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My Son the Catcher

Julia Hays Klebanow

Mommy, make it whole again!!"

I stared, dismayed, at the broken cracker on the floor. Seven pieces, at least.

"Jesse, I can give you another cracker, a new cracker, and that one will be whole."

My two year old began to scream. "No Mommy I want that cracker to be whole I want that one to be not broken Mommy please you can do it please do it now!"

As he wailed, I sat down next to him on the kitchen floor, and started to pick up the broken cracker. Tears trickled slowly down my cheeks.

It was not the first time I realized I couldn't fix everything for my eldest son, nor would it be the last. But this moment crystallized the dynamic between us: his innate need to create perfection in the world around him, my inability to meet his standards, and the crushing, overwhelming guilt I have always felt when, no matter how unrealistic the demand, I knew I had disappointed my son.

Jesse has ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which went undiagnosed until fourth grade. From the moment he spoke, he exhibited many classic symptoms. As new parents, we couldn't identify them. In hindsight, his childhood resembles a series of debilitating events, one moment after another that shattered his belief in the "Mom can make it all better" theory, the theory which emerged as one of the few comfort-foods in the self-imposed diet of his early years. Yes, the theory is ridiculous. It is our job as parents with an appropriate sense of the world and its limitations to ease our child's journey from fantasy and parent idolizing to reality. But for Jesse and for us, this journey was a field of land mines, fraught with unseen dangers and fears for which no description of parenthood prepared us.

By the time Jesse was 2 and a half, I began to ask basic questions of our pediatrician.

"Jesse is a very active child. None of his friends fidget like him. He responds poorly to discipline, and I don't know how to make him behave. Suggestions?"

Unconcerned, the doctor responded, "He's a boy, boys are active. Set firmer limits, read some books, maybe take a parenting class. He'll be fine."

Firmer limits. O.K. I bought several books on the subject, which made sense on paper. I learned about limit setting and time-outs. But the simplest attempts at discipline resulted in trauma, in tantrums. Each incident left me shaking and in tears.

"Jesse, you cannot throw cars across the room. That is one of our rules. You are in time-out. Sit in this chair for five minutes. I will tell you when your time-out is over."

"No Mommy I don't want to sit in that chair I hate that chair I want to sit in this chair over here so there and now I sat in the chair and my time out is over and I'm going back to play!"

"Jesse you are in time-out. Sit in the chair. Any chair."

"No Mommy my time out is over and I won't sit in any chair I told you already nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!"

No matter how many times we discussed consequences and time-outs calmly and in advance, in the heat of the moment, Jesse's temper shot from 0 to 1,000 in two seconds. I tried counting to ten, leaving the room, writing a journal, hitting the wall. I made no progress; I, too, was unable to remain calm. On bad days, I called my husband at work. "You must come home by 6 or I will slit my throat. I can't handle him any more." Jack always managed to appear on time, bringing welcome relief. Another parent on location; a fresh dose of patience for Jesse.

By now, our second son, Jordan, had arrived. At his six-week check-up, I told the pediatrician I was desperate with Jesse's situation, and demanded a specialist. I'm sure I looked terrible; sleep deprived, weeping, trying to negotiate a newborn and a toddler who, even as we spoke, was tearing the examining room apart. The doctor took pity on me and gave me two names.

The consults yielded different results. The first told us we had a psychotic monster on our hands. The second said Jesse was perfectly normal, just very active. Thank you very much.

Play dates were a nightmare. Jesse interacted well for about an hour, and then, without warning or provocation, he would meltdown. I'd find myself running from the kitchen and a cup of coffee with the other mother, summoned to the playroom by the screams of the host child. Perhaps a favorite toy broke, something was thrown, or Jesse bared his teeth, I don't know. But the visit was over, and in an instant, I was dragging Jesse out the front door kicking and screaming, murmuring excuses over my shoulder at the mother, collecting the stroller, juice cups, hat, mittens, boots, coat and toys as we scrambled for the elevator. We were never invited back. Eventually, Jesse's unpredictability frightened me, and I stopped setting up time with other kids.

