This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on March 22, 2020.
When I hear Bernie Sanders say we need “Medicare for all,” I don’t understand his reasoning. Medicare wasn’t designed for “all.” It was designed for a particular group of Americans who paid into the system first, and then collected benefits later. Loading the system with millions more Americans who have not paid into the system distorts the model.
Medicare has worked as it was designed to work for fifty-four years. It is an earned benefit, meaning that the people who paid into it during their working years were able to get a return on their investment after they retired and began receiving benefits. From the beginning, it had cost-sharing: a first day deductible for the hospital insurance (Part A) and a 20% co-pay for Medical insurance (Part B). There is a monthly premium for Part B that is deducted from beneficiaries’ Social Security check.
From my first job at the Ohio Bell telephone company in Findlay, Ohio as a telephone operator in 1968, money was withheld from my paycheck to pay for Social Security and Medicare. It was called a payroll tax. Money was taken from my paycheck for the next 49 years until I retired and started receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits.
In 1996 I became Manager of the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP), a program of the California Department of Aging, and worked for the next six years with Medicare. I helped people figure out their medical bills, helped them determine how much Medicare paid, explained how HMO’s worked with Medicare, and educated beneficiaries on the constant changes and adjustments in Medicare law. Overall, the system worked.
Politicians who imply that government bureaucrats sit in the basement of the White House and deny claims are wrong. Medicare claims are processed by insurance companies who contract with Medicare to pay claims. Coverage issues are decided by Congress. Fellow HICAP advocates and I met with now-retired Congressman Henry Waxman to discuss doctors who charged Medicare beneficiaries to process claims. We didn’t think that was right and neither did the Congressman. About eighteen months later, it was prohibited by law.
When Bernie says: “No copays, no deductibles, no premiums!” I cringe. That’s not Medicare! He wants to take an idea with a proven track record, a strong foundation and clear goals and squeeze it into a one-size-fits-all. It won’t work.
What he doesn’t say is that taxes will go up to pay for all this largess. President Obama proposed and Congress passed a health insurance bill that was designed for people who are working but don’t have insurance from their employer. The Republicans have been trying to repeal it and attack it in any way they can since it passed.
If you think Bernie can put together Medicare for All, I have a bridge to sell you.
During the Democratic debates I got very frustrated and bored with the extended discussions of the candidates about their respective Medicare for All or Medicare for Those Who Want It or Medicare on a Post-It Note. Joe Biden was the only one who stood up for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Nobody else came to the defense of a law that has been defending itself from the onslaught of Republicans who want it gone, and Trump, who wants it gone out of spite.
The ACA has insured millions of working Americans who do not have insurance through their employers. Despite continuing efforts by the Republicans to kill it, the ACA has survived. Let’s elect politicians who will build on that and leave Medicare to do what it does best.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on March 29, 2020.
What do you say when your dad tells you he doesn’t want to live like this anymore? It’s a moment I clearly recall even though it was almost twenty years ago. I can still see exhausted, emaciated Dad sitting in a plaid cotton robe in his Medicare lift chair. He wore big block sunglasses due to an eye condition that made his eyes jiggle like jumping beans.
Though his eyes were concealed, I heard the vulnerability and anguish in his voice. He was asking for help. I froze. Dad had been constantly sick for the past two years. He was almost blind and couldn’t see the television or his computer screen. He couldn’t do fix-it jobs around the house or work in the yard, activities that had kept him busy since he had retired. My parents had reluctantly sold their home and moved into a retirement community.
Then Dad got the diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with a terrible prognosis: four weeks to live, without treatment. The oncologist recommended radiation therapy. After the third week, Dad was too weak to take more radiation and was sent from the oncology clinic to the hospital in an ambulance.
When I think of the three grueling weeks of radiation that my father went through, I deeply regret that I didn’t have the courage to help him when he told me he didn’t want to live like this anymore. I had been Manager of the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP) and knew the Medicare Hospice benefit well.
I should have told Dad how hospice provides comfort care for terminally ill people. I should have told him he could go home and live in peace for the time he had remaining. He might have chosen to have the radiation anyway, but at least he would have known the alternative. But he had always been an authority figure and I simply couldn’t get the words out of my mouth.
When I was growing up Dad was the boss of Mom and all the kids and no one questioned his authority. Family patterns are deeply entrenched and topics like death are pretty near impossible to discuss. How could I, his daughter, talk to him about the fact that he was dying and was headed for a painful death, probably in the ICU?
