Fostering Hope, Chapter 3: The Boy and the Baseball Card

Park Place, Windham, Maine, 2001.

Now, my anger toward the Department did not mean that I was angry with the people that lived and worked at the group home. In fact, I grew to love each of them and the other kids provided much needed company and playtime. Among my favorite staff were Ellen, Ken, and Debbie. Ellen lived in Gorham, and she’ll turn up later in the story.

Ken was in his early to mid-twenties, and we recently reconnected on Facebook. I was the oldest of my four siblings, so what Ken became for me was something of a big brother figure. For someone in his mid-twenties, he had a deep and caring heart and treated his job as if it were family. He was also the only male worker at that group home, so he was the only male role model I had – and I couldn’t have asked for a better one.

Debbie was a kind-hearted soul that had the difficult choice of choosing between my sister and I and two sisters when her husband and her were looking to adopt. Debbie and her husband lived in Gray and had us stay over a night to sort of test the waters. They were definitely middle to upper-middle class. Their house was huge. Life would have been good, I’m sure, but they ended up going with the two sisters. But you know, surprisingly I wasn’t upset. I knew those two sisters very well and I was actually happy for them and reconnected with them on Facebook a few years ago. I suppose the only sad part of it was that I wasn’t able to see two of my friends again on a regular basis.

Debbie was a kind-hearted soul that had the difficult choice of choosing between my sister and I and two sisters when her husband and her were looking to adopt. Debbie and her husband lived in Gray and had us stay over a night to sort of test the waters. They were definitely middle to upper-middle class. Their house was huge. Life would have been good, I’m sure, but they ended up going with the two sisters. But you know, surprisingly I wasn’t upset. I knew those two sisters very well and I was actually happy for them and reconnected with them on Facebook a few years ago. I suppose the only sad part of it was that I wasn’t able to see two of my friends again on a regular basis.

But there is one memory that always finds its way back to me. The room I stayed in had white laminate flooring speckled with blue and grey. I can’t quite remember what color the walls were. The room itself was sort of a weirdly angled room, with an open closet with hangars off to the right at a right-angle with the window. I remember standing in the middle of my room staring at the dust floating in the panel of sunlight that sliced in from the window. I often did this, by the way – stare at specks of dust floating in the sunlight, that is.

In my hand was a baseball card and I remember looking at the man on the card. I was ten at the time and was surprised by the feelings that came to surface. I brought the card closer so I could see his face. He’s handsome, I thought to myself. And I gazed some more at his face. Then my head slowly drooped as I raised that baseball card and I planted a kiss right onto his face. But unlike the frog and the princess story, the boy and the baseball player wouldn’t quite have the same happy ending – no matter how much I wished that he would jump out of that card and kiss me for real.

I was still innocent of thought then. I passed no judgment on myself for thinking he was handsome or kissing that baseball card. I merely stood in that shaft of sunlight, pleasantly warm on the outside and pleasantly warm on the inside as I admired the man. It’s a memory that still sends shivers up my spine every time it visits me randomly in moments of quietude.

There is a darker memory that shaped my life. Indeed it has shaped the lives of many of my fellow millennials and Americans. I was in school that day, a mildly warm September day, attending a Portland school that had relocated downtown due to some mold in its previous building (As a group home kid, I was allowed to pick which school I would like to attend, and so I picked Jack Elementary School). All of a sudden the school was a bustle and we were told that school would be closing early unexpected. Being kids, we rejoiced – knowing nothing about what was unfolding.

One of the group home employees picked me and my sister up and drove us home. The ride home was odd. The day couldn’t have been more perfect in terms of the temperature and the way the light had that golden tinge. It seemed to light the air with an invisible glow. The breeze wafting in through the window also carried with it the faint smell of summer coming to an end. But the noises from the front of the car were distracting. The group home employee had her hand covering her mouth as if she had seen an unsightly seen on the road ahead. But I knew she was responding to what was being said on the radio, which honestly sounded monotonous, the same story being repeated over and over again. Oh, and the employee again covering her gasps.

When we finally made it to the group home, the news was on and I finally connected to the images on the TV to what was being said on the radio. America had been attacked. Two planes had rammed into the World Trade Center. Thousands of people had died. Our peace and ignorance of the world that was not America was shattered… violated, in a sense. My reaction was a little absurd. But then again, I WAS a ten-year-old kid with an imaginative mind. I remember “praying” to George Washington that we would make them pay. But probably the memory that makes me cringe out of embarrassment most is when I woke up one morning sometime after September 11th and placed my little stereo into the open window in the movie room. I put in a CD of patriotic songs that I had somehow acquired and cranked up the volume for all to hear.

