Own two feet


I still see those faces

I am starting to catch moments in the mirror where I don’t quite recognise my reflection. Small lines creeping around the eyes, grey hairs flickering through the dark crowd, the sharpness of it all slowly slipping loose. Age painting its familiar pattern.

I still play football on Sunday mornings, though I can’t run as fast as I used to. It feels like a death that nobody else will ever notice. Many of my happiest childhood memories involved running. Chasing and being chased on the estate. Racing in the school playground on breaks. Sprinting across football pitches to win a ball and across an athletics track to pass a baton or dip for a finish-line. I will never run like that again.

My muscles mutter and moan on Monday mornings. They threaten strikes on Tuesdays. But by Wednesday they have forgotten and it’s back to work as usual. My wife sometimes says I should stop playing, but I’m holding on.

I feel bits and pieces of what has been my life breaking away. There is only so much you can take with you as the years tick by. It is a bittersweet feeling in the context of my childhood. For a long time I felt like its prisoner. Ashamed and scarred. As time passes and people pass through your life, you can surprise yourself with the distance you travel if you head in a direction and keep on going. Being a survivor was never enough for me. I had to go beyond that. I’m still going.

People are a great help in this journey, but nobody else can do your healing for you. That took me a long time to understand. Mine has been a broken path. Almost untraceable. But I’m here and there is no shame now.

You have all left your marks on me. I found myself in the arms of somebody who said I will never leave you, I found friendships in different continents that sometimes lasted moments and other times, years. All helped me heal and grow. I remember the night we spent sitting by the beach with the bottle of port, pouring out our lives. The stories shared over games of Backgammon, on the rooftop in the breeze. The mixtape that included ‘Protection’. The letter you saved from the bin and stuck back together. Dancing our legs out in Kuala Lumpur and you letting me stay in your home. The times you carried me home. The times I carried you home. Singing to Madonna songs. Lives lived in Eversleigh Halls. Misfits finding a place to fit. Giving me a chance. Giving me a life. Sharing a life. Making a life. I still see those faces.

I have been able to take this difficult time of being a child in care and shine a new light on it. I have wandered for a long time in these memories. I wander in the new ones I made after that time. I’m not sure if all the memories are my own and if any are imposters, but I don’t ponder this for long these days. The only thing I can rely on is how I feel about my childhood, especially the time I spent in care and how this affected me. It was difficult and at times painful. I remember a strong sense of never being able to truly express myself outside of anger, though it was not always like that. I feel protective of this period. I feel protective over the memories where I see myself smiling and laughing. I also feel protective over the pain that cocooned itself deep within me, but time has passed – and as I have changed through the years and collided with the lives of others, my childhood has taken flight from much the pain and lifted me with it.

As I become more forgetful, dark spots drift across my recollections of the past – my childhood partially obscured by them. Where once I would have been glad to forget, now I am trying to hold on to the memories.

For the last thirteen years I have been writing about my care experiences. I have a cardboard box in my bedroom full with writing. Lined pads, small notebooks and scraps of paper. Memory sticks scattered around the house full of files full of more writing. Stacks of sentences all about that time in my life. I am desperately trying to keep that boy alive.

I love that little boy and I am so proud of him. I want to tell him he is going to be alright. I want to tell him he will be loved beyond his imagination and he will learn to give away his love. A love so powerful it will sometimes scare the man he will become.

I fear that by writing all this, I am using that little boy. I fear exploiting him. That fear is always there, but I keep writing because I want to give him and me a voice that was missing for a long time. I also want to celebrate him, and anyone who has been in care. Together with those that look after us, we are an exceptional family, even as our memories fade and our reflections change.

 

 

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14
August 8, 2013, 2:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

My intention for this blog entry was to rewrite something I had composed sitting in my garden way past midnight some time ago. I had just dropped Daniel (not his real name) back to his foster carers. It was the first time he had been to my house. He met my wife. We talked in the garden, ate lasagne and then spent the rest of the night cracking up to Richard Pryor.

When I got back home I went out into the garden and sat on the bench bathed in the light of the security lamp. I was exhausted. That’s when the feeling comes. It comes from a long long way and drags so much with it. It is part of the deal. I accept that. Right now all that text I wrote without much thought sits under the line I am now watching drag itself across this computer screen. Those words down there feel too far away now, like someone I once knew, but have lost touch with.

As always, the beginning of my writing is a struggle. I often start with a voiceless feeling that aches to be more. It aches into a ripple, a ripple into a tide, a tide of words. Words the last gasp of that original feeling and a poor substitute because what I feel put into words is always running away from what I’m really trying to say. Every word dilutes these feelings. I wish I could paint.

