* I am starting a series of stories crafted through the eyes of people with whom I have met over the last 30 years in Social Work. The purpose of these posts are to highlight the difference a good social worker can make in the lives of others and to remind them (when they are going through hard times and feel like quitting) that their career choice was a powerful one. **Names are fictional. Situations are real.
My name is Daniel. I am 20 years old and I have a story to tell.
When I was 6 years old, my mother died of cancer. I never knew my father, and my mom never spoke his name. When she died, we were living with grandma Hattie.
Thank God for grandma Hattie, who took in a grieving, angry little boy. In the days, weeks and months after my mom died, my anger festered in me as I blamed everyone and everything (including God) for taking my mother from me. This anger showed up in my ever increasing bad behavior. The school contacted grandma at least once a week to report my transgressions: cursing, fighting, stealing. Grandma would pick me up from school, scolding me and reminding me how disappointed my mother would be…if she were alive. Those words always created a conflict in me…sadness for disappointing my grandma and anger all over again at my mom for leaving me.
One day, after getting suspended for fighting, grandma told me, again, how sad my mother would be.
I blurted out “Good!! I want her to be sad! Just like me! She left me and I hate her!”
I expected grandma to be shocked and maybe even hit me. But she did not say anything. When we got home, she went into her room and shut the door. Convinced she was going to kick me out, I sat on the ottoman, arms crossed, defiant to the end.
Grandma came out of her room carrying a large book. She sat on the couch, patting the space beside her. Warily, I rose slowly and crossed the room to occupy the place next to her. As she opened the book, I saw it was a photo album. She started with very old pictures of people I didnt know, giving me their names, their relation to me and their history. I listened and watched as she held each picture lovingly, obviously remembering her connection with each one. Finally she came to pictures of a pretty little girl with pig tails and a toothy grin. She explained that the picture was of my mom as a little girl. The tightening in my stomachs grew, building that familiar pressure. My face must have glowed red, because my grandma put her arm around me and held me tight.
She said quietly, “It hurts. I know. She was your momma. And she’s gone. It’s alright to cry, Danny boy. Did you know she was my little girl? My only little girl? I miss her too.”
The tears I saw in my grandma’s eyes shocked me. I thought I was all alone..the only one left behind. But looking at her wet eyes, I knew I was not. She spoke again, her voice shaky…”family is all we really have in the end to hold each other and make it through the hurt.”
I cried in her arms, softly at first and then with increasing intensity until my body was shaking and the ball of anger and hate started deflating. We held each other for a long time, sharing the pain of loss, but beginning the process of healing.
After that moment, which I remember vividly, things began to slowly change. The bad days started to lesson and the good days increased. I began to improve in my school work and behavior as the attachment to my grandma deepened. We became a strong family of two. The future did not look so bleak.
Three years later, my grandma died in a car wreck. I was almost 9 years old, on the honor roll at school, was playing city-league football and had begun piano lessons. One minute things were great and the next minute I was alone…again.
The first couple of days after my grandma died seemed like true hell. I was called into the pricipal’s office on the day she died.
I had been at my desk filling out a worksheet on state capitals when a knock on the classroom door interrupted. I looked up to see Mrs. Anderson, the school secretary approach my teacher and whisper in her ear. I was puzzled when it seemed that they both turned and stared at me. My fears were confirmed when my teacher, Ms. Day called out my name and told me to report to the principals office.
A low “oooooooooohhhh” rippled through the class as they, like me, thought I was in trouble. I entered Mr. Grandison’s office, surprised to see another man there, sitting across from the principal. He stood up as I entered the office. Thinking he was a cop, I was scared and not quite sure what I had done.
He shook my hand, which puzzled me. He gave his name as Ricky from DHS. Of course I knew what DHS was, they had visited our house a few times before momma got sick. Mom and Hank, her boyfriend, fought a lot and sometimes the neighbors called the cops. The next day, DHS would usually show up and ask me questions. Of course I knew not to say a thing or I’d end up in foster care. But it made no sense for DHS to be here, grandma didnt have a boyfriend to fight with.
As the principal began to talk, I heard words like accident, grandma and sorry…everything else became drowned out by the screaming in my head.
Like sleepwalking in the middle of the day, I went with the Social Worker, climbing into the backseat of his Honda Civic. I didnt ask where we were going.
I didnt care.
It didnt matter. I had no family. I had no one. They all left me.
I was alone.
Ricky took me back to his office and led me to a playroom. Another lady was there. She smiled and informed me she would be watching me while Ricky made some calls. There was some cartoon on the flat screen. I didnt watch it.
