My eldest son stopped speaking to me the night I was to give a talk to some university students, and on the afternoon my youngest son fractured his elbow when he fell off his skateboard.
It was a few years ago. The encounter with the University of Toronto students had been planned; the skateboard incident had not. My boy had decided to skateboard home after school, and his route traversed over some wet leaves. He fell, hard, and smashed the elbow. Come get me, he hollered into his cell phone, and I did.
At the hospital, we waited. I emailed the professor who had invited me to speak to his students about municipal politics, and told him I might not make it.
My son’s mother, my ex, appeared. She said that she would stay with our boy at the hospital, and that I should pick up our eldest son at the hockey rink. He was there playing an after-school game with other boys. I said I would.
On the way to the rink, I called him. I told him I would take his hockey bag, and he could take the bus back to his mother’s place. Or, I said – and I so hoped he would say yes – he could come with me to the university for the talk. I would drive him home after that.
He hung up on me.
I thought we might have been cut off, so I called him back. Presented with the options again, he hung up again.
At the rink, I spotted him near the entrance, beside his hockey bag. When he saw my truck, he started walking away.
I stopped, retrieved the hockey bag, and then called after my son. I called again. He did not look back. He stalked away, bent against the wind, silent.
That was the last time I saw my son for many months, and also the last time I exchanged words with him. It lasted seven months in all, and – despite myriad emails, text messages and attempts to reach him on the phone – my oldest boy remained as gone to me as he would be if I was dead. Sometimes, it felt as though I was.
He had shunned me.
Some nights, I confess that I admired his determination. Sixteen years old, not even shaving so much, and he was capable of such resolve!
One time, as a teenager, I recall that I was very mad at my parents, so I left home. I stayed at a friend’s house for a few days, then slunk back home, hungry and chastened. My parents never made any mention of it, and neither did I. But I still remember that I could not stay mad at them for long. I loved them too much.
Not my son, I think. He did not waver from his decision to remove me from his life, deposited at curbside like an unwanted piece of furniture. When my name flashed up on his cell phone – the one which I paid for – he did not answer. When I emailed, there was no reply. When I texted him, nothing.
Well, that is not entirely true. On two occasions, I texted him when I was angry and impatient. I told him I would cut off his phone if he did not respond.
He responded. He informed me, on both occasions, that I was a drunk and that I needed psychiatric help. Though his spelling and grammar were imperfect, I could make out someone else’s talking points. They stung, as intended.
I told him that I had never spoken to my parents that way, and that I would not be spoken to that way. He repeated that I was an alcoholic and a good candidate for a psychiatrist’s couch.
Well, I have a therapist and I don’t drink much, if at all. Years later, I still didn’t know why he shunned me, or why I couldn’t figure out a way to fix it. In my professional life, I have helped to fix the problems of political leaders and CEOs and important people. But the shunning – by a boy, who excised me from his life, like a dead limb – that, I could not fix.
Birthdays slipped by. So, too, Christmas and Easter and assorted crises. Big events were always coming, and one thing was for certain.
My son would not be there for them with me.
I knew someone who was a former Mennonite. It’s a religious tradition, I was told, that knows all about shunning.
This person was shunned by family, growing up, because they were different. The black sheep.
Late at night, when I cannot sleep – and I don’t sleep much at all, again, because he has shunned me again – I Google for links about parents estranged from their children.
There are quasi-medical web sites, mostly dedicated to stating the blindingly obvious (“Don’t give up!…Tell them you love them, but don’t overwhelm them!”). Then there are the chat rooms, where mothers and fathers tell stories about the daughter who has not spoken to them for years, or the sons who have children who have never met their grandparent.
I lurk in these chatrooms, these digital pools of despair, and try to ascertain what caused the shunning. Often, it seems, a parent has expressed an unwelcome opinion about a new girlfriend or boyfriend, or said something hurtful about a child’s sexual orientation, or disapproved of an important life choice. The child then drops them, and the days become months, and the months become years.
I always wanted to log in, and ask them: Anyone here get dropped because you wanted your child to take a bus home, or because you asked him to come see you give a speech? Anyone? No?
Had I angrily told my son something about his sexual orientation, or his latest love, I would have better understood the shunning. I wouldn’t have liked it, of course, but it would have been understandable, at least. Justifiable, even.
But to be shunned because I would not cancel a long-planned appearance at a university? Shunned, because I couldn’t immediately drive him and his hockey bag home?
