Drove down to Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago to have lunch with our son. Bobby came in from Chicago to see his girlfriend. Not us, his blood, the people who gave him life. Oh, no. The GF, and her family. Yeah. He’ll stay with them, no problem. Because that’s where … she … is.

It would be awkward if I had any feelings of jealousy or betrayal about it, but fortunately, his abandonment of the concept of family is a non-issue for me.

We were excited about seeing him. Elizabeth pretty much idolizes her brother, though she would never admit it. When they lived together, I think her favorite words were, “Quit it, Bobby.” As for Carol and me, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that initially we saw his birth both as proof and the culmination of the theory of evolution. I’m sure we all believe we got the best babies ever. The memory of that is nature’s way of helping us survive their adolescence.

I’d forgotten what it was like living in a family full of Attention Deficit Disorder. We all got tested for ADD when the kids started showing symptoms. I turned out to be the only normal one in the family, “normal” meaning “without excuse.” My wife and children have a medically recognized condition that affects their interaction with the world. I lack character.  

Things had been pretty quiet since September. Bob was at school. I’m on a need to know basis with Carol and Elizabeth, who move pretty much as a unit, so I’ve been on my own most of the time. However, the lunch conversation brought it all back to me in a hurry. It’s harder to explain than it is to report, so here is a partial transcript as best I can recall it:

Me: How’s school? I really liked that paper you sent us.

Bob: Thanks. We’re studying Descartes in Philosophy now. I have to write a three-page thing –

Carol: You look good, Bobby. Like you’re finally getting enough sleep. Are you getting enough sleep?

Bob: Uh-huh. I’ve been –

Elizabeth: Mom! Tell Bobby what the dogs did this morning.

Carol: Which thing was that, honey?

Me: Descartes, huh? The French philosopher?

Bob: What did the dogs do, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: No, mom.

Bob: (Impish grin) What did mom do, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth: (Smiles) Stop mocking me, Bobby. I want mom to tell you.

Carol: (Reading menu) What is it I usually like here again?

Me: Elizabeth wants you to tell Bobby something about the dogs.

Carol: What?

Bob: So, anyway, Dad, did I tell you I jail-broke my phone while I was still in the Apple Store? I thought that was pretty cool.
Me: Very subversive.

Carol: What’s jail breaking?

Bob: It makes your phone so you don’t have to go through Apple –

Elizabeth: I gotta go to the bathroom.

Carol: You want me to come with you?

Elizabeth: No. (Heads off in search of rest room.)

Carol: What’s everybody getting?

Me: Your son was telling you about his phone.

Carol: That’s right, you got a new phone. How do you like it?

Bob: I changed the unlock icon so now it’s a skull.

Carol: I’m going to see if Elizabeth needs anything.

Me: She’s fine. She’s only going to the bathroom.

Carol: You’re right. How’s school, Bobby?

Bob: I want to talk more about my phone. I got a widget so I can push a button and use it as a flashlight –

Carol: (Smiles at Bob) Uh-huh.

Me: I don’t think she’s paying attention.

Bob: And this lets you download MP3s from YouTube –

Carol: (Smiles at Bob.)

Me: Seriously, she’s not listening. Maybe you could tell me about your paper.

Bob: (Focused on phone) I changed the icon configuration –

Carol: (Smiles at Bob.)

Me: And I’m on fire.

Bob: See? You can make up your own system.

Me: The flames are licking at my feet. Oh, God, the pain.

Bob: I could jailbreak yours if you want, mom.

Carol: Do what, now?

Me: I don’t want to go out like this. Please, somebody kill me.

Carol: (To me) Did you say something?

You get the idea. Somewhere in there Elizabeth came back from the bathroom, Carol remembered what it is she likes there, we ate, did another couple of laps around the parallel conversations track, and it was time to go home.

My highly unscientific experience is that something makes it harder for them to see the big picture around them either because new stimuli force their way into their awareness or because they become so focused on one thing that nothing can force its way in. The good news is that they all know that. 

They’ve each found ways to live with it. Elizabeth keeps checking to make sure she’s getting everything. It can be tedious, but she doesn’t let herself lose the thread of what’s going on around her. Bob is learning when he needs to shut out all the extraneous stimuli and is finding new ways to accomplish that. Carol is the most inspiring to me because she lived most of her life not knowing what she had and developing a host of coping mechanisms, from list making to setting aside times and places to concentrate to insisting on being left alone. As a result, she is a master planner and a detail-oriented implementer of plans, better at both than I’ll ever be.

In 30-plus years of living with this, I’ve gone from flabbergasted to being infuriated that people couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to understanding, empathy, and finally admiration. I say that like I’m the important one in this equation. Hey, maybe I have an excuse after all.

Is there such a thing as Concern About Anybody Else Disorder?

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at [email protected].