About a decade and a half ago, one of my coworkers, Don, asked me if I would be willing to rent a room to his 17-year-old son, Lee. He wanted to continue attending my neighborhood high school with his friends, and my coworker was moving to the neighboring county. I said yes, albeit reluctantly.
I don’t “do” kids. I have no children of my own, by choice. I didn’t even hang out with kids that much when I was one myself.
But this young man seemed nice enough. I was assured that he was pretty self-sufficient. He’d buy and prepare his own food, Don said. He was very quiet, and seemed a little sad.
I felt sorry for Lee. Don said that his mother had died when he was very young. He and his brother had been raised by a single parent who worked the graveyard shift for as long as I had known him, so I can’t imagine their lives were particularly conventional.
Little did I know.
Lee would often sleep with his bedroom door open. I’d see him hugging a teddy bear as I walked past at night on my way to work. I thought that was rather unusual for a boy his age, but to each his own.
My next intel about Lee was that his father treated him horribly. I could hear the man scream at him over the phone from the other side of the house. His other son could do no wrong.
I came to realize that Lee was gay, and I already knew that his father was a homophobe, so I thought that explained it all. It made me feel even more sorry for Lee, because it must be awful to be rejected by the only parent you have.
Then one night I had to rush Lee to the hospital with extreme stomach pains. It turned out that he had been existing for years on a basic diet of chocolate donuts and coca cola, and that hadn’t done his intestines much good. This broke my heart.
My heartbreak turned to fury, though, when I discovered that his father had let Lee’s health insurance lapse. Rather than thanking me for bringing his son to the hospital, Don was outraged, because now he’d be stuck with a medical bill. He viewed his son as a massive inconvenience.
Don was so angry that he decided to yank his son out of my house. Before he left, I learned many truths about Lee.
First of all, his mother wasn’t dead, as far as he knew. She had abandoned him and his brother at a rest stop when they were very little. The police had given them each a teddy bear, and he had kept his ever since.
It was doubtful that Don was even his father. Apparently his wife had been rather promiscuous. (I had thought he and his brother didn’t look very much alike.) Don had had to drive several hundred miles to pick the boys up, and he had resented Lee, in particular, from that day to this.
After Don entered my house in a rage and grabbed all his stuff and yanked a protesting, pleading Lee out the door, I never saw them again. Don quit working with me, pulled Lee out of school, and left no valid forwarding address.
I often wonder how Lee turned out. I tried looking for him on Facebook, but his name is way too common. I will forever wonder if I could have done more for that lonely, neglected 17-year-old boy who only had a stuffed animal for comfort for most of his life. It’s one of my biggest regrets.
I’m glad that at least once in his life, a kind stranger had the decency to give him a teddy bear to hug. I hope he was able to rise above his circumstances. He deserved much more from his childhood than he got.
I also hope that karma has rolled over his father like a crosstown bus.
I once knew a young girl whose mother had died, and her father, although living under the same roof with her, was making himself emotionally unavailable. So this 15 year old only child found herself basically all alone. It was heartbreaking to watch.
And then her father moved on. He got himself a girlfriend. He got engaged. They decided to sell the house and move to another state. My friend could move with them. Of course she could. But by now she was 17.
She did not want to leave the house where her mother died. It felt like betrayal to her. It felt like abandonment. So she was running around, desperately trying to figure out a way that she could buy the house from her father. She would get a job, she said. She’d get roommates. She’d take in boarders.
So I told her my deodorant story.
One of the last things my mother bought me before we discovered that she was dying was a stick of deodorant. Nothing sentimental. Just, “Honey, do you need anything from the Walmart?”
After she died, and once the deodorant was used up, I found it impossible to throw it away. I’d hold it over the trash can in a death-like grip, and then I’d put it back on the shelf. I just couldn’t let it go. It was as if throwing it out would be like throwing my mother out. Disposing of that deodorant would mean a lifetime of deodorant that was not purchased by my mother. That seemed even more final than her death, somehow.
I held on to that stupid deodorant for a couple of years. Then one day, I realized that my mother was not in that deodorant. She wouldn’t be further from me if I threw it out. So I tossed it, burst into tears, and the next day… nothing had drastically changed. Except that I had a little more shelf space.
Sometimes you just have to let go.
I told my friend that her mother wasn’t in that house, she was in her heart. I also told her that her mom wouldn’t want her to get stuck with that mortgage at such a young age. It would be an albatross around her neck. I told her that her mother would want her to live her own life and go to college and have adventures and explore new places.
Often when you cling to things, it’s like holding onto a rock in the middle of a raging river. It might seem like the safest, smartest thing to do at the time, but all it does is cause you to get beaten up by the current. Sometimes it’s better to just let go and float downstream to where the water is calmer and the view is new and delightful.
It’s hard to see what’s around the bend in the river before you go down it. It’s a lot more obvious when you look back at it from over your shoulder. Letting go takes faith. Have faith.