Saturday, December 15, 2007

Things You Learn on the Way to the Mall at Christmastime

I agreed to take our sons Tony (12) and Napoleon (12) to the mall after lunch today. I had a gift certificate to a cooking store (a nice gift given to me by our church staff), Tony needed to get wrestling shoes, and Leon was shopping for Ricardo's birthday, which we would celebrate tonight. Within a mile of the mall I knew it would be difficult. Traffic was backed up and moving slowly. As we edged our way closer and closer to the mall which is an economic center for the surrounding fifty miles, we began to pursue a parking spot. We drove all the way around to the back of the mall first, in an ill-fated attempt to find a space, any space. There were absolutely no spaces. Not one, and with each lane surveilled by anywhere from two to six vehicles searching for a spot, I knew our efforts would only frustrate me further. We roared around to the front of the mall, where I was about ready to give up and drive home when we spotted about five spots in close proximity to one another. They were at the very furthest stretch away from the mall entrance, but we zoomed into a spot and got out to begin the trek toward the mall. It was filled with holiday shoppers, most of whom looked at harried as I felt in my first steps into this capitol of capitalism.

Tony and Leon went to the sports store to look for their items with strict instructions from me not to leave the store, but to wait for me, where I would find them after completing my two tasks (both of which took me to the opposite end of the mall). In what must have been forty-five minutes later I slogged into the sporting goods store with three bags in my hands. Dragging near the floor I felt like some reincarnation of Neanderthal man.

Fortunately, however, both sons were where they were supposed to be, and each had already found what they needed. I didn't need to help find shoes, so we made our way to check out and pay for our goods. I agreed to purchase each of them a drink, so they settled for Coke products and we walked back to our car in the single digit temperatures.

Driving away from the mall we were discussing someone's drink preferences. Tony was jabbering on and on about Coke when Leon, in the back seat, said, "Are you talking about Coke or cocaine?" "Coke," both Tony and I chimed in at the same time, whereupon ensued a discussion about how to ingest the illegal substance.

Believing that forthrightness is always the best policy with children, especially when they are old enough to understand the topic at hand, I informed them that cocaine actually comes in several forms and is ingested in different ways. My knowledge of illegal drugs is only secondhand, but I believe myself to be a fairly well informed adult and parent. I mentioned to them that cocaine is most often found in a powder form which is snorted, but sometimes it is also in a hard substance, like a rock, which is called "crack."

It was at this point that Tony and Leon began discussing the subject in greater detail, and I just listened. From the time we knew about Leon and Wilson we were aware that the foundational issue that prevented them from living with birth parents was the incessant drug use. Birth dad is currently in prison for selling illegal drugs and birth mom has spent time in prison for the same kind of violations. While I have been aware of the details, I have not been clear as to how much either Napoleon or Wilson have known about it, but after the discussion in the car I now know. It went something like this.

"So, what's it called when it's put in that glass bong and stuff?" Napoleon asked.

Tony answered, but his response did not suffice.

"No, not that. [He went on for several more descriptive sentences, which I will not bother to type here]. I think my [birth] mom called it 'ice.'"

From the way he described the object and the compositions of the substance itself, it was obvious to me that this is a kid who has not only heard about drug use, but has seen more than any child his age should have seen and even discussed it with his birth mom.

I'm not sure exactly what I think about that. Well, that's not entirely true. I know what I think about it. I think it's vile, reprehensible, profoundly sad that any kid (especially one is now 12 and has been in foster care for at least two years) would have that much firsthand knowledge. It is sobering (no pun intended) to hear the way he recounted this awareness, because it was neither rejection of illegal drug use nor was it opposition to the use of such substances. It was the dispassionate, factual recounting of something that had been such a regular part of life that leaves me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It is never my job to judge the lives of birth parents (and we have a consistent policy in our family of using respectful language when talking about birth parents), but the early lives of the children I now call mine have been so different from my own that it's more than a little disconcerting.

My only hope is that having seen the "other side" my kids will decide that what they experience in our family is more life-giving and offers more hope than the dead-end living they witnessed earlier in life. We can show them the way, but they will have to choose their path.

It's funny the things you learn on the way to the mall at Christmastime.

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