Drawing of razor bladesBy Debbie Styles

I am at a salon getting a much anticipated massage when the therapist – an older woman with a no-nonsense manner and a bright bubble of yellow hair – runs a finger down the inside of my left wrist, her long pink nail stuttering slightly as it bumps over a small nest of scars.

“You a cutter?” she asks.

The question takes me off guard, and I feel a momentary panic, as I struggle to keep my expression neutral. “No,” I say, and then because she seems to be waiting for something more – some sort of explanation, I suppose – I go on to tell her the story I’ve told countless times before: The long ago car accident. The hand through the windshield. The crowded ER and the bad stitch job.

“Ancient history,” I add by way of conclusion.

The woman is silent for a moment, clearly considering this. “A car accident,” she says, finally, her gaze still trained on the mish-mash of lines criss-crossing my wrist.

In the days that follow, my mind returns again and again to this incident. How dare she ask such a personal question, one part of me would think. What an old busybody! While the other part of me, the more reasonable part, would chastise myself for getting so upset. After all, it wasn’t the first time someone had asked about those scars. I’d fielded my share of questions over the years, mostly from lovers, but also from the occasional friend. Once, a sweet (but shockingly naïve) woman asked me if I had been attacked by something. “Was it one of those feral cats?” she asked, eyes wide with concern.

The occasional query aside, what has shocked me most in the 20-plus years since these scars first appeared is how rare it is that anyone even seems to notice them, much less make a comment. While it’s true that I do my best to keep them covered, it’s also true that, self-consciousness aside, my scars – a four-inch rectangle of spidery white lines on the underbelly of my left arm – are simply not that remarkable looking. They have a hodgepodge, slightly haphazard look that make them easy enough to explain away.

“Ancient history,” I hear myself say, and feel a fresh wave of irritation at the woman in the salon.

Underneath this irritation though, I feel something else entirely. Something old and sad and entirely too familiar: I feel ashamed. Not for the scars themselves – I have more or less learned to accept these as a permanent, if not entirely welcome reminder of past pain, But ashamed at the lie. A lie that had come so effortlessly, so easily, that it all but begged the question: Why? Why, after all these years, could I just not admit the truth? That there had been no car accident. No hand through the windshield. No crowded ER and bad stitch job.

There had just been me. And a package of Stanley Fat Max utility razorblades.

Cutting is a hard thing to explain. To the uninitiated, I imagine, it looks like a bizarre act of violence, one that is both impulsive and irrational, not to mention melodramatic, in a weepy, movie-of-the-week sort of way. For me though, cutting was more an act of self-preservation than self-destruction. Of the long list of bad ideas that often ran through my mind, it was the most benign.

The first time I cut myself, I was housesitting for a couple of retired snow birds in a remote Vermont town. It had been a miserable winter. My boyfriend had broken up with me; I was friendless, jobless, and utterly alone. Beyond the surface hurts though, lay a much deeper hurt: At 23, I’d already buried a father and a brother, and it would be an understatement to say that I wasn’t handling these things well. I spent whole days wandering the cavernous rooms of that old farmhouse, my pale pink pajamas drooping off my rapidly shrinking hips, like a tired ghost drifting aimlessly around the edges of her suddenly too small, too sad life.

I found the package of razorblades in the far corner of the medicine cabinet in the hall bathroom. I can’t recall what, if anything ran through my mind in that instant. I certainly wasn’t looking for razorblades and cutting (this was back in the early 90’s) was not something anyone talked about then. All I remember is that when I drew that blade across my skin for the first time, when I watched, transfixed, as that first drop of blood slipped down my arm, I felt…better. Not happy, or not exactly happy. But calmer. Clearer. And, if I’m being honest, I felt relief, too. Relief at putting on the outside the hurt that had, up until then, only lived on the inside. The hurt was now visible. At night, the sterile white dressing would glow in the dark attic bedroom, the pain underneath like a steady heartbeat lulling me to sleep.

I cut off and on for the next seven years. It was my dirty little secret, and one I was careful to hide under an expanding collection of flannel shirts and cardigan sweaters. Several times over the years I tried to quit. I would take the package of razorblades I kept in the nightstand next to my bed and toss them in the trash, during the kind of spring cleaning that has more to do with the soul than the dust bunnies under the bed. Yet, within a day or two, I would find myself at the local Walgreens, scanning the shaving aisle for a replacement pack.

