But four years later, I felt a persistent, growing need to go there. I had to see exactly where her body had been hidden in ivy, where her thick Polynesian hair and small feet had last touched this earth. Something would happen when I went there, but I didn’t know what that would be.
Sophie had been missing for nine days when a friend called to say that KCBS was reporting her body had been found near Stowe Lake.
Seated at my sentry post on the sofa, I felt like a block of soft wood cleaved in two by a sharp axe. While I answered the police officer’s questions about the clothes Sophie had been wearing when she disappeared, I learned that the media and a crowd of onlookers had gathered in the park, hoping to catch a glimpse of her body. I felt hot anger at these heartless thrill-seekers, but grief and rage and the television trucks that assaulted my home trapped me, vying for footage of our loss. Reporters rang the doorbell asking for statements. Shielded by friends who firmly responded “no comment,” I got through that day and those that followed.
I am not a big-time gambler. Yet 24 years earlier, when my partner Irene and I adopted three-year-old Sophie – along with her six-year-old sister, Melinda – we knew her mother had been a heroin addict and her father had been murdered. Sophie had lived on the street, in a car, and in foster homes. A younger sibling had been given away by her mother on the streets of Los Angeles, and no one in her large extended family wanted to adopt her except for an aunt in the crime-riddled Sunnydale Projects, who was judged not suitable.
If equivalent background had been presented on a racing form, anyone would know that the odds for a winning horse were long. But Sophie wasn’t a horse. She was a winsome child with a sweet Irish nose, Polynesian hair, faintly Chinese eyes, and Latino coloring. If the angel Gabriel himself had announced her advent, I could not have felt more blessed by her arrival.
My wager was conscious and direct. Loving parents; a supportive extended family; a comfortable, orderly home in a child-friendly neighborhood; loyal pets; music lessons; camping trips; velvet dresses; and patent leather shoes could trump an inauspicious beginning and dubious genes.
For the first ten years, she seemed to thrive. I can still see her wearing her blue and white-checkered Dorothy pinafore, complete with sparkling red shoes, on Halloween and for many weeks after. I remember her playing, often by ear, seamless melodies on the old upright Chickering piano in the dining room, or swimming like a little dolphin on cloud-free summer afternoons. Sophie was perfect. In fact, I wept on her first day of kindergarten, not because I missed her but because I thought the State, in the form of Commodore Sloat Elementary School, might rob her of her imagination and innocence.
Then came adolescence and terrifying changes. Sophie was trying to find herself, and I was trying to find the Sophie I knew. This may sound normal, but having taught teenagers my entire adult life, I knew that what I was witnessing was not normal – shoplifting, driving my car to the ghetto on a dark Saturday night without permission or a driver’s license, choosing questionable if not downright scary friends, cutting classes, and telling lies, outrageous lies, more lies.
I did not let her go gentle into the night. There were psychologists, psychiatrists, PET scans, medications, and a special boarding school. She wanted to find her birth family; I found them. A half-sister had been murdered, a first cousin crippled after being run over by her angry boyfriend. There was an Aunt Cathy who had a functioning family and a normal life, but Sophie wasn’t interested in her. Still I believed, believed that whatever demons had arisen within her could be exorcised by constant love and modern science.
It didn’t turn out that way. She lost each job – for theft, for an angry boyfriend threatening violence at her workplace, for being late, and for reasons I still don’t know.
At age twenty-four she got pregnant, had a baby, and married a steady, hardworking fellow, who, thank God, genetic testing proved was the father of the little boy. Again, I hoped that a grown-up version of the old-young Sophie might reappear and always when we hugged each other I was sure she was in that embrace. But Sophie continued to use drugs, run around with lost people, and eventually was murdered by a boyfriend.
I didn’t know why I needed to make this journey. I could only trust I’d find out when I got there.
I knew the name of the gardener who’d found Sophie’s body, because she had testified at the court hearing. I called the park personnel office, explained who I was, and asked that Michele be given my request to call either my therapist or me and arrange to show us the exact location. But after weeks of waiting, I heard that Michele said she’d had such a difficult time recovering from finding Sophie’s body that she didn’t feel she could help. My therapist intervened and managed to speak to Michele, who said she was worried I would be very emotional and ask questions about the state of Sophie’s body. My therapist assured her I would be very strong and would only ask about location. A date was set.
