With every fuck this and fucking that, the power of the word began to fall away, piece by fucking piece.
I grew up in a wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap-if-any-word-harsher-than-heck-slipped-out-of-it kind of family. Descriptive, intelligent vocabulary still appeals to me more than four-letter expletives. But the two boys my partner Kim and I adopted from the Oregon foster care system came pre-programmed with a full and colorful slew of words from the old no-speak list.
Shut the motherfucking hell up spewed out of recently adopted 7-year-old Brandon during an otherwise unremarkable and calm car trip. What the fucking hell is this shit? 3-year-old Timmy growled, curled on the couch in front of a warm fire and “Polar Express” on the television screen. No soap in the mouth here, we neither condemned nor congratulated dirty language. After several impressive outbursts Kim and I sat the boys down.
“Even though we don’t use them,” I said, “we know all the bad words.”
“In case you’re trying to shock us,” Kim added.
Or educate us, I thought.
I let loose a stream of vocabulary that included George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, and then some. Both boys’ eyes flew wide open, round discs in rounder faces.
“It’s not like we’ve never heard them before,” Kim said.
“We just choose to use smarter, more imaginative words instead,” I added.
For a while, bad language faded and we didn’t worry about it.
When he hit adolescence our older son’s struggles accelerated. Stealing, lying, constant calls from school, and a couple of run-ins with law enforcement began to wear us down. Arguments and shouting matches became common place. Swearing seemed like the least of our problems.
A host of crappy words soon littered every angry interchange between teenage Brandon and me, between Brandon and Kim, between Brandon and Tim; and we had a shit-load of angry interchanges. Fuck penetrated far too many conversations, big and small. Solutions for other problems Brandon brought with him from his first seven years, first in a meth house and then in foster care—his attachment disorder, his deep fear, and his scary rage—those solutions eluded us. But an idea formed in my head and I hoped it might help us clean up our mouths. Maybe cleaning up our mouths would lead to something even better. Maybe.
After talking over the idea with Kim, I called the boys to dinner.
“Brandon! Tim!” I shouted to be heard upstairs. “Time for dinner!”
I stood beside our large wood and tile table, set with four blue willow plates, four matching napkins, four sets of forks and spoons, and four thick blue recycled-glass glasses. In part because of the chaos in their lives before we adopted them, Kim and I made family dinner a nightly priority; homemade food, nice plates, cloth napkins, the works. Dinner provided something to count on, real sustenance when the going got tough, which was always.
I had an announcement—the idea that popped into my head was about to become a new dinner-time rule. The proclamation would make one son deliriously happy and one son steam. I caught Kim’s eye across the room as she forked garlic chicken onto a serving platter. As the boys tromped into the room, I raised my eyebrows to ask, you’re still in, right? She winked back.
Kim and I had made plenty of rules before, some normal ones like say please and thank you or pick up your room. Others we invented on the fly out of immediate necessity such as no choking yourself, no biting, no touching other people’s privates, no stashing raw meat under your bed, no attacking people with scissors, no dropping rocks on the chickens’ heads, no stapling the dog.
No swearing was a rule too. We all broke it at times and Brandon broke it every single day. Brandon’s f-bombs exploded in the middle of family dinners. His f-weapons zinged like darts or stabbed like arrows shot from a crossbow all day long. Kim and I had attempted unilateral disarmament, but it proved unsuccessful. We hoped this new offensive tactic would defuse the f-word’s fire power.
“Starting tonight,” it was everything I could do to maintain a neutral expression, “every sentence you say at dinner,” I glanced at Kim, “every, single, one, must include the word fuck.”
Tim, now 11, lit up, blue eyes wide and mouth open before a smile exploded across his baby-smooth face. You’d think I said potato chips and peanut M&M’s for supper from now on.
“Really? The f-word?” He pulled out his chair to sit. As he plopped down he turned to me and raised one eyebrow. “Is this a trick?”
Across the table, Brandon let out a loud, fuming breath.
