My eight-year-old son won’t get out of the car for soccer practice because he is hyperventilating in his seat. Tiny pearls of sweat bead on his forehead, his red-and-white polyester uniform shirt sticks to his chest. “Oh God,” he moans. “What if I throw up? Then I’ll be sick, and I don’t want to be sick. I’ll miss school, I’ll get behind.” He opens the car door, but instead of throwing up, he darts into a wheat field that is next to the soccer field where his team has gathered to start practice. But my little son, wrapped up in an anxiety attack, runs. His head bobs between stalks of wheat. Finally, he hunches over, heaving in sobs. “Why am I like this?” he begs for an answer. I don’t have one, but I lift him up, too big to be carried like the child that he is. I place his limp, exhausted body in the passenger seat of the car, and we go home.
He slumps on a blue and white checkered sofa and tells me that he is going to kill himself. Because I am a teacher, I know to ask if he has a plan. He says he will use a knife from the kitchen and that sounds to me like as good a plan as any, so I call his psychiatrist. I know his doctor will tell me to go to the emergency room even if he doesn’t believe that N. will kill himself. God forbid N. does kill himself but the psychiatrist failed to give me that piece of advice. I tell N., “We are going to Greater Baltimore Medical Center because when you say things like that people take you seriously, and that is where we have to go now.” He says, “Good.” Soon we are in a small room that reeks of antiseptic. N. sits on a green-padded hospital gurney, swinging his legs, asking, “When can we go home?” and, “Can we go yet?” Doctors and nurses take his temperature, pulse, and blood pressure. They record it on his chart while I write, “Help,” in a little spiral notebook I carry around with me. Finally, a doctor walks through the door, hands me a golden plastic canister filled with a drug called Risperdal that has never been tested on children, but I am to give N. one a day before bedtime. N. jumps off the gurney, we walk out the automatic doors, climb into the car, and we go home.
I feel sparkly and fun in a tight silver-sequined dress. It’s August in Baltimore and my legs are smooth and tan. My husband is handsome and looks sharp in a black tuxedo and red bow tie, his bald head smooth as the bottom of a wooden salad bowl. N. is sleeping over at his friend Kyle’s house. We are almost downtown when my cell phone rings. It’s Kyle’s mother, Sherri, telling me that N. is sobbing that if we don’t come pick him up right now, he is going to kill himself. She offers to try to calm him down, but I feel guilty leaving her in charge of him while he spirals himself into a full-blown panic attack. While Sherri is talking, my husband is saying that we are being manipulated, and that if we pick N. up, he will never learn, that we should not give in to his scare tactics. I don’t know what the right thing to do is, but my hands shake and my glossy lips quiver. In the background, Sherri’s husband shouts, “Tell them that they should pick N. up.” I sigh heavily. My husband will be frustrated with me giving in to N. again. I am angry at N. for ruining our plans. We drive in silence uptown where it is darker. When N. climbs into the back seat of the car, his face a red, splotchy mess, he says, “I’m sorry. I know. I ruined your night.” And we go home.
About a mile from the school where I teach third grade and N. attends fourth grade, he says the words I dread, “I don’t think I can go to school today.” I clench the steering wheel but keep driving because I have to be in my classroom by eight o’clock when the bell rings and eighteen nine-year-old children line up at the door. N. slouches in the front seat, his breath ragged, and pulls the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. When I park, N. announces, “I’m not going in.” I remind him of the tools in his toolbox, how to slow down his breathing, how to pull his head out of the tiger’s mouth like he practiced with his psychologist. I assure him, “Remember, this is going to pass.” But his hands grip the door handle, knuckles white, fingernails chewed to the quick. Damp curls stick to his forehead, and he is hiccupping in large gulps. “What if I get sick? What if I throw up?” My eyes drift to the red digital numbers on the dashboard that flash 7:40. I still have to make copies of workbook exercises for math class, write tonight’s homework on the board, remind my students to bring in unwrapped toys for Paul’s Place, where my homeroom volunteers once a month. None of that matters right now. N. is too big to carry screaming into school to hand off to a nodding and smiling primary teacher who used to reassure me, “Just go, he will be fine once you leave.” I can’t leave him in this car by himself. I watch car after car pull up to the curb. Children spill out with backpacks, musical instruments, athletic equipment. They turn around, wave, and walk down the path towards the building. I call the administrative assistant and tell her I need a substitute, apologize for the short notice. I glance at N. in the front seat, his eyes closed, his body limp. And we go home.