I was at a meeting last week where adoption workers and supervisors from different counties got together in an attempt to find families for kids who are in particular need – kids who have no one personal in their lives at all. They are the same kind of kids who get referred to my agency for adoptive placement going back decades. They are older; many are young teens or close to it; they have psychiatric diagnoses; they have had lots of foster families and so forth. Finding homes for those kind of kids is why my agency – Family Focus Adoption Services – exists. I know the type of kids; I have heard the stories for all these years. But this time, there was a significant difference to what I was hearing. Maybe not significant for these caseworkers, but I was new to these meetings, and this was definitely overwhelming for me.
The workers present the kids verbally and thoroughly and it takes a long time to get through them all. But kid after kid after kid, they reported, had been previously adopted. Not just placed for adoption, but actually finalized in court. That means, in NY, that their birth certificates, e.g., had been permanently changed. Because they permanently belonged to their adoptive families, the names of the adoptive parents were on their birth certificates – forever. Yet, here these kids were, most of them yearsafter their finalizations, needing families. It made me berserk.
Our kids have difficulties beyond the norm – no doubt. But our kids have been abused, neglected, and betrayed beyond the norm also. They are going to have a rocky road growing up. I certainly know this. I am an adoptive parent with some kids now past 50. I get it. But it’s not like any of us didn’t know what we were getting into. The worst training out there for foster parents gives people enough to know this is not going to be an easy road raising these kids.
And if it turns out to be harder beyond anything we ever dreamed of, so what? I had no idea – none – of the experiences I would have with my kids when I took the first of them 36 years ago. Plenty of birth parents are raising kids who turned out to be harder to raise than they ever dreamed. I am not saying one must live with a kid whose behavior would be defined as criminal, were he to be an adult. No one should have to do that. I am saying however that one must remain open to one’s kids, no matter what. No psychiatric, criminal, or any other kind of behavior necessitates closing off one’s heart. On the contrary, watching one’s child go through those kind of behaviors, should result in opening up one’s (now-broken) heart.
Our kids were targets of other people’s feelings. These kids didn’t ask for the internal consequences that that abuse, neglect, and betrayal, brought inside them, such as PTSD.
We are the adults; we took them on as our kids; and we need to hold on forever. That is the core definition of “parent” isn’t it? Holding on forever.
Okay, I’m back. Or more accurately, I think I’m back. It’s been six months since I made a blog entry and I can’t believe that it has been that long. Where have I been? Busy, of course. What else could I say?
And what is it that has brought me back this morning? Boiling blood. That is, my blood is boiling. About what? The usual, the always, the ridiculous: bureaucrats and their nonsense.
I got a call last night from a young guy who aged out of the foster care system. He’s 24 now. Like so many of his aged out peers, he has not been doing well preparing for his adulthood. Like so many of them, for whatever reason, he has never learned to protect anything or anybody. He’s thrown away opportunity after opportunity. He blew college; he had his driver’s license snatched; he has no money; no career direction.
As we talked, he told me that he had gone back to a job that I know is not good for him. He knows it too. I asked him why the heck he was doing that. And his response is what made my blood boil – still this morning.
He told me that he had no choice.
Yeah right. What does that ever mean?
Well, it turns out that the only picture id he has – since 9/11 required by almost all jobs – was his license. Once it is an expired license, it doesn’t count as an id. So he needs his birth certificate to begin the process of getting his license back. He claims that he can’t even get a non-driver’s photo id because despite the fact that the DMV KNOWS who he is is – they gave him his license after all – it is bureaucratically irrelevant. His old license, which he only got because he once had the right paperwork and showed it to them, and they know it, is EXPIRED. His picture is on the damn expired license, keep in mind. He has his SS card; school records, etc. But his evidence that he is himself is EXPIRED!
So, my boy contacted Dade County Florida (Vital Statistics Office) where he was born – in order to get a new copy of his birth certificate. And guess what? He must submit a photo ID to get the birth certificate. He was on the phone with them for over an hour, he told me, and got nowhere. And this is the CATCH-22 that drives me berserk.
