I stand beside the white-topped range and wait for the teakettle to whistle. Pure white frames the doorways, windows, and kitchen cabinets. The glossy paint congratulates itself on not being off-white, or ecru or eggshell. A small bleached skull my son picked up on a rocky northwestern beach lies on the shelf above the cookbooks. It stares at me with empty sockets. A mobile made of dried white driftwood hangs in the breeze outside the back door, where it click-clacks like a skeleton.
The sills and door frames and cupboards hate the grimy fingerprints that leave bits of garden soil or chocolate or red wine on their clean surfaces, but they’re always there, reminders of how hard it is to be perfect. While tea steeps, I make a mental note to scrub the cupboards clean of grime.
My dad wore white shirts. Never off-white. No colors. To liven up his wardrobe, my mom bought him a white shirt with tiny blue pinstripes, so faint I could hardly see them.
“Take it back,” he said.
Dad left early for work, came home late, toiled over an adding machine in a basement office evenings and weekends. Black pants and white shirts. A pocket protector for pens and pencils. Later, I’d understand the gray pressure of nine mouths to feed on a Catholic schoolteacher’s salary, nine backs to provide with warm winter coats, eighteen feet to put shoes on, the many months he balanced the checkbook to the last dollar. He demanded good grades, a clean mouth, be fully dressed (pajamas don’t count) outside of the bedroom. He was quick to respond to offenses with the belt. Whipped me into shape, protected my immortal soul, did what he saw as his job—save me from the fires of Hell by keeping my insides as pristine as possible.
Not unlike my dad, the nuns at school wore long black habits with starched white wimples framing hairless faces. They wielded rulers that slapped hands and barked stand in the corner and don’t speak and raise your hand and no, you can’t go to the bathroom until after prayers. I tried to hold it that long, but hot liquid trickled down my legs right during the Hail Mary, puddled on the floor around my feet, heat spreading to chin and cheeks.
White was the color of school blouses with Peter-pan collars and short crisp sleeves, the color of underpants and cotton slips. White was the background to Dick and Jane.
White was the color of sainthood and virginity and snow angels. White was the color of straight A’s, of following all the rules; white was what was left after carefully coloring inside the lines.
When my partner and I adopted Brandon, he had skin the color of Elmer’s glue. At nearly seven years old, his shoulders, back, and torso were smooth and creamy, porcelain white. His most recent foster family taught him to ride a bicycle, took him to the beach, carved pumpkins with him in their garage. A few freckles dotted the bridge of his nose, as if to corroborate their photographs and give evidence that they’d taken him outside.
His delicate complexion wasn’t outdoor ready, but his bones and muscles were. He scrambled through our back yard, climbing and swinging from any branch that could hold his weight, huddling on sturdy limbs. He took to swimming, a slender beluga, splashing in chlorine-blue swimming pools and the green-brown of the lake where we had an old single-wide trailer. In the clear water off Ke`e beach, he sparkled under Hawaiian sun. I learned to slather him with sunscreen then to cover him with a sun-shirt. Over time, his skin sprouted more freckles, his cheeks pinked up, tiny blonde spots appeared at his temples, and he sometimes had what we referred to with chuckles as a tan, a drop of peach, a kiss of sun, a bit of ecru. But his skin defaulted to white-white, and protecting him from burning turned out to be more than I could do.
The white of crystal-meth is in this story too. The police scooped Brandon up in a raid on a meth house when he was three years old. They found him sitting on a bare mattress next to a loaded gun and a used hypodermic needle. His medical records showed that he had tested positive for methamphetamines at birth.
Amphetamine chemistry snaked into my son’s developing brain before I knew he existed. Methamphetamine wreaks havoc on the dopamine system in human brains and nervous systems. Dopamine delivers us the pleasure of hands held at sunset, the high of exercise, the buzz of a good laugh, the singular bliss of coming to another’s touch.
I drove him home from therapy when he was a tweener.
