Today, I found a knife in my son’s room. Let me just go ahead and tell you that finding a knife in your 9-year-old’s room does something to a Mama. I mean, the range of emotions – the action plans – the list of suspected reasons – the list of assumed consequences… Folks, it was a loooong 4 hours waiting for him to step off that school bus.
But it all really started last week. I had been waiting to tell my kids that we’d lost all visitation with their younger brother, the baby we had in our home from birth until 11 months, only to lose him a few weeks shy of his adoption, once they’d identified his biological dad. We were able to keep weekly visits going for about a year, which the dad then moved to bi-weekly visits, and then he recently ended all contact. My husband and I have been beyond devastated and we decided it was best to wait and tell the kids, just in case the man changed his mind.
Well. He hasn’t. Therefore, we had to break the news to our kids last weekend, on the day we were supposed to have our regular weekend visit with our little guy. Since both of my kids’ RAD symptoms have been holding their own near the “normal” mark for a good month, I had no idea what I expected would happen when they heard the news.
Tears. Anger. Screaming. Depression. Panic. These are the things that I’ve experienced over the past 3 weeks… and I assumed my kids would follow suit. However, I had completely forgotten about the other possibility. The RAD possibility.
Denial. Taylor, my 7-year-old, simply looked at me upon hearing the news and said, “Welp, I guess he’s not my brother anymore. At least I have Wyatt!” She then hugged the baby and…. That was it. No questions. No emotions. Nothing! Throughout the week, she would randomly ask me what time we were picking Isaac up this coming weekend, what we were going to do for his upcoming birthday party, and if I had bought him his presents yet. Needless to say, these constant reminders of his absence struck a chord in me. But it was even more concerning that there was no reaction to him leaving, and that, furthermore, she seemed to hourly re-forget that he was even gone!
Cameron, on the other hand, has kept quiet about the entire situation. When he first heard the news, he let out a long, exasperated sigh, and then he never spoke of it again. He would occasionally come up to me, put his arm around my shoulder and ask, “You doin’ OK, Mom?” It was such a sweet sentiment, but I found it sad that he felt he had to be the strong one at 9-years-old, especially since my husband and I have done our best to stay brave-faced and stable(ish) through this process (at least when little ones are around). When Taylor would bring up a question about Isaac, Cameron would yell at her. Finally, I thought, he’s gonna tell her to shut up because it’s upsetting him. But no. Instead, he would say, “Taylor, stop it! Can’t you see you’re going to make Mom cry??”
I knew there was more behind his words, but he wasn’t ready to verbalize them yet. And I didn’t want to push either of them. I know firsthand how important it is for these two kids to come to things on their own. I was prepared for the acting out to start at any moment….
So, I obviously wasn’t shocked to receive a call from the guidance counselor. The three usual words were thrown out: Impulsive, Intrusive, Invasive. Yep, that’s my boy, right there in a nut shell! He has the social skills of needy puppy, but without all the cute, wrinkly skin and floppy ears.
But what I didn’t expect was to find the knife. I never would’ve even considered looking for one had I not walked past his room and seen mounds of garbage all over his bed and floor. Disgusted, I immediately looked under his bed. And, of course, the garbage continued. What shocked me was the number of band aids, gauze, antiseptic wipes, athletic tape, and tissues in the mix. What in the world? I couldn’t fathom what he had been doing with all the supplies from his first aid kit.
Normally, I wouldn’t think twice if I saw his sunglasses case lying out. But that motherly nag started in and I gave it a second glance. There it was, tucked partially under his bedding, as if he had been trying to hide it. I picked up the case and slowly opened the lid. And there was a pocket knife, secured next to his bed… next to the gauze and the bandages and the wipes and tape and the tissues. I quickly scanned his room and went through each drawer. My heart was in my throat and I moved through his room like a woman on a mission.
I moved to the final toy bin and hidden in the bottom of the pile was a frame housing Cameron’s favorite picture of himself. Why? Why would he shove this beautiful picture into the bottom of a bin, out of sight?
The sinking realization struck me like an anvil. Knowing that he had threatened to kill himself just 5 weeks ago, and seeing the mess that was his room, my mind went to the place that no mother wants to go. I sat on the floor of his ransacked room and felt all the feelings. Anger. Rage. Grief. Fear. An urge to run to the school and yell at him. An urge to run to the school and hug him, to tell him that it will all be OK. An urge to run to the school and examine his body for signs of self-harm. An urge to run to the school and just sit with my son and let him tell me what in the world is going on, to tell me why he can’t let himself grieve the loss of his brother, to tell him that I don’t want him to hurt himself…
But I didn’t run to the school. I sat in my home and I worried. And then I prayed. And then, I hate to say it, I worried some more. And when the school bus arrived, my son walked through the front door, smile on his face, and acted like he didn’t have a care in the world.
