Being safe

I imagine that my godson is often confused. The rules at Aunt Lorraine’s house are quite different than the ones that he is expected to follow at home. I know that he was bewildered when I COMPLETELY FREAKED OUT over him nonchalantly throwing a wrapper out of the car window. “We DON’T do that! That’s mean to the people who work here–they will have to pick it up!” (having worked retail, I am constantly trying to teach the children in my life to respect the fact that someone will have to clean up after them.) Clearly, he had seen someone casually throw garbage out of the car window before, most likely more than once.

Having a different set of rules means that it’s inevitable that some of what I tell him to be true will not be true in his “other” world. To be fair, some of the things I say are not really true in my world either, but they are things that I wish to be true. Case in point: “If someone loves you, they won’t hurt you”. Simple enough, right?

When a child is three, it is difficult to discern how much truth there is in anything he says. “My brother called me a punk”–well, that I believe, but I know that the brother in question would have said this in a joking way. I also know that this little boy knows that he has his Auntie’s heart, and that I will pour out compassion and sympathy on him at the least hint of a wrong being done to him–and this despite the fact that I also know him to have a self-righteous/”poor me” mentality much of the time. In his world, even accidental slights can be cause for dramatics, and one’s motives are often questioned. (“You DID do that on purpose!”)

I believe with all my heart, though, that although children’s words may not always be truthful, nonetheless they have ways of telling that come through loud and clear and that are the Gospel truth. We recently had one of those moments. Through a combination of what he said, what he acted out, and the surrounding facts that I was aware of, I knew that someone who loves him (or claims to love him) had hurt him. And because he is three, because our society does not believe children, because I cannot “prove” anything, there is very little I can do about it. Direct confrontation would be met with outright denial or worse, with me being cut off and therefore even less able to try to shelter him.

(I had a therapist once who said of abuse that “children think they tell”. I think that’s somewhat of a cop-out. Are they really not telling, or are we just not listening?)

Ever since this incident, I have spent a lot of time trying to reassure him with this lie–“people who love you are not going to hurt you”. The night he disclosed to me, he had a lot of questions for me. Well, really the same question, asked in a myriad of ways–“Snoopy (stuffed animal) is not going to hurt me? Max and Ruby are not going to hurt me?” and so on. I had told him that love and the infliction of physical pain were incompatible, and this was very much at odds with what he knew to be true.

His brothers adore him, but yes, they are boys, and so they play rough with him . . . but they do love him, and they are not usually cruel. It was not one of his brothers who did this to him. But he has often reported to me that his brothers did this or called him that, and that is when I tell him another lie: “They’d better not hurt you or call you names! If they do, you tell me and I’ll stop them.” It’s another variation of the same lie I tell him when he is clinging desperately to me because there is a dog nearby, or he is convinced that Chuck E Cheese is hiding somewhere. “I won’t let anybody hurt you . . . I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” How do I explain to him that what I mean is that in this moment, and when I can control it, I will keep him safe, but that I cannot promise to keep him safe every moment of every day, because the world doesn’t work that way?

“If someone hurts you, you tell me, and I will do something about it.” Lovey,  I so want this to be true, and yet I know that this statement must confuse you. Because you did tell me, and I know in my heart of hearts that you are telling the truth, and yet I have lied to you–there is nothing I can do, or at least nothing that will not make things worse for you.

I can’t “prove” that it happened, and I am too much of a coward to confront either the perpetrator or his enabler. All I can really do is to try to teach this child that this is not how things should be. In the meantime, I continue to speak these words that he must surely take in with bewilderment and a sense of despair: “You deserve to be safe. If someone hurts you, tell me and I will protect you.”

I will find a way, Lovey. You deserve to be safe. You deserve to live your life unafraid. And if I really love you like I say I do, then I need to push past my own cowardice and fight for you until all of the lies I am telling you become truth.

Choices to be made . . .

Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.
Sydney J. Harris

In the iconic television game show The Price is Right Let’s Make a Deal, one of the popular games requires the contestant to select from among three doors. If I am remembering this correctly, the prize behind Door #1 is revealed, and the contestant then needs to decide whether they are going to keep that prize, or risk asking to see what is behind Door #2 or Door #3. What’s behind those other doors could be much better than what is in front of the contestant, or it could be much worse.

I have been thinking about doors quite a bit lately as I have been reevaluating my life, because I have seen what’s behind Door #2 and Door #3 (or at least, I have seen a glimpse of each of them), and yet I stand here, hesitating, almost paralyzed by the crushing weight of inertia.

