By Jeanie Kortum
He begins speaking the moment he enters the room. “I had to crawl under the bed and call 911 when my daddy was hitting my mommy,” Jeremy announces. Skin as brown as California hills in summer, a quick bright smile despite what he has just announced.
He examines us. “I’ve been waiting for a mommy and a daddy for a long time,” he confides. “I told my social worker I wanted parents who would love me, I wanted to be read to at night and I wanted a teddy bear and the nightlight.” Jeremy lays out a row of miniature toy cups. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asks. We nod and he pretends to pour coffee.
We walked out of that office that first day unable to talk, arrowheads of love sent straight into our hearts.
Adopting a child from social services is a debilitating process. Months and months of looking at pictures of children in a small office. At first I yearned for each and every face, but by page fifty or so, sitting in that stifling room, I became hard. I was a consumer of the very worst kind, a consumer of kids.
Then one day we turned the page and there he was. “That’s the one!” my husband and I said almost at the same time.
This was our second marriage. Mike had three kids and I had one. Our children were grown and we had room in our lives and hearts to raise one more.
In the weeks to come, waiting for him to move in, I showed Jeremy’s picture—big smile, wearing a little dinosaur T-shirt—to everyone I met until the paper became crumpled and creased at the edges. I practiced saying the word “son” over and over again; the word filled my mouth with sweet music. As though absorbing his story would make him more mine, I read the reports from social services over and over again. Addiction, domestic abuse, now seven years old, he had lived in six different homes in the past ten years. The trio of his brother and sister and him twice given back from permanent homes until a bold judge decided to separate the kids and place them in individual homes for adoption.
I made a room for him with a brave cowboy motif. A lampshade with bucking broncos, a rodeo quilt, a clothes hanger that said the word cowboy and yes, a nightlight.
He called me mommy immediately. At first it was so easy, my days filled with joy, the love I felt bright, uncomplicated and complete. We watched insects crawl across grass blades, played in the pool, walked the dogs, told stories to each other about the shapes of clouds, moments so perfect I did not want to be doing anything else. His face bloomed a full bouquet of smiles. I told long romantic tales that softened up the edges of his story. “Look at your feet,” I told him. “Maybe they came from your grandfather, a farmer walking through hot brown soil.”
Our bodies opened towards each other. He came easily into my lap. We did three-people hugs. “It’s dark in here,” he would say in a muffled voice and we laughed happily, knowing what he was really saying was that it was safe in our arms. Every day he unfurled a little bit more.
“I am your son from another mommy,” he said to me one day, and I found myself blinking back tears. He reached for my hand with that easy and nonchalant assumption of safety and protection every child should have. “You chose the right guy.”
One afternoon Mike and I had gone for a walk on the short walk with the dogs when far off in the distance we heard him calling. “Mommy, mommy,” a lost boy sound on the wind. As fast as I could I ran back to him, wrapped my arms around him. “I’ll never leave you,” I whispered. “I am your forever mommy.”
But it wasn’t always easy. When you adopt a child you do not have the long ropes of familiarity to climb back into time, to comfort and explain. You will not recognize the face of your husband in an expression that crosses your child’s face, will not see your grandfather in his hands. And if that child has been hurt, you don’t start at zero, you often start at minus one, undoing rather than doing. It is the elemental clay of human nature – sometimes what you find will frighten you, sometimes it will inspire.
We learned quickly that trouble wrestled deep in the biological bedrock of this little boy’s soul. There was a black hole at the center of him and every morning we woke to the very real assignment of trying to fill that hole.
He had fits and we never knew when one would detonate. We could hear his thoughts through his physicality, would know just by the sound of his steps on the stairs or the lilt of his voice whether it was going to be a good or bad day. He would kick the walls, sometimes tear at his skin with his fingers. When we went hiking he would suddenly stop on the trail in front of me and when I would bump into him he would fall apart. He had arrived finally to his forever home and yet he tried to break it.
We hung tough, however, and I was happy. It was like creating a sculpture from raw elements, polishing up the good in this little boy, hoping that a heart fully loaded could reach back and heal his previous wounds.
It was at the end of middle school that Jeremy began to complain more, blame more, see the dark side of everything. The only brown boy in the all-white classroom, he had never done well socially. No one came to play in the swimming pool, a few listless birthdays now and then but no best friend.
I tried to dismiss it. Who could blame him? How could I presume to know what it was like to walk down the street as a Latino male? All around him were smug youngsters plumped with entitlement, multiple gadgets in their bedrooms, soccer camps, private tutors, $40 haircuts. No one had lived his life so delineated into a sharp before and after, no one had lived those years of fierce wanting, dragged his particular bag of sorrow behind them.
But as the months went by, Jeremy began to close himself off from us. Loneliness laminated his surfaces, made him unreachable. Though we tried hard to excavate his sorrow and talk it through, he refused. A corrosive teasing entered our dynamic, a hard taunting jeer in his voice that held pieces of flint, igniting sparks of incendiary opinions and behaviors calculated to alarm.
He was one of the best things that had ever come into my life, and yet I was losing him.
