Filed under: Foster care | Tags: anger, boundaries, breaking, care, family, Foster care, leaving care, memories, memory, social work
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.
Filed under: Foster care | Tags: anger, boundaries, breaking, care, carers, foster carer, leaving care, memories, running away, social work
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…
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: care, care system, loneliness, out of area, out of borough, placements, social work, social workers
The place I ran. The place I rode. The place I screamed. The place I shouted. The place I laughed. The place I stole. The place I said sorry. The place I would not. The place doors slammed. The place footballs flew. The place camps grew. The place I fought. The place I kissed. The place I held. The place I let go. The place of swings. The place of struggles. The place of scaffolding. My mum. My brother. My friends. The place of games. The place I won. The place I lost. The place I called home.
They took me from that place. They took me somewhere else. From SW15 to SW16. Just a single digit difference, but a world away for a nine year old.
Everything I knew, for good, bad and all else that slips in between, slowly faded behind me. All my roots that cut through the concrete surfaces of the estate and embedded themselves deep into the ground were hacked at, but never severed. As much as I was flesh and bone, I was also the concrete tower blocks and metal railings of the estate I still see when I sometimes drive it. I was still the curly hill I would skateboard down and I was still Ali’s shop over the road and up the slope where mum could buy things on tick. I’m still that place.
The social worker who picked me up from a neighbour’s house was answering the call my mum made. She could not cope. I was put into the state hands and the state did what it thought was best. A family was found via a short stay in a children’s home. A good Christian family. A family with a mum and a dad and sons and a daughter and two dogs. They had two bathrooms and thick carpets. They had a garden with a shed and they even had a basement.
I remember being amazed when I first arrived at the foster home. The quiet road lined with trees. The tiny room when you first walked in to hang coats up in and put your shoes. The red wine stairs that climbed high to the first floor and then kept climbing beyond. The welcoming faces…but this was not just SW16, this was another country.
They spoke a different language. They kept picking me up about my dropping of ‘t’s’ and my use of the word ‘ain’t’. They dressed differently. They ate different food. They went to Church. They prayed. They went on planes. They filled the trolley to bursting in Sainsbury’s. They sat round a table at meal times.
Some of these things I fell into. So many of them brand new. I liked the material things. Things I could touch. Things I could taste. Things I could hold on to. Things I could keep. In my file I would later read that the foster parents questioned my desires to possess things. It was seen as shallow, but if one looked a bit deeper they would have understood when the most precious things are taken away from you, possession of things in itself becomes important.
But what I wanted more than anything was to go back home to where I belonged. Where I fit in. Where people understood me and where I understood them. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the words to express all these things because we didn’t need words. We just were. In between the struggle we held on to each other and we helped each other. Even when we were fighting.
In the end though my mum couldn’t hold us all together. She was not strong enough. She needed more help and support and unfortunately either it was not there or she didn’t know how to take it.
A decision was taken early on to slowly sever the link between my mum and I and the estate. After each visit I suffered. My temper would flare. I did not have the experience, the strength, the understanding to contemplate what was happening to me. My head was a constant riot. So much noise. At night I would sometimes sit in the dark thinking about everything and it would become too much. I would wake up in wet sheets and just lay in them hoping they would dry and nobody would know. They always did.
The dislocation from where I had grown up hurt me profoundly. It was not just the distance between me and my mum, but it was the distance that was allowed to open up like a chasm between me and my friends and the estate that was home.
I remember once my friend Brian coming to visit me. Both of us just boys. It is a memory that has recently returned to me. I was so ashamed. He was my best friend and I was ashamed. I think that was the last time I saw him in my childhood.
A home is more than what lies behind your front door. It is more than a family. It is the paths you pass through every day. It’s the two steps you always jump over at the end of the stairwell. It’s the bunches of daffodils you hurdle every summer. It’s the pissy lift you help make pissy. It’s the anti-climbing paint on your hands. It’s the concrete pavement slabs you scratch ‘I woz ere’ on. Home is where you lay your life.
It saddens me to read that children taken into care are still placed in foster homes and children’s homes far from the places they once called their own homes. Sometimes this in other far flung parts of the country. I do appreciate for some children this distance is necessary and in their best interests, but ultimately adults need to remember that even a couple of miles can seem like a huge distance to a child.
It took me a long time to accept I was not going home, but I believe the separation could have been handled much better if people had taken the time to listen to me and to ask the right questions. Time should have been taken to help me through that process. It was, and at times, still feels like a bereavement. One day I was running around on the estate feeling like a king and then the next I was in care, in a foster home asking if it was alright to get a drink of water.
I benefited from being taken into care and although my placements did breakdown, as it did with the family in SW16 after the second period I was there, I have understood it was best for me. That is sometimes hard to reconcile because it has hurt my relationship with my mum and destroyed my relationship with one of my brothers. Still, I know the alternative is I would have likely ended up in a place I do not want to look too deeply into.
I just wish the adults that were tasked to look after me could have looked a little deeper, been a bit more patient and tried to stand in my scruffy trainers.
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