Three More Words
1. three little words
The ones I pity are the ones who never stick out their neck for something they believe, never know the taste of moral struggle, and never have the thrill of victory.
A thousand eyes were staring, expectant and ready to listen to me. For some people public speaking triggers a primal fear, arousing the fight-or-flight response, but each time I face an audience I look forward to another chance to be heard. During my almost ten years in Florida’s foster care system I had no voice, even when I had something important—possibly lifesaving—to say. Even more, I was branded a liar because nobody wanted to hear the truth. Since everything I did as a kid became a part of my case file, attempts to discredit my word were written up as official documents and could have ruined any chances I had to be adopted or to lead a normal life.
The people who come to hear me speak often have special connections to the foster care system. Among them are parents, judges, legislators, social workers, child welfare executives, and teachers. Sometimes my audience is made up of children or teens who have experienced loss or trauma like I did, or maybe they are young people from more traditional backgrounds and my story shows them what it might be like to grow up without a stable family. Maybe there are people who realize for the first time that children like me are in their midst.
Even if my audiences have read my first memoir, Three Little Words, they want to hear me repeat some of the stories and ask me questions. Many are fascinated that someone can be adopted successfully as a young teen. I also defy the stereotypes of former foster youth. I don’t have a criminal record. I’d never been homeless or lived in poverty as an adult. I did not become a teen parent.
“I spent almost ten years in foster care, during which time I lived in fourteen different foster placements,” I begin. If there are caseworkers or foster youth in the audience, there are often nods of recognition or nervous laughter. My story is hard to hear, I know—and it’s also difficult for me to recount over and over.
“Imagine being three years old,” I say. “The police put your mother in one car and you and your baby brother in another. A few hours later caseworkers separate you from your brother. Nobody explains anything. That night you are in a shelter home, crying yourself to sleep. The next day you are moved again, and you then enter a world of ever-changing ‘placements’ and ‘beds,’ broken promises, confusion, and the overwhelming feeling that everything is your fault or that something is inherently wrong with you.”
My audiences are often well intentioned and dedicated to helping children, but my story reminds them of the crushing impact of their decisions. “After seven years, my mother’s parental rights were finally severed. Even though this was the only way for me to move on, it felt like she had died. I mourned her then, and in some ways I mourn her still—even though she is now a peripheral part of my life. For several years after the termination of parental rights (TPR), or final legal separation, I remained in foster care, eventually landing in a children’s home with a staff that helped me heal. I am one of the lucky ones who finally got out of the system. Even at the awkward age of twelve, the perfect family came forward to adopt me. You would have thought I would have been thrilled, but I had lived in so many hideous homes—including with people who were later convicted of child abuse, molestation, and other felonies—that I didn’t trust anyone to be kind to me, let alone keep me more than a few months.
“On my adoption day I was sullen and wary; so when the judge asked if I wanted to be adopted, I mumbled, ‘I guess so’—the three little words that were also the title of my first memoir.
“Yet none of the assumptions I made that day turned out to be true. Our family now laughs about the tug-of-war as they tried to welcome me into their fold while I pulled back with all my might. For years, I couldn’t admit—even to myself—that I had left an ember burning in my heart for my biological mother, the person who had smothered me with kisses and called me affectionate names when she showed up for the infrequent visits social services arranged.
“My new life with Phil and Gay Courter seemed too good to be true. I had my own room and could have slumber parties. There were no locks on the cabinets or refrigerator. I always had someone to help me with my homework, and they were interested in whatever was happening in my life. I worried that one day they would discover I wasn’t perfect and would send me back. To speed the process, I found ways to make my new parents quarrel with each other, and lied indiscriminately to keep them guessing. I tried pushing every button they had. I was admonished, but they did not reject me.”
This part of my speech always gets resounding applause—not for me but for my adoptive parents. I’ve told my story many times, and still the shame of my antics never fades. It’s all part of my life. I don’t like thinking of a time when I was cruel or withholding to someone who was trying to love me—especially after having been on the other side of the equation while I was growing up. But my honest admissions illustrate a crucial point for me. I had no blueprint for healthy relationships; I had no maps or role models. I had to learn on my own that love means forgiveness at many levels.
“I began to trust in baby steps. When I felt accepted no matter what I did, I started to attach. That attachment led to love.”
I had been giving different versions of this speech since I was fourteen, but on this occasion my memorized patter sounded hollow. I wondered if anyone sensed that I felt as though I was standing on a precipice with a few pebbles of loose gravel beginning to fall with faint pings down into a valley so deep that I had no idea where they were landing. I have been to the edge many times before—not knowing if I would finally return home to my mother or be shuffled to yet another temporary home run by people who were paid to house and feed me. This time, it was the summer after my senior year of high school, and I was about to voluntarily leave my first real sanctuary for college. All my friends were more than ready to get out from parental control, but my adoptive home was my first real refuge, and I hadn’t really been there that long.
I continued to speak, my mind swirling with the paradox of sounding secure while trying to navigate my way through new complications with boyfriends and my birth family. I took a deep breath. Audiences like to feel closure and hear a happy ending, but the reality was that my story was evolving every day. “I’m thankful to the parents and professionals who dedicate their time to helping young people, especially those who assisted me during critical times. Without strong advocates, so many more would fall through the cracks with no one to speak for us.” The audience rose to their feet, clapping. As the sound melted away, the chattering began. The little questions, the small talk, the compliments, and my responses made me seem like I had it all together. If only they knew how nervous I was to be going away to college—or that my biological mother had just emerged from the shadows.
