I finished a good book last month by a man older than me who was in prison in Angola (Louisiana) for 44 years. Angola has had a rep for decades as being among the nation’s worst prisons, and I was intrigued that this man – Wilbert Rideau – had survived there for so long. The name of the book is “In The Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance.” I’m always, also and of course, intrigued by the notion of “Deliverance.”
At one point, Rideau was taken under the wing of a warden named Phelps. Rideau later referred to Phelps as the “big brother and even the father figure I never really had.” Phelps was a good man and taught Rideau much. But one thing that he taught him has gotten it’s grip on me for a few weeks now. Warden Phelps told him, in some context where action was required: “You have a responsibility to act for others when you’re the only person in a position to do so.” Both Aunt Rita and Msgr. Huntington acted for me, when each was the “only person in a position to do so.” And in so doing they gave me a life that I’d have never imagined for myself.
Our theme this past year at Family Focus has been a biblical quote from Holocaust survivor, author, and witness, Elie Wiesel: “Thou shalt not stand idly by.” I believe that. I believe that each of us has a responsibility to act, for instance, when we see evil taking place before us. But the interpretation of evil covers a big subjective ground. The warden makes things much more personal, much more specific, and therefore, much more demanding. I’d have liked to have met him (he died a few years back – at my age.)
The warden’s words have been haunting me. And haunting me. And haunting me still again.
Because of Ted (see way earlier posts).
We have not been able to find a family for Ted, try though we have. Ted apparently told his social worker that he wanted me to adopt him and the powers that be asked me if that was my intention. I laughed. Ted turned eleven this year; I’ll be sixty one in two months. My kids are mostly in their forties or heading there pretty quick. I have five local grandchildren within a year of Ted’s age, and the rest range from a few months old to twenty three. No, I’m not adopting anybody. I am, as they say, too old.
And then the warden’s words come back to me: “You have a responsibility to act for others when you’re the only person in a position to do so.” No one had stepped forward for this boy. No one had even responded to our outreach on him. I already have one grandson living with me, though he’s now twenty two. I started thinking. Why not take Ted, not as my son, but as my grandson? He’d be surrounded by uncles who’d more or less themselves been in his position of abandonment; and he’d have cousins his age. Being a grandfather has been a heck of a lot easier for me than being a father. Legally, of course, it wouldn’t fly, but anything reasonable can generally be worked out one way or another.
Damn warden. Damn book.
Am I the only person “in a position to do so”? No. Others could, but they aren’t stepping forward. And I have the history with Ted in trying to get his adoptive parents to keep him in their family. And then experiencing with him his horror when they walked away. I have the room in the house (well, I’d have to build a new bedroom – the eighth!); I most certainly have the experience raising kids like Ted. And I was given what I needed when I was only six years older than him, by two of the best folks I’ve ever met. How could I not offer it to Ted?
What I don’t have, probably, is a long future. The Brennans don’t have a great record in getting much past 70, and my mother’s family is worse. But by the time I turn 70, Ted would be almost 21. The measure isn’t whether this is a good idea or not. It’s not. I can think of plenty of better ones. The measure is whether or not this is a realistic idea – and for Ted, I can’t think of any others that aren’t wishful thinking. The truth is that his future, if I don’t do this, is group care of some sort with not a single legal relative anywhere. A true legal orphan. And that’s no future.
So I go full circle. My life as a parent began four decades ago with meeting Ricky, another eleven year old who had nobody real to parent him and that led me ultimately to what has been a wonderful life for me. I guess there is some justice to finishing that life with parenting another eleven year old.
Was this what I was looking for for my sixties? My sixties??? No. No way. No way at all. Absolutely not. Not even in my wildest and most scary dreams. But John Lennon probably put it best: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
And this was not in the plans.
Wow. I’m stunned. Amazing, Jack. My hero. My son was just saying the other day that he didn’t have any heroes. I said, “What about Jack?!” “Oh, yeah,” he said, “Jack is my hero.” And he meant it. Me too.
Think of it this way: For many years, grandparents in their sixties have been caring for their grandchildren – and caring well – when they were needed. They became just “old” parents – and there isn’t a mature grandparent I know who wouldn’t step forward in an instant to take that role to help a child. You don’t ask for it. It is given to you, usually by a child’s hard times. There is an ancient Hebrew writing, Ethics of the Fathers, that includes some wonderful and relevant words: “Yours is not to complete the task, but neither can you desist from it.” Just think of yourself as not desisting, again!
I am so moved by this. Thanks for this post, Jack.
So true; leave it to John Lennon.