Mother of a Black Child

Through the heart of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is a straight line of stamped concrete—a road wide enough to park a bus on—labeled the “Free Speech Zone.” I know this because a non-profit organization with which I volunteered parked a bus there, and I was leaning out of the bus door curiously when the demonstrators marched by.

“It’s about PEACE,” intoned a young black woman into a megaphone. “It’s about JUSTice,” replied the small crowd walking with her, maybe ten, maybe fifteen, all of them students, all of them black. All of them with grave expressions on their faces.

“It’s about PEEEACE!”

“It’s about JUSTice!”

I didn’t know who Trayvon Martin was at the time, but I saw his face and his name on the posters around the students’ necks. I saw it lifted up by their arms into the air—enlarged photocopied images of a young black boy in a contrasting white hoodie.

“It’s about PEACE!”

I knit my brows together. Tilted my head. What was?

“Do you know what this is about?” I asked the woman volunteering on the bus with me. She was fair skinned, white haired, small boned, at least thirty years my senior, with myself in my mid-twenties at the time. Her voice was usually apologetic and breathless when she spoke, and now was no exception.

“Oh,” she breathed. “Something about a robbery? Sorry. I don’t know about all—” she waved her hand toward the demonstrators, “this.” The word, this, a breath, and that appeared to be the end of it for her.

I suppose it could have been the end of it for me too. But then it wasn’t. I pulled up the notepad app in my phone and typed hastily, “Trayvon Martin.” For later.

I couldn’t Google it right away, because this was 2012 and mobile Internet was still often unreliable and painfully slow. The Free Speech Zone, at the time, turned out to be mostly a data dead zone, unless I was lucky enough to catch a wifi signal from the neighboring library. I usually brought along a book to read, to pass the time between the waves of students that ambled by between classes. When I got home later, I would Google the name.

I guess I Googled it. I guess I learned who Trayvon Martin was. But I can’t recall what I felt. Did I feel anything? I don’t remember. I fear that I didn’t feel a thing. Not a damn thing. I probably didn’t. What I do recall, though, is the face of the girl with the megaphone. She made a dent in my memory. I see her even now, vividly.

“It’s about PEACE!” she declares, her eyes narrowed in intensity, pinched at the corners, her white teeth bared against the word, white against her dark skin.

“It’s about JUSTice.”

That was February. In August we brought the twins home. I didn’t know what their race was when we accepted the foster care placement, but I made a guess from the names contained in the email that Department of Family Services sent me, and that was after I’d already said yes. The email actually said we’d be picking up twin boys, 7 months old. That was lesson number one, I suppose, in never trusting anything that DFS says.

When the nursery worker at the shelter turned the corner with the baby that is now my daughter in his arms, I exclaimed, “It’s a girl?”

The man looked skeptically at the child in his hands and declared, “Looks like a girl to me.”

The child was then plopped into my husband’s arms, and James became a father, for the very first time. My son was dumped into my arms a moment thereafter, and I became a mother. All the ensuing chaos that accompanies parenthood for the very first time followed. We didn’t miss a lick, including us nervously strapping them into our car for the very first time, and driving home at a snail’s pace.

The baby girl bonded almost instantly. She batted her chubby little hands at her father’s face and grinned, and she wound her way into our hearts so tightly that I couldn’t even understand it at first. We loved her with something fierce that would have driven back a bear, or a tidal wave, or all the mud of a landslide. We loved her quickly.

We loved her twin brother too, with all the same intensity. But even in infancy, he was a more cautious child. He reserved himself. Deidre, all the past and present trauma be damned, seemed mostly delighted by us. Devon, her brother, seemed more concerned. He cried incessantly. In his screams, in the pitch of his wails, I sometimes wondered if I heard the words, “I hate you.”

“I hate you,” as he rejected a bottle. “I hate you,” as I touched a washcloth to his back and tried to bathe him. “I hate you,” as I bounced him in my arms and tried to soothe him. Scream after scream after scream. And because of that, our bond was harder won.

“Don’t get too attached,” I heard those words ringing in my ears, from the licensing worker, from the other experienced foster mothers, from the mouths of my skeptical friends. “Don’t get too attached, Heather.”

Don’t be stupid. Don’t do something ridiculous, like fall in love with these children. Don’t you know? Don’t you realize? Your job here is to keep them alive—not love them. Why would you waste your time on loving them? They’re just going to leave. Don’t work too hard at this loving thing.

It was probably around October of 2012, three months later. Devon was probably ten months old. I was soaking in the tub, trying to forget the pain of the day, trying to forget all the horrors that accompany a childless woman trying to mother two motherless children. All the impossible needs. All my endless failures. The wailing. The wailing that never ended.

“Can you bring him to me?” I asked my husband, as the baby screamed.

“Now?” James asked. “But you’re in the tub. And isn’t he supposed to be sleeping?”

“But he isn’t sleeping,” I noted, as we both listened to him shrieking from his room and through the baby monitor, piercing, angry, relentless.

My husband brought the tiny little boy to me, and I in the tub took him, extended him, hovered him over the tile of the bathroom floor. I zipped off his footed pajamas with one hand, managing to balance him in the other, and I tossed the clothes away. I unsnapped his diaper and tossed it too. Then I pulled the small naked lump of child onto my chest. He was solid and heavy, like a big rock.

I let the warm water cover his legs and his little round rump and his smooth little baby back, dark and silky as the silt in a riverbed. I let him sink into my abdomen and into the water. He seemed unsure at first. He squirmed. But then finally he relaxed, and eventually, finally, he nestled his small cheek against my damp breast, just above the surface line of the water, and he settled into a deep and even slumber.

“I love you,” I whispered to him, “whether you want me to or not.”

“And I will not stop.”

It was some weeks after that, in the growing sunlight that was seeping through the bathroom window, that my husband asked, “What is that?”

We each stood in front of the bathroom sinks, bleary eyed, both still a little resentful from being pulled away from much needed sleep. Both a little cranky. We tried our best to brush and wash and whatever anyway.

I was staring down at my breasts, chin flattened against my sternum, the straps of a tired and worn and terribly uncomfortable bra hanging loosely between my fingertips. I had fallen asleep with it on again. Again. Again.

I stared puzzled at the over-worn and pilled cup lining, there at the whitish liquid pooled. My nipples hung free of it and swollen.

Could it be? Is that even possible?

“It’s…” said James. “It looks like…”

“Is it?” I breathed.

Milk.

Adoptive induced lactation, actually. It’s a thing, apparently. It sometimes happens to non-postpartum women (and even men! on extremely rare occasions) in seasons of extreme baby-induced stress.

Find yourself a baby. Sit alone with it for thousands of hours, and at all hours of the day and night. Be unable to comfort it. And your body might just give you a hand. Or actually, not a hand but—milk.

During those early days, when Devon was still screaming inconsolably for no reason, when he would just sit in the floor and look at me with an expression that I can only describe as baby-hate. The look a baby gives you when you are not the woman it was expecting. You are not the woman it knew, even if he only ever knew her imperfectly. It was during those days that I would pull my shirt and my bra over my head, toss them unenthusiastically and dejectedly towards the floor, and I would pull the tiny little boy child towards me.

“You don’t have to love me,” I would say, positioning his small frame against my chest, “but I am going to rock you regardless.”

And so he would scream at me for a good half hour.

“I don’t even know you!” his screams would say. But eventually his screaming would subside, and he would nuzzle up against a breast, and he would fall into a deep, unequivocally succumbed, sleep—the meaning of rest settling on him.

I would watch him there, his dark cheek squished against my pink skin, and I would think how much I loved him and how much I didn’t even know why. This made no sense. It was despite the fact that my ears were still ringing, despite the fact that his face was still creased from his fading outburst. Despite it, his cheek was now tucked into my skin, on the softest part of my body, and he snored.

I was tired. And apathetic. And done. And that’s exactly what he was too. Just done with it. We were both so tired. And there we both found ourselves still in the quiet together. Skin on skin. Night after night. Finally resting.

In the wake of all that, in the wake of the angry baby, so inconsolable—in the wake of the child that didn’t know what to think about me, but was nevertheless tucked tightly against my mammary glands—in the wake of all that, my body did what felt right for the occasion.

It made milk.

The next summer, on July 13, 2013, almost a year after bringing my babies home, a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin.

It is some other thing, to hear this news when you have no son. It is another thing when you have no black son. It is some other thing entirely to hear this news when you have a small black boy in your highchair, eating green peas and drinking from a sippy-cup.

I first felt panic rise up in my chest. I scrolled the news on Facebook. There I saw my black friends be loud. There I saw, in contrast, my white friends and family (and there were many more of them) be silent. In the moment, I realized two truths. I was a white woman, and I would always be a white woman, as long as I ever live. And I was also the mother of a black son, and I would always be the mother of a black son, as long as I ever live. I was part of two worlds now.

The dawn of this realization had been growing in me for some time.

When I think of the woman that I was (can I even write woman? I was just a girl) hanging out of the bus door as a volunteer, at UNLV in Spring of 2012, I can barely recognize her. She was just a girl who knew nothing. A child.

But then maybe I do know her, and maybe she wasn’t as clueless as she could have been. Maybe I can give her some small bit of credit, because she never did get the face of that student out of her mind, that young black female with the megaphone with the clenched face and the white teeth. The face lived on.

“It’s about PEACE!”

Nearly a year after bringing my children home, I had read prolifically in…good gosh…in everything I could. What stone hadn’t I overturned? (I’m sure there are many, but I also turned over a good many others.)

I started with Martin Luther King Jr., because that is where every white person starts when they want to learn about race in America. (I was a cliché in this. I know this.) But then I didn’t stop at “I Have a Dream.” I either read or listened to (and I mean this honestly) every single word that King left behind. I challenge you to find a single speech or sermon of King’s that I haven’t consumed. (Because if you do, I want to know. I want to know what else that man had to say before America killed him.)

I moved onto Malcolm. I spent time with Baldwin. April Sinclair. Ishmael Reed. I found Dr. Elijah Anderson, of Yale, and I soaked him up like a sponge. I found Van Jones. I loved him. I loved many others.

I cautiously approached Ta Nehisi Coates in his very early days at The New Republic, not being sure if I loved him or if I did not love him. Here was a contemporary, and someone whose star was just now rising. Here was someone alive and current and feeling and thinking and writing in the moment, not yet dead like Martin or Malcolm. Coates was a man of today, of this very hour.

And here I am still unsure if I love Coates, even right now as I love him very much. He sometimes feels contradictory to me. Which I think shows how it is sometimes more difficult to love great leaders in the present-tense than it is to love them in the past-tense.

At any rate. I became a well-read white woman in the ways of black folks, Langston Hughes/Lawrence Ross pun very much intended here.

Maybe your response to that is prickly. Maybe it isn’t. But if it is, and you have an assumption that I am a voyeur here, peeking into black culture without an invitation, I want you to know that I hear you. You can judge it if you need to. I know you and I hear your objections now. And I can only respond by inviting you to go ahead and criticize me. I can take it.

You can accuse me of being a white girl who is only dabbling in blackness, perhaps to make herself feel important. To make herself feel complicated. To make herself feel like something most white girls can’t, even now, in 2017. To make herself feel less white.

And dear me, I will hear you say that.

But I will also tell you, if you are umpiring me in this way, that I can probably guarantee that you personally have never been an adoptive mother whose body has made milk for a child. You’ve probably never known what it feels like, to have your breasts ache for a baby that you did not birth. To have your body offer up everything it can, in defiance of biology and race and whatever else might be a barrier between you and the child in your arms. And leak milk.

I sobbed when I heard the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial.

I had a longsuffering friend, so loved she is, so patient, who is also the mother of a black son, and black herself. She interjected herself to placate me. You can call her my token “black friend” if you want to. But the truth is, she was. She was black and she was my friend that day, and I needed her. “Now you know,” she said to me, in a moment that now feels intensely formative.

Now I know.

Now I know so many things that I did not know before.

Now I know how it feels to have a white friend specifically offer my daughter the one page from a Disney coloring book that features Princess Tiana, as if my child must automatically defer to the only black character available.

Now I know how it feels to be hurriedly trying to gather our belongings from a white friend’s house, and happen across a baby doll of whose origin I can’t quite place, in the exhaustive fog of my motherhood. Does this doll belong to us or not?

“Is this ours?” I ask, holding the doll up by a limb.

“Well it certainly isn’t ours,” with a small laugh, says the friend. It takes me a moment to register that she is saying she would never buy a black doll for her own lily-skinned daughter.

Now I know how it feels to have someone who has never met my children’s biological family and who has no idea about any of the family’s personal qualities, redeeming and admirable and also otherwise, refer to them in a collective known as “those people.”

“It is such a beautiful thing that you saved your children from a life living with those people. They won’t grow up to be like them.”

Never mind that you know absolutely nothing about them, and you have earned no right to an opinion about their quality.

Now I know how it feels to research my children’s biological family tree, through official government records, and realize that it is truncated abruptly in 1953. Before then no one officially made much effort to keep records on impoverished black families. For a vast majority of black families in America, there is only family history to rely on—stories passed from one generation to the next, memories kept as the only proof the souls ever lived.

Now I know how it feels to grieve because that history was never “official” in America, and so much of it is lost to time. What a waste. What a loss for us as a nation. What a loss for me and my own children, which we will have to reckon with more fully, as they grow.

Now I know how it feels, in a world of overwhelmingly white political representation, to see Barack Obama flash across the news. To see my children take him for granted as a normal American president, the only one they’ve ever known.

Now I know how it feels to have a leathery old white man—white haired, red cheeked, bottom lip bulged with tobacco—refuse to sell me a bottle of water at a gas station in rural South Georgia, because I am lovingly holding my infant son in my arms.

I approach him with child and water bottle in hand, jostle the bottle of water onto the counter, rummage for my wallet. The man won’t meet my gaze. After a few tense moments and without a word, he wanders to the back of the store, leaving me confused at the counter, holding my debit card.

Now I know how it feels to have a black woman, my age, my height, start yelling at me in a Starbucks courtyard. I’d received news that morning that my 37-year-old uncle had died tragically, and then immediately afterwards, in my shell shocked grief, I had to leave our house abruptly because it was on the market and had a showing. I stumbled to Starbucks unwashed and fragile and barely alive. I had not brushed my own hair, much less my daughters.

But all that this black woman saw in me was a white woman who had not combed my black daughter’s hair. She began aggressively berating me, without end. Raising her voice. Gesticulating. No matter that I kept asking politely, weakly, dead with grief, pushing through with all the strength I had, that she please leave me alone.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you now please. Please stop. Thank you but please stop. Please leave. Please stop.”

When she finally did, a shocked stranger in the courtyard, an elderly white lady, asked me if I needed her to call the police.

Now I know how it feels to have a white family member enthusiastically share pictures of our children playing together on her Facebook wall.

“Look at us!” the photos seem to say. “We are a progressive family!”

A chorus of white friends gasp with, “Beautiful!” and “So touching!” and other comments that seem just a little out of place beneath ordinary photos of kids eating sandwiches.

And then not more than two posts later, I watch this same family member share a video featuring thinly-veiled racist language from Tomi Lahren.

Now I know how it feels to be sitting in a living room in rural Georgia, with a few old white men sitting in chairs on the periphery. One of them is as familiar with my son as he is with the other male children in the room, which is to say not very familiar, but enough to know their names. He calls those children by their names, and if he can’t remember a name, he finds some way of getting their attention that is not the way he chooses to get my son’s attention. For my son, he barks the word, “Boy!”

It happens once, and I scoop my baby up and leave without hesitation, and I never return to that living room again.

Now I know what micro-aggressions are, and how they wriggle their way under your skin and stay there—like a thousand tiny pieces of glass, rubbed in over time. It won’t kill you, but it makes life so uncomfortable. After enough of them, it makes it exhausting to move around anymore.

Now I know.

Now I know how it feels to protest, in response to the murder of a child that could have been my child. A child that could have been your child. A child walking home with Skittles in his pocket. In response to the not guilty verdict in the murder of Trayvon Martin, almost two years after his death—it was then that I first learned how it felt to march. How it felt to bear my own teeth against the words “Peace” and “Justice” in unison with others.

And I learned how it felt when oblivious onlookers seemed aggressive, or simply bothered, or much the worse—indifferent.

Now I know how it feels, to be the mother of a black child.

For our cross-country move, we made the drive to Atlanta, Georgia from Las Vegas, Nevada the week before July 4th, 2015. It was during that week that there was some controversy over a certain flag flying over the statehouses in much of the South. Many people wanted the flag removed. Many people didn’t.

Responding to the brutal racially motivated murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome, a 30-year-old black woman, was arrested at the South Carolina Capitol. There she scaled a 30-foot flagpole and unhooked the flying Confederate flag. Police officers shouted at her to come down, but Bree shimmied to the top anyway, took the flag in her hand and responded defiantly, “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.”

Newsome recited Psalm 27 and the Lord’s Prayer as she brought the flag down. As soon as she reached the ground, she was arrested, along with James Tyson, who had stood at the bottom of the pole to spot her as she climbed.

The flag was replaced about an hour after Newsome took it down. Bree went to jail. And the Confederate flag went back up. I read this news as we were driving, and it wriggled its way underneath my skin. Another piece of glass.

Welcome back South. I had felt it creeping up on us as we drove from the dry ground of New Mexico into the middle humidity of Texas, then into Louisiana, and under some wet blanket of heat. After so many years living away in the bone-dry desert, there was now this clamminess that was gradually covering us. It was finding us.

“I can’t breathe,” I had said to my husband, somewhere near Shreveport, Louisiana. “The humidity?” he asked. Then gave me a look of acknowledgment that of course it was more than that. “This is going to be our new normal.” Then he amended, “Our new old normal. Our normal again.”

We were driving home.

In Shreveport we fed our family lunch, then we drove on to Jackson, Mississippi for the night. It was during the following morning’s drive from Jackson to Birmingham that I began to see the bumper stickers. And the flags. Everywhere.

One particularly large diesel pickup truck, a white Ford, was covered in the Confederacy. Flags of various sizes and materials mounted on every surface to which they could affix. Where they could not fly, they were stamped in stickers, and accompanied by pithy sayings that pledged allegiance to things like God, the Republican Party, and the Tea Party. Another one declared, “NOT MY PRESIDENT.”

This was perhaps a response to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley having just removed the Confederate flag from the Alabama Statehouse. It is probably worth mentioning that Alabama senator Jeff Sessions vehemently and vocally opposed him in removing the flag. And that seems worth mentioning because Sessions is this week set to become our next U.S. Attorney General, in a Presidential administration that has found high ranking positions for an astonishing number of men who have historically opposed racial reconciliation in America.

More glass.

“This is the right thing to do,” Alabama Governor Bentley had told a reporter. “This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.”

Alabama’s citizenry responded accordingly. Here was the proof, on the white Ford truck. My three-year-old son marveled at the novelty, as it thundered past.

“It’s Captain America?” he asked. As a burgeoning fan of Marvel comics, this was a question he posed to anything sporting red, white, blue, and stars.

“It isn’t,” I said softly, trying not to convey the darkness. Not today. Not yet. Soon. But not yet.

Another piece of glass.

We stopped in Birmingham to pay homage to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 White Supremacists killed 4 black children about the age of my own now, and injured 22 other bodies and wounded a countless number of other souls, of black citizens and their allies. There we stood at the feet of Martin Luther King Jr., his likeness memorialized in a concrete statue above us, until I finally felt like I had the inner strength to make the last leg of our journey to Atlanta, which would be our new home. My new old home.