“I hate counseling,” he growled at me from the passenger seat. “I don’t want to talk about anything.” He folded his arms across his chest. “It never helps.”
“I just want you to be happy.”
“Don’t…you…understand?” He shook white-knuckled fists in the air. “I’m. Never. Happy.”
Statistics show that methamphetamine exposure in utero increases the incidence of suicide eightfold. So does foster care. When he said he was never happy, it wasn’t just hyperbole or teenage drama.
I always intended to save him. To give him a better life than what he might have had with his meth-using mother and mystery father, people I judged before I even laid eyes on them. A safer life than the foster care system gives children. I knew a thing or two about perfection and I thought we could go there. I’d whip him into shape, but I’d do it kindly and without a whip.
My sixteen-year old son longed to know his birth mom, ached to understand why she had left him. He couldn’t comprehend the grayness of adulthood, the way things can press from every side and squeeze a grown-up till they break. There’s no way for a kid to know it isn’t about them.
I thought maybe re-unification with his first mom would stop his downward spiral – falling behind in school, loss of friends, trouble with the law. I didn’t need to own him, I just wanted him to be safe. Still on that mission to save him, I set up a firewall. Didn’t want to see him burned.
“I’ll meet her first. She has to be clean, okay.”
I communicated with her on Facebook and checked out her employer, a manufacturing company that required drug testing. Then I asked if she’d meet me in person, and she agreed.
We met at Peet’s Coffee on Broadway. I’d seen her pictures, but it wouldn’t have mattered. When she walked in, the woman he referred to as his real mom, a whisper of him walked in with her, a shadow of past and future. He lived in her jawline, her wide set eyes, her slender frame.
She ordered her latte exactly like mine. Her movements were nervous and jittery, though her eyes were clear and tone of voice steady enough to convince me she wasn’t using. We took our steaming mugs topped with frothy white foam and sat by the south facing window where sun beamed in and warmed the table.
She said I’m sorry over and over, for what I don’t recall, until I finally said, “You know I’m not a case worker, right? I’m not with the state, I’m not with anybody. Just another mom to Brandon.”
“It probably said in the report,” there she went again and it struck me like a bolt of white-hot lightning, how the loss of Brandon seared her, “it probably said I just didn’t show up.” She stared into the swirl of foam.
A case worker handed me pages and pages and pages of DHS notes at Brandon’s adoption and I’d scoured every bit of black and white searching for ways to understand my troubled son. Whatever she referred to, no one had written a report.
“I was driving there, after I lost custody. It was supposed to be our last visit.”
Typically, case workers set up supervised visits between parents and children at DHS offices. It’s necessary for safety and liability, yet it couldn’t be more contrived. You’re in some cheesy visiting room with cheap furniture and plastic toys. It smells like stale sweat and old drool. You know they’re watching you from behind one-way glass. You know they’re judging you.
My son’s mother looked up from her round white mug.
“How was I supposed to say goodbye to my boy? Huh?”
I had nothing, sat silently considering my own coffee.
“I was going there. I was.” She picked up her mug, sipped, set it back down. “But I couldn’t do it, tell him goodbye. I turned around and went back home.”
After Brandon killed himself, I invited her to his memorial. When the service started without her, I figured she’d turned around and gone back home. I might have in her shoes, the glare of my imperfections too great in the light of that day. But when the choir had begun to sing she walked in; walked all the way down the main aisle in her black lace bra and neon yellow tank top, shoulders bent and head bowed under the white-hot glare of hundreds of eyes. When she got to the front, I nodded slightly and patted the pew.
She sat in that front row beside my partner and me, the row where real mothers sit. The pastor stood up front in a shimmering white robe and spoke about mental illness and suicide and faith and forgiveness. We each nodded in our own times. A faint wisp—all that was left of our son—fluttered in the air between us.
Mary Mandeville is a writer in Portland Oregon. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Voice Catcher, Nailed! Magazine, Role ReBoot, Brain Child, and Fugue Literary Journal. Two of her essays have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She’s working on a book length memoir.