was a half-hearted protest. I shook the thing in an arc around his head and shoulders, awakening the crowd, myself and whatever spirits might be in attendance. Then I lit some sprigs of dried local sage and swooshed the fragrant smoke in Will's direction with a Navajo feather fan. He endured his mother's eccentricities with an expression of stoic acquiescence.
“Yesterday you crossed over the borderline from kidhood to the road that will take you to adulthood,” I said. I'd rehearsed a speech earlier in the shower, but by now I'd forgotten it. “Traditionally, when a boy or a girl makes that crossing he or she is welcomed on the other side by the community — which includes your family and those who care about you. That's why we're here.”
After that we sort of went around the room. I'd asked each of the guests to bring Will a talisman they thought appropriate, plus a wish or a piece of verbal wisdom they deemed applicable to his future. The father of a classmate handed Will a worn Swiss Army knife. “It's been with me for 20 years,” he said, “and it's served me well. I hope it serves you.” Our ex-neighbor, who'd often yelled at the kids for running through his garden, presented Will with a 7-foot plum tree ready for planting. “So you'd know the joy of watching things grow.” My brother clasped his nephew in a bear hug, told him he loved him, then handed him a humongous new power drill. “Welcome,” he said with a manly man's grin. “Now you have everything you need to take apart the house.”
About 20 people spoke in all, including women and even a few kids. One man, a tall, laconic contractor with whose family we go skiing every winter, informed Will that the secret to life is gray duct tape. “But use the rated kind, the stuff that can hold up in 240-degree heat.” Another friend, who'd told me he thought the whole thing was stupid, got emotional when his turn came. “I found this out on Anacapa Island,” he said, dropping a small, white shell into Will's palm. “It's to remind you to be in the wilderness as much as possible, and to try to protect it whenever you can.” The shrink sent a videotaped greeting and a thumb-size laughing Buddha, “to remind you to keep your sense of humor.” Will seemed somewhat mortified by the attention, but he never squirmed, never protested. He just took it in.
His own father went last. All afternoon I'd heard George gamely chatting up the guests with his strange and boisterous jabberwocky. This couldn't have been easy for him. A year after the aneurysm, we'd all tried to go to a local restaurant to celebrate Will's 10th birthday. The evening was a disaster. George spent half the night curled up fetuslike on my bed, panicked at the thought of running into people who had known him from before, when his brain was intact. Now he moved toward Will with ungainly dignity, like a crab attempting to walk upright. He'd managed to type something out on the computer, which he indicated I should read aloud. Much of the syntax was splintered, but there were some cleanly faceted thoughts amid the sawdust. “I know how you feel about me,” George wrote. “Our challenge is to transform the dragons that try to live with us. Blaming is a waste of time. We are responsible for our freedom. We are not our dragons.”
When I finished reading, George lurched forward to hug his son tenderly. Will ducked his head and hugged him back, whispering, “Thanks, Dad.” After that I shook the rattle once more and nattered something about the door of manhood. “You have to walk through that door on your own,” I said, “but we want you to know that we're all behind you — me, your dad, all of us here.” Finally, I asked if there was anything Will would like to tell us in return.
“I think somebody let the cat outside,” he said. And it was finished.
IT HAS BEEN SIX MONTHS NOW SINCE WILL'S birthday celebration, and things at our house are so improved over last year that I find myself saying cautious little prayers of thanks on a daily basis. I don't pretend there won't be more crises in our future, more bumpy roads. But I can see that something essential inside my son has been re-weighted.
There are lots of reasons for the change. The worst of the gear-grinding adjustment to middle school is over; therapy has helped; plus Will is older, thus better able to ride his hormonal fluctuations, not fight them. And there was the not mitzvah.
On the surface of it, that loopy afternoon of rattling and wishing wasn't any big deal. And yet it was a very big deal that so many men in Will's life showed up to tell him that he mattered, that they took him seriously, that they were there for him if he needed them. George did that too. It's absolutely true he's not going to be the father Will wants him to be. It's also absolutely true that George is showing bravery in the face of a terrible shattering. And maybe that's enough.
“Never being welcomed into the male world by older men is a wound in the chest,” writes Robert Bly. Last year, my son was wounded and I was terrified. This year, he came to understand that he was welcomed after all.