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About The Author

Libby CataldiLibby Cataldi

LIBBY CATALDI holds a doctorate in education and has been an educator all her life, most recently as head of Maryland's Calverton School. She has two sons, Jeff and Jeremy Bratton, and divides her time between Annapolis, Maryland and Florence, Italy. 

photo: © Ray Haas

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EXCERPT

Chapter One

The Boy in the Cape and Cowboy Boots

November 24, 2005, 12:30 A.M. Jeff is twenty-seven years old.

So how do I feel? Like a failure of a mother. Everyone in the field of drug addiction says, "Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it; you didn’t make him a drug addict." But look deeply into a mother’s eyes and tell her that her child is dying and it’s not her fault. Sure, it makes sense if it’s not your kid. But for a mother to do nothing to stop the pain, to alter its course—is it possible for a mother not to feel guilt, shame, intense hurt? Maybe for some, but I’m not there. I doubt if I ever will be. For me, I think I will wear this like a skin. Maybe I’ll forget I have it on sometimes, but it will be forever part of my being, my eyes, my smile, my thoughts— like a breath that catches me short or my heart when it misses a beat. That’s it. Jeff is my heart murmur—I have allowed his aches and traumas to damage my heart, and it is beyond repair. Maybe this isn’t the case for other parents, and maybe I’m wrong, not healthy. But this is what I feel, this is my heart.

Motherhood wasn’t always this way, this battle with addiction, this feeling of failure. How did it all change? I wish I could trace the beginning of Jeff’s drug addiction and point to a continuum of events, of specific blips on a chronological graph that cry out the alarm, danger, drug addict in the making, danger, addiction coming, like a truck’s warning as it backs up. How does one become an addict? How does one become anything? Is it in the genes? Of course that’s part of it, but not all. Is it in the upbringing? Life situations? Birth order? Specific events? I have two sons, and they are different. One is an addict; one is not. What is it that has kept Jeremy safe and put Jeff at such risk?

Their early years run through my memory like one of those picture books that you flip quickly with your thumb, the images blending together to tell the story. We lived at the northernmost end of Calvert County, Maryland, a rural tobacco- growing region, a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Patuxent River. Our neighborhood was called Quince View Meadows, and the boys’ days were spent there, among the woods and trails. Their memories are filled with the deep greens of the woods at twilight, with the shades of yellow and orange as the light filtered through the leaves, with the laughter of playmates as they raced through the fields, with the crisp smells of autumn and the crunching sounds of leaves as they traipsed up the long driveway home, to their tree fort, to the tire swing that lifted them to the heavens and twirled round and round on the descent.

Jeff, from his earliest years, loved to imagine, to create, and I can trace his childhood through his fantasies. He was Superman, Batman, Spider- Man, and even Aquaman, then He- Man, a kind of invincible superhuman, followed by Luke Skywalker fighting for good against the evil Darth Vader, Indiana Jones on a search for trea sures, then a BMX biker taking to the air from the ramps he built with his buddies, and finally a skateboarder leaving the safety of the neighborhood behind as he discovered new frontiers.

Maybe Jeff always wanted to escape reality, live somewhere else. It seemed so harmless then, during his early years. It seemed magical.

When Jeff was just two years old his scarlet Superman cape became part of his daily attire, hanging around his neck and trailing down his small back. He had found an iron- on emblem on the back of a cereal box and asked, "Will you, Mommy? Can you make me a cape, just like Superman, with this on it?" When Jeff donned his homemade cloth, he became Superman and joined the fight for good.

I remember sitting next to two-and-a-half-year-old Jeff as we peered out his bedroom window on the third floor, high above the ground, and always feeling a little afraid that one day he might leap out in the belief that he could fly.

"Jeff, do you think you can fly?"

"Yeah, I know I can."

"Angel, do you know what fantasy is?"

"Yep. It’s when things aren’t real, like fairy tales."

"And do you know what real is?"

"Uh-huh," he nodded his head slightly up and down, his dark brown hair cut short with long bangs that framed his eyes, intense and innocent, as he studied me quizzically, wondering, I think, what was my problem that I didn’t understand this whole flying thing. "Real is true, like what happens, like what we see."

"Great. If fantasy is make-believe and real is what happens, do you really think you can fly?"