I knew I needed to be there by myself. I didn’t want to respond to anyone else – not my spouse, our daughter Melinda, or friends. Then new anxieties emerged. Could I overcome them even to get into the car? Would I be repelled by a blast of fear or anger when I got there? What objects would I bring with me? What would I do when I arrived? Would I find Sophie there? What if I didn’t feel any emotion? This was my biggest fear of all.
I meditated and felt my father telling me, “Non ti preoccupare.” Don’t worry. “Vai, chè è ora.” Go, it is time. “Ci sarò insieme a te.” I will be with you.
From Sophie, the message was, “Come and find me. Come and find me.”
I did more planning for the three-mile drive to Golden Gate Park than I have done for trips to Kenya, Beijing, or the Galapagos, because this time I had to travel a much further distance.
I brought a folding chair, metal dowels in two colors to mark the place where her hands and feet had been, and dried flowers, purple lavender and pink delphinium. I kept reassuring myself that this was not a test and I need not fear failure. I packed a cell phone in case I needed help getting home, a notebook and pens, tissues, and a tiny pair of Sophie’s patent leather shoes to represent her walking on this earth. Also a statue of the goddess Guan Yin, the Buddhist goddess said to dwell between this life and the next, and a small gift of homemade jam for Michele.
As I drove north on Nineteenth Avenue I felt surprisingly calm. I entered the park, turned east on Martin Luther King Drive, parked across from the playground, and called Michele on my cell phone. When she answered, I crossed the street to meet her and we walked up the slope, speaking easily of her child and my grandson, Sophie’s little boy.
We talked about gardening, and I asked her if she had any ideas about getting rid of the grasshoppers plaguing my summer vegetable garden in the country. I wanted her to see that she didn’t have to fear that I would fall apart.
As we turned left up the side road leading to Stowe Lake my heart raced a little – from exertion, not fear. I felt peaceful and resolute, like a pilgrim approaching a holy place, and it seemed right that the person who had found Sophie’s body should lead me here. Michele showed me exactly where Sophie’s body had been, head to the right, up the slope with her left cheek to the soil. With the little metal stakes, I marked the spots Michele pointed to.
We walked back to our meeting place and I gave her the strawberry jam and my wish that she know the sweetness of life. I got in my car and drove back to the site. As I parked, I noticed the dip in the curb where I imagined the murderers had dragged her body out of the car and across the path, but I did not hold that thought and it did not hold me. I was not there to visit that event; I was there to visit my daughter.
I felt a great sense of unanticipated peace. For all my planning of what to bring, I had no agenda of what I would do. I felt drawn to lie down right in Sophie’s place with my cheek exactly where hers had been. As I lay there where her body last touched the earth, I told her again what a gift she had been to my life, a darling little girl whose adoption opened new chambers in my heart, softened it and flooded it with delight.
I told her how much I had wanted her to come back to her true self. How I had hiked up the mountain to the chapel above our village in Italy, not believing any longer in the religion but anxious to try anything. How I asked missionary nuns for their prayers; attended a Chi Gong healing meeting; tried to send heart messages; and hoped without ceasing that someone – whether psychiatrist, psychologist or seer – might be able to intervene in her life.
I told her she was still missed and remembered every day by those who loved her – Mama Irene, Melinda, and dear friends. I told her that Nigel, her husband, misses her and honors her memory on her birthday, the anniversary of her death, and whenever we speak of her.
I told her of her little boy, how much he is like her and how he helps us hold her place in our hearts. I felt her answer then, a simple request: “Love my son; keep my memory.”
I lay there a long time in silence, suspended in a place beyond this world, a place where both my body and spirit could sense Sophie’s presence.
