The Early Years
”HOW DO I KNOW you are my mother? State your full name and birth date.” The
troubled brown eyes of my 19-year-old son stared pleadingly into mine. I shifted my position in the
chair facing his bed in the psychiatric ward.
“My name is Karen Christine Strand. I was born on October 17th.”
“But the serpent seduced Eve, and lied ”
“Well I’m not a serpent. I’m your mother and you’re my son.”
Satisfied, Jay slid his tall, slim frame off the bed and began pacing
the room, warning me to be careful of what I said. “The walls are bugged, you know. See
that device up there?” He pointed to a smoke detector on the ceiling. “It has hidden
microphones. They pick up everything we say.”
I looked up. “I don’t see microphones.”
“I told you, they’re hidden,” he whispered.
He stopped pacing, his eyes widening in fear as he peered out the door,
telling me that the police were out there, “positioned in every hallway.”
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I shook my head in disbelief. I had read about paranoia. John
Hinkley, Jr. who had shot President Reagan. Hadn’t he been labeled paranoid? Other
stories came to mind; a man who attacked his co-workers in the belief that they were talking about him in
secret; a woman who hid in her house for months because “they” were after her. Now my own son spoke
as though he had read the script for Paranoid Behavior.
I wanted to cover my ears. I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut — not see the
gaunt, unshaven face framed by wild strands of copper-dyed hair, or any sign of all the havoc that drug use had
wrought in my son. After a time he stopped pacing and crawled back onto his bed, wearing a silly grin.
I could not bear hearing the words that kept piercing my heart, so I hugged him and said I would be back the next
day. At the doorway, I looked back over my shoulder. Jay was staring at the wall. Still smiling.
Although I visited Jay regularly, days passed before I was able to get information
from the hospital staff. I finally caught Jay’s doctor in the hallway one day and began firing questions.
“I’m Jay Attaway’s Mom,” I said. “What’s wrong with him? When will he get better?”
“Your son is experiencing a drug-induced psychosis,” the psychiatrist replied.
“But what’s going to happen? Where do we go from here?”
“Not so fast. He’ll get better but it will take time. Maybe two weeks.
He needs rest and nutrition. He needs to detoxify. ” I was told this was a common occurrence
. Heavy drug-users could lose it for awhile, but the mind has remarkable resources for recovery.
Give it time. Give it time.
What relief! My son would get better. In the meantime, his stepdad
and I would visit him every day. When his mind was clear, we would be assertive about getting him into a
treatment program for chemical dependency. He would agree, of course, because this nightmare would have scared him so.
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Encouraged by the doctor’s words, I went to the parking
lot and sat in my car for a long time, turning the recent events over in my mind. My son had used
drugs and his mind was gone. But he would get better. This wasn’t that unusual. Hadn’t
the doctor said it was not that unusual? We needed to give it time.
Watching the tall firs sway in the gentle March breeze, my thoughts went back in
time to the Jay I remembered from years before. The bright, energetic four-year-old who had come running
to me exclaiming “I’m smart! I’ve got a good thinker, don’t I Mom?” A good thinker. My
thoughts wandered back even further, to a hospital maternity ward on July 31, 1972.
Jay Norman Attaway was born in Los Gatos, California. It had been a hard
labor and delivery, my first, as Jennifer and Jill — our eight and six-year-old daughters — had been blessed
into our family through adoption.
Although my husband Norm was allowed in the delivery room, we didn’t get to see
our baby much, the first few days. At that time newborns were whisked away to the nursery, to be brought
out only at feeding time. But as I caressed Jay’s tiny, tightly curled fingers I rejoiced over his arrival
in a special way. Although I always felt that our daughters made our family complete, after 12 years of
marriage the desire to have a baby grow within me intensified. One evening, after weeping over a
Johnson’s Baby Lotion commercial on TV, I earnestly prayed, “Lord, even you said ‘the barren womb is never
Nine months later, the answer to my prayer lay in my arms.