"Yep, I know I can fly, because Superman is real and he flies."

And so it went, to the grocery store, to preschool, Jeff wearing his trusty red cape, denim Wrangler jeans, the cordovan cowboy belt with his name embossed on the leather, and the saddleback-colored cowboy boots that my parents had bought for him when we last visited them in Florida. Quite naturally, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., became one of our favorite destinations, since Jeff was enamored with space travel. Once, when he was about three or four, he wore his entire Superman outfit, complete with blue tights, T-shirt emblazoned with the Superman S, navy shorts, cowboy boots, and of course his cape to lead the way to the lunar space module on the first floor to the deep right of the entrance. He stood next to Jeremy and explained in a loud child’s voice, unaware of others near us: "Jeremy, Neil Armstrong was the first man who ever walked on the moon, in Apollo 13. The moon has no gravity or air to breathe, so he had to wear a space suit and heavy boots made just for space. He got to the moon from the space ship in this lunar module. OK, now we’ll go upstairs to show you the golf club that Neil Armstrong used to hit the ball." Jeremy, just twenty months younger, and who looked like he could have been Jeff’s twin—only smaller, and with lighter brown hair and hazel eyes— listened to everything his older brother said as if memorizing each word.

Of course I was proud— proud of them both, my babies. I was a teacher, and that was my life’s profession; I was a mother, and my sons were learning together. These were the days when I could love them as openly as I wanted. Which I did.

As Jeff and Jeremy grew older and entered elementary school, their bonds became tighter. They would lie on Jeremy’s bed together, looking out his window at the woods beneath, and they would cloud talk, the kind of daydreaming that kids do. Although they were still confined by the borders of Quince View, their days were now filled with leaving home behind. There were other times, too, when Jeff hung out with his friends, and they would hide from Jeremy and his gang because the big guys were just too cool to play with the little ones. Jeff and his buddies built forts in the woods, played basketball at the courts, constructed bicycle ramps, careened through the neighborhood on their two- wheeled horses, and swung between trees on the vines in what they named Vine Jungle. They swam and perfected their cannonball dives in neighbors’ pools, hopping between the Saltas’ and the Kesslers’. Winters made frigid playgrounds, with snow blanketing the woods and fields; their world became a crystal wonder as the trees around our home were covered in white, ice dangling from the branches, and almost invisible tracks left on the surface of the snow by the squirrels and birds were the only hint of animal life. The only time we mothers would see the big guys was when they’d appear in one large group at someone’s home, ready for grilled cheese sandwiches and glasses of chocolate milk.

It was so easy then.

Later, when Jeff was around ten and in fifth grade, he fell in love with skateboarding. Many of the neighborhood kids tried to balance on the oblong- shaped platform, but most often they would fall to the ground in laughter. The others soon lost interest and left to play basketball or ride bikes, but Jeff loved the sport and stayed, working to master new tricks that he had seen others perform or ones he’d made up.

My older son loved to fly, create, and invent, all positive attributes, but somewhere along the way Jeff lost his desire to use his gifts.

Whatever happened during those years and later, Jeff always protected Jeremy, almost like a father, encouraging him, rescuing him from his childhood mishaps, and listening to his boyish ramblings. When they were in middle school they played on the same soccer team. During one game, a player from the opposing team, a kid who was three years older than Jeremy and outweighed him by at least twenty pounds, was guarding him aggressively, and kept knocking him over, tripping him. Without forewarning Jeff left his position in the center of the field, jogged over to Jeremy’s adversary, whispered something in the kid’s ear, and then resumed playing. The boy never tripped Jeremy again, and at the end of the game I asked Jeff what had happened. He sighed angrily. "I told the kid, ‘You touch my brother one more time and I’ll break your fucking nose.’ " Jeremy adored his older brother, and he mimicked Jeff’s walk, dress, and talk, always watching. "Jeff was like a father to me. I always felt safe when I was with him," Jeremy once told me. They were the Bratton boys. They wrestled, they shared their secrets, they were bonded in friendship and in blood.

The four of us, including Tim, weren’t together often. Tim and two partners had started an environmental consulting company in Washington, D.C., and twelve-to-fifteen- hour days became his normal working and commuting schedule; there was also some out- of- town travel. Work was his domain, and he was successful; with two small children, I was happy to make our home my world. Tim’s income allowed me to stay home and be a full-time mom, and his absence seemed to be the price of successful entrepreneurship.