I figured he was missing some vital detail in his story and there had to be a way to get the birth certificate, even without the picture id. So I tried every which way I could to get it this morning on-line. And I could not get around the system. There was no way to deal with this not-so-unusual circumstance. Except one, right there on the form: a lawyer. Hire a lawyer. Just what every aged out foster kid can afford.
I did that this morning. I asked a long time friend of Family Focus, who is a lawyer, to take this young man on as a client and she has agreed to help. But where would this guy be if he didn’t know me or I wasn’t willing to help? Exactly where he is: working a job that he shouldn’t be doing with no hope of resolving this.
The kids aging out of foster care continue to have enough things stacked up against them. They don’t need the bureaucracy to make it all worse.
Some of these bureaucratic systems feed hopelessness and disempowerment. And it’s not just poor folks either. Have you heard about this medical insurance nonsense that some doctor who is not covered by your insurance can be called into the operating room while you are under, to help out. I’m sure we signed – under duress, of course – permissions for it before the operation. And then folks are getting hit with medical bills from these non-covered doctors for tens of thousands of dollars.
Thieves and criminals are bad enough, but at least they don’t hide what they are doing under a cloak of reasonableness. Bureaucrats do. These anti-human systems should be outlawed, dismantled, or drastically changed. They are disgraceful, and even disgusting, in their disrespect for the person.
Taking away hope from people is very wrong – and very dangerous besides. We don’t get that.
Note: As I quoted Rod Stewart’s line in his song, “Mandolin Wind,” in another context: “Oh, the snow fell without a break….Through the coldest winter in almost fourteen years…” Having a school kid at home, when school is cancelled on even the rumors of snow, has made this the winter from hell for me. Sadly, the blog took a four month hit as a result. But I’m back now. Maybe even bigger and better?
God and I do not agree on the way He has created the world. I realize He wins, and I lose…. but I believe what I believe anyway. Were it I who created the world, I’d have at least allowed the dead to come back – say, once a year – just to pick up the conversation, in the light of all the experience I’d have had since they died. Sadly, God doesn’t work that way. I plan on discussing that with Him, among all the other things on my list, when I die.
But if He did, I would bring Aunt Rita and Msgr. Huntington back in a flash. The two people whose conversations and witness gave me more ability to think and put it together than I’ve ever received from anyone else on the face of this earth. There are times when I miss each of them almost to the point of pain. This blog, as I’ve said before (repeatedly, I know) is in honor of each of them.
Aunt Rita, unwittingly I think, once gave me one of the most powerful lessons of my life. She told me that when she was a kid – during the depression – she was poor. But, she said, that she never knew that. She thought that the way she lived was normal. Our whole family lived as she did; all the neighbors lived as she did; and there was no TV to show anyone anything else. It takes – I learned and never forgot – contrast to recognize where one’s experience fits in the scheme of things.
Over the past few weeks, I have been involved in conversation with a boy, now fourteen, who was given up by his adoptive parents, when he was ten. His behavior was out-of-hand. It’s a story one sees too often when working at an adoption agency, as a new family is sought for these kids.
This particular boy, call him Joey, over the course of time has been slowly revealing stories about what happened in the house. Things he didn’t like; things that hurt his heart. They were done to him in response to his behavior, which he recognized as “bad,” so he accepted that he deserved them. Pretty typical thinking for a kid.
Two of his stories are enough, I think, to reveal the truth of what he was in the midst of.
The first happened at some Christmas when he was not yet ten. While all the other kids in the family had a normal Christmas, he received only coal as a present. That was it. He told me that he cried and cried and cried and finally his adoptive mom called Santa and Santa delivered presents the next day.
