[* With respect to eden ahbez’s haunting song, Nature Boy, recorded first by Nat King Cole in 1948.]
There was a boy….
He’s seven years old. A tall-for-his-age, blond, blue-eyed boy with a weariness of face. His eyes dart around people, avoiding their faces—especially their eyes. His voice is uncertain, full of question, rising higher at the end, as if uncertain whether to make a statement or ask a question or cry. He instinctively backs away quickly from human touch, visibly forcing himself to let an arm encircle his shoulders or a hand stroke his arm.
“Adam is my wild child,” says his grandmother Katie, a woman not of his blood, but of his soul.
I think of my own youngest “wild child,” the fearless wonder who pushed my limits from his very birth. A boy of good heart and loving nature, but also a boy of challenging wit and ruthless determination to have his own way. But Adam hasn’t even had that opportunity yet. He’s lived more akin to Victor, the 19th century’s Wild Boy of Aveyron, than the son of a truck driver and a woman once given a full-ride university scholarship. And while not the true feral boy that Victor was, Adam is his cousin.
A very strange enchanted boy….
Through the dramas of roughly-blended families, Katie had little exposure to Adam (her husband’s grandson) before his fifth birthday. But once she had spent a little time with him, she recognized the tragedy that was building for his future. He didn’t know how to bathe himself or brush his teeth or wash his hair or use dining utensils. But his father had taught him to how to use an assault weapon.
Adam had developed few communication skills, meaning that when he did speak, he was hard to understand—not from any biological problem, but from a simple lack of parental involvement. They didn’t talk to him or encourage his speech or read to him or have him read to them. In fact, his lack of ordinary, rudimentary training in the development of speech skills and subsequent reading skills were an obvious detriment as he entered kindergarten.
A little shy and sad of eye….
Adam’s story is much deeper than these simple facts. As with any of us, the history that will affect our lives begins before we are even conceived. Our parents’ lives and traumas and their parents’ and their parents’ lives and traumas all have an effect on our lives—for good and bad. Adam got a very raw deal.
On his divorced mother’s side are mental problems (pathological hoarding, depression, bipolar disorder, paranoia) that prevent the recognition of Adam’s basic needs as a child and resulting problems in school and social settings. He was her “baby,” and she kept him as such for as long as she could, at least until the birth of another child last year who now takes up all her time and threatens her fragile mental stability.
On his father’s side is a proud ignorance of basic parenting skills—believing, as if learning to handle a gun isn’t proof enough, that it’s okay for a five-year-old to witness adults having sex or to watch frightening zombie movies before going to bed or decide when he should go to bed or get a haircut or even put a comb through his hair. This man remarried, giving Adam a stepmother who lost custody of all four of her biological children to their stepfather—something nearly impossible in most states. But, nonetheless, this woman has frequent and prolonged access to Adam, whom she berates and belittles to his face constantly.
A magic day he passed her way….
Katie has not let any of this intimidate her. She is determined that Adam will have a chance at a life of his own choosing. But to have that chance, his reading must improve, his speech must improve, his hygiene must improve, and his social skills must improve.
She walks a delicate line when trying to help him, balancing the requirements and desires of his biological parents, his stepparents, all the grandparents, his classroom teacher (where Katie volunteers three days a week), and the social workers that wander in and out of his life.
“I feel I’ve let him down,” she says to me teary-eyed one afternoon after his grandpa takes him to the pool. For a moment, she feels the weight of the loss of the first five years of Adam’s life when his mother kept Katie and her husband at arm’s length. She feels the weight of the damage caused by the first five years of Adam’s life with parents who continue to have no realistic concept of the responsibilities of parenthood. But she refuses to linger on the loss or the damage or any anger she may harbor. It won’t do Adam any good, she says.
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn….
All her energy is focused now on providing him with a model—finally—of good parenting. A model that will encourage him, that will help him, that will nurture and guide him along a road of possibilities and not leave him to wander aimlessly.
“I have to teach him to help himself,” she says, “because when he goes home or to his Dad’s, no one there will help him. They think I interfere. They feel I am useful simply as a free babysitter. And that is fine with me. The best I can do for Adam is to show him the tools he’ll need to survive so that maybe he can have a life of his own choosing.” Her eyes look past me out the window to Adam and his grandpa returning from their quick swim at the local pool.
Here he finally has the experience of a home with a room of his own, with rules and expectations, with hugs and kisses, with activities to stimulate his reading and speech and thinking processes, with healthy food, and with the opportunity of a safe childhood. At least for three days a week during the summer and occasional weekends during the school year.
Will that be enough? Katie shakes her head in uncertainty. “I don’t know. But I’m certainly not going to give up. He’s learning that I’m here to stay.”
…is just to love and be loved in return.