Pedaling a Path Out of Isolation

JOSIAH'S dark blond head is bowed nearly to the table, his shoulders hunched in a protective collar. He answers our questions in monosyllables, sometimes spitting them out. I'm a little frightened by his anger, doubting that I know anything at all about our retreating son.

``Josiah doesn't say a word. He's never any trouble.'' ``Josiah does not speak until spoken to. I wish he would participate.'' ``Josiah refuses my offers of help.'' So wrote his teachers on the interim report we received last week, near the end of his freshman year of high school.

My husband, Tom, asks him first about his grades, then school, other interests, any interests. Josiah says he doesn't care. All he wants to do is sit on the couch and be left alone. This is what he says.

Tom asks, ``Are you depressed?'' Yes, is the barely audible, mumbled answer. And, Tom again: ``Isn't there anything you want to do?''

Josiah starts to say no, but anger lifts his voice, and then he's telling us how he would like to go somewhere, all by himself. ``I want to survive by myself, by my own power.''

I'm a little stunned by visions of my 15-year-old leaving home, already. And to be by himself, to make firm his already burgeoning isolation. But our enclosed son has leaked a little of himself out to us, almost wailed it in the muted dynamics of his normal conversation. He looks up at us for the first time. He says he guesses there's no way he could do that, but his eyes are questioning, hopeful yet braced for defeat. The question hangs in the air and then he says, ``I could ride my bike.''

And so, we all start talking, each contributing a little to the plan. He will get a ride from Tom to Xenia, carrying his bike in the back of the station wagon. I will call our friend Debby, who lives 20 miles away in Yellow Springs, and see if she can lend him a tent to use at John Bryan State Park and sign him in. We agree to give him $20 and some food supplies. He will leave Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, right after school. From Xenia, he will ride the bike path 10 miles into Yellow Springs and meet up with Debby. He will call us Sunday from Debby's to let us know whether he wants to come home then or on Monday.

AND so he goes off, on his own power - at least from Xenia. I'm not worried about his choices. Josiah's habitual caution made him a late walker at 20 months and a reluctant talker, even at 4. But how about all the rest that I can't protect him from?

We settle into a quiet weekend, temporarily parents of a single child whose rich social life, at 9, leaves us wordless in admiration. Our daughter, Djuna, goes Saturday evening to a friend's for a sleepover. We get ready for bed early.

I feel empty-handed - no one to do for, barely remembering motivation from within. I begin the rounds of the nightly mother watch, free to poke into their empty rooms. I look into Josiah's room, which is simple, almost bare. A bed, a dresser, a tape player, and some clothes in a heap on the floor. On the far wall is an architectural robot he constructed from paper when he was 10. Its large form hangs high off the wall, looming over me, yet is benign with its passive face and pastel limbs. I find scraps of paper, school assignments embellished with his tiny cribbed drawings of fantastic detail. I have to look very closely to see what is there.

Djuna's room is clotted with zones of activity, the troll corner and the messy art table, the walls bedazzled with glow-in-the-dark stars and little critters she has made. On her bookshelf is the model HPV - human-powered vehicle - she made for her science project this spring. She seemed fascinated by the concept, as are most children who are forbidden the motor-powered ways of getting where they want to go.

Later that night, around midnight, we have a terrific electrical storm that awakens Tom and me at the same instant. We breathe, ``Josiah.'' We wrap ourselves around each other and hold him in the middle. We have fear but no regret. I think of the vision-quest tradition in native American life and how he is just the right age, in just the right mind, for this journey. And how clearly he told us so.

Around 1 a.m., the phone pierces the near-sleep we have fallen into. It's Debby, who tells us she went to check on Josiah, who was snug and comfortable in his tent, perhaps even a little chipper.

He calls us on Sunday and says he is ready to come home. After he gets home, he doesn't tell us many details of his journey. When questioned, he reveals getting a flat tire on his bike, while riding it into town, and walking his bike back four miles to the campground. And he tells of finding some Yellow Springs High School and Central State University students to play a pickup game of basketball with. He had enough to eat, deciding to spend his $20 on sandwiches from the health-food store in town. He tells us nothing of a turning point, the epiphany I had hoped for.

I look more closely for clues, listening intently. I review what I now know: that his passion for basketball is strong enough to surpass his shyness; that left on his own, he chooses food that nourishes him; and that when something in his life breaks, he can make his way back, using just his own power.

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