My daughter Sophie was sitting next to my son at breakfast one morning when she asked: “Who do love more daddy, me or Stephen?”
“I love you both the same” I answered.
“No but really who do you love more?” she persisted.
“It’s like this Soph. What if I asked you who you love more-me or mommy?” I instructed.
“Oh that’s easy” she said without missing a beat. “I love mommy more.”
Stephen perked up.
“Yeah. That’s easy. Mommy” he added.
We still laugh at that story but I hope they have come to learn what I now know. Love really can’t be measured or compared. Once it makes it’s way to your soul it is immutable, especially among family. As I get older I mean family in a broader sense than I ever thought possible.
In early 2003 I started volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). CASA is an organization that places adults with abused children as they navigate the court system. After consulting with my wife and kids, I decided to give it a try.
My first assignment was a 5 year old boy who was found on the side of a road wearing threadbare clothes in frigid temperatures. The CPS worker described his living conditions as “deplorable” and “beyond words.” Live pet snakes were allowed to slither around the house. There was clutter and filth everywhere. I quickly realized it is one thing to learn about these children in a lecture, it’s another thing altogether to see the physical and emotional imprints of abuse.
I wasn’t much help. Neither were the courts. This child needed intense therapy.
My second case was a beautiful baby girl who was removed from the custody of her meth-addicted mom. Some wonderful, worn-out grandparents stepped into the uncertain fray.
I started to question whether I was cut out for the job. My next assignment-a brother (age 13) and sister (age 15) – were on their second removal from their home and living in a temporary group home. One warm Spring afternoon I drove over to meet them. We sat at a picnic table under a large elm tree in a barren yard. I tried to engage them together, then individually, with humor, with cajoling, with stories, with rambling, nonsensical monologues.
When I asked brother how he liked his new school-his fourth that year- he said he hated it. He was so alone. An hour later I left the group home, got in my car and drove away. Two blocks down I pulled to the curb because I couldn’t see through my tears.
We were lost. All of us.
The next week, and for several ensuing weeks, I continued to visit. I attended the court hearings where a collection of strangers weighed the bleak alternatives that await unwanted adolescents. It was a long slog.
The more time I spent with my two charges, the more I realized how little they wanted me to talk or ask questions. So I finally just shut up. That was it. They wanted me to listen. And to not just listen, but to listen without judgment or criticism or advice.
Finally a placement was made. The brother went to another group home; the sister to a foster home. Their case was over.
But something kept gnawing at my conscience. I decided to continue to make periodic visits to both of them. After a few years the sister moved to Washington and I lost contact with her.
I still keep up with the brother. Every month we get together for lunch, or I’ll go visit him at work or school. We talk about everything: girls, school, careers, God, beaches, racism, philosophy, cars, white people, sports, haircuts. I consider him one of my greatest blessings. My family thinks of him as family. When he graduated from high school, his CPS case worker and I were his only family in attendance.
No one is going to make a Sandra Bullock movie about his life. Alas, he’ll never play in the NFL. It’s not really an extraordinary tale to anyone-except me.
Last September 4, I texted my friend to wish him a “Happy Birthday.” He texted back: “Thank you Mr. Tim for being a mentor and father figure to me for the past 10 years. My successes in life couldn’t have been possible without your guidance and love.”
I hope I can convey this to you without it sounding like some bullshit false modesty or some wretched, disingenuous humblebrag because it is absolutely true. My friend taught me more than I could ever teach him. About strength; and faith; and the fundamental goodness of people; and forgiveness; and the foolishness of stereotypes; and how to carry on in spite of the willful ignorance of a few; and how to heal; and how to live life in the full spectrum between loss and love.
A week from Friday my friend will graduate from college. And I’ll be there to cheer him on. Proudly. In the family section.