I didnt care.
After a while (not sure how long) Ricky came back and the other lady left. If I had cared, I would have smiled as Ricky fit his very large body into the kids chair so he could be at the table with me. He told me how sorry he was about my grandma. I stopped listening after that. I caught a few words like: foster parents, getting my stuff from grandmas house, having a counselor to talk to. Then he handed me a backpack. It had toothpaste, toothbrush, stuffed bear, some new shorts and a T-shirt. Was I going to camp? I took the bag and followed him back to his car.
We rode a short distance, stopping at a brick house with a large yard and a red door. Ricky said, “here we are!” I got out. He knocked on the door and an older lady with grayish hair opened it. She smiled big and gushed about how glad she was to see me. Ushering me into the house, she showed me a small bedroom, full of light and decorated all over with Superman stuff.
I hated superman. I was Team Batman all the way.
She and Ricky talked a lot while I sat on the bed hating superman. Ricky looked at me, asking me if I needed him to stay a while. I did! But I shook my head no. And just like that…Ricky was gone too.
I moved like a robot for the next few days…eating, sleeping and hating superman. Ms Linda, the foster parent reminded me of my grandma…so I hated her too. She took me shopping and bought me clothes, but I kept them in the bag. Putting them in the dresser meant I was staying.
Ricky came back a week later to bring me some clothes from my grandmas house. He told me later we would talk about what else I wanted from the house. He drove me to an office, introducing me to a very pretty lady named Katherine who would be my therapist. He assured me, he would be there when I was finished. And the relief I felt when I walked into the waiting room to see him there surprised me immensely.
I didnt stay with Ms. Linda long. As the days wore on, my apathy turned to anger. I found some paint in the garage and threw it all over everything Superman in my room. She freaked out, called Ricky and he came.
I went through three more foster homes, finding a way to push each one to the point of breaking until they called Ricky to come take me away like a broken TV. Each time I would be reminded of my grandma’s words, “if you dont got family you got nothing.
And that’s what I had…nothing.
I tried to push him away too. I was belligerent to him; I was sullen with him; sometimes I even cursed at him. But Ricky was stubborn. He didnt leave. He never yelled. He never told me how bad I was. He was honest and upfront with me, but also acted like he cared. But I didnt trust that. Been fooled before.
I was 11 years old when Ricky picked me up from the Miller’s. I had flushed Mr. Millers fancy watch down the toilet after he yelled at me to clean my room.
Ricky took me and my ever increasing “stuff” back to the office. He brought me back to the visitation room where there was another loop of cartoons running. There was no sitter this time. Just me and him.
He told me that he was sorry it didnt work out with the Millers but he had good news. There was another family waiting for me. The Jacksons, he explained, were great foster parents. He told them about me and they were very happy to meet me and help me to become part of their family. I snorted and mumbled something like “we’ll see.” Ricky smiled.
Looking me directly in the eye, he told me that he saw so many good things in me. He saw how smart I was, how talented I was at music and how much I wanted a family of my own. I rolled my eyes as high as they would go. He went on to say that he understood that my hurt was blocking me from allowing people to get close to me. (Another eye roll). Then he told me, it was understandable…the fear of connection was normal after so much loss. But he assured me that he was going to keep on believing in me and keep trying to find the right family who could see in me what he did and stick with me until I was ready to let them in. He made me a promise: “as long as I work here,”he said, “I am not going to desert you.” He added with a twinkle in his eye, “and I’m not planning on changing careers anytime soon.”
I snorted again and went to the restroom so he could not see my watery eyes.
The Jacksons turned out to be a family that understood trauma. They were patient and supportive of me as I worked through the anger and depression that had plagued me for years. And I pushed them. The more they were patient, the harder I pushed. It took more therapy, including some family sessions with them and time for the wall to come down. I tell others jokingly that they just wore me down. But in truth, Hope was a delicate flower rising doggedly from the dry, cracked wall I had built around my heart.
And Ricky stayed with me through it all. My one constant supporter, my one constant…period.
When I was 13, the Jackson’s adopted me. I had a family once again. I was not alone. Ricky came to the hearing with a goofy grin plastered on his face. For old time’s sake, I rolled my eyes at him. But then I smiled back. We had a party after the adoption hearing. Ricky was there with a present! He was always there. I realized that I had come to depend on it.
I dont see Ricky anymore. I dont need him like I did. But I will never forget him. He may never know it, but he was the only anchor I had for years, keeping me from drifting away or drowning in a sea of hate. He saved me.