Just before we left, as we stood beneath the statue, a white middle-class woman walked over to gawk at my family.

“Beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Just beautiful!”

Her buoyance grated against the glass in my skin. The church behind us, where the children had died. The truck with the flags. The Senator Sessions, declaring that Alabama’s pride in her glorious history should never be erased. Keep the flag flying. Bree Newsome, who brought down the flag in South Carolina, sitting in a jail cell. My tiny son, marveling at a truck that was emblazoned with love for a symbol that had kept his ancestors beaten and in chains and oppressed on all fronts.

Pieces of glass.

There was a bedraggled elderly black man walking around the park, hassling people for money. His hair was white and brittle against the dark leather of his skin. I calculated the years between him and the bombing that memorialized this very place. He must have been a teenager at the time.

I saw him wander over to the white woman who had gawked at us. He asked her for a dollar. He wandered over to others, engaged them, walked away. But he never did approach us.

As I was strapping the kids in our SUV, I looked across the lawn and caught him looking. For a quick moment, we made eye contact, my pale blue irises meeting the dark brown in his, watery and tired.

And I wondered. “How much glass is in your skin?”

The answer was in the quickness with which he turned away.

I looked then at my son in his car seat, still so small and innocent, with his own dark skin a little red from the Alabama heat. I placed my fingers on his arm gently, the flesh still chubby with toddler fat, still unscarred and unweathered. I thought about all the glass that would accumulate there over the years. I wondered if I could somehow stop it. If I could find a way to take it all in my own skin instead.

That should be an option, for a mother, I think.

It isn’t fair, that it isn’t.

It isn’t.

Then I closed the door and strapped myself in the front seat. And we drove on to Georgia.

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Black and White in Atlanta

The subway platform is everything that subway platforms are in the inner cities—it is grimy, unclearly lit in the night, the air is stale and smells of grease. We are past, what is known in some circles as, the respectable hour to ride MARTA, the mass transit rail in Atlanta. It is eleven o’clock at night. The commuters with 9-5 jobs have all fled the city and arrived at their suburban homes. Those who ride the rail now do so out of necessity, not as a way to avoid the traffic congestion.

I hold my three-year-old daughter in my arms and take care not to stand too close to the platform’s edge as we wait for the expected train. She is sleepy, but not overly so. Our internal clocks are still on Pacific Standard Time. We only arrived here in the Eastern Standard time zone yesterday, to search for housing. We are moving back to Atlanta, or at least, my husband and I are moving back. My daughter has never lived here. She was born and adopted in Nevada, as was her twin brother who is sleeping in my husband’s arms, his little head flopped over drowsily into the crook of James’ neck.

As a racially blended family, I am always conscious of the racial make-up of a space, and I am conscious of it now. Our family so often lives our life in all white spaces, where my children are the only individuals of color, and I am painfully aware of the fact. I notice. I notice when they notice, especially now as they are growing older and becoming more aware of themselves and the world around them.

This is an all black space tonight, with the exception of my husband and myself.

We stand silent on the platform, the air unusually still, the crowd unusually quiet. No tinny music filters in from someone’s headphones. No one is talking into a mobile phone. No one coughs or sneezes, and if they had, you would have noticed. We all wait—eyes staring ahead, bodies near motionless. It is strange, but it is peaceful.

The day has been long. My family spent the morning in a more expensive part of town, in mostly all white spaces. We walked through neighborhoods, drove by schools, did some shopping here and there. We ate all three meals in restaurants. All day, we were in public. All day, we interacted with the public.

As a white/black interracial adoptive family, it can often be difficult to exist in public. Nearly everyone notices when we are moving through a space. Many people feel the need to interrupt our movement with a question or a remark. Today, for some strange reason, the question with which we have been interrupted has repeatedly been the same from three entirely different women, all three upper middle class, all three white.

“Are they from Africa?”

From the woman reapplying her lipstick, while I attempt to wash my hands in a public restroom—“Are they from Africa?”

“No.”

From the woman browsing the same rack of shirts as I am, in a store—“Are they from Africa?”

“Which nation in Africa?”

She had looked confused. I had wondered if she could name a nation on the African continent.

“No. They aren’t from Africa,” I answered.

From the woman exiting the TexMex restaurant in which we ate lunch, passing by our table—“Are they from Africa?”

To which I finally snapped, “Nope. Just regular American black kids.”

She startled and frowned and moved quickly away. I felt regretful afterwards. I know she didn’t realize the depth of her own naïveté and rudeness, but I was tired and I was hungry, and this was the third time today, and she interrupted my quesadilla.

During the day we’d been in an, for lack of a better word, uppity part of town. We aren’t in an uppity part of town now, though. We are in Downtown Atlanta. There is no uppity white woman who can’t name an African nation standing on this platform. If she were, she’d probably be clutching her purse.

I wonder to myself, “Do I look like an uppity white woman?” I’m often worried about being one, accidentally, without realizing it.

One Marta stop earlier, I had sat down on a bench with my daughter—the least crowded bench on the platform. The young woman who was seated next to us—black, beautiful, full of all the angst of youth—scowled and moved to a more crowded bench.

“Why’d she move, mommy?” my baby girl asked.

“I don’t know,” was all I could bring myself to say.

But I knew.

What a day it had been. I worried over the comments from the ignorant white women. I worried over the open disgust from the young black girl. I worried over what my tiny daughter had absorbed over the course of this.

It had been a long day. My family was tired. We waited for the train.

Then a distant screech cut through the silence. All the faces on the platform shifted toward the tunnel on the right, suddenly filled with light. We all turned together toward the flash and the sound. All the black faces turned, my white face turned, my husband’s white face turned. My daughter’s black face turned, and it was in that moment that she must have recognized the racial make-up of the space. Everyone looked like her, she suddenly noticed, save for mom and dad.

The train came barreling toward us, ripping up the stale air in the process, flailing moths and bits of stray dust upwards in the platform lights, blowing my long blonde hair back, making my daughter blink her brown eyes against the wind. For a moment, with the silver train streaking and glinting towards us in the night, the grim subway platform was full of all sorts of stirred up magic. I heard my daughter catch her breath at the marvel of it all. Where had this silver train come from? She must have wondered. On what enchanted journey were we going?

“Mommy!” she whispered breathlessly, her eyes locked on the squealing train, her small lips pursed right up against my ear, “Mommy?!” she breathed. “Are we going to Africa?”

It had been a long morning, and in it she had learned something. She’d learned it from the white women in the bathroom and also the store and also the restaurant. She’d learned it from the black girl that moved her seat away from us on the subway platform. In all of this, she’d figured out that we were different, and the difference was housed somewhere in our skin. Apparently (as she’d overheard) her own dark skin was synonymous with Africa. So surely that meant that all these similarly dark skinned people, standing here on the subway platform, were synonymous with Africa too.

And maybe we were all going there together, to Africa, on this magical arriving train.

In the transcendence of that moment, with my daughter held tightly in my arms, I felt acutely what I had already known. It was real now, rather than a distant possibility. This city we stood in—Atlanta—it would shape my children’s understanding of race more than any other. They would come of age on these streets. The racial make-up of these spaces would form their hearts and minds. The racial history would become their own, as they stepped into its present reality. No place that we’d lived prior, and no place that we live since, will have such a profound effect.

What a city to bear that burden and, simultaneously, that honor. It is like no other.

The city of Atlanta, like all historic cities with a rich and complex past, suffers from a few things. One of these things is white flight.

White flight is a term that originated in the United States, starting in the mid-20th century. It applied to the large-scale migration of whites of various European ancestries from racially mixed urban regions to more racially homogeneous suburban or exurban regions. Or at least, that’s what Wikipedia tells me.

White flight in Atlanta, today and for me especially personally, means that all the wealthier professional folks (predominantly white) flee the city after 5pm, and all the poorer service workers (predominantly black) homogenously fill up the Marta trains in the evenings, because the poorer people both work and live in the heart of the city. The folks with better paying 9-5 jobs, who are overwhelmingly white, most certainly do not.

It’s 2015. There are many reasons why the city is now this way, but the history of public schools is largely to blame. Here’s how.

Atlanta was a paragon of racial progress during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. It earned the nickname, “The City Too Busy To Hate.” When the rest of the American landscape was decrying Supreme Court efforts to desegregate their schools, Atlanta surprised the world by saying, “Bring it on,” and then they brought it with notably little violence. This was, after all, the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (This is, however, saying less than you might realize.)

JFK congratulated Atlanta, publicly before the nation, for the “responsible law abiding manner with which the people of Atlanta have desegregated their schools.”

While angry white citizens in other cities rioted and while mobs rolled empty school buses down the street with their own bare hands, Atlanta had, for the most part, taken a more passive aggressive tone. There were self-righteously indignant articles in the newspapers, and black people suddenly found it even more difficult than usual to catch the attention of a gasoline attendant or to purchase their groceries. But at least no one had beaten up any school children. (Or at least, not all that many school children.)

Congratulations.

The white liberals, the progressives, the small faction of light-skinned men and women of Atlanta who had fought tirelessly alongside her black citizens for civil rights—they breathed a well deserved sigh of relief. Tolerance was winning. The Supreme Court, the Federal Government, had won against the parsimoniousness of the States. Alongside these Southern progressives, Atlanta’s moderate white citizens, those who felt a little uncertain about desegregation but sure as heck weren’t brash enough to speak out against it—they found a bump of confidence. The President congratulated them, after all. Surely they were on the right track?

Integration was winning, for a brief breath of time—one glorious breath. And then.

The segregationists didn’t always call themselves segregationists, nor would you necessarily have been able to spot them if your feet were on the ground in Atlanta in the 1960’s and 70’s and even 80’s. These segregationists were quite fine and upstanding citizens. They lived on every respectable street, and they held stable and necessary jobs within the city. They believed in Atlanta. They believed in America. They believed in freedom, in autonomy. They believed in the right to do as they pleased with their private property and their personal business. They cast a skeptical glance towards Uncle Sam. They were wary of his hand in their pocket. They didn’t so much trust where their tax dollars went.

They didn’t so much like the Supreme Court getting up in their business—especially pertaining to this mess about integration.

The segregationists weren’t saying they didn’t like black people. Ok? The segregationists were just fine and dandy with black people, so long as they kept to their own parts of town and their own ways of life. Wasn’t that what America was all about anyway? Wasn’t it about choosing how you wanted to live your own life? And if that meant you didn’t want your child going to school with a black person, well? That’s what you wanted. It was your own child, for crying out loud. What could be more important to you than your own child? This wasn’t the government’s child. Ok? This was your own child, and how dare Uncle Sam try to tell you how to raise your own child. How dare Uncle Sam tell you that your child had to share a school with blacks, (and you sure as heck weren’t calling them niggers, because that’s not politically correct now-a-days.) Well so be it. You don’t want it, ok? You don’t want some black boy looking up and down your own daughter in her own school, for crying in the morning. Ok? That’s her school. She’s supposed to feel safe there. She’s supposed to be able to focus on learning.

This is about individual rights.

This is America.

The archives of public opinion pieces in the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta Journal during the 1950’s and 1960’s showcase a wealth of feelings just like the ones above. They are legion.

But despite vocal opposition, the schools integrated anyway, slowly at first and then more rapidly. The poor black kids from the poor black neighborhoods trickled and eventually surged into more affluent white schools—the schools with new chalkboards, and new desks, and better lunches, and field trips, and stocked libraries, and microscopes, and science labs, and college educated teachers…and everything else that most of the black kids had never even seen in their impoverished and segregated lives. For one tiny moment, the moderate white families hovered for the breadth of a school year. Could this work?

But then, at dizzying speed, the segregationists left in unprecedented numbers. They pulled their children and their tax dollars out of the schools. The moderates eventually followed, rattled by the changing demographic of the hallways and the flight of their white friends.

During the two decades of desegregation in what constitutes much of Fulton and Dekalb County today, from 1961 to 1979, nearly half of all white residents fled to the Northern suburbs. In 1970, Cobb County was blooming at an unprecedented rate. Its residents were fully 96% white. Gwinnett County’s population surged; it was 95% white. The suburban section of North Fulton swelled; it was astonishingly 99% white.

The other half of Fulton and Dekalb County’s white residents, who could afford the cost of tuition, overwhelmingly moved their children to all-white private institutions. Most of these schools did not have specific by-laws barring black children from enrolling, but they still somehow managed to casually either lose or find a reason to deny every black child’s application that crossed their admissions desk. Their white enrollment numbers soared.

By 1970, white enrollment in Atlanta public schools was half of what it had been at its peak in 1963. By 1973, white holdouts in the public schools made up 23% of the population. By 1985, that figure had fallen to 6%. By 2002 the percentage of white students in Atlanta public schools was nearing zero.

Somewhere in all of that, Benjamin Mays, who was himself black and the head of Atlanta’s school board, threw up his hands in a meeting and declared, “I don’t know! I don’t know what you can do to keep white folks from being scared if you move into their neighborhoods.”

And the white folks just kept leaving. They took their money with them.

“I can drive for half an hour down to work,” said the segregationist and the ambivalent moderate, “to allow my child a better school.” Traffic on Atlanta’s interstates, from the suburbs to the city, for the first time, developed into what is now an enduring problem.

Meanwhile, Atlanta private schools delightedly hiked their tuition.

Can you imagine what this all must have looked like through the eyes of a young black child, born into an impoverished black neighborhood in 1965? Her mother and father have servile jobs that pay very little and are difficult to keep. They work constantly and live hand to mouth. They rent a small apartment. They will never qualify for a mortgage on a home, because they have nothing to put down, and even if they did, the white bankers wouldn’t lend to them at a reasonable rate anyway, if at all. They’ve spent their lives keeping their heads down and staying out of trouble—in effect, surviving. They’ve lived through Jim Crow. They knew men who were lynched. Personally, they’ve on occasion been beaten by the police for walking around too late at night in a too white part of town. It still haunts them.

They want a better life for their daughter. They want the world to change. They want her to have a decent education so she can get a decent job and live a more decent life than they have. During the height of bussing integration in 1972, they sign her up for bussing to one of the better white schools—Kirkwood Elementary. Integration feels like a miracle. They’d never have been able to afford a home in the Kirkwood neighborhood. (They’d never have been allowed to buy there anyway.) But thanks to bussing, they can now send their daughter to the Kirkwood school, with its pristine building and its seemingly endless educational resources—resources never known in her current school. On their daughter’s first day, they’ve carefully pressed her clothes. They’ve strictly warned her not to make any trouble. They are both elated and terrified to send her off on the bus.

That afternoon, upon her return home, they receive the following report from their daughter and from the other bussing parents. Of the 470 white girls and boys that had been enrolled at Kirkwood, only 7 remain. Every single white teacher has resigned. The last white employee left at the school is the principal.

I asked you to imagine how that must have felt, but imagining actually isn’t necessary because this is a true story. It happened exactly like this, and those Kirkwood kids are still alive today. You can hear their stories for yourself, if you want to ask them.

During the failed bussing efforts of the 1970’s, many of the affected children developed negative attitudes towards their school boards, and rightfully so. They came to understand that the people in charge were not willing to protect them, and not much has happened since to change their minds. Those feelings stuck, and now adults have children and grandchildren at the mercy of the same school system that abandoned them decades earlier. It clouds their sentiments about interacting with local school boards.

In other U.S. cities, like Boston, where bussing resulted in more pronounced and widespread violence, current community outreach efforts exist today (such as the Union of Minority Neighborhoods) with the express purpose of helping the now-adult children of the bussing era grieve their experience and regain trust in the educational system that failed them, for the sake of their own children today. That trust can be difficult to rebuild.

No such organization exists in Atlanta, to my knowledge. I’ve even had difficulty getting some of the people that I’ve interviewed to admit there is a historically rooted problem to begin with.

“Why are you bringing up the past, Heather? We need to move on from this.”

And meanwhile the impoverished community still suffers.

“Well. That’s probably their own fault.”

Today, Kirkwood Elementary, from whence so many white students and teachers fled in 1972, has been rebranded Toomer Elementary. In 2008, it was comprised of 99% black students. An astonishing 98% of its students were economically disadvantaged, and it was struggling to meet state standards. Today, it is outright failing.

What happened over the span of 40+ years at Kirkwood/Toomer Elementary is indicative of what has happened to Atlanta city’s, and much of Fulton and Dekalb’s, public schools as a whole. What began as an effort to educationally uplift impoverished black children, ended in schools and communities thrust overwhelmingly into poverty and completely drained of resources because of white flight. Children subsequently received sub-par educations. They then obtained sub-par employment, regardless of how racial barriers were finally (finally!) beginning to lift on employment in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The cycle still repeated with little uplift from child to adult to child to adult again, ad nauseam, for four decades.

(Add to this understanding, the myriad of narcotics that have appeared within the past 30 years—powerful drugs never before known to mankind, that can if only for a brief moment, transport a disaffected youth from a measly grimy world into ecstasy. The drugs are cheap and the pull is strong. And because of the so-called “war on drugs,” which disproportionately affects young black men—because of that, if one does succumb to the chemicals he will likely end up in jail. Once there, the prospects of ever achieving any future success are largely snuffed out, because no one likes to hire an ex-convict. Because of drugs and the “war” on drugs, the future for disaffected minority communities often looks even bleaker than it did when the barriers were limited to institutional disadvantage and inferior education. But that is more recent history, and that is a topic for another essay someday.)

The past still affects us now. We are not beyond the segregation era; we still live in her shadow. This is why my family passed over the Kirkwood neighborhood (among others) when we were looking for housing in Atlanta. This is why we are now paying much more than we are comfortable with, for a moderate home in a rare good school zone.

Does this make me a victim of white flight, or does it make me part of the problem? It is difficult for me to decide on one or the other fully. Perhaps both are true. I am the problem even while I suffer from the problem. Families of a mind like mine (and now-a-days of all colors, thankfully), financially stable and successful, who stay away from disadvantaged areas and the lesser performing public schools of Atlanta (regardless of how convenient they are in terms of commute)—we are the problem. To be sure, though, we also suffer for it. We want to be in those schools, we want to give them our resources, but we need them to be a little bit better first. The segregationists before us created the problem, but we now help perpetuate it, whether we realize it or not.

Were we all to join arms together tomorrow though, and enroll our kids in our local schools…dear me…how the world might change. But it isn’t something that one lone citizen can fix.

This is one of the things that I was contemplating as I held my daughter on the Marta platform during that late night last summer. It is something that I have contemplated since.

In our housing search, we eventually settled on a neighborhood on the Northern end of Dekalb County, with a rare high-ranking elementary school that feeds into a mid-performing middle and high school. In this particular part of town, middle class parents of my own generation (the majority of whom are white) are breaking with history and are choosing to enroll their children in local elementary schools in record numbers, rather than flee the city or enroll in private institutions. Whether parents will continue this trend when our children reach the middle and high school years, and thereby integrate with children coming out of other lower performing elementary schools, is yet to be known.

Recently, in a rare moment without my children in tow, I asked a just-met neighbor, a white woman in her early forties and with tweenaged children, how she felt about the middle school assigned to our neighborhood. She sniffed scornfully.

“Oh I mean, I just couldn’t handle it. I pulled my kids out and sent them to Marist.” Marist is a nearby private school.

“Oh really?” I asked. “I was under the impression that Chamblee schools were in relatively good shape, all things considered.”

