Secret words

On Tuesday I was buried
They put me in the ground
The pastor said a few kind words
I didn’t make a sound

It was a poem about death, a dozen or so stanzas built around the idea that I was watching my funeral, observing the reactions and lack of reaction from people who’d known me. Wish I had the rest of the poem, but all I remember is the opening, and this bit from somewhere in the middle:

A girl who sat behind me cried
I can’t recall her name
A kid was there who’d punched me once
I don’t know why he came

I’d been writing short stories and poetry in my head for as long as I’d been alive, and putting words on paper since learning the letters of the alphabet. That poem, though, was maybe the first thing I’d written that I was seriously pleased with. It didn’t sound like something a little boy would write, and that's why I liked it. Even when I was a kid I never wanted to write kid stuff about Barky the Dog or Billy’s Treehouse. 

I began carrying a notebook in first grade, but soon stopped, because the teacher wanted to know, “What are you writing in that notebook?” Uh, I like to write, but what I'm writing is not for grades, so butt out. Please.

I couldn't say that, of course, so instead of carrying the notebook with me, it stayed home, under the mattress, in my bedroom. When I returned from school or church or anywhere else, I’d dart into my room, reach under the mattress, pull out the notebook, and write something, or write myself a note to remind me to write about something.

The notebook was kind of a mess, but it was only for me, so who cares? When it was full, I’d push it further back under the mattress and ask Mom for another notebook. For a while, she was willing to give me a notebook whenever I asked. Maybe she thought I was taking studious notes in class.

But my grades sucked, so it couldn't have been that, and I guess Mom got suspicious.

One disastrous afternoon, I came home from school, grabbed a snack and a glass of milk, hurried into my room, closed the door, reached under the mattress, and nothing was there.

My notebook was gone.

All my notebooks were gone. I definitely hadn’t forgotten to stash them, and my older brothers and sisters wouldn’t care, so the culprit had to be Mom or Dad, or my Grandma H, who lived with us. 

Nobody said anything, but thunderclouds were coming. Instead of writing, I watched TV and worried, and then we ate dinner and I worried, and then … Dad wanted to see me in his bedroom.

Mom was there, too, and Grandma H was there, but Dad did most of the talking. He started by saying I wasn’t in trouble, so I knew this was serious trouble. Then he pulled my notebook out of a drawer, opened it to the funeral poem, and asked if I had suicidal thoughts.

I said, “No,” and then I don't remember saying much of anything. That session was all about listening. They were worried that I was going to kill myself, or at least that I was sick in the head. They said everything that parents would say in an Afterschool Special — “You know we love you,” “God loves you, too,” “There’s a purpose to your life,” and more unwanted, unneeded rot.

“What is this notebook even for?”, my father asked, but I couldn’t explain it. If someone asked now I’d say, “I like to write,” of course, and maybe I said something like that to Dad and Mom and Grandma H on that awful evening? I can’t remember. If I said it, they did not understand. Nobody was proud to have a writer in the family. 

I wanted my notebook back, but Dad said I couldn’t have it until I began seeing a ‘counselor’ — not a school counselor, but some shrink or shrink-light guy, two nights a week, who’d “help me sort out my confusion.” I was supposed to show the notebook to the counselor, and show the counselor every notebook, everything I’d written, and everything I wrote.

Maybe you’re wondering how old I was? Well, I wonder, too, but I’m not sure. By adolescence, I would’ve said something profane if Dad had asked any of those questions, and I would vividly remember what I said and what I thought. Since I don’t remember much of the inquisition, my guess is that I was still a little kid. Single digits.

And every Tuesday and Thursday evening after that, I was in Mr Cavanaugh’s office, downtown. At first, Mom drove me, but after a few weeks I went alone, on the city bus. I still remember which routes, and where to transfer, and that riding the bus was the only thing I liked about seeing Cavanaugh.

When I said I wanted my notebook back, he said, “Of course,” and handed it to me. But from a folder on his desk, a corner of a page was sticking out, so I could see that he had a photocopy of the poem.

Cavanaugh was competent, but I hated him and hated going to those sessions. Hated being punished, for writing the best thing I’d written. Hated hearing the word ‘suicidal’ so many times, on so many Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Other than once in a while asking, “How was your session?,” but not really listening to the answer, Mom and Dad and Grandma H never again asked anything about my mental health. Never again showed any interest in anything I’d written.

Other than accidentally and very rarely saying “I like to write,” I don’t think I ever mentioned my writing to my parents. I’ve absolutely never shown them a word of it. 

I began buying notebooks with my allowance, and sometimes swiping ruled-paper tablets from a stockroom at school. I always made sure no-one saw me writing, or even saw me with a notebook.

A lockbox was emptied and the key liberated from the basement, and then a hole was dug under a layer of dirt, under a big rock, in a clearing you wouldn’t guess was there, inside the bushes encircling our yard.

After school, after church, I tried to make sure Mom & Dad thought I was someplace when actually I was someplace else. Like a spy making sure he wasn’t tailed, I took a random five- or ten-minute route across the yard, sometimes around the block, checking over my shoulder and scrutinizing the windows to be sure I was alone and unseen. 

Wherever it took me, the wandering always led to that unexpected clearing in the bushes, where nobody could see me. There I’d gently topple the rock, dig through the dirt or mud, pull out that well-hidden and locked box, turn the key, and write secret words. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

And for any parents reading this, if any of the above sounds like you, please back the hell off. Even children should have some reasonable expectation of privacy.

Republished 4/27/2023  


  1. Your parents needed therapy. It's amazing you came through this crap (relatively) undamaged.

    1. I don't know anybody who's even relatively undamaged.

  2. Parents make mistakes, and being a parent is just a collection of mistakes ... but this was a big one. Shit.

    1. I'm not going to write a thousand articles about every little thing they did right, but they did do a lot of things right, too.


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