I am not happy with my life as it is. I am sure that this is no surprise to anybody who knows me. And for years, I have vacillated, unsure which direction to take. I am annoyingly fickle; it seems like I follow a given passion for a while before discarding it for the next whim or fad that comes along. A few things have remained constant, however, at least on the macro level. I have not outgrown my love for children, or my passion for fighting racism. The desire to have someone to mother is another longing that I have not been able to shake.

Over the last few years, desperate for something to change, I have felt a pull to two different doors, each related to these underlying passions. I have taken halting steps towards each of those doors; however, I have yet to make a choice, and I am hyper-aware of the fact that time is passing me by, and that every day of non-decision is a day that brings me closer to being stuck with the crappy-living-room-furniture set that is my current “Door #1”.

Behind Door #2 is the “mommy” prize. I have glimpsed into this door, even going so far as to take a few initial foster care licensing classes. My experiences with Elijah have convinced me that I would be able to do the hard work of fostering without any promise of permanency, and I am awestruck at the thought of what a gift and a privilege it would be to be in a hurting child’s life for a season. Am I certain that I could do it? Not at all. But I know that the need is huge, and I do not want to avoid doing something merely because it is difficult.

Door #3 holds the “teacher” prize. Having pursued (repeatedly, and unsuccessfully) a particular alternative teacher certification program has been a roller coaster. Certainty that it was going to happen, followed by crushing disappointment. Trying again . . . and again. Still not succeeding, and yet, unable to shake the almost visceral sense that this is what I am meant to do. That feeling ebbs and flows . . . working a temp job grading standardized tests recently, I felt the pull again, “seeing” these students and their need through their essay answers. Who is going to speak for those who have no one to advocate for them? Again, the need is huge, so why not me?

I have begun to identify steps that would bring me closer to being able to walk through one or the other of these doors, but I have a long way to go. I am paralyzed by indecision, however, and my greatest fear is that I will continue NOT to act, that I will indeed waste my life. Tomorrow isn’t promised, and my body reminds me daily that I am getting older. If I don’t do something now, I am certain that I will wake up one day an old lady, sitting on that outdated piece of furniture that will daily serve as a reminder of the way that I chose the default option, the “safe” choice that is no choice at all.

I believe I was created to live a life that matters. That I am not moving in that direction is a travesty of the worst sort. I need to fling open one of these doors; there is work to be done. I say that I want to live the way my heroes did, but those words ring hollow in the shadow of my inaction. I need to work around the pile of excuses that have held me back for so long. I need to move forward, because life will not wait for me. And the one thing I am certain of is that what is beyond those other doors will enrich my life in ways that I cannot yet fathom.

I just pray that I don’t miss it.

What’s in a name?

“What’s your name?”

The elderly lady smiled at Elijah and asked him this seemingly innocuous question. I am certain that she had no idea how complicated this question actually was. I watched him, wondering what he would say. Most of the time lately, he will say, “I’m Moo-Moo” (TiTi Lena’s nickname for him from the start). When I call him “Elijah”, the name I’ve been calling him since before he was born, he answers to that name. But on this day, he turned to the woman and said, “Cecil*”.

And my heart sunk. Because yes, his name is Cecil. Cecil Elijah Davis (“Jr. III”, but that’s a story for another day).

Before he was born, Sara and I had managed to talk Mona into reversing the order of his names. Instead of Cecil Elijah, we had her convinced to call him Elijah, with Cecil as his middle name. “All of your other boys have names from the Bible”, we told her. And then there was what we didn’t say – that the Cecil he was to be named after was nowhere to be found. It was Elijah’s aunties who brought Mona to and from her doctor’s appointments in those long two and a half months between the time she found out she was pregnant and the time Elijah arrived. We were the ones who took her to her weekly non-stress tests. We were the ones who encouraged her to eat correctly when her diabetes was raging out of control. When the doctor told Mona, “We have to keep an eye on things because we don’t want your baby to be stillborn”, I was the one who had to ask her, “Mona, do you know what ‘stillborn’ means?” I almost came to blows with a friend of Mona’s who was goading her into mocking my assertion that hers had been a high-risk pregnancy, because I knew. I knew, because I was there.

A few days before the baby was born, Cecil Senior (who himself is also Cecil Junior; there’s a whole lotta “unclear on the concept” going on here) strode back onto the scene, with that toothpick dangling from his mouth and that creepy, controlling demeanor. When we wanted to visit Elijah in the step-up NICU,  we were not permitted to enter without him (or Mona) accompanying us. Nothing we had been through together mattered at that point. We were out, and he was in, and so was the new name. Baby Elijah was now Baby Cecil. (This was also the point at which I started calling the father “FOTY”, for “Father of the Year”, because he swaggered in acting like he was in charge and feigning great interest in the baby’s health issues while he was in the step-up NICU).

