Out of home; forever in mind

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Another Thanksgiving has come and gone with the familiar face absent from the holiday table. This seems as good a time as any to finish a column I have been writing in my heart for months now.

I must name this beast of my sadness in my life. And you guys are conscripted, once again, to be journal and confessional.

You may remember I have a son. The last time I wrote about him would have been nearly four years ago, after my late husband died. Our only son arrived from the East Coast, where he has lived many years and usually not in close touch with the rest of us.

Emails mostly go unanswered, our calls are not picked up and texts are ignored. There might be an unexpected spate of conversation that stops as quickly as it starts, with no revelation of why it came about. Then it's back to radio silence.

This isn't how things started out. My boy was our miracle baby. Determination to not have children was followed by desperation to conceive and a doctor's speculation it would not happen.

Two early miscarriages seemed to second his opinion. When a pregnancy finally "stuck," my husband and I hardly dared to breathe. That next July, after 17 hours of labor, we delivered what we were hoping for.

Thirty-six years later, that bright day has dimmed to a wistful memory.

Our baby went everywhere with us. We worked different shifts so a parent was home day and night. I volunteered for all my kid was involved in, spending 10 hours week at his elementary school.

Not that we did everything right. Like other stupid and young parents, there was plenty we did wrong -- some of it big. But the love was always there, our family intact, food on the table and beds for all. Lights and heat, extended-family dinners, vacations and Dad coaching baseball.

As our son became an adult, no deposits in the parenting bank could be withdrawn. Almost overnight, he became a stranger to us. He changed addresses often and without telling us, called home sporadically, visiting only when we begged. And paid for the ticket.

It's confusing and confounding. Here's a boy who had our undivided attention for almost a decade before more children came along. He was kind, loving, articulate, witty. When the time came, he was a compassionate, patient big brother. And mostly happy, we thought.

Yet in the 18 years he's been a legal adult, our son has displayed those traits just a handful of times.

Like that January day in 2009 after his father died. Within minutes of walking in the door, my son did whatever needed doing with grace and authority.

He started with helping figure out the funeral. Having my clearer-headed firstborn by my side made everything less painful, including unraveling the financial mysteries of my dead spouse. I was awestruck, as were others, in seeing this bright young man function flawlessly at the saddest moment in our family history.

Even after my boy returned home he called, a lot. He continued to help with banking and other tasks from afar. He was sweet to his sisters, playing homework coach over the phone.

This new persona seemed as if his father's death had awakened our first born to the fleeting preciousness of family.

Then it went away. My miracle kid returned to his isolated lifestyle, continuing a pattern of short-term relationships with women, job hopping, ignoring his family -- unless he needed something from one of us.

Every effort to find out what he is thinking or why this happened is met with a shrug or silence.

His youngest sisters cry, the older ones get mad. Layered under every emotion is heartbreak. We don't know how we caused this, if we caused this, and we can't seem to save one of our own.

I've come to believe my son is chronically depressed, but he refuses to consider the notion. Meaning no doctor, no diagnosis, no help.

My friend Oliver, a counselor in Walla Walla, has seen this "hero child" behavior before. A son or daughter rides in at times of stress, then rides right back out. "They are forced to keep overly large, overly rigid boundaries, otherwise they are sucked into the family again," Oliver said.

And that means committing to being part of the tribe. Being naked with one's emotions and burdens and faults.

Reasons for my boy's refusal to participate is something Oliver says he can't really know without an assessment, he cautioned me.

Maybe a brain chemistry imbalance. Maybe not. Or maybe something fostered by our Internet culture, where relationships spring up in minutes, nourished by lots of back and forth communication, but the adrenaline rush of the "new" is never replaced by a rich, deeper commitment, Oliver said.

We're getting neither quantity or quality, in any case.

I no longer see in my mind a moment when things turn around and my son finds a different way to live. Chooses hope and happiness and love, all the things you whisper to the universe when the realization dawns you've created another human.

I'll go home tonight and dig out the first baby book I wrote in. I will read the poems I wrote to my beautiful toddler, look at pictures of sparkly Christmas mornings. I'll search my boy's eyes, for any hint of what was to come.

It won't be there, I know this.

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