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!”
On a hot sand dune overlooking Lake Michigan, an older woman, newly transplanted from Philadelphia greeted us on our hike with a friendly hello when she noticed my husband was wearing a baseball cap from the University of Pennsylvania.
We struck up a conversation. Yes, we were transplants too from back east. Yes, my husband did go to school there. And soon, our daughter would be starting her freshman year in Philadelphia.
“She is going to love it! So much has changed there since you went to school. Some people call it the sixth borough of New York City.”
……Now, I do not know if a true Philadelphian would appreciate that comment – Philadelphia truly can stand on its own with its own identity as a full-fledged city. Perhaps she was just trying to reassure us. That Philadelphia was great and getting better by the day. That the City of Brotherly Love would be kind to my daughter, a freshman. And kind to her parents, who are freshmen again in some ways, trying to start over another chapter with one kid out the door and on her way to adulthood.
She’s starting her first semester of classes there. The rest of her family, we are making the adjustments.
- I have inherited a whole bunch of T-shirts, hoodie sweatshirts and athletic clothing she deemed “too high school” to be worn on a college campus.
- We have moved her place setting and her chair away. All the more pasta at dinner time for the boys.
- Without her to keep it closed and shout “out!” the second any of her brothers would dare to enter, my oldest son has architectural renderings of how to turn his sister’s room into a soundproof recording studio. Not really. But he wishes he could.
- My youngest son just pines away and wonders when big sister will ever be home for a long time again.
Now, readers, I know I am not the first parent with a kid going away to college. But I never expected to transplant our family so far from our east-coast roots, only to have a kid return to the east coast. From here on in, life changes. It is not certain if she will ever live home full-time again. It is not even certain if she will return in the summers. Two years ago, we were all freshmen in Michigan. Two years ago, I really thought she was going to be a college freshman. At Michigan.
Just hours before, the three of us – my daughter husband and I woke in a hotel room. My daughter opened the curtain and took some time to stare out at the campus sixteen stories below her. The next four years of her life could be seen from a bird’s-eye view.
At 7:30, Philadelphia was waking up as workers grabbed their coffee to go and headed out on the hot sidewalk. The city was also gearing up to welcome back all the students.
Streets were blocked off around the dorms:
We pulled up to a loading spot where an army of kids wearing bright yellow T-shirts were there to help us. What took us about a half hour to load, they unloaded in about five minutes.
They then whisked my daughter away through the heavily secured gateway to her dorm quad
Her quad is peaceful and serene, lined with Ivy-clad dormitories, benches, gardens, statues and graced with an old dorm room beset with a marble and concrete facade in a quadrangle of other old buildings graced with Ivy and a centuries-old Elm tree providing shade for studying, or just a good nap,
Within a few hours, we had all her stuff moved up her third floor dorm room, complete with a “basement.”
Yes, her dorm room has its own basement. If you are packing up your kids for college, I highly recommend getting those squishable zip-lock bags that can vacuum seal your kid’s winter coats to the thickness of a crepe:
See? With five of these bags I was able to squish several coats and a winter’s worth of sweaters into her “basement” – really a trunk that is stored under the bed.
After we settled her in, it was time to explore.
I had many emotions coursing through me. Pride. Happiness. Awe. Sadness. But they couldn’t match what my husband was feeling that day. See, this was his college. His memories. His old haunts and stomping grounds. He even took us into his old dorm, in the same ancient quad just a few buildings down from my daughter’s:
I admit I have a bit of resentment. The two of them as close as they are will share these years at Penn, something I will never share. As a men’s chorus sang The Red and the Blue, I could not help feel a sense of envy, and strained in my own memory to hear verses of “On the Banks of the Old Raritan” from Rutgers. She will never go there. None of my kids will.
Still, like going to a school even older than Rutgers – Penn was founded in 1740 – you cannot help feel a sense the heritage of this place.
Even within with Penn Library exists some of our country’s most significant historical artifacts, including amazing one of only 48 printed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln himself, which we had the rare opportunity to see.
As I stood on line to glimpse at this bit of history – hastily retrieved from the archives by a librarian who did not know that the University president suggested all incoming freshmen and their parents to visit the library to see it before they parted campus – my husband beckoned me over to another treasure trove of an exhibit.
There, in a quiet corner gallery in the library’s sixth floor, was a collection on display of some original artwork and some rare original printings of Ludwig Bemelmans, most famously known for his Madeline children’s books.
A book read to my girl as she sat on my lap night after night, A book that was one of the first she had learned to read herself ….now this young woman starting college,
As the afternoon wore on, it was time for us to say goodbye and for her to start her life.
As we walked her back to her dorm room one last time, I wondered what it would feel like for her, waking up for the first time pretty much by herself. She had no breakfasts in her meal plan. Who would she hang out with? What would she eat? Would she make a healthy choice at the nearest Wawa (you don’t know what Wawa is?) or would she consume complete crap? Who was going to tell her to drink the milk? To whom would she roll her eyes in response?
As I gave her my final embrace until October, I noticed a closed yet filled Nalgene water bottle laying on its side on her brand new comforter set from Bed Bath and Beyond.
An avid runner, she has left filled water bottles astray on many surfaces in my house: on the floor of the family room, on the floor of her bedroom, on her bed.
For probably the first time, I didn’t nag her about leaving things lying around. For eighteen plus years, I have done all the nagging a mother can do that is in within the limits of legality. After all, this was her bed. In her dorm. In her new life at college.
So as I learn to let her go, I let that water bottle go.
I just wonder if she knows what setting to put the dryer on if indeed there was a leak.
Good luck, to all the freshmen out there and to all the families out there with one less being underfoot!