By Shannon Ralph
“I don’t have any friends.”
The air leaves my lungs all at once in a violent burst, as though I have been punched in the abdomen. I grip the steering wheel tightly and keep my eyes on the broken white line running down the middle of the road. The dirty slush lining the streets of our modest neighborhood is an indicator that spring will soon arrive in Minneapolis.
“What do you mean, Nicholas? Of course you have friends.”
“No, he doesn’t.” Nicholas’ twin sister pipes in from the booster seat adjacent to Nicholas. “He doesn’t play with anybody at school.”
“How would you know that, Sophie? You’re not even in his class.”
“All the first graders have recess together.”
“Do you not play with your brother at recess?”
“Sometimes I do. Most of the time he doesn’t want to play.”
Here we go again. Talking about Nicholas as though he is not sitting right here in the minivan with us. As though he is not present. He has gone missing again.
“Why don’t you play with your sister, Nicholas?”
I glance in the rearview mirror. Nicholas is staring out the window. His petite features and wispy blonde hair are reflected in the window against a background of white and gray. Everything is white and gray in March. Nicholas appears deep in thought. I wonder briefly where he goes when we all forget he’s there.
“Nicholas?” I say again.
Sophie kicks his foot across the space separating their bucket seats. “Momma’s talking to you, Icky.”
Since she first learned to speak, Sophie has referred to her brother as Icky. It’s not a commentary on his cootie status, but rather a simple mispronunciation of Nicky. I find it simultaneously endearing and aspersing. Nicholas has ever seemed to mind.
“What?” he asks, his forehead pressed against the window. He doesn’t look at me.
“Why don’t you play with your sister at recess?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to.”
Of course he doesn’t want to. He’s a six year old boy. Why would he want to play with his sister and her friends? But what about the boys? Why doesn’t he play with the boys?
Nicholas has never been like other little boys. He’s not your typical rough and tumble boy’s boy. He is the baby of our family—three years younger than his older brother and one minute younger than his sister. Nicholas is the runt of our litter. He is the child I have always worried about the most. Though I love my children equally, he tends to require more of my time. More energy. More focus. More patience.
Even before he was born, I worried about Nicholas. I had vivid and disturbing dreams when I was pregnant with him. In all the dreams, his sister was perfectly normal and he was born with one debilitating disease after another. Or he was missing limbs. Missing organs. Or he was simply missing.
“Who do you play with, Nicky?” I ask.
“No one,” he says. “I like to sit and watch.”
And that sums up my youngest son. A watcher. An observer. A bystander.
“I’m worried about Nicholas,” I say later that evening as I climb into bed next to my wife.
“So what else is new?” Ruanita replies.
“No, I’m serious. I don’t think he has any friends.”
“He’s young. Lucas didn’t really have friends until he was in the 3rd grade.”
“I know, but I think Nicholas is different.”
Ruanita lays the book she is reading on her chest and looks at me over the top of her glasses. “Shannon, you worry entirely too much about him. He’s perfectly fine. He’s a happy boy.”
“I know, but I can’t help it.” I climb into bed, kiss Ruanita lightly on the lips and rest my head on my pillow. I watch the shadows on the wall cast by the ceiling fan dancing in the pale light coming from Ruanita’s bedside lamp. After a few moment of silence, I turn to Ruanita.
“Do you think Nicholas is gay?”
She does not look up from her book. “I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“No, of course it doesn’t matter.”
“Then why worry about it?”
“I don’t know. It’s harder for gay men.”
“How do you figure?”
“People can be cruel. Girls can be cruel, but boys—”
“Things are changing, Shannon. It’s not like when we were young. I mean, we’re actually getting married next summer. Did you ever think that would happen in Minnesota?”
“I know things are changing. But are they changing fast enough? Fast enough for Nicholas?”I grab the book from Ruanita’s hand and lay it on the bed between us. “I’m serious. The world is full of monsters. Wild things, like in that book Nicholas loves so much.”
“Yeah, but the world is also full of good people. Nicholas is a sweet boy. He’ll be fine.”
“But how can you be so sure?” I feel tears welling in the corner of my eyes. I don’t want to cry. Ever since my son spoke the words “I don’t have any friends” that afternoon, I had been in a state of acute turmoil. Was it my fault he had no friends? Was it something I did? Or didn’t do? Am I too dismissive of him? Not encouraging enough?
“Listen, Shannon.” Ruanita looks me square in the eye. “You sound like one of those idiots who blame themselves for their kids being gay.” I flinch at her accusation, but Ruanita continues undeterred. “Nicholas is going to be who Nicholas is going to be. You can’t change him. You can’t make him into something he’s not. He’s a good kid. A smart kid. He is going to be perfectly okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, I’m not sure.” Ruanita reaches for my hand and squeezes it tightly in her own. “I am not sure about anything. But I’m hopeful.”
I lie in bed and consider her response. I know she is right. I must have hope.
It’s really the only thing we have to hang onto as parents. We hope that we are doing right by our children. We hope that we are not screwing them up beyond all recognition. We hope that our insecurities do not become their insecurities. That our missteps do not become their missteps. We hope that they grow to be better people than we think we are.
And, above all, we hope that the wild things of this world are gentle with the little people we so ferociously adore.
You can find more from Shannon on Chronicles of a Clueless Mom