why we do: part two

In yesterday’s post, “why we do: part one,” I told you about my life-saving efforts with three baby birds and the questions this raised.  If you haven’t yet read that post, I would suggest reading it before this one, so as to make the most sense of things.

When I was in college, I did some interning with a youth program.  That’s where I met Brandon.  At the time, Brandon was 12 years old.  I don’t think I ever saw him without a black, death metal T-shirt on.  He smoked anything you could smoke.  He drank — the hard stuff.   He bragged about girls in their 20s who thought he was, too.  His teeth were bad.  His mouth was worse.  He was a punk.  A troublemaker.  A real tough guy with a raging mullet, and a southern accent so thick you couldn’t understand him at times, especially when he was upset and going off, which was often.

I loved that kid.

The second week after meeting Brandon, he and his friend Mike were stuck for a ride, and I offered to give them a lift home.  Both boys lived with grandparents who were their caretakers.  After explaining who I was, the grandparents had agreed to allow me to take the boys for ice cream before dropping them off.  You’d have thought the two of them had died and gone to heaven.  They clearly didn’t go out much, at least not for normal kid stuff.

When I brought Mike home, I introduced myself to his grandparents.  His grandmother was quiet, but his grandfather was a force to be reckoned with.  He questioned me like a detective might.  I actually appreciated it – appreciated that he cared enough to find out who was spending time with his grandson.  After about twenty minutes, I had passed the test, and set out to get Brandon home.

On the short drive, Brandon said, “Can I tell you something?”  It was clearly something big.

“Yeah, of course,” I answered. “Anything.”

“Well …” he began.  We were already turning down his street.  “Can we park out front for a minute?”

I was a little nervous about the delay already, having stayed so long at Mike’s.  And I didn’t like the idea of sitting out front of Brandon’s house in the car too long, being an unknown adult.  But we parked.  I turned toward him.  He was looking down, fidgeting with his hands.  I looked right at him.  “Brandon, look at me.”  He looked at me sideways, eyes wide and his face drawing down as if he were ashamed.  “Whatever it is you want to tell me, I want to let you know before you even say it that I’m going to like you just the same, and I will keep it to myself, OK?”

Recall that this was the second time I’d ever seen Brandon.

He exhaled and looked away again.  “I know,” he said quietly.  “I know you will.”

Brandon told me he’d been molested.  Not once, but four times.  And by different people.  Most recently in a car.  At gunpoint.  Brandon explained what the man had made him do, and how he had managed during the act to open the car door and roll out and down a hill, escaping.  This man was currently in prison, but would be released in another four years.  Brandon was already afraid.  “Why does this keep happening to me?” he said.  “Am I sending out some kind of signal?”  Tears streamed down freely.  There was no “tough guy” in him as he sat there, drowning in shame and relief.

I bit my tongue.  Literally.  I was welling up, but I didn’t want to let the tears actually fall, possibly making this worse for him.  Here I was, a new guy showing up in Brandon’s life.  The last guy had lured kids to his place with free video games and pizza.  I’d just taken him for free ice cream.  What must he be thinking?

“Brandon – can you look at me one more time?”  He looked.  “I know you have absolutely no reason to believe me when I tell you this, but I’m going to tell you anyway,” I said softly.  “I am not going to do that to you.  I am never going to do that.”

“I know,” he said.  “I don’t think that.  I just … wanted you to know.”

He looked away, and I put my hand on his shoulder quickly.  He looked back.  “And there is nothing wrong with you,” I added.  “Now, let’s go meet your grandmother.”

When I got Brandon to the door, he tried to convince me not to come in.  “Granny’ll be in bed.  She’s tired.  Her nappy head is always in bed.”  I knew he felt uncomfortable about my coming in.  Still, I wanted to set his grandmother’s mind – and Brandon’s – at ease.  I convinced Brandon that it was OK to let me in, and that he didn’t need to be embarrassed or make excuses.

When he opened the door, white smoke billowed out.  If I hadn’t known the smell of cigarette smoke, I’d honestly have thought there was a legitimate fire.  Within the cloud, sparse and matted grey hair was just visible above the back of a dilapidated, brown leather recliner.  A frail hand hung over the side holding the last of a cigarette over a crowded ashtray that spilled onto the floor.  A televangelist was pacing and ranting on the small, tube television. “Brandon!  Close that door!” came a crackling voice, before he’d even gotten a word out.