“Well. You might say that,” she shrugged, but then cut her eyes to the left and then the right, as if we were in danger of someone overhearing. “But I guess it all depends on how comfortable you are with having your children attend school with a bunch of black kids.”

Without missing a beat, I also cut my eyes to the left and then the right, as if I also felt in danger of someone overhearing.

“You know,” I half-whispered. “I think that will probably be ok, especially considering that my children are black kids.”

She looked stricken.

It would appear that we are perhaps not so far past the attitudes of segregation-era Atlanta as we would like to believe. And if you happen to live in Atlanta and you don’t believe me, I challenge you—knowing what you now know about our history, especially, just bring up the issue of public schools with your neighbors.

It is illuminating.

It happened at a tiny Vegan soul food restaurant, owned by a round and vibrant black woman and her family, in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta. When I described it to my brother, he said, “That sentence was a roller coaster of contradiction from start to finish.” And I suppose he is right. The restaurant does feel like many contradictions. The menu items are decidedly hip (Vegan KaleBone Steak with Sage Gravy,) but the setting itself looks like any other from a greasy Southern diner, yellowed from use, simple type on the menu, many misspellings.

The crowd in the restaurant was a contradiction as well. Two impeccably dressed young stereotypically gay men in skinny pants and bright tight shirts in one booth, holding hands. Loud and vibrant black families in three other booths, children spilling out of the sides, all the families intermingling with each other though none of them appeared to have arrived together. And then there was my family in a booth—two white adults and two black children, happily chowing on Vegan gravy.

Such is Inman Park. I like it.

We can’t live in Inman Park because the public schools are awful and appear to be about ten years away from hitting the upswing that some other neighborhoods are experiencing. But we do spend as much time as we can in this part of town, and we attend church just a few streets over.

And we sure do like this Vegan soul food restaurant.

When we were finished eating, my husband and daughter headed out to where we parked the car a few blocks over, but I stayed a moment more to run my son to the restroom and wash him up. Upon leaving the restroom and heading toward the exit, I found a slight and elderly black man blocking my path. He’d been one of the jovially loud members in the booths earlier, cracking old-man jokes with the younger children, being pleased by their ensuing laughter, and waving exuberantly to people as they came and went. But now he frowned.

I guessed at his age. He was no less than seventy, might have even been in his eighties.

“Lemme ask you something,” he began, his chin tilted upwards in the air, his gaze skeptically on me and my child.

“Yes?”

“You’re a white woman?”

“Yes.”

“And you have a white husband?”

“Yes.”

“And you have black children?”

“Yes.”

His eyes were daggers. His head was jerking a bit from side to side, whether from age or anger, I wasn’t sure.

“I do not approve,” he told me, and set his dry mouth in a thin firm line.

My small son looked up at me questioningly, his round face taking in the whole of the situation. The restaurant, formerly bustling, was now in tomblike silence.

There is sometimes a difficult truth about white people that adopt black babies. I know this. White America often looks at us (and sometimes we parents look at ourselves) as if we are living proof that racism no longer exists. The world is comforted in the progress marked by our families, all the while shutting tight their eyes to the racial inequality around us—an inequality that is likely to blame for why our children needed to be adopted in the first place.

It is difficult. And I know this. And this old man knows this.

I felt my answer for him even before I said it. I saw the history of the city in his brittle body. Fear and slurs and Jim Crow, and the warning when he’d reached his teenage years to never ever make eye contact with a white woman on the street, the restaurants that would not serve him, the shops that would not hire him, and then desegregation and bussing and riots and persisting employment barriers and persisting poverty, losing some of his own children to drugs and prison, and then finally—perhaps a decade or two past the last time he heard someone yell nigger at him—the majority of the white world asking, “What’s the big deal? The past is the past.”

I grappled with how to explain myself to him in that one suspended moment—how to tell him that I knew about the struggle. No, I do not know it in my own body. I do not know it the way he does, not the way my children’s own biological family does. But I do feel it by association, and I have adopted it as my own, even as I’ve adopted my children.

I am a white woman, but I am not an ignorant white woman. I suppose it is probably difficult to tell us apart.

“I understand,” I finally said, extending my hand and grasping his. “I really do. I hope you have a nice day.”

Then I bustled my son out the front door and onto the dirty and littered sidewalk. I hurried to join my husband and daughter, but about the time I reached them, I heard a commotion from behind us. It was the restaurant owner and the old man’s granddaughter, both robust black women wearing brightly colored smocks and turbans, breathlessly running to catch me.

“Wait!” cried the granddaughter, and she came stumbling to a stop beside me. “No no no!” she cried. “I am so sorry.”

“No it’s really alright,” I assured her. “I really do understand.”

She began clapping her hands, lost for words. “You do! You do,” she said. “But you don’t have to… We can’t just let him… We’re going to have to work on Grandpa!” Tears sprang into her eyes.

“Oh girl,” I sighed. “If you only knew. We have to work on Grandpa in my family too.”

At that she burst into a mirth of laughter and threw her arms around me. I leaned into the embrace and found a grip on her as well. In the air that was pressed out from between us, I found something tangible and wonderful. It was in the audacity of her compassion, in her unabashed boldness that had followed me out onto the sidewalk. It was in my tenacity to understand and empathize with a people that have not always been my own. It was contained somewhere in the physicality of our embrace, fierce and warm and healing, black and white, on a dirty Atlanta sidewalk.

In a world that so often seems stuck, it felt like progress.

And it felt good.

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Becoming Yours

Sometimes I am angry with your father.

Not my husband, and not the man that you run to in the evenings as he walks through our front door. “Daddy!” you call out, as you rush toward his legs. Not him.

The other one. The only other man in the world that has a right to the title. Your father. Although that isn’t true, is it? He isn’t. He hasn’t earned it. He doesn’t know what the top of your head smells like, or where your very ticklish spot is in the middle of your back, or how the whole world goes beautiful when you smile. He doesn’t know you.

“Look at what you are missing.”

Sometimes, as I rock you back and forth in the still of the night, I think those words towards him in the cool dark, willing them to seek him out in the world, to travel over miles and whatever other barriers keep him at a willing and anonymous distance, to find him, to make him know the depth of his loss. “Look at what you are missing,” I whisper as your tiny hand reaches up to find my face, feels around the familiar territory, finds comfort resting on the ridge of my nose and the soft tissue of my lips, drops away drowsily.

Not bone of my bone. Not flesh of my flesh. His bone. His flesh. Sprung from his own body, yet he has no claim to you. You belong to the woman and man who run to you when you cry, who scoop you up from the ground, who kiss your scrapes and fret over your falls, who sing over you each night and rescue you from your crib each morning.

It is what we earn here, day by day. You are ours and he is a stranger, an intimate and infinitely important stranger, but a stranger nonetheless.

Sometimes I am angry with your mother.

For a million reasons. For every lie she ever told to me or about me. For the way she maligned me, in my absence, at your permanency hearing. For the way she held me in immobilizing fear for a year, teeth-grinding and bone-aching, while she played at some frenzied on-again-off-again game of motherhood, never caring quite enough, never the way you needed her to.

“Please don’t give him ice cream. He has an allergy. It will make him sick,” I begged. I begged and I begged, but every Thursday that she had you, from nine until three, the longest six hours of my week, she would never fail to feed you ice cream as if it were some secret treat, some special thing from her alone, something she knew I would never give to you. You would return to me nauseated and with whelps forming on the skin of your abdomen, small raised lines swelling underneath your shirt.

I’m angry about all that, for the lies and the ice cream and the way you came back to me spitting and imitating profane words that no one-year-old should ever hear. For the way she smoked cigarettes and much worse around you, made you wheeze and gasp, your asthma reacting in the worst of ways. For the bruises you came home with—a terrifying foretaste of what was waiting for you once you fully reunited and the eyes of people like me were no longer upon you. For the way you crawled up in a chair next to me one morning while we waited for her to pick you up at our caseworker’s office. She was half an hour late as always.

“Mommy, I no wan go,” you said to me with the most serious expression I’d ever seen on your face, and I wanted to scream. I wanted to just scream and scream and scream.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO MY CHILDREN!” Go. Run. Grab the receptionist, shake her by the collar, tell her to find our caseworker. Find him! Hit him, wail ineffective punches against his thrice-my-size-frame and demand, “STOP IT! WHY ARE YOU MAKING MY BABIES GO? THEY DON’T WANT TO GO! THEY SAY THEY DON’T WANT TO GO!”

Instead, I had to send you off with her, off from the safety of my arms towards all things that weren’t good for you. I had to watch you nervously toddle into the morning sunlight that flooded the parking lot beyond us, your biological mother’s own hand tight and irritated around your wrist, your thumb uncertainly in your mouth. In the North office of DFS, in building 13, I sat in a plastic chair and let you go each and every week, the harsh sunlight pouring through the glass planes and washing out my vision to nothing but a white glare. I sat alone without you.

Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I am angry with her for these things. But that is only sometimes, and these things are easily enough forgotten with a modicum of reflection and perhaps a few hours of time, and they are nothing compared to the thing with which I am angry with her the most.

More than anything, I am angry with her for the very thing that I love her for, the thing I spent four hundred and thirty four days praying for. One year, two months, and eight days waiting for.

I am angry with her for letting you go.

Because you are perfect, perfect, and everyone who ever meets you should want to keep you forever and never let you go. They should only keep you and do nothing but keep you. They should climb mountains and slay dragons and conquer the demons in their own hearts to keep you. Always. Because you are worth keeping. You are worth it and more, and more, and so much more. You are worth everything.

This is the truth, and she is the world’s biggest fool for not comprehending it, and your father is the world’s biggest fool for not comprehending it.

“Look at what you are missing,” I whisper, your head asleep on my shoulder in the stillness and the dark, your breath even, your dreams upon you. “You don’t know what you are missing.”

What are the important things you need to know about the days leading up to your birth mother signing over her rights? I feel pressed to write down everything, even the insignificant details. The way the sky was clear and bright blue on the day she called me. The way I stood in our front yard just before the phone rang (you were inside napping), and a pigeon took flight from a tree branch in our front yard. It startled me. Then her name flashing across the screen startled me more.

Someday you will certainly want to know these things. I am sorry that I cannot bottle the moments for you, the words, the tone, the setting, and preserve them until you are ready to know them. I am certain that time will erode my memory, as it does even now. Already, I can’t remember the words that she said, even though my brain was screaming at me while she was speaking, “Remember! Remember because one day they will want to know!”

And already the words are gone, in only three months time.

What I can tell you, though, is that her voice was hoarse and tremulous, and that the first thing she said was, shakily, “Hey Heather.” Immediately my heart melted at the sound, because I could tell that she was hurting and it made me think of the way your lips tremble when you are afraid. I wanted to hold her. It’s a reaction I’ve had many times upon experiencing her in distress, this maternal urge to gather her in my arms and soothe her. Never mind that I’m far too young to ever be her mother. Never mind that I am a third of her size.

In a phone call just moments prior, our caseworker had already informed me that she was considering relinquishment, so I already knew why she was calling. However, she didn’t know that I knew, and she told me like it was new information. I played along. I tried to feign shock and disbelief, and in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t. The lie stiffened my tone, made my voice sound mocking in my own ears. I wish I’d been honest and said, “I already know.” But I didn’t, and the moment is behind me now, never to return.

There is a story behind the story that she told me.

The story that she told me was that she was pregnant and that solely bearing the burden of caring for both you and a newborn and your two older surviving siblings, simultaneously, was an utter impossibility for her. Behind that story lay a more selfish truth, but I’ll keep that story off these pages. I’ll tell you over coffee one day when you are in your teens (or a beer if you are in your twenties.) It’s more complex and it’s a bit darker and more than anything, it’s yours. I’d like to keep it sacred for you.

I listened to her tell her story. I never acknowledged the story behind the story, because that would have been taboo, and I’m not sure if she has ever fully faced up to it herself. I didn’t think it was my place to confront her with it, not on that day anyway.

She was utterly terrified that you would grow up to hate her. Utterly.

“We will not speak ill of you in this house,” I promised. I consoled. “We will celebrate you. We will thank God for you every day.”

I think she was unsure if she could believe me. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could believe myself. I don’t want you to grow up to hate her, nor do I want you to grow up with a whitewashed image of who she was. How will we strike that balance in our lives? I’m not sure yet, but I have decided that I will try my darnedest.

“I won’t allow them to hate you,” I told her, even though I am not sure I even have that much power.

I truly hope that you won’t, though.

She is your mother. You are a piece of her own body. You proceed forth from her, and one day, long after she is dead, you will go on living and then your own children will go on living and your children’s children will go on living, perpetuating pieces of her in the world. The two of you will forever be linked.

I am ok with this. I want you to be ok with this too.

And more than just being ok with it, I want us to celebrate it. She made you. She gave you life. She gifted you with wonderful uniqueness that only she could give. That is magnificent, and that makes her magnificent and certainly not altogether bad.

Nor is she altogether good.

What a life of tension you will lead, having to balance this all in your heart, having to perch along this scale. I will try to help you manage it, even as I manage it myself.

You are a piece of her, and you barely know her.

I love her for letting you go, and I hate her for letting you go.

Inside this paradox is where we will live. And we will live there together.

January 6th, 2014. Three months after the phone call from your biological mother, everything made it through the courts and the gavel finally came down sometime during midmorning. Parental rights were severed; you became wards of the state; you became true and official orphans. I gathered you in my arms and we cheered together. A dark cloud of uncertainty lifted off of my world, but even as we danced in the kitchen and you laughed at how silly your mommy was being, the only mommy you’ve ever known—I was mourning.

Even as the wrongs in your life are moved along toward right, even as your losses are compensated for, even as we celebrate because there is hope in our bond and more of it here than anywhere else, even then: the world is not as it should be. The world is broken. The world is out of sorts. Parents abandon their children, in part for selfish gain. Loving strangers stand in their place, though imperfectly, like puzzle pieces that fit very well, almost perfectly, but still not quite perfectly.

You are wounded now, even as I bind your wounds.

I am seeking to make all of this as right as it can be for you, but truly, all of my efforts are deficient, I fear, and only a dressing until some future time. Perhaps they are a muddy and ever-imperfect image of what is to come, if I could be so lucky to do my job that well.

What I am trying to say is, I do know that this is ugly, too. But all of this will one day be ultimately put right, I do believe, in Christ. I believe it, and I hope your hearts are one day unmistakably moved to believe it to. (There is this ring of truth in it that is clear like a bell, and how I pray that you will eventually hear it for yourself, with your own ears, apart from anything that I ever say or do.) But until the day that you know it for yourself (please know it), and until the day when all things are ultimately amended, I will do my best to help you heal the damage that marked you on this day, to understand it, to process it, maybe to one day accept it as just another piece of who you are, to navigate through the broken pieces of this world that we live in. Your world. My world. Our world. The broken one.

Soon another gavel will come down and declare you, fully legally and officially, ours. It will declare us, fully legally and officially, yours. In the eyes of the state, we will finally with authorization be what we have already been since the first time your father (the one you run to in the evenings) and I held you in our arms—a family. We will belong to each other, legally inseparably, forever.

What makes you mine? What makes me yours?

We don’t have the common bond of DNA. I didn’t knit you together in my womb. Will the gavel make it real? Isn’t it already real? Obviously, I have known that I loved you from the moment I first saw you on August 9th, 2012. Since before that even, I was loving you far before I met you. I was ever longing to meet you.

What makes a family? Is it biology? Paperwork? Choice? Dogged commitment? Chance? All of these things?

I don’t know. All I know is that I love you and I will go on loving you until I am dead. You are my daughter and you are my son and you always have been and you always will be. Nothing you ever do will change that. Soon the courts will agree.

And I am ready for that—to finally, fully legally and officially, become yours.

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Anniversary

“So how long have you had the twins?” the investigator asks.

The investigator isn’t what I expected. She’s smaller and plainer and more, what’s the word? Is it sneaky? Stealthy? Deadly? I’m afraid of her more than I was the other investigator. I know immediately that she is taking in everything, my home, my face, the way I move around the children. Yet her face reveals only a pair of thin unmoving lips and beady brown eyes that dart around but never lift up in amusement or narrow down in disparity. They only observe.

I’ve made an abuse report to the hotline before, on a lesser matter. I’ve walked through the steps as they opened up a case, sent an investigator to my home, had her ask me five-zillion questions while she held an objective and emotionless stare, didn’t laugh at my small jokes, didn’t compliment the lovely chandelier in my kitchen.

This investigator is all of those things, to be sure, but she is also more. More closed off. More emotionless—so much that I mistake it for lethargy at first, and maybe it is lethargy in some way. Maybe she is tired. Maybe I would be tired too, if I had her job.

“One year,” I answer. “One year today, actually. This is our one year anniversary.”

“Oh,” she replies, and for the first time I see an expression cross her face: sympathy.

If you are a state employee, you walk through the front door and you see us with no biological children, clutching tightly to the twins, and you think, “They’ve probably had them all of a month and they are hopeful for adoption. They’re too young, too optimistic, too naïve.” But then you hear, “One year,” and you readjust your thoughts. You see a man and woman who have given a significant chunk of their life to the babies in their arms. You see the fierce determination on their faces, the tight cords of the bond between them and the children in their care—and you back off a few steps.

And she does. She backs off a few steps. She assumes a softer expression.

“Do you want to see the bruises?” I ask.

“You can give her a minute, if she needs to finish her snack,” says the investigator, gesturing toward the food on the tray of baby girl’s highchair. The investigator is much shorter than me, I notice, but then most people are—I’m tall—and she isn’t wearing makeup. Is she my age? I can’t tell. She could be older. She could be younger. I don’t know if the lines on her face are from exhaustion or age. I realize, as this all filters through my mind, that she is probably thinking the exact same thing about me. Creased face. No make up. How old am I? Feels like a thousand years.

“No, let’s go ahead,” I reply, as I unclip baby girl from her highchair and carry her toward the bathroom. “I had other, better, plans for today. I’d rather get this over with.”

Back to exactly one year ago, right up to the day, right up to the hour…

“Ok, ma’am. If you could step this way, please? A little further, just up to the line there. Right up to it. Perfect.”

I shuffle my feet forward clumsily.

Don’t drop the baby, I think to myself in earnestness. Don’t trip. Don’t fall. Don’t let her wiggle away.

The man directing my feet is small, dark headed, not much older than I am, wearing thick and darkly rimmed glasses and a warm smile. He has been nothing but encouraging, even enthusiastic, since I walked through the doors. He might actually think I can do this. He might think it, even though that other man, the tall man with the scowl over there, rolled his eyes at me when he handed me the baby, mumbling as he walked away, “Hope we don’t see you back in 24 hours.” Even though that older lady that took my name at the intake desk asked me skeptically, “Have you ever done this before, sweetheart?”

No. The answer is no. I have never done this before and I have no idea what to do with this baby—much less two babies. I don’t know what I’m doing here. You may think that I do, but I don’t. I really don’t.

“Ok. No just keep your feet there. Ok? Yes. That’s fine. Now just lay her there. Ok? Good. Now we will just do the body check and the first diaper change, and then you’ll be on your way.”

The diaper what? The what? What does he want me to do with the diaper?

“You mean,” I gesture towards myself, “me? You want me? Wait, what do I need to do?”

“No worries. Just undress her. I’ll take a quick look at her body and then you can re-diaper her and be on your way.”