Now, threatening one’s kids or getting threatened with getting coal in their Christmas stocking is a common experience for those who celebrate Christmas. It’s implied even in the Christmas standard: “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” Why else start with “You better watch out; you better not cry; better not pout; I’m telling you why….” But in all my 63 years, I have never known anyone who really did it, except perhaps, and only as a joke, wrapping a piece of charcoal and putting it – with all the other presents – in a stocking. You can’t even find it in the movies or the cartoons, as I remember. It’s a threat no one EVER acts on.
The second was when Joey revealed that there were family photos on the walls in the house. But his adoptive mother would take paper and cover over the images of him. What???? And doing that to your child? Who was less than ten? In front of his siblings? And whomever walked through the door?
My grandmother, and separately my great-aunt on the other side of the family, used to cut out from their family pictures the photos of some relative they were on the outs with. I had no idea what that was supposed to do, except express their anger at the cut-out person, and I always found it funny. But that was not this.
In both situations that happened to Joey, it was done in front of the other kids and relatives (humiliation) and it was done by his mother (I don’t even have a word for that.)
What Joey did not know until he revealed these stories, is that this woman was not only wrong – she was wrong to the point of evil. Where her thinking came from I don’t care. What she did to her son was evil. She did it, she told him, because of his behavior. He saw the behavior, he accepted the logic, and he blamed himself. He has been, in his head and for his whole life, a bad person.
But this posting isn’t just about that. It’s also about Joey’s father. The man didn’t participate in any of this – this wasn’t some version of “Bonnie and Clyde” or one of those torturing couples one sees on “Criminal Minds.” No, he was worse. He stood by and allowed his wife to do what she did to a boy who, after all, was his son. He went along with her soul-stealing behavior. Aunt Rita would say, that he did that because it was easier. Yep, the true mark of a wimp.
All this left Joey no out; no way to measure how depersonalizing his mother’s behavior was. Mom did it; dad, by his silence, allowed it. Joey, in his normal human drive for health and wholeness, had no choice but to act out in order to stand up to this torture of being depersonalized by one’s own parents (after, and on top of, his infant experience of being given up by his birth parents). But the acting out was labeled “bad”, he believed that was so, and that made him convinced that he was a bad person.
Which brings us to today. For a fourteen year old to grasp the concept that his being bad was good; that being bad saved your sanity and your soul from this soul-thief of a mother, is very difficult. But in the end it is what will free him from the horror of his history.
My experience was very different than Joey’s. I saw both Aunt Rita and Chris Huntington stand up to wrongness wherever they witnessed it. I saw it. They gave me what Joey’s father did not give him: not only perspective and hope, but through their witness, they gave me myself. Joey’s mother was a sick woman to my eyes. But his father did much worse by Joey.
Wimps always do. Without the wimps, the evil-doers don’t get very far. And I suspect that hell is less filled with the evil-doers, than it is with the wimps.
In the end, Joey is a very lucky boy to have learned at his age what he’s learned about how soul thieves and their enablers work. I suspect God has great things in store for this boy. And that is lucky for us.
Ordinarily, I am in bed by 10, as I have to get up at 5:30 because my grandson has to leave for the bus at 6:20. But last night, watching a recording of the “Soul Train Awards” which were honoring Dionne Warwick, whose music from fifty years ago I still love listening to, I decided to stay up to finish the show. I could have skipped ahead to the Dionne part, but knew that if I did, I’d never go back to watch the rest of the show. Nor would I ever delete it from the DVR, until I had watched it all. So I stayed up.
It was just about 11 when the show was over and then my cell phone rang. I most certainly had to get to bed now, but I recognized the area code as being from Long Island, well within the catchment area of my agency, and I am, after all, the executive director. So I answered.
And it turned out to be one of the now-grown kids whom we had placed for adoption maybe ten or twelve years ago. He had gotten my phone number from the agency website apparently. I recognized his name immediately as I was his transition worker way back when.