The one constant in all these years was Jeremy’s affinity for religion. Though different from my beliefs—more connected to the large madrone tree near our house then to any kind of building—I’ve always encouraged his love of God: I thought it gave him another kind of home, a spiritual breathe he could lean against and calm his anger. My husband, an emigrant from Ireland, had returned to the Catholic church after many years away, attending a small agrarian church with a maverick priest where he was allowed to ask questions.
We found a small high school that was a bit religious, but with a sweet culture where spiritual safety mattered more than the colour of one’s skin. It seemed perfect. We did due diligence, everyone said it was a good school and apolitical.
From the very first week Jeremy loved it. Its tidiness seemed to comfort him, some origin of biological sin to be monitored with the rules and severity of Christian cause-and-effect thinking. And at first we didn’t mind too much. If we could get him through these difficult teenage years, the rest of the sloppy, restless world would wait for him. He was nicer around the house. We began to have mighty conversations about existence and religion, and at first the conversations were fair and thoughtful.
It was slight at first, a few comments he repeated from school, a teacher who publicly supported Trump in the classroom. When I called the school to complain about the spillage of politics mixed with religion, they were noncommittal.
Slowly but purposefully, the school turned our son against us.
Feeding his need for identity, Jeremy began to wear a huge cross around his neck. He filled notebooks with drawings of Jesus hanging from the cross dripping blood. He branded himself with a huge tattoo drawn in felt pen down one arm, enormous box letters that proclaimed John 41.
I did not expect a son with a Burning Man sense of anarchy, but I certainly did not expect this angry soldier of Christ. For the first time he belonged more to his religion than to us. When he told us we would burn in hell because we had not accepted Jesus as the son of God, I called the school. Does it have to be so grim, I asked? Imagine a boy who had waited seven years for a forever family, only to be told that he would be alone again in eternity.
I became known as a parent they needed to pray for.
Jeremy became increasingly provocative. He used current events to define himself. Maybe Trump was right and we should build that wall. Though his father had come from Nicaragua, though he had been rescued by a safety net of social-service programs, Jeremy thought we should cut money for children.
He supported a new president who lived out his own oppositional temper tantrums in soundbites…I was grieving the fate of our country, now in the hands of those whose views on just about everything went directly against mine. And now they had my son.
The war on our house escalated. We started to talk about getting him out of that school, but he refused and we thought we might do more damage by ripping him away from the one place where he was happy. We took him to a family therapist but he refused to go back. Though I knew intellectually he was hurting others because he was so hurt himself I did not discipline myself.
As the months went by, the sweet boy I had known hardened in a furnace of rage. No more three-people hugs; he retreated to a room I was too disheartened to ask him to clean, a midden of old food and dirty clothes emanating the odor of despair.
My friends tried to normalize what we were experiencing. “It’s just teenage rebellion,” they said. “Let the world teach him. It’s not personal.” But I sensed somehow it was deeper than this.
Though I knew it wasn’t good parenting I retreated, protecting myself from attacks. I closed off my face, smiled a little less often, learned to weaponize my silence. Grieving the little boy who was no longer, frightened of the man he was becoming, I fell into loss and fear. Trump’s America had entered our home, a sinister cynicism, a license to attack, even to hate. I felt selfish, severe, angry, small, berated myself for being so out-of-control, for not having the courage to change our dynamic.
What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I learn to love this man he was becoming? Was I only looking for the me inside of him, towards the places where we were the same?
My husband, recognizing that I was disintegrating, and worried as well about the effect the many battles were having on Jeremy, stepped in and became the primary contact. I tried to follow Mike’s lead. I learned how to duck and weave, not take everything on, develop a small chorus of noncommittal listening grunts. But as we drifted into our separate silences, terrible awkward dinners where no one spoke, the not-so-neutral accord and careful politeness began to seem as cruel as the raging world war used to be.
It is now a year later. We decided to pull Jeremy out of the school and enrolled him in a place of wide green lawns, an organic garden, a social-justice teacher who encourages discord, and a mission statement of diversity. In solidarity with other high schools, students walked out to protest guns. A transgender student was elected homecoming queen.
It is been a difficult transition for Jeremy, jarring, but he is doing well. A’s and B’s. He has made friends, signed up for model UN. He has returned to sketching, and his intricate details of hands no longer hold crosses. He still goes to church every Sunday but is more generous around other people’s beliefs. He even allowed me to hug him in Macy’s when I took him shopping.
Can we pass Jeremy into the years beyond us intact, healthy, maybe even happy? Will he live in the bright light of possibility and hope or will he sculpt his life from wounds, define himself from loss. College, marriage, jobs, his own children…maybe the last few years of war were just a brief furrow in the arc of his life, all those years of challenging just his way of testing us, another form of stopping in the middle of the trail so that I would bump into him and he can fall apart.
Last night, after dinner, I went out on our deck, watched the mountains grow soft with twilight. Our dog padded out with a clatter of nails. Frogs began to croak, the leaves in the old madrone rattled, stars appear in the night sky. A light comes on in Jeremy’s bedroom. He has a math test tomorrow and he is studying.
“Mommy, mommy,” I still hear on the wind.
I take a deep breath. “He’ll be all right,” I think to myself for the first time in years.
Jeanie Kortum is an author, journalist, and humanitarian. She has written two novels Ghost Vision which is based on her experience in Greenland and Stones which is about Female Genital Mutilation.
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