Driving on the freeway in Los Angeles the other night, I noticed a transparent spider walking across my windshield. I took a Kleenex and swiped, and then there was a smear of spider guts in my line of vision.
Fifteen minutes earlier, I had just laid eyes on the most beautiful, most special baby boy I’ll ever meet in my life: my nephew Lucas, who was born dead at 9 p.m. the day after Christmas.
As a young girl, I began hatching a plan for my life on the floor of our two-bedroom apartment at 11023 Wellworth Avenue in Westwood Village, Los Angeles’ college town (home to UCLA). This was before all the condominiums and skyscrapers; the neighborhood was all students or young parents just starting out, bicycles, and quadplexes. I wanted to save lives. I practiced intricate surgery on a stack of ovum-shaped green grapes. I peeled the skin off the grapes, trying to get it off in one piece, without breaking, and then attempted to sew the skin back on, all without injuring the meat of the grape.
Perhaps I was so intent on saving lives as a young girl because I was born powerless.
For a brief period of my life I worked with children who were dying. I was living in San Francisco, working in the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at the UCSF hospital. I was a transcriptionist. The transcripts drew me in, and I was pulled into the patients’ fierce and fragile worlds.
I pictured the sick children at night, crawling into beds with their parents, their skin sunken in at their collarbones and on their cheeks, their sparsely haired heads nestling in beneath their fathers’ bearded chins. When it came time to transcribe reports of the marrow being rejected, the child’s diagnosis changing from some type of cancer to graft-versus-host-disease, I typed the words, my fingers sometimes trembling.
Meanwhile, the kids I worked with were dying and some of their wishes were being granted. One young girl wished for blue eyes like Snow White. She had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and had become blind. She was small and black and innocently beautiful. They gave her two glass blue eyes and had to train her muscles to keep them from wandering around in circles toward her skull.
My brother Gino, the father of Lucas, threw me a lifeline in junior high. He wasn’t always my brother; for some time he was just a classmate. He was falling behind in school and I was trying to get ahead, so we arranged to go to night school together. Even though I was doing well in school, I think I may have been a bad influence. Sometimes we ditched class and smoked cigarettes. Sometimes we went to the Tommy’s Burger across the street and ate fries and played “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers on the jukebox.
It was around this time that my mom locked me in her closet and forced me to clean the house at all hours of the night, and I ran. When I ran out of places to sleep, I got picked up by the police.
“Melissa Chadburn to the front office,” they said. It was on the loudspeaker.
This was unexpected.
My teacher was at the door to the classroom. Someone was knocking on a window. Clink clink clink. I was a little tired. I drank some Robitussin before class, just to maybe smooth over the edges. The knocking was happening and the teacher turned his back to us and then it happened. A boy reached across the aisle and grabbed me.
I was shocked. I thought he was such a nice guy. He was kind of dirty; he grabbed me and kissed me. Kiss, kiss, kiss. It was so fast. Next thing I knew there was a counselor talking. Did he kiss me? Was that real? What was going on? Did I like it?
Yes, of course. Yes, I liked that kiss.
“Melissa? Can you step out in the hall with us please?”
Next to my teacher was the school principal, a black woman who wore a discount suit like my mom’s. Everyone in the class was alert now. I fumbled with my books, the Robitussin and the kiss all swirling together now.
“Do I need to bring my stuff?”
“Yes. Please bring all of your personal possessions.”
That meant this conversation marked the end of my school day. I tried to think of what would get me out of school. Nothing good ever got you out of school.
It turned out I’d been reported missing. It was actually more complicated than that, I explained. Told all the secrets. About the closet and the cleaning and the standing on one foot.
I was taken back to a police station. It was a small station that sat next to a library. All the cops had retro metal tanker desks and big multi-lined phones with white lights and one red light. I wanted to push the red one. See what happened. I sat in a rolling office chair beside the cop. The floors were linoleum with dark black streaks from the fancy cop shoes scuffing back and forth on them. There was a candy machine and coffee machine in back, the kind of coffee machine at hospitals, the kind that made hot chocolate. Everywhere you heard radios, coordinates being called in. I thought of my mom and all the police codes she’d taught me: 207. Kidnapping.
I sat there in that office with the diamonds on the floor and the clickity-click-click-clack of the typing fingers in the background.
I swallowed. Everyone heard it. It was the moment my dreams were over. Tears poured out of me, and I made unpleasant guttural noises. Unknown sounds of despair.
“Is there anyone you could call? Someone that can take you in?”
She asked it like it was the most normal thing. Like if any other kid found themselves in this situation they’d have a phone book full of names. Me, I didn’t even have a proper phone book. I had a small folded piece of paper with phone numbers on it. Phone numbers for my mom, her job, her boyfriend, the nightclubs she went to.
Then I called Gino. We’d only known each other a short while. But I was working my phone list alphabetically. I’d already called two other friends and they’d said no.
He answered on the first ring. “Hey, do you think your parents could adopt me?”
“Sure, no problem.” No questions were asked.
The social worker then got on the phone and there were details and arrangements and they were talking about my life. I heard words like “background check,” and “in the interim,” and “group home.”
And then she hung up.
This was all happening too fast. I had no idea what any of this meant. A new language was unraveling before me. Placement. Foster care. Licensing. Group home.
“There’s some licensing stuff that has to happen in order for a family to care for you. They have to go through a background check first to make sure they pass, and then they can legally foster you. So for a couple of weeks you’re going to a safe place where they look after kids who are en route to somewhere else.”
The first time I stepped into my new home, I looked around, and so began the mantra of my life: Dontgettooattacheddontgettooattacheddontgettooattached.
They were the same words I heard as I held baby Lucas in my hands.
Let’s say you had to start this year differently. Let’s say there was a certain vacancy left behind, tugging at your days, in the lag between discussions at work. Let’s stop saying “you.”
There was the sound of the shock and pain I saw in Lucas’ mother’s eyes as she sat on her hospital bed after 17 hours of labor with three and a half hours of pushing. And yet that’s not how we get through the minute or the hour or the day or our lives, it’s lovehardlovehardlovewitheverything. Even if you don’t get love back. Especially if you can’t get love back. It’s like I tell my creative writing students, our job is to get our hearts broken over and over again.
I’m reminded of a gospel that personifies Death: Death, this being that rides a pale white horse, the clomps and gallops leaving a trail of lightning behind him, and then Death picks up the dying person or animal or baby, the person in pain, the baby that is too tired for this world, and Death brings them to rest in the bosom of Mercy and the gospel asks us mothers and sisters and fathers and sons and brothers and lovelorn and grief-stricken and lonesome — not to weep. And each time I read it, I allow myself to weep. Because when I do that, it’s not the end of something but rather the beginning.
Read more from the Fresh Starts series.
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