On January 7, Nick will have been with us for twelve years. He’s 16 now and a very different person. Conflict and fear fraught those first days with us. He had to learn how to trust. Then, he had to learn how to let go. We had to understand his position as a kid who’d been neglected and handed around. He’d had to endure things people should never have to.
Our first week with Nick started January 1. Virginia and I flew out to Reno and took up with my parents, where Nick had his own room, bed, and stock of toys. We had no idea what was in store for us, only that we had to meet with a battery of Nevada state social workers and bureaucrats. We had to meet with his psychologist.
Most of the previous year, we had been dealing with Jackson County, Missouri, officials and Missouri’s Department of Social Service employees. They had assessed us, combed over our house, and probed the corners of our lives. We had background checks. Psychologists and social workers and lawyers had visited us. We laid our entire lives bare because, even if they’re not paid well and few take them seriously, the government people charged with looking after children do not mess around. Virginia and I, and to some extent, Sydney, who was 15 at the time, were under a great deal of scrutiny.
The four-and-a-half-year-old Nick was excited to meet Aunt Virginia and Uncle Patrick. He gave us a tour of his room, which was also my mother’s sewing room and guest room. My parents had done their best to give him a sense of solidity. But he was still a visitor. They knew it and so did he. He showed off his cowboy hat and boots, his western shirt and his toys. He was probably the most adorable kid we’d ever seen.
I had only seen Nick once before. I was at my sister Christine’s house in Cincinnati for a wedding two years before. My other sister, Nick’s mom, was staying at the house as well. What I remember best was Nick wanting a drink of my water bottle as he was chewing on a chunk of cheese. I handed him the bottle. He took a drink, releasing little bits of cheese into the bottle. I held it up to the light. “What do you know,” I said. “A snowglobe.”
He got loose from a diaper changing and ran naked around the house that day, a beautiful example of a child’s innocence that made the adults in the room uncomfortable. I encouraged him, my affable mood relieving some of the embarrassment of the situation. After a time, someone wrangled Nick after he’d peed in a corner, and affixed a diaper to him. He returned to my lap, petting my long hair and babbling the way a two-year-old will.
There was an edge to Nick when we met him at my parents’ house. He was fine as long as things were going his way. But when it came time to eat, go to bed, or do anything that interrupted his routine or concentration, he turned into a raging mess of hollering and tears. He fought and squirmed and threw things. He showed Virginia and I just what we had ahead of us.
But before he was off with us, we had to meet those officials and psychologists. Every day, we visited another office or two. My parents drove and dropped us off and waited patiently for our return, for the most part. We had an odd sensation. My parents live in a suburb of that small city. Every time we got into a car, we drove a half hour to another part of the city that looked and felt exactly the same as the place we left.
I remember one woman’s office in a building near downtown. She ushered us in and pointed out the gravity of what we were doing, the same way every one of these people did. She was deadly serious and such situations make me feel uncomfortable. There was no joking, no throw away lines. These people noted everything we said. They scrutinized our facial expressions and body language. They were not letting this kid go until they were damn sure they were handing over this child to the right people.
One afternoon, my parents, Nick, Virginia, and I went to visit Nick’s psychologist, a gentle woman who had her office in a house in another suburb of Reno. While we had a good initial visit, my dad, who thinks a great deal of himself, began to hold court. I’d witnessed this behavior enough to know I wasn’t supposed to be in the room long enough to get angry.
Nick and I went into another room and played with plastic and wood building blocks. I could hear my dad drone on about how he had chosen us to be Nick’s parents, and what a great choice he’d made. The psychologist could not get through to my dad. He had nothing to do with the process by which we had qualified for Nick’s parenthood. He hadn’t been drinking, as he usually does when he gets expansive like this. He just had to be the center of attention.
The session ended with the psychologist making an appointment for Virginia, Nick, and me the next day. She was very clear. My parents were to wait in the waiting room while we had a session together. She needed to assess how we worked together, even in a short hour.
When it came time for the appointment, my parents climbed the stairs with us. The psychologist had to be forceful with my parents. With sheepish looks on their faces, they headed out the front door. They were going to go eat at a local casino while we spent our time with the professional.
There were other problems. My father is a strict disciplinarian and wouldn’t give up his position as head of the family easily. The transition for Nick had to be difficult. He knew he was leaving with us at the end of the week, but he still had Grandpa in the room. I didn’t argue or squabble with my dad. After all, I thought, the transition must be difficult for him and my mom too.
As for Virginia and me, we took over the reins gently. We were strangers to this boy. He needed to trust us and see us as non-threatening but also parent figures. After the visits with the professionals and all the paper signing, Virginia and I decided we’d spend our last night in Reno in a hotel. There would be a pool. We would have a chance to have Nick all to ourselves without the parents. While my mom and dad would take us to the airport the next day, our break would be complete.
In the hotel, all was fine. We spent a good deal of time in the casino’s waterpark. Nick had a great time. But when it came time to get dressed to go out for dinner, we got a taste of something that would plague us for the next couple of years. Nick threw a fit, a real twister of a rage during which he tried in his little-kid way to trash the hotel room. With a little physical restraint, fast but gentle talking, and patience, we brought him back to earth.
This would continue for quite a while. But outside of this, Nick learned after a few weeks that we weren’t going to leave him, that he would be well cared for, and that he would have significant amounts of freedom he didn’t have living 18 months with my parents. Within three weeks, he’d transformed us from aunt and uncle to mom and dad. It’s been that way ever since.
Now, he has no desire to have contact with his mother or any other aspect of his life before he came to us. He’s a relatively well-adjusted kid who watches too many videos on his device. He runs around here mostly independent of us, except when he needs a ride or food. Otherwise, he’s his own man.
I’m fortunate. He still likes doing things with me, mostly small projects having do with the house. Just yesterday, he helped me figure out a complex problem of bringing the internet router from the basement to his old room.
When we were finished, I stood in that room and looked at the bunkbed I made for him out of 2” x 6” and 2” x 4” lumber. We painted it bright yellow, his favorite color when he came to us. Virginia had painted cowboy-oriented pictures on the sides—saguaro cacti, horses, cowboy hats. Next to me stood the parti-colored dresser. We had to move his old karate gear out of the way for the router cords and wires. It reminded me how far we’ve come from those early days.
It also showed me a passing era. I looked back on the last decade and some and wonder where it has gone.