We weren’t the kind of family that ate together each evening, picnicked, camped, or even played Scrabble. On weekends we were the kind of family that usually ate together only on Sunday evenings, and sometimes we went to church, but usually the boys and I would go alone or not at all. Planned family outings for special days like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day consisted of brunch and a round of golf. We went on occasional family vacations, planning times of togetherness in advance to fit Tim’s work schedule. The boys and I had supper together, and I would prepare Tim’s dinner, place it in the microwave for heating when he came home—often as late as 10:00 or 11:00 P.M.—and he would eat in the kitchen alone. By that time the boys had had their baths, had been tucked in, and were sound asleep. If I was still awake I would join him, although I was usually asleep, too. In the mornings the boys might see their dad for a brief hello, but often he would be asleep, or would be busy dressing to go back to work.

Even when Tim was home he was frequently consumed with business; his was the kind of work that was always present, floating in his head, needing attention. I knew that he wanted to be a good father and husband. He was kind, and when we first met and dated in college, I fell in love with his quiet and gentle manner. He was also smart, and when we were young and newly married he’d earned a master’s degree in business administration. In addition, he was athletic and had been a long- distance runner, and I thought he would connect with the boys especially through sports, but his intense work schedule dominated his time. I felt sorry for Tim during those years; his physical and emotional absence seemed to keep him apart from his sons. Once, when Jeff was ten years old, he corrected my complaint, "You say that Dad’s never home. Dad’s home, but when he’s home, he’s like the cat."

For myself, when both boys were old enough for school, I returned to my teaching career. I had earned a doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh, and I was anxious to resume working, to use my degree, to publish educational research of some kind, and to make my mark in my profession. Jeff and Jeremy attended the Calverton School, a small in de pen dent day school in our county, and I began working there two days a week. Later I accepted a part- time position at Towson State University as codirector of the Maryland Writing Project, and I taught preparation courses for teachers in secondary education. I was happy with a four- day workweek teaching and a three- day weekend to clean the house, grocery shop, and cook meals for the following week.

Things changed in July 1987 when Jeff was about to enter the fourth grade and Jeremy the second. The Calverton board of trustees dismissed the head of school and the president of the board asked me to accept the position. This offer came out of left field and took both Tim and me by surprise. It was an opportunity to use my degree and to build something substantial. I was tempted; however, my dad, the Italian patriarch, a domineering and successful self- made businessman, warned me, "The school is in grave financial debt. You’ll be riding a dead horse. Don’t take the job."

I was conflicted. My sons were at the school, the fourth-grade teacher had quit and a replacement was needed, the second-grade teacher was great, and I cared very much for all the teachers at Calverton with whom I had been working for four years. The school was in a sorry way, and with its opening less than two months out, the calendar for the upcoming year wasn’t even published. In addition, without my consent, the board had already mailed a letter to the parents announcing my "headship," and parents were calling me at home. I was angry that this dilemma had been forced on me, and to make matters worse, I was under contract to fulfill my upcoming yearlong teaching duties at the university. Also, I reminded myself, I had always stayed home with the boys during the summers, and I cherished our time during those lazy months. On the other hand, my sons were benefiting from their education, from their gifted teachers, and I didn’t want to put this at risk. I was happy to be a part of my sons’ educational lives. I loved kids and teaching, I thought I could do a good job, so, in the end, I accepted.

Jobs can take over lives, and as Tim’s business had taken over his, Calverton began to take over mine. I started my duties as head of school on July 14, and my sons’ care for the remainder of the summer was left to Hattie, an older woman who cooked, cleaned, and watched the boys. They still roamed the neighborhood playing with their friends, but with a father whose presence was still unreliable, the boys were now faced with adjusting to a mother who was around less and less.

In September, the school was ready. Veteran teachers were in charge of the fourth and second grades, my sons’ classes, and I was satisfied that their education was in good hands. The school opened its doors with renewed optimism, although the serious financial issues loomed.

Each morning the boys and I would now get ready together for the day at Calverton. We’d have breakfast and then pile into the car and travel to school. I cherished those quiet moments when we would talk.

On one of those early mornings, Jeff asked me, "Do you believe in the devil, Mom?"

