Sunday, June 15, 2014

A father for the fatherless

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.

"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 . . . ."

"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

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.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

What to do when you find a black widow

When we moved up into the mountains nine months ago, we knew that there would be an increase in certain dangers over our suburban environment. We nixed the first rental I fell in love with after the real estate agent warned that its location up on the edge of the mountain would attract rattlesnakes and that bobcats and mountain lions might think our daughter looked tasty.

Now that we live a little further down the mountain, and aside from the mild surprise of bear cubs living under our deck and our neighbor who feeds a community of raccoons from his front porch, our run-ins with wildlife have been pretty benign. The stray wind-scorpion has been enough to keep us pleasantly on our toes.

But in the last few months, I've noticed webs and what appear to be egg sacs in the corners of our garage. De-cluttering the space and cleaning up the webs went on my list of things to do, a list which might also be called my "list of things I probably won't do anytime soon."

That is, until the evening this week that I found this beauty hanging out next to our washing machine:

Yeah, that's a black widow. You can tell because when you see it, your heart stops beating for a second, you break out in sweats, and you have to fight the urge to run screaming. Individually, these symptoms might not be conclusive, but when you put them all together: yep, it's a widow. Here it is again, with a banana for scale:

After stepping away and calming myself, I found a jar and leather gloves and collected the evil-looking specimen. My wife found me some time later, and curiously watched as I repeatedly picked up the jar to examine it closely and then lost my nerve, put the jar back down, and stepped back several paces to morosely consider my family's imminent demise.
"Whatcha got there?" my wife asked. "A black widow," I said, feeling like I was pronouncing a death sentence. "I think there's more of 'em out there, too." I tried not to think about how numerous and tiny spider babies are. (I'm still trying not to think about it.)  
"Oh, we used to have those all the time in our shed growing up. Just try not to touch 'em." she said. "Anyway, did you finish the laundry?"
I tried to tell her that it was while doing laundry that I'd found this minion of Satan, this death-dealer, and that it was unlikely I'd ever be able to do laundry again. But she raised her eyebrow and told me not to be a baby. And to finish the laundry.

I debated flushing the widow after I'd gotten a few good pictures as proof of my near-death experience. But then I decided that if we're in widow country, I'd better take this opportunity to educate my daughter about things that are dangerous and that we never, never touch. Had I tried this talk with her a year or two ago, it probably would have backfired. Telling a toddler not to touch something pretty well guarantees it. But this four-year-old of mine, she's really growing up. The best I can do is teach her right and then give her opportunities to demonstrate that her instincts for self-preservation are finally kicking in.

Of course, when I showed her the spider the next morning, I probably could have predicted her reaction:
Her: "Oh, wow! I just love it so much!" 
Me: "Did you understand when I said that it was dangerous? 
Her: "Yes, but it's so beautiful! I love the red on its body. That's a pretty color!" 
Me: "If it bites you, you might die." 
Her: "I want to name it Noodle! Can I keep it?!"
Sigh. I finally extracted a promise from her that if she found any similar spiders, she wouldn't touch them. But she didn't promise that she wouldn't name them or love them. I can't help feeling that there's some validity to her attitude; it's just hard as a dad to reserve any appreciation for hazardous things, things that threaten the well-being of your kid.

But that's life, I guess, right? The black widow may as well be a metaphor for the risks that we'll all encounter. Life: it's beautiful, and it's dangerous.

Even more, the black widow is a metaphor for raising kids. When my daughter was a newborn, a black widow's bite would have been horrific. In the first year or so, it seemed everything about this infant's environment was a threat. And since babies have very bad judgment, it was almost silly how many of those threats could be lethal. Grapes, grapes were our greatest fear.

But at four years old, she's making big strides in discernment. Many of the things that were so dangerous when she was an infant are not nearly so dangerous now. If a widow bit her, it'd still be bad. But there's very little chance it would be lethal. As with so many other risks that we've feared, the danger of the widow decreases little bit by bit with each year. The risks aren't negligible; but they somehow become manageable enough that after safely reaching adulthood ourselves, we parents actually decide to bring more fragile souls into this dangerous world. The idea is that we'll be able to shield them just long enough for them to stop putting bugs in their mouths and knives in electrical sockets, and if we've done our job, they'll gradually be able to negotiate future dangers without needing our intervention.

In the meantime, yeah, I'm gonna be cleaning out our garage. But no matter how much I clean, there will still be black widows in the world, and I'm gonna try not to freak out, and instead take this moment to practice trust - trust that my growing girl can start negotiating some of the world's dangers for herself.


UPDATE: In the two days since we found our widow, my four-year-old and I have talked a lot about Noodle and what makes her special. And frightening. And lovable. If we're sitting at my computer, she'll say, "type in 'spider'! I want to see more cute spiders!" or she'll say, "how do you spell 'spinneret'? NO, LET ME TYPE THE LETTERS!" And of course there's now all sorts of creepy-crawly bug art floating around the place now. Which is kind of cool. After she went to bed, I finished doodling out the spider diagrams I started with her to explain spider anatomy:

And yesterday, in the thick of all of our arachnid fever, we decided to have her visit the Insect Lore Bugseum in Bakersfield, after which she brought home her very own Praying Mantis egg case (bought buy her Tio), also called an "ootheca." Which, I assure you, is quite amusing to hear a four-year-old pronounce.

I don't always tame my fear and capture a black widow and research the bejeezus out of it and plan appropriate safety and science lectures for my kid, but when I do, it sure can be a lot of fun.

A note on black widows: After my initial freak-out (they're killers! BURN EVERYTHING!), I did a little research and came up with this page on Black Widow and Other Widow Spiders from UC Davis' Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. It helped calm me down, and gave some good scientific advice about the best ways to manage infestations.