It's 6:15 a.m. on a Monday In March, and I'm mixing a dash of vanilla into the eggs for French toast. Sunlight spills through the kitchen window, illuminating all the scratches and stains and permanent-marker scrawls on our breakfast table.
My son, Buzz, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), on his own, has enrolled in a seventh-grade, pre-period Spanish class -- a welcome sign of academic motivation that I pay for with the daily Herculean task of getting him out the door and en route to his bus by 7 a.m. I predict that our school district will finally get around to adjusting its schedules to conform with documented adolescent diurnal rhythms on the day Buzz graduates high school.
I squeeze oranges and distribute each family member’s vitamins, fish oil, and meds among four saucers. Grind coffee beans, fetch newspapers, and head to Buzz’s room for the first wakeup call.
“Time to get up, honey!”
Where’s Jack? Still in bed? Oh, right, he worked the late shift last night. It wouldn’t be fair to expect him to be up by now. Back in the kitchen, the PBS radio station is announcing the start of another fund drive. A better person would be dialing that 1-800-number right now, checkbook in hand. Instead, I’m frying some of those little chicken sausages Buzz likes, which I made a special trip to buy. Protein in the morning is key. . . . But shouldn’t he be making his own breakfast by now?
Returning to Buzz’s room, I switch on the light. “Let’s go, sweetie!”
“Buzz, you’ll be late. Get up right now!” I shake his shoulder. Eyes still closed, he stretches his arms luxuriously. He’s toying with me. . . .
I hear, from under the covers, a fart.
Arteries contracting, I head back to the kitchen and glance at the New York Times front page -- more street bombings in Iraq -- before I hear the bathroom door slam. He’s up!
Ten minutes later, however, the shower is still running. I glance at the clock and knock on the bathroom door. “Buzz, there’s no time. You need to eat breakfast and get dressed.” No answer.
Another three minutes pass. I pound my fist on the bathroom door, to the rhythm of my thumping heart.
But then, four minutes to show time, and -- a miracle! He’s at the table, water dripping from his crew cut. Why isn’t he eating?
“Finish your breakfast,” I say.
He finally catches my eye.
“Say you appreciate me.”
“Say you appreciate all my hard work.”
“Buzz, are you kidding?”
It’s easy, in retrospect, to imagine what a better, smarter mother would have done in my place. I can just see her, in her apron, walking over and tousling his hair. Sure, I appreciate you! she’d say. End of story. Why can’t I be that smarter mother? Why can’t I say that simple thing? I’ll tell you why: I’m steamed not only from the last half hour of noodging him awake, but from the last four years of conflict, frustration, disrespect, disobedience, towels on the floor, dishes in the sink, accumulating bills, deferred ambition, declining health, global warming . . .
Buzz has his arms crossed. He’s saying something. Huh?
“I said I’m not doing anything more until you say you appreciate me.”
Who just said that? Who actually said that to her own son? Who just lunged at him, grabbing his arm?
Now Buzz is crying. “I’m not going to school!” he says.
And this is when Jack walks into the kitchen.
He hasn’t seen any of the sausage-buying and frying and French toast making, or the gentle, first waking-uppings. He sees only the frothing mom and weeping, victimized child. He looks at me not quite accusingly, but more searchingly than I think is fair.
“She wouldn’t say she appreciated me! She swore and hit me!” Buzz shouts.
“Did NOT hit him!”
By this time, the noise has awoken Max, who sticks his head out of his room, sizes up the situation, and runs for his violin. He knows I usually love it when he plays. So now Buzz and I resume our shouting match over the tinny strains of the Gavotte from Mignon.
“Just get to school!”
This time, I don’t respond. This, after all, is what the parenting gurus teach: You don’t feed the monster of abominable behavior with attention. Besides, I’m stricken by my own abominable behavior. Also besides, he’s heading toward the door and I need him to keep going -- even though there’s no way by now that he’s going to catch the bus in time for Spanish. Stalking to my bedroom, I close my eyes, catch my breath, and wonder, once again, what just happened.
Maybe Buzz really wasn’t toying with me. Maybe he was simply lost in his own world, unaware of the water-torture impact of his behavior. And maybe I was unfairly aiming at him some of the outrage I should have reserved for the boneheaded school district, or the awful Iraq War. . . .
I race through the house, looking for my keys. They’re not in the chipped ceramic bowl on the counter near the door, the new place I’m trying to teach myself to leave them. They’re not in my purse, or on my desk, or in my jacket pocket -- oh, thank God! They’re under the bag of oranges. . . . How’d they get there? No time to wonder --
Driving to the bus stop, I see Buzz standing alone. His backpack looks too heavy for him; why haven’t I noticed that before? We smile at each other as he climbs into the car. In the past ten minutes, we’ve morphed into completely different people: smaller, quieter, better.
There’s silence for most of the ten-minute drive, after which I venture: “Buzz, it’s as if I’d made you horse manure for breakfast and stuck your nose in it and said, ‘Why don’t you appreciate it?’ ”
“It’s not the same thing,” he says, grinning.
“I appreciate you now,” I say, and kiss his head before he hops out of the car and then turns, just for an instant, to wave good-bye.
I drive home slowly, zap some coffee in the microwave, and carry it out to my writing shed, turning over the events of the last hour in my mind.
Despite our continuing fireworks, Buzz and I have generally been working harder to get along, and I think we’ve made some progress. While we still fight -- a lot -- it’s less often and less hurtful. Some of this may be owed to the methylphenidate, an ADD/ADHD medication, which we’ve now both been taking for almost a year. But I strongly suspect that what’s helping just as much is the new way I’ve started to pay attention -- slowing down, trying harder to tune in, and questioning my assumptions. Often, when Buzz starts to exasperate me, or when I’m tempted to respond in kind to his UpYours@hotmail.com take on the world, I work to keep in mind what I’ve learned from my Harvard ADD wilderness guide, Todd Rose, and Rachel Brown, the neuropsychologist -- that Buzz is a kid who got needy for a reason, that he’s been told “No!” and “Wrong!” and “Bad!” too many times, and that he just might be trying as hard as he can to do his best.
Excerpted from Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, by KATHERINE ELLISON. Copyright 2010. Published by Voice. All rights reserved.
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