I wondered where this question was coming from.

"Well, some people believe in the devil, and in the Bible they talk about the devil, but I wouldn’t worry about the devil if I were you."

"Do you believe in God?"

"Yes, I believe in God, Jeff."

"Do you believe in heaven?"

"Yeah, I believe in heaven."

"Good, I believe that, too. I believe what you believe."

It was just that easy. He believed because I believed, and Jeremy, who listened quietly from the backseat, probably believed, too.

That was when I could kiss a knee scrape and my mother’s magic could make the hurt go away. As Jeff grew older, my power faded.

My dad proved to be correct about the school’s desperate situation. It was dying financially, and it demanded long hours from me as I worked to save it from closing, to keep it alive for my sons and all the children, as well as for the dedicated teachers. It took a mighty team effort, the combination of powers of the board of trustees, the staff, the parents, and me. Sacrifice became the name of the game, and maybe because I was the head of school, I felt singularly responsible, and felt the need to work harder than anyone else. I often stayed late working, while the buildings were quiet, returning phone calls to parents, conferring with teachers, or attending the many events and meetings that happen during after- school hours. School became my twenty- four- hour occupation. Even at the grocery store, I was that ever-ready professional woman who was alert and visible, answering parents’ questions about their chil-dren’s grades, playground altercations, and the college application pro cess.

Hattie didn’t stay long into the school year; she didn’t want to give up every weekday eve ning from 3:00 p.m., when school ended, until Tim or I came home. I was always scrambling to find someone who would take care of the boys, cook dinner, do laundry, and even help them with their homework. I struggled, juggling work and home responsibilities, because it was important to me that the boys had nutritious meals, regular study periods, and predictable bedtimes. At home I had always been the lead parent, which was a role that suited me well. I was naturally a take- charge woman who had been reared by two high- achieving parents, and especially by a father who was a former Marine Corps drill sergeant who had commanded our family life with mottos like "Speed, accuracy, and results" and "Good, better, best. Never let it rest until your good is better and your better is best." I reveled in the role as primary decision maker for the children during their early years, and Tim was happy to give me control. However, as the boys grew and life’s problems became more difficult (as they always do), coupled with the demands of our work, Tim and I had no pattern for coparenting. We weren’t prepared for what was to come when our family life began to jump the track and careen off the rails.

Tim and I loved our children and wanted to be a family, united and together, but we spun off in opposite directions. Tim was immersed in building his business and, even though I was with my sons every day, my time was torn between working to save the school and being present for the boys. Sure, Tim and I could have, and probably should have, worked less, spent more time with our sons, established better boundaries, and attended church more frequently. But these are not the causes of Jeff’s addiction. Many kids grow up with absent parents, but they are not addicts.

December 3, 2005, 7:30 P.M. Jeff is twenty- seven years old.

I want to blame someone, anyone for my son’s addiction, even me. That would be fine, and I’ve tried. I was sure that Jeff ’s behavior, Jeff ’s affliction, was Tim’s fault. Or mine. I’ve worn the yoke of guilt for years; better my fault than Jeff ’s. The truth is I still have no one to blame, because I’m sure there is no blame. After more than ten years and continual heartbreaks, I’ve come to realize that an addiction is just that. Folks in the field of drug treatment call it an allerg y. Jeff has the allerg y, and we are all affected.

There were lots of red flags, as psychologists call them, starting small and growing in intensity, like the smoke that warns of the approaching forest fire. I denied most of them. I noticed, I saw, and then I dismissed them, talked them away. Tim feels the same and has said, "We were busy with our professional lives. I made comments, but I didn’t question. I didn’t realize what was happening until later."

Jeff was in fifth grade when he was caught smoking on the school grounds. With all the challenges finding reliable child care, I had decided to keep the boys with me after school until I had finished my work and was ready to leave for the day. While I was working in my office and Jeremy was in the after- care program, the music teacher caught Jeff smoking behind the gym. My duality as both head of school and Jeff’s mom maximized my feelings of humiliation, anger, and shame. I removed myself from the situation, and Tim was called to the school. Other administrators at the school met, and Jeff received a day of in- school suspension. He was young; everyone was sorry. Tim shook his head quietly, took Jeffrey home, and said little. I swung in the other direction and ranted about dishonoring the family name, and told him that he was to report to the school’s after- care program until the end of the year.