I called his physician, Dr. Archer, and asked him to help us talk to Dad. I told him my father was a straight talker and not to sugar coat it. He told my dad, in the most compassionate way, that he considered guys like him terminal. When Dr. Archer spoke those words, it felt like the world stopped revolving.
Dad was quiet. Dr. Archer waited for him to speak. Then Dad said that he’d had a good long life and was grateful. From that moment on, with the help of the hospice team, my sister and I took our father home and cared for him until he passed peacefully in his sleep, twenty-nine days later. We made the best of those last days of his life and they were some of the most richly lived of his 80 years on earth.
As COVID19 spreads in California there are frail elderly people in nursing homes, or still living in their own homes, who have one or more chronic diseases, and perhaps painful injuries that are still healing. They may feel like my dad did, but they can’t bring themselves to say it to their adult children.
Most people don’t know anything about hospice care and if they do, they dismiss it as “giving up.” If an honest, loving conversation doesn’t take place, thousands of people will contract the virus and end up on a ventilator, more miserable than ever and unlikely to survive.
Go to medicare.gov and put “hospice” in the search box. And most people are aware of Advance Directives but haven’t gotten around to filling one out. You can download a form at the Attorney General’s website oag.ca.gov. There is another type written in less legal, more narrative language called Five Wishes. You can download a form at fivewishes.org. They are the same legally binding documents; they just use different styles. Do it today.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on January 5, 2020.
Like most people, I like the concept of reading poetry but don’t have the patience to read it like it should be read – slowly, thoughtfully, seeking meaning, blah, blah blah.
That attitude doesn’t reflect well on me, especially as a writer, but we are now living in a world of sound bites, tweets (God help us) and texts. I’m even less likely to read poetry now that my attention span has been corroded by the culture in which I live.
In spite of all that, I have had a poem by Robert Frost on my bulletin board for thirty years. The title is “Reluctance” and I’ve memorized the last stanza, which is six beautifully crafted sentences that bring comfort to me in times of loss, especially during this season of celebration that can be as melancholy as it is joyous.
I had a holiday tradition that came to an end suddenly and the loss bears down on me this holiday season. When I was about ten years old, my uncle sent us a gingerbread house for Christmas. We hardly knew this uncle and it was the only time he gave our family a gift, so it was quite a surprise. Mom wouldn’t let us eat it until after Christmas.
Finally, December 26 arrived and all five of us kids dove into the house. Much to our dismay the gingerbread was as hard as a rock and was so stale that none of us could eat it. The next year Mom and I decided to make our own gingerbread house and failed miserably. We used a sugar cookie recipe, and the cookie crumbled. We had no idea what kind of frosting to use to glue the house together. We gave up.
After I grew up and started a family of my own I tried again to make gingerbread houses. I used gingerbread dough, which didn’t crumble, and discovered meringue that dries powdered sugar as hard as a rock. My tradition was born.
I became known for my gingerbread houses. I always took one to work and my coworkers waited for the day when I walked through the door with the gingerbread house. They followed me to the break room and dug right in.
One year one of my coworkers asked if I would teach her how to make a gingerbread house. I knew she had been born to a fourteen-year-old mother who didn’t teach her how to bake as my mom had. The next year I invited her and her six-year-old daughter, along with other staff members and their young daughters, to a decorating party at my
Many years later most of us had moved on to other jobs and my friends’ daughters were in college, but we still gathered on the second Saturday in December to decorate gingerbread houses together. My tradition had become their tradition.
Two years ago, one friend moved to Arkansas and another to Oklahoma. Last year on October 30 I had a big surgery, an anterior cervical discectomy, and had to cancel my gingerbread decorating day. At this point, there were only a few people left in the group, moms and daughters that I had added a few years ago.
When I sent my save-the-date notice to my gingerbread friends this year, one confirmed and the other two had scheduling conflicts. A few days before decorating day the remaining girl let me know that her team got into the soccer playoffs and she had a game scheduled for the second Saturday in December. My golden group of dear friends, whose daughters I had watched grow into beautiful young women, were gone.
Back to Robert Frost. The fourth stanza of “Reluctance” goes like this: “Ah, when to the heart of man/Was it ever less than a treason/To go with the drift of things,/To yield with a grace to reason,/And bow and accept the end/Of a love or a season?”