When I began to feel stiff and cold, I reluctantly stood up and walked toward the lake, recalling that this was the very first place we brought Sophie and Melinda when we were allowed to take them from their foster home. Along the path I saw a lovely baby-blue haze: a drift of forget-me-nots, the same flower that fills my memory garden at home, the flower I use each day to tell Sophie I will always remember her.
I returned to Sophie’s spot, placing a fan of pink delphinium over the lavender and then a few forget-me-nots on top, right where Sophie’s face had been. I placed Sophie’s shoes where her feet last touched the ground.
I got out my folding chair and sat and wrote, trying to capture what I felt. I told Sophie I would be back. I gathered up the shoes and chair, but I kept looking back, not wanting to leave. I looked once more at the memorial, the lovely flowers, no longer alive but still beautiful and full of significance, a perfect metaphor for the person they honored.
With a sense of peace and joy, I blew a kiss to the memorial and to my precious child, and turned to go. I felt as if I were holding Sophie within me.
Today is Sophie’s birthday; she would have been thirty-five years old. The day began with my wife Irene going over to the Ambrosia Bakery to buy the chocolate croissants and cheese Danish we would have had if our daughter were here – served on the same lovely old footed cake dish. Jalen, her nine-year-old son whom we are raising, welcoming a respite from healthy breakfasts, was delighted.
“My mom liked just the same things I do,” he exclaims.
Exactly the response, the connection, we love him to have. Afterward we brought him to school and spent an hour and a half in a meeting with his special education advisors. Aside from his considerable deficits in mathematics – also just like his mother – he is doing fine.
Sophie was born to a drug-addicted mother and spent her first three years living first in neglect and later in foster homes. Looking at the pictures we had taken, I felt so happy to see the happiness she experienced after we adopted her. Sophie was a precious child who brought such joy into my life. It’s hard to get the quiet time and space to feel Sophie on her birthday, the eighth one since we were last together in this life. I began to prepare by planting more forget-me-nots in her memory garden on the shady side of the house. Yesterday, I listened to my favorite meditation CD but did not find the soul connection, quiet and seemingly direct, that I sometimes find there. There was a message, though: “Remember the person, not the pain.” It came to me over and over.
With Sophie, that has not been an easy thing to do, but I resolve to try. It’s like trying to remember a person in health who spent years and years being unwell. My plan for the day is to spend time looking at old family albums. By chance the first album I pick up shows the four of us – my wife Irene, myself, Sophie’s older sister Melinda, and Sophie – at Stowe Lake the first time we were able to take the children on an outing from their foster home.
In the photo, little Soph is throwing grain to the waiting birds on the lake, maybe 100 or 150 feet from where her dead body would be found twenty-five years later.
In the next album, Sophie is nine, Jalen’s age, and she is riding her new horse, Pepper; diving from the board at the Farmer’s Pool; playing the piano; skiing down a slope; ice skating at her birthday party; making leis in Hawaii; Sophie close to me, hugging me, touching me. What a wonderful time she had, we all had together. More albums and many more pictures, hiking trips to the High Sierra, wildflower rambles all over California. Oh, this girl did see beauty.
Lori, our neighbor, whom we always called “the girls’ third mother,” came for dinner tonight to remember Sophie. She and Jalen, Irene, and I looked over the pages I had tabbed in the albums. It was a gift to me to watch Jalen seeing photos of his mother at just his age on the stage at Commodore Sloat, his school, the same stage where he too has sung, and at the annual Halloween parade in the schoolyard. This was also a gift I was giving Jalen for his mom’s birthday, helping him feel connected to the mother he had for only twenty-three months.
The birthday dinner went well. Jalen was enthusiastic about the menu, scaloppini and spinach and ricotta ravioli with Alfredo sauce, my Italian-American table connecting my Irish, Mexican, Polynesian, Portuguese daughter to her half African-American son.
Jalen, though, is the real gift Irene and I have for Sophie this birthday. He sounds and looks so much like her. My heart says, “Soph, look at your boy – tenderhearted, compassionate, well-mannered, lover of animals and magical stories, deficient in math even worse than you, but gifted like you in his sense of humor and his understanding of people’s feelings. I want you to know, Sophie, how I have tried to nurture him, body and soul. I am giving him the best of what I have to give, the best of who I am.”