“The… Oh… Ok. I’ll just…” I cautiously tug on the arm of her tiny little t-shirt. It’s tight, the armholes cutting into the chubby skin of her upper arms. It’s far too small, all over, and far too dirty. I sniffed at the cloth after they first placed her in my arms, and it smelled like stale potato chips.

“I’ll just…” I tug harder. How exactly am I supposed to get this off? Do I stretch it? Do I bend her arm? Will that break it? Can you bend a baby arm at that angle? Will it hurt her? She is so very small.

And wiggly. My word, this child is wiggly. Why is…wait…no…just keep still for a minute I need to. Her arm. Why does she keep pulling it in the opposite direction? Why can’t she just. Just for a second…

“I’ll give you a moment,” says the little man with the expression that is still kind and still supportive. He moves off and disappears into the sea of children that are spread out beyond me. They climb over the seats of plastic chairs. They jump to the floor from the back edges of sofas, aging upholstered pieces covered in grimy drop cloths. They throw balls and toys upwards towards uncovered tube lights that dangle from the rafters. They stick their heads through the metal slats of bent and broken blinds on the windows. They shriek, with laughter, with angry shouts at offending playmates. Some of them have the fresh tracks of tears on their cheeks. Some of them have tucked themselves away in nooks and in quiet corners where they sit still, noiseless, emotionless.

And I look at the little girl in front of me and think, “If I can’t get you out of your shirt, then I can’t get you out of here.”

And so, hands trembling, I set myself to tugging on her sleeve again.

“You can put the diaper back on now,” says the investigator as she frowns at her camera. “I’m not going to be able to do anything with this.”

“Seriously? It isn’t showing up in the photo?”

She hands the camera over, a cheap red box that probably cost a mere $30 at Wal-Mart, and I squint at the screen on the back.

“But you see the bruises, right?” I gesture at the flesh on baby girl’s backside. In one fell swoop, I lift her underneath from her stomach and thrust her body up towards the light above the bathroom mirror. “I mean, here,” I gesture with more purpose, “right here? You see it with your eyes?”

She frowns again. “I mean, you know her body better than I do. I do see something, but what I see isn’t nearly as important as what my camera sees. And my camera doesn’t see anything.”

“But it’s green. I mean, I know her skin is dark, but can’t you see the green?”

“I see something, but it’s in the crease of her skin there. It’s hard to tell.”

“But our caseworker told me to call it in. He told me you’d do something about it.”

“Look, I’m sorry honey. If I don’t have a photo that I can show a judge, I can’t do anything. My hands are tied. I’ll give biological mom a visit and interview her, but without a photo…”

No. No wait. Not that.

“Is there any way I can rescind my tip then? And have you close the investigation?”

“Oh no. No honey. It’s open now. I have to fully investigate it and close it out.”

“But you already know you won’t be able to substantiate it?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry, honey. But yeah.”

“So I’ve just accused their mother of child abuse, but you won’t be able to prove it, and you’re about to leave my house and go tell her that I’ve accused her of child abuse even though it can’t be proven?”

“Yeah. Like I said, I’m sorry.”

“This is going to start a war.”

“Yeah. Sorry. Look, she’s getting antsy there, you probably want to put that diaper back on.”

“Mom?”

“Hey darling. What’s up?”

“I’m sorry to call again.”

“No it’s ok. Call all you need. I wish I could fly out there to help in person.”

“Me too. So I have another question. Do diapers snap in the front or the back?”

“The front or the back?”

“Yeah, the little sticky tabs, the Velcro thingies—do those wrap around to the front or to the back?”

“I mean, I don’t know what brand of diaper you are using, but I would think it would snap in the front. Does it not look right when it’s snapped in the front?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t know what looks right. I’ve never seen a diaper on a baby before.”

“Well does it fit when it’s snapped in the front?”

“Fit? I don’t know what that means. What does ‘fit’ mean? As far as I can tell, it would fit whether I snapped it in the front or the back. Both directions fit. I just don’t know which is correct.”

“I think it’s probably the front.”

“You think? The front? Really? Well crap… Shoot. Shit.”

“What is it?”

“It’s just that I snapped it in the back at Child Haven, when all the exit workers were watching me. I put it on backwards. The first diaper. I put the first diaper on backwards. In front of everyone.”

“Did they say anything?”

“No. They didn’t say anything, but I’m sure they noticed and thought I was stupid.”

“Honey, you don’t know that.”

“Yes I do. The guy that brought the babies out of the nursery told me hoped he didn’t see me again tomorrow. The lady that checked me in, she rolled her eyes when I asked what I should feed the babies. Then some random child from the children’s queuing area grabbed some papers out of my hand, and the lady scolded me and said I shouldn’t have let him do that. What was I supposed to say to that kid, mom? I didn’t know what to say. They all thought I was going to fail. Am I going to fail? I feel like I’m failing.”

“No. You aren’t failing. That’s what every mother thinks in the beginning. And the middle. And the end, too. Motherhood is one long lesson in feeling like a failure, like you’re always screwing up. That’s just what it is.”

“It’s horrible.”

“It isn’t easy.”

“I’m sorry, mom. I’m sorry for every time I ever criticized you. Why did I do that? I didn’t know that this was the hardest thing in the world—the hardest. And you were so good at it. How will I ever be good at it? I’ll never… I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to snap a diaper. I’m failing.”

“You aren’t failing.”

“I don’t know how to snap a diaper.”

“Yes you do. In the front.”

“But I didn’t know that at Child Haven.”

“But you know it now. So…snap it in the front from now on. You’ve learned. You have to learn somehow. This is how you learn.”

“It is?”

“Yes.”

Exhale. “So I? Snap it in the front?”

“Sure. Snap it in the front, baby. And just keep on moving.”

“I love you, mom.”

“I love you, baby.”

“Are you going to come back to me?” James asks.

We are sitting in the middle of a deserted lawn in a deserted park. It’s 3pm on a Friday. No one is here yet, or they’ve already gone. There is no one but us.

“She’s going to kill me,” I whisper.

“She isn’t going to kill you. She can’t kill you. That…if she killed you, that would be really great evidence for the judge.”

I should laugh, but I don’t. I can’t. I just stare in front of me at the air and at nothing.

My husband sighs. “I took off work today. I thought we could spend a little time together, you know, celebrate? The babies?”

The babies are tugging at the grass beneath them with rapt fascination.

“Yeah, but that was before I had to call a four-inch bruise into the child abuse hotline.”

Just silence from him.

“Crap… Shoot. Shit,” I breathe.

“What? What happened?” he asks.

“The doctor’s office. They were going to call me today. They were escalating my request for a letter for our file. Somebody important was supposed to call me, I… shoot. Seriously? What if I missed the call?”

“They don’t have your cell number?”

“No. Just the house phone. We have to go now. If I miss that call…”

My husband sighs.

Two tears squeeze out of the corners of my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I choke out. “I hate this.”

“I know,” he says, putting an arm around my shoulders.

“I hate it,” I choke, “but I love them.”

And we both look at the twins as they each stick a handful of grass in their respective mouths and then spend the next few seconds negotiating the passing of a twig back and forth.

“I love them too,” he says.

“Do you?” I ask. “Do you promise?”

“What?” asks James. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s just, you’re irritated. You’re mad at something. At me? I’m not being any fun today, am I?”

He exhales. “We just went through a CPS investigation,” he says. “I don’t think those are fun for anybody.”

“I want it to be easier,” I whisper.

“I do too,” he says. “I want to… I want to be able to sit in the grass with you at 3pm on a Friday and just enjoy the grass and the sunshine and the babies. The babies. I want to just enjoy the way they eat the grass even though I’ve told them ten times not to eat the grass. You know?”

“I know.”

“I want to not fear that someone is going to rip them away at any moment and send them back to…what? What is it, even? The gulag? I want to make plans for a year from now. Five years from now. Twenty years from now.”

“I know. Me too.”

“But we don’t get to have that.”

“No.”

“Not yet. But that’s why we’re going home to wait for that phone call. Right?”

“I guess.”

“Ok. Let’s go then.”

He stands. He extends his hands towards my own, but I don’t grasp them.

“What if they tell us they’re going back, James? What if I’ve spent a year of my life giving their mom a free vacation?”

He frowns, returning his hands straight down to his sides.

“I worry about that, too,” he says. “You have no idea how much that makes me…angry. I’m angry, Heather. I’m angry about what she’s taken from you. From us. From everyone that has tried to help her. I don’t think it’s fair.”

“Seriously it hurts,” I squeeze the words out and I don’t cry. I won’t cry. “I hate it. I love them. I want them to be ok. I need them to be ok.”

“I know, baby.”

“Are they going to be ok?”

“They’re going to be ok,” he says. “They are ok as long as they are sleeping under our roof, and that isn’t over yet.”

“No,” I sigh. “Not yet.”

“And you know,” says my husband, “if that day finally comes…if they tell us they are really actually physically going back…”

“Yeah?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Amber alert? We’ll run to Mexico? We aren’t that far from the border.”

I breathe out a quick laugh.

“I love you,” I say.

He smiles wryly. “I love you, too.”

And I reach for him.

“I wanted to do better than this,” I whisper to the little baby boy as I dump him in a pack-n-play. Immediately he tucks his arms up under himself and begins to snore.

“I was going to rock you,” I whisper, hoarse, exhausted, and in response he snores.

“I was going to sing to you,” I just barely breathe.

I’m so tired. So tired. So tired. I can’t feel my feet. I can’t feel my hands; they’re tingling a little though. I can’t feel my brain; it’s gone. Off. Extinguished.

“I’m going to buy another crib tomorrow,” I tell him. “I only have one because I was only expecting one of you. I didn’t expect two.”

He snores in response. What a day it must have been for him. What a long and eventful day.

“I hope you’re ok with me giving your sister the crib tonight.”

He snores.

“Tomorrow I’m chucking the guest bed out to the garage.”

Snore.

“And then you can have this room and she can have the other room, with the other crib that we’ll buy, ok?”

Snore.

“And then I’m going to rock you every night for the rest of forever, until the state rescinds that right or you’re tired of it. Ok? Does that sound like a plan?”

He snores.

“I know I don’t know you yet,” I whisper to him, leaning over the pack-n-play, watching the way the moonlight falls over the curve of his back and the way the shadow shifts in the rise and fall of his breath, “but I really want to get to know you. I hope you and I get to know each other, little buddy. I hope we get to love each other some day.”

And we do. The next day. And the next day. And the next day.

And one year later I sing him a lullaby and I lay him in his crib and he whispers, “Night night, mama.”

And I whisper to him, “Happy anniversary, baby.”

And he says, “Mama.”

And that is enough for me.

It isn’t enough. But it is.

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90 and Seven Days

Deidre.

That’s what I wanted to re-name you.

Deidre.

And you probably recognize the name, because I have sang it to you in a thousand lullabies and occasionally yelled it when you reached into that desk drawer with all the pens in it, the drawer that I’ve told you a thousand times not to open.

Deidre.

It’s your name even though it was never really your name. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to use it for another child—probably never—because every time I hear it I will remember how it made you tilt your pretty little head to the left in recognition. I will remember how you knew it as one of your own names, even though you had another name, one that was much less musical and much more crass. One that I only rarely could muster the courage to say without feeling all shades of wrong.

Deidre.

Do you know how much I love you? Do you know how hard I’ve fought for you? Of course not. What you know is your favorite little purple teacup, and your slide in the backyard, and your baby doll that you carry to me, teetering along on your tip-toes, exclaiming, “Diaper!” with a sly little smile. And you know that I always pretend to change your baby’s diaper and that I hand her back to you with my own exclamation of, “All clean!” Then you snuggle her and kiss her and off you run to whatever excites you next.

You know those things. You don’t know the war that I’ve fought for you.

I glanced at you today, and I started to sob. I heaved. I wept, and as you looked puzzled at my face, I realized this was really the first time you had ever seen me cry. I wondered if you understood what was happening and I think you may have, because you climbed into my lap and put your tiny little palm against my cheek.

Oh Deidre.

I wanted so badly to be your mom.

Your birth mother scares the hell out of me.

Deidre, she’s probably going to beat you. She’s probably going to punish you for the bond that you’ve made with me. I’m sorry. Baby girl, I’m so very sorry. The thought that you will suffer harm at my expense, it kills me. I want to die…just…I’d die right now if I could. It feels so very much like I’m dying anyway.

I wish it could be me.

I wish I could somehow trade places with you and take every beating, every night of neglect, every exposure to danger. I wish I could let those evil men that she allows in her home prey on me instead. Let them rape me instead. Let them have my life. They can have it. Just please don’t let them hurt you.

Please.

God please.

My baby.

My Deidre.

I want you to know that I gave up on you for a minute today.

I want to be honest with you always. And I swear, if some crazy unexpected miracle happens and the judge rules in our favor on Monday, I’ll spend a lifetime being honest with you—in age appropriate ways, of course. But my dear baby I would always be honest with you. You wouldn’t ever need to hide a thing from me, even the ugly things. You wouldn’t ever have to worry that I was hiding a piece of myself from you. We would know each other, you and me. You could have a look into my soul whenever you wanted it. And I would pray that you would give me the same privilege over the years, if ever we got the chance.

So then my Deidre, in all honesty, I gave up on you.

Our caseworker sent me this email, and even though I was kind of expecting it, it still wrecked my world.

“Hey Heather,

The Hearing will be in courtroom 5.  I will not be there, but my supervisor will be covering my court hearings that day.

Yes, as you suspected and we discussed, we will be requesting reunification.  We are requesting 90 days, but it usually happens before that time period.  She will need to complete a reunification staffing with 2 supervisors to prove that she is ready to reunify. Once that is completed a date will be set for reunification.  Barring a catastrophic breakdown in this case, she will be reunifying.  I know you and James were looking forward to adopting the twins and you have done an amazing job raising them, but unfortunately, this is the way this system works.  I truly wish you guys could be adopting them, as I believe you would be able to provide for them a better life than their natural mother.

I’m sorry.”

And my dear Deidre, I shot him back this email of my own.

“For what it’s worth, if reunification is definitely happening, then I think we would like it to happen as quickly as possible. I’m not sure I can handle dragging it out for very long. But I will do my best. –H”

And then I wrote off both you and your brother in my heart. I said to myself that I was done and I wanted you out of my house and I wanted to finally, after a year of no sleep, get some sleep.

And then you both woke up from your naps.

And when I touched you I sobbed so hard that I couldn’t move, it brought me to my knees. It made my face contort in some horrible position, and I couldn’t stop my arms from reaching for something beyond me…although I don’t know what I was reaching for.

And so I amended my email.

“Actually that isn’t true. I can and will handle it. Take as long as you need. Sorry for the former irrationality. A day in my house is a safe day, and I want these babies to be safe for as long as possible. I’m sorry. Thanks –H”

Deidre.

My Deidre.

Most likely, I have a week and ninety days left with you.

I will love you, baby, for every single one of these ninety-seven-or-so days.

I will diaper and re-diaper your baby doll. I will let you pull all the pens out of the pen drawer. And I will tuck you safely into your bed at night. I will sing you your lullaby until my voice cracks and dies.

My Deidre, you’re so beautiful to me
My Deidre, more than a million dollar ring
I’m so glad God gave you to me
Sleepy angel from the Prince of Peace
I’m so glad God gave you to me
Now close your eyes and go to sleep
And goodnight, goodnight
May God keep you and hold you tight
Goodnight, goodnight
My baby love goodnight

Sweet baby love

Goodnight

90 and seven days.

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Driving Their Mother

The doctor’s office waiting room is filled with the usual mixture of white fluorescent lights humming overhead, the ambient noise of ringing phones, the swoosh of turning magazine pages and the interrupting squeak of plastic chairs as waiting patients shift in their seats. This is my fiftieth doctor’s appointment with the twins, an anniversary of sorts. DFS requires that paperwork be submitted after each visit, and the copies that I keep have begun to bulge in their folder. How many? I had counted and found that there were forty-nine, and after today there will be an even fifty.

A phone rings and rings unanswered. A nurse calls a name that isn’t ours. A rise of laughter emerges from a talk show audience displayed on the TV in a distant corner of the room.  Behind me, the entry door to the office opens and closes with a click.

Five times already, with the arrival of five other people, I have turned in my seat to see if it was her, but each time it has been some stranger. Now a clock on the wall behind me shows that it is 9:30 in the morning, half an hour past our appointment time, and surely by now it is safe to assume that today is just another broken promise in a long string of broken promises. Fifty of them, to be exact.

“When they next doctor appointment?” their mother had asked me the day before.

“Tomorrow at nine in the morning.”

“I’ma be there.”

No you won’t.

“Ok. We will see you at nine, then.”

Nine in the morning has come and nine in the morning has gone as expected, and five strangers have walked through the office’s door, and now I deliberately choose to relax in my seat because this day will be just another day in our lives, with a doctor’s appointment and then lunch and then a nap and no surprises.

“There they is.” The familiar voice, husky and out of breath, catches me off guard. “I went to the wrong building at first,” the voice continues and she gestures in some direction that the offending building must be, “but then I found you.”

No.

No. You aren’t here. Go away.

“I’m glad that you found it.” My words come out clear, maybe even cheerful, and I don’t think the murder underneath is showing at all. “Here. Have a seat.” I gesture toward an empty one. “We are still waiting. They are running behind today.”

Across from me, a plastic chair groans as she sinks down in it.

I wonder, why today? Why not appointment number forty? Or twenty? Or better yet, why not appointment number one? Where was she at appointment number one? Where was she while I was drudging through the hardest times, the sleepless nights, the terrifying moments when I didn’t know what was wrong and I feared for their lives? Where was she then? Stoned on a stranger’s couch?

“Yeah, I had the bus drop me at that corner,” and I look in the direction that she is pointing, but I don’t have any idea which corner she means, and I don’t care. “But I should’a had them drop me at this corner…”

She says something about bus stops, but I don’t care. I just don’t care. All I want is for her to go away, because I am nine months older since the day I picked up her children, filthy and starving, from child protective services. I have given her nine months of my waning youth, waiting for her to clean herself up and waiting for her to care, and every single month, she has let me wait.

The first month with two wild eyed and disoriented and terrified babies. The second month trying to figure out what to feed them. They won’t eat. Why won’t they eat? The third month and we are finally having some success, and they don’t tense up when I touch them, and they sometimes fall asleep in my arms. The fourth month and they are finally eating well and they are finally sleeping at night. Then the fifth month arrives and I love them, I love them, and I can’t stop loving them.

The ninth month. This month. Long enough to grow them in my own womb and birth them myself. Three times as long as the three little months that she ever had them in her own custody, the months before the social worker found them unclothed and unfed and catatonic in an empty room.

A phone rings unanswered. A plastic chair squeaks. The TV audience continues to laugh. Finally, a nurse announces our name.

“That us,” the twins’ mother affirms.

“Yes,” I agree. “That’s us.”

The neurologist comes and goes. We exchange films and paperwork. Their mother nods, but she doesn’t really understand.

“So I think we are going to be ok,” says the neurologist.

“That right,” says their mother, self-assured. “I knew everything was gonna be ok.”

No! I want to scream. You knew nothing. You never knew anything. You don’t even know why we are here today. You can’t celebrate with us.

“I’m glad to hear that,” I say it to the doctor, just above a whisper.

The visit ends, and we make our way out the office’s front door. The four of us find the elevator to the parking garage.

I must get out of here, fast and now. I must get in the elevator and ride it down, fast and now. I must find my car and load up the twins, fast and now. I must get far and farther and even farther away from here, fast and now.

