There is something about a cobblestone street that calms me. If the car is going slow enough, the sound of the tires rolling over the bricks is almost hypnotic. As I sat on the bench outside our office one Thursday morning waiting for our 9:00 am visit with Bio-Dad, I knew that the street was contributing to my short-lived moment of peace. The sun was shining bright and there was a perfect breeze. The hustle of the day was just starting with commuters bustling to the train with briefcases in hand, mothers pushing strollers, dog-walkers with their little blue bags, and diners sitting outside the restaurant eating their breakfast across the street. Their lives all seemed so normal in that moment as I sat there holding my son wondering if his bio-parents were going to show up for their weekly meetings, secretly hoping that they wouldn’t. I pondered how very “not-normal” we were. Normal is such a relative word. I mean, you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. I usually took pride in the fact that we weren’t “run-of-the-mill,” but oh how I would have loved to feel traditionally normal at that time.
It was that same street where my husband ran into Ethel, the foster-mother who assisted during our training classes. They caught up briefly and Daryl filled her in on Malachi and how shocked we were about the process of fostering. The comment that Ethel made to him that stuck out the most was that when her private agency gets a call with a new child needing a home, they don’t use the child’s name internally. Instead, they use the term “bed,” meaning, they might say to someone “we have a 9-year-old bed who needs a placement.” I don’t know why that shocked me so much, but it did. I understand how hard it would be to watch children be displaced, abused and neglected day in and day out and somehow find a way to disconnect, but they are people, not things. Little, innocent people who deserve to be called by their name.
“Kena & Cheryl”
I hadn’t spoken with Cheryl, Jay’s foster mom, since court. Sometimes we would talk almost daily and other times we would go weeks without a peep. But as soon as either one of us had a home visit, a call with the attorney or some Bio-Mom information, we would fill each other in right away. Cheryl had just had her home visit with Kena and called me on her way to work the next morning. In summary, Kena said that Bio-Mom was in a shelter and doing very well. She was going on job interviews and was probably going to get to see all of the kids together coming up in the next few months. She said Bio-Mom was attending all of her classes and the parenting course even reinstated her. What Kena told Cheryl was completely contradictory to what Henry informed us at the courthouse. She said that, in her opinion, and with the wording he used, it sounded as if the judge was leaning toward “return to home” when talking to Bio-Mom. After a moment of pause to take in what she said, I asked her to repeat it and then asked her if she was certain that’s what Kena meant. Cheryl confirmed that her reaction was the same as mine and she asked Kena to repeat herself, and she did, word for word. We discussed who would benefit more by lying to us, Henry or Kena, but it just didn’t make any sense at all. I am typically a “go for the underdog” kind of girl in most situations, so it is a foreign feeling for me to root against someone, but I am ashamed to admit that I secretly wanted Bio-Mom to fail.
It was true that Bio-Mom was following through on more of her commitments. Even though she was late almost every week, she was indeed showing up for her visits with Malachi. He had started walking so she didn’t have to hold him anymore and that made the hour a lot easier. I was told by Kena that my presence at the visits was indeed making the case a little stronger for Bio-Mom. She echoed Henry’s sentiment about Bio-Mom’s attorney being able to say that my presence was limiting her chances of bonding with her son. Until different arrangements were made, I was told to at least stay out of sight. Daryl’s private office was to the left of our waiting room so I would shut myself in there and hide until the hour was over or I was called to help. Ms. Williams was always there and that eased my mind a little because as much as she was an advocate for Bio-Mom, she was definitely protective of Malachi.
Daryl’s office, where I hid out during the visits, was well within ear shot of everything that happened, and it also had a window with blinds that I could peek out of if I really wanted to see what was going on. Since the weather was nice outside Ms. Williams did everything she could to convince Bio-Mom to take Malachi out, but she was not a fan and preferred to stay inside. Before each visit I would fill the waiting room strategically with toys, books and things for Malachi to keep busy with for the two hours he was there, and his crying began to decrease a little more as time went on. He still had many episodes with Bio-Mom and I would occasionally be called to help, but they were not near as traumatizing.
