Own two feet


Reflections – Part 2
August 14, 2015, 11:06 am
Filed under: Foster care | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

(Reflections – Part 1)

I rarely dwell on the past these days. Increasingly it feels like an old house I have almost moved out of. The walls and floors bare. The furniture gone. The last of what is left in cardboard boxes waiting to be taken away in the final load.

The older memories that make this past are slowly slipping away. Making space for the newer ones. My son navigating the assault course on sports day. Arms and chest pumping. My wife’s face as she takes my hand and places it on her belly, ‘can you feel it?’. Newer books. Newer songs. Newer surroundings. Slowly being in care is getting away from me and I don’t know exactly how to feel about it.

Growing up in care has dug itself deep into my DNA, but increasingly more is pouring into that space. It is getting crowded. Older parts unfamiliar. Lost on the fringes. A part of me says I should be happy about that. The time was hard. Lonely. Incredibly lonely. But it was also giving. Giving of people who wanted to care. Giving of new experiences. Giving of the opportunity to do something different with my life.

There are malignant memories I cut out long ago. I needed to so I could keep going. Other memories I wanted to hold on to, but they had to be edited. A trim here, some extra light there. Characters cut from a scene. New words for old. We all do it, mainly unconsciously. Tinkering and forgetting. Rearranging our own life story. A constant reboot. Unfortunately there were casualties.  I lost some of the smiles, cuddles, laughter and silences where I was happy to be there and nowhere else. I know this because after seeing the Halls again after twenty one years they started making their way back into me.

One of the hardest things about writing this particular blog (I have been writing and changing it constantly for the last 11 months) is it forced me to reflect on my memory and question its authenticity in parts. It led me to question my own authenticity as a person. Where do I fit in all of this? I found the whole thing disorientating.

Over this period I found myself accepting that these memories would never sit still. They would always be on the move. Always changing. Something in them would remain solid, but like clouds they would forever be shifting shape.

I think back now to my meeting with the Halls. Driving in the car and my wife asking if I was ok. I felt as if I hardly existed. Like a stick figure scrawled on a blank page. The markets Jenny Hall and I had once shopped in for my school uniforms and that silver suit I wore at her twenty fifth wedding anniversary with Michael blurred past outside we drove the short drive from my house to the Halls house. I stared ahead not wanting to look at my wife. I didn’t want to feel. I feared her eyes would unlock my own. We moved quickly through clear roads until the sat-nav announced the last turn and suddenly we were outside the Halls’ house. I stopped the car and just sat still for a moment. An emptiness and then a gushing of feelings. I felt like a big man. I have a family, my own home, a job and a car. I can do this. I felt like the small boy on their door step with all his belongings in plastic bags waiting for the door to open. Every part of my body felt heavy. I couldn’t move. I was scared. Excited. Sick. Proud. Alone. Protected. Vulnerable. The man. The boy. Both wrapped up in each other.

“Shall I get Dylan?” my wife asked. Our son sat nervously in his car seat in the back. His big brown eyes darting between me, my wife and outside the window. This new place unfamiliar to him too. “No I’ll get him,” I said, getting out my seat. I walked around the back of the car and felt the heaviness in my limbs leaving. A lightness taking its place. I reached into the car and lifted Dylan out of his safety seat. We grabbed onto each other and held on tight. His little arms and legs flooding me with strength. I remember words running through my mind like ticker tape ‘This is my son and I am his dad,’ as I walked towards the Halls’ front gate with Dylan in my arms. ‘This is my son and I am his dad’. My wife opened the gate and together we all walked down the path.

A knock at the door, maybe the ring of a bell. A curtain flickered to our right and then was pulled back. Jenny on the other side looking out at us. Our eyes meeting. Smiling. Surprise and a softness that I had not remembered she had spreading across her face. The hardness I had always remembered already fading. The door opened and we all hugged each other before sitting down on the soft chairs in the front room. I scanned the unfamiliar room, its contents quickly forgotten. We started talking. I don’t know who or where. Much the hour or so I spent with the Halls is a blur, but what anchors deep in me about seeing the Halls is that a part of me was home, but completely at peace with the Halls. I had left on the worst terms, but now my leaving was just a tiny piece of something bigger and better then I had been remembering over all these years.