I don’t want to be here anymore.

The ding of the elevator announces its arrival.

“I’m sorry for dragging this out,” says their mother unexpectedly, interrupting the silence that has hung between us like a buffer, dense and rubbery, and the words come out of her at something close to a whisper, softer than I’ve ever heard her speak. Is she really speaking to me?

“Nine months is a long time,” she continues, and yes, she is speaking to me.

“I’m…” I don’t even know what to say. I don’t even know if we are really having this conversation right now.

I didn’t expect to see her today. I didn’t expect to be standing in the middle of this building, knuckles tight on my stroller handle, squinting at her in the sunlight that streaks through the dirty windowpanes which hang above us on the atrium walls. I didn’t expect to be sharing this moment with her, a moment that suddenly feels real and personal and almost intimate. I didn’t expect any of this, and I can’t breathe.

“It’s not too long,” I finally choke out my response, and I don’t know why I’m crying in the middle of the atrium, but I know that I never meant to cry here or anywhere else in her presence. “I don’t mind nine months,” I manage through the tightness of my throat. “I don’t mind…I don’t…double it. You can double it. Give me 18 months. Give me 18…”

Years?

“You ok?” she asks.

Two tears spill out before I can stop them.

“Oh damn,” says their mother, shifting one shoulder back and raising a hand. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“I’m not crying,” I cry, and I do my best to stop. “It’s just that…” I shrug my shoulders, at a loss. “Its just that I love them,” I finally get out.

When I get home, I will need to write an email to let our case manager know that she is now, suddenly after months of absence, in compliance with this part of her case plan. Suddenly, after nine months of nothing, she is following the rules. Is this the beginning of the end, here and now, standing in these streaks of sunlight? Is this the first brush of solvent on the bond that I’ve made with the babies that sit before me in the stroller that I bought? The babies that sleep every night in the beds that I bought? The babies that I gave up my fledgling writing career for? The babies that call me momma?

“I’m sorry,” I say, brushing the tears out of my eyes with vigor. “I didn’t mean to cry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” she answers, gruff, in the same guttural tone that she uses for pretty much everything. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“You didn’t make me cry,” I protest, wiping at the skin under my eyes, shaking my head. “It isn’t your fault. It’s just an emotionally charged situation,” I manage, sweeping my hands out in front of me like the situation is there to be seen. Like it is hanging in the air between us. “It’s strange, isn’t it? It’s all so strange.”

I’m being too dramatic? I should be less dramatic. I pull my arms back and anchor them at my sides.

“Yeah,” she says. “That right.”

“That’s right,” I mumble in acquiescence, so grave it almost comes out like mockery although I didn’t intend it that way.

The elevator doors part and a woman dressed in scrubs exits. She looks at us curiously as she hurries on by. What must we look like?

There stands the babies’ mother, slouching in black sweatpants and a ratty grey t-shirt, smelling like all things offensive, maintaining some distance from us. And then there is me with my clean hair and my clean coral dress, pushing a thousand dollar stroller that holds a little girl in a coral headband and her own little matching dress, and a little boy in a white collared shirt and blue paisley pants. Clean, the three of us. Scrubbed and radiant and lovely.

But our skin tone doesn’t match.

And they both have her nose.

And I’ve obviously been crying.

The woman in scrubs passes on by, glancing but saying nothing, and the four of us make our way onto the elevator—the babies mother slouching and myself not exactly sure what to do with my arms, so I just keep them extended in front of me, my hands gripping the stroller handle—the twins sitting patiently in their seats.

We situate ourselves inside the box, and the elevator dings and moves slowly towards the ground floor. It arrives at the bottom, and the doors chime as they open.

“Well,” says their mother.

“Well,” I say, and a sudden sympathy comes rushing from me like a wave, flooding the elevator before I know better. “How are you getting home?” I ask.

Suddenly, she looks afraid.

“I got,” she raises her mobile phone in the air, but then she lowers it. “I got to call the…” And she gestures towards the corner of the world that she gestured towards when she first arrived in the office waiting room. “I got… I’ma catch the bus.”

I could say ok, and I could let her go now. I could let her catch her bus, and I could go home, fast and now.

Fast and now.

“No you aren’t,” I breathe, gesturing toward the parking lot. “You’ll walk this way to my car and I’ll drive you home.”

“You?” she displays, maybe feigns, a confused look. “I mean you ain’t got to.”

“I don’t have to do anything,” I mumble, and I feel steadier than I have in hours. “But if you need a ride home, I’m happy to give you one.”

“I live way up North,” she gestures again in some off map direction.

“I know that,” I say. “But I don’t have anywhere else to be today. I have time.”

“Well alright,” she concedes, squaring her shoulders.

“Well,” I say, squaring mine. “Alright.”

I’m a good listener.

My parents were in the ministry, and when I was young it wasn’t unusual for me to hear the phone ring late at night and the voice of my mother or father filtering in from somewhere near the kitchen.

“Oh no.”

“Ok.”

“I’m sorry.”

“How are you?”

“What do you need right now?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Maybe?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you going to be ok?”

“What do you need from me right now?”

So as I drive and she begins to speak, and as her story spills out in drops at first and then a rapid torrent, I am not unprepared.

I already know that loved ones die. I already know that trust is broken. I already know that innocence is robbed and murdered and something cold and hard and hollow takes up residence in its grave.

I already know that life hurts. I already know this.

“I’m sorry.”

“Ok.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Maybe?”

“Have you ever sought counseling?”

“Yes. But on your terms.”

“Ok.”

“I’m sorry.”

“And that must have hurt.”

“I’m sorry.”

And I really am sorry. In more ways than you are, I really am. Because when I look at her I don’t see a stranger with a stranger’s problems. I don’t see a woman and her own heartbreak and her own failures. What I see instead is my daughter.

It is my daughter in the passenger seat of my car, with her jaw squared and her mouth moving constantly, nervously, spilling everything without even knowing why. It is my daughter that was abandoned. It is my daughter that was abused. It is my daughter that has buried the pain so deep inside herself that she can barely remember where she dug the hole. It is my daughter that is trying to do better for her own children, but she doesn’t know how.

“But I’ma make it right for her,” their mother says, nodding her head backwards toward the back seat of my car, where her baby girl sits in the car seat that I strapped her safely into only a handful of minutes ago.

“I won’t let a man hurt her,” she shakes her head with sincerity. “A man hurt her, and I be up on him. A man hurt her, and I be in jail. A man hurt her, and I be telling them, ‘Well you best call Miss Heather, because I need someone bail my ass out of here.’”

I laugh because it’s funny. She has a sense of humor, and her daughter does too. I know this already.

“No, honey,” I retort, shaking my head in the negative. “You won’t be calling me for bail if someone hurts her,” and I turn my head to look at her square on—I want her to know that I mean it, “because if someone hurts her, I will be sitting there in the jail cell beside you.”

She cocks her head to the left and looks up at me under furrowed brows with an assessing expression that I’ve seen many times from the highchair in my own kitchen.

“You alright, Miss Heather,” she says.

“Thank you,” I say to her. “I try.”

It takes forty-five minutes to drive her home, and on the way we talk about everything I thought we would never get the chance to discuss.

She wants to know why I have no children of my own. I tell her I have always dreamed of adopting first. Then she asks me if I want to have my own children.

“My adopted children will be my own children,” I reply. “And the ones that I birth, they will be my own as well.”

“I respect that,” she answers solemnly.

“Thank you,” I say. “I think we will make sure that our next placement is already eligible for adoption.” I glance behind me toward the car seats. “I mean, after these two go back to you…”

I wait a beat.

“Well hold on now!” she replies quicker than I expected, looking startled like she just lost something that she didn’t mean to lose. For the first time, I realize that she knows what she has in me. Perhaps I’m a card that you don’t draw on every hand. And for the next half hour, we discuss it.

Her history.  And adoption. Her dreams. And adoption. Her hope for the babies’ future. And adoption. How we could keep the twins connected to their older siblings. And adoption. How we could keep the twins connected to her, too. How we could make this work.

Adoption.

By the time I drop her off at her house, she has practically willed the twins over to me. She is practically calling me their mother.

“Thank you for the ride,” she mumbles, as I roll to a stop in front of her house.

“You’re welcome,” I whisper back.

I want to hug her. I want to give her some money and find her a job. I want to buy her a decent pair of shoes and a clean shirt. I want to tell her to go get her other children, cram them into the backseat of my car, and we will all go back to my house and find some way to live happily ever after.

I want a thousand fantasies where the world isn’t a place that children are robbed of their innocence and grow into adults who never learned how to hope for something better.

“Get on back in there!” I hear her scream as the car door slams shut behind her.

Somewhere through the windshield of my car, I see a tiny hand pull open the front door of her house, and then abruptly shut it, to which there are a few explanations. Either the children inside the house are completely alone, or the adult that is watching them isn’t legally allowed to be near them and their mother is afraid I will notice.

I raise my hand and give a small wave towards the door that is now shut tight. I could easily call the child protection hotline and report this, but I won’t. Not today anyway.

Today I will let her have this mistake (because God knows I am reporting with vigilance every other tiny misstep she makes.) Today I will give her this fault, because she has given me something that I didn’t even know I was allowed to have—I didn’t know I was even allowed to think it—her blessing. So I will give her this blunder, this unforgiveable thing, to leave a toddler and a five year old in an empty house or with an abuser. Maybe then we can call it even.

I drive away with the twins safe and sleeping in their car seats behind me, their soft grunts and snores filtering forward to where I sit in the driver’s seat, steering away in the afterglow of their mother’s words, trying to forget the children alone inside that house, trying not to be too optimistic in the process.

“I want them to have something better,” she had said. “I realize you might could give them something better.”

I drive away with the same fear that I carry always, but also with a new thing—some tiny piece of hope.

“What happened?” I ask our caseworker, my face ashen, my shoulders sagging to a depth that I didn’t even know they could reach, my skin so loose and so pale and my bones showing through because I can’t eat—certainly not when I get phone calls like these.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“But what happened?” I ask. “What could have possibly happened?”

It’s complicated. I can’t tell you the details here in my little blog, but if you want to blame someone, blame the babies’ grandmother. Blame her for every bad thing that has ever happened in that family.

“So what you’re saying is…” I manage. “What you are saying is that I have to keep being patient, and then I have to be patient some more, and after I am patient, I have to be patient even more, and even then the stars may not align and some inconsiderate person who is having a bad Monday might overlook something and make it all for naught? Might make this last year, and by then two years, for nothing?”

He only looks at the ground, and not for the first time I realize he is much younger than I am. If one of us in this little five by ten foot room has age upon us, it is not him. It is me.

“Yes,” he answers after a beat.

“Well I’m grateful for your honesty,” I sigh. “Would we have gotten this much information from any other case worker in this building?”

“No,” he replies sincerely. “Not a chance.”

And this is true, I know, in the truest way.

“Thank you,” I breathe, “for telling me this. I’ll keep it off the record.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“I know.”

“I did everything I could,” he says.

“I know.”

“I tried every loophole.”

“I know.”

“Do you want a tissue?” he asks.

“I’m not crying,” I cry. “I said I wouldn’t cry.”

He hands me a tissue anyway.

“When will you start the reunification process?” I ask, steeling myself.

“I’ll drag it out into the end of the month,” he says.

My shoulders droop more. How could they droop more? I didn’t think there was any more depth in them.

“And when will they be fully gone?” I ask.

“Not until the fall,” he says. “I’m requiring her to go through training with the medical team, and then we will do a gradual reunification where we phase it in over a few months. They won’t be fully reunified until the end of October maybe? Maybe November?”

“Just before their second birthday?” A tiny sob escapes in spite of myself.

“Heather?” he says, and it sounds like another apology.

“I’m not crying,” I gulp.

He is seated at his desk, with an old desktop monitor half blocking him on the right and mounds of paperwork stacked high between us.

“You are the only mother they know,” he says to me. “You are their mother. I know.”

I know. I’m sorry. And that hurt. Yes. No. Maybe? I’m sorry. All the things you say to a person in grief.

“I feel like their mother,” I manage.

“You’ve raised them,” he tells me.

I bite my tongue and I don’t cry. I won’t cry. I won’t.

“The day will come when they will be back,” he says quietly, glancing at the door like he is afraid someone will hear. “It is an inevitability that we all know. It’s an actual date on the calendar, for crying out loud. It will happen.”

“I know,” I gulp, “but where will I be when that day arrives? And where will you be? And who will be watching the calendar, making sure it doesn’t go unnoticed? And what will these children have suffered in the meantime? How many hungry or cold or miserable nights? Or worse.”

“Heather,” he says. “I’m sorry. You don’t know how hard I tried.”

“No,” I breathe out, not seeing him or his desk or his computer monitor or the stack of paper, not seeing the steel-barred windows of his office or the sunlight beyond it. Not seeing anything but the faces of the babies that I’ve loved for a few weeks shy of a year.

“Do you like your job, Darryl?” I ask him, and I end the sentence with his name, but that isn’t his name because I wouldn’t share his name here.

“I don’t,” he says somberly, without even thinking it over. “I really don’t. I don’t like my job, and I don’t like this city.”

“I know that you don’t,” I choke. “But you are good at your job. And so you will keep your eyes glued to that calendar for as long as you are in this job? And you will call me the minute my babies are back in the system? You will do this for me?”

He nods his head in the affirmative.

“You will do this,” I say it this time with no question mark at the end.

“I will,” he says. “Heather. I promise I will.”

It is just another Wednesday, and the babies have been in daycare so that I can do a little work—finish out a dying writing contract, run the payroll for my husband’s business. But now all that is done for the day, and I’m retrieving them now.

I walk down a tiled and empty hallway; then through the smudged glass of a classroom wall, I see the twins before they see me. Baby boy is playing with a ball and baby girl is pulling on the sleeve of another child, but when they spot me they both start to wail.

“Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

“MaMA! MaMA! MaMA!”

They also offer a few high-pitched shrieks that burst the eardrums of everyone in a thirty-foot radius.

“My loves!” I cry as I open the door, and they find and cling to my legs like I’ve just rescued them from drowning.

“It’s ok!” I assure them, diving down to cup them in my arms, lifting them both in a fell swoop that often impresses strangers.

“How do you do that?” random people sometimes ask.

“This?” I say, glancing at the way both 18-month-olds are firmly balanced and, miraculously, happy in my arms. “This is the kind of miracle that you learn to perform when you have twins.”

The twins stop crying and the four of their little hands start feeling at my face. “How was your day?” I ask them.

“Mama,” says one.

“MaMA!” says the other.

“They love you so much,” a daycare employee says as she gathers their sippy-cups from the refrigerator and finds some paperwork for me. “Oh I’m sorry,” she adds. “Do you mind signing this before you leave?”

I have to dump both twins in the floor to do so, and that action causes a protest on the level of a proletarian revolution.

“My babies!” I say to soothe them as my hand finds the pen and blindly signs the document in front of me. Then it reaches to re-gather the twins from the floor. “Just be patient,” I tell them. “It’s only for a moment. I won’t leave you forever. I promise I won’t leave you forever.”

But as the words escape my mouth, I realize how powerless I am to fulfill them—how futile my earnestness is.

I secure them both in my arms again, and I hurry us all three out of the building.

“I’m a liar,” I whisper to them as we approach my car. “I’m a no-good liar, and I can’t promise you anything more than the few hours in front of me. I hate that more than you will ever know.”

I buckle them in their car seats. I drive them home, feed them dinner, bathe them. I lay them down in their beds, and then finally I collapse on my knees in the little hallway outside their rooms.

“God!” I heave, and the words are almost noiseless. “You merciful merciless God. Won’t you do something? Please? Do anything. Do something.”

And good.

Just anything something good.

Just please?

Please.

Please.

They are my children.

My only children.

And so I cry myself dry, while the babies sleep sound in their beds.

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Loving With One Hand Open

At Department of Family Services parental visitation facility, the foster parent waiting lounge is not beige and it is not brown and it is not pink. I don’t really know what color sits so thick on the cinderblock walls. On some days I suppose mauve and on other days I guess olive. Whatever color it is, I am sure of one thing. That color is the color of sadness.

Two pressboard tables anchor the center of the room. Most days, I take up residence against one of the walls, sinking down into one of half a dozen green leather recliners. The dry and cracking leather smells like someplace between the interior of an old abandoned car and a homeless man’s armpit.

Today, I am one of many foster parents who are trying to sleep in the waiting lounge.

“You have to sleep when you can,” said our caseworker at some point in the past few weeks. So I try to do that, despite the TV that is blaring a static-blurred episode of a woodworking show from the early ‘90’s, and despite the wails of a five-pound drug addicted infant from some other foster parent’s stroller in the corner. I close my eyes and I drift, and then someone taps me lightly on the shoulder.

“Foster mom?” a voice asks, kind and soft and apologetic, and I snap to attention.

“Yes?”

“The little girl won’t stop crying, and birth mom is asking for a bottle.”

“I just fed her,” I mumble more to myself than to the visitation worker, “but I’ll mix one up anyway.”

My hand digs in my diaper bag. It finds a hold on the necessary supplies and then mixes and shakes and transfers the bottle over to the worker. Afterwards, I again bury my head against the smelly leather of the recliner and stare at the back of my eyelids for thirty more minutes. The five-pound infant in the corner continues to wail, and the TV continues to drone out its staticky sermon on routing a table edge.

When the hour is over, I gather my belongings and myself from the sofa and emerge from the lounge into the bright light of the visitation facility. It is more cheerful out here. The color on the walls is better and the air smells cleaner. I’m rather glad for all of this.

“Stop it!” comes a familiar voice from a distant corner. “Stop crying.”

Baby girl’s birth mother saunters towards me, across the open space. She thrusts the still full bottle forward.

“She wouldn’t drink it,” she accuses. “Something’s wrong with her.”

I take the bottle, cap it, and situate it in my diaper bag so that it doesn’t spill. I make mention of the ear infection that I am sure is not the culprit, but maybe it will appease. I also note that she is teething. Baby girl reaches for me and her mother passes her to me with no objection. The crying stops immediately.

“Something’s wrong with her,” her mother declares again. “What is wrong with you?” she demands, shaking a finger in her startled daughter’s face, and then she walks away.

Earlier that morning, I woke up to baby girl’s cry at 5:45am.

“Whose turn is it?” I mumbled into my pillow.

“Mine,” James mumbled back.

“4oz of formula,” I groaned as I rolled over. “And a diaper change.”

“Got it.”

I passed out again and slept until I heard the shower running fifteen minutes later. Groping for my phone, I checked the time.

“It’s 6am,” I bleated from my side of the bed and towards the bathroom.

No answer, so I rolled over and stumbled toward the light from the bathroom windows.

“It’s 6am,” I croaked again, this time from the bathroom doorway. “What on God’s green earth are you doing in the shower?”

“My flight leaves at seven-thirty,” was my husband’s reply.

Flight? Oh. Right. I’d forgotten he was leaving for a week.

For a week! Ha ha. For an entire week where he would sleep through the night and eat meals, actual meals with other adults. Ha ha.

“Can you take me to the airport?” he asked through steam and shampoo suds.

“Yeah,” I mumbled, “of course,” and I stumbled back to bed. Five minutes later I was at the bathroom doorway again.

“So the thing is,” I managed through a yawn, “if I take you to the airport, that means I have less than an hour to get the twins up and fed and I assume it would be good to have them clean and dressed as well…”

“Yeah,” said James, “I’ll get a cab.”