He apologized for calling so late. He told me that he was sitting on a park bench with his “fiancée” and they had no place to go. He said that he had tried everything he could think of to get help and that I was the last idea he had. His family had moved to a town very far away and though he’d gone with them, he’d come back to Long Island on his own. Now he was homeless and he was cold. “Cold?” It was 8 degrees in my yard. This is the weather that one dies from.
I asked him about relatives of his or the girlfriend; I asked about shelters; about going to the police; about going into the hospital – all just to get out of the cold. He told me that he had tried all of that and the responses he told me that they had given him seemed bureaucratically plausible. He wasn’t asking for money. He wasn’t asking for anything but help. There is no doubt that this kid has issues; he always did. I could easily see his adoptive family throwing their hands up when he crossed into adulthood and still did nothing productive for himself. I’ve been there. Sometimes you think that the shock of not being supported anymore will force these now-adults to wake up, to grow up, to DO something. Sometimes, in other worlds than his, it might; but sometimes, in too many worlds for too many kids, it doesn’t. What did it matter? It was now 7 degrees.
I went on the Internet looking for walk-in shelters. I could find nothing. But one of the sites said that if you needed a place in an emergency to go to the emergency room and the hospital would let you stay overnight. I got back on the phone and told this young man that in the end, that’s what he would have to do, and he could tell them to call me if they disagreed. It was simply too cold to stay outside tonight.
It was killing me that I had no viable solution. But I had none other than the hospital. Staying on the phone was just using up his battery. So, I told him again to go there; I got off the phone; and I went to get ready for bed, and then I thought, “What about him going to a motel, and I’d pay for it by credit card from here (110 miles away). I called him back and he told me that he had tried that with an aunt but that the motel only took cash. What? I said I’d call. Sure enough: cash only. Must be quite the dive.
Anyway, to make a still longer story shorter, we found a motel in the next town. I paid for two nights using Chocolate Milk Club funds [http://familyfocusadoption.org/thechocolatemilkclub.html]. I called him back, and told him to go there – they were going to walk – and spend today dealing with DSS. I hung up and finally went to bed. It was near midnight.
I was having a conversation the other day with a man who has a long history in twelve step programs. He told me that as a result of that history, he lives in his “own little bubble.” I started to laugh and told him that we all live in our own little bubbles. We do what we know. We know what we’ve been taught, or more accurately, what we’ve learned from our own experience and our perspective on that experience. What’s outside our bubble we are more or less blind to.
I have seen this attributed to some anonymous person in AA, but also to Einstein: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. We are clearly not getting the results we want and expect with what we do with our foster children. Too many are walking around their entire adult lives, stuck. For all our therapy and all our pills, and all our supposed knowledge, we are obviously doing something wrong with kids who through no fault of their own, end up in the system. How do we figure out what that is?
The first step is to recognize that our experience is not the same as a kid placed into foster care. We don’t know what it does to the kids when they lose everything. Our “own little bubbles” are very different from theirs. I had a former foster kid once tell me that I didn’t get it: “I lost EVERYTHING, “ he told me. He was right. I was kicked out of college the first time I went; I have lost a job here or there; I have buried many family members whom I loved and still miss; I have even buried four of my kids. Every loss hurt – many still do – but I never lost everything. Ever. I think that today the citizens of the Philippines would be able to identify with that man beyond anything I ever could.
Recently I had a young (11) boy in foster care tell me that it was understandable why his aunt and uncle didn’t keep him. After all, he said, “They had their jobs, they had me, they had my sister, and (he emphasized) they had all the pets to take care of.” As though it were perfectly obvious to the world that he was the obvious candidate to be dumped. Pets vs. me? No question.
I have been looking at safety this week. And I realize that I have missed the boat on that subject my whole working life. Oh, I’m good at picking up things that others miss; I know a lot about keeping kids safe. But it’s all relative isn’t it? A forty on an exam beats a twenty. But they are both failing.
