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SON'S LOVE WINS HIS DAD'S ATTENTION

On Father's Day, I kept thinking about Larry.

He's seen more change and trouble in his 13 years than I hope ever to see.His parents married very young. He was born just weeks before his dad's high school graduation.

His aunt and I are close friends. Somehow, as he's moved from state to state, from relative to relative, we've kept in touch.

His parents divorced when he was about 3. By mutual agreement, he stayed with his father and paternal grandparents.

It seemed to work pretty well. Larry's grandmother, who doted on him, cared for him while his father attended university classes.

Then Greg married Linda. And somehow, in the transition to his new life, Larry got left behind.

It was going to be temporary. But the weeks became months and years and Greg and Linda started a family of "their own." Larry stayed with his grandparents, in the same town as his father, and they saw each other regularly.

Only they didn't really see each other at all.

They sometimes spent time together, brief moments that seemed accidental. And two or three times a year, the happy honeymooners kept Larry overnight.

If there was a parent-teacher conference, his grandmother went. When his class gave its Christmas program, you know who was in the audience. And who wasn't.

They were together at family occasions like Christmas and birthdays. Greg would drape his arm around his son - and talk across him to the "grown-ups."

Larry will tell you his grandparents were good parents. That didn't keep him from longing for his father. His life, at 8, was already an endless quest to get his father's attention.

He succeeded. First, there was the angry note from Larry's school demanding his father's presence (as his legal guardian) for a meeting. Larry was picking fights with other kids.

He really had his father's attention when he and a friend were arrested for shoplifting at a grocery store. The ride back from juvenile court was "pretty cold," Larry told me.

There were other attention-grabbers: sluffing, smoking, swearing, fighting.

His grandparents did everything they could do to change things. His father appeared when he was summoned by officials. On a personal level, though, he was definitely absent.

I watched the little boy I loved to baby-sit become an unhappy, mixed-up kid. His once-bright eyes were sullen and evasive. Where he once chatted gaily with me, I could only elicit a grunt or two.

His grandparents didn't know how to reach him. His father didn't seem to want to try.

When he was 11, he and a slightly older friend went "joy riding." His grandmother (and the other boy's parents) were frantic with worry. "Please bring them home safely," they prayed.

His father ranted and raved about the insurance costs - and the fact that it could cost him his job.

Through it all, those of us who took the time to know him believed that Larry was, at his core, a good kid. We knew what he needed; we couldn't provide it.

Time has proved us right.

Somewhere along the way, Larry scared himself. He was too wild, even by his standards. He decided to clean his slate.

He was put on probation and obeyed it to the letter. He changed schools and found teachers and counselors who believed in him and let him know it. He quit smoking and drinking. And though he sometimes swears, he's learning to control his temper.

What happened?

"My dad is just the way he is," he told me. "I think he does love me. He's just not good with kids. And I won't be a kid forever, will I? I just decided to change. For years he ticked me off and I tried to get his attention. But I was hurting a lot of other people - like Grandpa and Grandma. And I love them."

Standing in Juvenile Court, he said, he looked at his father. But he saw the other people - people who were always there for him, without the pressure of a subpoena: his grandparents and an aunt and cousin who adore him. "I'm not afraid of being alone anymore. It won't happen."

I called Larry on Father's Day. He'd just gotten off the phone to his dad.

"We're going fishing," he said. "And you know what? When I told him I love him, he said he loves me, too."

I think they're going to find common ground. Someday, they'll be good friends, if never father and son.

We hear about the strength of a mother's love. You should see the love - and patience - of a 13-year-old.