Okay okay, so I’m riding high on my opinion piece in the Algemeiner, so, while I have your attention, here is my next assignment:
Are you Jewish and “rewired?”
Using your new free time to dedicate yourself to Jewish learning or Jewish congregational life?
Do you or anyone you know who is recently retired who is dedicating their newly found free time to synagogue life? Taking up Jewish studies? Learning to chant Torah? Even becoming a rabbi as a second (or third!) career? If so, get in touch ASAP, my deadline is August 7. Feel free to share with potential sources NATIONWIDE. And I thank you!
This is the next installation in an ongoing series.
This is based on a true story.
Names have been changed.
The first few weeks of living with us, Jonah was a bit shy in the kitchen. He’d eye the fruit bowl in the center of the kitchen table and ask if he could have a banana. I told him, this is your home now, this is where you live, no need to ask permission anymore.
“”You’ll see, I really don’t need much food. I get by on one meal a day.”
That one meal a day he was referring to was his subsidized meal plan. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, Jonah was classified as an unaccompanied, or homeless, student. He received free lunches and I think breakfast was also covered at school.
Unless you are a social worker, or work with or are exposed to situations where homelessness in families with children is prevalent, most people have never heard of the McKinney Vento Act. Most in my affluent, upper to upper middle class suburbia could not imagine that there are pockets of their school population who are undergoing neglect and hunger. More on McKinney Vento in a later post.
Hunger, and in some drastic cases, starvation is a very real and present form of child abuse and cruelty. About a year ago, a husband and wife in Riverside, Calif., were arrested when it was discovered that they had chained their 12 children to furniture and starved them so much that a daughter, 17, was mistaken by police for being 10. They were sentenced to 25 years to life. Just this week, a 12 year old in Indiana died in a hospital of starvation at the hands of his parent.
Though not as drastic a case, hunger seemed a big factor in Jonah’s abuse. Taken into full custody by his father at age nine, on his account he and his older brother often had to fend for themselves for meals most days and nights. He talked about them being left on his own when his father went away for a few days, or even a week with not much food in the house. Estranged from family and knowing no neighbors, isolation was commonplace for years in his everyday life.
So, I wasn’t having any of this “It’s okay, I can get by on one meal a day” business.
A teen aged boy getting by on one meal a day? Yeah, right.
Did he understand he had landed himself in a Jewish home? And what that meant?
A home where the first thing I ask my children upon returning from school is are you hungry?
Soon, he started to warm up. He ate well. He helped himself to what was in the fridge. He could slurp down a can of peaches in one sitting. He could never pass up a bowl of baby carrots if I set them out, especially if they were accompanied with ranch dressing. He’d come down at night after dinner in his sweats on a study break and open wide the doors of the pantry, staring at its contents with his head tilted to one side like he was admiring a work of art.
And the most surprising food item he could not get enough of? Kosher for Passover Maneschewitz macaroons. The obligatory purchase in every Jewish person’s Passover pantry that lingers and sits there long after Passover is over? He went to town on them! No one else in the family would touch them. After Passover, the Kroger had them on sale for like 200 percent off the original price. So I stocked up!
In the months he lived with us, I kept tabs on his likes – just about everything – and dislikes – fish – but he’d eat it because it was the food that was prepared for him. He especially liked orange foods – like roasted butternut squash or caramelized sweet potatoes. This was perfect because my oldest son loved fish and hated orange foods so it counter balanced perfectly.
When it was finally my turn to sit down and the rest of my family was chowing away, I noticed he would be sitting there, still, food untouched.
Is everything okay? I asked.
Oh, yeah, he replied. I was just waiting for you to eat.
Wow, I could get used to this, I thought.
Living with little to no family guidance, no one had taught Jonah how to cook.
One busy weeknight, everyone but he and I were out of the house. He thought this was strange. Where was everyone?
Well, my oldest son was out – somewhere downtown with the car.
Eilias was at play rehearsal and my husband was at his tennis game.
So that night, I taught him how to make an omelette.
I taught him how to dice onions by cutting them in half and then scoring the onion with horizontal slices before cutting them vertically, all the while teaching him how to hold the onion bear-claw style with his other hand to avoid slicing his knuckles. How to crack and whisk an egg and how to swirl and tilt the pan and pull the cooked egg into the center so the uncooked egg can flow to the edges of the pan. I taught him how to make a salad too.
Salad and eggs, perfect young adulting food. I figured if you lived on your own, you could survive with the basic cooking knowledge of salad and eggs, and advance your culinary skills from there.
There were early morning celebratory breakfasts of blueberry pancakes out at a diner after we found his warmest winter coat that contained his wallet with all his identification, plus some cash he had earned, that had been left behind at a high school at a weekend public speaking tournament.
Competitive public speaking had been a huge part of his high school life. As public speaking season was coming to a close, I was prepared for Jonah to have a bit of an emotional crash. It’s natural for high school seniors to have a mix of emotions when something they had put their heart and soul into for four years was coming to an end. It may be their final bow on stage, or their last 100 meter dash… these things mark the beginning of the end of their high school years.
Jonah’s skill in directing and writing had taken his team to states. They made it to semi-finals, and it was a close call, but they did not qualify for finals. Also, something terribly tragic had happened to a family member on another team the day of states that drove many students to tears.
That night the tears continued around dinner time. Jonah refused to come down for dinner. Elias was in the room with him and I could hear Jonah talking to him, his words muffled in sobs. This was the part that troubled me most about their relationship, Jonah was leaning at times way too hard on my son emotionally. Elias was four years younger but, headstrong as he was, thought he was being a good friend by being an extra good listener, especially when Jonah was in a funk. But it was getting too much. Wasn’t feeling well. These were the times he would hole up in his room. These were the times I would stand at the threshold of a closed door, wondering if I should let him be or cross the line and be a stand in parent. But with Elias in the room too, I intervened.
I learned that there was a death in the family of a teammate at another school. Someone young. Cancer. There were tears in Jonah’s eyes. I noticed then how light brown they were in the center. And he had the tiniest freckles around his nose.
