Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Forged In Fire

One of the most astonishing things about T as he's become a young man recently is the depth of his compassion. He has little patience for petty complaints, suffering, as he does, from an excess of life experience and perspective. In fact, he cuts short superficial venting (except on what he has designated "Mother/Son Venting Night", which happens on Tuesdays, and has two ground rules: no advice, no criticism--also, I have to buy dinner). However, when someone's number is truly up and they are suffering one of life's deeper indignities, his compassion and empathy are unequaled.

I had the occasion to witness this gift in action just recently, as my mother-in-law is dying now of late-stage Alzheimer's. She has entirely lost (or perhaps given up) her powers of speech. She communicates through gestures, or sits silent. I'm not at all sure she knows who I am. Last time I saw her, she cawed in surprise and backed away. But she remembers T. (The reason, I think, is that about a decade ago, she was struggling to adjust to being T's grandmother. She simply didn't understand foster care or older child adoption. Tim, my partner, had uncharacteristically sharp words for her. Like many a mother, she was keenly attuned to her son's disappointment in her, and she made an immediate adjustment to embrace T as our son and her (first) grandson. From that point on, she has shown T unmitigated affection.) Even in her increasing mental isolation, she lights up when she sees T. We visited last weekend and she ran to embrace him. She even teared up when she said good-bye to him the next day, which is the first real display of emotion we've seen from her in quite some time.

But what I meant to describe here isn't her affection for T, but rather, his deep empathy for her and for my father-in-law. T has a universal perspective and a true compassion for those who are dependent and isolated, particularly the elderly. He works as a nurse assistant, and he tells us on a weekly basis how much he loves his job, and how much the vow that nurse assistants take to protect the dignity of their patients means to him. With them, he enjoys his own position of gentle authority, and it makes him feel good to earn their trust.  With my mother-in-law, he drew on his professional expertise, and on the deep value he places in family loyalty. He altered his plans to be present for her birthday, and his very presence made it a special occasion for her.

Late in the evening while we were with my in-laws, my father-in-law, who was raised in poverty and lost his own mother at a young age, devolved into the depths of self-pity. He is emotionally repressed and, as such, he's not been able to fully confront that his wife is dying now. As we sat outside and talked, he expressed his frustration that his old age isn't as he envisioned it would be, and he complained about finding himself alone but encumbered. After an hour or so of this, my patience grew thin and I wanted to convince him to get some help in caring for his wife and get on with his life. T texted me from across the lawn as we sat talking. "He's not ready," he said. "He's struggling to accept what's happening. Now isn't the time. When he's ready to accept what's happening, we can talk to him about what to do next. Right now, just listen. He needs to vent. He doesn't have anyone he can talk to."

I was humbled by his words, and by his selflessness. I was impressed by the extent of his patience and the depth of his wisdom. And of course he was right.

Amazing. The next day, he was back to acting like a kid, whining and demanding snacks from the back seat of the car, dancing to the music on the car stereo as we sat in traffic. He is a thousand year-old soul wrapped in the still immature body of a young man. I always knew and treasured his compassion. But after nearly a decade of being one of his mothers and his fellow-traveler, and sharing some significant measure of the loss he's endured, I understand him more, and, at the same time, I am more awed by his ability to turn suffering into a selfless and unpretentious generosity toward others in their moment of greatest weakness.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


T and we just returned from our first real family vacation and T's first time ever leaving the country. We spend a week in Paris and it was heaven.

The week prior to our trip, he really regressed. He stopped keeping in touch, wasn't going to work, wasn't coming home. He let me know by text he was depressed. He said he felt haunted by the memory of how E passed away when the three of us were all traveling (I was on a business trip, Tim was with me, and T was living and working in another state).  He kept saying "Last time we all left, something bad happened." This is what trauma looks like in our experience - deep grief, complicated by disregulation. On the one hand, his response does have something to do with losing his brother. On the other hand, he's long had a tendency to descend into periods of chaos like this, even before he lost his brother. He has good powers of self-preservation despite it, and so we just wait it out. There are few other options anyway, and even his experiments with medication didn't seem to even him out.

