Tuesday, October 8, 2013
A Soft Place To Land
I fell in love with him the first time we met. He smiled at me, and locked his jade green eyes on mine and I felt my heart melt like warm butter in my chest. As the weeks went by and I grew closer to him, he began to feel safe holding my hand, and eventually laying his head on my arm and I knew in the deepest part of my being that I had met a true angel here on earth.
He was one of my first students. His name was "Justin". And he was five years old.
Justin was a beautiful and healthy baby boy. According to his files, he was reading when he was two and spoke complete sentences in both Spanish and English. An only child, he was active, and silly, and the light of his mother's life. Until his mother discovered methamphetamine, and Justin's life began to spiral downward from there. Unable to hold a job, Justin's mother floated from boyfriend to boyfriend; staying with Justin in various men's homes until the money and their patience ran out. her longest relationship was with a man named "Randy" who seemed to be a stabilizing influence in her life, and appeared to have true affection for Justin. But Randy too had a taste for meth, and his behavior became more and more erratic. One night, when Justin's mother went out to prostitute herself for drugs, Randy began to use. The events of that evening are hazy, but what we do know is that at one point in time, Randy shook two-year-old Justin hard enough to give him whiplash and dislocate his shoulder before throwing him up against the wall hard enough to leave a dent.
Justin spent months in the hospital as doctors tried to alleviate the swelling in his brain and determine the extent of the damage. Randy got a slap on the wrist, a few months in prison and then disappeared off of the radar. Justin's mother; unable to stay clean, lost custody of Justin and he entered the foster care system. Justin was one of the lucky one's. He was promptly taken in by a loving and supportive foster family who cared for him like he was their birth child and showered him with unending affection and support. When Justin was finally released it was with a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury and related seizure disorder. The once, bright, chattering, and active boy would never again speak, or walk, or likely develop skills beyond those of a two year old.
I worked with Justin for a year, and was in perpetual awe of what a pure light of optimism and joy he was. Despite his struggles, Justin never wept from frustration, or whined, but rather met every obstacle with his signature sunny smile and infectious giggle. Whenever I would start to feel put upon or weighed down by daily trials, I would think of Justin, and my spirits would instantly be lifted.
Driving home from work one day, I heard my phone ring, looked down and saw a number I recognized. Pulling over to the side of the road I took the call from Justin's foster mother, only to learn that Justin had had a grand mal seizure the night before. By the time they got him to the hospital the damage was too severe and Justin was declared brain dead. They removed him from the ventilator three hours later.
Justin's foster parents organized a lovely reception and memorial at their home where we all gathered to share our fondest memories. I asked the foster father is Justin's birth mother had been invited and he said, "She's been in the bathroom since she got here." As if on cue, the bathroom door swung open and a young woman, looking tired beyond her years and visibly intoxicated, emerged. "It's all my fault!" she began to wail. "It's all my fault! I let him kill my baby! I let him kill my baby!" The guests looked horrified and all eyes were on the distraught woman. Gently taking her arm, and whispering so as not to embarrass her, I said "Come with me to the kitchen. Let's get you something to eat."
We spent the next hour or so in the kitchen, talking little, but holding hands and crying together. I convinced her to eat a sandwich and handed her a bottle of water. She looked at me skeptically. "You must hate me don't you?" she asked. "Everybody else here does."
"I don't hate you." I replied. "You made bad choices, but that doesn't make you a bad person. You loved Justin and he was your son. You have every right to be here today." Snuffling into her sleeve, she took a sip of her water and mumbled. "Imma call my ride. I need to get the fuck out of here."
We sat in the kitchen in silence until two slender men with long hair arrived at the back door to take her. . .wherever. She grabbed her jacket and began to walk out, then stopped, turned to me, and said. "Thank you. . .for treating me like a human being."
Her words hit me like a sledgehammer to the chest. It occurred to me in that moment that I may well have been the only person in years to treat her like she was someone. Like she mattered. My mother always told me "we are all a product of our choices". Unfortunately, our children are innocent victims of our choices. . .children like Justin, and Madeleine McCann. . .and a million other little ones hurt and lost and alone out there. But the choices made by Justin's mother did not make her less of a human in my eyes. She was still a person. . .she still deserved basic respect. My heart went out to her and all other moms out there struggling (as I do as well) to keep it together and protect our children from harm, even at our own hands.
I haven't seen Justin's birth mother since and his foster parents informed me that after a brief arrest, she skipped town and has been missing ever since. But I think of her often. In fact, not long ago I was at Target with my best friend Kelly, when I looked over by the toy section and saw a little boy about five years old and his young, tired looking mommy. The boy began to whine and fuss and the obviously frazzled mother snapped. She leaped down to the child's level and grabbed his arms hard enough to lift him off the ground and make him cry out in pain. I didn't think. Perhaps if I'd taken the time to think I would have acted differently, but I didn't. . .I acted. Racing over to the woman's side I put a firm hand on her shoulder and said "It's OK. Take a break. We'll watch your son, just. . .take a break." Staring up at us in horror and shame, she shook her head slowly, let go of her son's arms, and walked away, visibly shaken. We entertained her son by showing him toys, and my son J. showed the little boy how to put on the Avengers masks and play superhero.
A few minutes later, the young woman returned, obviously humiliated. Without meeting my eyes she stammered out a "thank you" and walked away, calmer and more subdued, her son happily skipping along on her side. A beautiful blue-eyed boy who would be Justin's age, had he lived.
Would anything have happened to that boy had I not intervened? I honestly don't know. But I do know how that young mother was feeling at that moment. I've stood where she stood; alone, tired, overwhelmed, with two children crying and screaming and making demands that I felt powerless to meet. I've known how you can get so exhausted and stressed that striking your child seems like a perfectly feasible option. I've known that panic. . .that fear. But I am one of the lucky ones. I may feel exhausted and lonely at times, but I know that I have a loving and supportive circle of family and friends around me that will always be a soft place for me to land. Justin's mother had no one, and that woman at Target may not have had anyone as well. And for those women without a soft place; when they fall, their landing will be hard and unforgiving, and their children will be the collateral damage.
We've all seen women like that. Women who jerk their son's arm angrily, women who scream at their kids at the park, women who swat their daughter's bottom in line at the grocery store. And we judge them; at least, I know I did, until I became a single mom. Now, I see them for who they are: women without a soft place to land. So, when you see a woman like that, step up and offer to lend a hand. She might spit in your face, or tell you to "mind your own $%@& business", but then again, she might just be grateful to know that someone cares; not just about her child, but about her as well.
Reach out to a single mom you know and offer to help with housework, or bring her a cup of coffee, or offer to watch her children for twenty minutes so she can talk a walk. Be her soft place, for all of those moms out there struggling on their own. . .and for their children. . .and for Justin.