On going-home day we pulled up to find Jay’s two older sisters standing in the
shade of the mulberry tree out front, waiting for us. Barefoot and in shorts, they ran beside us
waiting for a peek at the tiny, yellow-blanketed bundle. Almost from the start, the girls treated
their brother like a live baby doll that they could play house with. To his daddy’s dismay, they
sometimes put him in dresses and taped bows in his hair. Being daddy’s boy
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having three “mommies” to boot, gave Jay all the attention he could handle. Two years later he
would have to share that attention with his baby sister, Julie.
Exceptionally active, it seemed that Jay had started out on his toes and just
kept running. When he was four we moved into a house with a laundry room between the kitchen and family
room. A full month later, he stopped abruptly in front of it and asked, “Where did that room come from?”
By the time he was eight, Jay expended his energy in building backyard forts
and thinking up science experiments, which he hid under his bed. I never knew what I might find under
there. Once, he told me he wanted to make a “mechanical arm with a thumb that will operate by remote
control.” But he would need a blowtorch. When I reminded him he couldn’t even have matches, he
said that was okay, he would mix up some chemicals and make his own fire starter. He informed me he
already knew how to make nitroglycerin.
An avid reader, he zipped through the Encyclopedia Brown series and became
boy- detective before graduating to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia at age 11. His reading spawned
questions difficult for me to answer, such as: “If you had to be eaten by a shark or a piranha which would
One afternoon when Jay was 12, his sister Jennifer stopped by for a visit.
We had no sooner sat down with our coffee when we heard loud cries from Jay’s room. I raced up the stairs
and entered the room to find it vacant, with the window wide open. Ten white fingers tightly gripped the
inside edge of the windowsill. Jay hung outside, kicking the side of the house. With Jen’s help I
was able to grab his arms and pull him back in.
“What on earth were you doing?” I scolded.
“I wanted to see how it felt to drop from the second story. Then I changed my mind,” he said. They
say that curiosity is a sign of intelligence. But undirected curiosity can lead a boy down dangerous
paths. One day he would follow that kind of path,
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but unlike the window adventure it would be too late to change his mind.
In Junior High, Jay excelled in his computer class and was the only one to
finish the workbook. At home, he spent hours mastering the basics of computer graphics, once copying
an image of his Swiss army knife onto the screen. Regardless of his extreme energy level, he was able
to concentrate on matters that captivated him.
While all four kids were living at home we were a busy and active family, and
I loved it. Buying school clothes, going on field trips, even helping with homework. I bought Kids’
Praise records and the house resounded with “Music Machine” and “Bullfrogs and Butterflies.” Norm too,
entered into it all. At first, He read nursery rhymes to Jennifer and Jill, bought a “Daddy’s Boy”
bib for Jay and took a tape recorder into the delivery room when Julie was born. But something
changed. As the family grew, he seemed constrained by a certain rigidity, an inability to just let go
and have fun. I wrote in my diary: Ages 14, 12, 6 and 4 make for some lively times around here!
Both laughter and fighting -- yet we are blessed. I wish Norm saw it this way. I spend most of my
time just trying to keep them all quiet, for his sake. These could be good, precious times, but he’s
missing it! So sad. So sad.
Sundays were especially hard as the kids and I left their dad in front of the TV
waiting for a football game, while we went off to church.
“Honey, why don’t you come with us? You can tape the game,” I would suggest.
“You go ahead. Football season will be over soon and then I’ll come.”
But after football season came baseball season. On many Sundays I arrived home
to find that the “one cold beer” during the game had become several, leaving daddy to greet us with
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slurred speech and glassy eyes. I determined all the more to involve my kids in church,
getting my daughters active in Pioneer Girls, and Jay in Boy’s Brigade.
Believing, however, that a private Christian school would offer our kids the best
education, Norm willingly paid for all four of them to attend from kindergarten on. The neighbor kids
ridiculed them for riding the bus instead of walking to the school nearby, and additional ridicule came to Jay
because he was different — a skinny little kid who wore glasses and preferred a good book to sports.
Yet his sense of humor and silliness would gain him many friends. I admired not only my son’s sense of humor,
but that he could also have such a level head in an emergency. An experience the November he turned fourteen
is an example.
Our house backed up to a high school, separated from its field by a chain link fence.
