A coworker was talking to me about the challenges and milestones of raising a son. She has a young boy, five years-old, and at some point, he’s going to have to shower by himself. I told her it’s probably best to let him shower by himself next year or so. Then later, the topic drifted into one of the probably most difficult things parents have to go through, coming home to a son who just got into a fight.
A child coming home from school with a bloody nose or a swollen lip is probably one of the most visceral signs to a parent that they cannot shield their child from all of the awfulness of the world. And what’s worse, there’s also the urge to tell your son that in such cases, they might inevitably have to be awful in return. Of course, this situation is not really unique to boys, but in this conversation, we focused mostly on sons.
I don’t have many memories of my parents protecting me from the direct awfulness and violence of the world. To be honest, I never really got into any serious fights. I’ve been sucker punched a couple of times, but I’ve managed to diffuse the situation without getting into too much violence. I’ve come home with a swollen lip before, but I managed to hide that from my parents as well.
One of the most memorable, and perhaps one of my earliest embarrassing moments to me in regards to my parents happened to me when I was around nine to twelve years-old. My neighbor had a cousin who would occasionally visit. She would play with us whenever she’s around. She was a cute young thing, very friendly, and a bit of a tomboy. I had a little crush on her as a kid. Now I don’t know whether it was known or not, but I really didn’t do anything to pursue the matter. What was I going to do? We were kids. But one day, after knowing her for quite a while, for some unknown reason, she wrote on permanent marker on a gate by our house, “Joe is ugly!”
Now, I really didn’t know how to react at the message. I was more bewildered than anything else. And the weird thing is I really didn’t see any point in trying to cover it up or erase it. I remember just moving on, playing with my neighbor, and going about my childish ways.
What happened next was my mother coming home and seeing the message. She didn’t confront anyone about. She didn’t talk to the neighbors, nor did she ask me what happened between me and whoever wrote that message. She just went back out with a permanent marker and covered it herself. I remember being embarrassed about it, showing her a world where people hate her son enough that they would write slurs about him. Not everyone thinks her young son is as wonderful as she thinks he is. But looking back now, that must’ve been quite a day for her: coming home, seeing evidence that someone is trying to pick on her son, and with a quiet dignity, trying to shield her kid from the world’s hurtful slings.
Interestingly enough, that girl was one of my first introductions to the world of sex. No, not directly, but she was the catalyst to so many questions growing up. Her cousin was spreading a rumor that she had relations with an older boy. Apparently, this all happened while that cousin was listening in. I’m going to leave out all of the details, but it was odd that it never really occurred to anyone back then that what happened might very well have been abuse. We never really knew the age of that older boy. And as for her, despite my foggy memories, she couldn’t have been older than twelve at the time. I didn’t really believe the rumor, and I remember compartmentalizing and just putting in a part of my brain that I don’t ever access (a useful trick Catholic school taught me), but damn… the stain of that news around the neighborhood is a thousand times more hurtful than that childish message she wrote on that gate.
Continuing with the drama: the cousin who spread that rumor around; we used to hear him get beat up by his father for being gay. We couldn’t do much about it at the time. We were kids, and I’m not sure if people really did anything for situations like that back then. I don’t really remember much about him. He was a bit older than the rest of the neighborhood kids but he was friendly enough with us. The last thing I heard, he died in a fire in a nightclub. Despite being barely an adult, he was working as a waiter and there was a fire. The club owner was negligent and kept the fire escape locked, trapping many of the people inside. Poor guy.
He was someone’s son. What happened to him was the world’s awfulness coming at full force. That’s the awfulness that mothers fear… the awfulness that permanent markers can do nothing to stop.