Frost put the last stanza in the form of a question. He is asking why the heart of man can’t accept change to the extent that it feels like treason. When something I love ends, it is monumentally hard to accept. My friends moved on, and their daughters grew up. I search for the grace to yield to the passage of time. If I bow as I accept the end of a love or a season, I honor the cherished memories that will always remain. None of this is easy but Frost’s words bring comfort.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on October 27, 2019.
The collision was inevitable, considering where we were. Two fleet-footed children were running fast and hard and smacked together, head-on.
“Damn,” I said to myself. I walked quickly over to my eight-year-old granddaughter and the little boy she collided with. He was crying. My granddaughter was shocked but unhurt. The boy looked to be about four-years-old. He wasn’t bleeding so I relaxed a little.
We were in one of those kiddie-climbing gyms that are very popular these days. They are childhood fantasyland – a place to climb, slide, jump, and scream in delight. It is a shock to the senses for adults, but the payoff is that parents can bring their laptop and work while their children play - if they can tolerate the noise level.
The screams of joy and abandon rise up to the three-story ceiling where the kids climb up stairways covered in padding in bright primary colors that have netting on both sides. Then they then slide down on one of a variety of slides. Or they can stay up top and pummel the kids below with multi-colored soft foam balls. It is perfectly safe fun but no one can prevent collisions of the kind my granddaughter and the other child got into.
Both of us comforted the boy, but he continued to cry. He directed us to his daddy and we both expressed regret to him and my granddaughter apologized profusely. It wasn’t all her fault, but she felt bad because she was so much bigger than the boy.
I was greatly relieved when the boy’s father remained calm, listened to both of us and understood that no harm was meant to his son. My granddaughter still felt terrible so we sat together for a while until she was ready to get up and run around again.
About ten minutes later the boy and his father approached my granddaughter and I joined them. The father said the boy was sorry too and the look on his little face told me that he and his dad had had a talk. The boy accepted responsibility for his part in the collision and apologized too, thus relieving my granddaughter of some guilt.
But the drama was not over. My granddaughter had a piece of costume jewelry, a pendant about the size of a quarter with a greenish stone. It was very special to her and I suggested that she take it off when playing but she insisted on wearing it and I didn’t argue.
She came up to me with tears in her eyes and said the pendant was missing. “Damn,” I said to myself. We looked and looked and asked the attendants if it had been turned in. One told me that a lot of children just keep items like that.
My granddaughter had made a friend, who helped look, as did her grandpa and me. But there was no way either my husband or I could climb up those padded steps that were designed for little feet and supple bodies, not the creaky bodies of grandparents who are approaching age seventy.
Then I saw the father of the boy who had collided with my granddaughter, entering the climbing cage, looking for the pendant. He was at least forty years younger than us and I was so grateful that he could see our predicament and was moved to help.
Someone actually turned in the pendant and my granddaughter was delighted. It seems practically everyone in the place was looking for it and someone found it in the bouncy house. We had found the proverbial needle in a haystack.
The boy’s father and I guided two children through a mishap with mutual acceptance of responsibility and civility. I was grateful to a man who could have been unpleasant about my granddaughter’s collision with his son, but taught him to be kind instead. Then he went above and beyond to help us out when he saw we needed it.
So why is this story appearing on the OP/ED page of this newspaper? In this time of deep dissension, raging insensitivity and incivility, it is worth mentioning. We Americans must remind ourselves that these encounters happen a million times a day throughout our country. This story is a pleasant reminder of what a great country we live in, filled with people of good will and warm hearts, who teach their children well.
This piece was published in the San Gabriel Tribune on May 1, 2005.
I belong to a generation of women who broke new ground. We entered law school and medical school in large numbers. We ran for office and won. We got jobs in male-dominated professions. We achieved goals our mothers dared not dream. We were proud and we were strong.
We demanded to be judged by our intellect, not our looks. We took our daughters to work and taught our sons to cook. In just one generation, many of us head corporations, serve at the highest levels of government and are well represented in the legal and medical professions. We have achieved what we set out to do.
Most often when I talk to women my age (50-somethings), we don’t talk about our achievements but about how old we look. I listen to long and loud laments about what the aging process has done to our bodies. We talk about wrinkle creams, exercises for “problem” areas and our terror at being seen in a bathing suit. It seems that as we aged, we took the focus off our brains and placed it back on our bodies – the ones we took for granted in our youth that now seem to be the centerpiece of our self-esteem.
