The Way Things Overlap by Deb Stone.
January 10, 2000 was my daughter’s eleventh birthday. It was also my neighbor girl’s funeral. She was 23. That morning I decorated our home with balloons and streamers, wrapped gifts in bright paper and twisted ribbons. That afternoon I dressed in black and wore my hair in plain black clips. Joy and grief, sometimes they overlap.
At the funeral, Crystal’s brother Josh said that he and his sister had been so frightened when they were taken from their mother that she laid on the floor in the bedroom of her foster home and whispered through the heat vent so he could hear her voice. Some years later—I’m not sure how many—our neighbors adopted them. At Crystal’s funeral, her adoptive mother sang You Are My Sunshine. Where did she find the courage to sing? How did she have the heart to welcome a birthmother she had never met to a funeral where the daughter they shared lay in an open casket.
Hello and good-bye, sometimes they overlap.
I’ve been a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for twenty years. I coach and mentor new CASAs, and I teach some of the training courses that potential volunteers attend. As a trainer, I try to impart a sense of urgency on behalf of the child’s need for permanence in a timely manner, but also, the importance of family ties. Most new CASAs, whether they know it or not, come into training believing that they are going to help children who come from bad homes get adopted in good homes. I was no exception. As a new CASA volunteer, I wanted to right wrongs. To ensure children’s needs weren’t ignored in the service of parent’s rights. I had no college degree, no little letters behind my name like the rest of the professionals at the table, so I made it a point to know the case.
Diagnoses? I could rattle them off.
Dates of incarceration? Those too.
I knew how many fires the four-year-old set. I knew the words each sibling used to describe what Daddy had done: Penis. Pee-pee. Snake. If you gave me a soapbox, I’d mount it faster than a circus seal could balance a ball. I dug into the parent’s past, pressed social workers to do more, agitated attorneys who were protecting the parent’s rights. I was the voice of the child. Right?
Knowledge and ignorance, they overlap.
I have friends whose parents were vicious drunks, drug addicts, or hopelessly depressed and unresponsive parents. Friends whose fathers, brothers, or grandfathers put their fingers in private places. I have friends who were beat. Abandoned. They share their stories. Sometimes I ask, “Would you have been better off in foster care?”
They stare at me. Maybe they think so, but no one has said yes.
Most of these friends still send their mom a Mother’s Day card. Arrange for holidays with their historically abusive dad. They believe their family was worth having, and keeping, despite the abuse or neglect.
You don’t need twenty years experience to understand that 99 out of 100 foster children want to go home.
Separation and belonging, they overlap.
On my daughter’s eleventh birthday, I kissed the corpse of the neighbor girl who used to babysit my children. In the evening, our family sang Happy Birthday and shared in the wonder of being eleven. We talked about how you always think you’ll have another birthday, only someday when you never even know it, you’ll be having your last slice of cake.
My sons told us about how fun it was when Crystal babysat. They had water fights inside the house. They roasted marshmallows in the woodstove and caught the couch on fire—just a little—then rubbed dirt on the brown spot so I wouldn’t know. They played in-and-out-the-window tag, which explains why the screens on the windows sometimes seemed off kilter.
My birthday girl said her favorite thing about Crystal was how she never made you feel small. “Even though I was littlest,” she said,” She always let me drink from a big cup.”
Making people feel small is a specialty with child welfare systems. Nobody intends it, but when an agency sets out to prove that a parent can’t keep children safe, nobody highlights the parent’s best moments. They itemize what’s gone wrong. If the Court determines that the state has jurisdiction, the social workers set out to help the parents change while the children remain in foster care.
CASA trainees always struggle with the idea that vulnerable children may return to parents with marginal skills. We have an official term: minimum sufficient standards. What does it mean? Nobody can say. It’s a marshy area that falls below the community expectations for parenting, but above the line where children are unsafe. That gray area varies from case to case.
“The biggest worry I have,” said a trainee, “is how I’ll feel knowing the child I care about is going from a life where they have better opportunities to a minimally adequate home.”
I might have reminded her that research shows that children usually benefit from being in their family of origin. “It’s not about you,” I could have said. “Your feelings aren’t part of the equation.”
Instead, I said, “You know the videos on social media that illustrate someone overcoming insurmountable odds? Like the girl who broke her leg in the middle of a softball game and couldn’t run on her own two feet. The opposing team carried her around the bases. You know how that makes your heart catch in your throat? How it makes you believe in the potential good at the core of every human being?”
Imagine you have a friend whose partner left her. She’s been so depressed she can’t get out of bed. Sometimes she drinks too much. Her kids have learned to fend for themselves. On the day that someone knocks on the door for a welfare check, she’s still drunk from the night before. The children cling to their mom as the social worker tells her they are taking her children. Your friend stands on the porch and sobs as her children are buckled into a state car. She doesn’t know where they’re going. She doesn’t know when she’ll see them again.
Imagine CASAs interviewing your family and friends for all the things that have gone wrong in your life. Imagine having your worst parenting moment made public. Your worse fight. Your lowest point. The saddest, most shameful things you’ve never even told your best friend. Imagine standing in front of a judge while those things are being discussed. Imagine your family and friends in the courtroom listening to it all.
Shame and hopelessness, the way they overlap.
Imagine a phoenix rising out of that. Witness a parent suffering through withdrawal. Earmark the day that parent becomes employed. Congratulate the parent when she convinces a landlord to rent her an apartment. See a parent ride three city buses each way to visit her child for an hour. See a person rise up out of wreckage. It can make your heart catch in your throat. See them stand in front of the judge while you attest that things have changed for the better. Not perfect. Better.
Know that if this parent can change, anyone can. You. Me. Those places in us we hide in shame? We can stop hiding. We can forgive ourselves. We can move on. Maybe we won’t be great, but we’ll be better. Maybe not even good, but better. Believing in others is ultimately about believing in yourself.
Failure and redemption.
Worry and hope.
The ways our lives overlap.
Deb Stone’s writing has appeared in STIR Journal, The Oregonian, Portland Tribune, Portland Upside, and Clackamas Literary Review. Her essay “Mr. Potato Head’s Secret Life” was selected for Portland’s 2014 inaugural Listen to Your Mother show. She has essays in The Truth of Memoir: How to Write about Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity and Stepping Up: Stories of Blended Families. Deb has been a birth, foster, step, and adoptive parent to over thirty children, a Court Appointed Special Advocate for another two dozen abused and neglected kids in foster care, and provides training to child advocates, social workers, and parents. She is seeking representation for her memoir Mother Up. Follow Deb on Twitter @iwritedeb. She met Jen Pastiloff in Portland at The Writer’s Voice Workshop with Suzy Vitello and Lidia Yuknavitch.
Jennifer Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Los Angeles, Seattle, London, Atlanta, South Dakota, Dallas. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.