I sat on the bed with them and wiped a tear away. I told him that in a family, when someone is feeling very sad, that it matters to all of us, even if we cannot take the sadness away, that we are all here for each other to listen. I understood Jonah and Elias were pretty tight. And he had a lack of trust in adults. But he needed to know when he was really really sad, sometimes it was too much for Elias and he should come to me to talk.
I then urged him to come and eat. He said he was not hungry. I left it there, sent Elias down for dinner and gave Jonah his space. With highly-driven and ambitious teens, it was not out of the realm of reason to not feel like eating in the face of sadness or disappointment. I witnessed it myself with my college friends. Especially after being so dedicated to a competition that didn’t go as well as expected.
Next morning. Sunday. I made French toast. Jonah still refused to come down. Nope. You’re not skipping another meal. So at my insistence he he came down, but he wasn’t happy about it. He looked pale. Terrible actually. He passed on the French toast and opted for one plain piece of bread, and then he went back up to bed.
A few minutes later, he threw up. He crawled back into bed and I met him there with a cool washcloth.
“I truly feel like I’m dying.”
“You’re not dying,” I reassured him. “It’s just a stomach bug.”
He threw up again about 20 minutes later.
So now, I had a sick kid that was not my kid in my charge.
I have weathered many illnesses as a mother of three. I have called in ear infections and strep throats and fever to my pediatrician’s office on almost every national holiday and in the wee, wee hours of the night. I have hosed puke off of comforters on subzero Western New York February nights while my husband attended conferences in the south of France. But they were my kids. After a while, as a mom, you know how your kids get sick. You know how they tolerate pain and discomfort and what kinds of patients they are.
I’d only really known him a few months. I had no idea. No benchmarks.
The scariest part for me was I was not sure if the puking was because he was physically sick, or if this was emotional. I knew that there were issues about food while he lived with his dad. How he was often afraid to leave his bedroom when his dad was home to go to the kitchen and eat.
So what else to do? I called the highest authority I knew of caring for the sick: my mom.
Mom, Jonah’s really sick, and he’s so thin and he will not stop throwing up.
Mom talked me down off the panic ledge. You can do this, she said. You have taken care of three children for 22 years when they were sick. Treat him like you treated them and he will be fine.
I IM’ed some the moms of his teammates to see if anyone else was sick. Sure enough, a sister of a teammate also had it. I was also worried if there was a salmonella outbreak at the conference. This was also during one of those romaine lettuce recalls. He likes salad. Did he eat the salad?
Twenty minutes later he threw up again. Pretty violently. He apologized for not making it 100 percent to the toilet.
Even when sick, he was so sweet and polite.
I said that’s okay. After we washed up, I met him on the floor in the hallway. He wasn’t moving around too well.
He said he was scared. I’m scared too, I replied. I worried about him getting dehydrated.
Then I took his hand. Promise me I said, that you are not forcing yourself to throw up.
He answered back, I promise, I would never intentionally want to feel this sick, I swear it.
The one bit of good news here is within the few weeks of living under our roof, we navigated through the red tape of his healthcare situation and he had secured a Medicaid enrolee id and established him on a healthcare policy.
His bridge card had not yet arrived in the mail – he’d changed his address to ours – but on a yellow legal pad, we had his official enrollee i.d. number. That number was his golden ticket. With it, we were able to select a Medicare health plan. I also helped him select a doctor – a family physician, a friend of mine and a gentle wonderful mother of four.
So when he asked if I could take him to the nearest urgent care, I said absolutely. I helped him on with a sweatshirt and we headed out. I sat with him in the empty waiting room. Helped him fill out the forms. Sat next to him as he lay on the exam table, his long legs dangling off the edge as he lay there curled on his side. I rubbed his back as he dry heaved into a bucket provided by the nurse. Poor thing.
The physician’s assistant treated his nausea with an injection. I stepped out of the room for that.
And just like that, the vomiting stopped. But he was pretty weak and worn out. For two days or do, I kept him home on a diet of applesauce, toast and juice pops. On the third day, he was all better and back to school he went.
And on that loveliest of late April Sundays after our visit to urgent care he spent the rest of the day sleeping off the stomach virus from hell. Hours into the afternoon, I got a text from him to come up and see him. His windows were open. The neighbor’s kids were playing joyfully, loudly outside.
“Do you think there is any way you can see if those kids could play more quietly?”
At that, I had to chuckle. “‘No, I am sorry you are feeling like hell, but I am not going to ask my neighbors kids outside to play more quietly. That’s part of living in a neighborhood.”
I left the room, smiling to myself at his request. Kid, I’d move mountains for you if I could. But there is no way I am going to ask the neighborhood kids to play quietly outside on the first nice day of spring on account of your stomach bug.
In a beautiful verdant Costa Rican cloud forest in December of 2017, my love and I went for a hike.
I forged ahead as I usually do when my beloved hears a bird.
I think, oh, that bird is making such a beautiful sound, and then I’m over it and move on.
But this trip was for my husband. A bird-lovers paradise for a birder on his 50th birthday. He needed to identify it, watch it, and record it meticulously in his lifer list.
So, I, the impatient one, headed up a ridge, probably (definately) took up too much height in my step, securing my right foot into a tree root…
when there was a pop and a buckle.
I screamed so I must have scared all the birds away.
I could put no weight on my right leg whatsoever. It was bent at a weird angle and I could not straighten it. Pain radiated down my calf into my shin. Even though I knew that from past experience, the pain would go away and I’d regain mobility, once I worked up the nerve to straighten my leg and get the ligament back into place.
But I was in pain and scared. And I was on a trail in a cloud forest in Costa Rica.
Come on! My beloved coached me. You can do it! Pop it back in like you always do. You’ve done it before—-
But it fucking HURTS!!
I screamed at him. And he ignored my screams and my pleads to just leave me in the jungle and I could crawl back to the lodge where we were staying about a mile away before sundown. And he propped me up. And I put my weight on it, felt just where the ligament was stuck on the outside of my knee, grit my teeth and with a scream, POPPED it back into place.
I hobbled out of the jungle and sat on a bench just outside our villa retreat, soothing myself to the sound of the brook that flowed through the resort and into the trout pools that provided our dinner each night.
I was relieved to not be in pain. My knee had been giving way like this for five years now. After the new year, I promised to have it looked at.