I turned to face my angry son. Behind him, long thin knife gashes scarred the eighty-year old wood archway between kitchen and dining room. I sometimes found myself wondering what, or who, Brandon was thinking about when he plunged a knife blade into the woodwork, or his bedroom wall, or his mattress, or the trunks of trees in our yard. The stab wounds everywhere testified to real danger behind Brandon’s words, though so far, he’d managed to confine violence mostly to objects. He flipped long straight bangs out of his eyes to glare at me.
“That’s exactly fucking right,” I couldn’t help smiling.
Kim set the plate of chicken in the center of the table.
“Have a fucking seat, Brandon,” she offered, her dimples dancing.
“The garlic chicken is fucking good, Kim,” Tim’s smile glowed. “It’s my fucking favorite.”
“Could you pass the salt the fuck down here, please?”
Tim slid the salt shaker toward Kim and swirled his wrist with a flourish.
“How the fuck did your day go at school?” Spooning cole slaw onto my plate, I let the question hang in the air where it could apply to either boy.
Brandon sat quietly at his spot, eyes on his plate, passing chicken and cole slaw and salt. He shoveled in his food without a word, following the new rule in his own not-following way. After all, we hadn’t required that anyone say any sentences, only that if you did, you had to include the word fuck.
With every fuck this and fucking that, the power of the word began to fall away, piece by fucking piece. Halfway through dinner, three of us fucking grinned with glee. By the end of dinner, it was clear that co-opting the word fuck would be useful. Not curative, anger and distrust wouldn’t magically disappear so we could all live happily-ever-after, but all the fucking cursing made a fucking difference.
The most reluctant, the angriest, the one whose effing crossbow we’d impounded flipped his bangs aside again and watched as the rest of us giggled and guffawed. Finally, a smile tugged at the unwilling stiff corners of his mouth. I caught his eyes as the smile attempted to overthrow his whole mouth. He quickly swallowed it, but light lingered in his hazel eyes. That bit of sparkle turned his scowling face handsome and vulnerable in a single swoop; it was a rare gem and each time it happened I clung to it for days or weeks after. Those uncommon sparks helped me love him.
We kept at it evening after evening. We limited our f-word extravaganza to dinner, otherwise with the strain of Brandon’s acting out, each of us would run the risk of letting frustration and fury slide us off the high road, ala what the fuck made you think you could help yourself to my wallet, or stay the motherfucking hell out of my room, or who made you the fucking King of Siam? Restricting the f-word to dinner kept us from slipping over to the dark side.
“What if I get so in the habit of swearing that I say fuck at school?” Tim swirled spaghetti around his fork. His twinkling blue middle-schooler eyes told me he wasn’t much worried this would really happen.
“Have your fucking teacher call me and I’ll tell him what the fuck is up.”
Tim dropped his head to his forearms then sat up, leaned back, and laughed until tears moistened his lower eyelids.
After a while, a week, maybe two, fuck began to bore us and it started to slip away, sentence by not-so-fucked-up sentence. Brandon abandoned the word in all its iterations—at dinner, around the house, even during arguments. Tim clung to his swearing license a little longer, but license defused desirability, and he too, let the f-word fall off. Dinner conversations, if not our whole family life, made a small shift toward the light.
On occasion, I admit the f-word is the only word that will do, as when, say, a politician declares abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape because “women can shut that whole thing down.” Why waste an intelligent, articulate response for that, when a simple “Fucking Fuckwad!” will do?
Fuck-free conversations won’t repair trust broken by lies or stealing but they can and do ease daily tensions. This path didn’t lead us out of the woods, but before things got really tough, we experienced a sweet rest in a small clearing.
And the trail to that clearing?
The trail wound through a shit-ton of fucking fucks.
Mary Mandeville is a writer in Portland, Oregon. Her essays have been published in Voice Catcher, Brain Child, Nailed Magazine, and the anthology She Holds the Face of the World. She’s received a Pushcart nomination and was featured in Portland’s 2015 Listen To Your Mother show. She’s working on a book-length memoir.