He left us yesterday. My twelve-year-old son’s best friend. It was not unexpected, yet we were not really ready to say goodbye as we stood in his driveway that balmy September afternoon.
He was to attend a therapeutic boarding school in the rocky mountains of Colorado, for the next two years. A school that specialized in the emotional as well as the intellectual needs of boys who were struggling. He had battled anxiety and ADHD for as long as we knew him but lately a more sinister villain called depression was taking over. Public school was not working for him and his daily trips to the counselor left him dejected and angry. He hated school, he told us again and again.
He took refuge in nature. Whenever upset, he would flee to the solace of the woods, headlamp in place along with a survival kit he had purchased on the internet. Gregory loved the forest which seemed to hold for him, its own therapeutic powers. As a going away gift we gave him a lithograph night-light with a forest of trees etched within, the golden hue soothing and calm.
He is a beautiful boy with deep red hair, fine features and porcelain skin. His face reflects an impishness that is infectious. He is highly intelligent and intuitive. My son and he became fast friends three years ago and enjoy a special bond as best friends do. We both knew this path was the best thing for Gregory but it did not make his leaving any easier as he had become a fixture in both our lives and home.
All contact at his new school was to be via letter, no social media of any sort, so I made it a point that we would write to him, at least once a month. I have a book of postcards, each one a different flower fairy illustrated by the brilliant Cicely Mary Barker, an English artist known for her life-like depictions of fairies in nature. I chose for Gregory a red-headed mischievous faced boy fairy and penned in the margin “this reminded us of you!” I then enclosed a second self-addressed card already stamped for him to return to us.
The next card we sent to him contained a dried wishbone from our previous night’s roast chicken. Growing up my father would always save the wishbone for me and my sisters. I thought it was just the type of ritual Gregory would enjoy. “Find someone you like at your new school and break the wishbone!” I scrawled. “We miss you.” But then, a week later thinking again about the wishbone, I was filled with dread. What if gets the long end and his wish is to come home? What had I done? In trying to comfort him I could possibly have made him feel worse.
One afternoon several weeks later, I paused at my son’s bedroom door after hearing him talking on the phone to what sounded like Gregory. He was clearly upset, distraught and his words a hurried jumble of emotion. “I want to come home. I hate it here. I miss you so much!” He had sneaked his mother’s phone while she was visiting to make the call. After several moments, my son replied in a calm voice “You have to push through…” I had never before heard the expression nor my son use it. When I asked him what he meant by “push through,” he explained that his middle school track coach always told the boys to push through the pain no matter how hard and they may just find they were stronger than they thought.
I worried about how he felt losing his best friend “Do you miss Gregory?” His response was always the same. “It’s fine mom.” And then I realized, perhaps the strain of seeing his friend in so much pain was harder than letting him go.
The last thing we sent him was a care package right before Halloween. It contained fake fangs, a calendar book with different photos of forest scenes, two packages of his favorite gummy bears and a small stuffed owl that had strangely beckoned to me from high on a store shelf. I imagined the little owl sitting on his night table. I also included a pre-stamped fairy card he could send back to us with ease. When I called his mother to review what I was sending, she paused when I had mentioned the stuffed owl. “He asked me if he could have a real one last week for a pet!”
Several weeks later, we received the fairy card by return mail. Gregory’s familiar hurried scrawl contained the following sentiments: “I loved the red-headed fairy card — I am learning to play the banjo! — Thank you for the owl, I keep him in my backpack.” But it was the last line that remains with me. “I still don’t like it here” he confided, “but I am going to push through…” And those simple words were all I needed.