But then the new year gave me a new challenge and I put off getting my knee checked out. One more time.
Back in civilization:
It was a Wednesday in early April and my favorite time of the week when my favorite instructor at the gym taught a quick yoga class at noon.
The night before was Jonah’s first with our family. In his unpacking he came bearing a gift, some chocolates, plus a card expressing gratitude and happiness for us welcoming him into our family, for expressing that with us, he felt like he had finally found the family he thought he would never in his life hope to have.
And I was also happy to have him at home with us. But the mental and physical preparation it took to prepare to move him in, coupled with a trip back to see the family for holiday bookended with a 12 hour car ride, then followed by a day of going up and down flights of stairs to move Jonah out of one house and into another, I needed some me time.
Ever tried yoga?
The first time I took a yoga class was back in 1993 out in California by a sunny blond instructor named Sunshine. I swear it, that was her name.
I’ve been doing it on and off ever since. Every class, almost every class, has resulted in leaving me in a state of bliss.
And I was really looking forward to that Wednesday class. I needed some bliss. I had a lot of work ahead of me.
In the month to come, I would be contacting and meeting with social workers, lawyers and school counselors. With Jonah we had to somehow locate his parent’s divorce papers to see what he was entitled to and if it was met. We had to get him a healthcare plan. After he had emailed two dozen teachers and staff in his high school saying he did not feel safe in his father’s house before he either left or was thrown out on his 18th birthday, we had to figure out how to attain his records from Child Protective Services, to see if any teachers filed a report with CPS.
And he had no health insurance.
There were lists upon lists floating in my head.
But in yoga, there is just the breath.
Return to the breath.
No interacting with lists.
Just let them be. Put them in a cloud and float them away.
About 10 minutes into the class, a woman came in. Late. Dragging with her a heat lamp. Smelling of stale cigarettes.
Annoyed, I got out of warrior one and was about to move my mat to the other side of the room when
There was a pop. And a buckle.
At first everyone in the class thought my hopping toward the exit was hilarious and the calm in the room was broken by nervous laughing.
I made it out of the yoga studio onto the main floor of the fitness center, to the dismay of my poor yoga teacher, who kept trying to check on me, as I writhed in pain on a mat.
Come on, I tried to will myself, just pop it back in. Straighten out your leg!
If I knew someone who could hold my hand, I would have had the strength to do it.
But I looked around and there was no one I knew there at the gym that day.
And after about a month of listening to Jonah’s accounts of abuse and neglect, my mind and my body just reached their breaking point.
I lay on the gym floor and cried for help. A personal trainer, who months later would tell me how well I was recovering, as I worked through my PT exercises, said to sit tight. He was calling an ambulance.
Eventually, help came in the form of two EMT guys. I was able to get up on my own performing a one-legged downward dog.
I’ll show them! I thought.
They said they were very impressed.
I took what I hope will be my only ambulance ride. All along I thought, no, I haven’t got time for this. I have a new kid to take care of, we have lists, we have to get things figured out before college starts. I have no time to be broken.
In the days after I hurt myself, I told him, maybe this was meant to be. My family took him in to help him out, and in turn, he was helping me out. He stepped up by doing more chores. He helped with dishes and swept up after dinner.
Two days into my leg not moving, he met my friend in the driveway as she and he brought in groceries she picked up for me.
Aside, I told here how badly I felt, that I hurt myself like this at a time when I was supposed to be the one helping him.
“Hey,” she assured me, nodding to Jonah as he put some produce in the fridge as I lay on the couch. “He wanted to be part of a family. This is what family does for each other.”
Three days later, I did manage to pop my leg back into place. But I knew that this was not going away on its own.
A visit to an orthopedic surgeon and an MRI later, it was determined that not only was my ACL torn, it was completely gone. I would need a complete ACL reconstruction. Plus a miniscus repair to top it off.
I would need surgery. And about six months of recovery.
I got the news on a weekday morning over the phone.
For some reason, Jonah was not in school, so it was just me and him at home.
He came down from his room and saw I was on the phone getting some pretty bad news. He waited for me to get off, patiently, leaning on his forearms on a kitchen chair.
By the look on my face, he must have known something was up.
Now, I know putting this in perspective, this should be the worst thing to ever happen to me. I’ve had friends who have fought cancer, who died from cancer. This was nothing.
But, to me it was something.
“Are you okay?” he asked me.
“I will be. I am just a little scared, and I’m in for a long recovery and I am afraid of being in pain, I guess.”
Then, he straightened up.
“You look like you can use a hug.”
And, you know, at that very minute, I really did need a hug. If he were not home, I would have had to deal with that phone call in an empty house, my son and husband hours off from the end of their day.
And he came over to where I was standing by the fridge and he gave me a very big long hug.
Thanks, kid, thank you for that.
This is the next installation in an ongoing series.
This is based on a true story.
Names have been changed.
Upon my move to my current town, I was so excited when we bought our house, I jumped up and down so hard there was a pop and a buckle. My right leg bent in such a way that a leg should not bend.
Did you ever play with a Barbie Doll and bend its legs at the knee in wrong way?
Yeah, like that.
I thought at the time it was a temporary thing. That a few weeks of rest, and then a few weeks of physical therapy, I’d be over it.
That was not the case.
My family made the big decision to welcome Jonah to live with us in his final months before college starting in early April, right after Passover. He headed to a country cottage with friends for spring break, and we headed to our family to New York for Seder and a bite of the Big Apple.
There were just a few things I wanted to have in order at home before Jonah moved in. My oldest son agreed that he would give up his room and sleep in the basement for the summer. He was a college man now. He didn’t mind. He liked the privacy. He had the whole basement to spread out, be close to his instruments … access to the TV all night….
So I cleared out drawers and one of our double closets to make room.
Jonah said no worries, he didn’t have much stuff anyway.
I made room in our home. We all did.
Another thing I wanted to happen was to fix the shower in the kids’ bathroom.
Right before we headed to New York, Elias came to me one morning with a metal rod.
“Hey mom, was this supposed to come out of the tub? Because now the shower won’t work.”
A call to a plumber, a wrong part ordered, and I realized I was not going to have the shower fixed before Jonah’s move in date.
