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.
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