Tim and I didn’t talk together or with Jeff about why he was smoking, nor about what had happened, and not about how he felt. This was becoming our pattern. We were growing distant: As Tim became more subdued, I became more forceful and demanding. Tim and I never yelled or screamed at each other. Instead, we grew silent, and with time our silence became a fog that filled our home, distorted our vision, and suffocated us. Jeremy once told me, "When we’d do something wrong or had a problem, Dad did nothing and you’d overreact. That’s one of the reasons we never told you the bad things."

Jeff continued into middle school, ages eleven through thirteen, and the smoking incident was forgotten. He was always a good student, making honor roll and director’s list with averages of 3.0 or above. His writing was strong, he led class discussions with ease, and his homework was always completed well because he was conscientious about his assignments and due dates. He dressed with care, wearing either the school uniform of navy or gray slacks, white button- down shirt, and tie, or the casual clothes of soccer shorts, T-shirts, blue jeans, and sneakers. Chores like mowing the lawn and raking leaves were done willingly, and usually without being asked. Jeff played sports and made friends easily with a wide variety of kids throughout the county.

Red flags? Was skateboarding a red flag? I still don’t know. At that time it seemed innocent enough and a good outlet for his energy. He was a gifted athlete, and he performed a myriad of tricks on his half pipe, a ramp that we had built in a corner of our driveway for his eleventh birthday. Over time, Jeff constructed his own skateboarding playground, complete with plywood boxes, strips of wood, concrete parking blocks, and jump ramps of all sizes. Kids from around the area came to us to skate, but Jeff was playing at home, and I was comfortable.

Many of his friends who skateboarded were older, kids I didn’t know and whose parents I had never met. When I was home I looked through the glass doors or talked with them when they took a break. These brief encounters were just that, a kind of small window of information. Sometimes I spoke with the boys who lived across the street and who spent the most time skating on Jeff’s ramp. One was tall, lanky, and a jokester. He’d fall off the skateboard, tumble to the ground, and pretend to be hurt, but like Gumby he’d pop back up, making some silly face or sound. He lived with his mother and brother, whom I didn’t know. The other was quieter and said little to me, looking at me obliquely and never meeting my gaze. Although I didn’t know his family, I’d heard that his father was a policeman, so I felt pretty confident that he must be a well-behaved kid. Whenever I began probing more deeply about these older boys, Jeff was quick to dismiss my concerns: "They’re my friends; they just want to skate. They’re good kids; don’t worry. We’re right here on the driveway. What can happen?"

I agreed. Jeff was eleven years old, active, happy, and close to home. I saw no immediate harm, and even enjoyed shopping for his clothes with brands like Freshjive and Quiksilver, and buying sneakers that were Vision Street Wear and Airwalk high- tops, worn until they had deep holes on the sides from skateboarding tricks. He sported hats that carried the logos of popular skateboard companies like World Industries, SMA (Santa Monica Airlines), and H-Street, and he wore them backward, with the brims turned upward and stickers on the underside of the bill. His shorts were baggy and his shirts hung low over his hips and advertised favorite skateboarders. Hair gel became an important item in his daily routine as he wore his hair clipped short on the sides with the top hanging a little longer and combed just right. Thrasher magazine, delivered each month to the house, was devoted to skateboarding and the music culture that surrounded it, heralding skaters like Mike McGill and Jeremy Klein and featuring bands then pop u lar in Los Angeles. At night he and his friends watched skateboarding videos like The Search for Animal Chin and Hocus Pocus in our family room, and then they’d try out new tricks on the driveway under the lights.

Jeff turned thirteen and our lives took on a new dimension as his horizons broadened. Some of the older boys lived beyond the perimeter of Quince View Meadows, and our sons were not allowed to leave the neighborhood until they were thirteen. The day after Jeff’s thirteenth birthday, he was off like a shot, making daily trips to visit those kids who lived within walking distance of our home. They were in high school, and were tougher, more experienced, and Jeff loved being part of their group. I might have asked, however, why they gravitated to him, why they accepted a middle school child, still in eighth grade, who was two or three years younger, a big difference at that age. Jeff’s relationship with these kids has turned out to be one of the real red flags.