I finally stopped, more or less for good, when my daughter was born. I can’t say why, exactly, except to say that it is a terrible feeling to look down at the perfect infant sleeping in your arms and wonder how you are going to protect them – not from strangers or illness or accident – but from your own sad mind. I knew I didn’t want to be “that kind” of mother. The kind who routinely forgets school lunches and permission slips. The kind that makes other mothers think twice about playdates. The kind that allows (selfishly, carelessly) that tiny wormhole of panic in her heart to spread into every corner of her children’s lives, until they are afraid all the time. Just like her.

So I became that other kind of mother. The kind who, through sheer force of will, manages to keep her sadness (mostly) in check. It wasn’t so hard…motherhood came naturally to me in a way nothing else ever had. I found joy in tending to my daughter, a joy that pulled me away from the temptation to cut, to self-destruct, like a small but persistent tide.

Once, when my daughter was in Kindergarten, she pointed to my wrist and asked, “What’s those,” in a voice so full of shy concern that it was clear to me that, in some important way, she already knew.

“Just some old scars,” I’d replied, kissing her cheek. “Ask me again when you’re older.”

She never did. But six years on I sometimes catch her looking at my wrist, a curious wondering in her green eyes. Someday, I think. Maybe someday.

By the time Christmas comes, I’ve managed to put the incident at the spa behind me. The day itself is almost perfect: A snowfall, a crackling fire, good food, good friends, and to my surprise and delight, a set of imported German cooking knives from my husband.

“Wow,” I say, holding one of the knives up to the light, marveling at its sleek precision. “I love them.”

My husband ducks his head, pleased. “I know how you love to cook.”

I do love to cook. And it is with the vague idea of whipping something up that I find myself in the kitchen after everyone else has gone to bed. The knives are still on the counter, right where I left them. Carefully, I slide the smallest of the knives from the box and then, without any real thought or feeling, I do something I haven’t done in years: I press the length of the blade against the inside of my forearm and slowly, carefully draw it across the skin. Instantly a long diagonal cut appears, and I brace myself against that familiar flash of pain. But the knife is so exquisitely sharp, so precise in its design, that there is none. There is only a hot sensation, followed almost immediately by a succession of drops that slide, tear-like, down my arm, hitting the tile countertop with a faint tink.

I set the knife back on the counter and grab a clean towel from under the sink, pressing it firmly against my cut. I watch, feeling very little, as the white cloth blooms red under my fingertips. When the bleeding finally stops, I ball up the rag and stuff it inside the trash can, taking care to bury it under a pile of coffee grounds and dinner scraps. The ritual is a familiar one – the scrubbing, the cleaning, the tending – and I perform each task quickly, easily, with very little thought.

As I slide the knife back into its box, I catch my reflection in the large picture window, momentarily startled by the apparent ordinariness of the scene: An almost middle-aged woman tidying up her kitchen. My eyes move past my reflection and for a long moment, I just stare out the window, my gaze taking in the snow, glimmering like a mound of diamonds beneath the soft cream sky. Though I know I should feel disgusted with myself, furious even, I don’t.

Perhaps this is just how it will be, I think. A part of me living securely, happily, in the light. The grateful mother. The wife. The sister, the daughter, the friend. While another part of me, a thankfully much smaller part of me now, lingers forever in the shadows. Never quite able to relax. Never quite able to trust her own happiness, her own amazing good fortune. Always wanting, if only to settle some internal score, some persistent sense of fear, dislocation, and unease, to know that there is another way out. That the sharp edge is still there. In the drawer. Solid. Predictable. Right where I left it.


Author’s Note: I spent two months trying to write an entirely different story — one where I seemed happier, healthier, more in control. I couldn’t make it work. I wrote this story immediately after that experience, mostly just to see what it felt like to tell the truth about myself. The end result is an essay that makes me cringe  inside, much the way one does when looking at a photograph that manages to be both slightly unflattering and totally accurate. 

River Holmes-Miller lives and works in Fort Collins, Colorado. Her work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Memoirs Ink, The Front Range Review, and other publications.  Her story, “What is There, What is Missing,” has been nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.




A Predator In The House

A Predator In The House

computer_2738337bBy Elizabeth Cohen

He was our friend.

We went out to eat, to the movies. We traipsed around our little town together. We talked several times a week on the phone. We texted back and forth about this and that and nothing at all. We laughed about the same things. We were on the same page politically. He hated gossips. He was mad about cuts in social services. He loved Shakespeare. He was appalled by the idea of fracking.

I will call him Tim.

Tim and I did each other favors. When my ceiling sprouted a slow leak in the shape of Australia, Tim came to the rescue with a sander, spackle, drywall and tape. When his car was being fixed, I lent him mine. He housesat for us and fed our cats when we were away. We lent him a little money when he was between jobs. He paid it back. We ate a lot of Chinese food.

