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 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.

Monday, May 9, 2016


It's been eight months since E passed away, and Tim and T and I are emerging from a fog of grief. We won't ever be the same without E, but we are no longer bumbling around like zombies divorced from our own lives.

T lives at home now and has since the day we got the news. He finished his nurse assistant training this winter and started working, caring for older people, which has been his dream since high school. He loves wearing his scrubs, and takes his obligations to his patients very seriously. He has grown up so much, we often feel like we are living with a friend, whose wisdom and humor have both reached adult proportions. I always told him that someday, when he was no longer in school, he'd look around and find himself surrounded by adults, and he would no longer feel like the unfortunate "foster kid." That day has finally come. He can mostly be trusted to make sound decisions on his own behalf, and isn't that the ultimate goal?

It's great having him at home. I've tried to avoid leaning on him in my grief and it's important to me that he not feel that the tragedy of losing E has made us fearful and over-protective of him in a way that would burden him. Nevertheless, getting through these last several months was difficult for all three of us, with intermittent period of pain, confusion, forgetting, ruminating, and alienation from other people, and I can't really imagine going through that without him close at hand.

Frankly, it's been a very lonely time, the loneliest I've ever experienced. Losing a child is excruciating, and losing an older child who is yours through foster care is doubly alienating because many people have a poor understanding of that sort of parenting to begin with so they aren't sure how to regard you.  I sometimes wonder if people thought we were foolish, to open our hearts to a kid like E, and felt we had somehow set ourselves up for tragedy. The fact was, he was T's brother, how could we deny that he was also our family? Anyway, it would require a cold heart indeed to refuse to respond to a kid like E. and fate just happened to put us within his reach, too late to prevent his pain, but just in time to love him as deeply and instinctively as any parent loves a child.

Friends wanted to be there, but after the initial expressions of sympathy, they didn't know what to say and so stayed silent. For months, nobody came over and nobody invited us anywhere. After years of entanglement with the social service system to try to support E's needs, everything in our world went quiet, as if all lines had been severed. At work, my boss stopped coming to me with assignments until I was able to convince him that I am just fine, unaltered. Even my own parents declined to show up for us when E died, saying they hadn't understood how close our bond was. They didn't attend the funeral and spent the subsequent holidays with my brother's family without inviting us to join them. Through all of this, Tim and T and I relied on each other, reflecting one another's sadness and sharing the daily discipline of just getting by.

I can't really write much more about losing E. Any attempt to capture feelings in words seems to do his memory a disservice. He's still there in nearly ever moment. Every Sunday afternoon, I feel his absence around the time we used to have dinner and say our prayers. On Mother's Day it hardly seemed like a year since he rushed into my bedroom last spring to hand me a carefully-chosen card that said simply "I love you with all my heart." Our weekends seem long after two years of carefully supervising him, visiting him when he was locked up, and arranging our home life to accommodate his needs when he was free to be with us.

I miss his astounding honesty, and his gentleness, and his trust. I will always miss him, and Tim may miss him even more, because they were each other's best friend. E was like someone from a dream, a personality loosely tethered to the world, saddled with more misfortune than one person can bear, and yet he was so loving and lovable. Our time with him always felt as if the clock had stopped and the needle had been lifted from the turntable and we had stepped into a private dimension. We can't go there anymore without him, but I'll never lose my sensation of that special extra dimension that existed solely through the magic of him.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Putting it in Words

When E. was alive (I force myself to write that to test whether I can stand to say it), I rarely felt like writing and so I let this blog linger. It was a happy time, and I didn’t have many complexities to unravel. Parenting him was easy. His illness made his needs very obvious, and his blissful compatibility with Tim made me secondary. The three of us acquired an uncomplicated rhythm, though that would seem most unlikely to an outsider, who would surely overestimate the impact of his near-constant state of crisis. Being with him was like driving on a very bumpy dirt road in a very beautiful part of the world. Once you learned to settle your stomach and stopped wishing the pavement were smooth, you learned to move with the rough motion of the road and enjoy the sun. Which is to say: we were merry together, through psychiatric group homes and hospitals, through two stints in jail, and one period where he insisted he preferred to be homeless and sleep in the park in a rainstorm. I am not being flip or ironic when I say that life with him was fun. 