Are we just “girls” at heart – focused first and foremost on our looks as we watch them fade and change in unflattering (we think) ways?
A woman whose son said she “looked like Grandma” was horrified. Why would she not look like her mother as she got older? And even if she did, what’s wrong with that? Had her son told his dad he “looked like Grandpa,” I suspect her husband wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
Growing older gracefully in a youth-obsessed culture could be as big a challenge for my generation of women as competing in a male-dominated world was forty years ago. In this case, we have met the enemy, and it is us. We are the ones who obsess over every pound, stare at the wrinkles, consider a facelift (or maybe just an eye tuck) and try to find clothes that will conceal the inevitable forces of gravity.
It is hard for me to believe that women who had the guts to enter a profession in which they were the only female cannot face an aging body with dignity and style.
My generation showed our daughters that they can do anything they want with their life – except grow old. That, we are teaching them, they must face with dread and shame. What a sad footnote to a brave generation of women.
We claimed the right to use our brains and to be judged by our abilities, and we succeeded. We grew in wisdom and experience as our bodies grew softer and shorter – a natural function of aging. Men are not the ones withholding from us the right to age gracefully and gratefully. The resistance comes from within, not without.
A woman I know recently received a gorgeous bouquet of red roses from her husband for her birthday. Several of us gathered to admire the beautiful bouquet. One woman asked the birthday girl how old she was. She lowered her head and whispered, “fifty-five.” Our group response: “Hey, you don’t look that old.” We quickly reassured her that she didn’t look a day over forty-five.
Never mind that she had a devoted husband, a great job, a beautiful home and three successful and happy kids. Oh, no, we all implied by our tone and our comments – you are old and that fact outweighs all the great things you have accomplished in your fifty-five years.
We have to get over this.
Let’s claim this right to grow old without apologies and regret. Let’s share the wisdom the wrinkles reveal. Let’s look as good as we can, not as young as we can. Let’s cross this self-imposed barrier with our own moxie and style.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on February 6, 2000.
I work in a family-friendly office. My fellow employees and I will stop what we are doing to admire a newborn baby, a three-year-old niece or a child home from college. We can show off our progeny with immunity.
Lucky for us, our boss knows that spending a few minutes gushing over a child is time well spent. We don’t have to hide our pride in our families because it doesn’t diminish our dedication to our work.
One day last week, a coworker walked through the office, introducing her long-lost daughter to her fellow staffers. Most of us knew the story. Our coworker had become pregnant when she was in her late teens, brought the baby to term and surrendered her daughter to an adoptive couple who raised her with love and care.
The long-lost daughter was born after Roe v Wade became the law of the land. My coworker had a choice in the matter and chose to give the crisis pregnancy an opportunity to live.
When she introduced her daughter to me, I felt pride and the mother-daughter connection, with a difference. I was well acquainted with her other daughter, born five years later within the bonds of marriage. The love was there for both girls; the connection was different.
I felt free enough to ask the mother and long-lost daughter to stand together as I observed the family resemblance. They willingly agreed and locked arms, hamming it up. There was a physical resemblance. There was a tiny link between the two but not much. After all, they were strangers.
As I watched the two women strike a pose, I tried to understand the pain my coworker must have felt as she made the decision to bear the difficult months of pregnancy, the physical agony of childbirth and the lifelong pain of separation from her child.
The two were smiling broadly as they posed for me while I looked for a family resemblance. I saw it loud and clear. The mother gave life and the daughter lived it. The mother was too young and unprepared to raise her baby, but she didn’t shy away. She did the right thing.
I’ve always known about adoption and heard numerous stories about biological parent reunions with their biological children. Until that moment I had never really stood face to face with the miracle of adoption.
Adoption takes a loss and makes it a gain. Adoption solves problems for people at opposite ends of a terrible spectrum, who may never meet, but meet each other’s needs.
A very young woman gambled and lost in her search for love. A sad and frustrated couple gambled and lost in the search for fertility. The birth mother did not let her child lose the opportunity to have a family.
That is what biological mothers and adoptive parents know when they make the precious exchange. Both have traded disillusionment for hope, despair for joy and a solution to a mutual problem.
As the long-lost daughter left the office and things returned to normal, I was left with warm and wonderful thoughts about adoption. How rare in life it is when a wrong can become a right. In the case of adoption, it can truly happen.