When I say “we,” I am talking about my 15-year-old daughter, Ava, and I. Tim was a local drama instructor and Ava took every class he offered. She played the lead roles in plays and short films he directed and learned the nursemaid’s monologue from “Romeo and Juliet,” which she performed with such passion my heart plomp-plomped in my chest and landed somewhere in my throat.

She was nuts about him, asked him for advice and accepted it when he gave it. She thought of him as a father. Her own father is far away and sick, waiting for a heart transplant, and had not given her as much attention in years as Tim did in a single day. Tim played stand in.

Families in our community signed up their daughters for classes he taught in babysitting at the Red Cross. When Ava completed the course, she received an official certificate and a card she could put in her wallet. “I am ready to work now, Mama,” she told me proudly.

Once, I let Tim take her along with another girl for a day in Burlington, Vermont, as a reward for their hard work on a particular play. They went out to eat and to an amusement park.

I want to say here that it wasn’t just Ava and I who loved Tim, it was our whole town. You might say he was considered something of a small town cultural treasure. Like a spring that has healthy and delicious water, we discussed his presence as fortuitous, lucky. We felt sorry for other towns that had nobody like him.

But then came a warning, a text to me from another mother, stating that Tim “wasn’t what he seemed.” She couldn’t tell me the origin of the information or even the details, but it was bad, she said, “really bad.” She was pulling her daughter out of Tim’s acting class and said, “I suggest you do, too.”

I went on the defensive. The unfairness! The audacity! This was the kind of gossip that could destroy lives! With a cadre of a few other moms, I fought back, defending Tim to anyone who would listen.

Then I confronted Tim. Did he know about these rumors? Was he worried or concerned? He shook his head. “Whenever you do good things or are good at something, people get jealous,” he told me. “There’s always a backlash.”

Indeed there is, I thought. History is full of examples of talented, beautiful people taken down by innuendo. And although whispers were flying about Tim, they were vague. I thought of the words of the King James Bible: And withal they learn to be idle, wandering from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.

In the midst of this firestorm, Ava and I packed up suddenly to leave town and travel out west to help care for her father, who had by this time become extremely ill, his sick heart failing. We decided that Ava would attend the high school there and I would help out with his care as best I could, changing out oxygen canisters, shopping, cooking, making glass after glass of fresh veggie juice, hoping that the blood of beets, mixed with apple, ginger and celery might contain just the right curative properties. We knew that time was running out and we were going to make the most of it.

My husband, Shane, and I had lived apart for years, he preferring the west and I employed and active in the east. Now his illness was forcing us all back together. It was a deeply emotional time for our family, which had been limping along for years. We brought minimal belongings and Ava’s cat Carder, of course, her best friend, who seemed skittish and rattled by the long journey. Carder’s mood mirrored our own. We were nervous all the time, wondering what fresh blast of bad news each day would bring. I put Tim and the controversy surrounding him out of my mind.

While Shane and I watched back to back episodes of “Game of Thrones”—a show so violent and brutal it could make you forget, for fifty-minute intervals at least, that you were dying—Ava stayed in her room posting updates on Facebook and occasionally texting Tim with news of her days. He would write back with advice (“love your father as best you can, while you can”; “don’t do drugs”).

By the end of the summer, we had to return home; my job was in jeopardy if we stayed away longer and Shane was being moved to the Mayo Clinic where he would wait for a heart. I charted our course across the country along Route 66. No diversions, no time for exploring or vacation fun. I knew if I stayed on this one straight road I would not get lost and Ava and I could find lodging and food along the interstate. Three highways would bring us home, much of it through flat brown expanses that melded with the horizon like a single seam in a shirt.

The world was changing—I couldn’t help but notice. The chugging oil wells from my childhood vacations, softly yet constantly pumping up crude, had been replaced with wind turbines, silent sentries twirling en masse. But it was in Tennessee, where the flatness broke down into gentle valleys and hills and the pervasive brown melted into green, that our lives would change, in a tectonic way, no less monumental it seemed than the larger world’s shifts.

A text came in with a soft ding as Ava and I walked into a Waffle House. Every town seemed blessed with these small, squat waffle manufactories that promised buttery, crunchy distraction from the miles and eating at one had become a priority for Ava since we had seen the first one somewhere in Texas.

“Maybe they’ll have strawberry or blueberry,” Ava said hopefully as we walked to the counter. “Or chocolate!”

The Waffle House of our choosing, a plain rectangular building that smelled of grease trap and mud-caked boots, the friendly chatter pierced by the buzz of flies, had neither chocolate, strawberry nor blueberry, only plain waffles served in plain rectangles. I placed my phone on the counter and we ordered. Whatever missive was there could wait, I thought, and I had a foreboding feeling about it. Had something happened to Shane? Is this how people find out someone has died?

