From the moment Darren was born, I tried to keep him safe and teach him right from wrong. Then his classmate pulled out a crossbow. Darren was only two when his father and I divorced. My ex and I shared custody but we didn’t like each other much. We married young and soon grew apart as we discovered how different we were.
Bob liked cars and scuba diving, interests I did not share. I liked books and outings with friends, while he preferred his record collection. Somewhere in those years, love got lost and we argued over everything. We tried marriage counseling, but Bob, always impatient, decided to quit, saying I wanted to change his whole personality, and he couldn’t take any more time off work for the appointments.
But it wasn’t until the day my little brown-haired boy shouted, “Mommy, Daddy, stop yelling!” that we knew it was over. How do you raise a child with someone you don’t really like? The sound of his voice made me cringe. He opposed any changes to the routine of shuttling Darren between apartments twice a week. Now I wonder how this constant moving back and forth affected my child particularly since he was already grappling with ADHD.
“I’ll never criticize you to Darren,” Bob promised. “Please give me the same courtesy.”
“Of course,” I said, eager to get away and start my new life. But how could our boy help but see how different his parents were from each other?
The year of the crossbow incident, Darren was 11 and aging out of daycare. He was bored with the craft activities dreamed up by the teenaged counselors at the Y, and begged me to let him be on his own after school. But he was a forgetful child, repeatedly missing the school bus, and I wasn’t comfortable with letting him go home alone. I wasn’t sure he was ready to take care of himself for the two hours before I got home from work, so as a compromise, I hired Kenny, a 15-year-old boy who lived nearby to watch him in my apartment after school. Kenny was a polite, slightly overweight kid, and I was impressed by his mature attitude about homework and snacks. He wanted to earn his own money but his mom, who accompanied him to the interview, said she felt he was too young to work at McDonald’s or Seven Eleven. Bob had insisted on coming over to interview the boy as well, but on that day, he sat on my couch, arms folded, and left the questions to me.
I started firing: “What would you do if there was a fire? What if someone tried to break in? What if Darren got sick? What if he wasn’t on the school bus?” Kenny had excellent answers for every one of my questions. Because he had so obviously prepared for this, I knew Darren would be in good hands.
Everyone was pleased that afternoon, as none of us suspected the risk lurking in our neighborhood. Only a few weeks into this new arrangement, Darren’s classmate, Jason, got off the school bus with him and invited him over to play. Kenny met the bus, as he did every day, and walked with Darren to his friend’s apartment in the same complex. A big boy for his age, Jason tossed his books on his mother’s couch and strode to a hall closet. Darren and his sitter stood uncertainly just inside the door,as Jason turned around with a crossbow in his arms.
“That’s not something to play with,” Kenny said, and took my son out of there. When he told me later, I loved him for that.
“You did the absolute right thing,” I said. “Be sure to tell your Mom what happened.”
There was more. Jason later came over to play, minus the crossbow. Kenny let him in, but when he left, Darren discovered thirty-five dollars missing from his dresser drawer. When I got home from work, Kenny told me what happened and I realized I hadn’t made any rules about who could visit while I was away. I called and spoke to Jason’s mom on the phone. It was the first and last time I spoke to her.
“My Jason would never steal,” she said. “But I will talk to him about the crossbow. He knows he’s not supposed to touch it.”We hung up , but I was still not satisfied. Why did she have a crossbow in her closet?
Fast forward 27 years, and a Facebook friend and former neighbor who knew the boys messaged me: “Neighbor from Granite Cove?” She attached a news article with the now grownup Jason’s mugshot. I read in horror: “Man Charged in Girlfriend Death.”
My eyes moved down the page. Jason, now 38, was arrested for strangling a woman in a motel, then trying to make it look like suicide before fleeing in her car while high on heroin. He was arrested the next day at a local hospital, as he was trying to check into a rehab program. He had previous convictions for robbery and theft and was being held without bail.
My heart clenched with the same sense of dread I had felt long ago. When this child took out a crossbow to play with, and stole from a dresser drawer, his mother made excuses. If I had been in her position, would I, like her, have denied, that my son was in the wrong?
I messaged Darren, now also 38 and working at a job he liked. “Do you remember this guy?”
“Nobody who knew him at school is surprised,” he texted back, and I wondered what else he didn’t say. Did he recognize the danger when he was eleven? Or did he shy away from it, wanting a friend? What else did I not think to ask back then? And what did I worry about that didn’t really matter? We can’t protect our kids from everything, no matter how hard we try.
Darren is a good man, kind and compassionate. But his childhood was rocky. He struggled to control his anger throughout his teen years. With un-diagnosed ADHD, he blurted out his feelings and was bullied by his peers. There were many episodes where he was the target of bullies who tore at his self-esteem. He vented his frustration at his teachers, his parents, and even a few of his friends. His father and I worried about his future. I felt responsible for his problems, because I didn’t know how to help.
But I knew that my son would never kill someone. Never in a million years. I knew that then and I know that now. I didn’t notice I was holding my breath until the room began to sway. Pulling a chair out to help support me, I sat and thought of Jason’s mother, so sure her son would never steal. I thought about the mother of the dead girl I never knew. And I thought of Jason, Darren and Kenny, three young boys whose mothers loved them too.
In that moment, I realized what I had not previously known; there is so much in this life that is out of our control. The best we can do is love our children as hard as we can. The rest is up to them.
Mom’s Advice to Her High School Senior
Linda C. Wisniewski is a former librarian who shares an empty nest with her retired scientist husband in Doylestown, PA. Linda teaches memoir workshops and speaks on the healing power of writing throughout the Philadelphia area.
Her work focuses on memoir and personal essays, has been published in literary magazines and anthologies. Linda’s memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Her unpublished novel based on the life of a 19th century ancestor was a finalist for the 2015 Eludia Award.