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