Every family has one. The nonconformist. A kid who contributes to premature graying and an irregular heartbeat. I should have known during my pregnancy that this kid had an agenda of his own. He entered the world two weeks early, using my uterus as a punching bag while I was delivering eighty turkey-shaped cookies to a Thanksgiving party at my older son’s elementary school.
Jack was a passive little prince until the day he broke out of playpen jail and discovered what his arms and legs were for. An insatiable curiosity led to the dismantling of every electronic device in the house. My son never played with building blocks or LeapFrog tablets. He liked forks. And electrical outlets. Christmas and birthday gifts were a cinch. All he wanted was extension cords and Scotch tape. It kept him busy while all the other kids his age were watching Sesame Street. By the time he turned two, we had to hide all the batteries and power tools from our curious little octopus. His fascination with sharp objects and frayed wires is the reason he learned how to dial 911 before he learned the alphabet. Every day with Jack was like a science experiment gone awry, but we embraced his uniqueness and encouraged his out-of-the-box mindset that differed vastly from his three older siblings. Any kid who could dismantle a Swifter Mop and transform it into a fan with flashing strobe lights had to be Harvard material, right?
By the time he reached middle school, the things Jack could do with lighter fluid and a bottle of nail polish remover was the stuff mommy nightmares are made of. This child was the reason I invested in multiple smoke alarms for the house and stockpiled batteries as if Armageddon was near. He thought nothing of building small bonfires in his bedroom, which explains why I dreaded the Fourth of July for years. Jack collected an arsenal of fireworks each time Independence Day rolled around, and had enough to set the entire town ablaze. I was raising a firebug wanna-be, one lit match at a time. His oddball experiments with electricity and fire were enough to keep me homebound for years.
On the upside, whenever any electronic devices or home appliances broke down, I saved thousands on repair bills. My son was a Jack Of All Trades who looked upon a maze of tangled electrical wires as a “fun” challenge.
There wasn’t much that frightened Jack, and his daredevil approach to life attributed to the abundance of Gray-Be-Gone hair dye I purchased over the years. He dislocated his shoulder at an early age, fractured his wrist (twice) and damaged his left hip, which required surgery and a metal pin placed in the hip bone. He was also hit by a car while bicycling by the beach. Somehow he emerged unscathed, even though his bike was demolished and the car dented. Like a cat with nine lives, my son always landed on his feet.
During the early teen years, Jack developed a secret side we never knew existed. I’m not talking about the eighty-five chocolate granola bar wrappers he’d hidden behind the couch or the littered trail of moldy yogurt containers in his closet. Our son was struggling in school, but we were so preoccupied with work and raising four children that we never noticed the warning signs that he was failing eighth grade. Jack was a master at intercepting phone calls and letters from teachers, which allowed us to live in blissful ignorance during his entire spring semester.
And then the unthinkable happened.
When he was fourteen, my son ran away from home rather than face being grounded indefinitely for a lousy report card. My husband and I were suddenly thrust into the surreal word of every parent’s worst nightmare. Our boy had simply vanished from the quiet streets of our suburban neighborhood.
For hours the police and county officials scoured our house and surrounding areas for our son while family members and neighbors manned telephone lines and computers. There was nothing more frightening than receiving an Amber alert on my own phone about my own child, and nothing more heartbreaking than watching my husband sink to his knees in the dirt, begging God for the safe return of our son.
Time stood still as policemen sifted through the closets and drawers in Jack’s room for a clue to his whereabouts. Sinking deeper into a cloud of disbelief, my brain was numb to the possibility that I might never see my boy again. The one thought that kept haunting me: Had I told my son how much I loved him that morning before he left for school? My heart felt as heavy as a stone lodged in my throat and each breath a painful reminder that Jack was gone.
After five long, agonizing hours of pacing, hand wringing and bargaining with God, the police found Jack on a Greyhound bus bound for Orlando. He told the officers that he was running away because he was failing school and didn’t want us to know the truth about his grades. My prior fear turned into a confused tangle of relief and outrage over the pain he had caused, not to mention the ten years he shaved off my life. I kept myself composed by keeping my mouth shut against the angry diatribe that threatened to explode from my tongue when my son was escorted home in a police car.
The following morning after Jack’s foray into the seedy underworld of bus stations, curiosity got the better of me and I upended the heavy backpack he’d been lugging around the state. An unusual conglomeration of items spilled out, and as I contemplated each one, I tried to imagine how he planned to use them:
An orange plastic Nerf Gun with thumbtacks glued to the spongy darts (extra protection).
Five unsharpened pencils.
One small solar panel.
A miniature remote control forklift.
No money, no clothes and nary a toothbrush in sight. I stared at the items before me and felt hysteria bubbling up inside me. I was on the verge of either laughing or crying uncontrollably. In less than twenty-four hours, my world had been turned upside down by my troubled teen, and I had no idea what pushed him into believing that running away from the people who loved him the most was the solution to whatever emotional demons he was trying to escape.
After meeting with Jack’s school administrators and counseling team, we determined that he needed to transfer from his current school to a private academy better suited for his needs.
Jack eventually found his niche in the new school through their music program and web design classes. When he’s not busy building potato bombs or conducting raves with laser lights and techno music, he’s biking his way to the nearest electronics store.
If you happen to see a young man riding down your street in a yellow forklift with a plastic Nerf Gun in his hand, please be sure to say hello to my son.