So, for about a week after he moved in, until we finally ordered the right part and then instructed people that you have to GENTLY pull the lever to change the water flow from the tub to the shower, we all shared the same shower in our master bedroom suite.
First world problem, I know, but it was instant family bonding with me hiding under my covers in bed as the three men in my house took turns ducking in and out of a very busy bathroom before sunrise.
More on that first week later.
First, let’s move Jonah in.
On a sunny morning in April I drove across town to the home where Jonah had lived since October when he turned 18.
The SUV was empty. I folded the seats down to make room for his stuff, which he said he didn’t have a lot of.
I made room.
He greeted me happily at the door. I was excited. Nervous. I think so was he.
The only others in the house was a large (friendly) dog in a crate, and a cleaning person.
No one to help him with his stuff.
No one to see him off.
To say goodbye.
I thought it odd, but Jonah said he had a nice goodbye dinner with his host family the night before and everyone was at school or work.
So, we began to move his stuff into my car.
He had already transferred most of it to the downstairs living room to save us some flights, but there was some more clothes upstairs in the room he stayed in.
A few boxes of books.
Some childhood mementos. Stuffed animals. Yearbooks from middle school. I think some photo albums.
And lots of clothes.
Up and down and up and down the uncarpeted stairs we went until everything he owned fit in the back of my SUV.
“Are you a little sad?”
“No, not at all,” he answered. “I’m very happy. The M’s were good people and we had a nice conversation last night. I’m just excited.”
Okay, I thought. I wondered, was this family going to miss him, now that he was moving out? Would they keep in touch?
After we closed the hatch, we were off.
Then, a bit of an awkward silence.
I mean, I think most teens do not have much to say to the parents of their friends. I mean, as adults, we are hardly human. I remember being completely uncomfortable around the parents of my friends.
But this was the beginning of an arrangement that was completely different from most teens have with most of their friends’ parents. If he wanted us to help him, we were going to have to accelerate this get to know each process, he would have to trust us, and with his background, trust was something that would be hard to win.
So we sat in silence and drove.
And he.. he did this thing, this quirk that would become endearing to me at times when he didn’t know what to say.
He clucked his tongue, alternatively with humming a tune. Not that I minded. The kid could sing. He is a born crooner that always reminded me of a throwback from a different age. He sang and hummed all the time, while doing the dishes after dinner, folding his laundry in his room, sometimes doing his homework, all the time in the shower… those were the good memories.
So.. we were on our way to his new home but first, a stop to the records office at the high school.
My first line of business with him was to make sure he had a check up before college, and for that, we needed his immunization records, if he had any, and we needed to figure out health insurance eligibility.
He had taken the day off. Second semester high school senior. Into his three top choices for college. We both figured that getting other parts of his life in order, like his financials and establishing health insurance, etc, took priority over sitting in class.
There was still silence in the car, so, I took a breath and broke it.
“You know, Jonah, I really don’t know what I am doing. And I’m going to make mistakes with you, probably lots of them. ”
He nodded in understanding.
“And I’m not a social worker. I’m just a mom who cares for her children, and you are a good friend to one of my children who needs some help. I’m just going with my heart here, okay?”
Okay, he said.
We pulled up to the high school and in about 20 minutes he emerged, his immunization records in hand. That was easy.
First step accomplished. First of many.
Then we drove home and unpacked.
That was a Tuesday.
After a week on the road to see family and then a day of moving Jonah out of one home and into another, my body and soul were in serious need of me time.
Me time would be the next day at Yoga.
I couldn’t wait.
I temporarily fell off the blogging bandwagon, but again for a good reason of chasing after the news for my paid writing jobs.
But then I saw Hamilton. And for a $10 donation to Broadway Cares/Equity fights AIDS, I got a pen.
A pen to write my story.
So, let’s get back to this story.
The story I started about a month ago which I plan to tell piece by piece until its end. Even though people are telling me to get on with it, get over it.
People, this is my getting on with it and getting over it.
If you need to binge read to be all caught up on the story so far, you can start with this post. and then continue from there.
Again, names have been changed to protect identities.
If you know who I am talking about, please kindly shut up and don’t reveal who I am talking about.
….. 3 p.m .
A sunny afternoon late March
I drove home after working out as quickly as I could at my son’s bequest. There was something important he needed to tell me. Some kind of proclamation. An announcement.
The smell of a fresh-baked chocolate something hit me as soon as I opened the door to the mudroom off the garage. A smell that would lead me to undo the benefits of my workout.
There they were, Elias and Jonah, baking up a storm, there were measuring cups, bowls and an empty box of Dunkin Hines on the counter.
“Mom, Jonah has something big to tell you.”
Now this was after a week of figuring out just how I could take in another kid, well, young adult, really, into my family’s life.
A week where my husband and Jonah and I had met, without his tag along friend Elias, my son, to discuss how his life had gone so far, and where he wanted his life to go, and how and what kind of help he needed – both from us and hopefully a good therapist – for him to get there.
We came to the agreement that in order to live with us, there would be chores.
No problem with that. He’d done most of the chores when he lived with his father.
We came to the agreement that he would need to seek out therapy to deal with the alleged trauma of why he needed a home in the first place.
And we agreed that he could not drive our car. Not because we did not trust him with our car, but that we just did not have the budget to insure another male teen driver under the age of 25 on our policy.
With that understanding, driving Mr. Jonah around would be my responsibility. No problem there, nothing Mrs. Mom the chauffeur wasn’t used to, what’s one more kid to drive around?
So, to make sure I had covered everything, I overstepped my boundaries and, in advance, called the director of the day camp where he would be working at that summer to see how he would get there if he had no car.
Was there a bus that picked up the campers and where and when did it pick up and is it okay if Jonah rode that bus to camp too, because he has no car?
Because I had to ask.
Because, ultimately, I would be playing the mom. And moms think of everything.
“You know, I don’t know who you are lady, and I know Jonah,” the camp director told me over the phone. “He is an amazing kid, but he is an adult and to my knowledge he has not yet sent back his employment contract for the summer and I shouldn’t have told you that either.”
I knew that in the off-season the camp director was an attorney. I stammered. I had nothing to say, and I guess he caught on that I was a bit stymied for my lack of saying anything over the phone.
