Neal here. This is Lindsay's very first guest post on my blog. I held her off for as long as I could, but after two years of blogging, she finally wore down my defenses. Which, coincidentally, is also the narrative arc of our courtship and marriage. Ha! I kid (not really, it's actually pretty accurate). She's a great writer, and is in fact the one who first encouraged me to start writing personal essays. Is it weird that one of the ways my wife and I connect is to exchange essays and then edit together in knock-down, drag-out sessions of metaphorical fisticuffs? I'm sure it's normal. Anyway, right here's an example of why I decided to marry her; this girl's got a soul in her, and it's hard not to want to be a better person when you're with her. I wrote a piece around Father's Day last year that detailed my experiences assisting my wife's research with a different vulnerable population. I'm proud of my wife, and I'm proud to showcase this piece, 'cause it's a powerful reminder that no matter your position in life, you gotta fight to make a difference, and that however distant redemption seems, it never disappears.
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:
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.