When we got back into the car, I flipped open the screen to read it.

“Tim arrested,” it read. “Child pornography.”

It was from my friend at home, the other mother, the one who had warned me many months before. Attached was a copy of the FBI report. I clicked and read on.

FBI? Pornography? My tongue, still thick with the taste of bad waffles, throbbed as my brain sizzled with shock.

“What is it?” Ava asked. “Why are we stopping? Is Dad O.K.?”

She pulled Carder to her chest, her practice whenever she was really scared or upset about something.

“Dad’s fine,” I said. “It’s Tim.”

“What about Tim? Is he O.K.?”

“Not really, I said. “He’s been arrested.”

“For what?” she asked.

For what.

I read the report silently to myself. “Read it to me, read me what it says,” she insisted. And then I decided. It was a split-second decision, instinct really. She was fifteen. She was no longer a little kid. And this was something in her life, too. In her life big time. So I read her the affidavit. And as I did I could see her begin to tremble. And then shiver all over. And then I realized, despite the hot August sun pounding down on us on the side of the road, I was shivering, too.

Tim had been caught, red-handed, with a child, and on his phone was an image of the child he had uploaded and traded with other child pornographers in exchange for photos of other children in all sorts of poses, naked, doing unspeakable things. The picture on Tim’s phone was of the child’s vagina in clearly manipulated poses. I realized he had to have touched her in ways no man should ever touch a child. The trembling which became the shivering had become a full scale shaking. The hand holding the phone seemed to be under the influence of a beam of electrical current. My stomach lurched and I felt a sudden desire to throw up as I continued to read aloud.

Tim had an online moniker—I will call it here “TTTREAT”—and using it he had hung around in a chat room of incest aficionados pretending to be this child’s brother. But there had been a sting and he had been caught. As I read I saw Ava sort of cave over Carder, collapse in on her, and then, after several minutes she spoke.

“Mom,” she said, “I have something to tell you.”

I looked at her. She was clicking away on her cell phone, looking for something. Then she found the thing she was looking for. Some months earlier, she told me, she had received texts from a kid at her school, who used the name, I shall say here, “TTNEAT.” And this kid had told her he “had dirt on her,” pictures of her with her first boyfriend. He threatened to upload these pictures on Instagram, send them around via Snapchat and Twitter, perhaps, or maybe write things about her on Facebook if she didn’t send him some pictures of herself. Her reputation and personhood would be destroyed in our small town.

“Mom, I think it might have been from him,” she said, disbelieving. We looked at one another. We could no longer say his name; Tim had become a nameless being, someone whose name could wield evil just by saying it.

“But you didn’t do it…you didn’t do it.. you didn’t do it, you didn’t send…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.

Silence. Shaking hands. More clicking on her phone.

“I did, Mama,” she said, now fully buried in Carder. But the picture she sent wasn’t what he wanted, because in it she was wearing underwear. He became angry. She read me all the texts from “TTNEAT, and as she did, we both began to cry. To cry and shake and cry and bend over, she into her cat and me into the steering wheel. “Oh honey, oh honey,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

“I thought it was some weird kid at my school,” she said.

And then: “I thought you would get mad.”

For a long time we were silent, sitting by the road side. Then my hand crept toward hers, and hers toward mine. And we just sat there, off I-66, in the shadow of the Waffle House, our hands entwined in the horror of the deception. In the sadness of what had come between us and no doubt scared her beyond speech, beyond telling. And now had become even more horrible. The lie that had revealed the truth.

“I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing you ever do will ever change that.”

“I love you, too, Mama,” she said.


A month later I sat, shaking again, in a chair at the office of the local FBI agents in my town, facing two grown men in suits.

“Grooming is what predators do,” the lead agent on Tim’s case was telling me. “They take their time, moving slowly into your life to achieve your trust. They will wait a long time to get what they want.”

It was so hard to grasp, that Tim wasn’t really our friend at all. He wasn’t a drama teacher or a certifier of babysitters at the Red Cross. He wasn’t a man who took care of cats, fixed ceiling leaks, ate Chinese food. That was all a mirage, a ghost image of who he really was. He was a shapeshifter. A thief of images of children, a seller of innocence. And he was the thief of my daughter’s heart. In the aftermath of his arrest, Ava retreated into a silence so deafening I could hear it beat. It had a pulse, like another living thing in our house. This silence.

