I stood in the hallway, listening to the steady, uninterrupted sound of the shower behind the closed bathroom door, and I forgot I had cancer. I breathed in the faintly sweet air around the doorway, and I didn't feel weak, breathless after even the most minor exertions; my lungs felt strong. The longer I stood there, growing suspicious of the activity behind the door, the more my veins thought they ran with blood untainted by the weakening toxins of chemotherapy. My former athlete's body stopped thinking it was thin and tired and became sound and ready. When my suspicions turned to certainty, I opened the door and reached into the bathroom, grabbed my thirteen-year-old son around his upper arm, and hauled him into the hallway. Owen dropped the bud of weed he held in his hand and the lighter he had been using to try to ignite it. His round blue eyes, pot muted with surprise, flashed past mine as I pushed him chest first against the hallway wall. I held him there, his arm twisted behind his back.
"You're going to smoke pot in my house?" I roared in his ear. "Really, Owen? I have freaking cancer and you are going to smoke pot in my house?"
He rolled his eyes at me. My arm was across his adolescent shoulders, keeping him firmly pinned. "I don't know what you're talking about, Mom," he said. My cop's nose could smell the marijuana on his breath, in his hair, in his clothes.
"Shut up, Owen." I leaned into him, bringing my mouth closer to his ear. "I'm a cop, remember? You tell me you are up here taking a shower, I expect shower sounds. I hear the water running but no splashing, no sounds of a shower being actually taken, so I listen for other sounds. When I hear lighter sounds, I figure you aren't taking a shower. At least you didn't lock the door; it saved me from having to kick it in."
Keeping one hand on my son, I ran the other down the legs of his jeans as I had done with every criminal I had arrested on the street. I turned his pockets inside out. I felt around the waistband of the boxers I had just washed and folded that morning for him. I took each of his shoes off, shook it, and tossed it aside. Finding nothing, I straightened up.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my scarf, freed from my bald head in the scuffle. My arm holding Owen to the wall suddenly became thin and tired, a ridiculous appendage for restraining a teenage boy. The angry scars from my recent surgery lit up with fresh pain under both my arms, extending across the now empty place in my chest where I had held Owen as a baby. I let him go. I stepped away from him, but he stayed pressed against the wall, a slightly overweight boy, remarkable in his ordinariness, save those ice blue eyes. One of my less tactful friends had asked about baby Owen's eyes: "Can he see out of those? They are so…unusual." How did my blue-eyed son think he could smoke pot in my house? How did he think he could smoke pot at all? I looked at his face against the wall, his round cheek, the new fur above his lip, his full dark eyebrow. He was Owen, the same kid he had been the day before, when he hadn't smoked pot. How did this happen?
"Turn around, son," I said. I had said that many times, always to other people's sons. Usually it was after I had snapped handcuffs on their wrists, changing their lives forever. Those other boys had turned to me and avoided my eyes, their parents' faces, the stares of onlookers or faces of drivers as traffic passed by. Those boys stared at the ground. But Owen turned toward me and his strange blue eyes met mine and did not look away. In the close quarters of the hallway, forced into the intimacy of eye contact, my son felt too close to me. I stepped into the open doorway of the bathroom. Behind me, the shower rained on.
"You are smoking pot in my house, son?" I asked him, now my voice did not have the roar of the angry mother behind it, but the cooler detachment of my police voice. I wanted him to tell me he was. I wanted to hear him say it. I had caught him red handed. Behind me, in the bathroom, was the evidence he'd dropped. I wasn't ready to take my eyes off him to collect it yet, but I had seen it, knew he had it in the moment I had opened the door and taken in the collective scene before me. "You are smoking weed in my house, Owen Michael?" I asked again.
"No, ma'am," he said, without dropping his eyes.
Before he could flinch away, I stepped across the distance between us. I grabbed Owen's chin between the finger and thumb of my right hand. Whatever earlier intimacy there had been between us was lost with the lie. Now I wanted him closer to me so that he could feel my disbelief and disappointment. I wanted him to try to look away from me and be unable to. I wanted him to absorb some of the struggle I felt to simply exist. As I stood there, holding my son's jaw, I wanted him to cry.
He did. Large tears bubbled up from under his lower eyelids and spilled over when he blinked. When the first tear hit his cheek, he tried to look away from me, straining against the hard hold I had on his face. I watched him cry, his lower lip sucked in slightly as it trembled. His tears did nothing to stop the blood that was thudding in my ears in an angry, steady tattoo. I thought his tears would mean I had won, and in winning, I would have control again. But as Owen stood there, leaning against the wall, silent, a few tears on his cheeks and his lips trembling, I realized that I had no more control over this boy than I had over the cancer that had stolen my strength. I let go of his face.