How on earth could I keep the citizens of the Philippines safe this week? I couldn’t. I wouldn’t even know how to begin. Yet, I and my fellow workers in the foster care system, especially in the world of foster care adoption, assume that we know how to do it with these kids? Whose experience, whose bubbles, are as far from our experience as our experience is from the people in the Philippines.
It is the worst kind of arrogance, isn’t it: when one doesn’t even suspect that one is arrogant?
Over the past few months, I have come to the realization that I still don’t get it when it comes to our kids who end up in foster care, especially institutions. The depth of their fear and the horror of their experience of being essentially left to fend for themselves, even those who do have family, I have apparently glossed over. I think I did that because I saw the unsafe behavior of the kids as leaving us little choice. I am exploring that in my thinking any which way I can. Forty one years after starting in the field….
On Sunday, came a new way to see this. One of my kids, now 34, is developmentally delayed. He has an almost-always-fatal brain tumor that has now long stopped growing for some wonderful, and unknown, reason. Nonetheless, he has had two brain operations in his life. The first was covered by Medicaid, and the second was covered by Medicare (entitled to based on his work record). But at some point a few years ago, we received a letter that said that his Medicare was being cancelled due to his no longer being disabled. What??? No longer disabled??? Yet, the doctors, and the MRIs, and I, all thought that the tumor, aka time bomb, was still there.
They measured his disability, it turns out, not by his medical situation, but by his work income from the two part time jobs he’s had for fourteen years now. He made too much money to qualify no matter the reality of this time bomb in his head. So I had to search for replacement medical coverage. Not really full medical coverage, but enough to cover his neurology surgeon and her hospital. Other stuff, we’d simply have to pay for out of pocket.
With the advent of Obamacare (and I once worshipped Ayn Rand) I was very relieved. Finally, real coverage with realistic limits on out-of-pocket expenses for deductible and copays. What a weight lifted from me, especially with my fears of what happens to him if , as now looks very likely, he outlives me. I felt safe for the first time since he lost the Medicare.
I thought about that new found feeling of safety, and of not being left alone stranded due to circumstances beyond my – or my son’s – control. I don’t care what anyone says about Obamacare: there is a rightness to it. It is empowering and empowerment is always right. It makes individuals stronger, and that, in turn, makes the societies they are part of also stronger.
And then I read an article in the paper (that I now cannot find.) I read about a little kid with cancer who’d had to be hospitalized a number of times and operated on. Her family had good and full insurance coverage. But the coverage, like almost all of them (?) nowadays, was only for in-network doctors. In the operating room, unbeknownst to the family, out-of-network doctors got involved. Their good insurance paid nothing towards those fees. Tens of thousands of dollars in uncovered fees.
And my feeling of empowerment dissipated instantly. Along with my feeling of my son being safe.
The way we pay for medical care in this country is ridiculous. It is unfair. It is disempowering. It is dangerous.
And I thought to myself, is this how our family-less kids feel all the time? Unsafe to their core? Disempowered always? In danger constantly? No wonder they act the way they do. In many countries in Africa there is no free schooling. Your education depends on the financial circumstances of your parents and their ability to pay tuition. I learned that when I was a kid and I remember thinking then that was ridiculous: no kid should be victimized through something he has no control over. Our job as the adults is to empower our kids; and our job as citizens – adults in society – is to create an empowering society.
Those medical in-network rules are sneaky and two-faced. I wonder if that’s how the kids whom we dump into foster care – or worse, leave there, experience us.
The thought is beyond embarrassing. It is mortifying. And horrifying.
At one of our Family Focus training sessions earlier in the year, I found myself unsure about whether I was repeating an idea that I might have already spoken on many weeks earlier (the trainings are a long fourteen straight weeks, excluding holidays, hurricanes, and so forth.) One of the group members pointed out to me that there was nothing wrong with that as repetition is one time-proven way of learning. Sounds good to me.
