Don’t call us, we’ll call you

October 30, 2014

A study of grief

I feel a little bashful writing about Kaila again. When I wrote about our last day in the sunshine, I thought it was just my own small remembrance in my little corner of the internet. I think of this space as a place where I’m talking to myself, current and future, and about 30 or 40 others who know me well. What I didn’t realize is that by putting in a link to one of her memorials, my post was being shared on that post. (The workings of the interwebz are still a mystery to me).

Within a couple of days, I had a few hundred hits coming from the memorial post. I felt a little embarrassed, exposed. I didn’t want it to seem, especially to her family, that somehow I thought her death was about me and my pain. But as a few people reached out to me because of that post, I realized that other people were aching to read about her, talk about her, hear anything related to her in the same way I was. My post meant something to them; feeling exposed is okay in pursuit of the greater good of connection and catharsis. Also, the fact that the most action my blog has seen in several years was because of her made me proud to have had a friend that was so beloved.


When you have a history of serious depression and are faced with a tragic event, your husband is pretty much willing to do anything you want and your mother is biting her fingernails waiting to see if this will push you over the edge. Your irrepressibly joyful 4-year-old, on the other hand, will wake you up each morning with, “Are you still sad about Kaila? Can you play with me today?” I’m not immune to that tugging at the heartstrings, but the answer for a couple weeks was, No, not today.

It may be strange, or even pretentious, to say that I am deeply affected by death, but it’s hard to articulate it any other way. (I am highly sensitive, after all.) I remember feeling the same way around the death of each important person in my life: life must stop completely. Anything less would be a betrayal of all they meant to me. So I kind of closed up shop for a couple of weeks. I worked some, but took days off, came late, left early. I let some things slide in my online classroom, thinking I would just have to settle for sub-par reviews this semester (though as it turns out my students and supervisor have been amazingly supportive). One night I even hid in a vacant classroom at church during an activity I was supposed to be responsible for; I just couldn’t face real life responsibilities.

Four things filled those suddenly cleared-out days: thinking, crying, reading Daring Greatly, and watching Psych. During those first couple of days, I was convinced that I should stop fostering such deep relationships. I have put a lot of effort into cultivating close family and friend relationships and sometime in the middle of the night on September 25th, I decided that that was a terrible way to live. I should stop that immediately! Because the pain. Oh dear God, I could never live through this pain again! Of course, I instinctively reached out to several friends, probably strengthening those relationships — very counterproductive when you’ve decided that the safest thing is to cut all ties with other humans.

I don’t believe it was coincidental that I was reading Daring Greatly for my online book club at precisely this time. Though not a perfect book, it was the perfect read to remind me to lean into the vulnerability inherent to human relationships. Even if I successfully cut ties with ALL THE PEOPLE, I would still think about them, probably frequently and beyond all reason. (I know this because for years Neal has been telling me I need to just forget about an old friend. He’s very subtle: “She doesn’t want anything to do with you! She’s cut off all contact with you!” Still, every November I think anew about sending her a birthday card.) The book also helped me recognize and face head on some shame I was experiencing related to “survivor guilt.”

We had only barely started watching episodes of Psych (I never caught it in its original run), but it will always have a special place in my heart now (although it might have earned that just from Dule Hill’s tap dancing alone). I would wake up, open up a browser to log into work, and promptly start crying, at which time Neal would call it a Psych day and turn on episode after episode. It was strangely effective in increasing my productivity. I’m still trying to understand how my brain works — Neal has some theories — but I think it is almost always in at least two places at once. If one of those places was Kaila’s death, I was darn near paralyzed. But if one of those places was Shawn and Gus, I could manage to accomplish some of my work tasks.


Life went on like this, doing the bare minimum for survival and job maintenance, until two things happened: a beautiful dream and Kaila’s funeral. It wasn’t what you might call traditionally “beautiful;” there was all the strange randomness inherent to dreams: several layers of leotards that Kaila wanted me to try on (she gave me many clothes over the years, so that’s not as weird as it sounds), a microscope and spare set of glasses that she begged me to store for her in my sock drawer until she got back. As in real life, there was SO MUCH laughing as I tried to determine why exactly I needed to store her microscope in my dresser. I woke up from this dream, slowly, very slowly. It was cold and dark and 5:00 am, but I felt warm. Like I’d just been for a visit to North Carolina. Like I was soaking in the sun at Duke Gardens. I could hear her unrestrained laugh all over again.