If the FBI were right, and I had to gather they were—though there was a small part of me that still wanted to protest, “You have the wrong man!”—Tim had been after my daughter. Mine and everyone else’s. And we single mothers, or women without our daughter’s fathers in our homes, were his chief hunting grounds. He saw us as vulnerable, demilitarized countries where his evil intentions could go unchecked. And he was right. We were vulnerable. I was. I had made him chicken dinners with homemade mashed potatoes—lumpy, with extra garlic, the way he liked them.

The things he did shocked and appalled our whole community. We were all damaged. In early September, one month after his arrest, we had a parent’s meeting in the tall grass behind the Unitarian Church in our town, where we compared notes and talked about what had happened. A few people cried. Everyone seemed horrified. And once we compared and contrasted our myriad “Tims,” we came to see, in the light of day, with cicadas buzzing and a breeze tapping about the tree branches, that Tim was not Tim. And somehow, we were not us anymore. We were a different us. A stained and wiser us.

As for Ava, she seemed to harden somehow, as if the soft candy in the double boiler of her childhood had been removed from heat and was stiffening. One day, I noticed she had moved her American Girl Dolls outside her room. They lay side by side in their homemade beds, the covers pulled up to their chins. I stopped in my tracks. She was fifteen after all, it was probably time. But the way they lay there, their glass eyes staring at the ceiling, arms by their sides, seemed to make a statement about the exile of innocence.

My grief and shock slowly transformed into rage and guilt. How had I let this happen? What had made me trust Tim and even defend him when the rumors began to emerge? Was I also guilty here? I thought about the way he had tiptoed into our lives. A class party, a trip to the local pool, activities for kids in his drama program, a “premiere” at a real theater for the homemade films from his film class. He had been so nice and caring and after years of single motherhood and a husband who remained far away by choice, whose health was collapsing, I was hungry for it. I realized I carried some responsibility here as well. I had wanted our little family to have support, to have another leg. That leg, in the end, was not a leg. It was a hand holding a camera, waiting to snap pictures.


Postscript: Today, Tim awaits sentencing at a Federal prison in New York State. He faces eleven counts of the production of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography. The texts he sent to Ava, using blackmail to get her to send more images, may become an additional charge. For each charge he faces up to ten years.

Elizabeth Cohen is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of the memoir The Family on Beartown Road and the short story collection The Hypothetical Girl, among other books.







Bubble Wrap

Bubble Wrap

By Deborah Mitchell

motorcycle jump

How can we protect our kids from getting hurt participating in risky activities and sports?


I am the mother who gave up. The mom who, somewhere along the line, just said, “Do what you want. I give up.” I severed the cord to my willful, tow-headed teen and gave him complete control over his own life. As any parent knows, kids sometimes wear you down until you have no fight left.

My sixteen-year-old son has lived and breathed dirt bikes since elementary school. And I have protested, pleaded with him and his dad that he find another, safer sport.

“But the kid loves to ride,” my ex-husband told me over and over, and at night, when my son and I went on our walks with the dog, he would tell me he wanted to become one of the best, that he loved riding more than anything else, even more than his own life. He’d talk with an enthusiasm I’d never heard in his voice, a desire that said he was strong and determined, and he practiced and worked on his bike every chance he had. He stayed out of trouble. Didn’t I want my kid to work hard for something? I told myself that he was exhibiting the grit that every person needs to thrive and succeed.

His dreams were not the dreams I had for him, but could I, in all fairness, take from him the thrill his personality craved, the goals he wanted to attain? Didn’t child experts claim that today’s parents bubble wrap their kids, that they’re too protective? At least this is what I told myself, to exonerate the guilt I felt of giving up the fight against a sport I knew was dangerous, especially for a child who was still growing and changing.

I never gave him my proverbial blessing, but I stopped protesting. It was easier to just look the other way and hope that he would come home safely. I didn’t have to listen to him say those awful words that made me cringe: “You’re the worst Mom. Ever.”

I didn’t have to listen to him tell me that I allowed his brother to pursue his dreams of playing tennis, but that I stopped him. There is perhaps no greater heartache than hearing your child point out a perceived inequity in parenting.

There have been little accidents along the way. Broken fingers. A broken hand. Sprains. Abrasions. Minor head injuries. Yet I knew it was only a matter of time before the Big One—the accident that would, in a few moments, change our lives forever. I knew this somewhere in the back of my mind; on some level, I’ve been waiting for it.

And one day last summer, I received the call from my son’s father. I knew before I answered that my son had an accident. It was still early in the day, and my kid usually called or texted me in the late afternoon to tell me, “I’m okay, Mom.”