“It’s okay, lady, I know you are just trying to help him out,”
“That’s right, I am. And I am just trying to cover every scenario in terms of what he will need over the summer.”
“I know. It’s okay. If he can make it to the bus in the morning, he can ride it to camp.”
So, legally or illegally I had settled that.
But still, on that drive home from the gym, I thought he had made his mind up to live with Sabrina’s family. And I had to be okay with that. This was not about me. I still am telling myself that. It never was about me.
Do you ever have to tell yourself that?
This was what would be best for Jonah.
But there they were, Elias and Jonah in the kitchen, with big smiles on their faces.
And they had baked me lava cakes. If my memory served me correctly, they also bought whipped cream and strawberries for a garnish. The works.
“What’s all this?” asked. A very Merry Poppins sort of question. I joined them around the granite island, an island we would have many conversations around, and laughing, and arguing, and sometimes tears, in the months to come.
And then Jonah spoke. He said he knew Sabrina’s family offered him to live with them as well. And it would probably be more practical because they would have let him drive their car.
“But, I have to say, since I have been coming around here, no one, not even my aunts or uncles or my grandpa, has treated me more like family than you or your family in a very long time. If it’s okay with you, can I live here?”
And then we hugged.
And just like that, like the inside of a lava cake, My heart melted.
Next up: A move. A complete tear.
This is the next installation in what is based on a true story.
Names have been changed.
As winter turned to spring in 2018 and I got to understand more of Jonah’s plight, I realized I might be in over my head.
In his young life:
He had watched the tearing apart of his family. :
An oldest brother who was profoundly autistic and needed round-the-clock care.
Divorced parents at nine.
At age 13, watching his second oldest brother’s leaving his father’s home, also at age 18 to never return.
Being taken away from his mother’s care because of her own substance abuse.
And then, estrangement from his dad at 18.
Each night, I had a hard time sleeping thinking about all that trauma he had yet to process. There are many I know who have taken in shelter dogs who suffered abuse. Here I was, with no education, psychology or social work background, thinking about taking in a human. A rescue human.
Now, looking back, when I feel like a failure, I have to repeat to myself: I, and others, about six other families before me, in fact – we did all we could. Every time I feel that I failed him I circle back and repeat to myself: we could not undo in three or four months what had been damaged over the course of at least 10 years of abuse and neglect.
But we sure did try.
“Why should we wait until the end of the school year? If he is not happy in his current situation, let’s get him out of there now, let’s help him.”
Enter my helper. Sabrina.* My co-grizzly bear mamma. My … well, we had another nickname for each other, another term, I’m not sharing that.
We had met up at the Riverfront on a shivering cold but sunny March morning. With about 10,000 other protesters. March for Our Lives. The shock of the Parkland shootings were so fresh in all our minds. The wanting and need to embrace all our terrified teenagers by doing something en mass.
Sabrina is tall. Tells it like it is and straight to the point. Spiky short hair and bright blue eyes that shine out behind a collection of the most colorful, cool, mod, rad spectacles you could ever hope to pull off the look yourself but you know you wouldn’t get away with it.
I only had heart and Google at my resources. She was a licensed social worker, had worked serving her community for years in the non-profit world and knew who to call and what to do. Her son was also friends with Jonah. For years, when Jonah would ask for a ride home, Sabrina always noticed, no matter the time of day or night, Jonah would always let himself into a dark, seemingly empty home.
Before the March headed out along the river and Hart Plaza, we shot ourselves in a selfie the best two middle-aged ladies knew how. We texted it to Jonah.
“Hi Jonah. We have a plan. Let’s get together soon.”
Over the next several months, she was my partner in all this. God bless my husband for none of this would have happened, but there was enough upheaval at work for him to invest his time and increase his stress load.
So, it was Sabrina and I who were on the phone on an almost daily basis for weeks at a time, arranging meetings with social workers, school principals and administrators. Making doctors and dentist appointments. Two Jewish moms sometimes tripping over each other to help a kid who for so long had no mom at all to go to bat for him.
As it turned out, Sabrina’s family had also offered Jonah a place to live. They had a
little more room, a lot more room and food wise, did not keep a kosher home like we did.
A crash course in keeping kosher. Now there are levels of keeping kosher. Though my family is not the most strict, we do have separate dishes, pots silverware for meat and dairy. We do not mix meat and dairy. No cheeseburgers or Parmesan anything here.
We do not bring non-kosher meat into the house. There is a way to prepare food, to clean up from the food, that keeps the kitchen kosher.
Now, what non-Jewish kid who up until a few years ago had no Jewish friends would want to put up with that on a daily basis?
Not to mention access to a car.
A car. An 18-year-old teen-aged boy and access to a car. So he could get to his job as a summer camp counselor, go out with friends, have that freedom that only a car can give you.
What 18-year-old boy is going to turn that down?
Forget it, kid. I’ll still be here, but you got offered a car? Good for you.
There is no way Jonah is going to live with us after an offer like that, I thought to myself, about a week after March for our Lives.
I was getting used to the idea of having him come to live with us. More than used to. I was starting to get attached.
I had just finished an afternoon workout at the JCC. In the shower, I told myself, this is not about YOU. This cannot be taken as a personal rejection. He has to do what is best for him.
This is not a competition.
Let him go. You’ve got enough going on.
Let him go where he wants to go.
After towelling off, I checked my phone to see there was a text from my son.
“Mom, when will you be home? We have something waiting for you, it’s a big surprise!”
All what I am going to tell you in this post and subsequent posts is true. Or based on the truth.
At least that is what he told me.
Only the names are made up. …..
Every time I drive downtown on the John C. Lodge and get off at Forest Ave. he is there.
Right at the top of the off ramp.
Sitting with his cardboard sign: Homeless. Please help.
And, like most of us, all of us who have been in this situation, you try not to make eye contact.
You wrestle with your conscious in the heated seat of your car waiting for the light to change so you can get going, get away from the guilt.
But lately, I’ve got to wonder: how many people tried to reach out, to turn this person’s life around, how many pleads were there to get help, to seek counseling, until attempt after attempt, family, friends, just threw their hands up and just gave up?