Long story short, he showed up 15 minutes before we were due to leave for the airport and threw some things in a bag. Once we got on the plane, everything changed. He was excited, warm, and easy-going. The best part of vacation was eating all of our meals together - we are three busy working adults, so in any given week at home, we probably share just a few quick meals together.

Introducing him to Paris was like setting a duckling down in a pond for the first time. He was curious, adventurous, captivated by foreign ways of doing things. He'd never seen people of African descent who weren't Americans, and he was fascinated by French Africans, the way they dressed, talked, danced, the food they ate, the music they listened to. He went out every night, and sometimes took us with him, using us as a sort of safety plan, making us wait in the back of a nightclub, pretending not to know him, until he knew he'd be okay there. He met people, he fell in love with the city, and he fell a little bit in love with the world.

He's a kinesthetic learner. He has always impressed people like his high school health teacher, or his boss at his nursing job. He has emotional intelligence and incredible powers of retention once he is shown how to do something. Both of these things make for a skilled traveler.

Every night, we got to listen to him call his bestfriend back home. He spent twenty minutes telling her how the McDonald's in France serves Heineken and brings your food to the table! He talked about how funny it is to hear young French speakers sing American hiphop songs without really understanding the words. He told her how you could go out every night in Paris and dance until dawn, and how easy it was to take the Metro. He has had so few opportunities to be this person - not the kid with the tragic past, or the kid with the complicated family, or the kid with the endless court dates, but the kid with an enviable opportunity, the one who can share his good fortune with his friends and tell them something exciting about the world.

When we got home, we asked him where he thinks we should go on our next family trip. "Buenos Aires?" he said. "But then, why would we not just go back to Paris?" Bullseye!

Monday, April 24, 2017


I write rarely now. T is largely living as a young adult, still at home, working in his chosen career, slowly inching toward financial independence and, emotionally speaking, steering his own ship with a steady hand.

For anyone who has followed our family, it may be interesting to note that all of his childhood diagnoses seemed to amount to nothing more lingering than the general aftermath of trauma. I feel a bit foolish looking back for having dramatized or sometimes diagnosed him myself with the eye of an amateur. His behavior was alarming, even harrowing at times, but I see in retrospect that it was also pretty normal, given the very abnormal experiences he'd had in the system. These days, he goes without medication except for the marijuana he smokes on a daily basis, and no longer vacillates much in his mood or general well-being and capacity for sound decision-making. He's going on 24 now, and his maturity is right on track with what the science of brain development would lead one to expect for a young man.  He has friendships and girlfriends that come and go, squabbles at work, and moments of restlessness like anyone his age. He rarely picks fights of any substance anymore, and while he can be self-absorbed like any young adult, and complex, like anyone who has seen too much at a young age, he is also very much our friend.  In a few weeks, we are taking our first trip out of the country together.

My job brings me into regular contact with young adults who have been in foster care, and it gives me tremendous joy. What I lost with E's passing I see in a million luminescent fragments in the young people I know through work and I think of him every day, in ways that ground me, as if his memory is a pair of glasses through which priorities are easier to see. I have many moments with young people one-on-one and in groups when they are funny, profound, wickedly honest, hungry for compassion and solidarity, proud, vulnerable, and knowledgeable. I sit in meetings where representatives from the child welfare administration sometimes say things that make my skin crawl, things that are depersonalizing or unimaginative. But whenever one of our young adult clients who experienced foster care firsthand is around, everyone including me is energized.

I often ask these clients a simple question that is directly related to our advocacy work: if you could change something about the foster care system, what would it be? Every single one of them, regardless of personality or style, can answer that question quickly and without preparation in ways that will make you laugh and cry. Much of my work involves people who work in the system but have not experienced it firsthand, either as a child or as a foster parent (there are shockingly few foster parents working in child welfare, I've found!). They are well-intentioned, typically very well-informed, and very dedicated. But there is a unique quality to someone who can bear witness first-hand to the failed promises of the system. As my dad used to say of T, they have seen some of the worst that humans are capable of, and some of the best, and, as a result, they have a broad sense of the possibilities of human behavior.