Even though Bio-Mom was showing up, she was still not engaging him at all. She didn’t talk to him unless it was to scold him and she fell asleep at least once almost every week. I would hear Ms. Williams say “you’re going to have to wake up if you want to finish this visit.” She still did not ask me any questions about him and I stopped filling her in. She did occasionally bring him food but I asked that she not give it to him during the visit because, to be honest, I had no idea what it was. She would hand me a triple-bagged Jewel-type grocery bag that was oozing with grease ON THE OUTSIDE, filled with five or six big balls of wet foil with a half-inch of drippings in the bottom of the bag. I only attempted to open one foil ball one time, and I think it was sweet potatoes, but I really can’t be sure. I know that it was just Bio-Mom’s way of extending an olive branch and she was proud of the fact that she cooked for her baby, and I thanked her as if I were going to feed him the contents that day. As usual, I felt bad for my behavior when I threw the bag away, but there was no way I would put that food inside the body of anyone I loved.
One particular visit in September I mentioned to Ms. Williams that Bio-Mom was wearing some bigger clothing and I was suspicious that she may be pregnant again. Ms. Williams confirmed that she had the same suspicion but when she asked Bio-Mom about it she denied it. Kena also mentioned that she was questioning a “baby bump.” During that same visit, Malachi had an exceptionally big temper tantrum and while she was trying to detain him, he hit her in the face. Surprisingly, she didn’t lose her cool but she did say, “You want to beat me up today, your daddy beat me up last night and last week it was some other man. Why do you all think you can just beat on me?”
A few weeks later Bio-Mom showed up at the visit visibly uncomfortable and said that she wasn’t feeling well. After she spent at least 30 minutes in the bathroom, Ms. Williams brought Malachi to me and said she was going to check on her. Ms. Williams knocked on the door and Bio-Mom said she’d be right out. After another 10 minutes she walked out of the bathroom and straight out the front door without speaking a word to anyone. After Ms. Williams left, I casually walked into the bathroom and could not believe the mess that lay before me. It was everywhere, and I cannot even say for certain what it was. It looked like some sort of blood but a bit darker and grainier with definitive blood mixed in occasionally. It reminded me of the consistency you get when you take a band aid off and rub the glue residue on your skin until you can roll it and it dissolves into sand-like bits. But it was the color of an older blood mixed with a brighter shade. It was all over the front of the toilet, the back, the pedestal, and the seat cover. It was on the floor and the walls and the sink. I snapped some pictures but deleted them because it felt wrong that I had taken them to begin with. I couldn’t stand opening up my camera roll and seeing them. As the weeks evolved and Bio-Mom started wearing regular clothing with no protrusion in her mid-section, I can only assume that she had a miscarriage and the scene in our bathroom was just a remnant of that.
The added element of fighting the negative feelings I had toward Bio-Mom, coupled with the feelings of pity and sorrow I also had for her, were just as exhausting as caring for a highly-energetic toddler who did not like to sleep. I felt beaten down, guilty, and drained of all energy from every single aspect. I did not feel like the same person as when I started this journey. Instead of a woman full of eagerness to “help” and make a difference, I felt like I just wanted everyone to leave me alone to raise this beautiful baby the way he deserved.
Bio-Dad made two appearances in two months and they were both equally as interesting. I found it ironic that as soon as Bio-Mom started pulling her shit together, Bio-Dad fell apart.