How many times did he refuse to get help? What leads a person to the point where they are left begging for money from the off ramp of the Lodge?
“Mom, Dad, can Jonah move in with us?”
It was a sunny March morning, a day like it is today.
The icicles were melting and even though the windows were closed, you could hear the cardinals and even yes robins chirping with their promise. Winter is ending. Spring is coming.
The three of us sat around the Sunday breakfast table with homemade waffles and although I had asked him many times not to, my son’s phone was present at the table, his fingers poised over the screen, as if ready to text Jonah yes or no.
As if making a decision to have a troubled kid move into our house and into our life was as simple a decision as syrup or jelly.
“Woah” My husband and I both said. “This is NOT something to rush into.”
Jonah since Christmas break had been spending lots of time with us, including a family-only celebration dinner for my husband’s 50th Birthday. Plus Shabbat dinners. I had even sent him back to his current host family with quarts of chicken soup when he was sick. As a return favor, he helped along with my kids shovel our driveway a couple of times. I watched them all work together and then shoot some basketballs into the underused net in the icy darkness when the work was done.
We had seen Jonah’s talents at work on the weekends during forensics meets. I thought after Christmas break was over and the grind of school picked up, we’d be seeing less of Jonah but instead the opposite was happening. He really seemed to like being around our clan. He got along with my older kids when they were home from college, and when they went back, we actually welcomed the company of another kid hanging around to break up the quiet of an only child household.
The family he was living with across town since his 18th birthday had made the arrangement that he would live with them until graduation, and that was it.
So, there we were, in March, my son’s fingers poised above his phone.
Yes, or no?
Now, at the time, there was a feeling in this country of distrust. Of shock. After all, just weeks ago, had not a troubled young man in Florida, also estranged from his family and living with another family, just gunned down 17 of his classmates and teachers in Parkland?
But Jonah showed no traits of social isolation or violence. He showed no signs of bitterness or anger. He was outgoing. He was a student leader. He had good grades, stellar grades in fact.
He was just homeless.
And though he did have family and a father, they all seemed to be out of the picture. Financially and emotionally.
He had no health insurance.
And in his short life he had endured multiple traumas.
And he was not quite sure where he was headed to college. Or, since his father was withholding his 529, and he was not at this point 100 percent sure that he was getting full rides because of his situation, how he was going to pay for it.
And we already had three children to care for.
But here was my son, with a heart of gold, who wanted to help his friend. With his fingers ready to text back
And here I was with my Jewish values of remembering the orphan and the stranger.
So, after we cleaned up from the waffles, and telling my son that we could not make such a decision so quickly, I set to work.
I was not quite ready to take him in, but I wanted to help.
Over the next week, I dedicated most of my time digging for resources while wondering at the same time how a kid in suburbia could fall through the cracks seemingly with no safety net.
First, I reached out to local social service agencies to explain the situation and set up an appointment to see how to help a homeless young adult with seemingly no family support.
I contacted friends who were doctors who directed me to resources and agencies that could help him obtain access to health insurance through Medicaid. I also asked them what Medicaid plans their practice accepted. My first priority was to get him a thorough check up. At this point, we were not even sure if his immunizations were up to date.
I contacted friends who were attorneys who had access to court cases and could attain copies of his parent’s divorce settlements to see what the father was legally obligated to provide.
I uncovered resources such as the Ruth Ellis Center in Ann Arbor that provided shelter and services to gay kids who had nowhere else to go.
I found an LGBTQ drop in center that, when he was ready, was a place to find emotional support and advocacy as he began his journey. And I would have gone with him too, if we got that far.
I contacted Equality to see if our young friend possibly had a legal case of being parental abandonment or neglect.
I contacted an agency that could provide him with mental health counseling as well as possibly subsidized housing where he could live on his own in the summer and on breaks from college. Sure, I thought, legally he was an adult and could live on his own in an apartment, but how does that help him emotionally?
I bought a steno notebook and with each resource I found, I jotted it down on its own page, complete with a phone number and a website and a contact who had kindly spent time on the phone with me who was awaiting his call to reach out.
I left enough pages between each contact so Jonah could take his own notes as he and I would create a plan of attack to get the pieces of his life together before he transitioned off to college.
I entitled it the “Jonabook.”
Before we made the big decision to take him in, I thought this was the least I could do for this young man. Because of his age and legal adult status, there was little more I could do on his behalf outside of presenting him with the information and hoping he would run with it.
And, months later, I would be reminded of that when, on the phone with his case worker at Health and Human Services going through the hoops to attain his Medicaid card, he would gently, but firmly close the door to his bedroom in my face, as he mouthed with a smile, shooing me away:
I got this. I’m okay. I can handle this.
Lastly, I contacted the family where Jonah was staying to see just why they were no longer going to put him up after the school year.
Why would a family only keep a kid for a finite amount of time? What was going on here?
The woman said that Jonah was polite, considerate. There was no deviant behavior, no drug or alcohol use, they just could not work him into their summer plans.
But she said there was something.. off. A constant smile. A wall they could not get through when they asked him how he was doing, how he was coping, he would just smile and say everything was okay.
“He’s a good kid,” the woman said, who for the last 7 months had let Jonah live with her family at the request of her daughter.
Because of a desperate plea she heard from him at the lunch table just three weeks before his 18th birthday that he had nowhere else to go.
“He just needs help.”
Think about the last time you were out.
In the produce section at the grocery store.
If you are lucky and live somewhere warm this time of year, maybe you were out at a park or a sandy beach.
All around us in these places, we can see small, tender moments of parents parenting their children, and you can tell a lot about the parent-child bond at the grocery store. When it comes to being a parent, it’s all those little moments – not the graduations or birthday parties or fancy summer vacation – that make the parent-child bond so precious and special.
And crucial to that child as they become an adult.
Sometimes you will see a parent or older adult, maybe a grandma or grandpa, bending down to gently remind a child to be mindful of cars in a busy parking lot.
Sometimes it’s not great parenting, like when fussy toddlers are given mom’s iPhone instead of a toy or a book just so she can get through the grocery store without later requiring a Valium. Not the best parenting, but parenting nonetheless. No judging there. I get it.
