When you're eight, the world is full of inevitability. Your parents go someplace, and you are dragged along. Your teacher assigns homework, and it has to be done. It feels like everyone in the world has some kind of authority over you. Don't they know you have your own plans? Your own agenda for things that have to get done? Your own idea of what is most important?
Max came into my office with his mother. He gave me a hug hello but wasn't smiling. His mother told me that he said he wasn't feeling well and wanted to see me. She said that he wanted to stay home from school for the last few days, but couldn't say just what was wrong. She made him go to school, but wanted him to see me on Saturday. I went through the usual review of his symptoms with them, but he denied headaches and stomach aches and everything else. I asked if he had pain in his toes. I asked if he had pain in his feet, ankles, knees, legs, and so on up to his eyes. Finally, I asked, “does your hair hurt?”. This usually causes a pause to think and then a smile. He paused and his eyes started to tear up. His mother started to tear up. I started to tear up.
Luckily, my office is equipped with the latest in medical technology and there were tissues enough for all.
His mother flatly related that his father had moved out several months ago, and had just moved in with somebody else. His father hadn't seen Max for about a month. He stopped calling a few days ago. After saying this, his mother told me that she didn't know what was wrong with Max, that she was worried about him, she asked him what was wrong but that he won't talk to her. She wondered aloud if he would talk to me. She didn't ask either of us, but as she said this, she arose and said that she'd wait outside the room.
“Max,” I said, “do you miss your dad?” He nodded tearfully. “Does it make you sad that you don't see him?” At this point, the perceptive reader sees where this is going and I can't claim it was particularly insightful of me to see it at the time. The fact that his mother seemed genuinely in the dark about it was remarkable. Even though he was eight, I asked screening questions I typically ask dejected teens. Did he think about hurting himself? Did he think about running away? Finally, I asked him if I could tell his mom about what we talked about and about what he said. He said that was OK, and I invited her in.
Though mom was made sad by what I relayed to her, she was relieved that he opened up about it. Max was visibly relieved that mom now knew.
Max's younger sister was acting out a little more in kindergarten, but had not taken it so hard in an obvious way. But 8-year-olds can see the world in a bigger picture, and in this case as something that was broken forever. Preschoolers just want more time with mommy, and it's OK if she's shopping as long as they get to come along. Teenagers get to stay home alone.
Max told me that it made him sad to think that his family isn't the family he had when he was little. He said that he thought he would have that family forever and now it's gone. This made him cry a lot. Again, we took advantage of tissue technology. His perspective is an important one for parents in every situation to be aware of. To him, everything in the grown-up world is fixed for eternity. Until it's not, and then it's shattered. As adults, it's typically from about this age that emerge some of our most troubling memories of the relationship of our parents or the circumstances of our childhoods.
Next Post: Trying to help Max.
The photo from my collection is by Walker Evans and was taken during The Depression.