Years later I asked Jeff about this time period.

It’s hard to say where everything started. Skateboarding, maybe. I adored the sport, and spent a lot of time riding with the older kids across the street. But the older kids were into older stuff. Cooler stuff. Stuff I decided I wanted to do. When I was with them, I thought, "Wow, this is what guys do." They were a total departure from everything on our side of the street and I was fascinated with the sense of adventure attached to their lifestyle. At my age, they seemed fearless. They skipped school, smoked cigarettes and pot, drank beer, and watched pornography. I absorbed it all and imitated where I could. Their entire world was new to me. They listened to music, bands like the Cure, Chameleons, and Bauhaus. They played bass guitars and drum sets, and stayed out all night and drove around in cars. During those years excitement became synonymous with badness. It was cool to do what you wanted and even cooler not to care.

I wanted to believe that all was well. I wanted to believe these older boys were good friends for him and that Jeff was living a life that meshed with all he had been taught. Certainly I now wish we had asked more questions, probed more deeply, and watched more carefully. Tim later reflected, "I didn’t question early enough. I knew that Jeff didn’t spend enough time with the good kids and that he enjoyed the other kids. Jeff liked to live close to the edge— part of him liked taking risks. It was his personality. By the time we got involved, we were too late."

Jeff’s first arrest happened during the summer between eighth and ninth grades. The mother of one of Jeff’s friends was to pick up the boys in front of the movie theater, but they never appeared. Finally, she received a call from the police: The kids were at the station. They had been caught stealing cigarettes. Tim and I went to take custody of our son. The officer simply stared at us from behind the desk, shook his head, and never uttered much of anything except "OK" as he gave us Jeff’s personal belongings. He held a little brown envelope in his oversized and calloused hands, squeezed its edges between his fingers with their clipped nails, tipped it, and dumped out what seemed like a hundred safety pins. Swiftly, he handed me Jeff’s black torn baseball cap, and I could see all the tiny holes where the safety pins had once been inserted. Moments later Jeff appeared in front of us, ashamed, afraid to speak, head down, glancing at us sideways. He looked small against the cold starkness of the room, his hair cut short, shoulders thin; he was in that time period when kids are about to grow tall, the stage between child and young adult. I felt ripped between two conflicting emotions as I watched my fourteen- year- old son walk through the doors from the holding cell: Part of me wanted to shake him and scream at him, but another part of me ached to hold him, to look into his eyes and ask him, "Why?" But I didn’t do either of these things— I turned on my heels and walked away from him.

He slid silently into the backseat as Tim drove. Tim didn’t say anything to Jeff in the car that night, nor did he say much later, but I played my usual role and said things I don’t even remember.

"What was the most painful thing I’ve ever said to you?" I asked an older Jeff.

His answer was quick; he knew.

"When you and Dad picked me up from the police station after my arrest, you told me that you wished I weren’t your son."

I was stunned into silence, rummaging through my brain trying to remember if I had said those words. How could I have said those words?

"I’m sorry, Jeff. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me." What more was there to say? In anger, we parents say things we don’t mean, and our words pierce our children’s remembrance like a blade.

I’ve wondered for many years whether words, actions, or ge netic or environmental factors are responsible for Jeff’s addiction. In fact, this question of cause has claimed much of my time, and I’ve spent countless hours reading addiction material and talking with experts about the answer. Why? Because I’d like to blame something or someone for his addiction, because I want to rage and relieve the constant throbbing pain that reminds me every day that my son is an addict. I’ve searched into our family’s history, trying to find some kind of bad blood or alcoholic gene to rail against. He wasn’t exposed to drugs at home— Tim and I weren’t the kind of parents who had cocktail parties and a cupboard full of liquor, or who used drugs ourselves. I’ve blamed his addiction on peer pressure. I’ve wondered if he just liked the drug scene and enjoyed losing control. Maybe he thought real men did these kinds of bad and rebellious things. There’s research done by medical doctors that supports the model of addiction as illness, and identifies substance abuse as a chronic and relapsing disease, comparable to diabetes or high blood pressure. I think about cancer: Why does cancer strike one sibling and not the others? Why is Jeffrey an addict and Jeremy isn’t? Maybe it’s just random.

