Blessed Are the Annoying
One morning 10 years ago I awoke with a savage headache that rendered me unbalanced and nauseated. My 6-year-old son came in to see why I wasn’t up getting him ready for school. He took one look at the situation--his mother in bed, sweaty and lifeless as the guy in cartoons with X’s where his eyes should be--and took charge of the situation. Hiking up his pajama bottoms, he said, “You go back to sleep. I can get myself ready."A¶ He brought me a glass of orange juice, petted me, like little children do, and made sounds of sorrow. I got some aspirin out of the nightstand and went back to sleep. When I woke up again, I heard the TV on in the living room, then kitchen sounds. I called out for a progress report. “Doing great, Mom,” he answered confidently. “I made my own breakfast.” A¶ When I next woke, with a half hour left until we
had to leave for school, I called out for an update. “Everything’s going great, Mom.”
“Have you gotten dressed, honey?”
So I went back to sleep with a wistful and amazed sense of our being partners in this business. Soon he would hardly need me at all. After nearly half an hour more of sleep, I bolted out of bed, my headache gone, pulled on clothes and raced out to gather him up for school.
There he sat, on the couch, with a root beer in one hand, the TV remote in the other, wearing his Power Rangers underpants, beaming.
And the seasons, they turn ‘round and ‘round, and last Sunday morning when I called out to see if Sam was ready to go out and do some errands, and he said, “Yeah, in a minute,” I knew enough to go downstairs and check.
He and three other 16-year-old friends were downstairs in his room, still sleeping, in what smelled like the cafeteria at an elk preserve. One of the friends smokes cigarettes, although not in my house. And the other, John, got busted at school with alcohol and a knife in his backpack. I have known both boys since first grade, and I adore them. They are bright, sweet, accomplished young men, and it is always easy to love and accept them, because they are not mine. They gladly help around the house when I ask them to, like Sam does at their houses, and every single time I thank them for helping, they shrug like cowboys and say, “No problem.”
These days some of Sam’s lifelong buddies are in trouble with drugs and alcohol, and the girls with food. One young woman we know is in an institution for the time being. A very young man we know is in rehab in Montana. A few months ago, Sam and I went to the funeral of a local boy who died of an OxyContin overdose. We stood in the chill of an autumn dusk at sunset in the old Jewish cemetery in San Rafael and listened as the mother shoveled the first scoops of dirt onto the boy’s coffin. It was the loudest sound I have ever heard.
Most of us have gotten off relatively easy so far--our kids are only impossible half the time, screwing up, troubling our hearts, making dumb choices, forfeiting fragments of their dreams, but still basically OK.
But God, they can be annoying. “Sam,” I called to him that morning. “You said you’d do errands with me--they’re all things you wanted to get done. And your laundry is overflowing--you swore you’d do it yesterday. That’s why I let you blow it off the other day. Plus you’ve got the garbage, and recycling.”
“OK, OK! God.”
You’d have thought I’d asked him for a pedicure.
John opened his eyes and said sleepily, “Hi, Annie.” He is often at my house, part of the smelly Jurassic herd who hang out downstairs in my son’s room. He’s an amazing person--observant, dignified, funny and tender-hearted, just like Sam is, at other people’s houses. John always has done wonderfully in school, without much prodding, and it was his and his parents’ shared dream that he would go to a top-flight liberal arts college, where he could pursue a career in journalism; at least, until this semester, when he tanked. Now his parents hope that he can just get in anywhere decent.
I called John’s father the other day in tears because Sam was in danger of failing a class. He and I are allies: He listened with the tough gentleness only the parent of another great kid in trouble can muster. He expressed love and respect for Sam. Then he said that John had just flunked advanced algebra, and so could not get into any of the UC campuses.
“He’s been working for so long toward getting into Cal or UCLA,” said the dad. “And then? It’s gone, in the blink of an eye.” Neither of us spoke for a long time.
This is obscene, that higher education is so desperately cutthroat that a single adolescent slip can disqualify them from their dream. Haltingly, he continued. “It’s just the way it is. We talked about it last week when the report cards arrived--that what we had all hoped for so long was probably not going to happen now. It was a sad conversation for both of us. And later that night, when I was in bed, he came in my room and said to me quietly, in the dark, ‘Don’t give up on me, Dad.’”
His voice cracked. When we hung up some time later, we were both better.
I know what it is like to be scared to death that your child seems out of control, and what it is like when you cannot locate him late at night, and I have gotten the 2 a.m. call from the sheriff’s deputy. But I don’t know what it feels like to have academic dreams shattered, because our dream has been modest. Sam always has been a good artist, inventor, an animator, an imaginator, but a sort of--what is the word--reluctant student, except for the social life, and art. He had an obvious way with his hands in kindergarten, which is when our troubles began.