“Thanks,” I croaked, and I stumbled back to bed and passed out once again.

Fifteen minutes later, I was awake again.

“She won’t stop crying,” James said somewhere over my head, and I blinked once, twice, three times and there was her precious little face, all contorted in a scream.

“Gimme,” I said, and he laid her on my chest where she was happy for two minutes and then proceeded to scream for another five.

“What? Seriously?” I asked her through the fog of sleep. In response she opened her mouth and wailed so loud, I swear, it almost woke the dead.

“Ok,” I conceded, rubbing my eyes, “You are awake and I am too, and I’m getting out of bed.”

After that, she was mostly happy.

I’ve given my life to these babies, all of it. I’ve already forgotten what I was before I was their mother, but it was something smaller, I think. I was a girl who ultimately lived for herself. Now I ultimately live for two tiny human beings. That sort of thing changes a woman.

I wake up in the morning and they are crying for me, heckling loud little screams that demand I rise and find my way into their rooms.

“Good morning my loves,” I say through a yawn, still knotting my robe around my waist. “How did we sleep?”

To which they giggle and beam a look that says, “Well there you are. The world was a terrible place for the last five minutes, but now it is much better.”

Then I spend my day keeping them full of food and milk and love. I never get enough rest. I never get to finish my own meals. But I do get to feel their little fingers grasp my collarbone as I hold them in my arms and rock them to sleep. And I do get to hear them whisper “Mama. Mama. Mama,” quietly to themselves as they drift off to meet their dreams.

That is what makes it all worth it. Ask any mother, and she will tell you the same.

Well. Ask most any mother.

“Carmella, stop!” says the babies’ grandmother.

I am substituting “Carmella” for their mother’s actual name. Her actual name is not nearly as pleasant sounding as Carmella. Her actual name would most likely make you laugh or gasp or both.

“Stop!” says the babies’ grandmother—a woman who was unable to keep her own children from heart-aching abuse and neglect and a life spent in the foster care system as well.

“Stop it!” the grandmother now whispers as she glances to her left and to her right, wondering if the state visitation supervisors are noticing what is happening here in front of them, in their own facility—but no worries, they aren’t. I am searching frantically for those supervisors myself. Do I let my face register the alarm I feel? Do I run to find them? Do I scream? I want to scream. I want to grab Baby Girl and run out the doors.

Carmella is forcing Baby Girl’s arms down against her sides, vehemently keeping her pinned, growing angrier at every cry. Baby Girl has spotted me across the room and her agitation at being unable to move toward me is making her progressively more upset. The wails grow and grow until she is red in the face and gasping for breath.

“Carmella!” comes the voice of the grandmother. Her eyes are still darting about for the visitation supervisors, until she meets my gaze across the room. When our eyes connect, her face grows calmer. Her hands lower into her lap, where she patently folds them.

“It’s just who she is used to,” states the grandmother, coolly, dismissive. “Give that child a week back with you and she won’t even know who that white woman is.”

There I stand, one lone white woman, fifteen feet away, hair a mess, clothes falling off my bones because I don’t have time to eat anymore, skin so pale it is translucent because I don’t have time to see the light of day. I am white. I am the whitest white woman that ever lived, and it is all because of her children—the children that she neglected, and much worse than that I’m not at liberty to mention—the children that are screaming for me now.

I cross the room to her, evenly and cautiously, attempting respect. These babies aren’t mine. Not in the biological sense. Not in the legal sense, either. I reach for Baby Girl, and Carmella gives me a look that clearly says, “Go to hell,” so I lower my arms and I just stand there. I wait. A monitor wanders near to us, and Carmella releases Baby Girl’s arms.

“Mama!” Baby Girl says to me, and I want to scoop her up but I don’t. I wait. She whimpers, and I wait.

“Carmella,” whispers the grandmother, just barely nodding her head toward the supervisor, and, ever so quickly, Carmella hoists up Baby Girl into my arms. Rapidly, clinically, I carry her to my stroller. I buckle her in. I gather up her brother and buckle him in as well, and then we are out the door and in my car and on the road and, finally, safely back at my home. I put both babies down to nap after the long and tiring morning, and then I finally collapse down myself onto the living room sofa and I cry and I cry and I cry.

I try to write a coherent email, free of emotion, explaining the incident to our caseworker, to which he never responds. Later when I can muster it, I check Baby Girl’s arms for bruises and there are none. The next week, I will notice that the visitation supervisors are watching us all a bit more closely (which only prompts Carmella to be on her best behavior) and I will surmise that my email must have been read. Good. This will be a small victory, I suppose. It would have been nice to know for sure that our caseworker read my words. It would have been nice to have him ask if Baby Girl was ok, or if I was ok.

Because I’m not ok.

I am really not ok.

But I suppose that isn’t so much an option in this line of work.

I didn’t grow them in my own womb, and they don’t carry my own genes. As I said, I know that they aren’t mine, not in the biological sense and not in the legal sense, either. In the eyes of the state, as a foster mother, I am just a woman providing housing and care. I am something like an employee making absolutely no net salary, and these babies are my workload and that is the end of it as far as many people are concerned. They aren’t mine.

But with that aside, I do know a few things about them.

I know that Baby Boy is a cautious soul. You can’t just send him whirring down a slide at the park. Not that he will complain if you do. He will only freeze in place and his eyes will grow open an extra centimeter or two and his lower lip will protrude about the same distance. If you ignore all of that, he will slide to the bottom and stay very still for a moment, and then cautiously grope his way toward safer ground.

But that isn’t what you should do. What you should do is position yourself at the top of the slide, hold him securely in your lap and inch yourself, as slowly as possible, towards the ground. When you have reached the bottom of the slide, you should kiss his forehead and quietly say, “Good job.” Then you should repeat, slow slide and reassurance, until at last when you reach the ground and kiss his forehead, he smiles. Once you have that smile, he is ready for a slide by himself, but not until then. He has to warm up to it first.

He also likes kidney beans but not black beans, and the loud high-pitched scream is the hungry cry. The guttural whine is the lonely cry. The nasal “bahhhhhh” that goes on without a breath is the sleepy cry. And at night, when you sing him his lullaby, he is apt to sing along with you—not the words or anything—just a soft, “Bah lah lah bah lah,” as he nuzzles his head into your chest and drifts off to sleep.

That is Baby Boy.

Baby Girl may be his twin, but she is his exact opposite. At the park, you shouldn’t hold her on the slide. Quite the contrary actually, you should take her to the tallest slide and, with all the strength you dare, shove her barreling down toward the ground. If she is plummeting head first, all the better. She might bounce a few times at the bottom, but never fear, she will land head up and laughing and crawling back to do it all again.

She will climb anything. Turn your back for five seconds and she will be on the back of the couch, atop the dining room table, and halfway up your tallest barstool all at once. She is fearless. She is so much work that I often want to collapse from exhaustion and admiration all at once.

You can’t rock her to sleep—she won’t let you—but you can dance and spin her in your arms while you sing her a lullaby, and she will giggle and wiggle with you. After all of that, when you lay her in her crib, she will breathily whisper, “Mama,” and that will be your indication that she loved that song and she loves you and she will see you in the morning, bright and early, and goodnight.

She will eat any kind of bean, kidney or black, so long as you don’t try to put it in her mouth. She will put it in there herself, thank you very much.

That is Baby Girl.

In a few weeks time, the math will work out so that I can say I have cared for them exactly half of their lives, from months eight through sixteen—through first teeth and first words and first steps. From the first time they gummed out, “Mama,” incoherent, on to the clear and deliberate, “Mama!” that now means, “I would like your attention. Have you seen what I am doing? You’d better look this way and do it now please. This is important.”

I love them. I unashamedly love them from the moment they wake me up in the wee hours of the morning until I exhaustedly and bone-achingly lay them down to sleep in the evening. I love them.

Some people, bold and a bit dense, have asked me, “How can you love a child that isn’t your own?” The answer is simple. You fall. In the same way you fall for some stranger that is no relation to you, and then one day you marry him. One moment you are sharing lab notes or bumping shoulders in a coffee shop, the next you are swapping rings and making lifelong plans. Love is love and deep at that. You find yourself in it one day, and you realize that you will never be out of it.

It is beautiful, and subsequent to all those pretty things, it is also equally a much less eloquent choice—one made even and especially when it doesn’t feel good. There are so many days that I really don’t want to wipe up another poop, give another medication, feed another meal or wipe another tray, floor, counter, nose. Drive them to another appointment. And repeat.

And repeat it again because I’m committed.

In addition to being a sea of deep and abiding emotions, love is also the grit biting tenacity to keep going even when it hurts, even when you don’t want to, because you said that you would sometime ago.

That’s love, succinctly, waves of emotion and doggedly numb commitment, and I have this for them. I love them. And I will love them forever if I’m given the chance.

If I’m given the chance.

“I gotta go,” she says to me through the doorway of the foster parent lounge at Department of Family Services visitation center.

She isn’t supposed to open the door to the lounge. She isn’t allowed to walk in here.

I open my eyes and find her through the fog of half-sleep that I was in.

“Ok,” I mumble, gathering my things and myself off the sofa. It is fifteen minutes before the visit was supposed to end, and the babies are both screaming. They scream louder when they see me, and they try to leap from her arms.

It isn’t easy to wrangle two lurching babies, I should know as well as anyone.

“Let me help you,” I say, moving towards her, and I take baby boy in my arms. His lip is protruding so far you could rest a cup on it, but he stops crying for the moment. Baby girl keeps screaming.

“I’m having a bad day,” their mother says to me.

“I know,” I reply. I know that she missed her court date yesterday. I know that she messed up big time. I know that her failures feel like my victories, and they both sustain and trouble me.

“You want her in the stroller?” she asks, holding Baby Girl out in front of her.

“Yeah,” I nod. “The top seat, please.”

She walks her wailing daughter over to the stroller and fumbles with the buckles.

“Can’t ever figure these things out,” she grumbles.

“Here,” I breathe, handing Baby Boy to her. “Let me get it.”

I untangle the straps. In the awkward silence that extends in front of us, I join the fittings.

“You doin’ a good job,” she mutters, so low I almost miss it, and her voice is soft. My hands freeze on the stroller straps, and I realize that this is the first time we have ever been alone together. There are no visitation workers in sight. Her mother, the babies’ grandmother, isn’t here today. That man who sometimes shows up, who isn’t her boyfriend or their father, but has an uncanny interest in the babies nevertheless, isn’t here either.

“I am?” I ask, glancing at the stroller straps curiously, like maybe this is what she means. I am doing a great job at strapping the twins in the stroller? I am a world-class stroller snapper?

“Yeah,” she says. “You doin’ a real good job with these babies.”

These babies.

I stop fussing with the fittings and I meet her eyes. My lips press together.

“Thank you,” I manage to say, although everything inside me wants to erupt into tears.

“You welcome,” she mumbles and stares at her shoes.

Quite suddenly, I want to hug her.

“You aren’t supposed to be in here!” a voice booms then, loud and irritated, and we both turn to see a visitation worker rushing toward us with a clipboard.

Carmella begins a mumbled rush of apologies.

“I…” I exclaim, eyes wide and on the defensive. The visitation worker is wielding the clipboard like a sword. I raise my arm to shield us both. “I think she was just trying to help me get the twins into the stroller,” I say. “It’s…twins…twins are a handful.”

The worker lowers the clipboard and assesses my face. She seems satisfied with what she finds there.

“Ok,” she concedes in a half apology. “But it’s just that we have rules, ok? And the rules are that biological parents aren’t allowed in this room, ok? This is for everyone’s safety, ok? We can’t make exceptions.”

“Ok,” mumbles Carmella, chastened.

“Ok,” I breathe.

“Ok,” states the visitation worker, and she stays with us until I have the twins successfully strapped in the stroller and I have rolled them out of the lounge and on towards the parking lot.

I want to run back, though. I want to find Carmella and I want to grab her. I want to nod my head up and down and say, “I get it.”

I get that you love them. I get that you are torn between wanting them back and knowing that you shouldn’t, not really. I get that you want the best for them, but you don’t even know what “best” is.

I get that you love them. You gave them life.

I love you for giving them life.

I love them.

Do you know how much I love them?

I love them.

Can I tell you anything to make this easier?

Can you tell me anything about your life?

Can I tell you anything about mine?

Do we have anything in common?

We might.

The next week, her mother is back, and the week after that the strange man that has the strange interest in the babies is back, and we are never alone again. Not like this. Not for one single minute.

In the dark, as he sucks at his bottle and nuzzles his cheek against my chest, I feel the weight of his little arm swing wide. It flops back and forth for a minute and then it grabs upwards for my face, finds it, tugs at my nose and settles on my lips.

“Settle, little one,” I whisper, and when I open my mouth in speech he jabs four fat little fingers inward and grabs at my teeth, feels around the inside of my lower lip, and murmurs something soft and incomprehensible to himself.

I let his baby fingers stay there, idly running over my teeth and plucking at the flesh of my lip.

“Mama,” he whispers to himself.

Two tears make their way down each of my cheeks, one from the corner of each eye, half closed in a state of exhaustion and almost sleep.

“Mama,” he whispers.

And everything in me feels like his Mama. I’ve cared for him for half of his life and over four times as long as his mother has. I’ve met his cries early in the morning, held him and fed him and diapered him and bathed him. I’ve rocked him in my arms as he mumbled baby nothings to himself, and I’ve felt him relax into sleep against the hollow of my chest. Again. And again. And again. Over. And over. And over, until I have learned the language in the pattern of his breathing and the beating of his heart. Until I have learned asleep from awake by the feel of his weight in my arms.

“Mama…” he exhales against my chest, and his hand drops away from my mouth, finds my collarbone, kneads it absently.

Am I? And if I’m not, then what am I? And for the millionth time since becoming a foster mother, I ask myself, “What exactly are we doing here?”

As always there is no direct answer. There is only the moonlight through the nursery curtain and him with his little fingers working against my collarbone.

“Ma…” he whispers.

A baby in my arms and within him a world of possibility, an infinite number of things that could be, if given a chance. Just maybe.

Or maybe not.

This is the struggle that I live inside each morning and each evening, the magnetic pull and repulsion of love and leave, always together, never the one or the other alone.

It’s like loving with one hand holding on so tight that you might break your knuckles, and leaving the other hand so wide open that you can’t keep a grip on anything.

And you might lose your grip on everything.

That’s foster care.

And that’s where I am today.

Loving.

Loving.

Loving.

With one hand open.

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Miss Heather Needs a Tissue

“Honey, when is the last time you ate?” asks the caseworker.

“I’m not…” I say, glancing around like the answer is somewhere on the walls of the hallway in building fifteen of the Nevada Child Welfare office. “I don’t know.”

“You’ve lost weight?”

“Ten pounds. If it weren’t for my pale skin and the bags under my eyes, I’d probably look kind of sexy.” I try to be funny and do a little wiggle, but I’m not sure if it looks the way I intend it to. The movement is too stiff, and I nearly lose my balance halfway through. Regardless of how it looks, the caseworker laughs anyway.

“Honey, I know you are somehow making it right now,” she says, placing a hand on my shoulder, “but how are you going to feel in a month? Or in three months at Thanksgiving, when you have to buy three extra plane tickets and get this crew across the continent to a family that will upset this delicate equilibrium you have? Or when you haven’t slept and ate in six months? How will you feel then?”

“I’m not,” I say, looking at the walls again, searching for the answer. “I have…”

My shoulders sag. I don’t pass out, but I want to. It would be pure bliss to crumple into a pile on the floor and sleep for a small eternity.

My clothes are soaked in formula and poop and snot and dried tears, none of which are my own. For the moment, I’m separated from the kids by a metal door and a thin wall. They are in a dimly lit visiting room with stained carpet and a wire cart full of nasty toys. Moments ago, their mother sauntered in and only barely greeted them. Now she lounges across a plastic chair, being careful not to touch anybody. The toddler is gnawing on a dirty toy. The twins wail aimlessly as they sit in the stroller that I bought.

“You have Jesus?” the caseworker asks, in response to my last words.

I meet her eyes. I start to cry for the first time today.

“Baby, I know you do,” her tone is softer. “I don’t meet many people in this industry that I can say that about.”

“You have Him, too,” I say, nodding vigorously like my foster-toddler does when he is sleepy. “I knew it after you left my house yesterday.”

She gives a small nod.

I try to wipe the tears back. I can’t cry. Not in the lobby of Nevada Child Welfare’s building fifteen. Not here. Anywhere else. The car on the ride home. Slumped against the dishwasher while the kids are playing in the family room. Anywhere. Anywhere but here.

She speaks softly, so low that the receptionist across the room doesn’t even hear it.

“That’s why I know I can tell you that you can’t save the world,” she whispers. “Saving the world isn’t your job.”

I choke on a tiny sob.

“I know,” I gulp quietly. “But I can’t seem to stop trying.”

“I know that you can’t,” she says.

I steady myself. My tears are staid, for the moment.

“It get’s easier everyday,” I say louder and more evenly. “Maybe in another week…”

“When’s the last time you walked your dogs?”

“Dogs?”

“When’s the last time you had dinner with your husband?”

“Dinner? Husband?”

“Went shopping?”

“For the kids?”

“For you.”

“I…I have…”

“You are going to have to be more selfish, Miss Heather,” the caseworkers says, over pronouncing the Miss like the kids do. “You can’t go at this pace forever and have anything left of yourself at the end.”

“But I want to.”

“But you can’t.”

“But if I don’t…”

“Then someone will have to leave.”

“Who…who leaves, then?” I ask, sniffling. “The twins or…”

“I want you to think about it tonight. We can talk tomorrow.”

I say her name. Miss N.

“Miss N? Would any other case worker care about me this much?”

“Oh absolutely not, honey,” she replies.

“You are rare,” I say to her.

She smiles and cocks her head to the side.

“And there was a reason we got you,” I mumble, more to myself than to her.

“I care about these children,” she says, “but I also care about you. [The toddler] needs a level of care that you can’t possibly give him while also caring for the twins. There is no reason you should have been presented with this particular placement. I know they pressured you into it. I’m upset with that, and before this case gets transferred away from me, I want to make it right. For these babies, and also…”

A long pause.

“…for you. For Miss Heather, because I think that we need Miss Heather to stick around. People in this industry are going to walk all over you, Miss Heather. They are going to make you want to quit. I need you to not quit. I need you to choose your battles wisely and win and keep winning.”

“Ok,” I whisper.

“Marshall’s is just down the road,” she says. “Go buy yourself something while we watch the kids.”

“I need baby hair bows for…”

“No, I said buy yourself something.”

“Ok,” I say.

And so I did. I collapsed down in a heap on the aisle floor of Marshall’s, and I stared at a rack of bathrobes. After I had puzzled them out for twenty minutes (and ignored several inquisitive stares from other women) I chose one in soft pink cotton.

“I bought a bathrobe,” I said to Miss N when I returned to building fifteen of the Nevada Child Welfare office.

“Good,” she said, “and tomorrow you will call me and tell me who is leaving.”

The thing is, I didn’t call Miss N the next day.

I couldn’t.

Because one twin woke up saying “Mamamamamama,” and the other twin fell asleep on my knee as I did her hair. And the toddler (who has lived more life than I will ever live, and doesn’t toddle at all—he walks like a thirty year old) brought me a Lego tower and said, “I did it!”

“Whoa!” I said, “That’s amazing!”