How can I introduce Daniel and our relationship? On the forms I fill out after our meetings they say I am his mentor, which makes him my mentee. Both terms jar in my throat and whenever they leave my lips in conversation an apology immediately chases them down.

I know what I am supposed to say about our supposed roles and I could reel off all sorts of things about what my ‘function’ is supposed to be. But we’re just two people in a strange situation and I am trying my hardest to let him know I am here, and I understand.

But increasingly I see I can’t understand like I thought I could. Everybody’s care experience is different. I can read reports and case studies and study statistics, but Daniel has his own story. Whilst it’s true that we share the experience of being in care, that is not always a bridge. He does not want his vulnerability to be put on show.

When I first met him with his social worker, Daniel sat slouched in his chair and looked disinterested. It took me back. I couldn’t help but remember all the times I sat just like that with my ‘I don’t care face’, all the while listening, watching and processing it all. I felt helpless and so out of control. I looked into his eyes as he sat across from me and I wasn’t fooled by his apparent disinterest.

We have got on from the beginning. Laughed and joked. We have set boundaries, but both creep over them from time to time. He tests me, pushes me and when he asks if I have ever taken drugs or if I smoke or asks about women I stumble through my thoughts of what to say.

He stands at almost 6ft and I have to remind myself he is 14, but I also have to remind myself that everything we build is on trust. At the beginning I avoided some of his questions and fell back on the ‘that’s private, I’m not saying yes or no’, but that has faded as we have got closer. He opens up to me and tells me things that make me laugh, but then also scare me.

But this relationship is much harder than I ever thought it would be. In the training before I started they warned me that it would be tough at times. There would be let downs and the relationship could possibly break up. This is not for the faint-hearted or the fleetingly altruistic.

There are times when you want to give up because you feel you are not making a difference and it can really hurt. You can give a lot and get nothing back, but as Angela (who runs Stepping Up UK who I mentor through) said ‘he keeps turning up doesn’t he? So you must be doing something right’.

Those words carried me a long way. I have to admit at the beginning I thought it would be different for me as somebody who had grown up in care. I thought I could clamber my way through all the barbed wire that I knew would be between us at the beginning. But, of course,there are no free passes. Trust takes time and lots of hard work. Trust is probably the most important thing to somebody in care; trust and time.

I am getting used to long silences and one word answers to questions. I also constantly remind myself he is 14 and this comes with the territory. I am getting good at stealing smiles off him through my own stupidity. He is teaching me to be a better father to my son and also how to listen better.

We both take turns to teach and learn, though I wish I could have more influence on him. He has so much potential. Words that are plastered on all my school reports. I was too busy trying to get through my childhood to realise that potential. I regret that now, but also understand why he rejects school at this stage in his life.

I hope the future will look after him, and give him time and education like it did me. There are people around Daniel that care about him and want him to do well, so he has a chance. He is intelligent, but like so many of us is afraid. I keep trying to tell him we all carry this fear, but what separates people is what they choose to do with it. Again, I have to remind myself he is just 14.

Mentoring is a challenge. Working with young people in care can be incredibly hard whatever role you play, but Daniel’s life has been hard, harder then most. Some of us are lucky enough to fall into our families when we fall. It’s something many of us take for granted. Why wouldn’t we?

But to wake up in another person’s house and to be raised by people that do not share your history or your dark brown eyes can be isolating. Instinctively the reaction is to withdraw. When you’re young, feelings can often be hard to articulate, so we say little or nothing at all. Our care experience can sometimes seem to pollute our identity and corrupt our memory of our childhood.

Of course there are people where the total reverse is true and being taken into care can act as the turning point they need in their lives. It is the breath of air, the ray of light, but even in these situations to be uprooted from what is, ultimately, home (no matter what the outside sees) is incredibly difficult for a child to process.

I have to tell myself these things a lot now. I have to take myself back and remember. So when I sit across from Daniel in a restaurant and I can’t get him to speak I have to think that is ok because in the end no matter what the most important thing is that I am there and he keeps coming. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have the words, as long as we have each other’s presence. There will be time to talk when and if he wants. My role is to be there.

I am, as always when writing this blog, a little bit lost. So I am going to finish it with some text from the original blog entry I wrote, as I feel closer to it now:

‘I care about him. I have told him, but it’s difficult to convey that to a child. I’m tempted to delete that and say ‘young person’ because that would probably be more politically correct, but even though he does go out to all hours and does drink and does smoke, he is still a child and that should be protected.