“Where are you?” He asked. I was driving, thirty miles from home. My stomach clenched. He told me my son was in transit by CareFlite to a hospital in a nearby town. It would be at least a thirty-minute drive. He tried to pacify me with the words, “He’s doing okay. Stay calm.” But I knew that accident victims were not taken by helicopter if they were just “okay.” He was conscious, but he was scared, his dad told me. He explained that my son had taken a jump too aggressively and over-shot the landing, losing control and tumbling end-to-end with his motorcycle, over and over under the control of speed and momentum. Out of safety and concern, the Motocross track had been shut down while they worked on him, in case he injured his neck or spinal cord.

My son arrived at the hospital shortly before I did. He lay in the ER, terrified, immobilized in a neck and back brace, tethered by tubes and monitors. His face was bruised and swollen. The boy that I had carried in my belly, worked so carefully to create and carry, was broken, would be permanently scarred.

The first two things he told me were, “I’m done riding.” And, “Please don’t get mad at Dad.” As he moved in and out of awareness, he said he didn’t realize how much he wanted to live. He was not ready to die.

The helmet, the gear he was wearing, had saved his life. I was thankful that his dad had been so vigilant about safety. My son got off relatively easy: collarbone surgery, spinal fractures, concussion, collapsed lung and a few days in critical care. He would walk, and there would be no permanent signs of his accident, save for a long, thin scar along his right collarbone. Youth was on his side helping him heal, but it would also work against him. As his body recovered, he buried his fears and forgot how close he was to paralysis, even to death.

Time mends us physically and psychologically. He has bounced back and is yearning to ride again, but I am no longer the compliant mom. I cannot give up now—when even Lady Luck did not give up. When my son speaks of motorcycles, I protest vehemently, understanding that, while this may keep him away from the dangerous sport of motocross, there are plenty of other opportunities for his thrill-seeking personality, some of them legal, some of them not.

Then, too, at age sixteen, it’s only two short years before he will be able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. I can only hope that he matures enough to understand that life is a one-way, very short ride in a vehicle that is both amazingly resilient and exceedingly fragile. Dreams can be replaced, our bodies cannot.

My son decided to take up a less dangerous, though still risky, activity: wakeboarding. He understands the importance of safety equipment and, most importantly, of limits. A bicycle, a skateboard and a wakeboard have the potential to be used in any number of dangerous stunts or unsafe activities—just like a motorcycle.

What my son does after he reaches the threshold of adulthood will be out of my control. But I must not give up now.

Deborah Mitchell writes about secular parenting and environmental issues. She is the author of Growing Up Godless: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Kids without Religion. Follow her at @dm2008 or

The Day He Flew Away

The Day He Flew Away

By Frances C. Hansen

He Flew away artI drove endless miles down the New York State Thruway that Tuesday. Gray concrete roads and overcast skies created the perfect backdrop for my melancholy mood. The honking geese going south resounded loudly. In steady formation they left their places behind the swampy reeds and took flight, leaving me behind on the chilly fall afternoon.

That day, Election Day 2002, my baby was flying south in the same sky with the geese. He was headed for recruit training for the U.S. Marine Corps. I was going home to my empty house, feeling like I was headed to a massive black hole.

The day actually had begun eight months prior when my son announced his desire to join the Marines. After interrogating the recruiters for four hours at my dining room table, I consented to my 17-year-old son choosing this path for his life. Through the following months I pleaded with him not to go and offered alternatives to try and change his mind. I pleaded with God too. No use. My son’s mind was made up.  I told him things his dad never got the chance to tell him. My husband had passed away three years prior. He was an Army medic in Vietnam.

Days arrogantly flew by. My youngest child would soon disappear to a place called Parris Island. I would not see him for his 18th birthday or any special holidays. I couldn’t send him cookies. I was told that sending a birthday card would lead to a “celebration” requiring at least one extra round of push-ups and humiliation from the drill instructor. Prior to his leaving, I became a fanatic camerawoman taping my son coming and going.

On the night of November 4th the moment came. I hugged him quickly. He kissed me on the cheek, picked up his bag, and walked off into a new world.  A half hour later I regained my composure, locked the doors and shuffled off to Buffalo where I would see him get sworn in the next day.

The swearing in was on the 10th floor of the federal building. Blue chairs, lined up like soldiers, faced the television as it blasted the news: “War with Iraq.”  During the ceremony they called my son’s name and I followed with my camera into a red-carpeted room with flags of all services lined up on the podium.

After the swearing in, I tailed my son’s taxi to the airport and cursed the day the terrorists prevented moms from escorting their sons to the gate. I hugged him tight and watched until he was out of sight. Then I ran into the ladies’ room and cried.

