Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome at Auntie Jane's
Shari is discharged from the hospital. She comes home and takes care of her newborn infant and prepares for high school exams. Passing exams means she will graduate from high school and no longer get foster care. Shari is ready to move emotionally, she wants to be on her own. Practically, it is tough. She will qualify for medical assistance for her baby, has a job, and should get some financial aid but there are many unknowns and quite a few people with more resources don’t make it. We celebrate Shari’s 18th birthday and I give her things she will need for her own home and a small TV set. Shari finds an apartment she plans on moving into with her boyfriend. Shari and her baby move into her sparsely furnished one bedroom apartment which is about one mile from my home. Sheila, another teenage foster child who is also Nina’s aunt has been coming and going and if she is not willing to stay, social services will not allow her to stay. Right now, Sheila stays. A new girl arrives, she is exactly the same age as Ivy, and she even shares Ivy’s birthday. Our new sister is “Ruby.” Compared to Ruby, Ivy and Lea are “innocents.” Ruby chafes at all the limits I have that are reasonable limits for 12 and 13 year old girls. My sister Jane has very generously invited us to visit her in Colorado for a short time.
We do not get invited many places. Some of my children have rough edges and though I have agreed to accept them and care for them, it is not reasonable to expect others to embrace the challenges as I have. It is a very special invitation from my sister and it includes a short camping trip to the Rocky Mountains. I am excited that for a week, I will be sharing my life with another adult who loves and cares for me. I want to go.
Sheila balks and protests and Ruby imitates her. I am firm that this will be a great experience and that if they want to live with me, they must come to Colorado with me. Our social worker gets a judge to give me permission to take my girls out of state. Many children in foster care have not traveled and may not even know the difference between a state and a country in spite of the fact that they are teens. At any rate, my girls are certainly not familiar with the geography many miles from their origins. Ruby, Sheila, Ivy, Lea and Nina will benefit from this trip. It will take three days to get there and we will visit the Grand Canyon. Shari is happy to stay in our home while we are gone with her baby and her boyfriend. My girls will see the Mojave Desert, Great Salt Flats, and the Grand Canyon for the first time in their lives, maybe the only time in their lives. The fact that we will be far from familiar territory might make them more dependent and more compliant. We travel at the end of June and it snows as we are going over the pass at Vail, Colorado.
My sister and my brother in law are very good to us and extremely tolerant of the range of behaviors I bring to their home. My children consume huge quantities of food and I feel badly that I am unable to contribute as much as I should. I have a good tent and sleeping bags for all of us and we spend two nights in the Rocky Mountains. The girls complain a lot, but stay close to us because my brother in law has wisely shown us all the bear droppings near our campsite. I am sure that when we are all back in California, there will be some bragging about camping in the Rocky Mountains with bears. We see elk and deer but no bears.
We spend a few days at my sisters home before returning to California. My nephew Joe, just a few months older than Ruby and Ivy enjoys himself at first, but I know that we are overwhelming and our visit is coming to an end at a good time. One of the evenings when the kids are still tired and relaxed from the camping trip, Joe puts on a gas mask he owns, and at Sheila’s urging, sneaks up on Nina. Nina screams spine-chilling screams. We are stunned by her terror. Jane and I are alarmed at her cries and we rush to her as she curls up in a corner trembling in fear. Joe is astounded by this response and clearly is upset that he unintentionally terrorized this tiny girl. Jane scoops her up and rocks and comforts her. At first it seems that Nina is unconsolable. Jane sings beautiful comforting songs that she sang to Ivy and Joe when they were infants. After a while, Nina quiets down but will not let Jane put her down. When we know Nina is all right, I ask Sheila if she understands what happened. Sheila is very uncomfortable and confused by our concern. Sheila explains to me that Nina and her mother lived in a shed behind the house that the rest of the family lived in. As Nina became a toddler and balked and fussed at going to the shed, they would scare her with a “scream mask” and she would retreat, screaming, into the shed.
I am so horrified I want to cry. I don’t cry. I am overwhelmed with sadness; not just for Nina but for Sheila. Sheila believed we would be amused by this, she was utterly surprised at our horror. Instead of making us laugh, she became a pariah. Sheila grew up in this environnment also.
Each incident I experience, each history I learn, pulls me into foster care with greater intensity. I want to surround my children with love, comfort and understanding. I want to surround them forever. This incident is also something I share with my sister Jane. Jane will always understand completely why I do this.