#1 – The Journey Begins:
August 9, 1994
So there we sat, criss-cross applesauce on the colorful carpet at the Portland International Airport. It was around two in the morning and I was SO tired that my eyes had to strain past the dryness in order to try to catch a glimpse of the new life we were awaiting. It was so quiet there, like a ghost town, the ramp was so empty, but still we watched and waited. Then, some glimmer of activity. Yes, a person became a few and soon a whole crowd of people filed down the far away hallway toward us. “Do you see them?” I asked this man sitting next to me.
This man, still really a boy himself but I didn’t see that then. To me, in that moment in time, he couldn’t have been more of a man. The mere smell of him nearly made me crawl out of my skin, and I would often take advantage of that by burying my face into that perfectly shaped part of his neck that was made just for me, and inhale him deeply. The first time we made love I actually cried as it dawned on my soul that this is who I had been waiting on…and then the question to his soul “Where have you been and what took you so long?” Although we were only twenty-one, it seemed as though it had taken an eternity to find each other…the reunion of the halves of our whole.
Now, two years later, we were waiting together for the arrival of two little boys, his brothers Rex and Daniel. I had never even laid eyes on them but I loved them already simply because they were a part of him. And as the numbers reversed themselves and the crowd walking toward us became a few and then none, there was still no sign of them. Still a few more minutes passed and finally there they were, looking so small in the distance, walking on either side of the attendant who was acting as chaperone. I looked again at him and he flashed me a grin and we rose to our feet. We were about to embark on the journey of our lives and, in all reality, had no idea of the challenges that we would face in the years to come.
#2 – Welcome Home: I thought it would be easy, of course I was only barely twenty-three and still had yet to learn about true hardship. I mean, I loved Tony with all my heart and, having been the oldest of six daughters, I knew all about how to take care of a child. I was pretty sure I knew everything about child-rearing…we would just give them a roof over their heads and feed them and hug them and tell them to “just say no” to all the bad stuff, and then they would turn out perfectly, yes? They will grow up to be self-sufficient, respectable, responsible adults…and this will all be because we made a real difference in their disadvantaged lives, right?
As their approach made it’s way directly to us, I reached out and gave each one a hug. They were shy (and had probably never been hugged by a white person before). They were smaller than I thought they would and should be, that surprised me. Rex carried in his young hands our boombox that Tony had taken out for them when he visited Mississippi a few months prior. Daniel carried one, single suitcase, small enough to be considered carry-on luggage but apparently big enough to contain both boys worldly (and moldy and stinky) possessions. Both the boombox and the suitcase would soon prove to have been large enough to transport many others from the dirty place they came, as evidenced by the troops of cockroaches that would eventually crawl out to explore our tiny apartment as though it were the last frontier.
The apartment…we were so proud of our little, two bedroom apartment. Even though it was small, it was clean and well put together and I knew it was much more than what they had just come from. I was anxious to make a difference in the lives of my little brothers-in-law, but I was even more excited to prove to the love of my life that I was, indeed, the Bonnie to his Clyde…and so began our family…Tony, Donna, Rex, and Daniel.
#3 – The Reason: The reason? Yes, there is a reason we had to take custody of the boys…there are lots of reasons we took custody of the boys. They really begin to take shape a decade and a half earlier, when Tony was just a boy himself. Something changed for him. His mother, whom he loved with the big heart of a little boy, well, something changed for her. She met some friends, their names forever burned into his mind…Brenda and Sugar. Her new friends shared a little something with her, a little something that was quickly devastating inner-city Los Angeles, a little something that didn’t care if you were a young mother with a child that needed you, a little something called Crack-Cocaine.
The nightmare that ensued would violently shift Tony’s childhood memories from those of a loving, responsible, adoring mother who braided his hair nightly, and daily brought him home his favorite, fried shrimp, while on her lunch breaks from the bank she was employed by – to a strung out stranger, so far gone and mixing with the wrong people, that Tony once had to stand guard over her inside of a small closet, knife in hand, ready to defend her with his own life against a grown man who was equally as high.
After nine years as an only child, being shifted back and forth between his mama who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take care of him properly, and his Auntie, who proved to be the only constant in his young life, he was joined by a sister and, again, by two more brothers. It was then that quick trips to the market to get a loaf of bread turned into stretches of absent days, leaving him home alone to care for his young siblings. It was then that a young child learned to feed babies their bottles, and a young child learned to change diapers…and that same young child learned what it’s like to sit by the window for hours and days, wondering if the next car coming down the road would carry his mother back home to them.
In 1989, when an angry threat by family member finally promised the long-overdue intervention of Children’s Services, Tony’s mama gathered her younger (now four more) children and fled to her hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. Tony was left with his Auntie, again, and now without his little sisters or brothers. He graduated from high school, then to a local junior college, and then went on to a university in Missouri, but not before he would see his mother again, in Los Angeles. She was without the four children she took to Mississippi, but she had another in her womb, and she was still strung out. Heartbroken, confused, frustrated, angry…Tony threw a lot of words at her, the most painful of which – that she was no longer his mom.
A son’s bond with his mother is strong though. Stronger than anger, more enduring than drug abuse, and definitely cemented by the connections to little sisters and brothers. By the time Tony and I began our lives together at the University, his mother had brought into the world three more precious lives. Now, and with nine children and no fathers around to help out, Tony would spend his breaks from school visiting his mother, who now lived back in Mississippi. He would spend time with his siblings who were suffering the same fate that had claimed his own childhood. He would make promises to them. He would tell me about those promises…and in 1994, we would begin to fulfill those promises.