Jesse's birthday is in early August. We enrolled him in nursery school the September after he turned three. Hoping a structured environment would improve his socializing skills, I looked forward to school. It never occurred to us we could wait a year. Boys, particularly those with summer birthdays, can be held back; less mature than girls, they often blossom if among the oldest in the class. This we learned in hindsight.

Nursery school was an unmitigated disaster. Jesse refused to separate, play well, share, make transitions, clean up, listen to the teacher, or even pee in school. The lovely teacher, new and young, was baffled. The head of the school allowed me to stay in the classroom, hoping my presence would facilitate Jesse's adjustment.

So from September to the end of December, every morning from 9 to 12, Jesse and I went to nursery school. After the holiday break, he separated from me, and I started to drop him off. But he was far from well adjusted. If his favorite classroom toy was unavailable when we arrived, he threw a fit. At pick-up, if I stopped for even 30 seconds to talk with the teacher, Jesse wet his pants. He bit another child, not once but twice, and then, much to my chagrin, bit the teacher.

It was a long year. In the spring, we looked at several other schools, and took Jesse to interview at the first one. He sat in the lobby with his hands in his jacket pockets, and refused to get out of the chair to talk with the teachers, see the classroom, or leave us. Luckily, the private school I had attended from 5th to 12th grade, where I was a Trustee, accepted him for kindergarten. I'm not sure he even went for a formal interview. They knew he existed. They knew me. They took him.

Our family endured constant pressure from parents and in-laws, everyone commenting about limits and punishments and poor parenting skills. I felt inadequate at best, usually willing to tear my eyelashes out one by one rather than face difficult social situations with Jesse. I continued researching, and discovered a parenting class given by an author whose work I found particularly insightful. In her support groups, I shared my anger and frustration with learning techniques that worked perfectly with Jordan but not with Jesse. The group listened to my stories, offered suggestions, and brainstormed lists of survival skills.

One exercise from the parenting workshops stays with me. Each parent wrote a "Bug and Brag List" for their child, where you noted both the negative and positive aspects of a specific character trait. For example, under Bug, I wrote: distracted by everything, too active. Under Brag, on the same line, I wrote: interested in everything, active at sports. Carrying this concept with me, I delved for good news about Jesse's frustrating needs, hoping to find his gifts on the same line as his problems.

Little by little, I began to cope. I took careful note of Jesse's sensory issues, and edited them from his life. Tags bothered him; I cut them out of his clothes, and washed everything before he wore it. I bought only soft garments; sweat clothes, no dungarees, nothing with zippers, collars or buttons. He owned no "good" clothes. Socks made him frantic; I found some without heels, turned them inside out so the seams would not irritate him, and rotated the spot worn over his heels so they would not wear out too quickly. I removed torn garments immediately. I avoided "let's learn to tie our shoes" entirely and bought sneakers with Velcro fasteners, one pair at a time. I shopped for his clothing and shoes on my own, returning and exchanging as needed, and avoided bringing him to the store with me. When I found a hat or mittens he liked, I returned to the store and bought eight more in case of loss. I washed his laundry every night, so if he wanted to wear exactly the same outfit the next day, it would be clean.

We were surviving.

Transitions were troubling. Getting him into the bath was difficult; getting him out was impossible. Bedtime prep held its own terrors. Warnings helped somewhat.

"Jesse, in 5 minutes, we will get ready for bed."

"Jesse, in two minutes, we will get ready for bed."

"Jesse, now it's time to get ready for bed."

"What you never told me I had to get ready for bed I'm not done playing yet I don't want to go to bed I'm not tired I want five more minutes to play go away and come back in five minutes!"

Next tactic. "Jesse, look at me. Look me in the face. You have 5 minutes until bedtime. Do you hear me?"


"Do you understand me?"


Better results, once or twice. Finally, I had to take his face in my hands, force him to look at me, force him to stop what he was doing to hear the instructions. One step forward, three leaps backwards. A little progress, constant discouragement.