I knew that I had to attend the funeral but when the day came, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I have a great respect for the power of that public farewells, but this was the hardest one I’ve ever attended, at least in part because it was preceded by a 3-hour drive to get there. I know plenty came even farther, but man, it’s just awful to drive that far for an event you wish in the worst way was not even happening. As I walked in the door of the church building where her service was held, we were greeted by a poster-sized picture of her, a truly stunning picture I had never seen before. In what felt like a very violent reaction, I turned around and buried my head in Neal’s shoulder. It took me a few minutes to reemerge and greet her family. The funeral was more or less a series of these sudden sobs and leaning on Neal, but it was incredibly important. I think I left at least some of the pain there. The next day I graded 45 papers with no Psych-crutch to get me through.


I’ve often thought what would happen to all my online accounts, social media, chat programs if I died. Should I make a list of all these applications along with my passwords so that in the event of my untimely death Neal can delete each one? (Please tell me I’m not the only one that ponders this at least quarterly . . . ) That’s been one of the distinct things about losing Kaila in comparison to all the elderly people I’ve said goodbye to: she’s always there. In my phonebook and “most recent texts” list. On gchat, Google+, and Facebook. When I log into Skype, and on this mysterious “People” page that my laptop created on its own apparently based on who I seem to have the most contact with. Her pictures and contact info still show up everywhere. My first instinct was to delete her from all my various contact points. I took her out of my phone, but felt a pang of guilt as if I was trying to erase her. I decided to leave things as they were, but have questioned that decision after a couple of times seeing her in my contacts list while at work and experiencing sudden waves of nausea. That instinct to cut all ties with people was wrong, and I think it’s just as wrong to bury all the things that remind me of Kaila even though that feels entirely logical at times. But how selective should I be in what things I keep around? How much control should I try to exert over how often I’m reminded of her? I hung the program from her service on our hallway tackboard, which in a 964-square foot house is one of the most frequented spots, and so far it is doing a beautiful job of reminding me of all the love, light, and happiness that was part of my relationship with Kaila.


I can’t only give Brene Brown credit for helping me through the turtle-hiding-in-its-shell phase. In my music-as-therapy efforts, I put on R.E.M.’s Reveal on the drive home from a client visit. I got to “I’ll Take the Rain” just as I pulled into our driveway and predictably broke down in tears. I seem to come back to this song periodically for its reminder: rain and shine, a package deal.

I used to think
As birds take wing
They sing through life so why can’t we?
You cling to this
You claim the best
If this is what you’re offering
I’ll take the rain
I’ll take the rain
I’ll take the rain.


I never did finish anything I wrote about my Grandpa or his death in 2011. I regret that now, both because he was a remarkable person that is so dear to me, and because I feel compelled to study my own grief to know how to get through what lies ahead (I think of this post as the real beginning of that study). The morning of Kaila’s funeral I found out my Grandma was quite ill; she was diagnosed with terminal cancer 6 days later. This cycle of grief is just beginning.

October 20, 2014

I’ll take my board.

Filed under: Family, Music, Personal — Tags: , , , , — llcall @ 4:31 am



Last trip of my June – July: Travel months . . .

On my drive back from L.A. after my momentous Hawaii trip, I turned on NPR as usual. After basking in sun and sand for a week, catching a ride to the North Shore in a convertible, swimming with a freaking sea turtle(!), I thought I ought to get back to thinking about things. Trying to keep my finger on the pulse of every current event. Learning and stuff. Preferably every second.

But no, I said. No! I will not listen to news radio. I will listen to Weezer, dangit. I will listen to songs about going surfing. “Surf Wax America” is oddly prescient about my experience in Hawaii:

You take your car to work
I’ll take my board
And when you’re out of fuel
I’m still afloat

The natural and cultural beauty of Hawaii taught me a little more how to stay afloat. Starting with more music.


If you talked to me before I went, you know that I said this was probably my only trip to Hawaii so I wanted to live it up. By our third stop, at Haunama Bay (above), I was like, Forget that! I’m coming here every year!

