We're coming up on T.'s sixteenth birthday soon. Milestones can be tricky things and this one has him in a reflective mood. We were bracing for some difficult behavior - Christmas, in retrospect, was really rough, as he processed all sorts of emotions and divided loyalties. But T. is a regular mind-blower and he's in a different frame of mind lately- one more befitting of an 80 year-old than a 16 year-old.
Last night, we fell into a most unexpected conversation. I was trying to head off some brewing mischief he's concocting for his birthday, and he was trying to earn a little money by finding extra chores he could do. In jest, I said, "You can tell me the secret you're keeping and I might pay you for that!"
He loved that and agreed immediately. I said, "Okay, we'll cover our eyes while you tell us, so you don't feel embarrassed." Somehow that opened the most astonishing floodgate of confession.
It began with a pretty ordinary sort of teenage secret, related to his birthday. Apparently that went so well, he moved on quickly to some huge and long-impacted private torments. One minute we were clearing the table and joking around, and the next, we were listening quietly to some harrowing details of his younger life. He followed with a strict instruction "Just listen and don't SAY anything!" We stayed quiet, and just showed him warm eyes and a soft expression. A little further down the conversation road, we offered a few quiet compliments about his exceptional wisdom.
We all came away happy, rather than sad - most unexpected, because his early life is a study in every conceivable kind of child abuse. Sometimes for traumatized kids still reeling and in pain, I think telling means reliving - but in this case, the telling of it was different from the living of it. He and Tim reorganized the kitchen cabinets afterwards, and that sort of mundane togetherness seemed the right transition back to everyday life. He was able to release what he needed to tell and we were able to show him, by staying calm and warm and quiet, that he can set those burdens down and nothing about our life together will change.
He's nesting now. He's incredibly long and lean (more than six inches taller than me now!), and when he winds his long limbs around us or moves in for a quick hug, or to touch foreheads as we do now at bedtime, I find myself holding my breath sometimes as if trying not to startle an exotic wild animal. He's taken over the house with his teen detritus, and established his own strange patterns of feeding and other daily routines. He brings little bits of his past now and then - a photo of his mom, a fact about what happened to him- and adds that to the insulation he's building around himself.
It's humbling to watch. Sometimes I think we are like the stagehands in his life. He is like a great actor, the star of his own life, but he had no reliable place to perform and nobody to pay consistent attention before. We construct a comfortable, intimate place for him where he can act out what needs to be aired. When he's done, we appreciate. And then he rests. My favorite times are when he rests peacefully, knowing he spoke and was heard.