Gaylene, my therapist, asks me how my heart is different this season. I feel I am better able now to separate my memories and joy from the shadows of my grief. She asks if grief is the connection. If you grieve less, do you feel less? With Sophie there was so much to grieve: her decline from early adolescence until her death at twenty-seven; our inability to alter her course, resulting in a sense of impotence, followed by feelings of sorrow and anger when she was murdered; rage at the legal system that refused to pursue her killer; and finally a sense of despair and defeat, feeling that all our love had been wasted.
I feel a sense of urgency that there be at least a few forget-me-nots in bloom most of the year. I imagine Sophie saying to me, “Forget me not,” to which I always reply, “I will never forget you.”
Is that grief, that quick pinprick of emotion? I don’t know, but I keep on planting. Would it ever be OK to feel less? To feel less sorrow, yes; to feel less anger, of course, although that emotion has almost totally dissipated; but to feel less love and loving memory, never. It would be a violation of my mother’s heart connection to Sophie, which I want to feel until I last lose consciousness.
For a moment on her birthday I tried to imagine the day of her birth. There must have been both the pain and euphoria that attend all births. But when I try to envision Sophie’s birth my mind gets entangled in her fate, her death, and the inexorable arc of her life, and I quickly exit these thoughts, heeding the sage message to remember my daughter, not my pain, the better to recollect the dreamlike happy days of her childhood, that brief shining moment that was my Camelot.
Yesterday, like most weekday afternoons, I sat on the Monet-style wooden bench amid the vegetable gardens facing room B4 at Commodore Sloat and waited for the bell that would release the children from their classrooms. My grandson, Jalen, is in the first grade.
I feel tense each time that bell rings, wondering how things have gone for him. If he is among the first to exit, it will be with a big smile and a bounce in his step. I will exhale and know he has had a good day, one in which he was not reprimanded by the teacher or had a disagreement with a classmate. Yesterday, after the other nineteen first graders had exited, Jalen came through the classroom door with halting steps and the blank face that masks his sadness. By the time we were within two feet of each other he was sobbing. I hugged him and he pressed his curly head to my bosom. At those moments there is nowhere else I want to be.
As we walked to the car, Jalen had enough time between sobs to say that his friend Henry told Ms. Moore, his teacher, falsely, that Jalen had said, “Shut up,” to him.
“Do you want me to go talk to Ms. Moore?”
“No. I feel sad. I want to go home.”
As we drove home Jalen was quiet in the back seat and I sensed his returning equilibrium.
“What a mean thing to do. This Henry must be a butt-head.”
I hear a little giggle from the back seat, followed by a louder laugh and then, “Yeah, Grandma, he’s a piece of crap.”
We both hoot with laughter. Sliding back into my PTA-approved Grandma role, I say, “Maybe Henry was having a bad day. Tomorrow you tell him he made you feel sad and it was not a nice thing to do.”
Jalen said, “Okay, Grandma. Grandma, what kind of treats do you have for me at home?”
That, in a nutshell, is the essence of my grandmotherhood with Jalen. I am a comforter, a potty-mouthed grandma with whom he can use forbidden language, and a purveyor of peanut butter sandwiches and pasta along with the customary cookies and milk.
I didn’t look forward to this role of grandmother. Sophie was deeply troubled. She had said she was feeling ill, and the doctor told us she might have lymphoma. An X-ray showed that what she had was a baby.
Irene and I were depressed and anxious, knowing that Sophie, with her drug use, choice of friends, and inability to keep a job, was not a fit candidate for motherhood, and fearing we would be saddled with the responsibility. Then there was the question of paternity. Sophie hoped it was her short, gang-banger, light-skinned African-American boyfriend. Irene and I hoped fervently that the father was Nigel, the tall, steady, very dark African-American man with whom she lived.
Jalen’s first blessing was being born very long and dusky, but his first two years were not propitious. He spent his third month of life hospitalized with digestive problems and was delayed walking and talking. He was referred to a county program for children at risk. Then, right before his second birthday, the man Sophie had hoped was Jalen’s father murdered her. Jalen’s care was left to his dad, Nigel, and us.