Jenny, Michael and Rebecca are part of a fragmented family I carry inside me. A rich tapestry that I am forever patching together. A fabric, as strong as blood. Carers in children’s homes like Leonard and Carol that gave me more time than just their shifts; friends and their families who have shared their tables and Christmases with me; Ken who went from being a work colleague to a mentor to my hero because he loved me unconditionally; my wife’s family who have always embraced me, even though for a long time I found this hard to accept, but they were understanding and I love them more for that.  I look at this beautiful, complicated, messy tapestry that is my life and I see the Halls and my heart hurts in that good way.

This was supposed to be the end of this blog entry, but it didn’t feel quite right. It needed more, but I had lost the detail, so I asked my wife, whose memory is far better than mine, about the day we met the Halls and what she remembered.

I remember the glazed look and then the smile of recognition from Michael when you first walked in.

I remember the yapping dog running in between all of us as we sat awkwardly on the sofas all facing each other….Dylan and the puppy were the focus for about 20 minutes whilst everyone eased their way in.

I remember Jenny was sat next to you and kept on looking at you with a big smile on her face. Michael was regal in his comfy chair to your left, and flitted between benign smiles to glimmers of recognition and joviality with you and Jenny. 

I remember it was you who started the reminiscing game. You would say a name of someone you all had known, some I recognised, some I didn’t, and Jenny would fill you in on what they were doing, who they were married to, what trouble they were in. The conversation seemed stilted at first. You jumped from person to person to keep it flowing, and then slowly it became about you all. First all of the good memories. Some of the films you watched, you mentioned Christmas and the pork you would pickle in jars for days before. You talked of your memories of the extended family, and the house itself. You talked about your brother and you all laughed about him and the trouble he got into. Michael came alive when he heard his name. He would look at me across the room and smile and occasionally said “they always take the mick out of me”.

I remember the one cup of tea we both had getting cold, and Dylan getting restless. I remember feeling like I was an outsider looking in, but for once not feeling annoyed that you didn’t help me penetrate the conversation.  I remember Dylan outside running around their beautiful garden, and Jenny standing by the back door watching him, saying what a lovely little boy we had.

I remember there being mainly laughter… I don’t remember any bad stuff being spoken of. I remember the glint in your eye when we left, and squeezing your knee in the car driving home. I remember thinking you might cry with relief, and I remember wanting to cry myself but holding it together for you.

I remember taking the picture in the garden of you all, and thinking you all looked like a family. I remember your very long and lingering hug with Jenny, and thinking that it was almost medicinal for you and the darkness you had felt about the Halls when you and I first met. I remember being moved by the intensity of the goodbye. 

I do remember you walking on air for a few hours afterwards. It was a lovely sight.

I also remember Dylan eating crisps but that does not seem important.

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Reflections
November 4, 2014, 3:45 pm
Filed under: Foster care | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I stare into the full length mirror. Thirty-six years rewinding to reveal a fifteen-year-old boy. This echo I still collide with from time to time. This is the same boy who slid himself out of the back window of their Toyota mini-van and ran. I blink and twenty-one years pour back into the mirror. What will they think of me now?

I have not seen Jenny and Michael, the Halls as I would refer to them down the years, since that night. Since the argument about the little girl from The Cosby Show dancing and singing in her first music video.

‘You can see what she is going to be like when she grows up’ Jenny says. I have been waiting for this moment. The slow deterioration between the Halls and I had been leading here and had quickened in recent weeks. Breaking point had been brushed while on holiday in Jamaica. Something about a shower. Did I or did I not have one? I said I had, but they didn’t believe me. We all stopped talking for the rest of the holiday. I remember eating pizza with an American couple who were staying in the same hotel as us. They thought it was madness. Did I ever have that shower, I sometimes wonder.