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My parents participating in a Tahitian wedding ceremony at the Polynesian Cultural Center, which would have been so cute if not for the guy sticking his hand on my Mom’s head

Samoa guy: The highlight of my Dad’s whole trip. No joke.
DSCN0195 DSCN0194DSCN0202 DSCN0207IMG_0850 will and emThis last pic is courtesy of my cousins Will and Emily, far superior photographers.

September 28, 2014

Our last day in the sunshine

Filed under: Personal — Tags: , , , , , , — llcall @ 3:31 pm

Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.

There are so few quotes that really stick with you forever. That sort of follow you, haunt you. This one from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of mine. It comes to me in word and mood whenever I have the vague feeling that I may have left something undone.

Several days ago I found out that my dear, dear friend is no longer with us. It was not a complete surprise to me, and yet, I’m still in shock. Because it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years right up until the moment that . . . whole dreams were forever irredeemable. It was pointless, of course, but I could’t help searching our emails and chats to see what more I could have done. There’s the exchange just a few weeks ago when she cancelled our scheduled Skype session because a deadline came up. Should I have called anyway? Kept calling? Did she ever reach out and fail to find me at the other end?

But what started out as pointless email searching slowly turned into smiles, almost laughs. A thousand inside jokes flooding back. We were so fun and funny together; I’m sure if everyone knew, they would have turned our relationship into a TV show a long time ago.


Those smiles and almost-laughs didn’t last long. If there’s one thing I’ve learned irrefutably in the last few days, it’s this: survivor guilt is a real thing. The pain of loss mingled with guilt has been physically crippling at times. I’m trying out all the coping strategies I had planned on using to deal with the inevitable pain of the foster/adopt process: reminding myself, There is no closure; seeking for it will be fruitless. Watching Psych obsessively for distraction. I’ve been reading, also obsessively, all the online memorials to her that I can find. Her Facebook page has become an impromptu repository for others’ first and last memories of her, all capturing some wonderful dimension of her life and personality.

I also need to create a place to remember (it was one of my cardinal rules). It’s not about the first moments or the last moments, but it’s what I want to remember most: May 29, 2013. Duke Gardens. We walked on bridges and fed ducks. We brought fruit and nuts and sandwiches to enjoy in the shade of a beautiful tree. We sent Addison on “secret missions,” to interrupt young love and ask awkward questions of people on first dates — all in pursuit of a few minutes of adult conversation. We booked it across quiet Asiatic gardens for bathroom emergencies. We laughed. SO MUCH laughing, a stark contrast to the tears and pain that would follow later that day, and in the months to come.

It was our last day in the sunshine.

DSCN9111_resized[1]DSCN9114_resized[1]DSCN9123_resized[1]DSCN9124_resized[1]DSCN9127_resized[1]kaila and addison cropped

Love you forever, Kaila.

September 8, 2014

War and peace

“Did they make a good decision?” Addison asked the other night after we’d been talking about Helaman’s “2000 stripling warriors.” If you don’t know the Book of Mormon, this particular story is of a people who turned away from their bloodthirsty ways and as a symbol of their total change of heart buried their weapons and vowed never to take them up again. Several years later, when their safety is threatened, their adolescent sons who had been too young to make the same covenant go to war to protect them.

“That’s an interesting question,” I began. “I think most people would tell you, yes, they made a good decision. They sacrificed and fought to protect their families and homes. Me, I’m a little more ambivalent about it. Even though I think there are some times that we have to defend ourselves, perhaps even violently, I believe in violence as a last resort. As a parent, I’m not sure if I had made such a serious covenant to never take up arms in order to save my soul, that I would want my child doing what I was unwilling to do. I have often wondered if there would have been other non-violent methods to pursue.”

I paused there for a minute, remembering the teach-in I participated in (I was a bit of an anti-Iraq war activist at BYU in the months surrounding the invasion in 2003) and the comments of my pacifist Dostoevsky professor who personally interpreted the story of the stripling warriors as more cautionary rather than victory tale. He was always most struck by the fact that every single young man had received “many wounds” even if they survived, a lesson that no one comes out of violent action and war unscathed no matter how right their cause. I thought about explaining all that, but decided maybe that’s not the best bedtime story for an imaginative 4-year-old. (See, I’m totally learning. Parenting: I got this!)

Finally I said, “I wouldn’t say that they made a bad decision, but I will always wonder if a better decision was possible. I believe that we should pursue peace and non-violence in every possible way.” Then, almost as an afterthought, “What do you think?”