And as I have noted in the blog before, one of the inherent risks of writing a blog is repeating oneself over time. I know no reasonable way of avoiding that over the course of years so I leave it to the reader to decide when they’ve read all that I have to say and the repetition is getting out of hand. In the meantime, I blog…..
A continuing theme of the blog has been the damage caused by bureaucrats who misunderstand that following procedures and applying rules should not be robotic. Computers are robotic. Either you give them what they want, the exact way they want it, or you go nowhere. If the computer form, for whatever reason, does not accept periods in one’s name then you don’t enter on the form your middle initial with a period after it. If the computer wants your birthday in this ridiculous form: mm/dd/yyyy, then good luck writing 9/3/50 on it. You will go nowhere till you do it the computer way.
Humans though are not computers and shouldn’t act like them. We all have millions of examples of humans that don’t get that (I was up at the Social Security office yesterday e.g.). What a breath of fresh air then to find folks on the other end who listen and respond as human beings and not robots.
1. My grandsonson has insulin dependent diabetes. He recently got suspended from school and sent to the temporary school for the “bad boys and girls.” What I call “doy-doy” school. At this school, there is no resident nurse, simply an on-call one. There was concern about this by the higher-up medical folks in the district who wanted me to get permission for him to attend by his endocrinologist . That doctor of course wouldn’t/couldn’t speak to his behavior impacting the diabetes etc. etc.. CATCH-22. I responded to the head nurse that an on-call nurse was far beyond anything I had at home and my grandsonson was allowed to go out and about the neighborhood, the malls, the stores, by himself. He was an expert on his diabetes and I was not taking extraordinary risks with him in allowing this. Indeed, he was safer at school with an on-call nurse then he was at home, with no nurse. In addition, I would never be more than 15 minutes away because I had to pick him up each day anyway. Her response? “Good point. I’ll double check with the head doctor, but in the meantime, send him to school.” A human response (but it felt like a small miracle.)
2. Folks with criminal records – 65 million Americans now, according to last Tuesday’s NY Times* – have a terrible time with job applications. Some want to know if you were ever arrested; some, if you were ever convicted. Some go back forever, some only go back seven years. Offenders, often more desperate for jobs then the regular unemployed, have to decide whether to risk lying or risk being automatically rejected for having a record. This past week, an ex-con I call my nephew, got hired for a perfect job – four miles from home, full time, decent hourly wage, paid holidays, vacation etc. (Remember when those were normal jobs?) When the background check came back, however, the job offer was rescinded. It turned out not to be his history that brought this on, but rather that he’d lied on the application. He does that so automatically – right or wrong – that he didn’t even remember that he’d done it. He was devastated by the rescinding of the offer. So I wrote a letter to the company giving context (as I’d done with the nurse in the first story) and asking them to reconsider. Not wanting someone else to be hired in his place, I emailed the letter over so it got there the very next morning before the company opened for the day.
The personnel person called me immediately. Human. We talked. Human. She promised to go to her higher ups. Human. And within hours, the job rescindment was rescinded. Human – and miraculous – still again.
Our lives are lived in context. Bureaucrats don’t get that. Humans do. Are there human bureaucrats? Yes, of course. They are called responsible adults.
After going from December 12, 2012 until March 6, 2013 without doing a posting, I decided that the only way the blog could get its due was if I posted at the same time each week. I chose Sunday mornings, which was consistently the quietest time of my week. I decided to commit to that until June 30th to see how it went. And more or less, it went pretty well. Until, that is, June 9th.
Around that time I was making plans to have my grandson (13) return home. He began visiting each weekend and I had to drive him here on Fridays, and back on Sundays. Each of those weekend days was a one hundred mile round trip. And suddenly the “consistently quietest time of my week” disappeared. When my grandson came home for good in mid-July, the only “consistently quietest time of my week” came when he was asleep. And when that happened, I couldn’t stay awake much longer myself.