The birth mother can place her baby in the loving hands of a family and continue on her journey to adulthood. The adoptive parents can fill the hole in their hearts with a tiny bundle in need of love.
I cannot know the thoughts of my coworker as she went back to work after her long-lost daughter left. Surely here feelings of pride are tempered by regret, her feelings of love diminished by distance and surrender.
At the heart of it, she must know she did the right thing for her daughter’s family. She gave the most precious thing a mother can give her child, a family of her own.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on May 17, 2006.
When I tell people I “lost my job,” I get a sympathetic look and an expression of
concern. The word “lost” is a euphemism that is designed to soften really bad news, like death. It is appropriate for death, but not for a job. It doesn’t ring true for a job. A job is just a job – until you lose it.
I know how to get to the office, I know where my desk is and how to turn on my computer. I know where the bathrooms are and I know how to sign in – and out. Losing something implies that we can’t find it. I was told, in quite surreptitious ways, to get lost.
After almost ten years at the same job, I got the boot. Getting the “boot” seems more appropriate than “lost.” I’ve heard about people who got the boot, right before they were to retire, and lost their pension. I know about down sizing and massive lay-offs. I used to think those people should have seen the writing on the wall, that they should have done something before they lost their jobs. Then I found out that sometimes the writing on the wall is written in invisible ink, and you just can’t see it – until you are shown to the door.
My ouster (also better than lost) was preceded by a process that I naively believed was “change management.” I stood with my little break-out group, in front of a flip chart, armed with several felt tip markers, during our change management training. Buzz words like: “opportunities” and “challenges” were flying around the room. We thought outside-the-box as hard as we could, but no one answered the question in all our minds: will we still have a job when all of this is over?
Another part of the change management training was designed to teach us to relax and to focus on the positive things in life. The trainer asked each of us to share a happy moment that had happened in the last 24 hours. A pregnant woman said she felt her baby kick, a man described a tender moment with his mom. Everyone laughed when I said I was grateful that I finally found a plumber who fixed the leak in my toilet. I should have known then that the final laugh would be on me.
After we were trained-for-change we got the new “org” chart – a flow chart with tiny boxes cascading down the page, all linked together to describe the chain of command (no, I am not in the military). Some people panicked when they saw that their jobs were no longer on the chart. Others gasped when they saw who would be their new supervisor. My job was still on the chart, but another department was added. Not to worry, I told myself - I’m still a contender.
Then I was told I had to apply for my “new” job and that the boss was recruiting “outside” (code: younger) candidates to compete against me. My boss asked me for the web address of a professional organization I belong to, so she could post my job on their site. Perhaps the handwriting on the wall wasn’t invisible after all, I just didn’t want to see it.
After the change training, the org chart, the boss’s request for help in advertising my job to competitors, and some other things that are not fit to print, I got the message. It was time to get out of Dodge. As with many of life’s unexpected surprises, this one turned out to be a change for the better.
Rather than becoming a casualty of change management, I have chosen to be liberated by it, and I count my blessings every day. First, there are the twice monthly checks from the Employment Development Department. Second, I have the opportunity to re-invent myself and start something new. Third, I know I did my best at my former job and left it in better shape than I found it. Fourth, I can sit at my computer and look for a new job. Last, but not least, I don’t have to wear pantyhose.
I was handed a great big lemon and, after I figured it out, made lemonade. I now manage my own changes, and know that I have a lot to look forward to. Since I lost my job, I have gained much more than I lost, and for that I am grateful.
This piece was published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles on November18, 2005
First, he told me that Jewish husbands are the best husbands because they “only cheat
a little.” He grinned up at me and I smiled back. At five feet eight inches tall, I am used to being taller than many men, but when I put my arm around my diminutive father-in-law, the top of his bald head barely reached my shoulder. Still, he stood as tall as any man I ever knew.
When my father-in-law, Jack Stein, congratulated me on converting to Judaism, he said, “don’t be ashamed.” That time he wasn’t kidding - he really meant it. His admonition made me sad, but also taught me more than any book or museum could teach about persecution, cruelty and hatred. I knew intellectually what I was in for, but Jack’s words hit me in my new Jewish gut – don’t be ashamed.
When I met my husband-to-be more than twenty-five years ago, I had no idea that I would gain not only a wonderful mate but an entire culture and religion that was more than five thousand years old. What I learned in my conversion class was thimble sized compared to what I soaked up by spending time with Jack and his friends. When I came into the family, Jack was part of a group of survivors who had been together since they arrived in Dallas after the war and raised their families together. What I learned from them is that being Jewish leaves one open to irrational hatred that no one can understand, much less explain. What Jews do, I learned, is survive.
