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Desperate Love

A father faces an impossible choice

By Richard Reiss

How many police does it take to calm my son down? One? Two? Three? The answer is nine: four pairs of officers and one detective. The scene unfolded one Friday afternoon on a slow-crime day in the suburbs. On a busy street, a group of strangers with cell phones saw a 16-year-old boy strike a 50-year-old man and felt compelled to respond. They didn’t know that this father and son could work out their differences. They only saw violence and wanted it to end.

That day, I’d suffered a blow to my back, a smack to my forehead, and a litany of insults. In my moments of blind fury in the past, I’d told myself that someday I’d give my son the ass-kicking he deserved, certain that the remorse I’d feel afterward wouldn’t diminish the gratification of causing him pain. I know how awful that may sound, but that’s how crazy he’d often made me.

Even though he looked fit, my son was actually in lousy shape. Cigarettes, drinking, and too much ice cream after midnight will do that to a person, even if he’s only 16. So I had these fantasies, a Technicolor array of revenge sequences—a blow to the midsection, a massive uppercut, and a well-positioned fist to the jaw. In my mind, I saw my son doubled over on the ground, unable to return my punches. But I could never hit him. I wouldn’t. Not then, not ever. Instead, I had to remind myself that my son was an emotionally troubled boy.

That hadn’t always been the case. When we adopted him at birth, he was perfect, a gift from God at a point when the anguish of infertility was becoming unbearable. As he grew older, he was charming, smart, and precocious, adored by everyone who knew him. Then over the years, for reasons my wife and I and the mental health professionals never quite understood, he grew increasingly volatile and unpredictable, given to sudden explosions of anger that slowly turned our love into pain.

Why does a boy strike his father? What makes him have fits of uncontrollable rage, then cling to his blanket like an infant, rub my back, and call me Daddy? How couldn’t he see that he loved me? How couldn’t he appreciate or understand my love for him?

At 6 p.m., I’d picked him up from his job. He’d been working at the carwash for two months and seemed to like it. It was a Friday night. He got in the car, handed me his paycheck, and asked me to cash it for him. The check was for $122. I took it and gave him $102 in return, knowing he’d never repay the $20 he’d borrowed from his brother, but failing to recognize the trigger a loss of $20 would become.

“What the fuck?!” he said.

“You owe your brother $20. I’ll give it to him for you.”

“No you won’t,” he snapped.

“Yes. I will,” I answered. “You agreed to this, remember?”

“Fuck that! Gimme the rest of the money,” he screamed.

I calmly said, “No. You have $100. What’s the problem?”

“It’s my goddamn money! Just give it to me!”

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