Nothing Gets Between Us

It’s only in adoption, I think, where one’s oldest child is not always one’s first. I became an adoptive parent due to my experience with my son Ricky whom I met when he was eleven.  But, although I adopted all his brothers, I never adopted Ricky until he was way into his adulthood. I had helped get him into what I mistakenly thought was a wonderful institution in Miami, when he was about 14 or 15, and he never returned to live in New York. By 21, he was in prison down there and though we wrote and he called, I only saw him about once a year.

Before he went to Florida, he was in a number of institutions up here, including a psychiatric ward and a psychiatric hospital.  None helped him. I remember seeing him in those hospitals all drugged up and out of it. It was how they controlled his behavior.  I visited him wherever he was.  But none of us were giving him what he needed.

When Ricky was dying from AIDS in a prison hospital in Florida, in 1995, I flew down to visit him.  My visit was limited to an hour – maybe two, I can’t remember – on each of the two days I was allowed to see him (bureaucratic prison system). Ricky was in isolation, looking almost as bony as anyone coming out of the concentration camps ever did – he weighed, he told me, under 100 pounds.  He was very sick – they were worried about TB, as I remember – and though neither of us knew how close it was, he would be dead not six weeks later.

During the visit, looking back on his life, Ricky made the observation that I had “always been there” for him.  That was simply not true by any standard of “always been there” that other people, including me, would use.  I wasn’t there when he got out of Montanari’s (the place in Miami); I wasn’t there when he got arrested; I wasn’t there at his trial, etc. I was here – I was raising his brothers – I was working two jobs – I was busy.  I loved him; I’d always loved him; but I wasn’t there as I wished later I had been, or wished, at least, that I could have been.

But since I had met him twenty three years earlier, I had always been in his life; I had adopted all of his brothers; and when I ultimately woke up – he woke me up –  I adopted him also, although we finalized the adoption only eleven months before he died. He had always been mine, and I had always been his.   In the end that’s what constituted “always being there” to him.  I had hopes for Ricky. I felt his loss very much and I miss him still all these years later.

It all adds up to “family,” doesn’t it?

Last night, almost forty years after I met Ricky, I visited one of my grandkids – I won’t name him – who is himself currently in a psychiatric ward of a hospital.   His parents are nowhere to be found. When I walked into the ward, the staff advised me – in retrospect, it was a warning – that my grandson had just been “injected” due to some violence on his part. They put me in the dining room, where the visit would take place, and they went and got him. He came in with his own personal staff member. They call it one-to-one.  And as my grandson walked through the door, I was brought back in memory to two very sad places. The first was Ricky in the hospitals so medicated that he was out of it and could barely hold his head up, let alone talk. And the second was to the book, the off-Broadway play (that I saw over 20 times), and the movie: “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”

They had my grandson on some cocktail of injected drugs, including the infamous Thorazine.  Like Ricky, he couldn’t hold his head up. He could hear me, he could respond to me, but it was like talking to someone who has just come out of a very deep sleep, and was still exhausted. A zombie is not too far off as a description. I wondered if he’d even remember our conversation later.

I knew that I had to do two things that I had not done with Ricky: first, I had to reassure him over and over and over that he belongs to me, and I to him, and that nothing will get between us ever; and second, that what has happened to him in his life, that’s brought him to this point, no matter what he thinks, is not – absolutely not – his fault.  It never was. Those who know me, know that I often bring into my conversation whoever else is around, to make my points. The young guy who was on one-to-one was terrific, just terrific, in going with that flow. He allowed me to talk to him about the issues which allowed my grandson to hear without being obliged to respond. I was very grateful to that aide.

As the decades go by, I still keep thinking: what are we missing?  What are we not getting? What are we not giving these kids, who feel to me so incredibly – and deeply – trapped?  I remember Fr. Huntington telling me so very many years ago, that the older he got, the more he had come to believe that all the psychiatry and psychology in the world amounted to very little.  He told me that it was becoming clearer and clearer to him that it was simply – no matter how difficult – a matter of love.  Certainly, for me looking back, it was his love, and Aunt Rita’s, that saved me. The rest of it amounted to little compared to what they gave me.

Because what they gave me – and what seems to be missing, or more accurately blocked, for our kids – was me.  They gave me, me. 

I think that that is what Ricky was referring to in that prison hospital room.  Not that I had succeeded at it – he was, after all, in prison dying – but that that was what I had always been trying to give him.  Certainly, it’s what I knew I had to give my grandson last night.  What Fr. Huntington taught me in words, and Aunt Rita taught me in actions, is that one has to be given oneself through a person who chooses to love you.

And, I realized earlier this week, that most of choosing to love someone appears to be simply hanging on, no matter where they take you.

The difference between Ricky and me then vs. my grandson and me now?  I guess after all these years I am clearer.

