I am one of the fortunate people in this world. I am able to do what so many people yearn to do but cannot. I am able to live out the dual passions of my life, helping people connect with God and working with and on behalf of the children of the world. It is so much more personal these days than it ever was before. Fifteen years ago I was single, concerned about the children of the world, advocating as I could, but dismally unfulfilled by the gaps between my vocational life and the real world around me. There was only so much I could do then, but my personal quest to be engaged in socially just actions burned as hot then as it does now. What happens to children in our society matters. It always has, but these days it is much more personal, because the children of society have become my children.
Yesterday I spent the morning and early afternoon with parents being trained to work within the structures of our state's Department of Human Services to help others understand what it is like to parent children with emotional or mental challenges. After departing that meeting I stopped to see our fifteen-year-old daughter who is currently on day number ten of a thirty day evaluation program to assess her emotional and mental stability.
There was a time when she and I had meaningful conversations. When she was eleven and twelve she and her sister would sometimes accompany me to church-related overnight meetings, and it was a personal pleasure to introduce my beautiful, intelligent, full-of-potential daughters to friends and colleages engaged in ministry across the state. But then we moved to a new community. She was thirteen at the time of our move, and our new city has been disastrous for her. Claudia and I conjectured that the move would be diffcult, but we had no idea just how difficult it would be. Her attitude, demeanor and way of life have morphed into a creature none of us, including herself, recognizes. It has been frightening and guilt-producing. We moved because of my vocational life, and perhaps if we had stayed where we were a little longer things would have been better. Over the past eighteen months I have languished myself with those painful questions as I watched my daughter slipping away from us.
We have had little to say to each other as the gulf has widened progressively week after week, month after month. The past two months in particular have been excruciatingly wrenching ones, involving illegal activity on her part, her introduction to the criminal justice system and continuing feelings of parental malfeasance on my part. I have ached with indecision, wrought to the core by a pervasive sense of helplessness. I am fortunate to have a spouse who has taken the primary responsibility for our daughter during these days. I simply could not do it, especially after the difficulties two of our older sons have visited upon us during the past five years.
But yesterday I visited with our daughter in her evaluation program location. I wasn't sure what to expect. It has been so long since we have had any meaningful conversation that I was afraid. I was afraid to sit together in a room with nothing to say, the awkward silence bearing mute testimony to the sense of parental failure I have felt.
But there was little silence. The hour we spent together was filled with conversation that I didn't have to coerce, prod or manipulate. I relied in part upon the vocational skills I have learned over the years as a pastor, encouraging honesty by asking direct questions, offering little judgment in return, opening myself to whatever the Holy One would bring to pass. I must confess this is not my typical parental modality (I try to be a parent when I'm home, not a pastor), but perhaps it should be, based upon the health of yesterday's interaction.
She told me about how much she disliked her current placement, how the "wacko girls" there were "worse than *T* and *D* (her younger brothers she has always found, and rightfully so, obnoxious). She finds the staff cold, disinterested and crabby. "They never come to work with a smile on their face, Dad." So, in the midst of her verbal barrage (unlike her introverted self), I said, "Well, what are your options going to be at the end of the thirty days?"
"I guess to come home or to go into foster care." She went on to explain her feelings. While she didn't say it, I discern that her biggest concern with coming home is falling back into step with her former group of friends who have pulled her so dramaically away from everything she values. The only reason foster care sounds appealing is because she might have the chance to really start over.
"Well, Sal, you know that Mom and I love you. We don't want this kind of life for you, and I believe knowing you as I do that you are strong enough to decide which direction you are going to head. You are at a place in your life where there are two paths. You can choose the path to destruction, or you can choose the path that will give you the life you really want." (Neither she nor I recognized at the moment the biblical source of that statement).
She nodded her head. "Yeah. The friends I have been hanging out with only care about drinking and sex." She went on to describe several situations in which she had found herself scared for her personal safety. After describing the pathetic lives she had been witnessing ... the drunken arguments, the promiscuous behaviors, the threatening episodes, I said, gently but as clearly as I could. "You know, Salinda, that's the kind of life your birth mom had. It's the reason you and your brother and sister couldn't live with her. Is that the kind of life you want to repeat?"
Her large brown eyes wincing in grief, she said, "No. Not at all."
"Think about five years from now, Sal. In five years what will your current friends be doing?"
"They'll still be living in dumpy mobile homes, getting drunk and high and getting pregnant."
I waited for her to continue thinking, and then I said, "In five years what will you be doing?"
"Going to college, getting an education, having a life."
"Exactly right. But you have to make that choice now, you have to choose that path before you're too far down the other one and it's too hard to turn back."
"I know, Dad." No hostility, no sarcasm, no exasperation. Humble, honest recognition of her plight and opportunity.
"These have been hard months, I know. I feel bad that we had to move at a time that has been so difficult for you, because I know you had things pretty good in [the town we used to live in]. You had good friends, you were in a school close to our home, we knew lots of people in town. But, really, even if we had stayed some of the people you knew there might have very well done some of the things your current friends are doing. People sometimes change, even in small towns where you know everybody."
I was expecting her to argue the point. Instead she said, "Dad, I'm not sure I would want to live [there] any more, anyway. When we were there (this is the town where she and her friend ran to several weeks ago before they were picked up by law enforcement) I couldn't believe how small it is. There's nothing to do there." While I was not happy that she felt negatively about our previous community, I was grateful that in her mind, at least, it is not an idyll to pursue in the future.
Using my best vocational skills and a few parental ones, I reminded her that she has the opportunity to do many things in her life, but that she is at the age where she will have to make those choices. We, her parents, can longer choose for her what she will do or what she will become. We will support her, and encourage her and remind her of who she is, but we cannot choose how she will live.
The hour had passed quickly. There was no animosity, no antagonism, no rancor.
She understands the stakes are high. She knows that her Mom and Dad love her and believe she can reclaim her forgotten self. The future looks good. But the choice is hers.