Parenting doesn’t end, especially when your adult children endure the harrowing
The dog is dead. He is dead and his face is broken. His face is broken and his brain is broken and there is no fixing him. He got fixed a month ago after he was dragged under an iron fence that cut through the meat of his head and broke his jaw.
I can see the meat, Mom.
That’s what my daughter said when she called me on the phone. She doesn’t normally like to call. Texting is better. Texting or facebook chat is better. Reading gives her time to understand the words. Inutero drug exposure and not enough food in early years left her able to process only about half of the words in a spoken conversation. A kind of auditory erasure. Reading is better. But she was in Florida and I was in Oregon and she needed help figuring out what to do with her dog because her live-in boyfriend had dragged her dog under a fence and she could see the meat.
She was calm on the phone. She’s almost always calm. You know the phrase face like a stone? That’s what she has. It’s called flat affect and means she can’t show emotion in her face or body. Flat affect is generally associated with schizophrenia but it’s also common for kids who’ve been in long-term foster care. I don’t know the organic explanation but it makes sense to me. Kids who are left to find food for themselves, who don’t know when the extension cord is coming out, who are put in a windowless bathroom for hours with the light off because they wet themselves, who are seated in front of televangelists rather than allowed to run, are just waiting for the next terror. No candy, no doll, no board game, no rocking to sleep even at eight-years-old, no gentle hair brushing will change the expectation that something horrible is about to happen. All they can do is prepare.
When we were getting to know our older kids before they moved in with us, we sent packages, wrote letters, called on the phone. We told them about ourselves, about our two younger sons, sent a picture collage of our puppies, the local elementary school, us playing in the park; sent science trivia cards, a cloth Frisbee, a list of tv shows we liked to watch together. We asked my daughter and her brothers—now our older sons—about themselves, encouraged them to ask questions about us and whatever they wanted to know about what was going to be their new family, their new home. My daughter, then eight, wanted to know two things: Do you like chocolate chip cookies? What’s in your basement?
At twenty-three my daughter still doesn’t speak with her hands, can’t put on a smile, won’t respond in a way that intentionally comforts you are anyone.
She loves us though, I sometimes say to my husband.
Even if she can’t show it, she loves us, he sometimes says to me.
And she could show love, has always shown love, to animals. Animals of all kinds. From parakeet to cockatiel, stray kittens found in the mall parking lot to the dogs, rabbits, hamsters, chinchillas, sugar gliders and cats in our home, she cared for them all. Patiently. Quietly. Okay, she didn’t like the reptiles and fish that we also had, but if it had fur or feathers, my daughter was in.
She brushed and washed, snuggled and stroked any pet who might enjoy the attention. She was careful and disciplined about filling their physical needs for fresh water, food, a clean cage. She played her trumpet for the birds. And the animals loved her in return. Our little dog, the 20-pounder would allow her to carry him around like a ragdoll. The cat didn’t mind if my daughter gave her a bath. And the cockatiel, who chirped here and there while my daughter was at school, would listen for her return from school and when he heard her come through the door and drop her book bag the bird would begin to sing.
Most of her high school teachers did not understand my daughter. Even with parent/teacher meetings where I warned them in advance.
N. has what’s called flat affect from years of neglect in her bio and foster homes. She looks sullen, rude even, but she’s listening to you and taking it all in. Here’s my number. Please call me if you have questions or concerns.
It didn’t matter. She freaked them out. Freaked them all out. Except for the assistant principal who moved like a ninja and the hippie art teacher who saw my daughter through her painting and a friend or two. Just sitting there. Just standing there. Hearing every other word with a face that didn’t move. She freaked them out. Gum in her hair, an almost constant bullying by tough girls going nowhere, teachers yelling and unhinged. Her stare back into their eyes seemed to ask for it.
But high school was survived because that’s what high school is for and she decided to move to Florida. Ever since the first family trip, first trip as a complete family after the adoption when she was nine and we went to Universal Studios, she has wanted to live in Florida. I don’t see the appeal, but I sweat at room temperature so I’m not a good judge of hot places. Maybe it was her first eight years in the Chicago cold that made the heat call out. Maybe it was that Florida was the first place she was brought on a family vacation. The foster family (her third), where she’d lived for three years used to send her and her brothers to a 4H camp for poor kids while they took their children on vacation. When my husband and I presented the family trip to our five children on the Christmas after the adoption, it was clear a few minutes into the conversation that our older three were not sure they were included. This type of wondering was common in those early days and years. So many new patterns of expectation were needed. Some were achieved. Some not.
So my daughter moved to Florida where she seemed to spend countless hours looking for work. Working retail was a disaster. She finally got hired to stock shelves and clean displays. That’s work she can do, work she likes to do. Her body is a rock. And she sees everything.
In middle school the kids were standing around waiting to be humiliated by the Presidential Fitness Test when a punk zeroed in on her.
I bet you can’t even do one pull-up, he taunted.
She looked back at him. Right into his eyes. Grabbed the bar and did more pull-ups than any boy in the line.
My daughter played sports in high school: softball, basketball, track. The coaches kept her on for a while because of her athletic instinct and speed. She knew exactly where to throw the ball from the outfield and could get it to any position. Basketball was a shitshow but she liked short distances and jumping over things so track with its hurdles was the sport for her for a time. She could take second place without breaking a sweat. She never took first though. Maybe it was lonely there. One invitational meet I watched her from the stands as she lept over hurdle after hurdle, comfortable in second, not looking for the finish line but for me in the stands as she ran and jumped. The coaches didn’t know what to do with this graceful powerful girl who didn’t care about winning so she got passed from team to team.
In Florida, after some weeks of successful stocking and dusting, she was told she’d been advanced to sales girl. As with running in first place, sales is not in her nature. If you ask her if the dress you are trying on looks good she’ll look you straight in the eye, no blinking, and confirm what you both already know. And so she moves from job to job.
She seemed to find a solid spot in liquor sales. Nobody selling at the state ABC store needs to smile or wish you a good day, they just need to look directly into your face and determine if you are the person on the ID. My daughter can see it and is willing to let the facts be what they are.
Two days ago her boyfriend damaged the dog again. It was his parting shot. It was his moving out. Did the dog, a rescue from the nearby shelter, look him too much in the face, see the facts of him? I don’t know, but on his way out he assaulted the dog again. This time breaking the bones in the dog’s face. We didn’t know what happened the first time. No one was there but the boyfriend. My daughter had been at work and when she came home she was confused by the blood and the meat and the story. So she had called. Gotten the dog to the vet. Nursed him back to health. And waited.
The dog was fixed that first time. But not this time. This time when she got home from work she found the boyfriend’s things mostly gone and blood. The dog was stumbling. The cat was hiding. She called me. She called the sheriff. She called the animal hospital. After getting the dog and cat to the hospital, after talking to the sheriff and getting a restraining order, she called work to put in for a transfer but they fired her instead. Something about her being too difficult on the schedule. The dog was fixed the first time. But not this time. This time he’s dead. His body will be autopsied today to support the charges against the ex-boyfriend. My daughter is already looking for a new job, a new apartment. She doesn’t want to leave Florida. She still wants the warmth that might be there for her, that she didn’t have in Chicago, that she didn’t have in high school.
By the time she was a senior in high school the bully’s had given up. She could have outrun all of them but that is not her way. She’d met their threats with a stone face and they’d finally left her alone. When it came time for senior superlatives she was nominated Most Likely To Be A Superhero. I don’t remember who actually won that title. I don’t care. And neither does she.
—photo by bekphoto/Flickr