The one thing almost everyone of our clients notes is the need for more loving foster parents, who can open their hearts and homes, look beyond behavior to recognize the soul of a child, help that child maintain contacts with their birth family, provide them with the safety and perspective to maintain those bridges in whatever way is best for them, and never, ever give up on them. Never "give them back", never threaten them with expulsion, never demand that they relinquish ties to birth family. Never demand that they fit in, never treat them as anything other than full-fledged members of the family.  Never judge them, never reject them, never fail to forgive them if their rage is misplaced or appears out of proportion to the moment at hand. Never withhold normal childhood pleasures, like sleep-overs and social events, birthday parties, trips to the county fair or the school carnival or the homecoming game.

If we took the need for such parents to heart, and provided more ways for them to do the work of helping to raise children who can't stay with their birth parents, including making it possible for them to dedicate themselves full-time to meeting the needs of those children at least for awhile without the dual responsibility of earning a living by working full-time, we would have a great deal more justice overnight. I get to help encourage public policies that might someday build such a world, and I feel grateful for that opportunity and happy for my remaining time on this earth.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Family Flees

Sometime in the past year, T developed a preoccupation with researching his family tree and mine. He often likes for us to do things like this together. Over the years, he's heard me talk about my Irish American relatives, and formed relationships with some of my uncles, and he seems to enjoy a sense of solidarity in knowing that some of my relatives endured hardships of their own. 

I imagine when you're adopted from foster care, it's comforting to know that you're forging an alliance with a new family that has had it's own humiliations and struggles, to lessen the sense of standing out as someone unfortunate. Building a family through foster adoption is intimate work that requires humility and self-knowledge, and, for both parent and child, it involves inviting people to whom you have not previously been related into your own family tree.  

It's affecting to trace T and E's family history. It gives T and I a way to talk about previously unmentionable topics, like the fact that his birth mom doesn't know who his birth father is. That came up this morning, while we were looking at new information about how his family arrived here during the Great Migration. In tracing his ancestry together, we were able to talk about the forces that cause families to break down and young mothers to suffer, and to do so while engaged in an activity, so that the tone stayed casual and easy, always the trick with teenagers.

I was struck in doing this exercise that in my own family, both my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother came from broken families, a fact which I had known, but not really examined. My Irish American maternal grandfather, the son of someone who came here at 12 years old and worked in the disease-ridden salt flats of Syracuse, New York, for over a decade until he left for the frontier, lost his mother when he was 10. His father very quickly remarried another Irish woman, whom he must barely have known, and my grandfather, who was still a young boy, left and lived for awhile in a car, becoming a teenage runaway. On the paternal side of my family, my grandmother dropped out of sixth grade when her father drove her to school one day, handed her a bit of cash, told her to take good care of her mother, and drove away, never to be heard from again. She raised several siblings and never even graduated junior high herself. Even now, it's impossible trace what became of her father; he just disappears without a trace from all public records. Without dwelling on these things, which didn't affect me directly, T and I were able to talk about the way that child abuse and abandonment echo across generations. 

We're a biracial family and T's part of our tree has many branches that are severed by slavery and Jim Crow. Mine is comparatively intact, because my relatives in this country had the benefit of being considered white. However, 6 of my 8 great grandparents are fully documented from the Irish famine through brutal labor or domestic servitude upon arriving in this country (when they are what we would consider children today) to itinerant frontier lives. For a long time T thought that all white families in this country had once been rich and owned slaves. So tracing our ancestry together has given both of us a better sense of what poverty and disenfranchisement looks like outside of the African American experience, and it's given me a deeper sense of the privileges that "white" Americans gained through the lens of American racism as our families assimilated. 