“Bio-Dad Visit #1”
Ms. Williams arrived on time for the visit and Bio-Dad walked in behind her with a cloud of funk right behind him. I had seen Bio-Dad with questionable appearance, but never dirty. The offensive odor hit my nose before I could even open my mouth to say hello. I think that Mac even smelled it because he got a puzzled, almost scared look on his face and crawled really fast to climb up my leg. It smelled like a combination of regular-old pungent underarm odor with just flat out filth that might come from a basket of dirty clothes that sat for weeks. It was so bad that I started to panic that I would not be able to endure it for the next hour. His left hand was bandaged so thick that it looked as if a small pillow encompassed the entire appendage. He did not address anyone, instead he just went to the corner chair and sat down. He wore a wrinkly t-shirt that was too tight and a pair of jeans that were, as always, down to his thighs revealing his gray boxer shorts underneath. Unsure how to break the ice I said a simple “hello” and tried to put Mac down onto the floor next to him. As my son clung onto my neck for dear life I thought “this is going to be a long day.” I was forced to endure the odor as I sat next to Bio-Dad while holding Malachi until he was comfortable enough to loosen his grip. When I asked him what happened to his hand he kind of waved the opposite hand dismissively, and very nonchalantly said “oh, I got shot.” Without really knowing how to respond to that, I just said “oh,” and put Malachi down on the floor to excuse myself. The remainder of Bio-Dad’s visit went on without my presence. Ms. Williams and Bio-Dad took Malachi for a short walk and handed him off to Bio-Mom for her hour, without me witnessing a thing.
Ms. Williams and I walked to our cars together after the visit was over and she told me that Bio-Dad was very emotional that day. First, he was angry with her because he had his girlfriend waiting in the car outside and Ms. Williams called him out and said that was against the rules. Then she said he broke down in tears when he heard Malachi say “dada.” She went on to say that they were in the park behind the office and Malachi was babbling, and out came “dada.” Her words were “I almost didn’t believe it, but he starting crying and repeating the phrase ‘he called me dada.’”
Bio-Dad was not his dad. Daryl was his dad. My husband was the one who taught him how to climb the stairs properly, took him to get his first pair of high-tops, his first haircut (which happened to be a disaster), changed his diapers, got up with him, carried him on his shoulders, tickled him, played with him, cared for him. Daryl was the role model teaching Malachi how to treat women and be a respectable man. On that particular visit, Malachi had been alive for 339 days, which was 8136 hours. Bio-Dad had seen him, at best, 6 hours of his life, and he really thought that he was recognizing him as dad? It’s strange to me that I reacted in such a defensive way and it made my heart ache a little more for the hateful person I felt like I was becoming. I am fully aware that to a bystander I looked like an asshole to take this little thing so hard. It’s endearing, right? He was touched this his flesh and blood said “dada.” Likely, he cried because he knew that Malachi would never call him that and mean it.
As I buckled Malachi in the car, I could feel myself getting more and more emotional so I said good-bye to Ms. Williams before I verbalized the thoughts in my head. I shut the car radio off and had a quick conversation with myself. My mind was racing from one thought to the next and I started to sweat from the mental exhaustion. As much as I said that I could handle the visits and the emotional roller coaster that goes with them, I wondered if I really could. Why did these Bio-People even attend the visits? They didn’t engage with Malachi at all. There was no sitting on the floor playing with toys, reading books, making animal noises, asking where his nose was. Bio-Mom appeared to show up because she had to, like it was a job that she didn’t want to be at. Bio-Dad just wanted to stare at the wonder that was his son. It just didn’t appear that they knew how to be parents for even an hour, let alone all of the time. Or did I just have a different view of what it meant to “parent?” I wanted to be with Malachi, like all of the time. I wanted to play peek-a-boo and chase him around to hear him belly laugh. I wanted to watch him soak in his surroundings and learn about absolutely everything, and I wanted to be the one to teach him about life.
