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 anti-biotic?
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.
All what I am going to tell you in this post and consequential posts is true. Or based on the truth.
At least that is what he told me.
Only the names are made up.
……It’s early February and that means another season of the community theater company I volunteer with is in the books.
I was in musicals and student theater competitions in high school. The memories I had from being in shows, even just being in ensemble, were some of the best of my life.
So when my youngest came home in the fifth grade to be part of a community theater production of Fiddler on the Roof, how was I to say no?
Newly transplanted (I used to write about being a transplant a LOT), we knew next to no one in our new suburbia. So getting involved with a community theater production run out of our town’s rec department that encouraged kids to be in shows with their parents seemed like the perfect way to meet people.
Community theater led my son to the middle school and the high school stage.
It led me back to the stage too, in roles like a pick-a-little lady in The Music Man and a dead nurse in Addams Family and Mrs. Teevee in Willy Wonka.
And the stage also led Jonah to my family.
The first time I saw my “fourth child” he was on stage.
It’s now surreal that I ever thought of him that way. As my fourth child.
We – my son, older son and oldest daughter, did not know him. Only of him.
Tall and gaunt, with dark eyes and cheekbones that most thespians had to find the most skilled makeup artist to contour in, he played the part of the Bishop in Les Miserables.
Now, he didn’t have the biggest part, and I thought I knew all the boys in our high school who were the theater kids, but this kid seemed to have come out of nowhere.
He gave a standout performance with a deep, sweet baritone voice and later on in the play, he’d be one of the barricade boys that passionately fought and died for the cause.
Little did anyone know that off stage, he was fighting his own battles.
But after the show, kids did start to hear.
That he had no mom.
That he barely had a dad.
Because dad said no son of his could be gay and he had to find another place to live upon turning 18.
And until then, he could pay his own way, including paying for food, clothing and yes college admission fees too.
So, the Bishop worked two jobs. The role of a babysitter and the role of a waiter on top of playing the role of a high school junior.
Back then, in November of 2016, I didn’t realize the role I would come to play in this teen’s life.
In a year’s span, I would come to play to Jonah the role of the mom of a good friend and soon the role of an adult he could trust. Later, I played the role of an advocate and a full-on Sandra Bullock The Blind Side grizzly bear mama.
And later than that, and even though it may have caused pain and confusion, I played the role of mom. Or .. .like a mom.
My role as mom, what he wanted, what I wanted for him, eventually got us both into some trouble.
But in between all that, there were some happy memories and laughs.
I try to hold onto them the most.
One night, over a family dinner, discussions led to as they always did, musical theater. My son Elias and Jonah were listing their favorite musicals and what roles they would love to play most.
I am not sure if by this time he had already moved in yet, but in the winter of 2017, he had started coming around the house a lot for dinner.
He had already been kicked out (or left?) his father’s house and was living with another family of a student he hardly knew. They took him in and treated him more like an exchange student.
They did not get involved. But they let him use the extra car.
For my son, it would be the lead in Catch Me if You Can. Don’t ask me what the male lead’s name is, that’s a job for my son.
Jonah wanted most of all to play Link from Hairspray.
“Oh I could totally see you in that role,” I said, readying at the stove with a pot full of pasta.
Two teen boys at home meant for a LOT of pasta.
“Um, I don’t know,”my son said into his pasta dish., “I mean, Link is attracted to…”
“–Yeah so what,” Jonah beat my thoughts to the punch. “As an actor when I get on stage I can become ANYONE. I mean, come on… I played a BISHOP!”
We all laughed at that one. The irony of it.
So, for a while, I played the role of the stand-in mom.
For reasons that will later be revealed, be it partially his fault or partially mine or no one’s fault at all. I play the part of a stranger.
But writng about it helps. Helps the pain.
I just wish the kid would have stuck to theater.
Is anyone still out there?
Do I still have any readers left?
Well, if all my readers and followers have dropped away, I cannot blame them.
Why would anyone follow a blogger who, well, has not posted in nearly a year and her last post, written the day after the Parkland Shooting, was, well, so dreadfully dark?
If you are still out there, dear faithful readers, it’s been quite the year in my household.
And for me.
My paid writng gigs have landed me lots of great stories.
I wrote about Detroit’s March for Our Lives.
I’ve been writing about, and continue to write about, unfortunately, anti-Semitism.
But that was not the biggest thing that happened.
Not even having ACL reconstruction surgery was the biggest thing that happened.
Here is a photo of me sunning myself, full metal brace and all, in July.
Yay that was fun.
But if I wrote about the biggest thing that happened to me in 2018, it would seep out of the confines of a humble blog post and become..
I don’t know…
A cautionary tale?
So, readers, I’m asking you, and if I change the names to protect the innocent…
Would you want to hear how I tried to save a life this year?
A life that was so previously broken that by the time I got to it there was little I could do?
Even though I spent the better part of 2018 making it better?
Even though I think I may have done more harm than good, for he and I both, now looking back?
Dare I write something so personal, and something that does not yet have an ending because right now it is not very happy and I so want it in my bones a happy ending?
I see it has been so long since I’ve posted that even privacy and sharing settings have changed and I cannot share this on Facebook.
That may be a good thing.
So that means that only YOU, my true followers, my subscribers, can read this.
So, tell me if you are intersested, and I will start sharing this story.
And thanks. And I hope you’ve missed me.
I’ve missed writing in my own voice.
I think it’s time I returned to it.