Irene and I have taken on this responsibility, sometimes grudgingly and often joyfully. Jalen, like any child, brings joy to a home. Right now we are in the midst of planning his Halloween Dracula outfit, his first scary costume. Because Jalen is Sophie’s child, having him is holding on to a part of her. His full cheeks and exquisitely drawn mouth, the timbre of his voice, his musical ability, sense of humor, generous nature, and verbal expressiveness help keep her alive in our hearts.
I am not a natural grandmother. I’d rather read a good novel than read Winnie the Pooh to a child. Chauffeuring a child to music lessons, swimming lessons, and his therapist is not my preferred way to spend afternoons. Getting up early to make a bag lunch, not being able to read the New York Times with breakfast, and eating dinner without long, adult conversations wear me down. At sixty-eight, I’m about thirty years too old for sitting on the commode and watching a child take a long bath. Afterward, the feeling is compounded when I try to bend over and pluck out the plastic ducks and planes and ships. Each night by bedtime Irene and I feel like boxers who have been TKOed – not quite knocked out but unable to do much more.
There are other times when I believe I would walk through fire for Jalen. When he cries, some fierce, tender mother-goddess overwhelms the rest of me. Part of this response is my need to be emotionally present for Sophie’s motherless child, who for months after she died would accompany his tears with the sobbing demand, “I want my momma.” I want to validate his feelings of sorrow. I feel so angry when I hear people trying to talk children out of what they feel: “Oh, it’s not that bad,” or “Stop your crying.” If you learn not to trust yourself to feel sorrow, how are you going to be able to identify and acknowledge your other, subtler emotions?
The deepest reasons, though, come from my own painful childhood. I remember riding down a hill on my tricycle. The front wheel came off and I tumbled and rolled, scratching my hands, elbows, and knees. When I entered the house crying, my mother coolly responded, “Go do it again so I can see it.” I have neither forgotten nor forgiven her cruelty. When she beat me I began to try to keep myself from crying as a way to thwart her total control over me. In time my ability to cry to express grief dried up. Now, when Jalen cries, something symbiotic happens. I feel his sorrow and I feel the sorrows of my life, too, and even a glimpse of the sorrows of the world. He feels his sorrow and I feel his and mine, and then we both move on.
If I live to be eighty, Jalen will be eighteen, so with some good luck and health I may live long enough to see him grow into his adult form. He won’t remember the day Henry was mean to him, and he won’t know the investment of time and heart and money we have poured into him. I hope we will have helped to shape him into a better and more complex human being. He has done that for me already.
Yesterday, while walking Jalen and his friend Gregory to school, a small heart-rending drama occurred.
“Gregory, my tooth came out this morning, and the Tooth Fairy is going to come tonight!”
“Jalen,” replied Gregory, “there is no Tooth Fairy. That’s just a story for little kids.” Jalen didn’t say anything but he walked behind us for quite a while and when he caught up again his cheeks were streaked with tears.
My first, unspoken, response was that little bastard Gregory is going to grow up to be a know-it-all-male, insufferably self-assured even when he’s wrong. But after that first flash of anger I felt a pall of sadness.
I tried to reason with my melancholy mood. “Look,” I said to myself, “Jalen’s in the third grade already. He’s by far the biggest kid in his class, almost as tall as I am, and weighs 100 pounds. If not today, if not Gregory, it was bound to happen soon.” This didn’t make me feel any better.
I am fiercely protective of my grandson. He lives with us and has been motherless since the age of two. His mostly absent father is in trouble with the law for selling AK-47s, and it is up to Irene and me to provide direction and a safe harbor for Jalen’s body and his spirit.
When I picked Jalen up after school, we were alone in the car. As I pulled away from the curb he began to cry and yelled, “Why did Gregory have to tell me about the Tooth Fairy? Why couldn’t he just let me believe it?” And then, between sobs, “Grandma, what about the Easter Bunny?”
