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Forever Never Home - A Peril of Foster Care

Last week the author wrote about his almost seven years in a foster home and the sounds that brought him back to that time. A little-discussed aspect of foster care is the impact on a child when its time to go ... home.

It was an ordinary Sunday morning. The sunlight shown though the windows of the bedroom I shared with my 7-year-old sister, Joanne.

The two of us were already playing with our toys and getting ready to go downstairs for breakfast. She was my best friend, my buddy, and for the almost seven early years of my life, the person in this world with whom I was closest.  

I loved her as only a child can love another child who is his blood. She really wasn't, of course, but at that age who knows what foster care means.

Joanne and the rest of the Forte clan on 17th Street in Park Slope were my family, complete with a mom, a dad, an older brother and another, older, sister. The only difference between me and other kids was that I had another mother. When I would ask about that, the answer was always the same: "Yes, you have two mothers."

That is what they told me and that is what I believed, yet each one felt different. 

My biological mother visited me every Friday and I went to visit her every once and awhile on a Sunday. I knew she was my real mother in ways I cannot now explain. 

I longed for her, knew her scent and was always sad that she didn't want me. I so very much wanted to be with her. That sense of abandonment co-existed with having a loving family on 17th Street. I wanted them both.

On that sunny Sunday morning, my foster father, John, and another man—I have since been told he was my uncle on my biological mother's side—entered the bedroom and stopped Joanne and me in our toy-playing tracks to announce that I was going home. 

I wasn't sure if they meant for the day or what. My toys were hastily packed, my clothes were gathered and everything  placed in our—John's—1953 Plymouth.  It was the same Plymouth we rode in every Christmas Eve to look at lights and where I played on the back window sill. 

I still remember the sail ship displayed on that old dashboard and the silver radio knobs beneath it.

As a came to realize that I was really leaving to live with my real mother, I  remembered an old wooden boat that I kept in the basement and started to cry. My tears were more for what was happening than the boat itself.

Nonetheless, the two men turned over the place to find it. We never did. I dreamed about looking for that boat well into adulthood. 

We drove away, oddly, without me saying goodbye to the woman who had raised me.

I would never again return to 17th Street or that family.

I missed them horribly over the years. But I also worried that if I went back they would not let me leave again. What does a child know? 

I was less than a mile away, but in my soul I may as well have been in China. What I did know is that wherever I was, both before and after that Sunday, I was always longing for the other place—my first mother here, my other mother, family and little sister there. 

To this day, wherever I am, I always feel like I should be someplace else.  

I accepted the sadness as a basic fact of an unworthy life. To say I suffered from poor self-esteem would imply that I thought my person was entitled to any. I was simply sure, as is the omega dog, of my bottom status in the pack of life.

Life goes on, and it is amazing how adaptable we humans really are. I went on  eventually to establish a wonderful relationship with my real mother, determine my real name among three choices and learned to know and love another—my biological—family. 

I settled into a decent life of sports, school and work, only later to pay the price for an awkward childhood. That for another day.

It was almost 40 years later when I heard that my foster mother had died. As I headed toward the open casket in the dimly lit chapel, the body of the deceased came into view as did the figure of a middle-aged woman who was standing by the kneeler greeting visitors. 

As I got closer the face of the 40-something woman, who was now looking directly at me, clarified. We stared at one another in disbelief. Her faced changed to the little 7-year-old girl I left on that Sunday a long time ago. 

Feelings that I never remembered came flooding back: love, joy, pain and sorrow—all now fully recalled and experienced. We hugged and cried like the two little children we still were to each other.

Later that night, Joanne explained why my foster mother, Mary, never said goodbye.   

"My mother was heartbroken," she said. "She tried to keep you through reasoning with your mother, the courts, anything," she continued, "you were her little boy and you were being taken from her, that's why your real mother kept you away." 

I noted that my mom used to tell me later on when I was older that I should visit, though I never did. She ended by telling me that both behaved badly at the end. 

Joanne and I concluded, though, that they did the best they could. I made out OK.

I still wonder to this day where that damn boat is.

Joseph McNelis,M.D. April 15, 2011 at 01:58 AM
Dear Bob, This is some magnificent writing.Please save a spot for me on line at your book signing.-Joseph McNelis
Bob Marrone April 15, 2011 at 02:29 AM
Thank you for the feedback. This is as good a time as any to mention, for the first time publicly, that I am indeed writing a book that necessarily touches on these aspects of my childhood. It is about the broader issue of my bout with serious depression and how it shaped the rest of my life. The workng title is "There are no Guarantees." I am...was...most fortunate to have a great doctor, an infant daughter and other motvations to want to live. I have read just about every book on the subject over the years, and few...save for parts of William Styron's Darkness Visable...have captured the true horror of it, nor have they covered the apprecation and love of life that can be had from getting through it. When you have it no one seems to be able to relate your experience. I hope my book will do that for people. I have waited 30 years to find my voice for it and, indeed, some of these columns have been a prelude. Again, thanks for yuor kindness.

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