After all this, I still don’t know the answer to the question of cause, but I do know I’ve finally stopped searching for the answer, because it doesn’t really help Jeff. I’ve redirected my thinking into questions about recovery, about how to support Jeff as he learns to live in sobriety, how to support him through relapse, and how to stay compassionate through the process.

Jeff appeared in front of the juvenile magistrate for his cigarette theft charge, and he carried himself with great ease, took the total blame for the group, and spoke with confidence and maturity. In the end he was assigned community service, and the magistrate admonished him with what proved to be prophetic words: "Young man, the jails are filled with thieves who are the smartest people in there. Be careful. You’re smart. Use it in the right way, or I guarantee you, you will be back in front of me, or another judge."

When Jeff left middle school Tim and I applauded Jeff’s popularity, his athletic ability, his social skills and good manners, and his grades. We did not see the troubled waters underneath the achievement— the skilled manipulation, the dubious friends, and the premeditated theft. We wanted to believe that our kid was the good kid.

Ninth grade, the beginning of high school, brought a new dimension, a faster pace, and more red flags. I became a detective, smelling Jeff’s clothes, hands, what ever, for cigarette odors, or, when doing the laundry, looking in his pockets for remnants of tobacco or, possibly, marijuana. At the same time, I attempted to maintain a mother’s air of competence and trust.

Jeff began wearing black concert T-shirts and hanging his baggy jeans so low on his hips that the hems dragged on the ground. His music felt dark, disconnected, and hazy, music that other kids I knew were not listening to, and I remember bands with names like Jesus and Mary Chain, Jane’s Addiction, and Pigface. He wore Vans tennis shoes or thick- soled, heavy Doc Martens, and his jewelry became an assortment of leather straps decorating his wrists. Jeff and I talked about these things, my concerns, but I didn’t intervene in any significant way. I figured he was just enjoying the passing fads of dress and taste, and besides, what did I know about popular bands?

In ninth grade Jeff joined a weekend school camping trip with some of the high school students. I thought this was great until he was sent home early because he had been caught smoking. The chaperone of the trip, a science teacher at school, called with remorse in his voice. "Lib, Jeff’s coming home. Can’t stay. Caught smoking with some se niors. I’m sorry." Me, too, I thought. As head of school I respected his decision, but the mother in me wept with conflicting feelings of anger at and protection of Jeff. This time Tim was furious, disgusted, and he stormed into Jeff’s room searching through his drawers and closet on a quest to find traces of drugs or cigarettes, determined, I think, to find something, anything. Tim took his anger out on inanimate objects as he yanked Jeff’s posters off the walls, rummaged through the clothes in his dresser, and read his journals. He opened shoeboxes in the closet and overturned the stacks of cassette tapes on his desk. When Jeff walked into his bedroom and saw the aftermath of the intrusion, I’m sure he felt violated, but he and Tim were silent to each other, a cold, hard silence. I, as usual, took the parental lead and delivered some form of punishment about the smoking; I don’t even remember what it was.

That Thanksgiving, as every year, we traveled to Tim’s parents’ home in Indiana, Pennsylvania. After the holiday, Jeremy and I returned to Maryland and Jeff stayed on with Tim to hunt deer, a male family tradition. Jeff hated to hunt, hated the cold, hated sitting in a deer stand, waiting, but I thought the time with nature and his dad would be good for him. He and Tim hadn’t yet addressed the smoking incident and the searching of his room, and I thought that the quiet time together could be a bonding experience, a time when Tim and Jeff would talk, communicate, really share.

The evening of the second day of hunting, Jeff called. "Momma," he said, "I hate it here." He ended a long complaint with the words "and I’m going to kill myself."

What?! Fighting back the urge to scream with fear, anger, and shock, my mind and heart strained to connect, much like two train cars that jump the track and need to be attached again to be able to function. Jeff had never mentioned suicide before, and I wasn’t sure whether he said this for attention, for spite at having to stay behind to hunt, or for help, his desperate cry. I had learned from a school psychologist that if a child has a plan, if a child has really thought out the process of how to kill himself or herself, then there is an immediate and real concern.

"And how will you kill yourself, Jeff?"

"Dad’s in the shower and his car keys are on the mantle in the family room. The hunting guns and ammunition are in the car. I’ll take the keys and get a gun and shoot myself." His voice sounded shaky but sincere.

