Saturday, August 7, 2004

PART 27 - Quiet Smiles

I just saw Darryl Hall and John Oates the other night performing this live for their induction into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. Well deserved, if you ask me.

Sara Smile
Baby hair with a woman's eyes
I can feel you watching in the night
All alone with me
We're waiting for the sunlight
When I feel cold you warm me
When I feel I can't go on you come and hold me

It's you and me forever
Sara Smile
Won't you smile a while for me, Sarah?

If you feel like leaving you know you can go
But why don't you stay until tomorrow?
And if you want to be free, all you have to do is say so
When you feel cold, I'll warm you
And when you feel you can't go on, I'll come and hold you
It's you and me forever . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when I was waiting for Ronnie and Kimberly to arrive, but I was excited about having little people in the house. I remember pacing the house, looking out the window every few minutes, waiting . . . waiting . . .

I opened my door to a caseworker and two very scared kids. I had had a picture in my mind's eye of rosy cheeks and smiling faces, but what I saw was quite different. Ronnie was 6 and was white as a sheet, way too thin, with blistery, chapped lips that looked positively purple. He was shaking, and nervously picking at his tattered pants. My heart melted when I saw him, and it positively shattered when I saw her.

Kimberly was 2, but seemed to be the size of a 10 month old. She was a waif. Her blonde hair was sparse; areas on the back of her head had no hair at all. She had on a filthy one-piece winter pajama set that zipped up from foot to neck, but the set was probably a 12 month size, and the feet had been cut off long ago; the ragged edges of the pajama set were up around her knees. Her eyes were blue and piercing, their depth and seriousness belied her age, but the dark rings underneath them were what you noticed first. Her skin was a sickly, sallow palor. She clung to the caseworker and was obviously frightened to death of me. It took everything I had not to cry just at the sight of them.

I squatted down and spoke to Ronnie first. "Ronnie, my name is Rita. I'm going to be helping your mama and I'd like for you and Kimberly to stay here with me for as long as you need to. I have beds for you both, and I have toys here, too. I'd like take care of you both here. Would that be ok with you?" He glanced nervously at Kimberly and then back at me. "Well, Kimberly cries sometimes - does that make you mad?" he asked, gauging my reaction. "I can take care of her, though, she's good if I'm with her," he continued earnestly, trying so hard to win me over. Fighting back tears, I told him that if Kimberly wanted to cry, that would be ok, and that I would like to help him take care of her, too.

I stood and smiled at Kimberly, who would look at me for a moment, or through me actually - that is what it felt like, and then glance away. I held my hands out to her, "I have a rocking chair that I like to sit in and look at books. Do you want to see that?" She nodded and let me take her from the caseworker. God, she was light as a feather - there was nothing to her. Getting this close to her, I could tell that she had not been bathed in days, and her scalp was covered in scaly, scabby places. Waving the caseworker out the door, I told the kids, "Let's go see what kind of cookies I have in the kitchen . . . " and with that, I had myself 2 little people.

That first night was quiet and uneventful. We looked at the whole house, and I showed the kids their bedroom, and they smiled at the big soft brown bear on one bed and the big, floppy eared pink bunny on the other bed. "This bear and bunny have been very lonely here with no one to sleep with - is it ok if they stay with you two for keeps?" I thought I saw a glimmer of a smile on their faces, and with toys in tow, we headed downstairs to rock and read. Ronnie sat at my feet, watching Kimberly like a hawk. She began to nod off in the middle of the second story, and by the third, Ronnie was fast asleep, too.

Just as I began to wonder how I would get two kids upstairs and into bed, I heard our garage door open and a moment later heard him walk in the back door. "Are they here?" he asked, and when he walked into the living room and saw them there, his face softened. Picking Ronnie up, he just kept saying, "Poor kids. Bless their hearts."

I slept lightly that night, thinking that the kids might wake up disoriented and scared. I never heard a peep, though. Just to make sure they were alright, I got up and walked across the hall and peeked in. Kimberly's bed was empty, and she and the bunny were silently sitting on the floor beside Ronnie's bed. I picked her up, and we went outside to swing and I told her about stars, and the moon. She was silently fighting sleep, but the low hum of a quiet lullabye and the motion of the swing proved too much for her to resist, and she fell once again into a deep sleep. It would be the first of many times that she and I would watch the night sky together.

The next morning, I got up and started breakfast for us. Kimberly had still not uttered a sound, but she watched my every move. She ate her eggs and grits and toast so deliberately and cautiously. She seemed terrified to make a move or drop a crumb. When I was sure she was looking, I dropped my forkful of food, and was pleased with her giggle when I made a big "uh-oh!" face with my hand over my mouth. It was the first real smile out of her, and she seemed to brighten up.

