First Love & Then a Death
At a Little League game in early March, my husband Chris and I learned that the mother of our 13-year-old son’s girlfriend was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. “They are hoping she will make it to graduation,” a friend told us in hushed tones while parents cheered a hit from the home team. Our eyes filled with tears as we thought of Claire, the sweet, fresh-faced eighth-grader becoming motherless within several months. Then I thought of my son Robert, and on top of the heartache for Claire, came waves of worry.
Robert is our first-born and ever since his birth, one month early by emergency c-section, raising him has caused us panic and worry. When he was a toddler, breaking everything in his path like a red-headed baby Godzilla, I asked more experienced mothers if it gets easier as they get older. “It has to,” I pleaded. The moms of teens told me it gets physically easier, but the challenges are greater. I didn’t understand then, but I do now. As Robert aged from tween to teen, growing inches taller than me, his jaw line more angled, I felt a parental shift. The situations are trickier, the stakes higher. I no longer worry about him falling and cracking his head open on the coffee table. Now I worry about things that I can do nothing about — whether or not he has kind, caring friends or if he is a kind, caring friend to others. When he was younger, I could line the coffee table with protective padding and tell him not to run around. What can I do now? Follow him around and whisper in his ear, telling him what to do and say, like some crazy mother version of Cyrano de Bergerac?
When we learned the news about Claire’s mother, Claire and Robert had been dating for seven months, practically a marriage for eighth grade. When Robert first became friends with her the previous summer, pairing off from the group at the beach club, Chris and I were delighted. Claire was an honor student, an athlete, sweet, and kind. She’d always greet me with a wave and a “Hi Mrs. Jannuzzi,” in the sing-song tone of teen girls, her long ponytail swinging back and forth. Some of Robert’s other friend choices were questionable. One kid got suspended from school for an Airsoft gun in his backpack. Another was in trouble for inappropriate Snapchats. Claire seemed like a good influence.
After Robert’s birthday party in August, I snuck a peek at his birthday cards. Claire’s card was handmade. On several sheets of copy paper, folded up like a book, she listed in tiny, girlish print 113 moments they had shared. They were mostly silly inside jokes, but I could tell from the list that Robert and Claire were more than just friends and that she truly cared for Robert. I showed up on the list at No. 29: “How your mom is my bestie and spirit animal.” I knew what Claire meant. She and I were connected somehow. Was it our mutual love for Robert? Was it because we both wore our hair in ponytails? I didn’t know at this point that we’d both share the experience of tragic loss.
You might think Chris and I wouldn’t want our young son dating. He was only in eighth grade after all. But the fact that Robert could maintain a relationship with this well-rounded young lady lifted some of our concern for our maturing son. Out in the world, our neighbors report that Robert is polite and kind. But at home, it’s a different story. He is high-strung and intense, and his anxiety usually comes out as anger. He hurls insults at his younger siblings and gets infuriated when things don’t go his way. Often we notice damage on a piece of furniture or a dent in the wall as a result of his rage over losing a video game. This relationship with Claire proved our teenage son could behave like a rational, caring person or so we hoped.
At the beginning of November, Robert tried out for the school basketball team and didn’t make it. When I picked him up from try-outs and learned that he was cut, I knew we were in for a long, stressful night. Robert’s anger was explosive and frightening. I tried to calm him down, but whatever I said seemed to fuel his fire. After dinner our doorbell rang, and there was Claire and another friend with two gallons of ice cream, coming over to cheer up Robert. After I passed out bowls and spoons, I had to turn away to hide my tears. Here was someone who could soothe out Robert’s rough edges in a way I couldn’t.
Robert’s last year of middle school had so many moments like this. My emotions bounced up and down like a rubber ball. Robert made the school baseball team. (Yay!) But the coach rarely played him. (Ugh!) He caught the winning out in a playoff game. (Yay!) But sat on the bench for the final championship game. (Ugh!) Those were the little moments. Then came this big real-life situation — his girlfriend’s mother was dying. This was far above and beyond the normal teen drama. For Claire, of course, it was devastating. For Robert, it was unfair. He should be worrying about slow dancing at the upcoming school dance or whether he had enough money to buy Claire a Frappuccino at Starbuck’s. At 13, he shouldn’t have to console his girlfriend through the most difficult thing she would ever have to go through.
One day in April, I took Robert’s cell phone away as a punishment for being rude. While it was on my dresser, a text from Claire popped up. “I’m watching Stepmother and getting upset.” Stepmother is a 1998 tear-jerker where Susan Sarandon’s character dies of cancer, leaving behind her young children in the care of Julia Roberts, their stepmother. The text hit me in the gut. I pictured Claire sitting on her bed, watching the movie on her laptop, surrounded by crumpled up tissues, her mother bedridden in the next room. On one hand, I wanted to shield this text from Robert. How can he handle this? He’s only 13, he doesn’t know what to say or do. But on the other hand, I wanted Robert to text the right words to comfort Claire. I gave Robert back his phone immediately. Never mind the punishment. I told him a text had come from Claire and he should respond. “Now,” I said. Then I turned away and hoped for the best, whatever that was.