I’ve rarely been secondary in our house; I have a dominant personality and a forcefulness that Tim has kindly allowed to govern many of our life choices, though he’s the one who carries the dares through most of the time. Being second-in-command during our time with E was relaxing for me, like a long vacation of the will. I had developed the habit of playing basketball on Sunday mornings then visiting the car wash and the nail salon in the afternoon because I wasn’t needed at home. When E began living with us part-time, I hadn’t been superfluous in years; to the contrary, when T was in high school, and then later in rehab, it was hard for me to find time to go to the bathroom, much less a nail salon. But E was different and though he loved me, he didn’t need me. 

Starting just a few months ago, I embellished my Sunday habit by not going right inside the house when I came home. I’d go out to the garden instead, and if I found Tim and E together there, we’d hang out, but if they were inside, I would watch them through the windows. On one such occasion a few months ago, I peeked over the kitchen ledge and caught them brewing beer together in the kitchen. E was sitting on the floor, sprawled out, leaning up against the wall and Tim was leaning on the counter and there were hops boiling in water on the stove and they were both laughing, probably about nothing, or at least not anything they could explain to me. They saw me and waved, but they didn’t stop what they were doing or come outside because they were engrossed in each other and they were accustomed to me dancing around the fringes. Standing there looking at them was like seeing a movie that I would love to watch over and over every day for the rest of my life, and even at the time, I knew that I was recording it to memory on purpose.

It’s my nature to be an observer, so I felt very much myself at home during this interlude in our lives. At work, I have a public self that is outgoing and organized and I am often the one who ends up in charge of things, because for whatever reason, I’ve always been that obnoxious kind of person. Even in my friendships, I find it hard to relax and I feel pressured to buoy other people. But in my private life, I’m much looser, introverted and introspective, and I like to entertain ambiguities. I prefer not to talk, unless it’s to Tim, but I do like to write. And my private self needs a lot more prime time right now than it used to.

For the last two months as we absorb the shock of losing E, I wanted to write about it at various times but I felt it would be unseemly. There is nothing I can say that can capture our feeling for him or the depth of his spirit. But I crave writing anyway, even when it’s cheap comfort, because I am cast out of the happiness I had when I was quite willingly the third wheel and I feel thrown back into a sea of need which includes my own, but also Tim’s and T’s. Everyone in my house is grieving hard. Even the dog is looking for E. 

My public self is disturbingly intact and appears to bear less relation to my inner self than usual; I went back to work after one week, and after about three, people stopped acting awkward and making crude expressions of condolence tinged with misunderstanding, and I just got on with the routine of running things. I even took a business trip, though I took T with me because I couldn’t stand to have him out of my sight, and I suspect he felt the same about me, and anyway, it was an excuse to visit my favorite uncle. 

But within my family and my household, everything has changed, as if someone came into our home in the night and moved all our furniture, took all our clothes, and replaced everything familiar. Or, more to the point, as if our minds and our bodies inhabit two different worlds, as if we move among familiar objects but when we touch them there is only nothing, while by contrast, we are wracked by sensations the cause of which we cannot see. A few days ago T texted Tim in agony, saying he couldn’t believe that E is gone because “he wouldn’t leave me like this.” We don’t cry often, and we don’t stop living, but all three of us individually are pointing in two directions at once, toward the ordinariness of today and toward exquisite infinity of death. 

I am sure we grieve as a consequence of loving and in proportion to the attachment and intimacy we have with the lost person. For that reason, I don’t find grief ugly. I don’t even wish that it would end quickly. But I do, for the first time in my life, find myself deliberately refusing to think about him. Every morning for the last eight weeks, I wake up happy and relaxed with a sense that something is eluding me, and then over the course of several seconds I remember what it is that I forgot, which is that he died. In that moment I feel the superficial animal consciousness that drives me to pursue food and shelter and shiny objects come face-to-face with my soul and step politely aside to let it pass, hoping that it stays mostly quiet for the rest of the day.

