I had planned on writing something else today. But I’m feeling a bit stuck, thinking about my friend Harley. I spent a lot of time with him the past few years. I watched him play video games, smoke on the porch. I think I’ve seen his entire knife/brass knuckle/machete collection at least four times – catalogued in shoeboxes, kept for safety in grandma’s room. Harley’s favorite feature is the seat-belt cutter – just in case he or a loved one are stuck in a car. I’ve listened to Harley’s music, way too loud. I’ve hung out at the park with him. We’ve gone cruising and enjoyed Swope’s sour cream fries (I prefer the Susie-Q’s). I’ve gone to school with Harley and seen him fall asleep in class. I’ve seen him try to make friends. I’ve laughed at his jokes, even when they’re about me.
Since I’ve known him, Harley has turned 15, then 16, and come next month, he’ll turn 17. One of the hardest things in Harley’s life is his mom’s absence. Joann has been in prison for nearly 3 years now. He talks to her as often as he can – unable to call her, he’s got to wait for her calls, and he does. And that’s heartbreaking at times, especially when there’s news to share or something bothering him, and the timing doesn’t work out, the phone doesn’t ring. Harley’s grandma is a wonderful woman – we got in the habit of calling her “Saint Betty.” Still, a mom has a special role in a young man’s life. As amazing as Grandma Betty is, Harley still misses his mother.
For a long time, years, one of Harley’s feet has turned in a bit. Also, he’s got an arm that has been giving him trouble and his hands shake. He’s seen a doctor (on a computer screen), who has prescribed medication for various diagnoses, such as ADD, Bi-Polar disorder, too much anger, and more. For many years, Harley has been told to take a lot of medication – a cocktail of pills every morning and night. When I saw the before and after effect, I came to believe this might be the biggest reason why the kid fell asleep in class. I’m no doctor - so what do I know? Still, I hate to imagine what it must be like to have your moods muted, so much so that you can’t even stay awake, especially when it would be so exceedingly therapeutic to have the chance to talk to someone, and not just on a computer screen, but a real person, who can reach out and hold your hand, so you can feel a real connection, and talk openly about grief, trauma, loss and challenges.
I’m thinking about Harley today for a few reasons. One, he recently dropped out of high school. But you won’t find him on the truancy rolls, as it’d be against the rules for a 16-year old to drop out officially. Like a lot of troubled kids, Harley was offered a deal to sign up for “home schooling.” This is a joke, of course, as Harley has no one to provide that for him. Grandma works, supporting four-generations in one household, and doesn’t have a lot of free time for tutoring. She does own a computer, but it’s hard to imagine Harley being able to sit in front of it on his own, pursuing a GED. I wish there were educational resources for Harley – a trade school, a vocational class, anywhere he could go to have a mentor or to learn at his own pace. I hope to stay involved in Harley’s life and see what options he might have – but so far, I haven’t found a lot.
Still, there are bigger challenges for Harley at the moment and that’s why I’m writing. Sometimes, I really would like to shake my fists at the fates. Why do some families and kids get dealt the hand they do? Where is the fairness? When can a kid like Harley catch a break? You see, I’m also thinking about Harley today, as he’s undergoing surgery at this moment. After years of foot and hand problems, mood swings, and just plain bad medicine because he couldn’t afford any better, Harley was finally able to get an MRI last week. And guess what? Doctors discovered a brain tumor; it has been growing for years. Tests will be run later this week. But next steps will probably be radiation or chemotherapy – and later more surgery. Medicaid will cover a majority of the bills, but not all. And certainly not missed work for Grandma, and gas money for trips to Kansas City. For now, the family is taking it day-by-day.
I write this because I’m mad about all Harley has had to face. I’m mad that this family, of all families, will have to endure the challenges, the expenses, the heartache. Harley’s Grandma has worked her whole life – and works hard. She keeps her house clean. She has seven, sometimes eight other family members living with her. She’s supporting all of them. And Harley is a great kid. He’s a terrible student, reads below grade-level – acts out, gets angry, has trouble with friendships. But he’s a GREAT kid. He’s got the best sense of humor of anyone I have ever met – he can charm strangers and work a room, even at swanky affairs at toney film festivals. Sure, his future doesn’t jump off the page and read: BRIGHT. But come on. Harley is honest and funny and smart - not book-smart, but people-smart, and smart in all the ways that ought to make a difference in life. He’s deserving of a break. Man, I sure hope he gets one. I want to be Harley’s friend for years and years to come.