There are small moments like when a younger mom or dad will talk to their kids as they go up and down the aisles, kids happy and content or screaming their heads off . Tiny, small moments of caring.
Or, when the kids are older, parents and kids may be picking out together what to make for the week’s meals. Or what the team may want as a post-game snack.
At the park, a mom or dad may be pushing their little one on a swing. Cooing at them as they lift their kids high above their heads as they listen to their little ones shriek with delight.
Or, sitting quietly in a waiting room, a movie theater, on a bus, safely cuddling a child on their lap or supporting a sleepy head on their shoulder.
Every child when they are grown should have a parent or relative or grown up in their life that can look into their eyes and remember the small child that they were during those moments and cherish the adult they are becoming.
How can they not?
That’s not the case for some kids who come out to their parents. No, that’s not the case at all. And I don’t know how they can shed all that cut off their love and close the door.
If your child came out, could you still hold onto those little moments of parenting, and realize they are the same kid inside and who trusted you enough to tell you something that is the core of their identity and now needs your love and parenting more than ever?
My family happened to cross paths with a kid whose family, unfortunately, did not offer that love and support.
Some grim facts and statistics coming up here.
Homelessness in LGBT youth is on the rise. Of all the demographics of why youth become homeless, the group that is seeing the biggest jump is those who come out as LGBT and who are rejected by their parents.
Up to 1.6 million young people experience homelessness in the United States every year. Forty percent of them identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender), according to a 2012 study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law.
According to PFLAGNYC,
- Gay teens are 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide and 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.
- LGBT youth who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence are three times more likely to use illegal drugs.
- Half of gay males experience a negative parental reaction when they come out and in 26% of those cases the youth was thrown out of the home.
- Studies indicate that between 25% and 50% of homeless youth are LGBT and on the streets because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- LGBT youth are overrepresented in foster care, juvenile detention, and among homeless youth.
Whatever happened between Jonah and us this year, and whatever will happen one day, I regret nothing, because I wasn’t having any of that on my watch if I could help it.
What I of me was not a statistic. What I had in front of me was a shattered heart.
On a warm afternoon in May, what should have been the beginning of a night of celebration for district-wide extracurricular success, I didn’t need statistics to show me what parental rejection does.
All the proof I needed was that I had a 18-year-old who was crying as he sat on the side of a bed.
The bed that belonged to my son who had given it up, along with his room to live in the basement for the summer, because this kid did not or would not live with his father because he did not feel safe. Or loved.
I had a kid, who after finding out his father had called me to have a rather unpleasant conversation with me, just upon hearing his father’s voice coming from the receiver for under a minute, that was all it took to set him off.
What does he want from me?
He had just been accepted with a full scholarship to three prestigious colleges.
I can’t help it.
My son and I sat with him on the bed trying to calm him down as he shook and cried. It took a full 30 minutes before we could all pull it together and get on with our evening’s plans.
I did not choose to be this way. I did nothing wrong. Why won’t he just leave me alone?
This is based on a true story. Names have been changed.
“Mom, Jonah really likes coming over for dinner.”
Elias told me on a dark winter night early last January.
A year had passed, and so had another high school musical season. This time, my son was now in high school and Jonah, a senior, had been in another musical together and were now at the beginning of forensics season.
No, we’re not talking CSI-styled forensics. No, this was not about a bunch of high school kids investigating the scene of a crime. Forensics, when taken from its original Latin, forensis means ‘in open court, public’, from forum. Say forensics to any high school kid in the midwest, and they know it’s all about speaking, oratory and acting competitions that take place in the winter and spring months.
More on forensics later.
Back to the kitchen we go.
So, I was in the kitchen making dinner. Dark and cold and snowy outside. School had been in full swing now for a few weeks after a two-week Christmas/winter break.
Jonah was now living with another family in the school district, who had traveled without him over winter break, which meant that Jonah spent a lot of time during that break alone.
Alone was a thing that Jonah had grown accustomed to, since about the age of nine.
But after having him over for several family dinners with not only my youngest but my son and daughter home on college break, including his first Shabbat dinner with homemade chicken soup and challah, and another special birthday dinner for my husband, I think he started to realize what he had been missing out on all these years.
Outside of hanging around the kitchen table, I was getting to know Jonah through various outings, like the time over MLK weekend when my son and I went out with him to see a movie and go for dinner at the nearby mega mall.
“Mom, Jonah said before he came over here for dinner, he never really had a home cooked meal.”
To this day, I cannot wrap my brain around that sentence.
To me. food, especially prepared my grandmothers and mothers and aunts (and YES I know there are men and uncles and dads who cook, but not in my family) and then eating that food as a family, is the foundation of loving family bonds and relationships.
An absence of that, that was the first real sign to me of the extent of Jonah’s neglect.
Over time, I learned that when he lived with his mother, who was a substance abuser, Jonah and his brother had mostly survived on eating cereal for dinner. Or a can of tuna. Or PB & J sandwiches.Or hot dogs.
To this day, if offered a hot dog, he’d politely turn it down for something else.
Over time, I learned Jonah lived with his father full time because of his mother’s substance abuse. Jonah said his father expected him to cook dinner.
Nothing wrong with that in different situations.
I started cooking in middle school for my family when my mom went back to work, but only after years of learning by mom and grandma’s side, and mom would prep meals more than halfway and leave me copious notes on the kitchen table when I got home from school. And, considering how broken Jonah’s family situation was, some home cooked meals provided by his dad could have provided that nurturing he needed.
Basic rule: If you are a parent, it’s your job to provide meals for your kid. Leaving raw meat in the fridge and expecting your kid to cook it doesn’t cut it.
Worse yet, according to the story, his dad would leave him and take off for the weekend or the week with his new girlfriend, without leaving a contact number or a family member to look after him. Was his big brother still around at this point? I cannot remember the timeline just right.
So, from the getgo, Jonah said he prided himself on being a “DIY” kind of guy. He had basically raised and cared for himself. Since around age 9 or 10.
And somewhere in this timeline, he had made calls to Child Protective Services, both at his mother’s and father’s homes. But upon inspection of his father’s home, located in a nice, upper middle class subdivision cul de sac with food in the fridge and pantry, CPS found nothing to be wrong.
