Edited after the fact: Whoa, y’all. This became quite the childhood manifesto. I knew it was all in there, but I wasn’t planning to share it tonight. But I guess that’s what happens when I tap into a lil bit of family history. And maybe I needed to share it. And maybe you need to read it. At any rate, I’m not editing it down or splitting it up. It is what it is. It’s mine. My truth. My life. My purpose, past, present, and future. So…. Yeah.
I’ve been thinking about that fact that some of you have no idea who Joshua is. I mean, you get that he’s a 14 year old boy who lives with me and eats all the food. But maybe you think he’s my son. Which isn’t the case. So I thought I would talk a bit about that.
Joshua is my brother. I was 17 when he was born, and in the delivery room with our mom and his father. I had and have never experienced anything so beautiful as Joshua’s birth; if you’ve never been present for a natural delivery, I honestly don’t have any words to convey to you the depth and intensity of emotion involved. Of course, there was also pain – my mother’s, sure, but she also dislocated my shoulder while pushing, and to this day, I’m not really sure how or at what point that was remedied. But I digress.
I was 16 years old and about to graduate from high school. I did not live with a parent; I lived with my schoolteacher, who had been a close friend of my mother’s… Until I chose to live with her instead of mom. Mom called to tell me she was pregnant. With Joshua.
Maybe some back story would be helpful here.
See, when I was 13 and around that age (chronology is really difficult for me), our family was more than a bit dysfunctional. Mom had worked really hard to pull it together after being blindsided by a divorce request from “Dad,” father to my brother A and my sister K (who was two weeks old when good ol’ Dad gave mom the heave-ho for my mother’s “best friend”). Mom, A, K, and I left Puerto Rico and the military family life in Decmber of 1990 and came back to New England to stay with family; what else were we to do? Mom was 28, had three kids ages 10, 7, and two months, no education beyond her GED, and hadn’t had to work a full-time job since she was 18 with a small baby child (yep, me) to support. Life was starting over, and she was in over her head to say the least.
She worked hard. SO hard. She immediately enrolled at Andover College to get her associate’s in medical assisting. She worked three part-time jobs while attending school full-time. She got a babysitter when she could, and I took care of stuff when she couldn’t. We lived in poverty, but so did most of the kids in my neighborhood. Maybe they weren’t living in the dead lady’s house, free in exchange for feeding the ancient cat who wouldn’t budge because he’d lived there for 20-odd years and if Grace had died there, by golly, so would he, but still. The kids in my hood didn’t have Shawnee Peak ski tags hanging on the zipper pulls of their North Face puffy down winter coats, and they didn’t have two parents either, and they thought fishing in the ravine with a stick and a worm on a piece of string was a great way to pass the time until it was dark enough to play flashlight tag.
Mom got her degree, and a job – a decent one – working in another small town closer to the New Hampshire border. But she wasn’t happy with the schools in Bridgton, and wanted us to go to the private school her friend Selby was starting. It was in Portland, which was a strange and wonderful universe I had only visited once (that I remembered) on a band field trip where we played a couple of songs in the middle of the mall and then Becky Danis and I bought “Best Friends” necklaces at Claire’s (which were subsequently treated much like Facebook statuses today – used to passive-aggressively express disdain for one another by wearing them under our collars or, for the worst offenses, taken off entirely).
So, we moved to Portland. My brother “A” didn’t adjust well, and maybe his stuff had been building up over the couple of years we’d been in Maine already, or maybe taking him away from everything that had started to become familiar and making him start all over again broke him – I’m not sure, and don’t know if he is, either. At any rate, he became very volatile. I was older, and we were new to the city, and mom was commuting three or four hours a day to work, gone before school started and home after dinner was over. So I got us off to school, I cooked, I did dishes with my Bible quizzing index cards wedged into the gap between the cabinet and the knob so I wouldn’t lose my “rookie of the year” prestige just because we moved to the Big City. Bible quizzing was a church youth group activity at which I’d excelled in our small-town church, and also across New England. I’d been sent to the annual international competition in Florida my first year and it was the one thing I felt good about since we’d landed in Maine.
But no matter how hard I studied those verses, I couldn’t predict or prevent what happened – Mom tried to make sure I still made every quiz meet, and we went to one in Providence, RI. I don’t know what triggered him, but A had a meltdown. He had been aggressive and violent with us at home on plenty of occasions, but this small angry boy perched atop a family minivan, threatening harm to himself and others, cursing a blue streak… he was mine. My brother. My family. And I was embarrassed. I hated him for it. I didn’t know then what I know now; I was 14, 15? and my social circle was more important to me than blood. I know K was there, too, but I couldn’t tell you where she was or who was looking after her while mom tried to talk A down. Maybe I was – it was the role I was accustomed to taking, so I imagine that’s what was. But I don’t remember. I only remember the shame.