In some situations, Jesse lost concentration entirely, distracted by the multitude of stimuli in his environment, no detail too small for his mind to wonder about. I discovered a positive spin on this, and took him with me on long car trips. His constant chatter from the back seat made falling asleep at the wheel impossible; I reveled in the workings of his alert brain.

"Mom look at that blue car over there did you notice the passenger door isn't completely closed I wonder if the driver knows about it oh look Mom there goes a police car how fast do you think he is going and where do you think he is going do you think it is a robbery can you follow him oh look Mom there's an Audi just like Dad's car except that Dad's car is beige Mom look at that license plate did you see the Z in it Mom let's play the alphabet game I love that OK I'll start Ready Set Go I see the A on that sign over there and let's see where is the B oh yes I bet I can get the B really fast Mom look at the logo on that store we're passing there's the B that's because they sell bicycles Mom did you hear that they sell bicycles can we stop and buy a bicycle my bicycle is too old and I need a new helmet anyway and Mom my helmet will need stickers look there's a Mac Donald's let's see if they have stickers and I want some French fries too oh Mom look…"

In addition to focus issues, Jesse had hyper-focus issues. When he concentrated on something he loved, he could do it for hours. One of his favorite activities was playing with his large collection of Matchbook cars. He arranged them in a huge circle on the floor, in some exacting order known only to him. Even broken cars remained in the fleet. I once tried taking out a badly damaged car, carefully adjusting the vehicles around it to hide the space. Jesse played with the circle of autos for about two minutes, then said, "Mom where is the blue car you know the one where the passenger side door is off and the lights fell out and the paint is mostly scraped off it was in an accident with the green car in front of it and the police car is coming to help with the accident but now it's missing and it's one of my favorite cars do you know where it is?" Luckily, I had not yet thrown it out. I returned it to him, Jesse's play resumed, and I never tried to cull cars from his collection again.

Jesse was shy about drawing. Plain paper and crayons held no allure for him. One summer when he was about five, he found a piece of lined paper. He took a pen, sat down, and carefully and laboriously, without a mark outside the blue lines, drew a continuous design on the top line of the page from one edge to the other. He paused, reviewed his work thoughtfully and, pleased with his product, started the design on the second line. For many years thereafter, he was unable to create pictures on a blank page until he drew an edge. He found tremendous comfort in, literally, lines of demarcation, and was unable to function without such rigid structures.

Kindergarten and first grade contained their share of challenges. Jesse refused to bake with the rest of the class because, perhaps, he disliked the feeling of flour on his hands. Dirt on his hands in the playground was fine, but flour in the classroom? No way. He refused to rest, and instead played quietly with small toys to pass the time while the other children, and usually the exhausted teachers, dropped like Big Game and slept on their cots. He fidgeted through circle time, and avoided many of the class activities.

Once first grade began, letters and numbers interested him, and he enjoyed the stepped-up learning. But discipline issues continued. His art teacher came to me in the school lobby, and said, "Julia, I wanted to tell you that yesterday in class we worked with beeswax, and Jesse made the most wonderful pine tree!"

"Oh, thank you," I replied gratefully, "it's such a treat to hear good news about him, and not another report from a teacher who had to throw him out of class."

"Oh, I threw him out after he made the pine tree."

His love of exactness continued, and he learned to tell time. We bought him a watch, which he wore proudly to school. The teacher confiscated it the first day. When she said, "Children, we have five minutes to finish clean-up" Jesse timed her, and when she followed with, "OK, clean-up should be done by now" he leapt out of his chair, shouting, "No, no, you're wrong, we have 32 more seconds!"

By May of first grade, Jesse was not reading. Although most of the children in his class had already started, his teacher advised us his progress was still on track. He refused to practice with us, and never sat down with any of the simple early reader books to read on his own. Then he came home from school one day, casually picked up one of his books from the coffee table, and sitting next to me on the sofa, began to read it out loud, slowly and perfectly.

"Jesse, when did you learn to read? How did you do this and not tell us? What is this about?"

"Mom I didn't want to show you my reading until I could do it really well and now I can so I want to read to you all the time."

