A couple of years passed and she worked to live up to her duties as a mother. That same determination not to be a statistic stuck with her and she refused to shirk any level of her responsibility.
“Mom, I can handle it. It’s only night school. My boss says she’ll even let me go early so I can get to class on time. No, I’m not working myself too hard. Look, if this is the only way I’m going to get the promotion then I’m going to do it. Yes, I trust Tammy enough to babysit Jeff. Mom, she’s not an axe murderer, I promise. Mom! Listen to me, I had him, and as you so often point out, it’s my responsibility to take care of him. I don’t plan on living in this housing project for the rest of my life! I’ve got just one year left on this program before they kick me out. This is my only chance, now either support me or leave me alone! Look mom, I’ve got to go. Jeff’s doing something mean to the cat. Yes, I know you told me not to get a pet but Jeff wanted one and we don’t have the room for a dog. Well, whatever, he wanted it so I got it for him. And right now, it sounds like he’s torturing the poor thing. I’ve got to go, bye.”
“Jeff, honey, put Socks down. Cats don’t like being held upside down sweetie!”
Eventually, the long hours began to pay off and things were looking up, as much as they could.
“Hi, mom. Guess What? I got an ‘A’ on my last final! What do you mean, ‘that’s nice’? Can’t you get excited for me at least once? What kind of reaction is that? You do realize this means I’m going to graduate with honors! Oh geez, not this old argument again. I promise you, my time away from Jeff hasn’t damaged him in any way. I’m still his mother and he knows that. No, he isn’t still calling Tammy ‘Mama’ and that was just when he was learning to talk. He KNOWS who I am! Yes, I know what you think. You’ve taken every available moment since I had him to tell me what you think! But if you’d just listen, I had to go to school in order to get somewhere at my job. A GED wasn’t going to get it! With this degree, I move up into a real job with benefits and a real salary. I can start looking for a decent place to live and we can move the hell out of this neighborhood. But mom! Mom! You’re not listening to me! I want better for Jeff and since his father isn’t helping any, I have to do this on my own! Why won’t you listen to me? What do you mean, ‘what about Jeff?’ I’m doing all of this for Jeff!”
Three years later, things looked up even higher. Her son was growing into quite the young man. He had friends and was doing well in school, but it was time for something better. She refused to raise him under the same circumstances that had produced his father.
“It’s really ours?”
“Yes, baby. It’s really ours. You’re not sorry we left the apartments are you?”
“Oh no…well, a little bit. I mean, I’m going to miss Tre and Drew and the rest of the guys but, I guess it’ll be okay. Do you think they’ll like me at the new school?”
“Well honey, I don’t see why they wouldn’t. You’re smart and fun to be with. Besides, they have a really good football program both at the middle school and high school. I thought you’d like that. It’ll be fine. You’ll make new friends. Look at it this way, you don’t have to play in the street anymore, there’s a park close by where you can hang out and look, no drug dealers, gang signs or broken glass in the gutters. You gotta love that…”
“Yeah, I guess so. But…well, all my friends think that uh, you know, that I’ll be well…you know. That I’m just not gonna fit in, what if no one likes me?”
“It’s not going to be that bad, I promise. It’s a new environment and all, but you’ll be fine. You’ll make plenty of friends. You’ve got that new game system, all those movies; you’ll be a hit in no time.”
“I wanted only the best for Jeff,” she thinks, and sighs again. The move to the suburbs so Jeff could attend the best public schools she could find. She didn’t want him to feel out-of-place so she made sure he had the designer clothes the other kids were wearing, the latest games and gadgets, and a cell phone when he hit fifteen. He had everything the other kids had, so why hadn’t it made a difference? Why had it all come down to the gun in her lap?
Sade continued to sing, “I keep crying for you, I keep trying for you.” And she had. She had cried for Jeff, Jr. many a night and tried as best she could to keep him from harm.
The change in him had been subtle. Thinking back, she guessed it must have started well before last year but she didn’t notice until it was too late. Up to that point, she had been confident that all of her hard work had paid off, that she had done right by her son. Unlike her mother, she didn’t force any heavy responsibility on Jeff. She took care of everything, leaving him free to enjoy being a kid. She made good money, they lived in a good neighborhood, and Jeff, Jr. had all he could want. But still…
“Jeff, where the hell have you been? I’ve been calling for over an hour! What’s the use in you having a cell phone if you don’t answer it? And don’t tell me you were at practice because I know you got finished at five. Well, where have you been?”
“Mom, chill out. I stopped at Todd’s for dinner.”
“Here I am busting my butt at work and you’re out gallivanting around giving me heart attacks! I’m doing all I can to make sure we’re taken care of and I’m sorry I have to work late but you could at least be a little more considerate and come home when you’re supposed to or at least give me a call. ”
“Sorry mom. Promise, I’ll call you next time.”
“Now, who is this Todd person? I haven’t heard you mention him before.”
“He’s this new guy. His family just moved here and he ended up in the college prep track with us just last week. He’s pretty cool. Smart too. He’s already got caught up in most of the classes. He invited me over to hang out, you know so he wouldn’t have to be home by himself. I was hoping to have him over to our house for dinner, that is, on one of those rare nights you make home to cook.”
“Yeah, well, no need in being a smart ass. I dunno, maybe this weekend. I’m telling you what though, these late hours are going to pay off, I’m really close to getting that promotion. You know more money means we can afford to get you that car next year and finally start putting away money toward your college.”
“I know. I keep telling you that I don’t mind getting a job after school to help out, earn my own money. What’s the big deal?”
“And I keep telling you, I don’t want you to have to work. You’re a kid. You deserve to have fun. Not to mention being able to focus and get decent grades. Besides, I’m the parent and it’s my responsibility to make sure you have things you need. I’ll be home in an hour and we’ll talk more about it then. Be sure to get your homework done.”
“Already got it covered.”
“I love you Jeff. And I’m sorry I yelled before. You really are good a kid and I appreciate you putting up with my schedule. Listen, I gotta go. See ya when I get home.”
“Love you too, mom.”
As the year wore on, he started spending his free time with Todd. His school work didn’t suffer much, but there was something going on. Those two boys became fast friends; keeping each other company after school while both of their parents worked to make good livings.
Was there a way she could have prevented it, broken up the friendship? Was there something more she could have done for Jeff, Jr. so he wouldn’t have been so drawn to Todd?