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.