It is Drew’s second to last night at our home and his last night seeing me. I know his ten year old head has to be ready to explode trying to process such a monumental change in his life. These foster kids so often get passed around from one home to another, and at times the way staff put up walls one might think we were teaching them that callous, numb relationships are what we are all striving for. We keep these young nomads from killing each other, but sometimes they don’t seem to know what else to do with what’s inside of them; shoulders to cry on seem hard to come by when maintaining a professional distance trumps letting them in. Sometimes I wonder what it means to “professionally” raise a child and if that is really what we ought to be doing.

It’s three o’clock and Drew’s home from an overnight visit of his new foster home. He joins the other boys in their Smash Bros. Brawl battles and life goes on as normal. Soon it’s dinner time and the signs of a mind spent from processing a life event that is beyond its capacity are becoming apparent. As he walks toward the table he lets out a yell; a primal processing of sorts. He is directed to wash his hands and sit, but standing on a chair and precariously bouncing on it before running outside and chasing a boy on a bike is what he ends up doing instead. Sitting down and following directions would be too normal and serene for a boy in such a tumultuous interior state. After eating dinner several more primal yells ensue, then for a while things are calm again.

Bedtime nears, and I begin to feel a nervous energy welling up inside of me. I have worked with Drew for a year, day in and day out. Earlier that day I had written him a card which I planned to give him that night at his “tuck in.” The last letter I had written to a client I felt this close to I had filled both sides, trying desperately to sum up all he had meant to me and all the key points of the work we had done together. It wasn’t until after I had given it to him that it became clear to me that no amount of pages could fully encapsulate all we had gone through together nor take away those painful edges of that final “goodbye.” This time I only filled one side of the card . . . it felt less frantic than before.

It is a quarter hour until bedtime and I am in the office planning an outing for the next day when the yelling and screaming start. Here goes I think to myself as I take a deep breath and leave the office to see what is happening. Drew is screaming at the staff for not doing their job. “You’re breaking the rules! You’re letting Jason lie on the couch, and we’re not allowed to do that! You’re playing favorites. I wish you were both fired! Do your fucking job!” I’m not fully aware of how the situation came to be, but seeing the tired boy on the couch watching a movie- the “culprit” of Drew’s problem- I think I might have an idea of how to end it. I pick up the remote, turned the TV off and say “alright, it’s bedtime.” The tired boy gets up from the couch and follows me down the stairs to his room. The screaming and yelling continue upstairs.

Look past the behavior to what’s really going on I keep reminding myself. He is letting out the primal yells again. I tell him to come with me to his room for our last tuck in. He is still too indignant at the numerous injustices we have committed against him. He grabs his baseball glove and starts looking for his baseball. That sounds like a bad idea I think to myself, snatching the glove from his hand and walking down the hall towards his room. He follows, knocking on each resident’s door and letting out a yell after each knock. It’s easier to leave when you know that no one will miss you. When he arrives at his door he takes a few haphazard swings at me. I sit down on his bed and wait. He begins picking up his stuffed animals and throwing them at my head- he throws hard, longing for impact, even for a reaction, yet his aim is extraordinarily bad, as if frightened of what the connection will set in motion. The animals are soft and having missed with all but the last one he “remembers” how to aim, and I “forget” how to dodge. He hits me in the head, and I get up to leave the room. As I move towards the door he physically tries to stop me. “Wait, Scott, I want you to tuck me in.” I’ve seen the look before; it’s genuinely sad and scared over the possibility of losing those few moments of connection he cherishes. But I can see that he is still unable to check in to what is in front of us. As I leave the room I tell him that it makes me sad that this is how we are to spend the last moments that we will ever see each other. It gets his attention, and he protests as I try to leave the room. “Wait!” he cries out, but he is still looking to hit, to hurt; I tell him I will come back when he has settled down a bit.

A couple minutes later he knocks on his door, “I need blankets.” I ask him which one he wants, “the orange one.” I tell him I will go get it, but he shouts back “No! I don’t want you to touch it! It’s special to me; I want to get it myself!” I tell him that I don’t feel comfortable with him getting it as he hadn’t shown he could behave just moments ago. He persists and promises to behave. I relent and we go down to get his blanket. This process is important to him, even if this is how it goes, stick with him I remind myself, frustrated and feeling that I cannot get through to him. He gets his blanket and begins walking up the stairs in front of me. He spits the entire way up the stairs- on the carpet, on the wall, anywhere he can. Then he lets out another yell. In the hallway he once again knocks on the other boys’ doors. I have an image in my head of someone walking away from a house they have just dowsed with gasoline, match in hand. It’s easier to leave when everything of value had been destroyed. There’s nothing to miss that way.  

