In the past few days I have been reading the book beautiful boy by David Sheff. I plucked this 2008 paperback off the shelves at Goodwill upon seeing that Anne Lamott wrote the first blurb on the back cover. As she is perhaps my favorite author, I knew instantly that this one was coming home with me. So far Sheff has also quoted Lamott twice in the book, and I am only about a third of the way into it, but my devotion to Lamott's work is not actually the point of this post.
The book is a memoir about Sheff's experience of raising his son Nic, who in very young adulthood becomes a meth addict. While I have not yet arrived at what I perceive will be the more harrowing parts of the story, one of the first pieces of the book to slap me in the face was a passage about the negative impacts of joint custody on children. Nic for years went back and forth between parents, flying great distances to be with his father during the school year and his mother during the summer and holidays. Sheff quotes a well-known researcher on the impacts of joint custody: "You'd like to think that these kids could simply integrate their lives between their two homes, have two sets of peers, and easily adjust to being with each parent, but most children do not have the flexibility. They begin to feel as if it's a flaw in their character when it is simply impossible for many people to conduct parallel lives." (p.69)
The author reads as a very available and invested father. He cares, and he wants to be close to his son, to help him, to see him through. From the rest of the blurbs on the back cover, I glean that this story will come to involve a great deal of loss, but I am not there yet.
This morning Noah crawled in bed with me holding a hardcover book that includes Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel, Katy and the Big Snow, and other Virginia Lee Burton classics all bound together. We read Katy and the Big Snow and The Little House, my voice becoming choked with tears at the point when the house is abandoned and sad in the big city, and I am full of the beauty and tragedy. I wonder how Noah will come to see it, for it is all there in the world.
The second thing that leaped off the pages of beautiful boy is that the author, beginning to have serious concerns about his teenaged son's drug use, went ahead and smoked a joint with him on a walk when Nic asked him point blank if he wanted some pot (p. 90). He does not sugar coat this in the book, and surely, I read it as he must have come to see it - permission asked and granted. I hope and pray that rather than what Matthew and I say in our future crucial conversations with Noah about drugs, smoking, drinking, pornography, violence, and on and on and on, that it will matter what he knows us to do. While in years past I agonized about every television program Noah ever saw, now I trust that he has gotten more from watching us savor life more than media, and has learned that occasionally including t.v. or movies to take a break from our full lives will not harm us indelibly. May it be so with these harsher realities.
What resonates for me so far about this book, is of course about my own life - more specifically, my surging and recurring question about the absence of a close relationship with my biological father. My parents divorced before I was 5 years old, and I subsequently grew up with a loving and present stepfather. However, a therapist once told me that present or not, "replaced" by a stepparent or not, there are no two more important people in a child's life than her two biological parents. And from there (and from some other things as well) I suspect that a pattern stemmed, a deep abiding love for unavailable people, one that for a long time did not serve me well in my intimate relationships. From my early life in Bar Harbor, Maine, where my father remained for some time, to all the years since, when I have lived all over the state and he has been in New York City, I now trust the reverberations of his absence: A partner who began working the night shift a few months after we got together, so we never saw each other; another partner who was emotionally abusive, telling me everything I feared about myself that might have caused a parent and therefore any other loved one not to want a relationship with me; a close friend who stopped reaching out to me once I was no longer a conveniently available neighbor; another partner who said he wanted to "keep 'no' in reserve" even while our relationship became more committed and we decided to live together. It is a profound thing to me, how loyal I could be to people I fiercely loved, despite what little they sometimes offered in return. In the original case, how loyal I might be to someone who had so little involvement in the clothing, feeding, housing, and raising of me in my younger life.
And yet, given the differences between my parents, and the realities of the negative effects of navigating two homes, would any alternative arrangement with my father have been better? While I've sometimes wondered if things might have been easier for me if my biological father had offered me more of himself through the years, supposing my father had faught for me, had something he wanted to offer me, wanted me to be with him more, and shared his hopes and dreams with me, how might that have fractured me instead, given that I already had a home base? Or supposing my parents had not divorced? Impossible to say now, but I think these are provocative questions, largely because I am coming to believe that the healing answer to any of the alternatives may be strangely the same - I believe Sheff may speak to this later in his book, about the seduction of being close to another person, as a young person or an adult, and the need to eventually save yourself and let go, or else be forever lost somewhere in the middle.