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My Father's Rule

When my son landed in jail—and in danger—I got a surprising new look at the difficult parent I thought I knew.

My father arrives before seven to knock on my front door. The sun is weak and I'm half naked, still stumbling around trying to get dressed without waking my husband.

"C'mon," my father barks, as he has my whole life. "Traffic is going to be murder. You'd better hurry or we'll be late."

I pull on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, stuff a sweater into my bag, and slip into the closest pair of shoes. Stopping in the bathroom to brush my hair, I glimpse a pale, middle-aged woman with bloodshot eyes and a storky neck.

My husband, John, shuffles out of the bedroom in his bathrobe, a pillow crease running down one cheek. "Hey, baby, you sure you don't want me to go with you?" He checks his watch. "Wait a minute. You aren't leaving now, are you? The hearing isn't till ten. You don't need to go for another hour."

I kiss him and whisper that he should be quiet. My father is jangling his keys. If I don't get out the door quickly, there could be trouble. John doesn't understand—we haven't been married that long—and I don't have time to explain.

Instead I follow my father out of the house and climb into his car, as I have thousands of times before. He turns the key, checks his rearview mirror, and lurches out into the street.

"I brought cash," he says after a few blocks. "In case we need it."

"Thank you." I imagine the cells inside my body, each with tiny folded hands, pleading for coffee. But I know that to stop now would make him too nervous. Besides, he hates Starbucks—says it's a rip-off. So I watch the signs, hunker down in my seat, and breathe.

Together we drive west, toward my son.

I grew up in an atmosphere of rules and order. We arrived places early and left if other people were late. My mother cleaned and volunteered while my father went to work; she served dinner every night at six. I was 14 before I got even a whiff of Pink Floyd or The Who (like an archaeologist, I thought I'd discovered a brand-new culture), because my parents didn't allow rock music in the house.

To say that I was the black sheep doesn't do our situation justice. I was like an armadillo born into a family of pedigreed Labradors. My sister—a buoyant teenager who staged sleepovers where girls fixed one another's hair and watched Ice Castles—thrived in our suburban Minnesota fortress. Meanwhile, I grew moody and depressed. I starved myself, dated older men, hitched rides into the city with strangers.

It's an old story. But I didn't know that back then.

At 15 I left home and took a job as a waitress in a freeway-exit hotel. Over three years I rolled from one squalid little apartment to another, keeping my mother awake to pray for my safety countless nights. When I told my father I wanted to study literature and become a writer, you might have thought he heard pole dancer. He told me my plan was crazy—I'd only wind up poor and disappointed—then enrolled me in an accounting program instead. I lasted one semester before dropping out.

I constantly befriended people my parents disapproved of. Potheads, bikers, Democrats. One Thanksgiving came completely undone when, over a beautifully roasted turkey, the topic of gays in the military came up. I called my father's position (against) pure bigotry and was banished for several hours, then invited back on the condition that I keep my fanatical left-wing views to myself.

Does it come as a surprise that I went out and found a liberal anarchist to marry? Probably not.

Nor that I became pregnant at 21—a few months after completing the liberal arts degree my father and I eventually agreed upon—and developed a style of parenting utterly unlike the one I'd grown up with. Mine was a laissez-faire approach. Meals happened when people got hungry. Our household ran virtually without schedules. No topic was off-limits. If someone was listening to music so loud the neighbors complained, it was likely to be me.

"This is not your fault," my father says as I cry. "Children forgive you, as long as you stick by them."

The mother of three, I remained my parents' wild child.

This is what haunts me, as my father and I drive past red barns and metal silos that gleam in the morning light. It's possible—probable, it seems to me as the miles mount—that I did this. Maybe my erratic life contributed to the ruin of my older son.

Andrew was born bright-eyed and precocious. The Anarchist and I felt vindicated: our ill-advised coupling had produced stellar results. Three years later, when Andrew was diagnosed with autism, a syndrome characterized by withdrawal and disordered development, we fit this fact neatly into our worldview. Our son would excel, not despite but because of his alien qualities. We had both been there ourselves, different and misunderstood. The key to raising Andrew, we believed, was to embrace his differences and allow him absolute freedom—from expectations and from societal norms.

Andrew was socially awkward but able to function in school so long as he had extra time and help. We worked with him at home using biofeedback, music therapy, nutritional intervention, and a holistic program called Brain Gym, which practitioners told us would help strengthen his superior cerebellum. Throughout his grade-school years, our methods appeared to work. Andrew was eccentric yet well liked, as charmingly odd as an elf. Painfully shy and slow to speak, Andrew became nevertheless a pro juggler and a junior-high chess champion. When he performed well at either, he would lower his eyes and flash a crooked smile.