I know from experience what it takes to be a friend to someone who has had a tragic loss. When I was 18, my older brother died in a car accident. And when I was 25, my oldest sister died by suicide. Each time I lost friends who couldn’t or wouldn’t support me through my grief. Really, all they had to do was stick by me, but some people can’t handle being that close to tragic loss. Of course, I had true friends who didn’t leave. Which of these types of friends would Robert be? Which one did I want him to be? I wasn’t sure.
My feelings on the situation would swing like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. On one end of the arc, I wanted Robert to be the strong friend, the one who would meet Claire at the park behind our house, hanging out on the jungle gym in silence because he knew she only needed him to be there. On the other end, I wanted him to be free of this complicated event. My own childhood had been wrought with strife due to my siblings — rehabs, hospital stays, therapy sessions, and a constant under-current in the house that something was wrong. I wanted the opposite of that for my children. I wanted the months leading to Robert’s eighth grade graduation to be filled with silly revelry not morbid reflection. But then I thought of Claire and what this year would be like for her, and then the pendulum would swing back to wanting Robert to be there for her. I was dizzy from the back and forth.
I was making dinner one evening in early June when Robert called out for me from the kids’ den. “Can we talk mom?” he said. I slowly entered the room and pretended to be preoccupied with picking dead leaves off the jade plant. I was thrilled he was seeking my opinion, but I didn’t want to appear too eager.
Robert explained that he wanted to break up with Claire, it was getting too serious, he was only in 8th grade. But he wasn’t sure if he should do it now or after her mom died. I was both devastated and relieved. My fantasies of him consoling her like the hero in a Y.A. movie now vanished. But I was relieved he wouldn’t have to deal with this. The pressure was off. Robert wouldn’t have to “man up” and be the shoulder on which Claire cried. His shoulders weren’t quite broad enough anyway.
I gave Robert the best advice I could. “Talk to her now. Be honest with her, that it is all you can do,” and I once again turned away and hoped for the best.
Claire’s mother attended their eighth-grade graduation in a wheelchair. During the ceremony, I stared at both Robert and Claire on the stage of the school gym. They seemed so grown up. Robert in a white tuxedo and Claire in a formal green dress with her hair and make-up professionally done. I hoped to see some connection between the two of them. Maybe a kind knowing glance to indicate they were still friends. But as far as I could tell, they didn’t look at each other once. That night in November when they ate ice cream together at my kitchen counter seemed so long ago.
Claire’s mom died at the beginning of August, almost a year after Robert and Claire started dating and two months after they broke up. We went to the wake as a family. “It’s going to be awkward,” Robert said. “Yup,” I replied, thinking of my “friends” who didn’t show up to my siblings’ wakes, one telling me “I can’t handle this.” While standing in the receiving line at the funeral home, several of Claire’s young cousins pointed at Robert and whispered behind their hands. Robert pretended not to notice. When it was our turn to offer condolences, Robert shook Claire’s father’s hand and gave Claire a quick hug. Even though he went through the process as fast as possible, I was proud of him for showing up. Claire was so poised standing there. She gave Chris and me her usual smile, looking us in the eye, and thanking us for coming. I wanted to tell her it was okay to break down. It was okay to say this is all unfair. It was okay to say Robert’s a jerk. But I just gave her a hug and moved on quickly as well. I’m not really her spirit animal, just the mother of her ex-boyfriend.
Chris and I see Claire around every once in a while. She helps coach our daughter’s volleyball team some Saturday mornings or we’ll catch a glimpse of her ponytail when picking up Robert from practice at the high school. We report these sightings to each other with a sigh, wishing simultaneously that she and Robert were still together and that she is doing well on her own without him.
Robert has yet to invite me in to another conversation about Claire or any other girl. As far as I can tell, his transition from middle school to high school went better than expected. What could I have done if it hadn’t? Not much, I’m finally accepting.
*The names of the children have been changed to protect their privacy.
Elizabeth Jannuzzi lives in New Jersey where she is writing a memoir about her recovery and personal essays about parenting her three children. She is currently a student in the Advanced Creative Writing Workshop at Project Write Now in Red Bank, NJ. In 2017, she attended the Sag Harbor Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference, the Rutgers Writers Conference, and the Litpow Author-Preneur Workshop. Elizabeth is proud to note that her personal essay “St. Francis” was a finalist in the 2016 International Literary Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction Awards.