Driving back home from the airport, I anticipated the childless house. Feeling like a lost little girl in a forty-eight year old woman’s body, I made several trips into my children’s rooms then fell into a lump on the couch.

Hours later, leaving the hall light on, I retreated to my room and closed my eyes. My son was not there to tell him to lower the TV volume so I could sleep. There was no pile of dirty dishes to complain about and no one to complain to.

In the years to follow, my son was deployed four times. He called me about a week after he got to Camp Pendleton and told me he was getting deployed to Iraq. Three more deployments followed. The first three were to Iraq and the last to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. While deployed, he was meritoriously promoted to Sergeant and received the Navy-Marine Commendation Medal. How proud I am. And how glad that I transformed into a supportive mother instead of the one who originally fought to change his path in life.

Frances C. Hansen has been a freelance writer for fifteen years. She also has experience in the art of digital storytelling. She holds a BS degree in Nursing and an AOS degree in Graphic Design. Her writings appear in several print and online sites. She also has contributed a chapter of her fiction work, “Coronado,” in the anthology, “New Voices.” Some of her articles can be seen at

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Flying with No Helicopter in Sight

Flying with No Helicopter in Sight

By Lucy Berrington

Web Only Helicopter ArtI know what the answers will likely be.  Still, I ask, “Would you let your 16-year-old fly thousands of miles alone, stay in hostels with strangers and pretty much do what he wants?”

Mostly, parents stare at me in disbelief.

And this is before I even mention (in case they didn’t know already) that the 16-year-old in question has Asperger’s syndrome). That’s when they glance at each other,  perhaps betraying an unspoken question, “Who’s calling social services, you or me?”

wouldn’t.”   They add quickly, “but that’s just me.”

No, I say, it really isn’t just you.

“Of course, it depends on the kid,” they say.

That’s true. It depends on the kid.

Still, almost none of the parents I know, it turns out, would allow their 16-year-old to do these things, regardless of the teen’s developmental or neurological status.

Even for me, the obvious response, when my elder son Hugh started asking to do this, was no. “Why exactly?” he wanted to know. Why exactly? Because you’re too young.  “Too young for what exactly?” What exactly? You’re not even old enough for a gap year. High has two more years of high school.

In a New York Times article about preparing any age child for school, Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, authors of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, point out , “It’s never too early for parents to start being careful about not being too careful with their children.”

My own high school classics teacher told my class decades ago that she’d left her teen son alone in the middle of nowhere with just a map to find his way home.

I needed friends in the mold of my classics teacher.

I sought out an indomitable mother I knew whose son finagled European citizenship, moved to Amsterdam and got himself into university for zero tuition and zero risk of being busted for pot. “Look,” she told me, “A hundred and fifty years ago these boys would have been sent out west at fourteen with nothing but the expectation that they figure it out.”

Another friend had just dispatched her 17-year-old to Washington, D.C. for a six-week internship. He was staying in the home of some lawyer they’d found on Craigslist.

These were my people.

It must be evident that I am not a helicopter mom by temperament. Still, I felt like one in the early years. When your child has developmental differences, even play and basic tasks become scheduled:  social groups, occupational therapy, counseling.  It’s one appointment after another, enforced helicopter parenting even for moms and dads who never felt comfortable in the chopper. By the time Hugh outgrew his need for most of these appointments,  I was ready to dump the helicopter in some distant, humid jungle and let it rust.  These last few years, both Hugh and his younger brother have preferred that weekdays wind down around 3 p.m., soccer exempted. If I scheduled tennis and Russian and basket weaving I’d have to schedule a family breakdown too.

Like every person who has autism, Hugh is required to inhabit a world that wasn’t designed for him. Its proportions and expectations are all wrong. When his developmental differences became noticeable at two-and-a-half, I asked our early intervention consultant whether he’d ever be able to find his own way in the world. She didn’t know: “Ten years ago we weren’t picking up these things in preschoolers. There’s no precedent.”

With years of appointments and services, some smaller classes, and support maneuvering through the world, Hugh grew up even more supervised than most kids. Yet now, when he sets out for a trip from our home just outside Boston, he won’t accept rides even to the subway station, where he hops on the Green Line to the airport..

Hugh made his first solo trip last July to Washington DC.   “I’d never felt so free as the moment I stepped off the train,” Hugh reported from the hostel the first evening there. His second trip was to Edinburgh, with a layover in Dublin for the National Museum and two days with friends in England. His third, an unexpected gift from Dad, was to San Francisco. And in October he was lucky enough to swing a long weekend in Iceland — an earned reward from his indulgent father.