"Sit down, Owen," I said. The cop had gone out of my voice. Owen slid down the wall and sat, cross-legged on the beige hallway carpet. "No, uncross your legs," he looked away from me, down the hall, but he did as I asked. "Put your hands on your knees and don't move. Do you hear me?" They were police commands, but when deprived of the strength of tone and timbre, they became a parent's request. He nodded. His tears had stopped. His lip, in profile, was steady.
I stepped backwards into the bathroom again so as to reach the shower faucet. I turned the water off. The quiet that followed was so unnatural that I almost turned the water back on. In the awkward silence of the bathroom, I picked up a small bud of marijuana and the butane lighter that my husband used to light the gas grill in the summertime and the fireplace in the wintertime. I stuck the lighter in the pocket of my pajama bottoms and lay the little nubbin of weed on my palm. I stepped back out into the hallway. Owen looked up at me.
"I don't have the strength for this, Owen," I said to him. "I can't pull you out of the bathroom and pinch sense into you. I barely have strength enough to make it through an ordinary day. This is not ok."
Owen shrugged, a gesture that looked worn out. He was caught, so what? As I stood there, holding his half burned pot, I realized that nothing had changed today except the fact that now I knew something awful about my kid that I didn't know the day before. He hadn't been an angel-child and fallen into the cesspool of drugs overnight, to be caught by my suspicions and experience the next day. Somehow, while my body failed me, I failed to notice my son.
"Get up, Owen," I sighed. As he did, I stepped into the hallway. I needed to sit down; the floor seemed as good a place as any. "Go on downstairs and wait for me there. On the couch. I am going to go through your room up here after I rest a minute."
He turned and walked away from me without speaking, head down. I watched him go and wondered when he had learned to walk like that? When had he stopped walking like a child, all bouncy and light, and started to walk like a man, heavy shod and serious. Why hadn't I noticed before? Does it take cancer or drug use to make a parent see the transition between then and now? I sat a second longer, then decided it really didn't matter. I had better find out if the kid had any more pot hidden in his room. I reached across the hall for my scarf, tied it back on my bald head, and stood up.
I caught a glance of myself in the bathroom mirror as I rose. It wasn't even all of me, just half a woman in a red paisley bandana I'd stolen from the dog, a rumpled t-shirt from a bicycle rally held many years ago, and pajama bottoms kept long past their attractive prime. I stepped into the bathroom, putting the search of Owen's room on hold, and looked closer at myself, supporting my weight on the sink with one hand while I ran the other over my eyebrows. They fell out in a small shower of fur. I stared at the remains in the sink. I didn't recognize the tears that splashed upon the lost eyebrows as mine until I looked back in the mirror and saw that my lip was held between my teeth in the same manner that Owen had held his as I watched him cry in the hallway. I wasn't crying over my eyebrows. I wasn't crying over cancer. I wasn't crying over my errant child. I was crying because I had no idea where I was going to find the strength to let go of the sink and search that bedroom. The anger and disappointment I felt earlier had left, taking with it my confidence and energy. I crossed my arms on the sink and put my head down. The coolness of the granite radiated upward, making me feel a little better. If I let myself think about what I might find, and, if I were really honest with myself, probably would find, I started to feel dizzy. I closed my eyes and let myself keep my head on my folded arms, where I could rest and, at least for a while, not feel so tired.
There are sayings about the burdens borne in a lifetime. I have heard many variations of them, most from my mother, who calls from afar to try to cheer me up about my cancer and, later, my wayward son. The point of bearing burdens, my mother says the saying goes, is that the bearer would not be given such a load unless it were possible to carry them. When I finally raised my head from my arms and made my way to Owen's room, finding some strength from I don't know where, to go through his drawers and shoes and pillowcases, I stopped believing in those sayings about being able to carry the burdens one is given. When I was finished, his room destroyed, I sat cross-legged in the middle of his unmade bed with the results of my search, the things that made my son a stranger to me. These things became my burden. I had no choice but to carry it, able or no.
Christina Allison is a five month cancer survivor, having received her last of six rounds of chemo in August of 2012 for triple negative breast cancer. She is 42 years old, and has a daughter and two sons. She wrote "Owen's Story" while undergoing treatment.