It is July 4th, 2005. It is the in-between time. The sweet-smokey scent of barbeque hangs in the hot air. Post-grilling. Pre-fireworks.
I leave the dishes soaking in the sudsy sink and meander into the living room to visit with my family. It’s a holiday, after all, and I don’t feel like rushing to do chores.
“Are we picking Courtney up or is she being dropped off here?” I ask, thinking ahead. Sunset at 9:30. Fireworks should begin around 9:45. Don’t forget to pack the mosquito repellent! My 15 years-old son shrugs and walks out of the room. He too is in an in-between stage in his life.
“Trouble in paradise?” My husband asks. It is my turn to shrug. If so, it’s news to me. The slam of a bedroom door answers us both. Looks like fireworks are starting early this year.
“I’ll go,” I say and my husband nods. He is in charge of behind-the-wheel training and personal grooming. All issues related to dating and girl drama are my department.
I knock on my son’s door. “Hey, it’s me. Want to talk?”
“Not really.” His voice, high and tight, penetrates the door. Scrapped knees, lost competitions, episodes of teasing at school – I have comforted my son too many times to not recognize the sound of tears in his voice. I feel the prick of the blade on my skin, just above my heart. The price of love.
Raising a 15 year-old is tricky. 50% adult; 50% kid. The percentages are scored on the mean, an average of thousands of unpredictable emotional swings, and that’s just one day. I pause outside his door, trying to decide. Which son is this? The young man who needs to assert his independence? Or the little boy who needs a hug?
“I’m sorry you’re hurting, hon. I love you,” I remind him and take a few steps down the hallway. His door creaks, and I turn to see him, all six feet of his beanpole self, framed in the doorway. My only child: the acne flush on his cheeks raised and angry, his long auburn hair a failed experiment in cool, his t-shirt declaring to the world I don’t need your attitude. I have one of my own!
I wait, still uncertain what he needs from me, and then he crumples. A slow slide down the doorframe until he lands on the floor, his face buried in his arms, his shoulders rising and falling in silent sobs. I am with him in a flash, wrapping my arms around him, holding him and praying for wisdom because toddler boo boos are easy. An Elmo Band-aid and you’re golden. But this? I have no clue.
“C-c-courtney broke up with me,” he states the obvious. “She’s going out with Brad.” I don’t know who Brad is, but I secretly wish a plague of ingrown pubic hair on him. I think of Courtney who has eaten so many meals with us I’ve named one of the chairs in the dining room “Courtney’s seat.” The hovering blade over my heart plunges. All the normal things people say in times like this come to mind. There will be other girls. More fish in the sea. Her loss. But I swallow them down, remembering my own first broken heart.
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” I hold him tight, and whisper that he is loved. I hold him until his tears dry and the hiccupping sobs stop and the percentages pile up once again in the adult column.
He lifts his head and looks at me. “I couldn’t kiss her, Mom. I tried, but I couldn’t make myself do it. She said she needs to date a real man.” Those damn mean percentages drop in the seconds of silence as the full weight of what he has told me registers.
I reach for him, this 50% child, 50% adult who carries my heart with him wherever he goes, and speak my one remaining truth. “I love you, and I always will.”
Eight years have passed since my son came out. I wish I could tell you it has always been an easy journey for our family. While my husband’s and my support of him has been unwavering, it has been a bumpier path for our extended family members. My first book, Caught in the Crossfire, was written for my mother so she would be able to look at the world through the eyes of a young gay Christian and perhaps gain valuable perspective. My mother did indeed read my book and, as a result, we were able to have some incredibly honest and healing discussions. It is my sincere hope that Caught in the Crossfire will spark similar conversations within families torn apart by polarizing beliefs.
Juliann Rich’s debut novel, Caught in the Crossfire, will come out with Bold Strokes Books on June 16th, 2014. The sequel, Searching for Grace, will come out with Bold Strokes Books in the fall of 2014. Juliann lives with her husband and two quirky dachshunds in rural Minnesota. Her son is now grown and in graduate school. He is doing great! Juliann spends her mornings writing affirming young adult fiction and her afternoons working as a Marketing and Public Relations Specialist at a natural health clinic.