It’s been almost three years, and I’ve gone on calling him Elijah without giving it a second thought, until recently. By the time the above conversation occurred, this had already been nagging at me for a while. Part of the issue is that FOTY is in the picture to a much greater extent these days, and although I still feel like I need to wash myself in bleach every time I interact with the man, I have to begrudgingly admit that Elijah seems to do well with him. And although he’s never said a word about it, I am almost to the point where I feel like I’m being disrespectful by not calling the child by his given name in the presence of his namesake.

I think the hardest thing for me, though, is hearing my beloved Elijah refer to himself by this other name. When I ask him, “Who’s Elijah, then?” he points to himself . . . he knows that this is the name that Aunt Sara, Aunt Lorraine, and everybody in our circle calls him. But when he is talking more, and going into more and more situations where people will call him by his “real” name, I am starting to seriously question how I should handle this.

I can’t call him Cecil. I just can’t do it. He is, and always will be, “Elijah” to me. But I don’t know what to do about everybody else. When I signed him up for nursery at church, I listed his name as “Elijah”, and so his name tag does not say “Cecil”. I find myself waiting for the day when FOTY will show his true colors and fly into a rage about this, demanding that the name be corrected, and while I don’t think that avoiding a scene is a good enough reason to give in, I find myself more and more wondering what the “right” thing to do really is in this situation.

I know he’s not my child. But I don’t know what to do. What is the right thing to do in this situation? How can I be fair to his biological father while still acknowledging that I, too, am a part of his life, and that he has never been anybody other than Elijah to me?

What would you do if you were in my situation?

(*pronounced “Sea-sill”, not “Ses-sill” as in B. De Mille)

Sunday blogging against . . . myself?

It has to have been seven or eight months since this happened, but it has haunted me ever since. So much so, in fact, that I have resisted writing about it here out of my embarrassment and shame. But, delinquent blogger that I am, I have to write something, and so here goes . . .

I was in the food court at the mall, and because I was still recovering from my ankle surgery last year, I was maneuvering with the help of Speed Racer. Sara had Elijah and was getting herself settled with him, and I was trying to get Chinese food and make my way back to the table. Yes, on one leg and while trying to maneuver a tray of food.

An African-American woman at the next counter over saw me struggling and had compassion on me. She told her son (who was about 9 or 10) to come over and offer to help me, which he did.

I was not paying attention to my surroundings, as usual, and so did not notice this sweet young man coming up to me until he was right next to me. When I realized he was trying to speak to me, I jumped . . . as I was trying to get his words to translate from my ears to my brain (something I tend to have trouble with under any circumstances), I looked at him with a panicked, forced smile and shook my head while sputtering something like, “no, thank you, I’ve got it, but I appreciate the offer”. I think I then said something about how I was shaking my head “yes” while saying “no” with my mouth–something like, “I know that I’m shaking my head the opposite of what I am saying”–but I don’t know. maybe I’m not remembering that part correctly.

I know I am remembering the forced, automatic and fake smile, though. My facial muscles still ache with self-condemnation every time I think about it.

I have so many excuses for why I jumped out of my skin when he approached me. Primary among those is the fact that having both ADHD and PTSD means that I both zone out easily and startle easily. One of my coworkers, after having seem me react that way one time too many, has taken to using very deliberate footsteps when she approaches me. I hate when I am jumpy like that, because it is never in any way the fault of the person who has (unintentionally) startled me, but people quite often take it personally.

But I have no excuse. This sweet, polite young man had absolutely no  reason to interpret the look of terror in my eyes, combined with the fake, plastered smile and meaningless words, as anything other than what I fear it really was.For this young man, and for his mother, my personal history was not even a factor. I am certain that they could only assume I was reacting in that over-exaggerated way because of a fear or a distrust of black men. How could it be interpreted any other way?

I still wish to this day that I had gone back to them and said something. I sometimes fantasize that I’ll somehow run into them again and will be able to make my apology, even though I barely remember what they looked like anymore. And I don’t want to give a complicated justification for my actions–“It’s unconscious–it’s a learned response”, blah blah blah, shut up, Lorraine . . . I just want to tell him how very, very sorry I am.

