WHEN IT COMES to their family, my kids have seen enough to understand that there are alcoholics among us, that drinking makes us more vulnerable to madness, that every now and then a relative goes away for a while. What they don’t imagine is that any of this touches them, or ever could. That’s what youth is all about: invulnerability.
Still, they humor me. “I’m just unhappy,” Marcy says from Mexico, when I call in response to her e-mail. “It’s not like I’m going to kill myself.” But don’t kids always lie about what they know scares you most?
“How was school today?” I ask Jake.
“Fine.” Hard and brisk, to ward off further questioning. I press on:
“Classes going okay?”
“Anything I should know about?”
He looks at me. He has a way of conveying contempt by settling his face in an expression of bland dispassion. I wore that same expression a lot when I was his age.
He’s right here in the kitchen with me, but he might as well be in Helsinki. Marcy’s thousands of miles away. I can’t bridge the distance with either of them. That’s how it feels, more and more, as they grow older, and stake out their own lives — friends I don’t know, secrets they don’t share, crises I’m not privy to.
What do I tell my kids about the genetic crapshoot they face in terms of insanity? “Don’t drink”? There’s a new photo of Marcy on her Facebook page, taken in Mexico; she has a tequila sunrise in each hand. “Don’t do drugs”? They know their dad and I did. “Times were different,” we explain. But the tumult of teenhood hasn’t changed. I’m caught between my parents’ refusal to acknowledge the existence of mental illness and the shock of seeing someone I love shut away behind locked doors with a bunch of loonies.
If it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. To Jake. To Marcy.
There isn’t any Them.