The tension in my eyes must’ve been obvious because he immediately questioned what was wrong. I told him that we needed to talk, but that we were going to wait for Dad to come home in a little bit. Cameron stared at me with big eyes. “Am I in trouble?”
“Well, we just want to talk with you about some things we’re concerned about, OK?”
“Whatever it is, I’m just going to tell the truth, I promise. I’m not even gonna try to lie. That’ll just make everything worse,” he said, matter-of-factly.
From a year ago when every sentence out of his mouth held at least one lie, I was impressed with his reasoning and hoped he was being honest with me even then. Moments later, my husband arrived home. I pulled the items in question out and laid them on the table. I had barely started my well-planned speech when Cameron cut me off.
“I stole the knife from Grandma’s house. I found it in her garage and took it.”
I was taken aback by his quick admission. But I pressed further, asking him what he had in mind when he took the knife.
“I just wanted to be able to open stuff. I knew you wouldn’t let me keep it, so I didn’t tell you and I hid it.”
I then asked him if he had damaged anything with the knife… or if he had damaged himself in any way. My heart was pounding and I felt sweaty as my lips formed the words.
“No way. You can check my body! And I didn’t break anything either…. I just opened my new package of underwear with it! Plus, I thought if there was ever a fire, I could cut the screen and get out quicker. Or if a robber broke in, I could save us.”
Oh, my heart…! I assured our son that he really needs to work on being the child here, and that he doesn’t have to be the protector of the adults or anyone else… that’s our job and we plan to continue to do good work in that area. I then pressed him about the bandages and wipes.
“Mom, my athlete’s foot is sooo gross and I don’t want it to spread… so I was trying to bandage my toes apart. But I tried to clean my feet with the wipes and then I needed the tape to get the bandages to stay, and the gauze to wrap around my toes.”
For Heaven’s sake… this is why we have the foot spray! Finally, I asked him about the picture. “But Cam, why did you hide your favorite picture, the picture of yourself, in the bottom of your bin, honey?”
“Mom, that’s a summer background. I put it away so I could decorate my room for fall. Didn’t you see my pumpkins and potpourri on my stand? I still like my picture, I just wanted to redecorate.”
Ok, seriously?? I spent FOUR HOURS with my heart going to hell and back in a fit of panic, only to find that my son is hiding a knife so that he can open underwear packages and protect his family if need be, that he is playing doctor to his fungus feet, and that he has a knack for seasonal decorating?!?
I told him that he was going to have a consequence (to be determined later) because of the stealing and the knife and the disastrous room, and then I sent him upstairs to clean. But as soon as he was out of ear shot, I CRACKED UP! Because I thought we were headed down a terrible RAD road, and all along, he was just playing with pumpkins and his toes!
The hubs and I decided we would go easy on him because he was so honest with us, and because… well, because he IS feeling the loss of his baby brother, whether he realizes it yet or not. But we figured we’d worry about the specifics of that later this weekend.
Only Cam couldn’t wait… he wanted to know his punishment tonight.
“Mom, can you just spank me, please?”
“Um, do you want me to spank you? Because I really don’t want to and I don’t think this is a situation that would call for it, buddy.”
“But Mom…. I STOLE A KNIFE!! That’s really, really bad.”
“You’re right. It IS really bad. But I believe that you weren’t trying to hurt anyone or yourself. And we talked about why this was an incredibly STUPID decision, but that doesn’t make you bad… it makes you a boy. A 9-year-old boy… who has a flare for fall décor.”
“Well, will you at least ground me? Take away the tablet… wait. I’m already grounded from the tablet. Wanna just take it away even longer? Or I could stay in my room and not go outside? Or you could make me play with Taylor!”
“Cam. I appreciate your enthusiasm to make this right, really I do. But once again, let Dad and I be the adults, OK? We will choose the consequence and let you know. Until then, finish cleaning your room, and be prepared to help clean the house tomorrow with us.”
His eyes began to water and his chin quivered. “Mom. I’m really sorry.”
I don’t know how this all happened. I am not a great mother. I am not a phenomenal therapist. I certainly haven’t handled my own grief and emotions properly over the past 3 years of behaviors and loss and chaos…. But my son managed to tell the truth, show empathy, display protection, follow directives, admit to wrong-doing, apologize, and ask for a way to make it all right… while NOT hurting himself or others, ALL IN ONE WEEK.
You guys, the gravity of this situation is not lost on me. Nor is the humility that I feel in the midst of it all. For the longest time, I wondered if I would survive these kids that we saved. And now, I marvel at the realization that they may just have saved me instead.