I don’t want to talk to anyone right now. Once the workday ends, I go straight home. I am avoiding both of my book clubs; I don’t have the endurance for lengthy discussions about other people’s plots and problems, and the most casual comment can suddenly inflict great pain and slam me up against the limit of my tolerance. I want to be alone with my thoughts or those of the only two people whom I trust loved E even more than I did. I don’t want my head filled with other people’s words. I don’t want to watch their faces when I can still very easily replay the expressiveness of his in my mind’s eye. And so I’m back to writing, private conversations with myself. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

E Ending

This is an incredibly hard post to write, but it would be wrong to leave this blog up without including this chapter, which shuts the door on an entire period of our lives: seven weeks ago, we lost E when he ended his life with a drug overdose.

It may have been an accident and it may have been intentional. Most likely, it was an accident that happened because he was not fully committed to surviving, and so it is a blend of both possibilities. In any event, we'll never know, because we weren't there when it happened.

There is no wisdom to share from this, and no pithy story to tell. There is only emptiness where for a time we had one of the great loves of our lives, and certainly the most unexpected.

In the last conversation I had with him, he complained that I wanted to wash all of his clothes before I let him wear them, as he'd had bedbugs recently. I started to lose my patience. Then I remembered that I had often told T that we might one day lose his brother, and so we should be sure to never end a day on an argument, and to tell him how much we loved him at every opportunity. Taking my own advice, I pulled back from the knife's edge of frustration and said simply, "I explained why I need to wash your clothes. I can see that you don't agree. But I love you and I want you to have a comfortable bed to sleep in when you're here at home. So you're just going to have to trust me." He gave me a wild look, threw his head back, laughed loudly, and scampered away. And shortly thereafter, he was gone forever.

I have no taste for discussing the various injustices that contributed to E's suffering and eventual demise. If you read blogs like this one, chances are you already know and care about the realities of life for youth in foster care, the wreckage and debilitating insults delivered by the child welfare system, the poverty of services for traumatized and mentally ill young adults, and the disheartening odds for children born drug and alcohol exposed and suffering related disabilities. I can't think about those things anymore. I could make myself quite insane thinking about all of the inadequacies in the care he received and all of the dead ends and disappointments we encountered trying to help him. But it doesn't matter anymore. I can't let generalities replace the particulars of E that I treasured so much, and even righteous anger can't quell my grief. There isn't room for both.

We held a beautiful service for him, modest, with his relatives and some of his previous caregivers. We sang his favorite songs, and his brother T gave the eulogy. Their birth mother whom I've never met came for the viewing though not for the service, although she was invited. While she was there, she and I held T as he sobbed over E's body and then we held each other. She said she was sorry she hadn't been able to mother E; I told her I was sorry I hadn't been able to keep him alive.

It was hard to be with his body, an empty shell that once held his most animated spirit. His ashes are at home with us. T and his birth mom asked me to be the one to decide what to do with them, and after a lifetime of being tossed from one foster home to another, and later, from one mental health facility to another, I couldn't stand to deposit his ashes anywhere other than at home with us, where he was, briefly, happy and so loved. So with us his remains will stay until one day they are buried with ours.

Obviously he was ill, and suffered greatly. He was also the funniest person I ever knew, and we loved him as our own son. He and Tim were true soulmates, everyone who saw them together remarked on it. E showed us things about ourselves that we didn't know, good things, patient, loving, tender things. The time we had with him often seemed other-worldly. It's impossible to imagine that he's gone forever, because he was so deeply a part of us. In the first several weeks, we felt as if we'd been left behind, as if we were meant to follow him. We followed him through so many harrowing events--including hospitalizations and incarcerations--and so many triumphs--his first road trip last Christmas with Tim, his first day of college last month--that it seems impossible that we can't follow him wherever he's gone now. But days pass and he's still gone, and the hard fact of it sinks in slowly with a terrible weight.

There is almost nothing to say about this, no way to interpret in words the unrelenting fact of death. But it is important to me to say that we would do it all over again. We aren't angry with him, we don't regret anything about our time together, and we wouldn't hesitate to embrace the opportunity to be his family again; quite the opposite.

T moved back home the day that we lost E, and the three of us are grieving together and will be for the rest of our lives. Grief brings us closer, clarifying the bonds of family. There are things only the three of us will ever know, including how brilliant a light has been extinguished and how very much has been lost.
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