“Shut yo nappy head up, granny!” Brandon retorted.  “I got Erik here!”

I quickly tried to ameliorate the situation, coming around to the side of the chair and squatting down.  “Hi, Mrs. Clay.  I’m Erik.  Thanks for taking a chance and letting me take Brandon out.  We had a great time.  Now … I’m sure you have questions for me.”

She turned her head slowly toward me, shaking, her lips working around missing teeth.  She looked medicated.  She appeared to be in her late 70s.  I was to find years later that she’d only been in her 50s.  “Hi,” she said, sounding more like a grandmother now.  “Thank you for taking Brandon home.  I can’t get him.  I’m sick and I don’t drive.”

“That’s no problem, Mrs. Clay.  I’m happy to help and to spend time with Brandon.  He’s a great kid.”

She looked over to where Brandon was sitting on a small couch.  I felt as if she were trying to ask him something in that glance.  Did he …?

I addressed her wordless concern.  “Now, you don’t know me at all, I realize.  So I want to do everything I can to set your mind at ease.  I’d like to give you some references of families whose kids I’ve known for years.  And I’ll also be happy to fill out a CORI form and have it mailed to you.  And here’s my phone number.  And my mom’s phone number.  Sometimes, talking to someone’s mom helps.”

Looking back now, I probably overdid it.  But then again, I was only nineteen.

She took the piece of paper from me and placed it beside the ashtray.  She turned toward Brandon again.

“I told him,” Brandon said bluntly.

His grandmother took it from there.  “Brandon’s had so many people hurt him.”

“I know,” I said gently.  “I know.  And that’s why I want you to feel extra safe with me.  So we’ll get those references and CORI to you for starters.”

We chatted a bit more, but then I had to go.  Brandon walked me outside, closing the door behind him.  He thanked me over and over for the ride and the ice cream, and for talking to his grandmother and giving her all that information.  I could tell there was something else though, something he wasn’t saying.  I made it easy for him.  “You have something else on your mind.  You’ve already told me the hard part tonight.  So just … say it.”

He kicked the step a couple of times, then just sort of fell forward into me.  Instinctively, I hugged him.  “I love you,” he said into my shoulder.

I hadn’t expected that.  My mind raced.  How do you respond to that, especially given all of the circumstances here?

“I love you, too,” was all I could come up with.  And honestly, I felt it.

Brandon’s grandmother did call my mom, and that did seem to set her mind at ease.  Before long, I’d learned even more about Brandon.

His mother had gotten pregnant with him while overseas in the military.  Germany.  She’d called her mother, Mrs. Clay: “I’m pregnant.  Either you take it or I’m having an abortion.”  She had delivered Brandon in the States.  He was born with fetal alcohol syndrome.  And that was the last time his mother had seen him, though she called from time to time, to ask her own mother to send money — money that was clearly not there to send.  I was at the house during one of those calls.  Brandon was arguing with his grandmother about something, as she was telling her daughter that she had no money.  Again.  Back and forth she went, between the phone and Brandon.  “No, no I can’t … Brandon, Brandon!  Be quiet!  … I told you, you know I’m on welfare … I can’t hear, now hush yo mouth!”  Then she held out the phone to Brandon, announcing in a scolding tone, “You’re momma wants to talk to you!”

Brandon’s anger crystallized.  He grabbed the phone.  The woman on the line must have said something.  Brandon replied, in colorful language, “You can’t [expletive] tell me what to do!  And you aren’t my [expletive] momma!  You think you can just call here and [expletive] tell me what to do after you threatened to kill me or leave me in [expletive] Germany?”

That was the first time Brandon had spoken to his mother.

I learned that he had two uncles who lived about an hour away.  They never visited.  But occasionally, Mrs. Clay would call one of them and ask them to come down and “belt” Brandon for something he’d done or said.  And at an unannounced time, a man would show up and beat Brandon, throwing him into walls and leaving marks.

There was also Mrs. Clay’s ex-husband, an alcoholic who lived on the streets.  He would sometimes show up and steal something or threaten her to give him money or cigarettes.  One night, Brandon called my dorm room, speaking in panicked whispers I had to strain to understand.  “He’s here.  He’s got granny.  And a gun.  I’m under the bed.”