“I show it to Mr. James? He like Legos?”

Gulp. “Of course he does, little buddy.”

Then, at dinner, one twin kept saying “ummm bah!” all prissy like, as she tried to grab the spoon. My Diva, I call her. And the other twin didn’t care anything about the spoon, but made an “uggggggghhhhhh grummmmmmm nummmmmm” noise as he tried to get his mouth closer to the food. When it hit his mouth he squealed like he had won the lottery. My Linebacker, I call him.

Then at lunch the toddler said, “I want some gogurt!”

And I said, “You want some yogurt, what?”

And he said, “Pease!” with a big cheesy smile.

And I said, “Just as soon as I finish this email.”

And he said, “I want to finish female!”

“Eeeeeemail,” I said.

“I finish female.”

Oh dear.

“Gogurt?”

“Sure, little buddy. Let me get you some yogurt.”

“I love you, Miss Heather.”

“I know you do.”

“You can be my mommy, too?”

“I…” choke. Gulp. Can do this. Can can can. “I am considering it.”

Of course, he also peed all over the wall and hit me hard enough to leave a mark on my cheek plus a long red scratch on my neck.

“I want my mommy!” he shrieked, as I placed him in time out.

“I want my mommy, too,” I said, as I kept him on the time out pad and my face took a violent beating.

Later he exclaimed, “I poo-pooed!” and I saw that, rather than the usual poo-poo in his pull-up, he had left an impressive pile of stink in the middle of the carpet.

“Fabulous,” I said, with a hand on my hip.

“Fabwus,” he said as well, mimicking my stance.

Then later, after I had told him five-gazillion times that we DON’T GIVE BIG BOY FOOD TO THE TWINS, I found a hunk of cheese in a twin’s mouth.

“No!” I exclaimed, scooping the chunk out of the baby’s mouth. “No! We don’t give big boy food to the twins. This could kill her. Do you understand? This could get stuck in her throat, and then she wouldn’t be able to breathe. Then she would DIE. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Ok. Good. Thank you.” I leaned down to hug him.

Thwack!

And my face took a punch.

Meanwhile, one twin was thankfully not choking but was screaming because her diaper needed changing, and the other twin was staring at the wall, comatose, because he isn’t used to getting much attention…so he just stares. At the wall.

Also there are the minor medical issues that I can barely even begin to treat because I’m cleaning poop off the floor, and getting punched in the face, and trying to braid black baby hair and I haven’t braided any kind of hair since I was fourteen dadgum mother-loving fudging years old.

“Focus,” I say to the toddler as pee lands everywhere but the toilet bowl, spraying all over the bathroom and a little bit in my mouth.

“You say a bad word, Miss Heather?”

Focus? Oh…wait…

“No. No. Not fuck us. Fuck is the word we don’t say. Focus is a different word.”

“You say it again, Miss Heather?”

“No it’s… You know what? How about we just concentrate.”

I laugh. But I laugh through the tears.

At 5:30pm, our caseworker, Miss N, drops by.

“I’m off the clock,” she says.

“So you’re volunteering?” I ask.

“I am,” she replies, “and as far as anyone else is concerned, this visit never happened.”

“Fair enough.”

“Fair enough.”

She asks me what I’ve decided. When I flounder for words, she rushes ahead.

“I have an idea for [the toddler].” She fills me in, and the tears start to leak out around the corners of my eyes.

“But I kind of love him,” I stifle a snort.

“That heart,” she says.  “That heart is what will make you different from 99% of the families in this system, who would take a case like this and meet me at the curb with the trash of it all one week later.”

I shake my head. No. Not really.

“That’s why I need you to let him go,” she says, “and invest yourself more heavily in these twins. They need that heart of yours.”

“Miss Heather! I build it!” I hear a little voice call later that night.

“I see! It looks amazing!”

“I show Mr. James?”

“Yes. Let’s go show Mr. James.”

Sob.

Sob sob sob, as I walk behind him.

“Miss Heather! I eat my wice!”

“You ate your rice?”

“I eat my wice!”

“Hooray! You get a Spiderman sticker!”

“I LOVE Spiderman sticker!”

“Let’s get a Spiderman sticker.”

Then, a few minutes later—

“Miss Heather? You want my Spiderman sticker?”

“But that’s your Spiderman sticker, little buddy.”

“I give it to you.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

“Because?”

“Because.”

Hello B— and N—,

Per my conversation with N— today, I am submitting our ten-day notice for —-, asking that he be removed from our home. —- is a wonderful child, but his emotional needs are more demanding than we expected. We feel that we are prepared to handle these needs, however, not while simultaneously caring for his two twin siblings. I feel that we have enough to give the twins and we have enough to give —-, but not at the same time. There isn’t enough to go around, and someone will suffer as a result.

A few examples of —-‘s demanding emotional needs include […] Again, we feel prepared to handle these behaviors, but we do not feel we can handle them while simultaneously attending to the likewise demanding needs of his twin siblings.

N— agreed with this assessment and urged that it was in the best interest of everyone involved to move —- quickly, rather than to allow us more time to adjust. We are heartbroken to see —- go. I wish, with all my heart, that I had enough in me to keep him here. He is a bright and intelligent child. He responds well to firm and consistent discipline and positive reinforcement. (He will usually do just about anything to earn a Spiderman sticker.) He LOVES learning new words and building and “fixing” things. I believe he has incredible potential to grow into an amazing young man. But he needs experienced one-on-one attention, and that is something that we cannot give to him while also attending to the demands of the twins.

I am sorry to have to send this letter and let you guys down. But I am even more sorry to let —- down. I want to see him thrive, and I know that, in our home with our attention divided between him and his siblings, at best, we can only offer survival at this point. It is my hope that you will place him somewhere where he can truly thrive. He deserves it.

Regretfully,

Heather and James D——

“What’s this, Miss Heather?”

“That? Oh. That’s a Harry Potter book.”

“What a Harr Potter Book?”

“It’s a really great story that I hope you get to read someday when you are (…gurg…) older.”

“Where you going, Miss Heather?”

“Miss Heather needs a tissue.”

“You crying?”

“Yeah.”

“Why you crying?”

“Because.”

“Because?”

“Because.”

“Miss Heather need a tissoo?”

“Yeah, little buddy, Miss Heather needs a tissue.”

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What My Parents Taught Me

“I don’t know what your parents taught you…”

It is not a matter of question. The words drive themselves out of her mouth and across the phone line where they find me staring at my reflection in the hallway mirror. I note the creases in the skin of my forehead, deep and red from screwing up my face in consternation. I dismay at the bags under my eyes, hard earned from so many sleepless nights this week. Has she forgotten the wounded condition of my heart?

Usually I write for myself, but not entirely tonight.

Tonight I also write for her.

“I don’t know what your parents taught you,” she said.

So let me explain.

This is what my parents taught me.

I am ten years old and I can hear someone crying, no, wailing is more like it. Is that a person? It sounds like a person. But then again, it could be a cat. As a farm reared child, I know what a wailing cat sounds like. Wailing cats come with the territory. We’ve got at least a dozen of them roaming around here, most of them belonging to distant neighbors or perhaps they are strays that took up near the chicken houses to feast on the multitude of wharf-rats that roam the ditches at night. Every chance I can, I bring the stray cats tin-pie plates filled with warm milk and bits of bread. The strays aren’t supposed to eat the cat food that we feed our pet cat, Whitey, but sometimes I sneak it to them anyway.

“If you keep feeding them, they won’t eat the rats,” my mother has said.

“But what if they starve?” I am quite worried about that.

“They wouldn’t be here if they were starving,” she has said, but I am not convinced.

“They’ve got it better than most stray cats,” she has argued. “They’ve got a warm and dry barn to sleep in.” But I am still not convinced.

“We can’t afford to feed a dozen cats,” she has continued, but I am still not convinced.

It always ends in partial concession. “If they start to look like they’re starving you can feed them cat food. Otherwise, let them fend for themselves. Ok?”

“Ok,” but we both know well enough that I am going to keep bootlegging out tin pans of bread and milk and occasional cat food.

“You have always had a soft spot for strays,” her familiar voice, her hand brushing the bangs out of my eyes. Many years later, when I have taken in a stray of an entirely different nature and I am beginning to wonder why I ever made that choice, she will remind me of this. When I have all but forgotten about tin pans and milk and torn pieces of bread, she will remind me that I went to great lengths to give a dozen mangy cats a warm meal. And I will remember myself.

I am ten-years-old, and I hear again a noise that sounds like a cat crying, or maybe a cow braying in pain or maybe something else. If it’s a hurting cat, I want to find it. Maybe it is hungry. Maybe it needs a tin pan of milk and bread.

Dusk is settling heavy over the farm, the sky dark purple with just a tiny band of orange light at the edge of the clouds as the sun sinks further down and out of view. Like stadium lights, bright and white, the safety bulbs on the tin-sided chicken houses crackle to life. My flip-flopped feet trek to-and-fro across the course grey gravel and the hard packed earth, searching out the wailing animal, sending wolf spiders scurrying off into the shadows with their offspring huddled on their backs.

No luck around the chicken houses. Maybe the hay barn?

The sky is almost black now, and this does not excite me in the least. I will have to walk back to the house alone. The woods on the peripheral have lost all light, opaque in their darkness, perfectly masking whatever hides there. Coyotes. Mountain Lions. My dad even tells a story of a green-eyed panther that once stalked him near a creek while he was horseback riding. The horse spooked and fled the forest, with him still sitting on her back. And here I am without a horse and only my flip-flops. If I must flee, I won’t get far.

In the near darkness I approach the hay barn, a half-open building two stories tall with round bushels of hay stacked to the roofline. A scattering of stray cats recline in the crevices of the bales, stretching their legs, swishing their tales, dispassionately watching me as I intrude into and investigate their castle.

The noise has stopped now, but still I search. Nothing in the North corner of the barn near the tractor. Nothing in the South corner near the hay-baler attachment. Nothing in the West corner. But then I round into the East corner and there hidden among the bales, bowed with his face in the dirt, hands pressed flat on the ground is my father. His back is to me. He is motionless, except for the rise and fall of his back as he deeply breathes.

Is he ok?

“Dad?” I say tentatively, but he does not hear me.

“Dad?” I whisper again, but it gets no response.

Perhaps I am somewhere that I should not be. Am I going to be in trouble for this? Carefully I tiptoe out of the barn, cringing as the metal door whines on its hinges behind me. Should I run back to the house, quickly, before anyone discovers me? Maybe I will, but it is dark and I am scared. But I have no other choice.

“Heather?” And just as swiftly as I meant to flee, I am found out. I startle, stop in my tracks, turn to see him. The skin on his face is streaked with dirt and the clean negative left by tears. The tracks run up his forehead, like he has been crying upside down.

“Dad?” I say uncertainly. “Are you ok?”

His response is, “Were you just in the barn?”

I nod guiltily. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry,” he says.

But I say it again. “I’m sorry.”

He sighs heavily, his back slumping further towards the ground. Crossing to me, his arm drapes across my shoulders, his free hand pats the crown of my head.

“Dad, are you ok?”

Another heavy sigh.

“No sweetheart. I am not.”

“Is that why you were crying?” I ask.

He is silent for a moment, staring at the blank space in front of him as if it looks unpleasant.

“I am very sad,” he says lowly, “and I was crying out to God.”

“You were praying?”

“I was praying.”

What about? He doesn’t tell me, but it could be any painful or terrifying thing. When I am grown and walking through the darkest moments in my life, I will look in the mirror and on my own face identify the same hollow eyes, the same creased forehead, the same pained expression of my father’s in 1993. And I will remember where I found him. On his knees.

“I’m scared to walk back to the house in the dark,” I say to him. “Will you walk with me?”

He glances at his watch.

“I have to check the chickens first,” he says. “Do you mind waiting outside? You can’t go in there with your flip-flops on.”

“I know,” I say. “I’ll wait.”

So I stand alone in the white glow of the safety lights, watching moths and gnats beat their wings against the bulbs and die. I am ten. I do not yet know the pain that my life will hold. Or the joy. When I am twenty-two, I will feel a vague numbness in my feet, the first effects of nerve damage from thirteen years worth of chronic disease. In horror, I will have my first adult realization that this illness is going to kill me. Give it forty years, and it will wear my liver down to nothing. I will die before my peers.

Falling to my knees, I will wail like a cat before God. And I will be comforted.

My father exits the last chicken house and finds me underneath the light. He smells of ammonia and corn feed.

“You ready to go?” he asks.

“Yep,” I say, reaching for his hand.

And we walk the gravel road back home in the dark.

My father taught me to say my prayers.

This particular crowd of gals can get a bit gossipy. I am fourteen sitting in a living room with at least ten other females, including my mother. We are probably all related, since everybody in this town is somebody’s cousin.

So far the discussion has included the skimpyness of Julie Jones’ skirt at church last Sunday (Did you see how short it was?) and the fact that Joe Jackman is now working two jobs (two!) to support his family because his wife is pregnant with their sixth child. (Six children! In that tiny little house. You’d think he’d have the sense to get snip-snipped or she’d have had her tubes tied by now.) The discussion has also included other things, less gossipy.

My fourteen-year-old self is sitting on the sofa between two grown women. My mother is across the room in an armchair. Most everyone seems old to me. I do not realize that my mother in her mid-thirties is young. I do not realize that the two old women on either side of me are young as well.

The conversation moves around us. My mother’s face opens up excitedly when she talks about sewing new curtains for her living room. It closes like a door when the discussion turns to whether Joe Jackman can afford to send six children to college.

“Irresponsible!” says someone.

“It’s called family planning,” says another.

But my mother says nothing, and in her silence and lack of expression I learn that the size of Joe Jackman’s family is the business of Joe Jackman and his wife and no one else.

Conversational topics of women are like tangled balls of colored yarn. Start pulling on a blue string and it draws out a red one. Start pulling on the red one and a yellow one comes out behind it. One woman pulls the yellow string until it snags out a green one. In that way, the discussion moves to how much time it takes us all to get ready in the morning. The general consensus is that more than fifteen minutes is unacceptable.

“A little mascara and lipstick and I’m out the door. I don’t have time to stand in front of the mirror.”

“Mary Moesby takes an hour to curl her hair! I would never take an hour to curl my hair!”

My mother is silent again, but I surprise myself and decide to speak. I tentatively take the ball of yarn and pull the string.

“It takes me forever to get ready,” I submit, the words floating from my mouth to the center of the room where they hang over the coffee table like an offering to the god of dialogue. “My hair is so thick it takes half-an-hour to blow it dry. And then I have to straighten it. And I can’t ever decide what I want to wear.”

Silence fills the room. My offering hangs in the air, as of yet unaccepted. Did I say something wrong? I was only being honest.

My mother’s face is a window to her soul. It is open and looking directly at me and I think that maybe she is proud of me, although I do not know why.

“So how long does it take you to get ready?” asks a girl with long black hair. She is someone’s daughter and around my age.

“Oh, I don’t know. An hour? Maybe two?”

I can hear the low rush of the air conditioning blowing through a vent in the floor. The young girl with long black hair says nothing. Everyone says nothing. But my mother’s face is a window to her soul and it is looking at me. She breaks the silence.

“Heather likes to take her time in the morning,” she says. “She likes to sit in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and read. She likes to gather her thoughts while it is still quiet. It really is a wonderful way to start the day.” With the way she says the word wonderful, no one in here will dare have the confidence to question it. Yes. It is a wonderful way to start the day.

I have been rescued.

What she just said is not entirely the truth. Most mornings before school I agonize over my outfit, I redo my lipstick four times, I fret over needless things. But once, just once, I have made a pot of coffee and sat at the breakfast table and been the young woman that she just described. My mother has seen past the self-conscious teenager to what I really want to be, and she has rescued me from a room of catty women. She rescues me.

The conversation moves back to the length of Julie Jones’ skirt, and I and my mother close the doors of our faces and we stay silent.

My mother taught me to be kind to others.

Angry. I am so angry. I am sixteen and I am pinned to the dining room floor, struggling violently with my father. He is on top of me, literally, in attempt to control me. I have kicked him thrice in the shins. If I could get my hands out of his grip, I would punch him.

“I am going to the party!” I shriek for the zillionth time. The words are a bit garbled since my mouth is half squished into the floor. I can taste the Pledge hardwood cleaner.

Dad doesn’t even say no. He has already said it more times than either of us can count. Instead, he keeps me in his grip. I flail, I kick a few more times and finally I grow still underneath him. The dining room falls silent.

“You remind me of a horse I once had,” he says, his speech part muffled into the back of my head. “Every time I tried to put a saddle on her, she would kick me.”

“I don’t want to wear a saddle,” I angrily say.

“I know you don’t,” he says.

“Let go of me,” I demand.

“Honey, you are sixteen. There is no way I can let go of you right now. You aren’t ready yet.”

I roll my eyes. “I wasn’t being metaphorical. Let me up off the floor.”

“If I do, will you promise not to run out the front door?”

I sigh. “Ok.”

“You promise?”

“I said ok!”

We both clamber up from the hardwoods, and my father takes his stance between the front door and me. It is dark outside and I watch a streetlamp click on out the window.

“I’m not going to run,” I defend, but in truth I might if given the chance.

My father rubs his reddened shins. “You got me good,” he says.

“I hate you,” I spit.

“I know you do, but I need you to listen to me right now.”

Rolling my eyes, I prepare to not listen, but he launches into the following monologue anyway. As it turns out, it is brilliant and will stay with me forever.

“I need you to know how much I love you,” he says. “You can kick me, you can scream at me, you can say you hate me but I still love you. You’re my daughter. You are my firstborn. I can’t ever stop.”

I stare intently at a knot in the hardwood floors, and he continues.

“You are also the most stubborn and independent woman that I have ever met in my life,” he shakes his head like this baffles him. “I suppose you take after your father. You remind me of myself.”

I am still fixated on that knot in the floor. If you stare at it long enough, it kind of looks like George Washington in profile.

“This is important,” he says, but I am sixteen and barely listening. “I need you to know there is nothing wrong with that stubborn streak. There is nothing wrong with that independence. God gave you your personality for a reason. I don’t want you to ever be ashamed of it.”

My eyes jerk up to meet his. This is new.

“You’ve just got to learn how to be stubborn about the right things. You have got to learn how to take all that passion and turn it towards things that really matter. You have to submit it to God. You are so strong that if you spend your energy on worthless pursuits, you will dig a hole in the ground that you will never be able to get out of. Do you understand what I am saying?”

I nod. I understand perfectly. In fact, I am already digging a few holes with my life, but I have been too prideful to admit it.

“Please,” he says in earnest, “let me raise you. Let me put a saddle on you for the next few years until you are old enough to be on your own.”

“I don’t want to wear a saddle,” I say, less angry now. “I want to be free.”

“I understand,” he says. “But wild horses that run alone starve in the wilderness. You need discipline and you need passionate purpose in your life. Trust me. Those friends of your’s that are running wild will self-destruct eventually. Just wait and see.”

I stare at the floor again. I can’t decide whether or not I believe him.

“You are better than that,” he says in the softest tone of the night. “You are meant for more.” Suddenly he is hugging me and I am letting him hug me. I am burying my face in his shirt and thinking how much I love him. But since I just told him that I hate him, I don’t reckon I can flip-flop and tell him that I love him just yet, so I keep silent.

“I am going to lock this front door,” says my father. “Please, don’t walk out of it tonight.”

“Ok,” I sigh.