His teacher called me one day to schedule a conference, to discuss his problems as a slow paper cutter. I am not making this up. He was the slowest paper cutter in the class. His teacher seemed genuinely worried. I pointed out that he was meticulous in his approach to art and numbers, but she wouldn’t let go of it. I almost lost my temper. “Why don’t you just go ahead and say it?” I wanted to shout. “That the kid’s a loser!”
However, he and his friends are anything but losers. They are just 16-year-olds, wild horses corralled in their parents’ homes, who want to carve out their independence; and oh, drink and smoke dope, and borrow the car.
“Get up, Sam,” I said. “You’ve got chores to do this morning--you’ve already spent your allowance, and you owe me some time. Plus, you promised to come to the convalescent home this afternoon.”
It was noon. I’d decided to skip church, because I’d be performing a church service that afternoon at the old folks home that my church sponsors. “We’re not going to have time to do your errands today, but you still have to get your chores done. I’m going to take Lily for a hike instead,” I said. I wanted to chill out for a while. “I want all this stuff done by the time I get home. And then we’re going to leave at 2.”
He sat up in bed and rubbed his face. “OK,” he said. “Have a good walk. Bye-bye, Lily.”
“Thanks, darling,” I said, because his voice was so sweet.
“No problem.” Then he suddenly cried out, “Oh, no,” to make me laugh, pointing at his floor. Someone had spilled a dark soda on the wood. “Attention Wal-Mart workers: Clean-up in Aisle 3!”
One of the four things I know for sure about raising kids is to savor whatever works, in between the hard times. To drink in those times like ocean air. I smiled as his friends woke and surveyed the mess; then I left.
Lily and I set out for our favorite hike on Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County’s glorious centerpiece. The contrast was a lovely shock: The mountain and foothills are their own spacious, fresh sacrament for me, especially now, when the lower hills have begun to turn green. All summer and fall, the slopes are golden brown, and then new green grass appears. It pushes the old grass up and away, until it lies like small hay drifts, gathered up neatly before the hay balers arrive. Lily ran ahead, off-leash, which is not--strictly speaking, or actually, in any way at all--legal. But most dogs up here run free. She scampered up the wet, grassy hillside. After the rains, the old grass is silvery gray, like a Weimaraner.
I walked along studying the winter wildflowers beside the path, the lacy moss on the trunks, the coyote bush on the hillside flocked with white fluff, and was startled by the abrupt appearance of two men. They wore green uniforms, and I knew in a jackhammering heartbeat that they were deputies from the Sheriff’s Department. Just like that, at the point on the path where suddenly Mt. Tam comes into view and fills the sky and lowlands with green fleecy trees, they stood 20 feet in front of me. I gasped.
“Oh, no,” I said, as Lily bounded up to them with a stick in her mouth. They were both in their late 30s or early 40s, one nice-looking, with a mustache, and one looking a lot like Barney Fife. None of us said anything for a minute. This couldn’t be! I’ve been on these hillsides many times a week for 10 years now, and never even seen a deputy. And Lily is such a good dog. And I am such a good person, about to head to a convalescent home. God!
The handsome man said, “Looks like you know what we’re up to.”
I nodded. You hear stories of how they give out $200 tickets for not having your dog on a leash. Now I felt like the teenager in trouble, the deputies my meddling parents. So I instinctively did what I have always done when I’ve run a yellow light, ever since I got my license at 16: I worked on a good lie. Then I started to jolly them out of giving me a ticket--"Could this be like a fix-it ticket, where I show up at your department tomorrow with my dog on a leash? Heeling?”
The first one looked at me with a sympathetic face. The other one stared at me, accusingly, hurt.
I hung my head and started to cry. Tears pooled in my eyes, tears of pure adolescent misery and frustration, that years of letting Lily run free were at an end, tears of shame and of simply wanting to be left alone to pursue my life, without being hassled to death in one of my favorite places on earth.
Barney got his ticket book out, and then, with his mouth drawn like a fierce boy armed with a slingshot, his police radio. I wanted to scream at them: Don’t you guys have anything better to do? Like arresting the guys in the park who sell drugs to the kids? Like busting the old farts outside the movie theater who pick up teenage girls? You’re here to hassle and fine a Greenpeace supporter?
And it went from bad to worse: Barney asked, “May I see your driver’s license, ma’am?” I was lost, furious . . . and olllld.