I immediately called the police and then headed over.  I’d get there first.  To this day, I don’t know what came over me, but I walked right in that front door.  Louis had Mrs. Clay, and now Brandon, in a corner of her bedroom.  I was completely calm.  I felt strong. It was as if I were watching it all on television instead of living it.  I walked over to them and stood between the end of the gun and the two hostages.  Louis was clearly beyond drunk.  “Louis,” I began in a calm but forceful voice, “the police will be here any minute.  So you can leave now, or you can go back to jail until you die.”  After a brief bluster of nonsense, he lowered the weapon and staggered quickly out the front door.  The police had arrived and arrested him as he exited.  As soon as it was over, no part of me remained calm or collected.  The whole of it swept over me and my knees buckled.

It all seemed a very odd life to me.  For Brandon, it was the usual.

In the next couple of years, Mrs. Clay signed waivers to allow me to advocate for Brandon in her stead — at school, with police and in other legal matters.  Brandon and I became very close.  I saw him nearly every day for the rest of college, and he came to stay with me for a couple weeks on summer breaks.  As graduation neared, I spent the entire year preparing Brandon, now 15, for my departure.  For life afterward.

Graduation came and went.  I moved back home.  I talked to Brandon daily and did my best to advocate for him from a distance.  I remember getting a call once from Patrick, another boy I knew from the area.  Patrick was clearly drugged out.  He and Brandon were at the home of an older woman, Dolores, who supplied them with drugs, alcohol and sex.  I could hear Brandon screaming as if he were on fire in the background.  I somehow got Dolores on the line.  My mother, a nurse, spoke firmly to her.  “What did he take and how much, Dolores?” my mother asked clinically.  I listened as best I could.  “He’s toxic, Dolores.  You need to call 9-1-1.  If you don’t, he could die.  And then it will be worse for you.”

This is how it went.  Then, a few months later, I got a call from one of the uncles.  Mrs. Clay had had a stroke and was in the hospital.  She’d asked if I would take custody of Brandon until she got well.  Which might be never.  I said I would.  I was 22.

Brandon lived with me for nearly a year-and-a-half.  Slowly, he adapted to structure.  Very slowly.  Between arson, running up phone bills, and continued struggles with drinking and drug use, I got a run for my money.  At one point, in a rage because I’d followed through on a restriction, Brandon spit in my face and told me he hated me and that I wasn’t his father.  He apologized in tears two days later.  I adapted.  He adapted.  But he was never “fixed.”

His second summer with me, I sent him back down to Virginia to visit with his grandmother, who was doing better.  That was the last time I saw Brandon.  He was implicated in a shooting, arrested and questioned without his grandmother’s or my knowledge or consent.  He was tried and sentenced to 50 years in prison, where he remains today.  He was 16 when he went in.

So what does this have to do with baby birds?

A similar question arises in both cases here.  If all of your efforts don’t produce the desired result, is it worth it?  Or is it just wasted time and energy?

I can’t help but recall one of Carlotta’s pieces of wisdom: “If you’re expecting someone else to make you happy, you never will be.”  It seems to apply to Brandon and to birds.  To life.  If we are expecting people’s reactions or responses to make us happy, we will frequently be disappointed.

If I help only because I expect praise or a certain reaction, then I’m setting myself up for disappointment.  If I help for the joy of helping, then I am satisfied even if my help is unappreciated or unnoticed.

If I give, feeling entitled to something in return, then I may become bitter.  If I give because I see a need and it is enough to have met it, then I am content in the giving.

If I save baby birds, somehow feeling that my efforts deserve to pay off, I may feel the world is cruel if the birds do not survive.

On this point, in fact, later that evening, the mother bird threw the three babies from the nest again.  Once more, they all survived.  Two came.  Then a few hours later, in a storm, the third was thrown, wet and weak. As it turned out, a woman named Cherokee, who lived a few houses up, came by and agreed to care for the birds until she could find a home for them.  How wonderful.  But I knew, especially in the case of the last baby bird, that they still may not survive.  And yet, I would do it all again.  Why?  Because they deserved a chance.  And because it kept my compassion limber.  Strengthened my character.

In Brandon’s case, it certainly had more of an emotional impact than the birds did.  He was like my own son.  I just cannot feel that my time, energy or love were wasted.  He was given an oasis in his life, where he knew what it meant to be safe.  To be loved unconditionally.  That is never wasted.  And in my life – I couldn’t begin to tell you in short order how my time with Brandon changed me for the better.

Whatever you choose to do, do it because you believe in doing it and for no other reason.  Let go of expectations and demands.  You will be the happier for it.

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