“And don’t ever kick me again.”

Slowly I walk up to my room where I lock my own door and listen to angsty music on the radio for three hours until the house falls silent and everyone is asleep. At some point while the DJ is jabbering, I realize that I am sorry for kicking my dad in the shins. Probably, I should go let him know.

Through the still moonlight, I tiptoe down the stairs and across the house to my parents’ doorway, trying to not creak the floorboards as I go. The door to their bedroom is cracked open two inches and I sheepishly place my mouth near the opening.

“Dad?” I whisper, but get no response. As I push the door open, I inwardly wish it would whine on its hinges to announce my arrival, but it stays silent so I clear my throat instead.

“Dad?” I say as I step towards the bed, but the quiescence is not broken so I lean my head near his face and try a little louder.

“DAD.” But still nothing. He is out cold.

Oh. He is out cold. He cannot hear me right in front of his face, so if I were to walk out the front door, crank my car and go to the party…

It is midnight now. The party will be in full swing. The music will be loud. Everyone will be drunk. In about an hour, my best friend will need me to hold her hair while she pukes.

I could go if I wanted to.

But do I want to? Have I ever really wanted to?

I lean down and kiss my father on the forehead, catching a whiff of his familiar smell, gasoline and fresh earth.

“I love you,” I whisper. “And I’m sorry.”

Then I tiptoe back to my room where I sleep until the morning.

My father taught me to respect authority.

What else was taught? A million other things in between.

That sometimes people smile when they are sad, and cry when they are happy.

That we are all fallen humans, so forgiveness is mandatory. Second chances, however, are not necessarily.

That I must think before I speak, but by all means, I must speak.

That where no oxen are, the stall is clean. But there is much value in the strength of an ox.

And more more much more in between.

Is this terrifying? I had never expected it to be. I am nineteen-almost-twenty and I am struggling to get one last shoe into the trunk of my car. The little Toyota is packed to its roof with all my clothes, all my makeup, all my posters, all my books. The only empty space is in the driver’s seat. Even if I wanted to, I could not take anything else with me. There is room left for me and me alone.

Finally, I wedge in the shoe at a forty-five degree angle and, with effort, force the trunk closed. The car will not give to hold more, so I slump back towards the house feeling heavier than I meant to feel. Shouldn’t I be light? Finally, after years of striving for my independence, I am an adult. Shouldn’t I feel free?

Walking into the house, I look intently up the stairs towards my childhood bedroom. Through its open door, I see dust motes floating in a sunbeam that streaks through the dormer window. Should I make one last walk through? But I can’t. It is empty, the closet bare, the space under the bathroom sink vacant. I do not live here anymore, so instead I sink down on the bottom stair and hide my face in my palms.

Here come the tears.

With a basket of laundry in her arms, my mother wanders past and stops dead in her tracks, assuming an expression of utter bafflement.

“What is happening right now?” she asks cautiously, comically, like she does not trust herself to understand.

“I don’t even know,” I sob. I want her to sink down next to me and let me bury my face into the crook of her neck, but instead she remains standing with the laundry basket on one hip and her head cocked to the right side in wonder.

Levelly she says, “The only alternative is living at home forever. Do you want to live at home forever?”

Through my tears, I laugh. We both already know the answer.

“Then you have to go,” she says. “This is how growing-up works.”

Not quite the comfort I expected, but still I nod through my tears. I understand.

“Do you remember when you were six years old,” she asks, adjusting a sock that is about to fall over the plastic lip of the basket, “and you packed that little book bag with a pillow and Kraft sliced cheese and tried to run away from home?”

I look at her and nod again. Of course I remember.

“Well, you weren’t ready then,” she says, “but you are ready now. You are a fine young woman and you are going to do well in the world.”

My father wanders in then, still holding a greasy rag from where he just checked the oil level in my car. He too stops in his tracks and looks confused.

“What is happening right now?” he asks, to which mom smiles wryly and I shrug.

“I’m scared to leave,” I say.

It starts as a small chuckle, and then Dad is laughing so deep that you cannot even hear it.

“Baby girl,” he says eventually, still in baffled amusement, “you have been trying to move out since you were six years old.”

“I know,” I sob. “I don’t understand it either.”

Then he sinks down on the landing and wraps me in his arms. Mom follows on my other side, and the three of us embrace and I cry and I laugh at the same time. Acutely, I am aware that something is changing in this moment. We have begun the move away from the child and her authority figures. Now we edge towards the friendship that only an adult daughter and her mother and her father can have. More suddenly than expected, I am grown.

We hug on the stair landing until I am done crying and we are all done laughing.

My father asks, “Are you ready?”

And I say, “I’m ready.”

Together, the three of us walk out to my car where I climb in and turn the key and the engine rumbles to life. I am told to stop at the gas station on the corner to fuel up, and will I give them a call when I get there?

“I’ll call you,” I say, and I turn out of the driveway with the rearview image of almost twenty years and my father’s arm around my mother’s shoulders, the two of them growing smaller and smaller in the mirror until I breach the rise of a hill and they are gone from sight. Then it is just me and the packed car and the radio and what lies ahead.

My parents taught me how to grow up.

They taught me more than I could ever write with pen and paper

but give me children of my own one day, and in much the same way

I will write it in their lives. That’s my plan.

I don’t know what your parents taught you.

But this is what my parents taught me.

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Leaving Georgia

Husband and I drove out of town in our SUV packed floor to ceiling with all the miscellany we couldn’t fit on the moving truck plus our two big mutts of dogs panting furiously in the summer heat. A few hours ago, I drank my last morning cup of coffee outside on the tiny deck of the miniscule and over-priced apartment that housed me during my first few years of full-time adulthood. The deck furniture had already been bubble wrapped, banged down three flights of stairs and hoisted onto the Enterprise Rent-a-truck, so I sat on the floor sipping my Starbucks and picking at the splintering wood under my legs, attempting unsuccessfully to stop a mental recitation of the lines that ended Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty; I’m free at last.

Now we drove away, the setting of my youth waning in the rearview mirror.

Somewhere back in the distance was a rusty fence gate separating a dirt road from thirty acres of green grass pasture hedged in by an impossible number of pine trees, the terrain rolling and dipping to shallow creeks, a few hundred cows chewing their cud—my childhood. Somewhere north of that was a brown brick building on a hill with an adjacent lacquered basketball gym and a green-lawned football field sunk deep into a gulf of bleachers—my high school.

High school. On the first day, mom had put a sack lunch in my backpack and told me how beautiful I looked (just absolutely beautiful and I am so so proud of you) and after one last fidget with the straps on my book bag and the fifth engulfing hug of the morning she’d sent me forth with the firm instructions, “Just be yourself.”

Just be yourself.

But who in the world was I?

I wasn’t a cheerleader. I wasn’t an athlete. I wasn’t a true academic, always excelling in English but falling over math. I wasn’t a slut. I wasn’t a druggie. I wasn’t a mean girl. I wasn’t a holier-than-thou good girl.

Perhaps it was grander than I realized, the fact that I didn’t fit neatly into any of those categories. But the problem with not fitting neatly into a category when you are in high school is that you have no one to eat lunch with.

School lunch: grab a tray. Walk down the linoleumed aisle lined with glass fronted cases and heat lamps. Survey the wares on display and pick the least disgusting thing (usually pizza.) Pay. Good. You’re doing fine. Now for the tricky part. Do not panic. Do NOT panic. Keep your head up. Keep your shoulders square. Keep your breathing even. Do not trip. Do not drop your tray.

Be cool. Survey the lunchroom. Find your landing spot.

In the right corner is a crowded little table of six with their heads tucked down staring intently at something. They are each either overly large or overly small for their ages, with no size in between. You know they are playing with their Pokémon cards.

The thing is, you’re ok with Pokémon cards. Your younger brother (who falls into the overly-small-for-his-age category) plays Pokémon cards and you’ve tried your hand at it a time or two. You kind of enjoy Pokémon, or if not enjoy, then you at least respect it as a form of entertainment. The smallest of the table’s occupants, a waif of a boy wearing unbecoming glasses and an unfortunate smattering of acne, gives you a sheepish smile and you realize, that’s Danny. Danny asked you to slow dance at the 8th grade Rec Department sock hop and you said yes, not because you liked him, but because his hands were shaking and you thought, “If I say no, it will crush him.” And you’re not the kind of girl who crushes guys like Danny, even though you could.

You smile back at Danny but you don’t cross the room to him because, even though you don’t want to hurt him, you don’t want to encourage him either. You notice that sitting protectively and perhaps a bit too close to Danny is an overly-large-for-her-age girl. She scowls at you, showing the neon green bands of her braces and you silently wish her well on requiting her love, and then you turn away. You can’t land at that table.

There by the exit is a group of seven, all clad in Marilyn Manson t-shirts, baggy black jeans with swagged silver chains and greasy heads of hair. There are skateboards strewn about their feet. At first you think they’re making eye contact with you, but then you realize that no, they’re just staring into the fluorescent lit space over your head and underneath the ceiling. Occasionally one of them will say something and a round of subdued laughter will rise up like a gentle wave from the table before it falls back into silence. You reckon you’re too sober to sit there.

Your eyes pass table after table, each of them clustered with their own kind like orbiting planets with their own distinct civilizations in miniature. On this planet live the scholarly intellectuals. Can you sit with them? No. On that planet live the athletes. Can you sit with them? You actually hate sports, so no. On this planet live the computer geniuses. Can you sit with them? You know a little html but not enough to carry on a conversation, so no. And on that planet live…oh dear…now you’ve come to that planet. The worst planet. And it is the worst because it is the best.

They all have nice hair, healthy skin, straight teeth, expensive jeans and even more expensive shoes. There is nothing wrong with having all of those things. Of course not. You desire to have those things yourself, and come to think of it, you already do. Or at least, you’ve got three of the five. You’re sixty percent of the way to being one of them. Sixty percent!

But then you have to shake your head to clear it, because you know that isn’t true. It takes more than nice hair, healthy skin, straight teeth, expensive jeans and even more expensive shoes to be a part of this group. It takes some other intangible thing.

Others have surmised that the secret ingredient is confidence, but you don’t agree with people who hold that opinion. It is something less admirable. You’ve sat at that table before. You’re wise to the way this works.

You’ve eaten your lunch right beside the girl who wears the most expensive shoes of them all. You’ve watched her scanning the peripheral of the lunchroom like a hawk, looking for prey. You’ve felt a pang in your heart as she’s swooped in for the kill.

“Oh my god oh my god oh my god,” she’s squawked as she punches your arm and everyone else’s arms around her, “look at that.”

And you and everyone else at the table have turned to look at what she’s gawking at and your eyes have landed on that overly-large-for-her-age girl that was sitting at the Pokémon table next to Danny.

“Look at her plate. Look at her plate!” and you’ve looked and you’ve seen that the specified girl has purchased five slices of pepperoni pizza and they are stacked and teetering like a greasy cheesy tower on her tray as she precariously makes her way across the lunchroom to her friends and their game of cards.

You hear a murmur of words at your lunch table. “Gross.” “Slob.” “Dork.” “Gay.” “Fat.” “Cow.” “Fat.” They cackle. They hoot. They all double over in forced hysterics and you can hear something abnormal in the way they laugh. It sounds like, “Ha ha ha ha. I’m so glad, ha ha, so glad we’re not, ha ha laughing at me right now.”

You don’t join in. You can’t join in. And yet you don’t know how to stop this. There is a pained expression plastered on your face that is half disbelief and half forgiveness toward your so-called friends. You know you should not be forgiving them so easily and you hate yourself for it. You are letting them get away with it. Everyone always lets them get away with it.

You steal a glance at the mean girl with the expensive shoes and you notice that you are thinner than she is. In fact, everyone at this table is thinner than she is. If someone at this table is fat, it’s the girl with the expensive shoes. But there is no denying it, the girl with the tray full of pizza is fatter. And so the girl with the expensive shoes points and cackles and all but screams, “Don’t look at me. Don’t judge me. Look at her! Judge her!” and people do.

So the question is, what do you do? Do you eat lunch there, and if not there, where? Because the table you pick is going to define you. It’s going to pull you into its orbit and you’re going to circle around in that orbit until you’re done with high school. So what do you do?

Here’s what I did.

One day at that lunch table (ugh I HATED that table and I think that table hated me, but still I didn’t know where else to sit) the girl with the most expensive shoes had taken advantage of an opportunity. A fellow orbiter in our strange universe, a beautiful girl with pale blue eyes and an abusive alcoholic father whom she loved and defended with a truculent passion, was out sick. Or else, was out with a black eye. Either way it was all the same, the girl with the most expensive shoes saw this as the perfect opportunity for defamation. She zeroed in on the absentee friend’s most obvious flaw (other than the abusive father which was an off limits subject, or else, maybe the girl with the expensive shoes didn’t know or care to know): her undeveloped chest.

“She’s so flat!” “Flat!” “No boobs!” “Flat!”

And perhaps I was finally becoming an adult, as my mother had assured me would happen eventually, because for some reason I knew exactly what I wanted to say and I actually said it.

“Stop,” I said emphatically, and a dozen faces turned my way with wide eye-shadowed eyes and slightly agape lip glossed mouths. The girl with the expensive shoes was momentarily silent, and her off-balance gave me a shot of confidence. So I plowed on.

“How can you judge her boobs? She isn’t even done growing them yet. None of us are done growing anything yet. We’re still children. We are still developing. We don’t know who we are or what we’re going to be and that IS THE WHOLE POINT OF A CHILDHOOD. Growing. Developing. Figuring out who we are.”

After a beat or two of loaded silence the girl with the expensive shoes said nonchalantly, “Who pissed in your cornflakes?”

“No one pissed in my cornflakes,” I shook my head. “I should be asking who pissed in your cornflakes because you are the one who is constantly being mean and degrading everyone.”

She flipped her hair. “You always use such big words.”

“What was a big word? Degrading? Degrading is not a big word. Degrading is a little word. Or maybe it’s a medium sized word.”

As I paused to consider this, a faint chuckle of relief rippled around the table in hopes of defusing the situation and moving on to a different topic. The girl with the most expensive shoes said something about how I was such a nerd and the subject was changed and the cruel orbit of insecurity continued to spin.

But I didn’t. The next day, I ate my lunch in the yearbook room, and also the day after that and every other day for the rest of my junior year. I ate and I surfed the Internet and I wrote dreadful teenage poetry in my blog—alone. I scored well on my SAT’s and I signed myself up for college and, with a few pulled strings, I got accepted to a university a year early and didn’t have to spend my senior year in high school. I didn’t have to go back there. I didn’t have to eat lunch in that strange galaxy of a lunchroom ever again. Not ever ever again. And I never did.

Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty I’m free at last.

Things were very good for a minute and then things were very bad again: College was a kind of sanctuary. It had its own cruel orbits of insecurity, but I stayed far away from them. Far far away. I made my own orbits of real genuine friends who never pointed at people and said cruel things. If you were the kind of person who pointed and laughed at people, I promptly told you to GET OUT OF MY UNIVERSE. Get out right now.

And then I graduated.

And I went back home because I didn’t know where else to go.

Mistake. Stupid mistake.

“Just be yourself,” I had advised myself on the first day of my first job after college, feeling like I had finally mastered that elusive concept of ‘myself’. Oddly enough, this first real job was in a tall building, also brick, also brown, just like high school and not too far down the road from high school.

And I was myself. And I liked myself. But still there’d been no one to eat lunch with. I had to do a double take on most everyone I met because it seemed, if I was not mistaken, that they looked just like the insecure and cruel people from my youth. The girl with the most expensive shoes was everywhere. In fifty year old businessmen. In thirty year old secretaries. Then of course there was the actual girl with the most expensive shoes. She still lived in town. I saw her occasionally at the mall or at Ruby Tuesday’s, but she only glared and we never spoke.

How disappointing. The mean people had just graduated on up to adulthood. Never growing kinder. Never being tempered by much maturity. They still pointed and they still laughed and they still belittled others in a desperate attempt to boost their anemic egos. And now as a career woman, I was working with them. Lots of them. And just like high school, I had to eat lunch with them or else eat lunch alone.

No. no. no.

On the Friday after my first week at my first job, I came home and hung my head over the toilet and I vomited. I think my body wanted to do what my life couldn’t at that point: purge.

To make a long sad boring story very short: I persevered and I found the good in the situation and I also slowly died inside and I plotted and I prayed and one fine day years later—I escaped.

And now it was behind me.

As we (the twenty-four year old version of myself and the twenty-five year old version of my husband) passed the county line of my known life, I requested that we pull the car over. Our SUV bumped and jostled our dogs and belongings as we veered off the pavement and rumbled along the shoulder of the road.

“Do you need a moment to say goodbye?” husband asked as we rolled to a stop and I slid out of the passenger seat.

“Nuh uh,” I yelled back over my shoulder as I walked toward a tall and weathered metal sign that demarcated the bounds of the town I’d grown up in. “I said goodbye to this place a long time ago.”

A humid wind blew thick and hot against my skin as I took my moment with the county line. (Think John Wayne staring down the bad guy in an old Western. ‘Go ahead county line, make my day’.) I considered either (or perhaps simultaneously) throwing a rock at it, kicking it and/or spitting on it, but in the end I did none of those things. Instead, I gave it one long hard look and then climbed back in the SUV. Once there, I took my shoes off and hung them out the window where I gave them a violent shaking.

“What are you doing?” husband asked.

“I’m shaking the dust of this town off my feet,” I said. “Literally.”

The leather on the shoes squeaked as I flailed them.

Maybe the rest of the world contained people who were just as cruel and just as petty. It probably did, but how would I ever know if I didn’t go see it? More importantly, how could I ever put all of the disappointment I’d found in this town behind me and into the past if I was still living inside of it in the present. That was the dichotomy of my world. But no longer.

I beat my shoes and when I was finished, I slipped them one by one back on my feet and rolled the window up. Then I looked ahead.

The farm where I’d spent my childhood—with its endless cycle of life and death, crops growing up and crops withering, animals born and animals dead and decaying—was behind me. That little town—with its little school and its little people and the little boxes they’d demanded each and every person fit their self inside—was behind me. That awful brick building that housed that awful job—was behind me. All of it, good and bad, was behind me.

A few jewels were left in the wasteland. A half-dozen true friends. A half-dozen good memories. But in the end, that expanse of dirt was my Sodom and my Gomorrah. There weren’t enough righteous left in it. If I didn’t leave I was going to be consumed with it. Every day I was burning it to the ground in my heart and so I just had to go, before I became a pillar of salt.

“Are you ready?” asked husband.

Deadpanning, I said nothing because “yes” wasn’t enough. Ahead down the road, I looked to towns where ‘vegetarian’ wasn’t a strange concept. Towns where I could use words like ‘superfluous’ and ‘ostentatious’ and not have people look at me like I was superfluous and ostentatious. Towns where I could pick the people who knew my name and withhold myself from those not worth knowing. Towns that were my own, not because I grew up in them, but because I chose them.

“You’re right,” husband said to my silence. “Let’s get you out of here.”

And so we drove up interstate 85, across Lake Hartwell out of Georgia and into South Carolina and we just kept going. When the peach-emblemed Welcome to Georgia sign faded in the rearview, I stuck my head out the window and I didn’t just cheer, I screamed until my voice cracked and died and I felt something tight in my chest finally unknot itself and fall away like so many insignificant pieces of string, out the window, propelled away in the wind of our car. Gone.

Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty; I’m free at last.

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