For nineteen years, I’ve been a Court Appointed Special Advocate, a CASA. My role has been to be the eyes and ears of the court, the voice of the child. It’s an awesome responsibility to speak for a child: their hopes and dreams, their need for loving days and safe nights. In one of my early cases, I recommended a little girl in foster care return to live with her mom. State workers disagreed. The judge ordered Children’s Services to return the child home.
Three months later, just before her second birthday, she was dead. Drowned or strangled, medical examiners could not agree. Buried in a fancy dress, white lace panties, and a gold cross her mother was too poor to afford.
CASA contacted an attorney to protect me from making statements in my grief that could insinuate civil liability. My attorney was the kindest hero, but he did the cruelest thing: he forbade me to talk. For a CASA empowered to be “the voice of the child”, silence is a terrible thing. Nights were intolerable. When I tried to sleep, I dreamt of her fair skin slipping off tiny bones. One night, unable to sleep, I wrote a letter to the judge asking where he found the courage to go on.
“We are not God…” he replied.
Many nights, I read his letter over and over, waiting for sleep to come: “It is appropriate to feel sad. It is wrong to feel guilty. It is truly inappropriate to speak of blame.”
Caseworkers and attorneys went on to other cases. The mother was sentenced. The judge retired. I took a leave of absence. Walking through Nordstrom that Christmas, a pair of small red patent leather shoes caught my eye. “She will never get to wear red shoes…”
That spring, a friend invited me to a writing retreat at Sylvia Beach. Cynthia Whitcomb was discussing how to sustain your spirit as a writer. My spirit was broken. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t write.
“Find a consistent time to write,” Cynthia said. “Whenever you can, even if it’s 3am.”
“No way,” I thought. “I barely get through the days.” Ironically, the Thursday before I’d gone to the retreat, a caseworker from the state called. Would I take in a foster baby?
“I don’t do babies,” I said.
“We need you to work with the mom,” she said. “She’s seventeen…and he’s a drug-affected baby.”
Two hours later, I held a five pound, twice-resuscitated baby in my arms. His name was Jonathan. His first and last names were the same as the judge who had shared my heart-wrenching case. The name coincidence felt like an omen. I called Children’s Services back. “Come get him,” I said. I was terrified he would die.
As I waited for them to come, I held him close. Rocking. Whispering. Finding my mother-legs again. Hours passed. I called Children’s Services back. “Never mind,” I said.
Jonathan woke me at 2:00 a.m.. Tiny lips too weak to seal on the nipple, he gasped for air between choking swallows. By the time I fed him and changed his diaper–raw where the drugs coming through his system made his skin peel and bleed– it was 3:00am. I stood over his crib, wide awake.
I sat at my computer and stared at the blank screen. Sometime during that first night, I typed FADE IN.
In those first three months–with my deceased CASA child’s skin slipping in my dreams and Jonathan’s peeling in the day– I typed. Every night, Jonathan woke me about 2 a.m. We struck a silent bargain. I’d be his mother. He’d be my muse. By the time I hit page 103, Jonathan was sleeping through the night. A few nights later, I typed FADE OUT.
It’s years later now. After finishing the screenplay, I’ve struggled to process the loss in poetry and prose. A dozen years later, in Karen Karbo’s classes, I found the courage to write the story as memoir. I’ve finished writing and editing the story that reveals these dark days, and the gift of Jonathan’s arrival.
This Sunday, Jonathan turns sixteen. I’m so grateful I get to be his mom.