‘He would hate that, because he wants to escape childhood as quickly as possible, but I feel there is a responsibility to try to let children be children. In care you have to grow up too fast. You see too much. Feel too much. It is hard to see the child in him, but we need to help them hold onto that for as long as they can.

‘I want to do more. Help him more. Sometimes I feel weak and helpless. Sometimes I just want to hug him because I can feel that hurt, but I don’t. It is a kind of hurt that doesn’t want to be hugged. It wants to be buried. It’s taking time, but I’m starting to learn that I can’t fix him. I thought after my experience I could. I was blind. But it’s not about fixing. It’s about presence and being there. Especially when they act like they don’t want you there.’



Pattern cutting
January 18, 2011, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Moving on | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I reach for my girlfriend’s hand, squeeze it tight and stare into the darkness of the hospital monitor. A flicker, a flash and then a head, a big head.

I can feel the pressure of my girlfriend’s hand and I already know she’s crying. I stare into the darkness. I see a tiny leg kick and then a bright white hand waves across the screen. I feel a thousand clichés pour out of me and I want to stand up and hold the monitor close to my chest.

I turn to my girlfriend and tears are rolling down her face. She is smiling, the midwife is smiling, and I can feel the happiness silently screaming out of me. I swallow it back down and stare back to where my baby is growing. ‘Everything is as it should be’, the midwife says.

As soon as we both get home I change into my running stuff and head back out into the night. I run harder than normal in the hope that if I can tire out my body I will also exhaust my mind. But my mind runs faster than my legs and I run to the flashes of my own childhood and the imagined childhood of the baby growing inside my girlfriend’s stomach, oblivious of what is waiting outside.

I cannot help but remember. The past more present than ever.

I remember all the spaces where my mum and dad should have been but were not there. I think of that helpless child and cannot understand how my parents let me slip away from them. My baby is not even fully formed, but I love it like crazy. This love is so pure that it doesn’t need explanation and it is the same love my parents felt for me, but yet it wasn’t enough to make them keep me.

It is when I start to think a little bit deeper and remember a little bit more that I am able to understand that what happened to me had nothing to do with how much my parents loved me. They both came from upbringings that were hard. My dad’s I know little of, but whenever I go to see him sing with his band, I can hear an echo of something darker  that lies behind the smiles and showmanship.   

My mum I know more of. I know she was abandoned by her own parents and was later picked out from a sea of faces in an orphanage to be adopted by an elderly couple. Her life from there was one of abuse, secure units, drink, drugs, exploitation and confusion. Her own parents, a drunk and a not very good bank robber, set a pattern, a pattern that she continued.

Patterns are hard to break. They link families for generations for good and for bad. When you grow up in care that pattern is deep and strong and breaking it takes a mighty effort. Sometimes you just accept it because when you hurt so much and have been through so much it is all that you know. Sometimes you reach out and there is nothing there. You come home after a bad day at school and you’re surrounded by strangers on shifts at a children’s home, or foster carers who you know are only short term.

The pattern weaves itself into your skin and your behaviour. Your parents’ problems, insecurities and bad habits become your own, and it is hard to find a way out. But chains break and we are not slaves to the blood that courses through our veins. Nor are we slaves to our childhoods. We should never forget our heritage and where we are from, but those things are not our masters, we always have choices no matter where they may hide.

I understand that for some, the weight of the past can be too much to bear and if there is not the support of others to help carry it, then people can be crushed by their pasts and all the insecurities they breed. But, as I’ve said before, if people can get a hold of their past and be able to explore it with support and guidance, that can become their ultimate strength.

My mum’s past for many years left her broken. She fell into a trap all too familiar and did not want to take me down with her. So she gave me up. She wanted more for me then she could give. I can’t say I have ever escaped living in care or the pain that it brought me, but I have got a hold of these demons and now they work for me.

Now it is my turn to become a parent, though I still feel like a child, and to help bring a new generation into the world. Now I get a chance to smash a pattern that has run through my family for many years and perhaps many generations.

I know I will make mistakes, loads of mistakes, but I will keep trying. A part of me is scared, but a bigger part of me is excited because I believe now I will truly see that my time in care was a real success.

Sometimes it is important to reflect on the past and to look through all the rubbish and the tears and the rejection and the pointless meetings and the social workers and the Christmas’s and Birthdays when you missed home and think I am still standing here after all that… now I want more.




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