To place it in context, the group home was smack dab in the middle of a quiet, suburban and residential neighborhood in Maine. This was also in the early morning hours. But, perhaps the neighbors were not all that upset to hear “God Bless America” blaring through the airwaves at such a time. But I was a kid caught up in the wave of patriotic fervor that swept the nation then – and it only fueled my fascination with history and current events.

Aside from this, life at the group home seemed to settle down for the next ten months or so. The group home was an odd piece of architecture. It had a flat roof with outer walls covered with masonry and and entrance with ceiling to floor glass windows that led into the kitchen. If you turned to the left, you would step down into a huge living room that looked more like a small lecture room with carpeted steps. If you passed through the kitchen, you eventually entered into an open area surrounded by the kids’ rooms, two bathrooms, and the movie/tv room. My room was the first on the right, the movie/tv room on the right after that, then, going counter-clockwise, a bathroom four other rooms, and another bathroom. The group home also had a huge lawn, a garage, and an in-ground pool surrounded by a tall, wooden fence.

This was where I first the movie The Princess Bride and laughed until it ached when I heard the priest say “marriage”. This was also where I got one of the kids to trade me his Charizard for my Articundo, which he later found out was a bad trade. A year or so after, when we both had moved on to different foster homes, I ran into him at a Walmart and he began to tug on his foster mom, “Hey! He stole my Charizard!” It was disputes like that one that caused many schools to ban Pokemon cards from the playground.

We languished there for 15 months until one of the workers there, Sheila, who was also a special ed teacher at Bonny Eagle High School, decided that we had spent enough time there. My sister and I were exuberant. Over the months we had seen kids come and go and be placed in families… it was about time that it was our turn.

Gorham, ME, 2002.

It’s taken awhile for me to get a chance to sit down and begin to process and write about moments from this period of my life. Part of me was holding back in order to protect Sheila, since it is not my intention, nor is it my view, that she is a terrible person. The way that I see it now, as a mid-twenties adult man, she was a single, foster mother who most probably bit off a little more than she can chew by agreeing to foster me and my sister, Tanya. She was a special education teacher at Buxton High School, so imagine doing that all day and then coming home to kids dealing with emotional trauma.

Being a foster parent is no easy task. It has both its ups and downs; its successes and its challenges. But no person should opt to become a foster parent without realizing that they will be pushed to the brink and challenged to grow. Especially if the foster child is of a different race or ethnicity than you. That raises even more issues than if it were a white foster parent with a white foster child. A foster parent with a foster child of a different ethnicity or race undertakes not only the challenge of raising and caring for a child, but they also take on the challenges and issues associated with raising and caring for someone of a different skin color and, perhaps, from a different culture. Every foster parent in such a situation cannot ignore the biases or stereotypes that they themselves might hold, whether consciously or subconsciously, or that their friends, family, neighbors, and community may hold. A best practice is for such a parent to look to resources about raising children of color. Do not to expect that one can just wake up one day and “get it.”

We had a chance to stay at Sheila’s home in Gorham, which was adjacent to the University of Southern Maine, as a sort of testing period. Both my sister and I were enamored with how big the house was – a New England home built in the 1800s with two barns and a large, and I mean LARGE, field for a yard. The back yard had this neat patch of land with trees and a screened, hammock house nestled in between the trees. The yard gave us more than enough space to play. But there was also a lot of responsibility involved, and this was where Sheila and I butted heads often. The huge yard required a lot of raking and maintenance during the spring, summer, and fall seasons. And, like other kids, I hated chores.

Despite how large the house was, the barns and about a third of the actual house were uninhabitable due to the lack of insulation and heating. Upon entering the mud and coat room, you saw a flight of steep stairs that went up toward my room. To the right was a doorway that led into the kitchen, the floor of which was lined with linoleum like many other old, New England homes. The next room was a dining room with a large table and chandelier, with windows that looked out onto College Ave. A bathroom was located on the right. Walk further down and take a right and you would have the front door on the left (which was not used) and more narrow stairs on the right that led upstairs to the bedrooms. Straight ahead was the living room.

We each had our own bedrooms, which all had doors that led to a bathroom located in the center. I mostly used the stairs by the entrance to get to and from my room, but would often travel through the centrally-located bathroom to get to my sister’s room.

I was a Fourth Grader by this time and was enrolled in Village School. School and homework was where Sheila and I butted heads on a consistent basis. I remember we were studying the Civil War in history class and I found a poem in a book on the civil war. For reasons I still do not know, probably an impulsive need to be recognized and appreciated, I told my teacher and classmates that I wrote the poem. Well, of course that didn’t pan out well as they caught on pretty quickly that I did not write that poem. Both my teach and Sheila were flabbergasted. Sheila sat me down and asked something that sounded like, “Why did you lie about the poem?” To which I responded with a guilty look downward at my lap.

