YOU’VE GOT MAIL!” the AOL guy sings. I shrug off the embarrassment I feel when he does that (“You still use AOL?” the youngsters at work ask) and check to see who wants what. Probably just a mass mailing by some catalog I ordered from in 2003 … But no! It’s from my daughter Marcy, who’s been in Mexico for the past three months, studying abroad. And ever since she tacked $2,400 onto our cell-phone bill breaking up long-distance with her boyfriend Mario, e-mail and text messages are all I have to stay in touch with her. While I still marvel at being able to send her a note instantly, I find it a poor substitute for actual conversation. What with her LOL’s and ha-ha’s, it’s hard to read between the lines.
Take today’s e-mail. She’s letting me know she got invited to a quinceñera party with her host family (“It’s a really big deal here”), so she had to charge a pedicure and manicure on my Visa (“It’s much cheaper here than in the States”), and that the pedicurist said she had the feet of a factory worker (“Thanks to your Lithuanian peasant ancestors, ha-ha!!!”). And then: “Miss you, wish I was home. Terminally depressed, will start cutting myself or starving myself soon. I’ll let you know.”
It’s just a joke. I know that. I’m pretty sure, anyway. Even though she did have that bout of depression back when she was 15. Mild depression, the therapist said. Sort of like a hint of cancer. Ever since then, I’ve been vigilant, watchful. My daughter is sturdy and funny and smart, but sometimes, she gets sad. So I sit and stare at her words on my computer screen, hoping this is just a passing brush with the blues.
WHEN MARCY AND HER BROTHER JAKE were younger, I longed for them to stand out from the crowd, distinguish themselves from the vast tidal wave of humanity. Now, I find myself hoping they’ll just blend in. These are the dangerous years, the ones in which kids veer toward drugs and alcohol and risky business, start to hear voices, make heroes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
“I hate school,” Jake says. “I hate football. I hate Boy Scouts. I hate everything except playing on the computer.”
“You’re supposed to be miserable,” I tell him. “You’re a teenager.” It’s hard to be sympathetic; his life looks so unburdened from where I stand. Then again, a kid we know, a kid who used to be in his Scout troop, just got charged with attempted murder for plotting to shoot up Jake’s school.
Jake would never do anything like that. Would he? It’s impossible to know what to take seriously and what to laugh off when he gets this way. I don’t want to make light of his dejectedness, but neither do I want to alarm him — or more likely annoy him — by suggesting a visit to the family therapist we used to see. My son finds talking about his feelings physically painful. He keeps himself as walled off as Jericho.
Columbine and its sad sequels have the parents of every man-child who isn’t as sunny as Miley Cyrus on alert. And it doesn’t help to have my family history. Without even scratching my head, I can name a dozen-plus relations who’ve been diagnosed with everything from ADD to depression to bipolar disorder. Mental illness winds around my family tree like kudzu, smothering promising shoots, snapping off weak branches, convincing warm, loving people not to take a chance on having kids. I was always sure the blight wouldn’t spread to me or my children. Marcy’s semester in Mexico has unsettled me, though. We’ve never been apart this long. When I can’t see her, can’t touch her, I can’t judge whether she’s in real danger or just having normal growing pains.
As for Jake, he’s an American boy, which means the loud, angry music he loves and the gory, conscience-free computer games he plays and his knee-jerk defiance of authority all seem practically patriotic — or like patently obvious precursors to tragedy.