One night I sat on the couch with Mrs. “red” Goldberg and Mrs. “black” Goldberg (so designated by the hair color of their respective husbands) and listened as they described the Nazi horrors inflicted on them and their families. They described their hardship without self-pity or bitterness but with a will to survive that didn’t have to be expressed specifically because it was infused in their words. They talked with gratitude about the life they had been able to build in this country.
Mrs. “black” Goldberg told me the Nazis liked to watch her husband, Herschel, run up a hill while carrying two soldiers, one under each arm. It amused them, and probably saved his life. Herschel was still a bulldog of a man who, well past retirement age, worked part time at a deli and was the source of day-old bagels for the group.
When Jack told me not to be ashamed of being Jewish he spoke volumes about what it is like to belong to this tribe. An unbreakable thread runs through it that has never been severed, in spite of the most evil attempts. By telling me not to be ashamed, Jack was telling me to be proud of my decision to become a Jew.
Jack taught by example to survive terror and pain and go on to live a good, long life surrounded by family and friends. Jack didn’t just survive, he chose to love life again. He teased the ladies and cheered for the Cowboys and hummed in the shower. I saw a gleam of triumph in his eyes, filled with tears, as he watched his granddaughter ordained as a rabbi.
We lost Jack five years ago this month, just before Thanksgiving. Last week, as we rose for the Kaddish, I gave thanks to God that Jack was part of my life and that he taught me to be a proud Jew. I could not have found a better teacher.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on December 7, 2003.
The baby boy squished banana chunks between his tiny fingers before he shoved them
in his mouth. He pointed to the banana peel and said, “ba-ba.” His foster mother
handed him a few more chunks. He looked at me, smiling at his great accomplishment.
Four little white teeth had emerged from his gums.
As I looked into his innocent eyes I marveled at how far “Raymond” had come in the
eight months since my sister became his foster mother, after his birth mother left him at a bus stop with a stranger and never came back. My sister’s was his sixth foster home. He cried constantly because he was battling a heroin addiction and alsosuffered from an anal fissure, ruptured ear drum and thrush.
His medical problems were treated and his tiny heart – one bereft of love – was filled. He learned how to laugh and play and gained the confidence to flirt with strangers like me.
My sister is a foster parent who specializes in babies from birth to one year. In the five years she has been fostering babies she has sent most of them to loving adoptive homes. The child welfare system mandates that babies go to their blood relatives – if they can find them. If no blood relatives are found, a baby becomes eligible for adoption by a certified adoptive family.
Prior to Raymond, my sister fostered another baby boy, “Travis,” for a year before he was available for adoption. She worked with his new parents to make the transition as comfortable as possible. The adoptive parents came to my sister’s house for dinner. A few days later they babysat while my sister and her husband went out for the evening.
Travis met his new parents for the first time on his own turf. He had a chance to get to know them while he sat in his own high chair. They fell in love with him immediately. Once he was comfortable, his new parents took Travis home to a fully furnished nursery, with tons of toys, a permanent Mom and Dad and a childhood full of love and attention from people with whom he did not share one drop of blood.
Raymond isn’t so lucky. His grandmother wants to raise him. She made this decision in spite of the promise made by Child Protective Services that Raymond’s adoptive parents would welcome his grandmother as part of their life – complete with pictures and visits. Couples that long for a child are willing to do what it takes to adopt a baby.
Raymond’s transition was not smooth. When his grandmother arrived, they went to a fast food restaurant. Amid the chaos of children and burgers and fries, Raymond was put in the arms of his blood relative. She stayed the weekend and then left. Life as Raymond knew it was over and this well-meaning stranger was now his guardian.
None of the myriad of professionals involved in Raymond’s case paid much attention to my sister’s concern about his placement with his grandma. Raymond’s psychiatric evaluation said that his transition should include preparation and association with the new family to transition his bonding, in light of his early trauma. If the transition was abrupt, he might just give up on bonding entirely. Child Protective Services had a “placement” and needed to move on – bonding be damned.
Just like Raymond, my sister was denied a smooth transition. Her voice, the one that knew Raymond best and cared about him the most, wasn’t heard.