Jay had ridden his bike over there to do wheelies on the basketball courts. I had just cleaned up the dinner dishes
when loud knocking assaulted the back door. It was Jay’s friend Erik, jumping up and down and pointing toward the
“Jay’s hurt! I think he broke something! Hurry!” I crossed the dark backyard,
to find Jay standing close to the fence, supporting his left arm.
“Mother,” he calmly stated, “I have broken my arm.”
“Jay! What? What happened?”
I tried to swing from the basketball backboard to a cross beam beneath it. It didn’t work.” He fell about ten feet.
“What should we do? Can you climb over the fence?”
“No, Mother. I cannot climb over.”
“Then what shall we do?” I panicked.
“Listen to me. Calm down,” he slowly instructed, as though speaking to a slightly-less-than-bright
child. “You must get into your car and drive around to the field. I shall wait near the basketball hoops. Can you do that?”
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Leaving Julie in the care of her dad, I picked Jay up, tortured him by fumbling
with the seat belt, and made it to an emergency clinic. X-rays showed fractures of the radius and ulna,
two major bones in the forearm. He went home wearing a huge cast.
This presence of mind showed itself again a few months later when he awoke with
a stomachache. When he suspected his appendix, I said it was indigestion and told him to take Pepto
Bismol. He stayed home from school and I gave him a heating pad. When I came in from a meeting
that evening, Jay was at the table with three medical books opened before him.
“Mom, I’m the right age for it; the pain has localized to the right side and I
feel like I’m gonna throw up. I have appendicitis.” The doctor removed Jay’s nearly ruptured appendix at 7:00 the next morning.
While Jay was in Junior High, his older sisters married and moved out of the home.
I was happy, and a little smug. My daughters had married Christian men, my teenagers were active in
church. And when my friend Pat, whose teens were rebelling, candidly asked what I was doing right, and she
was doing wrong, I glibly assured her it wasn’t me, just God’s grace. Yet inwardly, I believed it was my doing.
How pride comes before a fall.
When Jay entered 11th grade, his younger sister Julie entered the same school as a
freshman. And something changed. Whereas getting them up in the mornings had long been a challenge,
that September they were both up at 6 AM and running down the block to catch the County Transit bus. In
the words of Jack Newfield, it was “a portent, the first wind of a new storm,” though I only recognized it as a breeze.
One morning, arriving too early for a school conference, I ducked into Carl’s, Jr.
for a cup of coffee. I heard loud giggling from the back booths and turned to see the strangest looking
youths, ever. All of them wore black, but some had hair dyed orange or purple. One young man wore
a mini-skirt and black net pantyhose. Three of the girls had white, powdered faces
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punctuated by scarlet lipstick. All of them slowly sucked on cigarettes. One
of them was Julie. No wonder, the mad rush to get out of the house an hour early each morning.
These friends, however, were not from their school but from a school for troubled youth down the block.
That night I confronted both Jay and Julie.
“There’s nothing wrong with them,” Julie insisted. “They’re just mod.
“It means they’ve got brains, mom,” Jay answered. “They’re not like the
jocks at school.” He jumped up and hunched over, to overemphasize his rendition of a jock. “Yeah, yeah,
man! We’re gonna win the game, man! I got my own tee-shirt with a logo on it, man!”
“They’re fun to be with. They write poetry and stuff,” Julie, my poet, explained.
“And you would definitely approve of their music,” Jay continued. “No hard
rock or heavy metal. Alternative music is slow and has a deeper message.
This part was true. When I had heard Jay play," I Get By With A Little
Help From My Friends", I thought “how nice” with no clue that it was about drugs.
Their explanations eased my mind. After all, hadn’t I hung out with Beatniks
for the same reasons? I too had shunned the cheerleader image, longing for serious conversations and partners
in poetry and art. We dressed funny too, but certainly were no danger to anyone. I must be overreacting.
They would grow out of it as I did.
It is surely a sign of God’s grace that when we take the first steps of a hard journey,
we cannot see where that path will take us in the months and years to come. For my path was leading me toward
a dark and foreign land I did not want to enter.
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