“Oh, shit,” I thought as I soothingly said, “Well, Jalen, every Easter at our ranch we see bunnies all over, don’t we?” He seemed reassured by this. Mercifully he didn’t go for the Trifecta and ask me about Santa Claus. “Look,” I said lamely, “If you want to believe in the Tooth Fairy, why not?”
“Grandma,” he replied sternly. “It wouldn’t be the same.”
When we got home, he devoured his after-school milk and cookies (carrot-stick-purveying nutritionist-fascists, be damned), and I figured he was in recovery. I suggested we call Melinda, my other adopted daughter and his aunt, whom I had already informed about the revelation. I listened in on the extension; Melinda was at her loving aunt/elementary-school-teacher best. “The Tooth Fairy only comes to those who believe, so why should she come to his house?” “Yes, it could be a boy fairy.” “Yes, they’d have to be quite small.” “You know how it is in the Polar Express, you have to believe to see and feel the magic.”
At bedtime, with a little urging, he put his tooth under the pillow. After all, five dollars is five dollars. Then he said to me, “Grandma, I feel like the puzzle pieces of my heart have broken apart.” At that moment, I would have given everything Irene and I possess to be able to summon the Tooth Fairy, but in the morning the first thing he said to me was, “I feel the puzzle pieces in my heart are coming back together.”
I know from my response to all of this that there’s more involved here than tooth fairies. Part of it, I think, is understanding the need to have some magic in our lives. In my youth we scoffed at believers. That was, however, before I had experienced very much of the world. How would my grandmother have felt if someone in authority had told her the Madonna Della Guardia was a fraud? Nonbeliever though I am, I have a Madonna statue as well as Guan Yin and a wolf totem on my altar, and I have come to believe that one child’s Tooth Fairy is another person’s Madonna.
Last week we went, as we have done every year, to the Wheatland Pumpkin Farm. For the first time the train ride with its horn echoing through the tunnel and its crossing guards ringing did not hold him spellbound. This year the train was replaced in his affections by the new Zip Line ride that administered a bolt of delicious fear as he stepped out of the green doors thirty feet in the air and dangled from the cable while his body zinged across the field to a jolting stop. He wanted to do it again.
There is another reason why the demise of the Tooth Fairy is saddening and even frightening to me. There is also a framed icon on my altar. It is a picture of Jalen’s mother, Sophie, age four, the second Halloween after her adoption, safe and secure in her magic years. In the photo she is whirling around, the voluminous skirts of her Cinderella gown forming a wide circle around her. Her expression is satisfied and serious, befitting a person who knows that, wearing this dress at this time of the year, she is, in her reality, Cinderella on her way to the ball.
I treasure this picture because it reminds me of her innocence, her guilelessness as a child, a time when I could never have imagined her behavior would devolve into the deception and cunning that led to her murder at the age of twenty-seven.
Gone are the days when Jalen was content to be a bumblebee or a cowboy. Last year he was Dracula and this year he will be a werewolf, costumes fretted over as much as Sophie’s Cinderella or Dorothy Gale from Kansas. Just as his preference for the train has been replaced by the Zip Line, so his taste in costumes has changed, as it must, from sweet to scary. What frightens me are not the costumes, obviously, but where his growing up might ultimately lead. Will this sweet, precious little boy, so like his mother at his age, become a frightening person whom I don’t understand, whom I can’t trust to speak to me directly from his heart?
Already, it has begun. “Grandma, I don’t like my skin color.” On other occasions, it’s “Grandma, I don’t like my hair.” This week it was flat out, “Grandma, I don’t want to be Black.”
I tell Jalen his skin color is a beautiful bronze, which it is, but I know he is already seeing something different than the richness of his skin tone. I frequently run my fingers over his fluffy, round head and tell him his hair reminds me of a buffalo, one of the strongest and bravest of God’s creatures. I point out that his beloved dog, Lily, is black and brown and white, and so is he.
When he and I consume heaping bowls of fettuccine Alfredo, ziti alla Norma, gnocchi with pesto, and all the other ethnic food at our Italian-American table, I tell him, “Culturally speaking, he who eats Italian, is Italian.”