When we returned to London I was asked to apologise for the incident. I refused. Apologise for what? I had had enough. Enough of them, enough of me with them, just enough of it all. This had to be broken. Smashed to pieces. I was good at breaking things.

Jenny’s comment about the Cosby Show Girl hung in the air for a moment. Before I would have stopped myself. Swallowed the sentence. Respect your elders. But elders are not always right. Deep down the fear of being moved again to the unknown often forced me to resist the urge to speak my mind. I had been in other foster homes and children’s homes. They were not all like the Halls’. I may have struggled there at times and that comes with being in care, but I also remember the excitement of Christmas they conjured, Sunday nights watching ‘That’s Life’ with Horlicks and running around the common with Michael covered in dust and dressed in half his work clothes.

Towards the end I constantly found myself tipping over the edge of their many boundaries. The same boundaries I am currently laying for my own son. There seemed to be so many of them.

I had come from a place almost without limits. Here they were everywhere. Boundaries for behaviour (there will be no punching, pushing or kicking). Boundaries for eating (just one packet of crisps and a funsize chocolate a day (and you must eat fruit)). Boundaries for speaking (we will not accept swearing or the use of the word ‘ain’t’). Boundaries for what time you had to go to bed (simply cruel). The most painful boundary of all was the front door.

At home it might as well have been non-existent. Back then, when I got in from school, if I even came home, I was immediately back out through the front door. The estate was my playground. Now I was trapped. I never saw then the dangers the streets sometimes conceal from a mad little boy desperate to climb about building sites and hang out building camps in garages.

My mum had tried her best to set her own boundaries when we lived together, but I never cared. She was weak and we both knew it. The shouting and screaming never made a difference. I just laughed at her. She was struggling to control herself. What chance did she have with a little boy who thought he was already a man.

The Cosby Show Girl’s video had finished, but I was just starting. ‘How do you know what she is going to be when she grows up? What kind of stupidness is that!?’, I said. By now we had walked outside and were heading for the mini-van to drive home.  More words flew between us, but Rebecca (Jenny and Michael’s daughter) had had enough. ‘Just be quiet John!’ she shouted. More ammunition. I didn’t hesitate and shouted back. ‘Shut yer mouth!’. It was a phrase Jenny and Michael hated.

Throughout the argument Michael had kept his silence. We did not call him Mr Miyagi – the calm and wise mentor to the Karate Kid – for nothing. It wasn’t just he looked a bit like him, it was also that he shared his serenity and good nature.

But this was no Hollywood film and Michael had also had enough. He jumped out of the driver’s seat, opened the side door of the van I had just climbed into and grabbed me round the collar. He pulled me towards him and was shouting words that just washed over me. There was a fraction of a second where I just knew I had done it. This was the breaking things part. It was a relief. There was no coming back and in the heart of such an angry situation I felt peace. A couple more tugs and I was back in the real world. I pulled away from Michael, who was already releasing me with what looks like regret in my memory’s eyes, though I could be wrong. I had one last look and then dragged myself out of the back window and ran.

I had arrived at the Halls’ as a ten year old with my brother with just a few bags and a lot of baggage. They had filled my life with so much more than I could have experienced if I hadn’t have ended up on their doorstep. They were human. There were mistakes, but they cared deeply about me. I stayed with them for almost four years over two different periods. It ended with me running away from them in that van. I ran back to my mum’s house, where I would stay briefly before going to live with my best friend for the rest of my time in someone else’s care.

I stare into the mirror. In one hour I will be meeting the Halls again. ‘Are you ready John? I think we should go now?’, my wife shouts from downstairs. I don’t know if I am.

To be continued…



Up in the air

I wasn’t prepared for the Panorama programme ‘Kids in Care’ as it flashed on my television screen.