In September, I finalized his adoption, committing myself – though the judge never mentioned this – to noise, and interruptions for too many years; as well as to my grandsonson or is it my songrandson? Certainly, the quiet Sunday mornings went away. Four days before his adoption finalization, I became the new executive director of Family Focus. With the combination of the two, it finally dawned upon me just how much of my work requires uninterrupted concentration.
One of the advantages of working at FFAS is that so many of us are based in offices at home. Yet, some years ago, one of my co-workers actually moved out of her home office and went out and rented an office in the next town over. I don’t think I fully grasped the fullness of why she did that, until the past few months. It’s not like I never had kids before, but as the years passed and they grew up and moved out, I unwittingly took on more and more work that requires concentration. Uninterrupted concentration. Consistently uninterrupted concentration. I am not a multi-tasker.
School up here starts ridiculously early. The first class begins at 7am; the bus is at 6:25. So from 6:25 until about 9 or 9:30, I do have a solid block of time during which I am both awake and able to concentrate. I have used that time since school began (unusually late in September) to get caught up on much undone business. And as I did so, I began to get very happy: consistent uninterrupted time – for hours – each school morning. The blog was on my list of things to do, although it wasn’t (obviously) at the top of that list. But it was moving on up.
And then, my grandsonson – yeah, that’s an accurate description – got suspended from school for behavior that was once considered normal, although even back in the day one had to be called on it, and even punished for it. He brought a pocket knife to school. That is what boys do. As a kid, I did it myself – I used to whittle; and I was a Cub Scout. Before Columbine, of course.
The suspension lasted for three weeks. And that only because I hired a lawyer – you can imagine what that cost – to protect him from the 45 days – one quarter of the school year – that they were seeking. What’s next? The death penalty?
This morning my grandsonson went back to school. Finally.
And I got back my uninterrupted time. Not as consistently as my Sundays once were – given all the normal days off from school, that’s now just history. But the best I am going to get for far too many more years most likely.
So I am back.
Let’s try Tuesday mornings and see how that goes. Maybe with some make-ups thrown in on some other days, huh?
One of our FFAS kids, now a young adult, wrote a poem to open up the evening on Friday night. His name is David Whitaker. His words just floored me, when I finally got a chance to concentrate on them. It was a wonderful gift for Maris. And for me. Different words for the same concept: “If Not For You….”
“Ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind”
I’m going to tell you a story
And though I am no Bard,
This may catch you a lil off guard.
This is a story of a woman and her friend
And the countless lives they set out to mend.
The woman with a heart so big
Love glowed upon her, a gift from the gods
And extreme maternal instincts put her above all odds
For no one could get in her way.
The man, her friend, with a mind so wise
Had skills of the word, for he should be the Bard.
But the two friends had a plan to devise
After life had shown them their calling card.
These two friends took their hearts and mind
To find all the children that were left behind
Any child from any land, far or near
Black or white, young or old, normal or queer
Each child they met
Only erased their doubt
Through worry or fret
Or State backing out
They had to give these kids a home
And that they did.
The two friends found each a family, a good shalom
[Yeah, yeah, I didn’t post last week. I apologize to all who were expecting the once a week posting. So today, I’ll post two, okay?]
My boss at Family Focus, Maris Blechner, an agency founder and the sole executive director for almost twenty-six years, has decided that it’s time to retire. It won’t happen till the end of August, but her staff decided that we wanted to give her a retirement party and to schedule it before summer vacations kicked in. The party happened on Friday night.
The theme for the party we had decided on months ago, almost as soon as we decided on having the party. We took it from that wonderful Bob Dylan song, made much more popular when it was covered by the late, and still greatly missed, George Harrison: “If Not For You…..” (The Richie Havens’ version – which I discovered only upon searching for as many versions as I could find is – to my mind – the best of the forty plus that I found, and given Havens’ death last month, has a special poignancy:
I doubt that anybody gave Maris more grief that I did over these years. There were times I wanted to kill her, and I am sure there were even far more times that she wanted to kill me. But, as I have said repeatedly, in many contexts, one measures who a person is by the best you have ever witnessed of them. Not the worst; not the average; not the typical; not the stuff that you hate; not the stuff that frustrates you. Their best is what defines them. All else is only human failure to live up to whom we are.