Ronnie went outside after breakfast, but not before reassuring Kimberly that he wasn't leaving. Her eyes filled and overflowed with tears and she cried loudly and pitifully as soon as he was out of sight. The force and volume of her crying was a shock, especially since she was silent otherwise. I took her over to the window to show her that he was just outside on the driveway playing. I asked her if she liked bubbles, and she solemly nodded yes, and within a couple of minutes, she was gurgling and giggling in a bathtub full of bubbles and toys. I carefully wet her hair, noticing her cringe when she anticipated that the water would cascade down into her eyes. When I leaned her back onto a bath pillow and gently and thoroughly washed her hair and scalp, she seemed to relax and closed her eyes, and I winced when I wondered if this gentle treatment was a luxury for her.

After her bath, I wrapped her in a towel and headed for the bedroom. I had begun to collect boys and girls clothing from friends and family months before, and I had quite a few pretty things in her size. She was delighted to step into Cinderella panties with frilly edges, and I saw her eyes light up as I laid a few outfits for her to choose. "Which would you like to wear?" I asked her, and quick as a wink, she grabbed a red corduroy coat with soft flannel lining in a teddy bear pattern. She shyly held the coat close and looked at me, and I said "You can keep that," and she tried to put it on. Gently stopping her, I asked her, "would you like to pick something else to wear with it?" and she quickly snatched a 2 piece red Minnie Mouse sweathirt and sweatpants. The look on her face was unmistakeable when she saw herself in the mirror dressed in her new clothes and coat - she ran downstairs and began to softly knock on the window to get Ronnie's attention. She beamed when he told her how pretty she looked, and he even noticed the tiny bow I had tied to her little sparse blonde hair.

Ronnie was just as excited with his new jeans and sweatshirt and winter coat. "I can't wait for mama to see us!" he yelled. Then a little more quietly, he asked me "when WILL we see mama?" As they both looked at me, I told them that their mama was working hard to see them again, and we would go see her as soon as we could. I asked them both if it would be alright for them to stay with me until then, and they both nodded yes.

After the first couple of weeks, the caseworker came out for a home visit. She was surprised to see the difference in them; she couldn't stop saying how much healthier they looked. The dark circles under their eyes had faded, and the sallowness and paleness had given way to rosy glows. As they began to learn and rely on the routine of their days, they seemed happy and relaxed. Their erratic sleep had turned into full restful nights, and their tiptoeing aroud the house had relaxed into playful chaos - they had made themselves at home. She asked both of the kids if they liked staying with me, and Ronnie gushed that he loved his room and his bed and the dogs and me, and Kimberly just silently nodded yes and held my hand. I was almost embarassed with the praise that was heaped upon me, and I had never been so proud of anything in my life as I was of those kids.

While the kids went upstairs to get some toys, the caseworker told me then that the kids' mother and stepfather had served half of the 30 day sentence they had been given, and neither wanted the kids to visit them while they were in jail, so it would be a few more weeks before the kids could see them for a supervised visit at the DFCS office. I wasn't sure how the kids would react to the news, and I tried to spin it as positively as I could. "Ronnie, we can put your schoolwork into a book for your mama, and by the time we have it ready in a few weeks, it'll be time to visit her! " I offered brightly. His smile quickly turned to a look of concern and worry. "But I have to see Angela," he whined, "I haven't seen her in so long!"

Angela was the third child in the family. A half sister to both Ronnie and Kimberly, Angela was just an infant. Cynthia had had each of her three children with different men, and she was currently with David, Angela's daddy. Angela had been placed with David's family when DFCS showed up. Ronnie and Kimberly weren't offered a place to stay, so they had ended up with me.

Ronnie didn't call David Daddy, and Kimberly of course didn't call him anything. Ronnie never mentioned missing David, he expressed some interest in seeing his mother, but the majority of his concern was for Kimberly and Angela. "They are MY babies!" he would say to me proudly, "I changed Kimberly's diapers, and Angela's diapers, and I made their bottles in the night when Mama didn't hear them crying," he told me. "I always tried to make Kimberly not cry cause David would make her stay in her crib in the back room when I was gone to school if she cried. He has alot of headaches," he told me in a confidential tone. Amazing what you can learn from a kid while you are doing dishes.

"Has Kimberly ever talked?" I asked him casually.

"She talked a little, but after Angela was born, David got mad at her 'cause she was always waking up the new baby. She got in alot of trouble with him, and got lots of spankings and never hardly got to get out of her crib. She just stopped talking, and that was better, cause she got in alot less trouble." he rationalized. I tried to remain calm and casual, but inside I wanted Cynthia and David's heads impaled on sharp spears. How I loved this brave little boy and his silent, sad little sister.

We were taught in our foster parenting classes never to talk disparagingly about the kid's parents. We were encouraged to always find positive things to say to the kids about their moms and dads, despite bad situations. At the time, that didn't seem like much of a challenge. I was learning very quickly how hard it was to bronze a turd, especially when there was a little person there with hopeful, shining eyes waiting for you to create a trophy in their parents' honor.

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