“Bio-Dad Visit #2”
When neither Bio-Dad nor Ms. Williams showed up by 9:20 am one Thursday morning, I assumed the visit was canceled and no one remembered to call me again. But when my phone rang and Henry’s name popped up, I got that anxious fluttering feeling in my tightening stomach. Since Henry made the “even gang members can be good parents” declaration I had kept my distance. I answered with a very professional, “This is Stephanie.” He stuttered his response with the usual “this is Henry, Henry from the public guardian’s office,” but it was what he said next that made me lose any respect that I had left for him. I know he thought he was being funny, I didn’t lose sight of that at all. However, his choice of topic to joke about just made me realize how very ignorant he was about how it felt to be me. Of course his tone was the same as always when he delivered, “Mrs. Davis we had an emergency meeting with the judge and he has decided to grant Bio-Dad custody. Someone from the agency will pick him up from your home this afternoon.” I did not speak. I did not move. I could not process what he was saying and why he would even BEGIN to think it was funny. After a very long awkward silence he said “Well, of course I’m just kidding,” and after another moment of me not speaking, he cleared his throat and said “It turns out Bio-Dad was arrested a couple of nights ago for assaulting Bio-Mom and moving forward they are going to move the visits to the courthouse for everyone’s safety.” He told me that the case worker would be calling me soon to discuss the details. As we were hanging up Kena was calling on the other line.
Her opening comment was “You’re going to be so mad at me Mrs. Davis, I forgot to call you again about the visit being canceled.” Because my mind was still reeling over Henry’s conversation I didn’t have any words for her either, so she just went on to tell me the same Bio-Dad story that Henry did. Starting the next week I would have no choice but to have an agency transporter take Malachi to the courthouse for Bio-Dad visits, if he was out of jail by then. There was a room there called the Greenroom that was specifically designated for visits with bio-parents. She said we would discuss the specifics at our next home visit which was scheduled for the following week.
I hung up the phone and hugged my baby boy a little tighter than normal and whispered to him that I loved him. He had a cold and had fallen asleep on my chest so I just sat there waiting for the 10:00 visit with Bio-Mom to start. I had not even fully recovered from Henry’s inappropriate joke when, at 9:45, the front door to the office opened with force, and in lumbered Bio-Dad looking like someone had just dug him out of a garbage can. He was sweating profusely and hunched over holding his chest like he had just been punched. He was disheveled and breathing heavy as he forcefully fell into one of the chairs to avoid falling over. It was adrenaline that took over my body and I said “are you okay?” He said “no, no I’m not.” I asked Tina, who I forgot was even sitting at the front desk, to get him a bottle of water. As he drank the water he told me his story with huffs and puffs between every few words. He said that the police had beaten him ten days ago and then he was arrested for battery. He went on to say that when he was younger he had gang ties, and because of that, the police thought they were allowed to search him and beat him. He thought he had broken ribs. So many questions raced through my brain, but I just didn’t have the energy to ask them. He looked so young and scared sitting in front of me and though I did have a twinge of sympathy for whatever happened to him, he was not my concern in the least. Protecting the innocence sleeping on my chest was my only priority as I explained to Bio-Dad that I was informed that his visit was canceled. When he asked why, all I could do was shrug my shoulders, shake my head and twist my mouth to say “I don’t know.” I went on to tell him that the baby was sick, and I really didn’t want to disturb his sleep for a 10 minute visit. He said that he understood and only wanted to look at him. He sat for another five minutes filling me in on the attorney he was going to hire to sue the state and how he had to take a lie detector test the following day. He didn’t ask me one question about how Malachi was doing. Not one. He didn’t ask me about his illness or how he was sleeping. He didn’t ask me what he was eating or about his likes and dislikes. He didn’t ask me any questions about his son. He hadn’t seen his son in three weeks and he didn’t have one question for me.
We had made it a year! Malachi was turning one-year-old and it was a Mickey Mouse themed birthday party. He was starting to hum the theme song to Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse and loved watching the show so we celebrated Mickey-style with a sibling visit too. It seemed that the year dragged on so slowly, but at the same time, it felt as if it went by with the blink of an eye. I’ll tell you about it next time.
*Names have been changed