Tonight, his great aunt called. A distant relative in Texas noticed that he was tracing his ancestry online, and wants to offer information. He's been able to see his relatives extending all the way back to Shreveport, a town where half the population once comprised slaves. We're considering a family road trip, retracing the Great Migration route his family took to get to the coast. They made that journey less than 100 years after my relatives fled Ireland, moving progressively further west. At the moment, we feel like the most American of families!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Right Livelihood

 When I was younger, I remember hearing about the Buddhist concept of "right livelihood"--in essence, a commitment to earning a living in a way that is ethical and does no harm. Of course, I didn't seek to do harm, and I always pursued jobs that were somewhat idealistic. But as the main income earner in my family, I was practical. I did what I thought best to earn a salary and benefits.

Since E died, I've been more....free. I lost touch with my mom and dad, after they didn't do anything to support us in the moment of E's death. At that same moment, I stopped caring about many of the external trappings of success and stability. I confronted all the ways that I've lied to myself. I went through a very deep and uncharacteristic depression. I felt emptier than I thought possible. I told myself that we grieve in equal proportion to the love we feel for the person who is gone.

Eventually, I canned my "safe" job and went to work for a nonprofit that advocates for foster youth. I just didn't care anymore about doing the "right thing." I just DID--whatever I wanted, without question. I just COULD NOT sit at my desk all day anymore doing what was lucrative but meaningless.

Fast forward, and today, I got to offer a fellowship to a young man in foster care to connect him to the arts. I met this young man in one of the job programs sponsored by my new employer. He struck me as unique, and I happen to know people who can make opportunity for him in his area of interest. So I reached out and helped him get a fellowship that I hope will lead to a creative career for him. And I feel so happy and alive afterwards. The conversation with him was short and sweet. He understood exactly what was being offered, and he believed that he deserved it. It was amazing to connect someone so deserving with something so right for who he truly is.

By a strange coincidence, he shares a first name with E. But I know myself well enough to know that I'm not that impulsive, that whatever inspired me to reach out to him was genuine, not superstitious. It's just an amazing feeling to take my love for E, and all that both boys have taught me, and use it to tilt the balance for kids in foster care. I don't care who dislikes me, and I'm not embarrassed when I make mistakes. I go to work now because I believe, again, in the value of my work. It's a great feeling.

When you're acting as a parent, the foster care system and the trauma the kids endure can be so maddening. As a professional, I find I have the benefit of neutrality. I can choose to work at an abstract level, on policy, or step in on a more personal level, as I did today. I go to work eager most days, and I leave energized. I often work at night because I want to. Whether my work impacts one kid, or thousands of kids, I'm happy either way.

Every day, I call on the knowledge E. and T. taught me. Every day, I am braver than I used to be, on their behalf. I enjoy every small step forward toward a more just reality for kids who can't be raised by their birth parents. I have compassion for them, for myself, and for a world full of confusion.

In case my story has depressed or deterred anyone, I want to say that I am happy.

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Year On

In a week, it will be a year since E died. He was never adopted by us - by the time his brother T had been placed with us and we'd managed to hunt down E and make a connection, he had already slipped into the nether regions of the nexus between the foster care and juvenile justice systems, which is to say that he had been tossed from a group home into juvenile detention for behavior that was not at all within his control. If you have been exposed to older youth in foster care, particularly boys, that story is sickeningly familiar. When his "sentence" came to an end, the county couldn't find another group home with availability and sufficient services to take him, and thus he remained in juvenile detention, straining the limits of what is legally permissible. In fact, I'm pretty sure they well surpassed what is legal, but we were naive then. Eventually, under probation, he was released, but only to so-called high supervision group homes. My partner Tim persisted in visiting him, moving from concerned family member to advocate to surrogate parent.