My birth mother, Lorraine, once asked my adoptive mother, “When will Ashley get over it?” “It” refers to everything and anything she did or did not do for me. Lorraine saw the past as a door that could be closed. I felt she wanted to pretend we were distant relatives who had just gotten to know each other for the first time and not have to acknowledge all the ways she broke my heart as a child, or all that I endured because of her actions. The dispensation she seeks is not mine to give. I was the baby, the toddler, the frightened little girl who yearned for her mother and believed her when she told me she would return. She said everything would be all right sometime, somehow, soon. Soon turned into a very long time, and “all right” was far different than either of us ever imagined.
I spoke with Lorraine for the first time in five years when I was thirteen years old and had been living with the Courters for two years. Everyone assumes that after being moved fourteen times, adoption meant that the sun shone golden rays, a double rainbow appeared, and that I opened a magical door into a fairy-tale future. Not only did I distrust Phil and Gay, I had also been wrongly told that adoption meant I would never be able to see my birth mother again. There was a part of me that resented my adoption for taking her away from me—even though she’d never really been there for me in the first place. So it came as a surprise when Gay said, “We have no objection to you communicating with Lorraine.”
I called her bluff. “When?”
“You want her phone number?”
“Really?” She handed me her phone.
I passed it back to her. “You dial and ask if she even wants to talk to me.”
The call was brief. When I assured Lorraine that I was thriving and was comfortable in my new life, she told me that I sounded like a “stuck-up Valley girl.” I threw the phone at Gay and ran out of the room before she saw my tears. Once again I had felt a tug from an invisible umbilical cord; and once again it had been slashed by a callous remark.
Now and then Gay mentioned Lorraine, not realizing that hearing her name felt like a cheese grater scraping a layer of skin. “You could write her a letter,” Gay suggested.
I pretended not to care, but I made her a card. Lorraine wrote back saying she had just married again, and she included some pictures. A few months later she announced that she had given birth to Autumn. The news sickened me because my half sister was born a few days before my birthday and had been given my middle name. This was tough news for me to process. I felt like I had been replaced.
Thinking about Lorraine with a new baby reminded me of two other babies that had come after me: the tiny baby who died in infancy and my brother, Luke, whom I endlessly worried about.
A few days later Gay picked me up from school. I found it easier to approach her when her attention was directed at driving. “How can they let Lorraine take care of a new baby when her other children were taken away from her?” I asked.
“You mean social services?” responded Gay, who had been a volunteer Guardian ad Litem—or CASA child advocate—for almost ten years before she met me.
“Yes. Why don’t they place her in foster care before somebody hurts her?”
“I see your point,” Gay said, “but your mother will be given a fair chance to take care of this baby. After all, she never physically harmed you.”
I wanted to shout that I preferred Gay to call her plain “Lorraine,” because it stripped my biological mother of any power over me, creating the distance I needed to protect myself from my own raw feelings.
“Shouldn’t we tell someone that the baby might not be safe?”
“We would need proof,” Gay said. “But don’t worry. I’m in touch with your aunt and uncle. They’ll let me know if anything goes sour.”
“Would you take her?” I asked. “Caseworkers like to place siblings together.”
Gay laughed. “How much do you like to change diapers?”
After that, Lorraine faded into the background. When I was a sophomore in high school, Lorraine contacted Gay.
“Lorraine wants to see you,” Gay announced without preface.
“Do I have to?”
“It’s okay if you are curious,” Gay said. “It’s also fine if you want to skip it. Either way it won’t hurt my feelings. Better the reality than the daydream.”
How did she know that I had never stopped having fantasies about living with Lorraine in some alternate universe? “I wouldn’t mind meeting my baby sister,” I admitted. “She’s almost two.”
We met at a sandwich restaurant for about an hour. I hadn’t seen Lorraine in almost seven years. Autumn didn’t look related to me. At least my South Carolina cousins had my vivid red hair, but Autumn’s was mud brown like her mother’s. Until I met my cousins and uncle, I had never seen other family members who shared so many of my features. I felt no connection to Lorraine’s voice, mannerisms, or even her smell. Her laughs were forced, her voice ragged from smoking, and she spent more time shooting worried glances at the friend she’d brought to help with Autumn than being attentive to me.
On our way home, Phil asked, “How was it for you?”
“Weird. Not what I expected.”
“That I would know her—that something would have clicked. It was like talking to a total stranger who happened to know a lot about me.” I turned from Phil because his tender gaze reminded me of what I had not seen in Lorraine’s eyes.
I didn’t see or hear from Lorraine for two years after that visit, but as technology changed, she began texting me. I’d given my number to my uncle Sammie—Lorraine’s brother—when he brought his family to attend my graduation from high school. He had suggested that we not invite Lorraine because she wasn’t sober. “Who’s taking care of my sister?” I asked.
“Most of the time she’s living with her ‘nana’—an old family friend who watches out for her.” He promised they were in close touch and would step in if Autumn wasn’t safe.
Shortly after that, Lorraine texted me: 1ST RHODES 2 GO 2 COLLEGE!
I simply responded: THX.
By then I’d lived with the Courters more than twice as long as I’d ever lived with her, but maybe, I reasoned, she had been waiting, biding her time until I was an adult to start a relationship. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t need a mother like I once did. The space in my heart I had once desperately wanted her to fill was by then brimming with the love and support of the Courters. I had a stable home and parents and adoptive brothers, Blake and Josh, who loved me and looked out for me. It was difficult to figure out how Lorraine would fit into my life—and easy to imagine all the ways she wouldn’t.