What does neglect look like to peers in the halls of an upper middle class high school?
It might be hard to detect. Jonah was always nicely dressed with the clothes he had purchased with his own money working two jobs. He had saved every receipt in hopes of getting this money back somehow.. from someone or some lawsuit?
… Maybe his shoes were worn, because he’d been wearing them since the seventh grade. But other than that, he always was nicely dressed.
But when it comes to one’s health, friends of the neglected may start to notice, especially when these friends compete with you in forensics. Jonah may not have had family bonds, but his friends became his family.
The multiple team rehearsed after school every day. I realize it now that my son’s team practiced maybe more than most because Jonah was the director. In his chaotic teen years, perhaps he felt this was the one place he could be in complete control of every scene block, every plot twist.
Indeed, during the season, multiple team members often make each other the center of their lives, with all the teen drama, for the duration of forensics season, which runs from late December auditions until the end of April with state finals.
When multiples spend most of their free time together after school rehearsing, all day on Saturdays and sometimes, sleep overs and parties on Saturday nights and then of course, brunch on Sundays, someone is bound to get sick. And if one gets sick, the rest are bound to catch it.
A few years back, when Jonah had a hacking cough and fever and his dad had instructed to pray it away, a forensics teammate was so worried about him that she pleaded her mother to drop off some OTC cough medicine at his house.
And she did. Only to get called into the office that week by his father and counselor for a rash scolding. The father telling the mother to stay out of his business.
Flash forward to the winter of 2018. It was a particularly deadly strain of influenza was going around if you can recall.
Perfectly healthy, young people being struck horribly ill, or even dying from it.
Health care professionals urging all to get their flu shots.
Since turning 18 and living independently from his father, Jonah had figured out a lot for himself. Even FAFSA! (We’ll get to that in another post).
One thing he didn’t have access to, and didn’t have time to figure it out, was access to healthcare.
Since his estrangement from his dad, he had no health insurance. Not like his dad took him to doctors. Or believed in keeping up with immunizations.
One night last winter, Jonah came to sleep over. He was coughing pretty badly.
I felt his forehead. It was pretty hot. But he refused to take any medication, not even Advil.
“As it is,” he shrugged it off with a laugh, “My family has very strong immune systems, and we just fight it off, whatever it is, and we eventually get better.”
I expressed my concern and his need to see his pediatrician right away.
“You can’t afford to wait it out, Jonah, this could get very bad. You have to get better and see your doctor, they’ll give you a flu shot.”
Problem is, he told me, he had no doctor, and no access to healthcare.
To this I just shook my head.
It was very generous and kind of the family who took him in, considering they hardly knew him or his family situation. But, did it not trouble them that he had no access to healthcare?
How could they let him use their car, but not care if he has health insurance? Was he under their auto insurance policy?
I mean, what if he got in a car accident?
What if he needed an emergency appendectomy?
What if his cough is bronchitis or pneumonia and he just needs an antibiotic?
What if, and who even knows if his immunizations are up to date?
What if… and what if… other horrible scenarios played out in my mind. I am a Jewish mother, after all.
So, at that point, on a cold January Saturday night, what could I do?
The night went on and Jonah’s cough got worse. Finally, Elias came up from where they were crashing in the basement and said Jonah needed some relief.
Mr. DIY gave in to my maternal suggestion. I think I gave him some OTC cough suppressant. Or NyQuil. Or something.
To cut the fever and the cough. To make it better.
All this time, I just wanted to make him better.
The next morning, I sent him back to where he was staying with two quarts of my homemade chicken soup.
Because at that point, before he lived under my roof, that really was all I could do.
So what is the difference between a kid who is cared for and not cared for in the suburbs?
The difference is, the other kids have parents or even a loving guardian to take care of them if they got sick.
The other kids had doctors.
And Jonah at 18 had no living memory of seeing a doctor. Ever.
Next up: Some statistics on LGBT youth
Even now, I remind myself of this quote from the Tanach.
All my life, I have been propelled by my Jewish values and teachings.
I have been an active member of several synagogues, from childhood to adulthood.
I’ve been to Israel four times.
I have taught Jewish kids from preschool to high school.
Together with my husband (with whose support, none of this year would have happened), we have raised three children seeped in a loving Jewish home.
But 2018, the year a non-Jewish kid found his way to our family, was the year I felt I lived most closely to living the mitzvot of the Torah.
Saving a Life.
Fighting for Justice.
Remembering the orphan, the stranger at your gates.
All five of us, starting with my youngest son, we all had our part in helping and guiding this young man as he made the big leap from high school to college.
But this is not his story.
I will not go into the details of his abuse and neglect, I myself don’t even know the extent of it.
That is his to tell, when and if he ever chooses to tell it.
This is the story of how, for a brief period of time, his life intersected with the lives of my family and the extended community, most of the big players from the Jewish community that rushed to support him.
Though he and I do not agree on everything at the moment, and it is hard to say if this is the end of our story or not, what we do agree on is that this is a story that should be told.
So, if you happen to be that kid who feels in danger at home, or who has been rejected or disowned or abused by a parent because of your gender or sexual identity, maybe the story I will unfold here in this post and subsequent posts will give you some hope.
That it does get better.
That there is a way out, onward and upward to college and a better life.
That, though you may feel you live in isolation now, there are people who care and will advocate and fight for you,
will house you and provide love and nourishment for you, and will guide you to the best of their abilities as long as you want it.
Even if your own family will not.
And if you are a teacher, school administrator, a youth advisor, clergy and you suspect abuse or neglect, you are mandated to report. You are mandated to advocate for that child and not turn them back to the hands of their alleged abuser. You are mandated to report upon penalty of fines and even imprisonment.
That if a kid walks into a counseling office and says, I think I’m in danger of becoming homeless because my father is going to kick me out when I turn 18, you don’t just say to him, okay, here is some paperwork to fill out.
This is a tale that demonstrates that parental abuse and neglect are not exclusive to socioeconomic boundaries.
That there are kids who are living scared and neglected even in the most leafy of suburbs.
For nine, nearly 10 months, I tried.
This is not his story.
This is my story of how I tried.