You Can Go Away Now

After a series of incidents between my son Ryan and his younger sister Sara, two of which required me to take Sara to the pediatrician, where I had to make up stories about her injuries that did not involve her brother, I began typing hysterical Google searches into my phone. Searches such as, “How to tell if my child is a psychopath.” Afterwards, I would erase my browsing history.

“Your child is not a psychopath. Stop researching psychopaths,” our second family therapist told me, though the next week, she referred my son to a “psychiatrist” for an “evaluation.” My husband's ears turned red every time such terms were uttered aloud in his presence, as if we were doing something irreversible to him by such suggestions. He refused to fill out the packet of questionnaires we were sent or to attend the initial interview, though he did show up to the diagnosis meeting, where he sat to my right in a conference chair chewing a piece of childish grape gum, his hands squeezed into fists.

The last time I remember having friends over for dinner, Ryan—this is before he went away—he wore a police costume and terrorized the other children. He drew lines, thick random lines, across the girl’s face using a permanent marker. “What is wrong with you?” I asked, forgetting I was not to ask such a question for numerous reasons, least of all how the casual meaning became lost on my literal son.

“Nothing is wrong with me. Why are you asking what’s wrong with me?” Ryan said.

I tried again, this time running over a mental list of interventions gleaned from my parent groups. I suggested the emotional toolbox.

“I hate the emotional toolbox.”

“If you use the emotional toolbox, you’ll get a button for your reward jar,” I countered.

The girl's mother, who was once my friend, now understandably alarmed, asked her daughter, “Did you want him to do this to you?” I was hoping the girl would say yes and then there would be no reason to escalate. The girl shook her head. I had to take away my son’s marker. “Don't you think something more is warranted here?” my friend suggested. Ryan laughed and said he had three other markers hidden in his bedroom.

Later, my son spied on the other kids, then he wrote articles on index cards detailing their behavior. On one card, he wrote about liking sandwiches, especially knuckle sandwiches, and after that, the stories became violent and strange. He wanted us to read each one out loud. Our friends said sorry they needed to go though I hadn’t yet served the dessert, a complicated 3-layer cake Sara and I had spent the afternoon baking. Their hasty departure made Sara cry, though her crying was brief and nothing, the wall, the furniture, us, was damaged during it.

I never thought to get Sara evaluated, even if similar diagnosis run in families. My daughter is an obviously ordinary child in every way who happens to be a little behind in reading comprehension but her teachers say it is nothing to worry about, it should all work itself out. Ryan was reading at three. I know you're not supposed to compare your children. Sara enjoys wearing purple dresses which flair out when she spins, the kind of dresses most girls her age also enjoy wearing. She seems to me like everybody else’s child. She tells me her closet is full of dresses. How nice, I say. What else am I supposed to say? If someone exchanged her for another child, I might not care.

To get my attention since Ryan went away, Sara has been making up stories. One recent afternoon she went on about how, for the first time that year, the students in her classroom ate their lunches in the school garden because they had been well behaved. In addition, they received extra recess, and the kindergarteners heard a special book during circle time. Sara said only one boy had to eat inside, alone, because of his bad behavior. The details she told me were so small and meaningless that I didn't think to question her until she made me promise not to ask her teachers about what she had told me. I could hear, in my head, my son’s heckling: Wow, really, Sara. Really? I miss him. Were he here, he would have pointed out what I never thought to notice, like he would have pointed to the window, at the shuddering that happened between two rain drops, as it was raining. “Are these made up stories?” I asked my daughter. “Because if they are, I bet you can tell a better story if you tried.”

"You can go away now,” Sara said to me.

At the bottom of my daughter’s closet, hidden beneath the pile of silk scarves she likes to knot around her waist as a kind of costume, I found an unusual drawing taped to a piece of string. Unusual for her, as she is that sort of child whose people, when she draws people, look like smiling hearts who happen to have legs, and the houses in her drawings are usually smiling too, as are the puffy clouds and the tulips. This drawing looked to be a diagram of cabinets with handles on them, and beneath the handles were a series of sinks, and then there were chairs with wires, and lights above each chair. There were rows and rows of chairs. It was a surprising drawing partly because there was nothing childish about it, except for the excessive number of faucets, as if anyone would ever put in so many faucets. I wondered if she was imitating her brother, as this was the kind of diagram he used to make, where an obsessive anguish underlies the precision of the lines. Or did she have something of her brother in her, an idea I tried to shoo away. Part of me was glad to see her drawing in such a style as it showed she was capable of having a unique vision of the world. That she could see things others couldn’t. Another part of me wondered why would I wish this on her. Perhaps it is better, simpler, to keep believing, if she could, what all the other children in her class believe, that puffy clouds float above us, smiling down on us, and people are uncomplicated, having heads in the shape of hearts, and that a heart even looks like that.  

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