Written in February, 2007…
Edited in June, 2011, for confidentiality…
As I step into the small room I am greeted with the smell of boy. It’s a common smell to mothers. Dirt and candy. The boy’s room is like other eleven year olds; even if he’s not. I plop his clean clothes down on his dresser top amidst the Hot Wheels and a radio controlled truck, and sit on the edge of his bed to say goodnight. I bounce slightly on the soft mattress. He’s curled in the covers, legs tucked up to his chest, face to the wall.
I see then that he is crying. In his hand is a photo, curled and folded along the corners. I know what it is. We’ve been down this road before.
“What’s up?” I ask, though I know.
“Will I ever see my dad again?” he asks.
The boy came to me in the back seat of a police car three years before. His foster father had been arrested, as well as the one before that, and he needed a place to stay the night. I’ll take him, I told the tired officer as I guided the scraggly boy with too long hair into my full house. We had six kids inside already. What was one more? But only for the night, I said in vain, a few days at most. The police officer made a call and assured me they would come for him within a week. “Sure,” I said. “I’ve heard that before.”
He came to us with a few clothes, all too small and nothing else. We were his tenth family and everything he owned could be scrunched inside a paper sack. I look around the room now, piled high with toys, clothes, books he could barely read. I was searching for a clue as to the right words. This boy sought answers. I had none.
“You know why you can’t see him, right?”
“Kind of. I know he was bad. His friends were bad.”
“Do you remember?”
“Tell me?” I said. I knew I was pushing it. He’d never really disclosed to me. We’d talked before, nothing concrete ever coming of it. He’d been to councilors, therapists, for years, to no avail. He wasn’t talking.
“It’s like there’s a wall inside my brain,” he says, still staring at the picture. “And sometimes the wall gets little holes in it and I can see through. There are words on the other side that tell it all, but they’re all scrambled up and I can’t read them. Sometimes the letters change around and I see things. I see the divorce fight. I see those people that did the bad stuff. And then the holes close.”
I cannot speak for a moment. I’ve heard such adult insight from children like him before. These kids who’ve seen too much, they know things, express things the rest of us cannot understand. This boy is like that. He’s a thinker.
So much forgotten. Too much remembered.
I’ve been told about the ‘divorce fight’ before. It’s what he uses to refer to an incident where he watched his father put his mother’s head through a glass coffee table. And the people who did the ‘bad stuff’, well, he’s not there yet. Maybe in time. Maybe its best he doesn’t remember.
“Maybe you’re not supposed to see yet. Maybe you’re not ready,” I reply to the back of his head. I lay my hand against his shoulder and he doesn’t flinch like he used to. There was a time when…well, there was a time.
That first day in my home the boy was eight years old. Clear blue eyes and sandy hair. Small for his age, a bit too skinny. At bedtime he came to me, looking up for a moment as if he had something to say, but wasn’t quite sure I was okay to say it to.
“I don’t like beds.”
And so he slept in a chair. A big, round, easy chair with soft cushions and a back that reclined. He slept there for three weeks. In his clothes. He wouldn’t change, wouldn’t undress, wouldn’t do anything involving bedtime.
When we finally moved him into a bedroom we found out about the windows. No windows, not without curtains; no way. That was the rule. He said there were things looking in. I assured him nobody could get up that high on the second floor, but reason is not a part of fear. And it was a fear. I could see in his eyes there was no bargaining with treats as we had to get him into the bed. And so I put a curtain over the glass. Not good enough. The edges moved in the air current and that would never do. Somebody could peak in through the gaps, he told me. So I pressed the edges of the cloth against the wall and duct taped it closed. No more window.
Problem not solved, only the symptom.
“Do you think maybe when I’m eighteen I could see him?” He brought me back to the present.
“I don’t know. It’s not about age,” I tried to explain. “It’s about being ready. Both of you. He’s not ready for that conversation either. I’m sure of it.”
It’s always about the father. A boy needs his father and though my husband is his new ‘daddy’, nothing will ever replace the rejection of that man who claimed to love him a long time ago.
He doesn’t ask for his mother. Maybe out of loyalty to me, I’m not sure. But he didn’t really know her. Never lived with her much. He used to visit her when she showed up for the meetings the caseworker arranged every week. She sometimes didn’t come. That’s often the way of it with these parents.
The boy was nervous at first, to see a mother he didn’t know. He hadn’t seen her in more than a year. But she popped back into his life at will and for reasons I’ll never understand, it was allowed. She stuck around for a couple of months, enough visits to get his hopes up. Then one day at the end of the hour she told him she was moving away, to Kansas, and would never see him again. No hugs, no tears, just simple fact. He didn’t cry that night. He just stuck a little closer by my side until bed. Then he slept in the chair again for a while. I heard him tell his little sister their mother had flown far, far away in a tornado, like Dorothy, and was never coming back. It was a better truth than the reality.