My non-responsiveness did not sit well with her and she asked again. And again. And Again. Instances like this occurred more and more, and each time she became more flustered with my inability to explain why, exactly, I took a certain course of action. Her face would get visibly red and puffed up as she got angrier and angrier. Somewhere along the road, her words became like poison. Not that the words themselves were that atrocious, but rather the way she said them. Her face with that angry, red flush. Her eyes getting bloodshot and fierce. It scared the hell out of me and it made me even more speechless. Her words were dripping with hurt as I absorbed it all and over time learned to shut down and, under my skin and out of sight, how to curl into a ball and escape.

It was emotional hell. And, yes, it was emotional abuse.  I won’t mince words with that because it happens to many, many people, and many people need to realize that not only the things they say, but how they say them, can rise to a level that would constitute emotional abuse.

But at the same time, Sheila also challenged me to be active and to get involved with things.

I did not live far from school, so I walked the mile to and from school every day. The summer of my eleventh birthday, I also tried out for the Babe Ruth baseball league. I was incredibly anxious because a baseball is small and extremely hard. So when I showed up for try outs, the coaches had us cycle through various tests to see which positions we might be good at. I remember waiting in line to catch a fly-ball and being petrified. So many thoughts ran through my head. What if I don’t catch it? What if it hits me? What would the other boys think of me?

I didn’t catch the fly-balls. But I ended up on the Gorham Savings Bank team and, for some reason, when the coaches asked everyone which position we’d like to play, I picked right field – a position where fly-balls were a common occurrence. And to be honest, the first two-thirds of the season I sucked. I barely caught a fly-ball. I barely hit a bill. I was no good.

But the coaches kept encouraging me and my teammates did the same. And I remember one game, at the end of my first season on Gorham Savings Bank, I smacked one deep into center field. I barely even remembered to run for first base. This was a gamechanger. All of a sudden, I was catching fly-balls, making plays, and as the season came to an end, my team and the other teams knew to expect me to smack it deep into outfield or to hit a homerun. The next baseball season during the summer, I got even better.

This was also the time that I discovered my love for fantasy and fictional novels. My favorite series then was Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. My imaginative mind flourished as I painted pictures of talking animals living in abbeys and castles and towns. My boyish sense of adventure was emboldened as I imagined scenes of mice and moles fighting off rats with swords and sabers. And boy did I love the badgers – a warring clan of mighty heroes who often wielded battleaxes.

Books helped me escape. They carried me off into far-off lands where I knew there were happy endings, despite the tragedies and mishaps. They inspired me with heroes who rose from obscurity and adversity to face daunting challenges and obstacles. I delved into fantasy, but I also loved history. Whether it was Harry Potter, Redwall, Lord of the Rings, or books on some of the greatest leaders in the Western World – I lived in these worlds constantly. I would often just sit for hours and hours burning through books. Sometimes that is all I will do all day long.

And there is something to be said about the power of reading. Not only do you learn a language, but you are exposed to different points of views, different ways of thinking, and you learn how to think and to piece it all together. Even if they are fictional or fantasy novels, they present, in a way, an author’s model of how things develop and happen and the story or lesson they wish to convey. A child, who is emerging from having grappled and learned a language, and how to speak, begins to encounter the world of ideas at a stage where they can begin to comprehend. The journey into this world is a struggle at first because you are already predisposed to thinking a certain way, in terms of where you live, who you’re surrounded by, and even what you are surrounded by.

Wading into the world of ideas creates a sort of cognitive dissonance at first because you are inundated suddenly with new ideas – like an ancient explorer who begins his journey in a fishing boat, only to discover that, the farther out he goes, the more treacherous it can be. And so, he returns to shore and endeavors to build a bigger ship that can carry him deeper.

But books weren’t my only escape. I had friends, too. Well, a few. I had my first girlfriend in 5th grade, too. Her name was Dani-Le, and we got to know each other in our after-school recreation program at Gorham Village School. I honestly cannot remember why we started dating, but we did. I was an asshole though because I just wasn’t into it. Now, I more clearly know why – being the blossoming and successful gay man that I am now.

 

But I do remember I was a bit of an asshole. Dani-Le and I still keep in touch to this day, and actually had a class together in college. She chuckles remembering funny things about me from that time and has even threatened to show me a funny photo that she has of me.