“Well, I believe that they made a good decision. Sometimes we have to fight for our families. And protect them.”

In that moment, my heart swelled and it almost felt like I loved her more than I ever had before. This crazy, energetic, on-the-run girl sat on my lap for several minutes, talking about nothing less than war and peace. She pondered. She listened. She disagreed with me. If only all our future disagreements (of which there will be many, I’m sure, with our strong wills and temper flares) could be so principled, so mellow. She’s really something, this girl. I felt, as I have before, too privileged that I get to be her mother.

August 18, 2014

June – July: Travel

Filed under: Family, Personal — Tags: , , , , — llcall @ 5:09 am

Despite the insanity of working 50+ hours per week for much of the summer, I didn’t scrap my travel theme. Tickets were already purchased and family reunions awaited!

First stop, Idaho (by way of Denver airport, which I’ve become quite fond of — Wolfgang Puck’s, Ben and Jerry’s, and a per diem are a truly magical combination — and may have bested Chicago O’Hare as the airport I have spent the longest amount of time in). I didn’t take any pictures in Idaho because I was mostly conferencing for work, but I am a little bummed that I didn’t snag even a single shot from the last day and a half spent with 3 of the dearest people in the world. But they know they’re on my best friend “tier,” so I guess we’re good.

I barely had time to get home, work 2 days, and pack before we were off to Utah for Neal’s family reunion. Once again, our camera came up empty when I tried to look back at the pictures. But thank goodness for Aunt Robin-Elise, our resident documentary historian. She perfectly captured the wide variety of activities that Addison was able to squeeze into 2 short days.

A little racquetball…

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 Some pool…

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 Volleyball…or is that a violation?

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Sand play with many children to boss around direct; several “souffles” were prepared

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 A touch of Scrabble…

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 Swimming and hot tubbing…

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 Family bondage, of course…

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 General merriment and cuteness… 

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 (Clearly, no vacation is complete without Neal’s signature shrug…)

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Family pictures, which Addison reluctantly participated in if only she could join another family group (she’s all the way over there, second from the end) with all her new friends. (The curse of being an only grandchild, right alongside the blessing of being part of an extended family group of at least 150 cousins.)

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 The only thing missing from this vacation for us…

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Our little extrovert was so ridiculously wired that even after we withdrew to my Grandma’s quiet house for sleep, she was running the hall until 10:00 or 11:00 every night. Why are ample sleeping opportunities always lost on the young?

Uncle Tristan (sleeper on the floor in the above photo) made his way back to California with us (also sleeping at every opportunity). Wii was played:

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 And tears were shed when it was time to send him on his way. Come again!

Next stop of the summer, Orange. We spent a quick 4th of July weekend with my parents, Anne, and Chris and Rish’s family. While everyone else seemed to enjoy the fireworks, Neal and I stayed home — who goes out at 8:00 pm??? Our weekend highlight was an impromptu temple trip, movie (new Captain America at the dollar theater), and sushi dinner. Thanks, Mom!

Happily for Neal, that was the end of his summer travels. But I still had one more mind-blowing trip ahead of me…

July 28, 2014

April – May: Survive

Filed under: Chronic illness, Personal — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 3:33 am

I was gonna do ALL THE THINGS this year with 12 monthly themes, but now? Not so much. At least I organized, cooked, and worked.

What was I supposed to be doing in April and May, again? Researching? Writing? Quilting? Yeah, I didn’t do any of those. But I did survive and isn’t that what really matters? We were actually hit with quite a case of the yucks in April. We were all laid up for various lengths of time with colds, flus, and stomach ailments. My family’s camping trip, in the works for almost a year: I missed it. A solid week of work at my new job: slept through it. Addison’s annual visit with my parents so that Neal and I can celebrate our anniversary: vomited through it. BUT I SURVIVED!

By the time May rolled around, I was healthy but had some new things to survive. After having reduced hours in my online teaching the previous semester, they asked me to bump back up to my previous workload of two classes and supervisory responsibilities (it’s cyclical based on a credit-hour cap per year). Then, my new job asked if I could take on some extra hours in May and June to help us finish out the fiscal year. Normally I wouldn’t agree to 50-hour work weeks, but for a variety of long-term planning reasons, we decided to give it a whirl for a semester and see if we all . . . survived. Also, did I mention that in April they asked me to be in the Primary Presidency (overseeing the children at our church) in addition to leading the local Cub Scouts? Thank goodness I’m great with kids, right?! (Or have no idea how to talk to kids – one of those.)

