The Game Changer
Jay liked checkers the best. Well, that’s not exactly true. He liked baseball the very best. On sunny days, we’d walk to the field on the hospital grounds overlooking the pond, and I’d pitch. He’d thwack ball after ball, shouting, “Yeah, man! Over the Green Monstah! I’m Jim Rice! I’m the champ!”
But checkers was Jay’s favorite indoor game. He skillfully leapfrogged my men and snared them, counting feverishly when I knocked off a few of his. He hated losing. And I’m not the type of therapist who lets her patients win just to be nice. They know it’s pandering.
Jay attempted to manipulate me at every opportunity. That’s what he knew. And he knew I knew. So we developed an understanding—games had real rules, and then games had Jay’s rules, like when he randomly changed the value of Monopoly hotels to his advantage. Whether it was Connect Four or Uno or Sorry, as long as we agreed which rules applied, we were fine.
I’d been working with Jay for two years. Like a lot of other children in treatment at the suburban Boston clinic, he carried a weighty history of abuse and neglect. Tow-headed and buck-toothed with gentle blue eyes, at almost-thirteen, he’d been removed from his home by the state. And now his foster parents were about to dump him.
When Kathy and Kevin O’Donnell had failed to conceive a third child, they took Jay in to live with them and their two biological kids. Fostering Jay was a challenge. He punched walls, spat at his step-siblings, and ran away three times. But even through multiple hospitalizations, the O’Donnells stuck with him—Kathy out of self-declared guilt, Kevin out of sheer passivity. It had been six years.
Everything was on track for them to sign the official adoption papers on Jay’s birthday in two weeks. But at a hastily scheduled parent meeting, Kathy announced, “I’m pregnant.”
“We want out,” said Kevin.
“Out?” I asked. “Meaning . . . ”
Kevin took Kathy’s hand. She dropped tears onto their conjoined fist and described the miracle of conceiving at age forty-two, of expecting a real child to complete their real family. How hard they’d tried to make it work with Jay. How they knew he was testing them, testing their love and commitment.
I dove in, suggesting that maybe they were just ambivalent, which, of course, was entirely understandable, especially at this time of transition—Jay’s impending adoption, the unexpected pregnancy. But they held firm.
“I can’t,” said Kathy.
“We can’t,” said Kevin.
“How will you tell Jay?” I asked, finally.
“We want you to do it,” Kathy said softly.
I told Jay the news at a family session, while the O’Donnells looked away, holding hands. Jay stared. Then he sobbed, pounding his leg with his fist. See? I told you, I am unlovable, he seemed to say through his tears. When he looked up, his eyes were almost cold, his jaw tight. It was as if he’d shut down, withdrawn into a part of himself, maybe for self-protection, or maybe to punish the adults who had made promises. Or maybe some of both.
Jay’s treatment team had anticipated that he might become suicidal, so we admitted him right away to the inpatient child unit, where he promptly smashed a door with a chair and landed in seclusion. A week later, I visited him to say happy birthday and goodbye. Now that he was inpatient, he would be assigned a new therapist. And when he was ready, he’d be transferred to an out-of-town residential home for troubled boys. He didn’t know the plan.
“Hey, Jay. I brought you something.”
He ripped open the poster. “Jim Rice. Awesome.”
He shuffled his feet awkwardly. “My dad came,” he said quietly.
“No, my real dad.”
“Oh,” I replied, startled.
“Yeah, he’s out of rehab. I hope I can go live with him. He brought me a present. Look!”
Jay ran for a box on the windowsill and plopped it on the end of his hospital bed.
“C’mon,” he said, “It’s Risk. I can show you how to conquer the world.”
“Okay. Sounds good,” I said.
“And we can even do your rules,” he said, tearing off the plastic shrink-wrap. “You know, the real rules.”
I slid my chair over and helped him unpack the game pieces. “Jay, this time we can play by any rules you like.”