Another lifetime pattern established, clearly understood by him, a mystery to us. He didn't like to practice things, but he enjoyed succeeding. We saw this again, later that year, with speech therapy. He'd been working for two years on a Lateral Lisp with almost no progress, and one day, he came running out of the therapy office with a big grin on his face. The therapist followed close behind him.

"He's licked the lisp. It's gone. Totally." She smiled at me.

"Forever? In the last hour? How can that be? Jesse, what have you been doing in there all this time?"

"I've just been practicing Mom and now I got it right."

When I became pregnant with our third son, we moved to the suburbs, and signed Jesse up for second grade. I fretted more about his adjustment to the local public school than the rest of the move. What would happen if he hated the new environment? We knew no one in our neighborhood, and had no friends among the teachers or staff of the school. The week before school began, I took Jesse to visit his new classroom, and we met his teacher. She was just pre-retirement, and had been a nun before entering the teaching world.

At pick-up on the first day of school, I waited anxiously for Jesse. He came skipping out, found me immediately, and began. "Mom I met everybody in my class and I know all of their names and they told me which houses are theirs on our block and I want to take a walk and visit them now and I can even spell all of their last names and I don't have any homework so we have lots of time and I see the ice-cream truck over there that's so great can I get ice cream now let's go Mom why are you standing there with your mouth open not moving OK I'll go and get in line for the ice-cream you get your money…"

It was a new beginning. He loved the change, learning new faces and meeting people. Unfortunately, not all of the new teachers loved him, including the former nun. Discipline issues followed him everywhere. Grades 2, 3, and 4 blur together, similar in their indistinguishable and endless lists of Jesse's infractions against other students, rules, teachers, and playground mishaps. His best companions were the Principal, in whose office Jesse spent most of his time, and the school secretary, whose desk was next to the Principal's office. We came to adore this Principal, who steered Jesse gently and firmly, and managed, almost single-handed, to keep him in Elementary School during those pre-diagnosis years.

Each day, I turned off the phone from 2:45 until 3:30, dreading the calls from teachers complaining about Jesse. I lived in fear he would lose his temper on the street when I wasn't watching. I never had answers when strange parents called to yell at me about his aggressions towards their child. I didn't know what to say to friends or grandparents when they asked questions about his progress at school. Sure, he was bright. Sure, we could try harder. Sure, maybe another teacher, another school, another something.

He found few friends his own age, and was only invited to a couple of homes, once each, for play dates. If children came to us, the mothers called every half-hour to check on their kids, and picked them up early. We survived those years mainly because our neighbors had two children, a boy older than Jesse, and a girl Jordan's age, and the kids bonded and played beautifully, mostly in our two homes and back yards. Their son was also difficult, actually ending up in a brief scuffle with the law, and I think the parents found Jesse easy by comparison. Both doctors, they were compassionate, kind adults, and sympathized with us when nobody else in the neighborhood could.

We found a local therapist for Jesse, and he saw her weekly. He enjoyed the sessions of play therapy, and she was supportive of him and pleased with his progress. We later realized kids like Jesse function best in a one-to-one situation; individual therapy, although effective in treating specific disorders, may not necessarily reveal them.

In the winter of 4th grade, Jesse's teacher asked if he might have ADHD. We investigated the required testing. The school was willing to foot the bill, but wasn't in a rush. We found specialists, paid for everything ourselves, schlepped him around, and got it done.

The results were a clear diagnosis of ADHD. Medication was recommended; we decided to try Ritalin. Results were instantaneous. One weekend of drugs convinced us that for now, at least, medication was the answer.

I asked people who are more familiar with ADHD and the medications used to treat it why stimulants help with this disorder. As I understand it, the brain of a child who has ADHD is wired slightly differently. It processes information so fast that the body can't keep up, and the resulting discord produces the hyperactivity symptoms. Certain drugs speed up the body, and when body and brain are in sync, the child functions more smoothly, as a unified human being.

