Image of a police car

I had to back into a police car to recognize that my son needs to live his own life. My son has been entangled with the law for nearly ten years. It started with taking things out of unlocked cars, then being caught shop lifting the night before his bar mitzvah, then the police caught him smoking pot on the train tracks, then he was charged with selling weed in high school, then he had alcohol poisoning and we had to call an ambulance. Then he had alcohol poisoning again and this time passed out in a snow bank, and on and on. Our anguished pleas were like pebbles tossed at his tower, and as ineffective as the court’s use of probation, house arrest, even jail time. After each incidence, we’d discuss why he’d done these things, and each time, I’d believe with all my heart that this one was the last. The kicker was the D.U.I. and even that didn’t stop him from drinking and doing drugs. Finally, with much cajoling, he agreed to enter rehab.

Black bears mother so differently. In spring, after leaving their den, the bear leads her cubs to the base of a white pine tree. The pine’s bark is rough which make it easy for the cubs to climb if they feel threatened. There, mother bear nurses and cuddles her young as she teaches them the survival skills they’ll need. At about sixteen months she sends them off in part because a male bear has entered her territory.

But I’m not a bear. My child, who’s a lovely person with a warm heart and lively sense of humor, has made risky, dangerous even, choices. I know I’m not alone in the twists and turns of parenting a child with an addictive personality. Al-anon advises detachment, which is challenging especially since I believed my son and I were in this together, living on two shores of the same lake.

However, that kind of thinking hasn’t served us well. Last week, in yet another effort to help my child, I backed into a police car. Go figure. That morning, while still in bed, he called from his room saying he was late to meet his probation officer and needed a ride to get there on time. I didn’t ask what would happen if he was late for the meeting, or suggest he get there himself and deal with the consequences. Instead, hearing the urgency in his voice, I leapt to my feet, filled a mug with tea, threw on my coat, grabbed my wallet, whistled for the dog, and charged into the snow draped landscape. The car looked like an enormous sugar cube; its thermometer read sixteen degrees.

My son rushed out hatless, his black hair poking in all directions, a slice of pizza in his hand. I turned the car’s heater on high while he brushed the snow off the windows. He left a clot of ice on the lower third of the rear window which I didn’t insist he clear off since we were hurrying and I could see above it well enough.

Backing down the drive I remembered I had meeting with a student, and patting the seat for the phone, realized I’d left it in the house. But at that point it was too late to go back. As I swung the car into the street, my son said, “The PO meeting should last only ten minutes, and my Drug and Alcohol session is right after, would you drive me there?”

Of course I said yes.

When I dropped him at the courthouse, he said he’d be out in fifteen minutes. The courthouse is massive; couldn’t anyone inside of it talk sense to him? The building faces a park and cars park around it on an angle. Cruising past the filled slots, I could have gone home, dressed for work and seen the student who wanted admission to my class. It was the last day of late registration and the registrar needed my okay by eleven. Instead, to pass the time, I listened to the radio, finished my tea, and took the dog for a walk. But it was so icy out, the dog quickly peed and returned to the car. Twelve minutes had elapsed. Then twenty. The student and registrar shrank in comparison to the thought that it was a bitter morning and my son didn’t have a hat. What was I thinking? He’s twenty-one, not three.

If I’d had my phone I could have texted him, signing off with a heart emoji. Instead I waited until I saw what looked like an empty parking spot across the way, and thinking we’d save a few minutes if he didn’t have to cross the park, I pulled out and started for it. I could have turned right, gone home, and grabbed my work stuff, yet I forged on. Just in front of the courthouse were two empty slots side by side and having slightly overshot one, I put the car in reverse, and smacked into the police cruiser.

Shaken, I wrapped my coat tighter to cover my nightgown, and got out. The street was snow free without any icy patches to blame my action on. My car had no damage to my car, though the cruiser’s front grill had a tiny dent in it. Head swimming, I approached the policeman and apologized. He looked at me in disbelief, and then his gray eyes lost their glint and he commanded me to “return to my vehicle.”

While he filled out the accident report, I felt like such a failure as a mother. I hadn’t been organized enough, or firm enough while raising my son. Then, in a stomach-burning flip, I saw that in the guise of love, I’d been enabling him. Me. His mother.

A few nights later, my son called from his room and asked if I had the car because he needed a ride to work.

“No,” I lied, though I’d just parked it in the garage. I don’t usually lie, but I’d been living in a hellish fugue for ten years, and at that moment, it was the best I could do. Insights are easy, changing my behavior isn’t. Ala-non advises detachment. For me, detachment is a slow growing plant.

Even after my epiphany, I still get knotted up trying to steer my son away from making poor choices. I try to remember the bear mother who sends her cubs off and moves on. I know my son is smart enough to figure things out, and even climb a tree if he must. But me? Well. I’m doing my best to stay on my own side of the street.

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Roberta Faith Levine

Roberta Levine's work has been seen in Numero Cinq, Literary Orphans, Women's Quarterly, Allegheny Magazine and other publications. Her chapter on "Devising Theater" was included in the Routledge publication The Role of the Arts in Learning (2018). A Roothbert Foundation recipient, she works with students on the autism spectrum, and lives in northwestern Pennsylvania with her family.

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