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Parenting Imperfect

June 26, 2010

Parenting Imperfect: Tragedy makes you look at frustrations with kids in a new light

Eighteen-year old Henry Granju died at the end of May.

You probably didn't know him. He wasn't a local boy. His case didn't make the national news. I only know about Henry's death because I've known his mom, Katie, for more than a decade.

We're both writers, Katie and I. She blurbed my first book. We've traded freelance tips. When I moved to Oneonta from Knoxville, she took over the night school class I'd been teaching. Shortly before Henry wound up in the hospital, Katie and I were swapping e-mails about pregnancy and depression.

No, I'm not pregnant. No, I plan to never ever be pregnant again ever. But Katie is in her third trimester with her fifth child. It hadn't been a smooth ride for her this time around. And then her firstborn died.

I don't know that there are any words that can fully encompass what Katie and her family are going through now. Since she has been publicly open about the details of Henry's death, I don't feel as if I'm spilling any secrets here.

Katie's son was a drug addict. The chemicals in his system plus a savage beating with a tire iron witnessed by Henry's "friends" ultimately proved fatal after a month where it looked like he would pull through. He died shortly after he was scheduled to graduate from high school.

Henry was a talented guitar player with a nimble mind. He was someone's son and someone's grandson and several someones' big brother. He was (and is) loved.

His problems weren't unknown to anyone who knew him and he'd just finished up eight months in rehab. But addiction isn't something that can be easily cured, no matter how much we'd like to believe otherwise.

It's not as simple as wagging your finger at an addict and screaming "don't do drugs." Ask any smoker how hard it is to not smoke once you are well and truly hooked.

It's tempting to blame Henry's parents. I suspect they'd be the first to admit that mistakes were made. In hindsight, they can see all of those moments where they could have made different choices. How could you not?

Unfortunately, perfect parents don't exist. Human babies have the misfortune of being born to human parents. We are fallible, the world is uncertain and we can't change what has already happened.

Any modern child's death is tough for the survivors to work through, which speaks to how far we've progressed in the last century. In generations past, families had to be big to have a chance at survival. You needed more hands to do the work, certainly, but you also needed to have more babies to have at least a few grow into adults. Between disease and accidents, women were lucky to see more than the smallest handful of their children go on to have children of their own.

I can't believe that my ancestors were any less attached to their kids than I am. Even though a mother expected to lose a child or two during her reproductive life, I can't imagine that it was easy, that it didn't hurt just as much, even though you knew how poor any given child's odds of survival were.

But kids can still find fatal paths, which is a truth that nearly every parent knows, no matter how uncommon it has become. The odds that Henry would figure out how to manage his addiction before the addiction killed him were poor. Folks who know or work with addicts wind up going to a lot of funerals.

There is always room for hope, however, which Katie had, even though she'd made the hard choice to force Henry to not live in her house as long as he was using drugs. Few decisions could be tougher. While your rational mind knows that a young adult can only learn when forced to bear the full weight of their decisions, your parental mind still wants to be a shield between your kid and the world that wants to hurt him.

It's easy when they are young. You protect them from everything you possibly can, from cold rain to the kid down the street who bites. And you give them small freedoms as they get bigger and better equipped to make choices. Still, you are always there to back them up.

Eventually, you have to let go and hope that they've picked up enough knowledge and sense to not get themselves mired in irreversible events. You have to live with the fact that sometimes, despite it all, they die.

I found out that Henry had died while I was on a vacation with my own kids. The Boy had been driving his Dad and I to the point where we were holding on to our last scraps of patience with the very tips of our fingers. The last few weeks with the almost-5-year-old Boy have been a trial.

The Boy is in a phase where he is against everything that anyone else suggests. He is our pint-sized Bartleby the Scrivener who would simply prefer not to. Sadly, his preferences are never expressed in a civilized manner but rather in a whine so shrill that nearby dogs wish for earplugs.

And, yet, my Boy is alive.

On the drive home from our trip, I keep looking into the backseat, where my two kids were entertaining themselves with a ball-point pen. The Diva had drawn faces on her fingertips and was telling a story; the Boy had simply scribbled on every inch of his skin he could reach. Where I'd normally grouse because I'd have to scrub him off later, I laughed because he'd taken such delight in his work.

Henry was once a little boy, too, and every bit as exasperating and wonderful. He is missed.

Adrienne Martini is a freelance writer, instructor at the State University College at Oneonta, mom to Maddy and Cory, wife to Scott, and author of "Sweater Quest," which was published in March. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/

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