They did a check for prior convictions and unpaid parking tickets, and I was clean. Barney filled out my ticket and handed it to me. I gave up the fight. I sighed deeply, loudly, and shrugged. Then I made a sudden crafty expression.
“What if I were to tell you that she’s not actually my dog?” I asked. The men smiled. I looked at Lily. “I’ve never seen that dog in my life.”
Lily bounded over to me with her branch and flung herself against my leg, staring up at me like a furry, panting St. John the Divine.
On the downside of the path home, new grass wasn’t growing yet. The short golden grass lay flattened by weather, in swirls as if it had hat-hair.
It was after 1 o’clock when I got back. There was progress: Sam was now asleep on the upstairs couch. I roused him. “We have to leave in an hour,” I said. “And I told you to get your chores done before we go.”
“Give me 10 more minutes!” he cried. This should go on his tombstone. But remembering how the cops had made me feel, I let him sleep on.
My friend Neshama arrived. She was going with us. I pantomimed choking my sleeping child. Then I made us all sandwiches. She and I ate.
At 10 of 2, I shook Sam again. “Get up now,” I said. I was about to shout at him. But he looked like a skinny marine mammal, washed ashore.
Another of the four things I know for sure about raising kids is that every time you overlook bad behavior, or let them blow you off when something is important to you, you injure them. You hobble their character.
Furthermore, the third of the four things I know is that if you can shine a small beam of truth on a beloved when you are angry, it is more beneficial than hitting them with a klieg light of feelings and pinning them to the wall. And I can’t remember the fourth, but I put two and three into practice.
I closed my eyes, gathered myself, bent down and spoke to him calmly.
“Sam? You’ve said several times you would come with me today. I want you to, but I don’t want to make myself crazy trying to get you to live up to your promises. If it doesn’t happen, I’m going to be sad and angry, but I am not going to lose myself in your BS.”
He got up and went downstairs, grumpily. Neshama looked at me.
“You’re my hero,” she said. I cocked my head at her because I didn’t feel like one. We heard Sam’s footsteps on the stairs, coming toward us.
The three of us went and got in the car, Sam in the back seat, where he ate his sandwich in sleepy silence.
There were only six residents waiting in the recreation room for us to begin the monthly service, five women and one man, fragile as onion skin. There were six of us, too, after three people from my church joined us. So I assigned everyone their own personal person to shepherd through the short service. We always sing a few songs with them, say a few prayers, take their hands and gaze into their eyes and say, “The peace of God be with you.”
Sam’s person was a pretty Asian woman, who talked to him as if he might perhaps be one of her relatives. Sam introduced himself to her shyly. “Yes,” she said with gladness. “Sam.” He took his place at her side.
For the next half hour, he turned the pages of the worship book for her, running his fingers along the words of each hymn so she could follow. He’s been coming here with me off and on his whole life, because I so believe in this ministry, and want him to share it with me. The people here are shipwrecks, and sometimes there is not much left, but there is a thread that can be pulled and that still vibrates. So we show up, talk and sing. It seems to breathe more life into them.
Sam’s person beamed and concentrated on doing her part correctly, as if to please him. When we sang “Jesus Loves Me,” a hymn she and the others must have learned as children, some sang along, murmuring like brooks: There’s such pleasure in knowing the words to a song.
I’ve seen them come back to life during this service, even when they cannot sing. I have seen these moments bring them joy and comfort. We don’t lay a heavy Jesus trip on anyone: It’s more that He is a medium for our showing up, and caring.
My person was sound asleep. I was beginning to think it was the effect I have on people. She was wearing a bright red sweatsuit, and could not have weighed more than 80 pounds. When she finally woke up, I greeted her.
“I want to go back to sleep,” she cried out, and I assured her that that was OK. I took her hands, and she babbled for a minute. “I like that house,” she said, and I held onto her hands. Sam came over. “She wants to sleep,” he whispered, “because she liked the house in her dreams.”
“You’re right,” I said, and put her hands down into her lap. She promptly fell back asleep. He went back to his person. I continued with a prayer.
Some of the residents seem to be out of it completely, drooling, dazed. Then we’d hear them saying the Lord’s Prayer. “Amen,” we say, then we go around one last time, to touch each person, and tell them how glad we are that they are there. I realize again that this is really all you have to offer people most days, a touch, a moment’s gladness. It has to do; luckily, it’s a lot.
“Hey, thanks,” I said to Sam as the three of us headed outside. “No problem,” he said. We walked to my car. “I liked my person,” he added. His hair was matted down in bed-head tufts, like the hills.