Years in the Fog of Ignorance

Young African American man standing musing against a grey studio background with copyspace with a serious pensive expression

I had settled into the relatively uncomfortable seat, accepting that over the next eight hours I would be in this one seat as the aircraft would venture from Sacramento to Los Angeles to Nashville and finally on to Boston. No plane changes. Same crew. The aircraft we were on appeared to have entered service during the first Bush administration, and as a result, it was without Wi-Fi capability. I viewed this as modern-day torture, but as I had already come to realize, God wouldn’t let that be the case.

I am on the Board of Trustees for a non-profit organization, and was privileged to travel with their executive leadership team and spend time collaborating with another organization that shared our vision. It was a great deal of travel (I had gone Charlotte to Chicago to Sacramento two days prior and would fly from Boston to Charlotte two days later). All of this time in the air gave me plenty of time to be in my own mind.

I had spent time getting to know one of our consultants better over the course of these few days, seeing not only the passion for macro-level change in the child-welfare system that I already knew about, but exploring a bit about our Christian faiths. On the leg from Sacramento to LA, we were still half asleep, so headphones were in and eyes were resting.

On the second leg, we discussed a plethora of things, and that four hour stretch of time flew by (pun intended). Early in the course of that flight, I gave her some more specifics on my own story and how I had gotten to Plummer. You see, I lived there for a couple of years, which is what would ultimately bring me to becoming a Trustee. Since earning the title, my life has been enriched in ways I never thought possible. This particular conversation is one of the many examples of the presence of God in my everyday life.

The Fog

The city of San Francisco is renowned for the fog that engulfs the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and burns off to reveal the beauty in the hills of this City by the Bay. I experienced it for the first time visiting over an April school vacation. It was a big test; the results of this visit with my aunt would essentially allow us to decide if we were compatible.

One of my sisters and I were in a foster home in our hometown, while our youngest sister was going through the adoption process with another aunt of ours. My aunt Michelle had moved to San Francisco as a young adult and never seemed to look back. I had spent some time with her in Boston and a few family holidays, etc. My most beloved stuffed animal was named Charlie (like the lead character in “All Dogs Go to Heaven”), and my aunt Michelle was the one who bought him for me. She was far away in a time when technology hadn’t quite evolved to what it is today, so we didn’t know each other too well. This was going to be a giant change for all of us.

The week was surreal. I was picked up in a limousine like a celebrity. We went over the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. I rode on the world famous cable cars. I saw The Phantom of the Opera – the music from that night still sticks with me to this day. I saw (and heard, and smelled) the sea lions. I enjoyed delicious food at Fisherman’s Wharf. I spent time making chocolate-covered bananas with the Immendorfs, who owned the gallery that Michelle would later buy. I returned to Massachusetts with a big grin, tons of memories, and a hand puppet sea lion named Frisco.  Consider that deal “sealed”.

When the time came to move, off we went to a beautiful apartment in a city steeped in culture. But as anybody at that age and in that circumstance would be, I longed one thing – to be near my parents. I knew that at the time living with them wasn’t an option. But did I really have to be 3,000 miles away from them? A weekly phone call just seemed to hurt more than it helped because it was just a tease of something unattainable.

I was a prime example of a rotten, miserable, broken child. I had amazing babysitters, exposure to culture at the Jewish Community Center for after-school care, and a love for the Muni. Cars in San Francisco aren’t practical, and their municipal transit system works well (or it did – that was well over a decade and a half ago). I learned to use chopsticks, I went camping at Point Bonita light house, I played the trumpet! Aquarium – check. Beaches – check. Bicycling through Golden Gate Park – check. Amazing Chinese food on the way home from school, authentic Mexican within walking distance of the house – check and check.

I understood what had brought me here. My parents had made mistakes; they suffered through their own difficulties. In my very young brain, I got it – it made sense. I had grown up overnight. The trouble was that it couldn’t be that simple. I was still a young boy who couldn’t control my heart because I just wanted to be near my mom.

In this time of great confusion, I wasn’t without God. But after my First Communion (which my second cousin had to bring me to classes for), church became a thing of the past and for my time in foster care and through many years later, my relationship with God wouldn’t involve a church or catechism or formal prayer or any of the things that teach us about and remind us of God’s love for us.