I guess you already know what happened. I survived. All of it. I’m not planning on taking on that much work again anytime soon, but it worked out and our bank account will be much happier come August (I teach on contract so no pay comes in that month). After that month of ill health in April, I felt incredibly blessed and sustained to get through May as well as I did. Especially considering June’s theme . . .

July 18, 2014

Hawaii is RIDICULOUS, just in case you’re wondering . . .

Filed under: Personal — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 11:14 pm

Holy cow! You guys, this place is NUTS!!! I’ve been in Hawaii for 24 hours and I’ve already snorkeled, paddleboarded, longboarded (just the laying out and drifting part), swam with a sea turtle, and eaten amazing food and tropical fruit. (Most of the thanks for this awesome agenda goes to my fabulous native-born cousins for showing us around!) You know how I grew up like 20 minutes from the beach . . . well, my beach ain’t nothing like this! The color of the water alone is astounding. So many shades of blue and green in comparison to my mostly gray-blue ocean.

The Hawaii hype? It’s totally legit.

July 14, 2014


Filed under: Family, Motherhood, Personal — Tags: , , , , , — llcall @ 6:11 am

How is it possible that I’m having conversations with people about when Addison is starting school? How did she get this old?!

I’ve never lived in an area like this when it comes to schools (or anything else, for that matter). There is a local school district, entailing an elementary school (K-4) in our town and a middle (5-8) and high (9-12) school in the next town over. But we also live right on a county line, which means that just 2 towns over is a small K-8 school in L.A. County. That school is a “school of choice” and they actively recruit from our county because the number of students for whom it would be a home school is minuscule (there are literally only 15 homes in the whole town).

Homeschooling is also pretty big in this area. The reasons vary depending on who you talk to, but some claim that the local school district doesn’t do enough with bullying, meeting individual needs, and challenging academics. (I technically work for the school district in “Support Services,” but I have no direct knowledge related to any of the complaints I’ve heard.) There’s a charter school from down in the valley that has branch up here in order to support homeschooling parents in the area. (There is also a charter school 3 towns in the other direction, but it’s too far to be an option we’re considering.)

Over the past several months, a handful of parents I’ve known have been encouraging us to put Addison in the small L.A. County school next year, chiefly because of the small class sizes. From what I’ve heard, the kindergarten class is a K/1 classroom with about 15 kids total. Crazy, right? I have also had the opportunity over the last couple of months to meet and talk with the K/1 teacher. She does some community events (like a special storytime at the library) to meet parents and kids in the area. Yesterday we had a really good conversation about her methods in the classroom and philosophy of education as well as my particular concerns about Addison and how school will work out for her.

Addison is obviously very verbal for her age, which is probably the reason why so many people ask me about school because they think she seems kindergarten-ready. And if you ask her, she definitely is! She is going to preschool two mornings a week and is always telling me, “I said I wanted to go at least three days a week!” Well, get a job, lady! Preschool won’t pay for itself! She is also listening keenly whenever she hears Neal and I discussing school or preschool, which only became clear to me when I overheard her telling a kid on the playground, “I heard my mom say that I’m on the wait-list for another preschool day.” Do you even know what a wait-list is, kid? The elementary school is a pretty prominent feature in our town so she’s been there several times and inevitably we have to have a conversation about why she’s not quite old enough for school (it doesn’t help that some of her playmates meet the cut-off for either kindergarten or transitional kindergarten). Even before she turned 4, she was saying things like “I never get to take spelling tests like the other kids!” Um, who have you been talking to?

Having grown up with a public educator for a parent, I’ve always been a huge proponent of public education. Do I think it’s always the best academic education for a child? No. But I have always felt that if those who have the means or education to find other options for their kids abandon public schools, or the lowest-performing public schools, then it reinforces a troubling stratification in society. But it’s always very interesting when the “rubber” of your life philosophy meets the “road” of your actual child. I never in a million years thought that I would consider homeschooling but the older Addison has gotten, the more I have contemplated some benefits that it would bring. Or rather, some issues that it would head off. I have no doubt that Addison could meet the academic requirements of public school, but I do worry about the combination of her talkative nature and high energy level in the classroom. Ultimately, Addison would never forgive us for homeschooling her. She craves being out in the world, and with other people. “Home” anything is something she wants to limit her exposure to as much as possible. (So ironic, no?) But I genuinely worry about traditional schooling squelching her natural curiosity and creativity as well as teaching her that her fundamental nature is unacceptable.