My best friend at the time was a kid named Patrick. We bonded pretty fast. I think because we both were having a hard time. His parents had just divorced and I was in foster care. Both of us were big into Yu-Gi-Oh, as were all the other kids at the time, and we would often play the version of the game for Playstation. I’d go to his house sometimes and we’d play Lord of the Rings on his machine. I remember one time we ran off into the woods behind his house and made an adventure out of knocking over dead trees. It was such an adrenaline rush at the time to run up to one, hit it as hard as we could, and see how the tree splintered and fell over. His mom was a doll. A sincerely, genuinely kind women.

There was this one time where he had come over to hangout. We playing my Playstation, which sat in a small entertainment center close to my bed. At that moment, I was overcome with a feeling. We were laughing and talking and celebrating either our loss or win against each other. In that moment, I glanced over and an overwhelming urge came over me: I wanted to kiss him. It was a powerful feeling – as if my heart itself was trying to claw its way out of my chest. But it was fleeting and nothing ever came of it – unless you count the brotherly bond that came into being as something.

 

But as is often said, “you don’t know what you have until its gone.” And I think that was definitely true for us. It was a powerful friendship that reciprocated the sort of brotherly affection we needed at the time to help each other through the hard times we were going through. And it is a wonder, sometimes, how we meet whomever we meet as if by fate. But while some would attribute such coincidences to God or a higher power or even Karma, it is more a testament to the predicament of our existence. There are good people wherever we go. There are good friends to be made in every circumstance and at every turn. I think to credit such chances to God or to a higher being discredits the abundant goodness Humanity has to offer to each other. I think the need to look beyond us, beyond the temporal, speaks of an insecurity one has with humanity. Perhaps some lost hope in our kin by species.

Saying so does not dilute the importance such friendships have. Mere chance and mere coincidence does not make an occurrence or a chance meeting any less important. Those who argue that “reducing” everything to chance strips life of purpose and meaning. But what is purpose and meaning? For me, it is something that emerges from dialectic between society and self. Society imposes upon us what one must do to feel as though one has purpose and meaning. In America, for example, a good paying job is a tantamount example of what American society perceives as allotting purpose and meaning to one’s life.

When one asks another, “What do you do for work?” One is really asking, “What are you doing with your life?” It is a loaded question, underpinned by the assumption that what one deems as purposeful and meaningful, is deemed by another as the same. As one ages in adulthood, there is a clash between the external world and the internal world; the thesis of self and the antithesis of society. What emerges varies for each and every person.

Coincidences and chance meetings… I do not attribute them to God or to some higher power or Karma. I see it within the lens of probability and proximity. When you step in one direction, the probability of meeting a certain person or a certain event occurring is increased by the proximity with which you achieve with that person or event or thing. For me, moving from California to Maine, from home to home, brought me within proximity and increased the probability of meeting peole who would have an impact on my life.

But eventually, social workers and child therapists began to notice that me and my sister were not faring well in Gorham. We were emotionally deteriorating and moves began to be made to get us out. I was hopeful when Noah and his mom floated the idea of having me as a foster kid – but him and his family were in their own precarious situation and still trying to heal. But that is where my adoptive family, the Berrys, came in.

Since 1999, the same year that Tanya and I were at the Rixs, my adoptive parents had my two younger siblings as foster kids. They lived in Naples, Maine, in the Sebago Lake Region about 50 or so minutes north of Portland along Route 302. They had worked hard to keep me and my siblings in contact with each other, and it was at this time that they started to take the first few steps toward reuniting us as one family.

Thinking back now, the process seemed long and arduous. I suppose, in a sense, that the State had to assess whether my adoptive parents could bear the burden of supporting four foster children – with all of our traumas and insecurities – and whether it was, in fact, from a legal standpoint, “in the best interests of the children.” I remember there being an exhaustive and thorough vetting process.

I can only imagine what Sheila was going through at the time. But I do remember that she tried. She tried to make things better and I do believe she was sorry and remorseful at our emotional deterioration. But at some point, she had to realize that it was more than she can handle. And, again, I do not wish people to think that she was a terrible or awful person. She took a risk and it came from a good place, the fact that she recognized that my sister and I had spent too much time in that group home. She opened up her home to us. She fed us. Provided a roof over our heads, beds to sleep in, clothes to wear, etc. She took an interest in our well-being and our education. But sometimes it is too much for one person to handle… two foster kids with emotional traumas and the various issues that accompany that.

But despite all of this, I remember that she tried. And toward the end, before we moved in with the Berrys, she did everything in her power to make up. She took us to Washington, D.C. She took us to a butterfly and botanical garden. Our time with her parents throughout our stay with her were always memorable. I realize I have always loved older people. Grandparents. There’s a tenderness that comes with age, born of wisdom and a life lived and learned.

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