After court dates and a million conversations with the social workers, group home workers, judges, and lawyers involved in his life, we were able to go from short supervised visits to overnights to a long period of years where E spent every weekend at our house with us and even took short trips. As I've noted before, our commitment to E started out as an obligation, a debt to T coupled with a sense that E was sinking and the only moral thing to do was to try to help him, until something rich, idiosyncratic and sanguine replaced that initial obligatory sense.

We mimicked traditional parents-and-child when E needed or wanted that, and, at other times, we were more like very close friends who share a home, or sometimes like a patient and his caregivers in a hospice might be. I suppose every family thrives on the assigned roles of its members and we were no different in that respect. Our life with him was largely independent of our life with T; T was an adult and living several hours away throughout this time, and even when he was home, he concluded that it was best that he distance himself.

It took nearly a year to get the autopsy report that concluded that E had died of an accidental drug overdose: meth, to be specific. Many would like to say he was an addict, because that's a likely narrative when a 19 year-old dies of a meth overdose, but he wasn't. He was just despondent, self-destructive, and congenitally lacking impulse control, which is a notable consequence of being born drug and alcohol exposed, and having received no pre- or immediate post-natal care. (He had no birth certificate, and no social security number, sure evidence that he was not even born in a hospital or the vicinity of a doctor.) Much is written about the likely consequences of maternal drug and alcohol use; very little is written about those who live and die marred by the resulting disabilities.

Perversely, we find the accidental nature of his death to be a slight relief. He had once tried to commit suicide by slashing at his arms with a table leg. Another time, he slammed his head against the wall until he was restrained. So to think that he had slipped overboard, quickly, without thought, was, by contrast, peaceful. Terrible. But fast, unintentional.

I apologize to anyone reading this for such harsh realities. It helps me to write about them, though. Losing a child is said to be among the most difficult of losses. Losing an older child who was not yours, but who attached to you in a childlike way when he was said to be incapable of such attachment, and with whom you had such unexpected happiness and compatibility, is also uniquely difficult. It's basically impossible to talk to anyone about it. They can't, won't, or don't listen. I do feel compelled to write about it, to make sense of it, to make sure the truth gets said somewhere, to remind the world that he existed, in all of the vivid tragedy and individuality and poetry of himself.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

One Less Than Four

Next week is E's birthday. He would be 20 years old. It's been ten months since he died.

Perhaps fittingly, just this week I started a new job. I left a good career and a very good salary and pension to work in a large organization that does policy and advocacy for kids in foster care. My former boss thinks I'm crazy but my closest friends think the move makes perfect sense - the job requires the same skills I've built up over the decades in my career, in the service of the cause that is obviously nearest my heart. As I do my new job, I call on the struggles and confusion and pain and good humor that E shared so openly, and I like to think that E is there each of my efforts. I like everything about the job, although I only just started. I even like my office. It's quiet, with a pretty view of the hills.

Meanwhile, T has been thinking for months about how to mark E's birthday this year. He craves appropriate opportunities to publicly express his grief, as he wants, understandably, to be seen as a good brother, one who took responsibility for his younger sibling through all of his struggles. (T has actually lost two brothers; a year before E died, the eldest of his siblings was murdered. They had only known one another for a couple years but the loss was stunning. Now he has two deaths to mourn at the same time.)

And yet T has not been self-destructive lately, which is a mark of how much he has grown up. He still lives with us, which is largely a very joyful thing. This morning he bit me on the shoulder while I was getting ready for work. We pick him up every night from his job in healthcare, and if we go more than a couple days without talking, he usually comes up with some clever scheme to spend an hour or two together (and get us to feed him at the same time).  He's old enough to go to bars, rent a car, and do all sorts of other adult things; I find that I'm able to treat him as a friend as well as a son.

The three of us decided to get a tattoo on E's birthday. We chose a three-legged crow, a mythical creature in various Asian cultures that symbolizes divine intervention in human affairs and "a great master in nothing to fear" as one source says it. To us, it also represents our family: one unusual being that rests on the strength of its three parts that has come through something extraordinary. Three is a meaningful number - both one more than two, and one less than four, which is what we used to be.
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