Every person has to do their own work in saving themselves, I know that. But without having the context and the anchor of being loved by someone who is bigger than oneself (read: parent or parent substitute) what chance is there for anyone to do that? 

And, so again, my belief in, and trust of, adoption.  Because it allows for the parent-less to get real parents. I know it’s not enough, but it opens the road to enough.

As I told my grandson, and wished I had been so explicit with Ricky: “Nothing gets between us; no feeling, no behavior, no person. Nothing.”


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4 Responses to Nothing Gets Between Us

  1. Ines Miyares says:

    Thank you, Jack. I needed this today. I am currently in a motel room 3,000 miles from home, getting ready to drive 4 1/2 hours to the therapeutic boarding school where my son currently lives. Is this a happy visit? Not really, although it could have been. He made some foolish choices that are having this visit be limited in contact time and focused on its primary purpose–redoing his school assessment so he realizes he’s been caught in “pretending to be stupid”–what got him through the system. He learned the “poor pitiful foster boy who must be developmentally disabled” game quite young. His birth father is, and so is one of his birth brothers, so he brilliantly observed how to put on a convincing show, and since those who care for foster kids, no matter how good intentioned, don’t often have enough of a vested interest in the kids’ best, kids in the system perfect the games that will get them what they think in best for them.

    the problem is that they are kids, and they don’t know what’s best for them, and that’s where real parents come in. I’m here, no matter how much it costs me and knowing I will get very little fun time with my son, because I know he put in random answers in his assessment so he would come out substantially below grade level. I’m sorry, but why did he assess at 4th grade math when he was acing pre-algebra four months ago? Because he thought he could get away with it. Now Mom’s going to be here sitting with him re-doing his assessment and making him face that he is actually an incredibly bright young man with real strengths in math and science–who he really is and not who he pretends to be. Okay that’s scary to face, because then people expect more of him, but he has so much potential if he would just see the truth about himself. That’s my job as his mom-to be a mirror that helps him see the truth. He is no longer “poor pitiful foster boy.” He is my son. He has so much God-given talent and potential. It’s not about me at all. It’s all about him knowing that just because I have him in this program, I have not stopped being his mom. Not now, not ever.

    I went through it differently with my older (also adopted) son. Out of love, I had to remove him from the house when he was almost 21, but did not abandon him. Once he came to his senses, I sent him to live with a long-time friend and male mentor who would hold him accountable to becoming a man–a responsible working adult–something he was refusing to do under my roof. I recently visited him as well, but in that case, it was a joyous healing reunion. He actually thanked me for what I had done, no matter how painful it had been for both of us. He is finally coming into his own, the walls are coming down, and the healing is finally beginning. He is finally facing the truth about himself, his past, his choices, and who he is, not just who he was. We have talked more in the past few weeks than we have in the past few years. A lot of it was because I refused to give up on him, no matter what it cost me, even to the point of removing him from the home. Yes sometimes love looks like that, but it’s always focused on its ultimate purpose–what is best for the other person–in this case, our kids. Yes what happened to him in the past was not his fault. Now as a young adult, who he becomes is his choice. And in making that choice, he knows he has a mom who loves him no matter what.

  2. Camille Hehn says:

    I am reading, (listening to) a book by Norah Vincent, “Voluntary Madness.” She poses as a “crazy” person and gets admitted to a large psychiatric hospital in a big city. What you wrote here touches a lot on what I’m reading and how psychiatry is nothing but prescribing a cocktail of drugs to “zombify” the folks and not provide them with any kind of “human” treatment. She relates that she was able to communicate coherently with many of the people who were on the ward with her, although most seemed very delusional in many ways. The relationship the hospital staff had with the patients was derisive and rude, to say the least. Her description of the loss of her free will and how that dehumanized her was profound and understandable. She was treated like she was sub-human by the staff and ponders how the patients that are so powerless in the system can begin to heal under such oppression. When you spoke about your grandson, it reminded me of a young man she describes in the book. She constantly wonders about the effect of simple human contact and concern in healing someone who is so profoundly disturbed and yet she, as another patient and non-professional in the field, could discover each of the other patient’s needs and give them something of herself and watch them respond.

    As I struggle to figure out how to respond to my sons, who I believe struggle themselves to find some sort of peace, balance, equilibrium, something in their lives that will allow them to open themselves up to what they are really feeling and be able to move on despite all that has happened to them. And as I try to remain connected and present in their lives, your words here were powerful. I hope that what I get across to my sons is the same as your message, that I will always be their mother and do those things that a mother is supposed to do, no matter what, despite the fact that they are grown up men.

  3. For sure it’s a “matter of love” and faith in the power of it. In the words of my daughter Lea, you must “love fearlessly”. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your grandson.

  4. Thank you, Jack. You always make me think so deeply.

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