My husband and I once had a foster son. What started out as bi-monthly therapeutic visits turned into a nearly seven years stay. I’d do it again. I’d do it better, because now I understand the behaviors to expect from a severely abused child. The head-banging, the fetal positions, the stashes of food, the compulsive lying, the endless porn. There are reasons for this, but coming into the situation cold, I didn’t know them.
Scott didn’t know the reasons either, but he should have known more about the things he knew. He knew his mother’s name and the name of the step-father who’d abused him, but he didn’t know where they were living or if she gotten the divorce. He didn’t know the last name of his Grandmother Ruth who’d once tried to whisk him out of the state. He knew he had two brothers and a sister (all half siblings), but it had been so long he didn’t know if he’d recognize them.
Faced with this dearth of information, I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I said, “Well, I know you’re Irish!”
Scott had red hair, freckles and brown eyes the color of leprechaun leather. He was pleased by this, so I bought him a bright green tee shirt that said, KISS ME, I’M IRISH, and he wore it nearly every day. Then, in an unexplainable move, he hid it because he was afraid I’d throw it out. When I asked him why, he told me his mom took away his favorite stuff as punishment. I promised never to do that, and backed it up with a carton of Rocky Road ice cream.
When it became clear we were going to foster, the state agreed to release more files. I took an afternoon off and went to the agency. Scott’s records were mountain high. The state had been involved with the family for years and I found school progress reports, teacher observations, the thirteen removals from previous homes and follow-up documentation, caseworker visits, caseworker transfers, and records that belonged to his siblings. In the middle of this mess, two things kicked in: my allergies and realization that I didn’t care.
We were going to sign on Monday.
Lastly, inexplicably, I picked up a thin folder which fell open to reveal a single sheet. Scott’s original birth certificate. His father’s name was Thomas McFann, ten years younger than me, and living in the same city. Ha! He was Irish. I jotted down his name and age, committed the hospital to memory, and walked down the hall. The caseworker had gone to her office to avoid the dust motes. I told her what I’d found.
“The original shouldn’t be in there,” she said.
The next time it wasn’t.
Once Scott was settled, I told him the name of his biological father. Bombs might explode, but I thought he had a right to know.
“She ran him off,” he said, finally. His expression, which seldom changed, didn’t change now.
Susan was his mother. He always called her by her first name.
“Do you want to call him?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t want to.” And he went back to watching Saturday morning cartoons. Scott would watch cartoons for hours. He was fourteen years old.
He never again mentioned Thomas McFann, but I did last week when I called to see if his St. Patrick’s Day card had arrived. I’d stuck in some money and along with it the name of his father, his age, and a phone number I’d found on the net. I told him that I didn’t like the fact that we were fifteen hundred miles apart and he was in Tulsa with no family. Thomas McFann might not be the same man who’d abandoned him before birth. It might be a good time to reach out.
“I don’t want to,” he said.
“I just don’t,” I didn’t press because the finality was clear in his voice. His past was dead. Besides, he wanted to talk about his therapy cat, Lucy. He’d bought her catnip and I listened as he told me all the different ways she’d gone wild.
Before hanging up, he told me he loved me. I’m usually the first to say that, but this time he did.
Two hours later I felt like a complete fool. An ignorant do-gooder.
What had I asked Scott to do?
To “reach” means that you are reaching for something you want or have known before. The last cookie in the jar, a dropped coin, a goal. For Scott to reach would mean he’d be reaching for years of neglect, terrible school bullying, sexual abuse, cold, no shoes, someone else’s shoes, two shelters and thirteen foster homes.
I’d no right.
Life’s as good as it’s going to get for Scott. He’s in a residential home and has people whom he can call, and who call him. He has an obsessive love for cats (the therapist told me it was something that hadn’t hurt him), and if he can wear the resident advisor down, the promise of one more.
Is he lucky?
I don’t know. He’s Irish.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Though this story is real, I’ve fictionalized the names and places.