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.”