So when the Anarchist eventually took off on a yearlong bender (an event my father had predicted), I continued much as before: the whimsical, peripatetic mother of children ages 12, 10, and 5. No one could tell me what to do.

For six years we managed. My children united, the two boys close despite their differences and cooperative in taking care of their little sister. Together our family moved through three states as I signed on for one low-paying teaching job after another. Finally, nearing 40, I gave up on academe and moved back to Minneapolis—near my parents—to take a writing job with a magazine.

For once, my situation was stable. But for Andrew, that's when everything went to hell.

Discouraged as he entered his junior year of high school without friends or a girlfriend (and, no doubt, genetically inclined to depression), my older son grew dark and bitter. Then, in short order: addictive, compulsive, and devi­ous. He stole from his siblings and from neighborhood stores. He "dined and dashed" all over town. He quit going to school but couldn't hold a job; three employers let him go for malingering. At least once a week I was awakened after midnight by a phone call from someone demanding money and shouting that I should pick up—and discipline—my son.

At 20, Andrew filched the keys from my purse, took my car, and drove an hour and a half west to a small town, where he went on a full-fledged crime spree and was caught. Desperate, I decided to employ what I saw as my own parents' tactics: rules and consequences. A rural jail would be safer, I reasoned. I spoke to the county attorney and the judge. I refused to pick up Andrew. I sent my autistic son to prison.

When I told my father, I thought he'd be proud. Instead he looked startled; his sunken eyes, frightened. "For Christ's sake, Ann," he said. "He'll be eaten alive."

Within hours, Andrew was offered a Snickers bar in return for sex. Lonely and jonesing for chocolate, my naive adult son asked me on my next visit if I thought that would be okay. I immediately reversed my stance and demanded that he be released at once, but the county attorney said it was no longer so simple. Charges had been filed. His solution: Move Andrew into solitary confinement, the penal version of autism. Now my son cannot touch or hug or speak to anyone. For 23 hours a day he is alone in an empty cell. When I visit, I can see him slipping away.

We park near the courthouse. It's not quite nine o'clock, but the sun is hard and bright.

"There's a coffee shop." My father points. "I've got cash," he says again. We start across the street, momentarily blinded by the glittering sun. Then we step up onto the opposite curb.

My father turns and raises his glasses, squinting down at me. "It will be all right," he says.

This is, literally, half the man who raised me. The father of my youth loomed with an Orson Wellesian bulk. Now I look at the shrunken old guy standing at the counter—brushy eyebrows drawn together as he studies the latte menu—and see a glimmer of the person I once knew.

He has always been unpredictable in a way I could neither understand nor explain. Not long after my failed attempt at accounting, my father happened across an essay I'd written. He called me at work, where I was stacking trays. "You're going to writing school," he said, as if we were resuming a conversation from that morning. "I've found a good one. You're not going to believe it; it's in Iowa! And it costs a bundle, so you'd better do well." And I did.

With me, my parents always emphasized education, decorum, achievement. Yet the moment Andrew was diagnosed, each of them softened. "I think he's actually smarter than the rest of us," my mother would whisper. And my father—Harvard educated—would nod. "As long as he's happy," he'd say, stroking my son's cherubic blond head.

A decade later, after I'd gotten divorced and gone broke, my parents offered to support me and take care of my kids while I finished a novel. My mother took my daughter shopping, and my father played chess with the boys while I wrote in my parents' basement. They celebrated like soldiers on V-J Day when a publisher accepted the book. And the following year, when I introduced them to John—a tall, slim biker with hair down to his waist—my family welcomed him. "He's so good to your kids," my mother said. "We wouldn't care if he wore women's clothes." Then she shot me a questioning look.

My father insists now on carrying both our cups, a little shakily, toward a table in back. "Five goddamn dollars!" he mutters, sitting down next to me and shaking his head.

I am online, reading e-mail. "The hearing's been moved to eleven o'clock," I tell him, braced for his tirade.

But my father simply nods, blowing on his expensive coffee. And this kindness, after everything else, is too much. I look down and a tear falls on my laptop; I wipe it away so it won't short-circuit the hard drive.


"This is not your fault," my father says, at which I cry harder. He ignores this. "You do the best you can. When you make a mistake, you try to fix it. Children forgive you, as long as you stick by them. Your job is just…" He shrugs. "To be there. It's all you can do."

In three hours we'll manage to convince a judge to drop the charges. But I don't know that yet. Right now, all I know is that we are here, together, my father and I. He leans back, silent. And we wait side by side, more alike than I ever imagined.

Novelist Ann Bauer splits her time between Seattle and Minneapolis. Her son Andrew lives in New Hope, Minnesota, and studies painting at Interact Studio.

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