"I’m asking you to wait, Jeff. You haven’t even seen Jeremy or me to say good- bye. You need to wait." My voice was imploring, struggling to know what to say, my mind racing.

"You just want me to wait. You just don’t want me to kill myself. I know." I could hear his head spinning.

Ten minutes after I hung up with Jeff I called back to talk with Tim. He didn’t want to discuss the situation while he sat in his parents’ kitchen. He was adamant; he would talk with me when he came home. My head was in a whirlwind, and I didn’t know what to do. I called a psychologist whom I had been seeing for over a year, and he gave me the name of the head of the adolescent psychology department at the University of Maryland Medical Center and encouraged me to call. "Your son is crying out for help; he’s suffering. Do not take this lightly."

When Jeff and Tim arrived home, Tim told me that Jeff had stolen two cartons of cigarettes from his grandfather’s grocery store. While Jeff was on restriction from smoking during the camping trip, he stole cigarettes— this time, from his granddad. Jeff explained that he had been afraid because he knew he was in worse trouble than before, and he wept with remorse. He felt overwhelmed with problems, and in his fourteen- year- old mind, suicide was his answer.

I knew Tim and I needed to come together strongly for Jeff, so I asked Tim to talk on the phone with the psychologist. I thought this might help Tim understand Jeff better and provide the foundation on which to build a stronger bond between them. Tim agreed, and I left the bedroom so Tim could talk in privacy. When he hung up I rushed back into the room wanting to know all that was said. He picked up the newspaper and started reading, saying nothing to me. Of course, I pressed him; I was anxious to know what the doctor had said. Tim looked at me absently and replied, "He asked me, ‘Does your son need to kill himself to get your attention?’ " Tim stopped there. "And what did you say?" I pushed again. Tim continued to read silently and, for reasons I’ve never understood, he never answered me. We were losing each other, just as we were losing Jeff. Tim closed himself behind a newspaper and Jeff closed himself in his room. And me? Once a week, Jeff and I would leave school early and drive to the hospital in Baltimore, where he talked with the therapist in his office while I sat in the lobby, and the storm continued to build.

The truth of these years of Jeff’s early drug use is still a blur to me. While I was concerned about cigarettes Jeff was smoking pot, drinking, and watching pornography.

Meanwhile, Jeremy was watching his brother closely. He was two years younger, in the seventh grade, loved lacrosse and basketball, was a whiz at Nintendo, and looked at life through eyes of youth and innocence. It was only natural that he was confused by much of what he saw. Years later Jeremy and I talked about this time period, and he told me, "I didn’t know drugs were bad; I just didn’t know. I was naïve, and even when Jeff was high, he never treated me any differently. I was still trying to decide what was right and what was wrong."

It was during these early years that Jeremy learned to keep Jeff’s secrets. In fact, he remembers the exact moment that he chose silence, in his mind to solidify brotherhood. He was walking down a neighbor’s basement steps to be with Jeff, who was skateboarding with one of his friends on ramps that they had constructed for rainy day practice. The two older boys were listening to the music of a popular rap group at the time called N.W.A., or Niggaz With Attitude. I had forbidden Jeff and Jeremy to listen to this kind of music—songs about death, violence, drugs, and sex— and when Jeff heard Jeremy descending the stairs he ripped the tape out of the player and tossed it under the couch.

"I realized then," Jeremy sighed, "that if I wanted a relationship with my brother, I had to stay silent. I could either not tell you and keep Jeff close or tell you and lose him totally. I never wanted to tell you; I needed Jeff more than I needed you. I wanted to protect him, and I knew that even if he was dying, I couldn’t talk. I wanted Jeff’s attention and approval. I would have done anything to be part of his life. I had a sense of belonging with Jeff. The silence bonded us."

Jeff entered tenth grade, Jeremy was in eighth, and I had started my sixth year as head of school, yet I still wasn’t accomplished at managing my dual roles as mother to Jeff and Jeremy and head of school to 254 children and 42 employees. I remember teachers and parents warning me, their looks of worry and even fear as they asked me, "And how’s Jeff?" Some memories smack me, and now I wonder, "Where was I?"

Excerpted from Stay Close by Libby Cataldi.
Copyright © 2009 by Libby Cataldi.
Published in May 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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