When Jesse began taking Ritalin, for the first time we saw the child inside him, the quiet and still child, the child we thought Jesse wanted to be. I'd run into him in the middle of the day at school sometimes when he was medicated, and the glassy look in his eyes startled me. I'd ask, "Jesse, are you feeling OK?" "Sure, Mom. I'm fine. The day is going well. I'll see you after school." I never got used to the drugged look. He took his meds and went to therapy, and called the Ritalin his "good behavior medicine." His behavior in school improved dramatically, and his concentration skills along with it. I'll never forget, at the beginning of 5th grade, when I went in to drop something off at the school office, and the Principal's secretary said to me, "Oh, it's so quiet around here without Jesse, I really miss him!"

By the time he was 13, Jesse developed into a superior athlete. He played soccer, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, football, tennis, even began sailing with my father. The adrenaline rush of sports was self-medicating; he played hard, focused well, and ran fast, contributing fully to the group effort. At a soccer dinner, his coach called the name of each player and offered a sentence of praise. He commented that Jesse was "…the unquestioned star of the team."

When he began to play Little League, Jesse asked us to buy him a catcher's mitt. My husband cautioned me. "He just likes to collect things. He's not serious about catching, it will pass. Just wait. Please don't buy it for him yet." But I, the Mother who believes if you buy things for your kids they will be happy and love you more, which my parenting class called, "The Happiness Trap," took Jesse shopping, and we bought the mitt.

Jesse became a brilliant catcher. Our family joked that all Jesse needed was a small country to run. In baseball, he found the perfect world, and as catcher, he was in charge of it. His position was at the center of all the excitement on the field. Stimuli surrounded him. The umpire stood behind him yelling about something; the batter strutted in front of him, getting ready, swinging; on the mound was the pitcher, constantly checking out the bases; and the ball, the ball was in the air flying towards him. He knew exactly what to do: stay alert, give signs to the pitcher, catch the ball. He created a tunnel of focus for himself amidst the frantic noise and energy of the game. He loved it.

Catching for a baseball team incorporates all the ingredients an ADHD kid needs in a recipe for success: action, noise, rules, multi-tasking. It is a job designed for a relentless, tireless human being. Instinctively, Jesse figured this out for himself. His coping skills finally triumphed.

I found myself suddenly humbled by his abilities. We worked so hard to understand him, find ways to guide him, anguished over each project, each grade, each report. Ultimately, Jesse needed to figure out his ADHD world for himself. As parents, we might smooth the road somewhat, but the journey to success, and even the path itself, had to be paved by him alone. His journey was not about taming his ADHD, but about inventing ways to see his issues as gifts, and discovering how these gifts enriched his life. We could offer Jesse medication, therapy, and support, but as an adult, he alone could determine what part each of these aids played in his life.

I wonder sometimes if we could possibly be the best role models for Jesse. Are we fit to give this human being the best shot at a productive, happy life? I see, in myself, so many of my own parents' traits and habits, and cannot live with my inability to outgrow them, exorcise them from my personality, or at the very least, transform them into positive instincts. And now I see these traits in Jesse, those knee-jerk reactions, transferred from one generation to the next, and watch helplessly as he struggles to cope with disappointments I have not yet mastered, dealing with feelings and failures in words I cannot begin to utter to myself. I watch him, and I love him, as I have loved my parents; I ache for the things I cannot fix for him, wishing to take the hurts upon myself. Perhaps this is why I am the right mother for him, because I have learned that my journey is to see his gifts, and to give him, along with my weaknesses, all of my strengths.

Now 16 years old, Jesse stands 6 feet tall. His dark, curly hair, worn in a buzz cut, complements his light blue eyes, which twinkle with humor just like his Dad's. His cheekbones, his perfect teeth, and of course, his temper, are from me. He has an athlete's body, and wears clothes to show it off. When he meets strangers, he looks them in the eye, gives a firm handshake, smiles warmly.

People compliment me, "Oh, he's so handsome, what a great kid, you are so lucky."

"Yeah," I reply, glancing proudly, and knowingly, at my hulking teenager. He winks at me; I wink back.

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