An 11-year-old boy--distraught over being rejected by his 12-year-old girlfriend over the Internet--hanged himself in the bathroom of his family's home, after telling the girl via e-mail that she would not hear from him again.
--From the Los Angeles
Times, Sept. 24, 1997
It was a short account with only the barest of details--just enough to allow worried parents like me to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks:
Two kids meet at summer camp and fall passionately in love--as only the very young can do. They return home, but their computers keep them in touch. And with daily e-mails they proclaim undying love.
Then school starts. And for her, at least, the glow begins to fade. There are math homework and new friends and old friends with fresh gossip.
So she e-mails the boyfriend a "Dear John" note: "It's over. I don't want to see you again."
He is angry and hurt, overwhelmed by pain and rage so strong he does not know how to contain them. "You won't be hearing from me again," he messages her back. Then he takes the belt from his bathrobe and hangs himself from a shower stall.
How close my reconstruction comes to the realities of this real-life tragedy, I don't know. But what I do know--because I'm reaching back now into the recesses of my memory--is how passionately young love can be felt.
And what I'm learning, as I parent a 12-year-old every day, is how hard it is to tap into our children's emotional lives, to use our memories to connect with them as they move from childhood to adolescence.
Because now--the time they most need a guide to help them navigate that treacherous terrain--is the time they decide we are irrelevant to their lives.
Aboy called my daughter the other night, a boy she hardly knows but has heard through the grapevine has a crush on her. There was a look of panic in her eyes as I handed her the phone.
"Yeah. No. No. Maybe tomorrow." Click.
Then she was gone and there was no more to overhear; no conversation I could use to augment my puny understanding of the life she leads. It is that way a lot with us these days. We can talk about the small stuff--the funny thing that happened in English class, whether she did well at basketball practice--but the deeper issues are mostly off-limits.
So, like an archeologist trying to understand a distant culture, I am searching to understand my daughter's inner life. And last week's suicide took me back through my own life on that search for clues.
I remember now how unrequited love, even at 12, can make you feel.
For us, there was no computer-assisted romance. If you liked a boy, you'd have a friend phone him to ask if he liked you. Or maybe you'd pass him a note in class, with boxes marked "yes," "no" and "maybe."
I was not much older than my daughter is now the first time a boy made my heart beat fast. He was captain of our junior varsity basketball team--skinny and cute and polite enough to say "hello" whenever he passed me in the hall. I went out for the cheerleading squad to hang around the gym and watch him practice, and befriended his sister because he might answer the phone when I called her at home.
But when I got up my nerve to send him the note--"Do you like Sandy?"--he sent it back through a friend, with a check mark in the box that said "no."
I retreated to the school lavatory, locked myself in a stall and cried. I spoke to no one at school that afternoon and walked home alone, plodding as if 20-pound weights were attached to my shoes. I yelled at my parents and fought with my sisters, then barricaded myself in my room, where I spent the evening sobbing and tearing to shreds all those pieces of paper on which I'd spent hours writing our names, linked inside giant hearts.
Even now I can remember that it felt that night like my life was over. Surely nothing could hurt more than this.
There are so many things to worry about as we launch our children into adolescence, so many things to lecture and warn them about. Will she keep her grades up, steer clear of drugs, stay out of cars with drunk drivers?
But unrequited love never seems to make the agenda. Because how do you explain to a child who professes not to notice the opposite sex that, before too long, she'll learn why they call it a "crush"?
I see my daughter and her friends lurching toward adolescence in fits and starts--wearing bras and mascara, but still sleeping with teddy bears. Oblivious, still, to the power of the hormones that are already transforming their lives.
I stand on the sidelines, trying to mete out a measure of advice and understanding, to find the right balance of rules and responsibilities. But how much of that matters? It's not about restrictions or even values. It's about rites of passage.
For the kids, it's about falling in love.
For us parents, it's about remembering how it feels to be almost a teenager, when you approach each new adventure with the certainty that you are the only one to have ever felt it so strongly, wanted it so much, failed at it so miserably.