That was one of the worst parts about losing my son: that it happened, seemingly, for a reason so ridiculous, so absurd, it left me convinced that that the real reason was found elsewhere.
But I could not find it.
Two of my friends committed suicide in high school. One was named Andrea, the other Siegfried. At night – between extended periods lurking in chatrooms about parent-child estrangement – I sometimes Google them, too.
I want to find evidence that they left behind something Google has preserved in the Internet ether. I want to remember them.
The Internet was far off, in those days, so there is not much there to see about Andrea or Siegfried. There is nothing at all to see about what moved them to end their lives, before they had even reached the age of 20.
Was it depression? Depression is much-discussed in the media these days. People confess to the burden of it, on social media. Famous people participate in fundraising efforts to combat it, and hint that they – either personally, or via someone they love – have experienced it.
Get help, people are told. Or: it gets better.
That last one may be true, but it rankles. Sometimes – trust me on this one – sometimes, it doesn’t get better at all. It just doesn’t.
Back in high school, and in first year university, I liked to memorize swaths of prose and poetry. Among other things, I reckoned that Andrea and Siegfried – both fond of poetry and words – would have approved.
So I memorized parts of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. At one point, Conrad says this: Life is the arrangement of merciless logic for futile purpose.
My response, a hundred years late: it may be merciless and futile, Joseph, but it sure as Hell isn’t logical.
Working in politics, as I sometimes do, I confess that I have shunned people. It happens a lot, in politics.
Someone gets enmeshed in a scandal, and everyone drops them. They fall out of favour, or they lose influence, and they get forgotten. Someone gets mad at them, and other people stop returning their phone calls. It happens too often.
After my son first shunned me, and after becoming better-acquainted with its lingering effects, I made up a list. I called up, or wrote to, or met with everyone I had shunned. As mad as they had made me – as controversial as they might have been – I could no longer do to them what my boy was doing to me.
Every one of them – all men – immediately agreed to meet, to break bread, to have a beer. They were all gracious and polite, to a one. Once or twice, I caught them looking at me, wondering. He’s got cancer, and he’s out making amends, the looks said. Why is he doing this?
I did it because of my boy. He broke my heart – and broke me – so expertly, so perfectly, it is almost as if he was put on this Earth for that single purpose. It felt like death without dying.
So I made up with former adversaries. We talk. It feels good.
All of those things happened a few years ago. Without warning, without knowing why, he started talking to me again, as suddenly as he had stopped. I knew he didn’t want to talk about it, and neither did I.
But I asked him to promise to never stop talking to me again. He promised.
And, now, it has happened again. And, now, another six months has gone by. It hurts, but not as much as the first time. He broke his promise.
He said the same things: that I’m drunk, that I’m mentally ill – oh, and that he’d hire a lawyer to keep me away from him. That one was new.
The reason? It remains as elusive as the first time.
I’ve written to him many times, to tell him I love him. To tell him I miss him. To call whenever he wants to.
He hasn’t. He won’t. This time, I’ve told my family, the shunning feels like it is permanent. He isn’t a boy anymore, making a boy’s mistakes. He is a young man, one who should know better. And he is doing this – consciously, deliberately – to hurt me. It’s working.
It may be Father’s Day, but I’m just not going to let him hurt me anymore. I know now that, while he is so smart, he is also sometimes so cruel.
That’s Father’s Day, 2021, around here.
At the end of this, I have no wisdom to pass along. You already know you shouldn’t condemn your child for their sexual orientation, or their choice of a partner, or for the career they’ve pursued. You know that already.
What you didn’t know – what I surely did not know – is that the smallest thing, the most miniscule grievance, can have the effect of bulldozing the underpinnings of your life. It did mine.
Take transit, or come along with me to see my talk: that’s all it took, apparently, to prompt my child to label me a drunk and a mental patient, and shun me for what felt like a lifetime.
On the few occasions I have told anyone about the shunnings, they inevitably say the same thing: He will come back. He will realize his mistake, and he will come back to you. He will be sorry.
After being shunned for so long, so many times, I am not convinced. After a while, too much time goes by. After too much time goes by, the gulf seems too wide to get over.
I love my son, and emails and text messages and emails are still sent to let him know that. I miss him, but there is nothing else I can do. It feels like I will never see him again. It hurts too much to hope for something else.
If you are sleepless one night, and find yourself lurking in an Internet chatroom, I bid you welcome: perhaps you have been shunned, too.
And, if I could, I would find you and hug you.