Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Tough Love

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The phone screeched in my ear. I jerked up in bed. It screeched again. I squinted at the clock. Three a.m. Nothing good comes from a call at three a.m. I picked up the receiver in mid-screech. "Hello?" I said, sleep clogging my voice.


I could see his face as soon as he said the word. Twenty-four, scrawny, long hair falling into his eyes. Where was he calling from? A bus station? Some homeless shelter? I tried to pick up background noises.

"Mama?" he asked again. All of a sudden, he was three again, coming to me with a boo-boo needing a kiss.
"I'm here, Joshua," I said with a croak. I cleared my throat. I wasn't going to let him get to me this time. "What's up?"

"I need to come home. I haven't got a place to stay. They kicked me out of the shelter. Please, it'll be just for a little while."

Since the age of 16, we had tried contracts, counselors, military schools, you name it. Nothing seemed to reach him, help him find a path other than the one towards destruction. "Please, Joshua, don't ask. You remember the last time? I told you then, I couldn't let you come back again."

I waited for his reaction. He always exploded when he didn't get his way. I've been called a bitch, a whore, a fucking cunt. It's surprising how much those words sting even after you've heard them a hundred times from someone you love, or wanted to love.

This time, however, no burst of anger. "Please, Mama, just for a little while?"

The second approach, wheedling, plying for my affection. Like when he wanted that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle collection when he was eight. I hardened my heart. He was no longer eight, I reminded myself. He couldn't even be bothered to come to his father's funeral.

I repeated something the many therapists had stressed over our years of counseling. "No, Joshua. You've made your choices. You'll have to accept the consequences."

He took a deep breath, and I could almost hear the tears in his voice. "You're right."

This caught me off-guard. Never had he accepted responsibility. Someone or something else had always created his problems. Teachers, the system, his parents. He continued. "I just was hoping . . . if I could just get on my feet . . . I promise it'll be different."

I could hear Sam's voice in my head. He's an adult. He's got to learn to stand on his own two feet.

I swallowed. "That's what you always promise, then you break it."

"Not this time. I'm straight now. I haven't used in months."

Don't let him get to you.

I squeezed the receiver tightly. "How do I know that's the truth?" I had a second sense about this. An in-born lie detector. I could never explain this to Sam, how I just knew if one of the kids was jerking our chains. Countless times I had been accused of mistrust, only to prove in the end I was right.

"I'll do anything you ask, even drug tests. If that's what you want. I've hit bottom, I promise. I want out."

You're not going to believe him, are you?

I told Sam to shut up. I heard sincerity in Joshua's voice. Whether for real or from a mother's optimism, I wasn't certain; but I took a deep breath and said, "Okay, baby, you can come home."

Liese Sherwood-Fabre received her PhD from Indiana University and is an award-winning author whose pieces have appeared in Briar Cliff Review, Lynx Eye, and Writers’ Journal magazines. Another story appears in the anthology The Girls’ Life’s Big Book of Friendship Fiction. Her professional career with the U.S. government has taken to countries throughout the world. The current piece, “Tough Love,” was inspired by discussions and presentations on teen problems and solutions at conferences she has attended in her current position with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as a mother of three teens herself.

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