I had spiraled out of control because I felt hated. I use the word felt because in hindsight, I couldn’t have been more loved. At one point, as I literally cried on the shoulder of my fifth grade teacher, I said “She hates me so I hate her.” But what did I know? I wanted something badly and nobody would listen.

Eventually, I’d get my way and wind up back in Massachusetts. I had to leave my sister behind and so the familial bond would be shredded even further – none of three children were together; visits would happen, but it was tremendously complicated. More pieces of that journey may have to be the topic of a future post.

The Dissipation of My Internal Fog

The whirlwind that became life after returning to Massachusetts meant that I wouldn’t ever really take time to reflect on what the heck had happened while I was in California. In the decade and a half between leaving San Francisco and that day on the plane, I would hardly ever revisit that year in my mind. I didn’t have any need to really talk about it, and so much had transpired in the meantime that it never hit me.

On the plane talking to Lauren, we had started talking about faith. Lately, I haven’t been able to discuss faith without focusing on what I am grateful for. In discussing what I am grateful for, people are usually the biggest focal point of what I appreciate. And yet there was this point in my life that I had never really taken time to review to see how I got through it. I had completely ignored or repressed an entire period of my life without realizing it. I was talking about some of my frustrations with Michelle when these words spilled out of my mouth: “She just wasn’t wired to have two children; perhaps she wasn’t wired to have any children at all. But she certainly did the best she could for me and my sister, and considering the circumstances I couldn’t ask for more than that.” At no point in my life between leaving California and that moment had I ever given a single thought for how much she sacrificed for us.

Michelle, as I mentioned, had moved away from home at a young age. To my knowledge she had never married, and she had no children of her own. She had found her independence and held onto it. She worked hard to achieve her own success. In a time when she could have continued right on living the life she had built for herself, the children of her adopted brother needed someone to help them. So she got a new apartment, took foster care classes, made arrangements, spent money, and turned her entire life upside down for no purpose other than to provide a safe place for us.

After this whirlwind of buried emotions flooded my heart and mind, I literally had to stop talking for a minute. I was truly speechless. I can understand and accept the fact that in my anger and confusion as a young child, it wasn’t possible for me to see these things. But I had grown up a lot since then. How had I been so blind to everything she gave me? How had I not acknowledged publicly or even privately how much it meant to me that she was willing to do that? How had I been so oblivious and ignorant?

I spent a few moments in silence and I looked over at Lauren and said “I really need to call her and thank her.” As of this writing, that was more than two months ago. I have had ample time, but am still lacking the fortitude and courage to pick up the phone. Maybe posting this will encourage me to take that step. Perhaps I need to plan a trip to San Francisco and visit her, and just hug her and ask her to forgive me not just for how I behaved as a young boy but for how ungrateful and unaware I have allowed myself to be in the years since. It was neither prudent nor just to have treated her that way then, and every day that has gone by since then continues to be a violation of the virtues of my faith.

She was not perfect. Like any guardian she likely said and did things that weren’t exactly helpful. I don’t think any of that was out of contempt or spite; she too is human and has emotions and reacts poorly to some situations just like anybody else. The pressure she faced at that time was essentially unlike any pressure that I have ever known. Two young lives depended on her.

Pray for Us

In this moment, I ask you each to pray that I find the courage to call Michelle and show her the appreciation that she deserved long before this moment. Pray that I will make the time to call her and visit her and see that she knows how much she means to me now, even though we’ve neither spoken nor seen each other in years. Please pray that we continue to heal from the wounds of our pasts.

I offer a very special set of prayers for each of you today. I pray that if you have experienced something similar, that God opens your heart and brings you peace and appreciation for the person who may have saved your life. I also pray that if any of you are feeling the potential calling to foster a child, whether they are related to you or not, that you pursue this incredibly important mission. Remember that in a way, Jesus Christ was a ‘foster child’ of Saint Joseph.

For those of you who may be foster children, I pray that you feel the love of God along every step of your journey. I was able to move forward in life through the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, and you each must know that He loves you.