I haven’t parented other teens so can’t be sure of this, but it seems to me most have other stuff on their minds.  As a Brit, I’ve noticed that travel is intimidating to many Americans, expensive, and not widely perceived as a solo adult endeavor, never mind a teen sport. Europe, though an ideal learning arena for young travelers, with its intricate rail system, hostel network and feckless gap year tradition, is far away. Consequently, it doesn’t tend to pop up as an option. Most US parents aren’t faced with the decision about endorsing solo teen travel.  Instead they spend nearly every day and night with their kids until those kids go to college, and then the parents, bereft, freak out.

That might be how it goes with my 12-year-old, who has no interest in world exploration and regards family vacations as a heinous burden. The boys’ father and I moved to the US from the UK fifteen years ago, and later divorced, so they’re used to back-and-forth between two continents and two parental homes . Ours is in Massachusetts, Dad’s in Manhattan; and the boys tend to fly together as unaccompanied minors.  Because of this regime, our younger son is prematurely travel-weary, whereas Hugh’s expeditions have barely begun. (His plans extend to space, which makes my head explode.)

It isn’t easy, judging when to step out of his way, and how far. Our negotiations are at times anguished. Hugh’s persistence is a mighty force in the universe, or at least our universe — a priceless asset when he’s excited about math, a challenge when he’s into coffee and action at 2:00 a.m. His passion for travel is tricky, exciting, and admirable, and I’m grateful for it.  Many adults with varying forms of autism face colossal obstacles getting out into a world largely indifferent to their needs. Some spend decades in their parents’ basements.

Hugh reads travel guides and schedules, saves money, learns languages, studies how societies and cultures evolved: ancient migrations, genetic patterns, language families, the unexpected presence or absence of certain links. (Did you know English has more in common with the Sri Lankan language than with Hungarian? Or that the Basque people are genetically distinct, descended from Europe’s earliest inhabitants?)

His travel itineraries are filled with museums, galleries, national parks, noteworthy buildings, historical sites, restaurants offering abnormally large burritos. I can hardly complain that he’s not putting these travel opportunities to good use. To the cynics who suspect he’s sneaking into bars and brothels: I think not. Hugh sends photos and detailed reports, is faithful to the rules, and highly motivated not to screw up. Independence is earned, I remind him every time he acts immature. (Note to self: maybe stop doing that? No one can be mature all the time.)

I do think about safety, of course. Hugh is six feet tall, and broad; he doesn’t project vulnerability and is conscientious about minimizing risk. I worry most about unanticipated social situations, especially sharing a dorm with strangers, so this is what we’ve emphasized in the prep (“You’re discriminating against me because I have Asperger’s!”). He knows to be cautious in expressing his strong views on politics and religion, how to get through jetlagged nights without pacing the dorm, and his conversations with fellow travelers have mostly all been friendly. Hugh checks in several times a day via text, phone, Facetime and various social media, and hasn’t yet traveled anywhere we don’t have friends on call for emergencies, except for Iceland, where he joined a guided tour each day, so was fully supervised (the highlight of that trip was climbing the volcano that shut down international flights in 2010).  Right now I’m urgently cultivating email relationships with friends of friends in Slovakia and Poland. Our one problem so far is his teen debit card account, which has been so unreliable I end up wiring Panic Cash. I’m in the market for an alternative.

Although Hugh’s solo trips have so far been to English-speaking destinations, I don’t see that as essential. Where he’s an obvious visitor, Aspergerian differences can become just an indistinct piece of the foreignness. He’s navigated an alien culture his whole life: travelling is his escape from the everyday stress of trying to pass.  That’s why part of me is saying, “Go! Run!”

And while I’m cautious about attributing his characteristics to autism stereotypes, some classic Asperger’s strengths are much in evidence: his fascination with maps, his meticulous research and fidelity to planning, that all-consuming motivation and analysis, his independence, his unconventional vision. If my typically developing younger son ever changes his mind about travel I’ll face a different set of angsts (who are you going with? what exactly is the plan? you know I’ll have you shadowed?)

Flying back from San Francisco recently, Hugh started writing a travel guide: “According to St. Augustine, the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. I couldn’t agree more, but would go even further. I would say the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page, but also cannot judge that page or critique it. … Travel helps us understand other cultures, which is an important thing, because without comparison to other cultures we cannot truly see our own.”

This time, I insisted on meeting him at the airport. (Please. It was midnight.) I waited in baggage claim, reading. Looking up, I took a moment to recognize the tall, smiling man striding towards me with the backpack, and the confidence that the world is after all, becoming his.

Related Link: In Defense of the Nap Year

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