I could hear the boy breathe now as he tried to control himself, but I knew he couldn’t. It was one of the side effects to being born addicted to drugs. From birth he was limited, and from then on society continued to batter him with more challenges as if someone were saying, ‘how much can this kid take before he breaks.’
He’s not broken yet. Only wounded. But he is a survivor. He’ll overcome.
I know he needs space, but not too much. He wants me there. He battles his demons and I wait. I look around the little room and I see remnants of that child who slept in the chair. A bookshelf leans against one wall, not stuffed and scattered but organized and categorized by height, color and meaning. His closet nearby holds neatly hung shirts, spaced just so, and shoes lined along the wall. The carpet is clean, his desk top symmetrical. The only pile is the heap of dirty clothes from when he plays outside. They say he’s making order of an otherwise chaotic life when he organizes his things with such vigor.
I believe it. I’ve seen his file.
We were his tenth home. He’d started his tour of the foster system at the age of two. His baby sister was twenty-one days old when they were taken the first time. Welcome to the world. From there they were bounced around from place to place. Two weeks here, two months there. Then finally separated.
On his third day in my home the boy said to me, “Can I live here a long time? Like three months?”
“Well three months isn’t very long,” I said, not realizing his history.
He narrowed his brows in thought.
“How bout till I’m thirteen,” he said, thinking he’d come up with a bargain, something we could both live with.
No concept of family, I realized. The term forever had no meaning to this boy. I made a phone call to see about his plan for permanency. There wasn’t one. I’ll keep him, I said, and his little sister too, with the same knowing blue eyes.
And they didn’t argue because nobody else wanted them.
A cat leaps onto the bed, fat and shiny black. He’s called Fraidy. The boy named him. They came within weeks of each other, the cat and boy. The boy arrived on the porch, the cat underneath, both abandoned, wild and afraid. The cat, frail from neglect and too young to be away from his mother, hissed and roared at us. Much like the boy. Fraidy would come to nobody. But he came to the boy. Walked right up to him and rubbed his leg. He must have seen himself, his history, his pain. Each night at bedtime the boy wanders the house. Come here Fraidy, he says, as he searches until he finds the fat black cat. The cat comes to him, like a dog does. The boy doesn’t pick him up, he doesn’t have to. Just turns and walks to his room. Fraidy follows and together they sleep, cuddled and warm.
“Why didn’t they just do it?” He asks now, turning from the wall to cuddle the cat. I wait, unsure of the question.
“If I ever had kids and they said stop doing drugs and I can have them back, I’d just do it.”
“You’re a stronger person,” I say, and know it’s true. “Some people weren’t made to be parents. Some were. You’ll be an amazing father someday ‘cause you know what it’s like to be you.”
“But they just didn’t care what I was doing. They didn’t be parents.”
“Your mom and dad aren’t bad people, just weak people.” I cross my fingers behind my back. “The drugs got hold of them and wouldn’t let go.”
“I’m never going to do a drug,” he says.
“No,” I tell him. “You’ll never do drugs. You know what it can do.” And I pray I’m not lying. Statistically, he will. Some day he’ll forget how he feels now. He’ll wash it all away with whatever he can get his hands on. I hope I’m wrong.
“Did you do your reading tonight?” I ask, thinking it’s time to change the subject. To calm him down so he can sleep. There’s school in the morning and I know how much he needs sleep to function. It’s another one of his ‘issues’.
“What did you read? Something new?”
“Fudgemania.” He loves that book. It’s far below his sixth grade level, but then, so are his abilities. At the last conference his teacher tells me he’s still pretty far behind.
Three years ago he couldn’t read at all, I remind her, let’s keep it in perspective.
I took the boy to see a specialist a while back, to assess his future. It’s bleak, I was told. Drugs and alcohol affect his ability to learn, to reason, to make good decisions. There’s too much damage. He’ll never go to college, says the man. He’ll likely not make it through high school.
Just wait, I tell the well-meaning doctor, you’ll see. The boy couldn’t read, so I taught him. He’s impulsive, so I guide him. He gets scared, so I hold him.
He is not a lost cause. He is my cause.
I start to leave and hope he falls asleep before he has a chance to think more about what made him cry in the first place. It’s that thinking time that gets to him.
“Think of good things,” I remind him as I often do when I tuck him in to bed. “Look at the quads and imagine you’re riding them.” I point to the wallpaper border that circles half way up his wall with prints of ATV’s and mud. He’s grown a lot. Not much left of the child who first came. But they’ll always be there, those scars. Damage brought about by birth parents that didn’t deserve him.
As I rise to leave the room the boy speaks again.
“How long have I been here?” he asks.
“Three years,” I paused in the doorway. “You were with us three years on August twelfth.”
“It seems like longer,” he says.
“It does,” I agree as I turned out his light.
“I’ll see you in the morning, mom,” said my son from his big bed next to the open window.
“Okay,” I reply, shutting his bedroom door.
“I’ll be here.”