Maris created an agency – and did what she needed to do to keep it alive for all these years – whose lifeblood is empowerment: empowerment of her staff; empowerment of the families who come to us to adopt; and empowerment of the kids for whom we transition into families.
At the event, I had to speak – as the incoming director. I stood up on the stage of this beautiful classy room at Columbia University’s Italian Academy, and I looked out at all the folks who had come to show their respect for and gratitude to Maris, despite the travel advisories, and realities, of torrential rains from the first tropical storm of the season. And I thought, “Yep, if not for you…..”
You know, if you had a great relationship with your third grade teacher, you might well want to honor that teacher and thank him or her. But, the truth is that if that teacher never existed, you would still have finished the third grade, and you would have had a different third grade teacher. It might not have been as good an experience; it might have been even a horrible experience. But it would have happened.
When my father couldn’t take care of us after my mother’s death, I think every last one of our aunts and uncles stepped up to offer to take one of us. Every last one. Good people and I loved each of them. But it was Aunt Rita and Uncle Frank who changed our world. Specifically, Aunt Rita’s thinking and realness that changed our world. The power of “If not for you….” has been very personal for me for a long long long time. And Msgr. Huntington? “If not for you…” It comes down to the experience of being saved as a person, not just rescued as a student, a nephew, a client, a neighbor, and so forth. It doesn’t have to be directly – like Aunt Rita and Chris Huntington saved me. It can be by creating an enviornment, a structure, a way of “doing” like Maris has done. It can be by being the support for the ones who can then do it directly. It can be by creating an agency that gives kids the parents who then change their world. And as one of the parents there Friday night, Joyce Wilcox, pointed out to me, by giving parents the kids who then change the parents’ world.
Friday night, standing at that podium, looking around the room at so many of the children, many now grown, who had been adopted through us, I was overwhelmed. One after the other after the other had been children who had been effectively, and disgracefully, written off by the system till we came along, with our empowering placement protocols. We not only got them adopted, we got them adopted forever. Not a counterfeit adoption in the room.
At one point, from the podium, I began to tease my adult son, Luis, standing up front among all these people. Luis was one of those kids twenty-two years ago. He was referred to us at twelve and we were told he would be dead due to his brain tumor by twenty years old. All kids with his kind of tumor were dead by twenty. Did that deter Maris? Did it deter any of us at FFAS? Yeah right…..we couldn’t find a family for him, and that’s how I ended up with him. But now, twenty-two years later, and fourteen years past the predicted end of his life, he was standing there in that room. And I said directly to him, “Luis, it was I who made the decision to adopt you, right?” And proud as anything, as though the impact on his brain of that still-there-tumor didn’t exist, he yelled up to me in front of all these people, “You got it wrong. I made the decision.” And when I then said, “Okay, Luis, but it was a twenty year contract right?” he responded, “Maybe for you it was twenty years, but for me it is forever.” Lots of kids in that room Friday night – grown or not – could identify immediately with Luis’ words that came from his deeply rooted and strongly felt sense of empowerment. Their parents too. Maris created the protective umbrella under which she and her staff were able to bring that into existence. All the rest, good or bad, that she did, or didn’t do – all of it – pales by comparison. No Maris? No Luis in that room Friday night.
And these kids, if not adopted by the families who adopted them, would not have been adopted elsewhere. They wouldn’t have been adopted at all. That is a fact that we all know. And it gives the words “if not for you” an impact like no others I’ve ever experienced.
To know that you have changed the world for a particular kid, and his parents, forever and for real by the choices that you have made, should make it clear why we chose as our final summing up theme for Maris’ tenure, “If Not For You…..” The words to the song are not precisely applicable, but they are so close…..to what Maris has given to so many. Including me.