All I know is that in that moment, I wounded the heart of that little boy, and somehow sent the message that, no matter how many kind things he might do in his life, that there are always going to be white women reacting in unfounded fear at the very sight of him. And as I sat down for dinner with my own precious brown-skinned godson Elijah sitting next to me, my heart broke at the thought that he too will grow up in a world where people will instinctively and automatically jump in fear when they see him coming . . . even if he is the sweetest little boy in the world, and even if he comes with the most altruistic of motives . . . because at the end of the day, the inheritance we’ve all carried down through the years is one of mistrust, of irrational fear, and of unconscious, yet immediate judgments based on appearance.

I do not want Elijah to have to face the reality that I subjected this boy to . . . this young man who only wanted to be helpful, but who got only disdain and disrespect in return.

I can’t go back to that day and change my actions . . . all I can do is to continue to fight this monster of racism that rears its ugly head so often. I owe it to that young man to do so. I owe it to Elijah. And I owe it to myself, because this below-the-surface racism is a poison that needs to be eliminated from my body, mind and soul.

I’m so sorry, young man, wherever you may be. I’m sorry that you have to face a world filled with people like me. But I have to thank you as well, because your kind gesture taught me so much more than you will ever know.

Not the mommy . . .

“Are you his mom?”

It’s a fair question, and I’m quite used to it by now, especially from kids (or others) who are trying to make sense out of this white-skinned woman with a brown-skinned child in tow. When I’m out and about, I will do everything I can to refer to myself as “Auntie Lorraine” (because I *am* becoming THAT person–talking to him non-stop in the store, narrating everything–so basically talking to myself :-o), and if people say something about how cute he is, I often respond with, “Thanks; I wish I could take credit for him!” I also try to make it clear to people that he belongs to someone, that he has a mama . . . when one woman remarked about how beautiful his eyes were, I smiled and said, “Yep, he has his mama’s eyes!”

Again, it’s not as if the question is out of bounds–certainly when I am out and about with him, I give every appearance of being a mom . . . when I walked into church on Mother’s Day this year, with a toddler trying to squirm out of my arms and a diaper bag slung over my shoulder, I had to stop myself when one of the ushers wished me a Happy Mother’s Day . . . started my usual, “Thanks, but I’m not . . . ” and then realized how preposterous that would seem. Too much to explain . . . so I just said “Thank you!” and left it at that.

Today, the question came from a girl at my apartment complex’s pool . . . one of those needy kids that always seem to glom onto me in public places, seeking my attention . . . her mom was sunbathing, and she was in the water and asking me a zillion questions. “Do you know how to swim? Can you show me how you can swim? Does he want to come in the water? What’s that on his face?” (answers are “yes”, “not now because I have to keep an eye on the baby”, “I think he needs time to get used to it”, and “boogers”.)

She was the one who asked me if I was Elijah’s mom . . . but then later, when I was talking to another little boy, who was about four years old and was doing that “kid” thing of “I’m not getting out of the water even though my teeth are chattering and I’m turning blue!”, she looked at me again and asked, “Are you his mom?” And again, I said no, but this was a little too much for me . . . I had to bite my tongue to resist saying, “I’m not anybody’s mom”. And in that moment, I was overcome with sadness at the thought of this. No matter how many times my friends tell me that I’m “like a mom” or a “second mom”, no matter how many diapers I change or baths I give or how full of little clothes my closet becomes, the fact remains that I am still not anybody’s mommy  . . . I do not have primary responsibility for any of these little lives. And I don’t know if or when I will ever have that privilege, and yes, sometimes that makes me very, very sad. I don’t even know that I subscribe to the “it’s better to be an aunt because you can send them home to their mom” idea anymore . . . the more time I spend “playing mommy”, the less I *want* to send them home. What I want, more than anything, is to BE “home” to at least one child.

People ask me if I want a man . . . often, this question comes from some of my single friends who are my age or older and who themselves feel that lack deeply . . . but I am old, and stuck in my ways, and can’t even imagine myself in a relationship at this point in my life. But a child? Yes . . . I still want a child of my own. Although giving birth myself seems more and more unlikely, I keep telling myself  that “when I get my life together” I will adopt a child . . . but because this is *my* life, it’s not likely that I will ever get it together, so I don’t know if it will ever happen . . .

I am grateful for the privilege of having so many precious children in my life, and I don’t take that privilege lightly . . . but there is still a hole in my heart, a space waiting for the chance to be called “mommy” . . .

I hope that someday that hole will be filled, but for now, I will love the children God has placed in my life, and I will try to tell myself that this is enough . . .