Finally in his room, finally in his bed; I throw the blanket over him, get the card, and sit down on the bed. He is still noticeably agitated. He begins a rant about how awful I am: how I can’t do my job, how I always play favorites, how he hates me, and how I didn’t do anything to help what to him was a very awful situation. Don’t defend yourself; it won’t lead anywhere good I remind myself. It’s not quite that simple. After he lets up I say “it’s hard sometimes, huh?” This only sets him off more. “See you probably weren’t even listening!” Ah, he knows those distant responses too well- covers for inattentiveness and half listening. Only in this case it’s an attempt to avoid defending myself. “You mean you don’t think I’m listening right now?” I ask. “YES!” I feel that if I don’t make a subtle defense he will be able to hold on to this grudge the rest of the night.“So I didn’t do anything to help the situation?” “NO! You just walked over, grabbed the remote, and said ‘it’s bedtime.’” I was amused. “And what happened next?” “He got up and went to bed! But he wasn’t following the rules and you weren’t doing anything about it! You just stood there for 15 minutes before doing anything!” “But I turned off the TV as soon as I came out of the office; I walked straight to the remote.” In his need to fit me into the narrative that no one cared about him he had rewritten me in the story. In his mind I had stood there doing nothing for 15 minutes, when in fact I had been out of the office for less than a minute before handling the situation. He’s fighting hard to make you just another person who doesn’t care about him. “And right before I came out of the office do you know what I was doing?” I asked. “What.” “I was trying to find a way to register you guys for the Pokémon tournament tomorrow” (after coming out of the office I had informed the residents that the tournament wouldn’t work out, Drew had been devastated). I let some emotion into my voice and demeanor, “but I just couldn’t get all the passwords and codes I needed to do it. I tried, but I just couldn’t get them all.” His demeanor is changing. His eyes are pooling. “I’m really sorry, it sucks that it didn’t work out, I know you really wanted to go. You’re going through a lot right now, a whole lot.” I put my arm around his shoulders. He lets it stay there for a few moments before coldly shrugging it off.

I turn to face him, “I’m really going to miss you Drew” I say, with tears forming in my eyes. He breaks. Wailing and wailing. He leans against me and I put my arm around him. He continues to cry deeply, painfully. Tears now stream down my cheeks. He eventually manages to choke out a few words “I’m really gonna miss you too.” A new round of deep, painful wailing ensues. He leans in closer and I wrap my arm around him tighter. This child has experienced such painful loss, such traumatizing endings. And here I am, given the gift to walk with him, to quite literally hold him in this latest ending. He tries so hard to prevent this from happening, to burn this connection before its ending can be properly grieved. Yet here we are. Somehow we have stumbled upon mutual grief. It strikes me that every so often Drew looks up at me, as if to get a read on my emotional state. Seeing the tears dripping from my eyes he buries his head back into my chest and continues his deep cries. I imagine that if those tears did not fall from my face he would have made his best attempt to “straighten up”, to “act tough,” and “be a man,” and in so doing forever lose the chance to be held and cared for in grief as a child ought to be. Several minutes later I ask if I could get some tissues . . . for both of us. He nods.

I go out to the hallway, blow my nose, dab my eyes, and return with a tissue. “Scott, can we open the letter together?” he asks. “Sure, and would you like me to read it to you?” He nods, still teary eyed. He sits up next to me and I open the envelope. I begin reading. He fights back tears. I get to a line which reads “I’ll miss our ‘tuck ins,’ our epic Smash Bros. and Pokémon battles, your smile, and your catchphrases like ‘that’s messed up!’” and he starts wailing again. Choked up, I slowly make my way through the remainder of the letter, slowing down at my favorite part: “always remember that at your core you are a good kid, and that at every moment of your life you are completely capable of making good choices.”

Ten minutes later I finish tucking him in. For a moment the wailing subsides. I tell him I will miss him, to “hang in there,” and that he has a lot of courage for going through this. I shut the door and can hear him wailing once again. I have an urge to go back inside, but deep down know that like the past letter which could never have enough words; there were no amount of hugs or “goodbyes” that would take the painful edges off this goodbye. Ten minutes later Drew knocks on his door and asks to go to the bathroom. When he returns he asks for one last side hug. “How about a really big hug” I say with a grin. I wrap my arms around him a give a firm squeeze. “Bye Drew.”

I cannot be this boy’s parent. I cannot raise him to be a fine young man. I cannot help him nervously prepare for prom. I cannot teach him to drive. But I could play Pokémon cards with him. I could read to him before bed, I could let him in. And in sticking it through with him- through the badness, through the anger, through the pain, loss, and tears- undermine the too often convincing narrative that no one cares.