A dark, undefinable menace that everyone in town seems to just accept. A boy who — on the threshold of independence — suddenly disappears into a perverse landscape of isolation and fear, governed by a monster that invades his dreams as well as his waking moments, threatening his peace, family and friendships. A desperate mother who believes that he is still “her boy”, who searches through various obstacles, including her once familiar home, to obtain fragmented glimpses of him, and who ventures into a dark world to retrieve her son. Meanwhile, no one provides any direction or explanation for what happened to him or how she’s going to get him back.
These are the elements of a compelling story that has emerged over three years, and I’ve been hooked on it for more reasons than just that it’s good cinema. About the time that my son became a teenager, I started watching the Netflix series Stranger Things. I found myself truly invested in the science fiction storyline. It wasn’t the first time I’d cried over science fiction: Obi Wan Kenobi’s graceful vanishing into the ethereal Force after a light saber battle with Darth Vader, Pris’ human response to being a cyborg in love with a man, no, I’d been moved by speculative fiction before, but this was different. After one particularly terrifying episode, I sat back and asked myself why I’d been sobbing into a Kleenex.
The answer dawned upon me that what Will was going through as he shivered alone in the Upside Down in the playhouse hugging a damp, muddy stuffed lion was related to what my own son was experiencing as he had been spirited out of one world into another.
Will had been swept away by a terrifying demigorgon, a player’s piece from his childhood come to life.
My son had been swept away by powerful elements — hormones, chemicals, and deep feelings, like nostalgia, uncertainty, and dolor — in his own body and the unfamiliar landscape of a new home, a new school, and a new age.
I couldn’t find my boy on some days, and, sometimes, when his body was right in front of me, like Will’s mother, it took me considerable effort to recognize him. It seemed that he had forgotten what we had meant to each other only months earlier. Once in a while, he’d join us for dinner or a family outing, but we knew he was on borrowed time. A tell tale cough and a visit to a private place were the clues that something terribly wrong had him in its grip.
When Will’s mom delved into the dank Upside Down to find her son and pried the tentacles of the parasites from her son’s mouth, not long afterwards, I raided my son’s murky room for his Juul, not understanding how addicted he had become to nicotine or that the semi-psychotic behavior that he intermittently exhibited was due to nicotine withdrawal and anxiety that he’d been trying to self-medicate.
When Will’s mom had to forcibly restrain him to do what instinct told her she needed to do, likewise, I ignored the pleas and screams of my own son in order to deliver hard medicine and care to him. I identified with her character’s panic overriding any temporary mercy and the sinister manipulation that my son tried to wield against her as I made correct but incredibly difficult decisions for my own son’s welfare, without any roadmap or assurance as to how this would turn out.
I did the extreme thing that Will’s mother did: I put him in the wilderness and kept him there against his will. Just like Will’s older brother, my older son was shocked and concerned but was also relieved that I had finally done something. He had been hurting, too, worried but unsure as to what he could do to find his brother and bring him back. He had just trod the path from boy to man, but he’d found a navigable trail. He had retraced those steps, looking to find out where his little brother had run off the road, and he couldn’t find him, either.
My son, like Will, tried to manipulate me, use guilt, my pity, and threats about his own well being to get me to bring him back to a home that was only a holding cell for his inevitable destruction. So into the woods he went. When my son left my house in the dark hours of a January morning to enter a wilderness school, I broke a bond between us. It was one of the hardest things that I’d ever done. How could I? I had been standing watch over my son, barely holding onto him with my fingernails. I couldn’t leave: if I did, even for a night, I could have lost him. The only thing harder than sending him away was keeping him home and watching him deteriorate.
And just when it seemed that he’d snap, the poisonous substance and thoughts, the dark self-image, the isolation…all of the nightmare that we’d been living for 18 months, left his system with each weekly expedition into the frozen woods, and he came back to me. Paler and thinner than when he’d left my home, still, he came back to me — all of him, everything that was at his core, the confident, resilient, honest man hiding inside the huddled shape that had been my broken little boy. When he came home, I held my son and let myself feel all the tenderness, sadness, exhaustion, gratitude, and yes, hope, that last little tinkling bell of brightness left in the Pandora’s box that is teenage exploration and growth.
Did I do the right things? It is stable in our home again. But I stand vigil, sometimes walking into his room at night just to watch him and hear him breathe. I whisper that I love him. I tell him how good it is that he’s back. I pray to God, to Jesus, Mary and St. Michael my “thankyouplease” prayers. And I watch, holding a flaming sword in my heart, a sledgehammer in my fist in case I need to break through any barrier again. I stand vigil, and I never take for granted that we are, all of us, right side up.