It was good to have this specific conversation with the K/1 teacher. We touched on my concerns about excessive academic standards for 5 year olds. My desire for a more interactive, play-based curriculum for Addison. Fears about her being able to succeed (happily) in an environment where she is asked to sit still (and inside) for large portions of the day (all kindergarten options here are full day). I really connected with many of this teacher’s responses, the biggest being that with such a small class size she can allow a lot more movement, activity, and outdoor time without having classroom management issues. They go on many field trips (because they are small enough to not require a bus). They grow a garden. They have a tent in the classroom. She said that even when they do a traditional writing assignment, they are allowed to get up and walk around, go up to the “word board” to figure things out. I want to do a classroom visit to understand how this all plays out, but it sounded very promising. Not to mention the fact that someone who does a storytime and craft with kids in her free time must really enjoy her job.

While technically both of these elementary schools meet several low-income criteria, I can tell that many of the higher SES parents in the area are opting for the L.A. county school of late, which certainly creates a dilemma for us. Although Neal and I started out with more divergent ideas about our kids’ education, over time, we seemed to have converged on the idea that we will not just choose what we think is the “best school” or the “best school for our kid.” We will choose a school in which we can invest in a way that will help elevate other more at-risk students (without, of course, actively endangering or harming her). Because for all my concerns and worries about her, I know she has so many advantages in life in comparison to others, even in our immediate area. In a way, it’s kind of exciting to have these big questions looming — what will work for her? where are we needed most? — and a one-year deadline on making the decision. It’s time to get my research on!

And in case it’s too simple, how do we account for the fact that by this time next year we plan to have two more kids, quite probably with special needs of some type? It’s going to be an interesting year for us!

July 13, 2014


Filed under: Personal, Social Services — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 11:56 pm

I’ve been pretty quiet on here for a couple of months, but some of you may have caught my Father’s Day guest post on Neal’s blog. He titled it “A Father for the Fatherless” (writers never get to pick their own headlines!) but I originally called it “Paperwork.” His blog has an abridged and more theatrical version (no song and dance, but pictures and images) but I didn’t want to lose some of the other details of my interactions with Marty (names and other identifying details were changed to mask his identity, by the way). So, the unabridged version . . .

There is barely an inch of uncovered space in the Resource Center where I work. Flyers advertising school lunch programs and community health screenings obscure the glass window in the front door. Clipboards of blue, tan, and salmon colored papers greet clients as they enter. Someone asks if I have any scholarship applications. I sift through a thick manila folder. How about a bus schedule? I pull one off the tack board hanging above my desk. Can I get a dog license? Sure, just fill out this form. Diapers? It’s an emergency! I grab my key to the supply closet. I want to quit smoking, can you help? I lead them to a magazine stand labeled Smoking Cessation Programs. I’m worried that my son was molested. First, let me close the door. Now, tell me everything, as I pull out a Suspected Child Abuse Report. At the Resource Center, we don’t tell people what we do. We ask them what they need because, chances are, we can help.

But the help isn’t free. The currency we exchange is paperwork. I greet each client, shake hands, show them into my office, and proceed to complete forms with titles like:

Application for Exemption from Medi-Cal Health Plan Designation

Family Stability Rubric

SAR 7 Eligibility Status Report

Core Data Elements

The titles sound so sterile, so clinical. Just the core data elements, please. Nothing superfluous. Tell us a story? God forbid.

But it turns out that stories are what 68-year-old Italian men do. I knew right off Marty wasn’t from around here. With my office just across from the receptionist’s desk, I hear clients before I see them, and a Brooklyn accent sticks out like a sore thumb in a place that’s nearly 3000 miles away on the opposite coast.

