The piece below was written in 1997, but in it I talk about how easy it is to love people who are different from you - and yet how hard. The epilogue to this story reads like a soap opera novel of people in poverty and in mental/emotional distress.
Today is Sunday. On Sundays I drive to the other side of town and pick up a family of four for church and Sunday School. They are young with a 12 year old daughter and a 20 month old son. They are disabled.
He is HIV positive and receives a disability check for being manic depressive. He also has a history of self mutilation. That’s how he became HIV positive. He injected a vial of blood from a friend who had AIDS because he was feeling bad about something he had done. She is manic depressive and has all the problems associated with obesity. The baby is wonderful - a charming, active child who adores me. He knows when the little white car pulls into the yard that he’s going for a ride, that the woman who gets out of it will come onto the porch with arms open wide to pick him up and twirl round and round with him until he laughs out loud. And, he meets me with outstretched arms. If I stop to get something out of the car, he bumps down the steps on his bottom and trots across to the edge of the yard where there’s a two foot drop to the driveway. If I’m not reaching for him by then, he calls to me - in non-understandable syllables so far - then sits down and prepares to ease himself over the wall to the driveway. He’s a determined young man. And his sister is all giggles and pouts. Large for her age, she is as tall as I am and wears a size 14 already. She is beautiful. Her dark hair falls in a glistening gush down to her shoulders. When she smiles, the world is blindingly bright.
I love this family. They call me Mom and Grandma even though I am not blood kin, even though I cannot be the Mom they yearn for nor the Grandma they need. I worry that I am not enough.
For some time I helped them financially, and still do occasionally. They always seemed to need just a bit more to meet their expenses - diapers, milk, medicine, bus passes. Their meager resources just weren’t enough. She tries to work at restaurant jobs. However, the family just doesn’t function without her at home, and only barely then. When the baby gets sick, she takes him to the emergency room, usually about 7 pm, and then stays home with him the next day. The husband cannot read well, cannot be awakened when he goes to sleep, and is often too tired to stay awake and care for his son. When the husband is sick, the wife must stay home and take care of him. And, sometimes, the wife just gets hurt herself. She stumbles and sprains an ankle. She picks something up and hurts her back. She has migraines from a plate in her head where a previous husband hit her. So her jobs last about two weeks. Then, she is fired because she doesn’t come to work or she quits. North Carolina’s Work First program says that she must find a job. So she stays off work for a week, looks for a job for a week or two, and then works for a couple more weeks. The state pays for day care for the son.
She has two other sons by the husband who damaged her head. I have never met them for they are in foster care. She voluntarily gave them up when she became homeless. The boys have been sexually abused by a man, possibly by their father, but the authorities are convinced they were abused by the current husband. No charges have been pressed because there is no evidence. Even so, she is not permitted to see them. She is almost a year behind in her child support payments and the courts are threatening to jail her if she does not pay the monthly $50 out of their meager government support checks.
Their situation becomes more convoluted each day. The 12 year old daughter was living with the wife’s father until this summer. Now the wife’s father has had a heart attack. Rumors are that the husband’s son by his first wife is in foster care in a neighboring county, and he wants to apply for custody. Their friends are people who bonded with them in a group called Homeless But Not Helpless - people with as many problems as they have. All people who continue to make poor decisions regarding their lives and their money.
We easily make the decision to buy food instead of toys when we are confronted with hard times. That decision is not so certain when you’ve been hungry off and on for a long time and toys produce a small amount of comfort that food does not. We pay the rent and electricity first. When rent and electricity take all the money that you have, you don’t necessarily spend everything you have on what seem to be intangibles. You spend some of your money on the cigarettes. You spend some on soft drinks. You spend some of school supplies. You spend some on nail polish and hair barrettes. And, when the rent is past due, you don’t remember that you had enough to pay it; you only know that you don’t have enough now.
So Sunday, I picked up the wife and son and a friend’s daughter who was visiting. We buckled in the car seat and a booster seat and drove the few miles to church. They rode home with friends. I came out to a closed car sitting in the sunshine. Car seat, booster seat, paper bag of clothes, diaper bag were gone. But the smell was overwhelming. Sharp, gagging ...urine, musty clothes, stale....stale...well, stale something. I was shocked. I had noticed the musty clothes smell before. They don’t have closets and their clothes are piled in stacks - clean ones here, dirty ones there. No chests of drawers. No shelves. Sure, they have a washer and dryer, and sometimes they have laundry detergent. But, you put clothes on the floor or against the plaster wall of an old house with no air conditioning, and you have damp, musty-smelling clothes. The car seats must have seen many accidents and were undoubtedly second hand when they began using them.
I rode with the windows down, and I wanted to never have them in my car again. I wanted to forget they exist. I wanted them not to be dependent on government and other handouts. I wanted them to always smell good. I wanted them to be well. I wanted to change them to be like me.
Then I realize that cannot change them, possibly not even change some of their behaviors. And, I also realize that I love them. They love me. We depend on one another. I give them rides and I listen. They give me love and perspective. Without them I forget that God loves all of us. Without them I become centered in having things, doing things, knowing important people, being important. Without them, I forget that all things come from God. Without them, I am lonely in a room of people just like me. They keep me grounded in the reality of being human. They remind me that I am blessed just as they are blessed with being uniquely ourselves. They remind me how a little love can go such a long way.
The mother and father divorced. The daughter lived at a group home for a while, was fostered, then thrown out, and was pregnant and unmarried when I last heard. The son developed severe behavioral problems and was removed from the home and was in a home for problem children. The mother married a young man who had been fostered in their home, and he is now in Iraq. The father married a young woman and they are addicted to crack. But, I see or hear from them occasionally; I pray for them daily; and they still call me Mom and Grandma. And, I still love them.