My brother was admitted to a hospital, for the first of several stays. It wore mom down, it wore me down, and I imagine it had an effect on K, too, regardless of her age. The violence continued and became a cycle, until one night when mom wasn’t around and A went beyond threats and caused me harm. I know he was as scared as I was when he saw what he’d done, because he retreated to his room – but it was a turning point. I couldn’t protect K anymore, because I could no longer effectively even protect myself. He was getting too big, too strong, too adept at evading my usual tactics. My teacher and her partner came over until mom got home to bring A to the hospital. K and I then went to stay with another family friend, with whom we’d often stayed when these things happened. But this time, when mom came back to say that everything was going to be okay, really, I couldn’t believe her. I told her I wasn’t going back. I was a junior in high school, I had been an adult for nearly five years, and I was ready to be a teenager for the first time. I stayed with those friends for a few months until a more permanent arrangement was made with my teacher’s family for me to stay with them until I graduated.
That was not the end of my contact with mom, A, and K during my high school years, but it was the beginning of boundary-setting. There were many difficult encounters. There were many scary times. There were many heart-wrenching choices. But in the end, mom and I were on good enough terms for her to call me and tell me, “I’m going to have a baby.”
The following several months were full of changes for me; I graduated from high school, signed my first lease as an almost-legal adult, and began working full time. I slowly began attempting to repair family ties that had been clawed to bits two years prior. I established enough of a connection with my mother that, when the time came, I was at the hospital for the first attempt to induce labor with Joshua. I walked mom to and from the hot tub and up and down the halls. I drank enough ginger ale to last a lifetime. I’m pretty sure I watched one of those part cartoon, part live action movies that were all the rage in the early-mid-90s in the waiting room. Then he came.
My connection with Joshua was established in those first seconds he was a breathing being. I saw very little of him for most of his youth. I lived with mom and her husband and the kids for a short while, but then I left, then they moved away, then I moved away again… It wasn’t until I was living in San Francisco and had separated myself from it all enough to see things clearly that I realized that Joshua needed me.
Along with this came the realization (and the accompanying guilt) that K and A had needed me, too. But with the help of loved ones with more perspective than I could have around it all, I also realized that I had not been capable of doing more for them than I did. With Joshua, though, I would be doing us all a disservice if I didn’t step up. I was in a better place – emotionally, mentally, financially – to provide what we all needed. Mom needed the respite to focus on her self-care. K needed to know that someone would take care of Joshua as she had when mom wasn’t able to. And Joshua needed – deserved – an opportunity to thrive in an environment that catered to him. Where his needs came first.
And I needed someone to give myself to. Someone on whom my energy and love wouldn’t be wasted. I’d done a lot of that in the years since I’d given myself to A and K and mom. Always trying to find an outlet for all this giving I wanted to do, but never feeling like there was much of a return.
I found it in Joshua.
I moved home from San Francisco over 4th of July weekend in 2010. I had a lot of settling to do – Portland had been my home as an adult once, but a very different adult than the one I’d become in my time away. Some things felt so different, and others felt only too much the same. I had talked to mom before I moved back about the ways Joshua might benefit from living in Portland, and we had discussed many options – her moving here with him, him moving here first and her coming later, etc. As fall settled in, mom’s cyclical depression came around, and I began taking Joshua on weekends while mom took care of herself. Thanksgiving was the first of several weekends in a row Joshua spent with me, through the holidays. New Year’s Eve, he and I downloaded an app on my iPhone so we could watch the ball drop together – one of the first real bonding experiences we’d had since I returned. And three weeks later, he was enrolled in school in Portland and came to live with me for good. A month later, mom, Joshua’s father, and I sat before a judge and he awarded me sole legal custody. Joshua has lived with me for a year now, and the young man he is today is light years ahead of the monosyllabic boy who wouldn’t look me in the eye for anything. He visits mom, hangs with K, often talks about A with reverence (A gave him his first real computer, with killer specs for creating video). He’s part of a family now, despite what some might see as having been torn from it.
Holy shit I need to take a deep breath or five.
Since I started writing this, three hours have passed. I’ve made Josh cheeseburgers, texted with K, and IMed with A; I wanted to let them know I was airing this shit, because I didn’t know I was going to, and I know it’s not just mine to share.
But what it all comes down to is, FUCK we must all love each other something fierce, to have been through all we have and still be in touch. To still care about each other the way we do. To still actively seek each other out and support one another as we can.
This post really hasn’t told you much about Joshua at all. And that deserves its own post, because damn, that boy is a freaking riot and I love the SHIT out of him. But I guess it told you a little about me. And maybe a little about you, whether because you relate, or because you don’t.
………Okay, I’m done.