In my three months of working at the Resource Center, I’ve noticed that the desperation the client feels is directly proportional to the number of people they tell their story to as they enter the front office. While I finish up my previous client’s paperwork, I hear Marty’s voice moving around the room, barely a pause to draw breath. To the receptionist, he details the unexpected drug bust on his niece, which led to the heart attack, which led to the month-long hospitalization. To the quiet client waiting for her appointment, he exclaims, “I had no idea my niece was into that stuff, you know! It’s crazy!” To the Sparkletts delivery man, collecting our empty bottles, Marty explains, “It’s been a month since I seen my Godson — that’s as long as we been apart his whole life.”

Sometimes it takes a while to understand just what a client is asking for. It’s understandable; when life is spinning out of control, it can be hard to figure out what will stabilize it. But as he sat down in my office, Marty told me exactly what he was there for.

“My Godson was taken away on account a his mom doin’ drugs — they found needles and all kinds of crazy stuff in her room — and I need to get ‘im back.  I need the social worker to fax me the paperwork here and then I need you to help me fill it out, make sure I’m doin’ it right cause he’s been away from me for over a month on account a me goin’ to the hospital for my heart attack. The shock’s what did it. The police come busting into my house — and I’m retired law enforcement, mind you — and search all the rooms. They haul Barb right off and I can’t believe the things they’re pullin’ out of her room. I had no idea. And while I’m in the hospital just tryin’ to survive, Barb ups and signs away her rights. So the state’s got Mike now but I gotta get him back. Ya see what I mean?”

It wasn’t long before I had the paperwork in hand.

Verification of Relative or Non-Relative Extended Family Member (NREFM)

 Application for Assessment of Relative/NREFM Home

Just three short pages, about 36 questions, to explain why you should be the one to love and care for a child. I hand the papers to Marty but he puts his hand up to block them. “See, I need you to do it,” Marty says, a hint of pleading in his mostly matter-of-fact tone. “We gotta get everything just right. Will you write for me?”

No problem, I think. Paperwork is what I do. I read aloud the first question and set to work squeezing his narrative into the space provided.

Name of Minor. “Michael Jonathan Bricker. But we called him Mikey from day one. I was there from the time he was born, you know. He came home to my house and I’ve been with ‘im ever since. I used ta . . . .”

Minor’s DOB. “It’s today. He turns 13 today. 3/22/2001. I can’t believe I don’t getta be with ‘im on his birthday. I talked to the social worker and said I gotta speak with ‘im. They let me call ‘im but when I heard his voice I just broke down. I couldn’t even talk. I just bawled. I can’t believe I’m not with ‘im for his birthday, he’s thir . . . .”

He breaks off in quiet sobs. I look up from the paperwork and instinctively stretch my hand toward him. But I stop halfway there, resting it on the file cabinet that separates us. It’s still at least a foot from being anywhere near to a consoling touch. After a decade working with prisoners, who were shackled to avoid physical contact, I’m still grappling with how to reach out.

Brief description of your relationship to child/comments. I stare at the paper. I have four and a half lines to distill from Marty the special ways he comforted his infant Godson; how he had to bend his  6′ 7″ frame in half as he held the hand of a toddler learning to walk; how he walked the preschooler to classes everyday because “he has some learning problems but he’s hangin’ in there”; how he drove the teenager to and from high school right up until the day the cops burst in.

“He’s been my whole world, you know,” Marty concludes. I wonder if that description is brief enough for the powers-that-be.

Marital status. “Single. I’ve been single my whole life. Never married or had my own fam’ly. Mikey’s been my only kid. He’s been with me all ‘is life. I’ve always provided a home and I always will.”

Name of child’s father. “Sam Bricker. But he died looong time ago. He wasn’t hardly in Mikey’s life.”

Here Marty stopped abruptly. I expected the story of Sam, since I’d already heard about growing up in New York, a girl he once knew that looked like me, and life as a police deputy. But there was nothing else he had to say about Mikey’s father. Maybe he knew that Sam’s absence was one of the things that had ensured his own place in Mikey’s life, but you don’t want to give thanks for something like that.

Have you ever been arrested? “Oh, hell no! I’m retired from law enforcement, remember? I gotta pension from ‘em.”