The blur quickly fixed itself in the eyes of ‘Connor’, an angry fourteen year old in care. In the short clip, no doubt shown to jack up audience numbers, Connor is shown attacking his social workers car and leaving its window smeared with blood (at least I think it was blood).

His rage caught me off guard, not out of shock, but more from a forgotten familiarity. I remember that rage and then I remember the vacuum. The hole in my childhood that screamed out to be filled. I often reached for rage. 

When I sat down to watch the full documentary last week I armed myself with a pen and a pad to create a little distance. I spent the whole time scribbling… recording statistics (seventy thousand kids in care, a forty per cent increase of kids in care in the last two years – there has been no increase in the number of foster carers). I scribbled down names and ages, older Connor 14, younger Connor 3, Shannon 14, Hezron 15, the social worker Chris Rogers 21.

I took down why the kids were in care; drugs and alcohol, a murdered father. I wrote how long they had been in care; 5 years, 14 years… it started to become a form filling exercise, an exercise I have criticized in this blog before and yet here I was doing it myself. It’s easy to create a gap with ‘facts’ and keep young people in care at arms length.

But kids in care have to be more than what Connor called ‘just a name on a list’. Underneath the screaming and shouting, the blood and the spit, the drinking and the drugs, the swearing and the ‘I don’t cares’ they are screaming out for understanding. They are screaming out for love… they are not screaming out for adults surrounding them with forms and clipboards and stupid questions.

They’re screaming out for more.

It’s the same scream we all scream out into this world at times, but most of us are able to fall into the arms of mums and dads and brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles and other family members and friends for kisses, cuddles, comfort and understanding.

This goes for children and adults alike. If this support is missing and there is nobody else ready to hear that scream and catch them as they fall, then they will keep falling.

As Jacky, the children’s home carer, says we just need a lot of love and a lot of trust and when kids know they’re secure everything starts coming together, without that it often feels like its always falling apart. Trust isn’t easy to get, it takes time and it takes consistency and kids being constantly moved destroys any chance at gaining this trust. The system is broken and has been for a long time regarding the number of moves young people are involved in care.

We need more from help and drive from those in the higher echelons of our political system. Connor said ‘we are second class’ and it hurt because I remember feeling just that and it’s a hard feeling to shake as you get older.

We deserve more. We need more. My words feel like a broken record spinning round and round and it’s a record that has played during both the times of the Conservative and Labour Governments. Can this new coalition Government spin another tune? Or will they comfortably settle into a blame game of who didn’t do what?

A good start would be a real push for recruiting foster carers that goes beyond a poster campaign and an advert on a cheap cable channel. We need something like the recruitment campaigns rolled out for the army and the teachers because this is just as important. Is there anything more important than feeling safe and secure, loved and wanted? Shouldn’t everything else come after this?

I also think there must be other models of looking after young people in care than we currently have. Are there any pilots currently happening? Help me out there, or does anybody know of any other countries doing it different, doing it better?

The above was pretty much written the next day after the programme aired. I’ve now had a few days to think the whole thing through. There is no doubt the programme was important, but I do fear that whenever kids in care are on television it’s always the same kind of story…dysfunction in all its guises. It almost feels like exploitation.

Maybe I’m part of that in some way with this blog telling my own dysfunctional story, still I think it’s important that rather than always perpetuating the stereotypes we need to see more of the other side to life in care. We need to see how life in care has been positive for many people, both children and carers.

I remember standing in the playground as an eight-year-old boy staring at planes as they left their vapour trails in the sky. I dreamed of one day being on one, but never thought I would. I never cared about being a pilot, I just wanted to be as high as those planes and look down on the world.

I remember my first time flying to Majorca on Britannia Airlines with my foster family the Halls. I remember how amazing it was to get plastic blue cutlery and food on a tray in little compartments. I remember take off and everything shrinking as we climbed. I remember flying through the clouds and I remember looking out of the window into the darkness and seeing a storm rage in the darkness.

It was beautiful and is still one of the greatest moments of my life… can’t say I remember much of Majorca.




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