As Richard Gelles, Dean of the Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work said, “We drive people out of the foster care system by giving them nothing other than a check and thank you very much, but by the way, if you complain, we’re taking the kid out”.
After she spent months nurturing a damaged child so he could once again trust adults, my sister was forced to betray his trust – in the interest of reunification. I looked at the pictures she took of him the day before he left, sitting in a grocery cart with a sad look. Everyone at the store knew he was a foster child and made a point to say hello and to give him a balloon or a hug.
A few years from now, will Raymond sit on the porch with his grandma and watch the other kids learn how to ride a bike with their Dads running along side, holding on till they get their balance? By the time he is learning to drive a car, will his grandmother be up to the harrowing experience of sitting next to him as he careens down the road, as all new drivers do? Will her blood tie to him replace all the things he will lose because he’ll never have a Mom and a Dad?
Because the child welfare system insists on family reunification, loving adoptive families won’t be able to provide the kind of home babies like Raymond so desperately need. Foster parents who want to care for a child until he can move to a permanent home, instead hand him over to a blood relative whose intentions may be good but whose actions hurt the child they claim as their own.
Until the child welfare system recognizes that the bond of love is more important that the bond of blood, loving foster parents will watch their tiny charges go off to homes that cannot give them what every child deserves – a Mom and a Dad of their own.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on February 2, 2002.
Each sixth-grader had to give a one-minute speech at the graduation ceremony. Although it terrified them, they had to do it to get out of elementary school. I watched with pride as my son delivered, with a shaky voice, the one-minute speech he had rehearsed for hours.
The teacher told the graduates to talk about their plans for the future, their goals and dreams. She wanted it summed up in one minute. I thought back to the day I had enrolled my son as a first-grader, six years ago. Recently remarried, I uprooted my two young children and moved them from Denver to Los Angeles. He took it hard.
He had left his very best buddy back in Denver and, being a loyal friend from a young age, did not want to make any new friends, much less a new best buddy. He took his time choosing a new friend. Every day I listened as he came home from school and told me what his day had been like and despaired when I heard no mention of a best buddy. Finally, in October he told me about his new friend.
From then on I heard about Danny every day. They were fast friends and I gave a prayer of thanksgiving.
We planned a Halloween party. Danny was first on the list. A few days before the party, his mother called and asked more than the usual mother hen questions. I wondered why but answered them so that my son’s new buddy could attend.
The friendship was sealed. It was always to be, but never played out. “Danny died,” my tearful son said when he arrived home that awful day in November. Who could believe it? Danny died on the playground after school.
He was playing too hard, running too fast and simply ran out of time. Danny had a heart condition, controlled, so his parents thought, with a pacemaker. That explained all the extra questions before the Halloween party.
I wrestled with the idea of taking a young child to a funeral. The decision was made for me when the family closed the attendance to immediate family only. We were left with loose ends but moved on. Six years later, my son was graduating from elementary school.
I suggested he mention Danny in his speech and he agreed. In his first sentence he asked the assembled proud parents and teachers to remember his friend. Before talking about his future, he took a moment to think about his past and his best buddy. We didn’t know that Danny’s aunt was in the audience. She asked for a copy of the speech to give to Danny’s father.
Several weeks later we received a letter from Danny’s dad, thanking my son for bringing his son’s memory to that graduation day. He told us where Danny’s grave site was. We went there together on an early summer day, late in the afternoon as clouds began to gather and the sky was low and gray.
We found the headstone and sat together looking at the sky and talked about Danny. “He wasn’t a nervous kid,” my son said. “He always seemed kind of calm and not worried about anything.”
I remembered Danny in his little tiger costume, with whiskers carefully drawn on his tiny face, running in my living room with several other six-year-olds, never to be seven. On a humid summer evening I looked at my beautiful, healthy twelve-year-old boy, ready to start his life as I sat by the grave of a six-year-old child. Sadness flooded the same part of my heart that was filled with gratitude for my good fortune.
As life bestows its blessings and tragedies, we brace ourselves for the worst and hope for the best. We must always remember to remember. I am grateful for the comfort Danny’s father took when his son’s memory was evoked at a milestone Danny would not mark. He was moved by the compassion of his small son’s friend, who remembered him all those years later.
The letter and the trip to visit Danny gave closure to my son and me. It taught us that compassion is important, especially for those who left too soon for reasons we cannot understand. Danny’s untimely death taught so much. Just as a friend will do, he taught us well.
Kathleen Vallee Stein