Do you have any serious health problems or disabilities? “Well, I’ve had both knees done. You can see that.” He points to identical 8-inch-long scars. I hadn’t noticed them earlier; they’re faded enough to be hardly visible while standing. From the hobbling way he moved his enormous frame, I had guessed hip replacement. “Besides, that I only got about half a spine. Then there’s the heart thing, but after a month-and-a-half at the hospital, that’s pretty much done. But yeah, I guess, basically I’m disabled.” It was surprising the way he had to look his whole body over and take stock of his injuries before coming to that conclusion. Around the Resource Center, being disabled is often worn on your sleeve.

“But I take care a myself,” Marty adds after a minute. “I can take care a myself. I got Social Security comin’ in and a pension — law enforcement is tough on your body. I don’t need to be livin’ with people to get on.” I wonder if he’s trying to convince himself since he’s already told me he is living with people to get back on his feet. 

Have you ever had a problem with alcohol, drugs, or prescription medication? “No, never! If I’d a known his mom was doin’ that, she’d be right outta that house! I told Mikey his mom made some really bad choices; don’t ever go down that road or your Godfather will be right on your tail.”

If the children cannot be returned to the care of their parents, are you willing to adopt the children or become their legal guardians? “Oh, yeah. I’d take care a ‘im forever. I saw my niece. I says, ‘Barb, why’d you sign over your rights so fast? You don’t give up on your own baby.’ She said, ‘So I have to hear this from you?’ Damn right, you do! You don’t give up your kid for drugs. I don’t care if they’re 2 or 62, they’re your baby forever. How does she not get that? I’ll take care a ‘im forever.”

I’m blinking back tears. That’s another thing I haven’t figured out yet: do I let them see me cry? It’s hard to do paperwork through welled-up tears, and drips will smear the ink. Do I need to look unphased, to instill confidence that things will be okay? Or can I show them that I’m a little afraid that the thing they want, more than they’ve ever wanted anything, might never be? Just released from the hospital, disabled, living with a friend, not realizing drugs were infiltrating his home until the cops came knocking. I’m no custody expert, but these don’t sound like good signs.

Please add any additional information you wish to provide. One and a half lines, this time. Barely enough room to say, “Please, I’ll do anything to be with my Mikey again”; no room to post your whole heart on the page.

We finish up with his signature and I prepare the fax. The space between the faxing and the confirmation feels interminable, his and Mikey’s whole future hanging in the balance. I assure him that I’ll call the social worker to make sure she received the fax. I know she did, and he doesn’t ask me to call, but it’s all I can do and so I’ll do it. As he gets up to leave, he tells me matter-of-factly, “I’m gonna hug you.” He wraps his hulking arms around me — I’m not sure I’ve ever been held in such long arms and I can feel how powerful they still are — and whispers, “You’re an angel,” as he kisses my cheek with a loud and purposeful muah. He turns to leave and I still haven’t moved. Should I have hugged back? What were my parting words? Did he see my smile? I can still hear him repeating thank you, thank you, thank you as he hobbles out of the office, and I can’t stop smiling. Finally, I take a shaky breath and sit down to finish my paperwork.

April 27, 2014

A good life

Filed under: Chronic illness, History, Personal — Tags: , , — llcall @ 11:39 pm

In a comment on my post earlier this week, Em mentioned that Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken, had spoken publicly about her struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I had never heard her “story” before so I looked up her New Yorker essay, along with assorted interviews and articles. So many parts were eerily familiar. We were almost the same age at onset, dropping out of college, being accused of making up our symptoms to avoid going back to school (so puzzling since college was the best thing ever!), and deemed more fitting for a psychiatrist than a physician. Many things from this interview on Beliefnet resonated with my experience, but especially her response to what advice she would give to others with CFS. She said:

It’s such an individual journey. But what I would say is, no matter what happens with this illness, I think it is possible to carve out a dignified and productive life. This illness takes everything away from you, and you have to find completely different ways to define what your life will mean to you. But I think it’s possible to make a good life. I have been happy in the time that I’ve been sick. It requires a real redefinition of everything, but I think it is possible to do.

More than anything, getting sick as a teenager forced me to completely redefine my life. Everything was gone, and I had to put things back together one little piece at a time. But like her, I know it’s possible to “carve out a dignified and productive life.” I’m really not sure how long this new “day job” will be sustainable for me, which is why I’m so grateful to live in a time where I know I can do productive work right from my own bed. Despite the hopelessness that I’ve sometimes felt over the last month, I know I’ve had a good life and that I will continue to, regardless of how my health ebbs and flows.

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