I am grateful for the melanin of my ancestors that browns my skin in summer to a tone darker than his in winter. Often when we are sitting in the summer sun, I put my sunbaked arm down next to his, hoping he will notice.
Jalen is entering the fourth grade; I worry about what will happen as he leaves the primary grades and moves toward adolescence. What will occur as he approaches his teen years and seeks answers to the questions of his own identity? What suggestions, both benign and malignant, will be whispered to him, hurled at him, by his peers, by American society, by his Black father and by us, the white family he lives with? My spouse and I are two white women in our seventies. On his mother’s side, Jalen is Mexican, Irish, Polynesian and Portuguese, with a little Chinese and Swedish in the mix. On his dad’s side he is African-American. How much his father, currently on house arrest for selling AK-47’s, will be in Jalen’s life, and what influence he will have on Jalen’s image of himself as a young Black man is unclear. While he loves his son, he seldom calls him.
Jalen attends the local public school, which while multi-racial has very few African-American students. We live in a mostly white neighborhood, but I am grateful to have my neighbor, Roseann, two doors down. She is helping her son who lives with her to raise her half-black grandson. Our dear friend Gaia and her African-American husband live around the corner. They and their grandchildren are important people in our lives. While all of this is important, I fear it might be peripheral.
The nearby middle school draws many African-American students, over-represented in Special Education classes. Jalen is not academically gifted. He did not walk until he was twenty-two months old. His mother used drugs while he was in her womb and he was enrolled in a preschool for children at risk for disabilities before his second birthday, just about the time his mother died. His teachers at his preschool warned us of learning differences by the time he was four, and testing in first grade revealed a learning disability in math.
With the help of private tutors, he now reads at grade level and loves buying a new Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Magic Tree House book as much as a new toy. The times tables, however, remain something of a mystery and a query about 6×8 can get a response ranging from 24 to 56. I fear the influence his future classmates will have on him. I recall my own teaching days in a high school that served San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhoods. So many times I saw young Black males, carrying textbooks in the hallways, being greeted by fellow African-American students who sarcastically called out, “What are you doing with those books? Trying to act white?”
I cringe when I see the statistics stating that more African-American males spend time in jail than graduate from college, and I feel so fearful when I read over and over that homicide is, by far, the leading cause of death for them. Who will be Jalen’s models for being young and black in America?
And how will white society view him? In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, President Obama recalled his experiences as a Black youth, being followed by security in a department store and hearing the click of car doors as he crossed the street. Jalen at nine is five feet tall, weighs over 100 pounds, and takes a men’s size seven shoe. How much will he grow in the next few years? How will he be profiled because of his color, his sex, and his size? How many locks will he hear clicking? How many old ladies will he see clutching their purses more tightly when he enters their elevator?
Meanwhile, I wonder how much the racism that lurks in my own heart affects my fears and judgments. I worry that others will judge Jalen by his skin color and not recognize his kind, generous spirit, his compassion, his expressive language, and his old-soul ability to speak his heart. But last week, when my car was broken into while parked in my driveway, what color were the faces of the youngsters who came to mind? What was the curse that formed in my mouth? “Melangiani” – eggplants, Italian-American code for guess who.
I had seen a small group of African-Americans strolling past the day before and, for no good reason, immediately suspected they were up to no good. Why were their faces the ones that immediately came to mind? Not far from the front door of my home is a halfway house for people having trouble with the effects of alcohol, drugs, and mental illness. Most of them are white. Why didn’t I imagine their faces? Why do I have to conjure faces different from my own? I think back to my adopted daughters’ teenage years when I admonished them that if they ever got pregnant they had better be prepared to raise the child because my motherhood had a shelf-life of one generation. To myself I said, “What would that child be to me anyway – no DNA connection, no responsibility.”
How could an adoptive mother have been so blind? What I have learned again in the last seven years is that clans can be made by more than religion or genetic code, and kinship can be measured by closeness to the heart and the ferocity of feelings. I will try to look at people whose skin is different through the dark brown lens of my precious boy.