When we decided to adopt, the Vietnamese Boat people were very much in the news. While the needs of the thousands fleeing Vietnam after the war with the U.S. were immense and immediate, our exposure to land claims issues involving First Nations in British Columbia and with Project North in the McKenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry led us to wonder if the need was not greater for First Nations children in Canada.
Although we knew our images of reserve life were riddled with stereotype, we also knew that, at the time, many reserves were struggling with issues of addiction and abuse. We hoped to provide at least one child with a loving and safe home, with broad educational opportunities, safe from the prevalence of addiction and abuse that too often resulted in jail. (Aboriginal adults continue to be overrepresented in admissions to provincial/territorial correctional services, as they accounted for one-quarter (25%) of admissions in 2014/2015 while representing about 3% of the Canadian adult population)
Now and then a sad smile, mixed with tears, appears on my face, a silent acknowledgement that the arc of Caleb’s life touched almost every point from which we thought we could provide protection.
It is difficult not to feel some sense of guilt over the things with which Caleb has had to deal.
Should we have protected him more? Created a tighter cocoon? Not allowed playmates outside the family? To what extent did our divorce contribute to his challenges?
I remember the anger I used to feel when, in the juvenile system, the legal aid lawyer, who only met Caleb moments before the hearing, would stand and create the image of a poor young man from a broken home, lost and just needing some support. I wanted to stand and shout that all of us who love Caleb - and there are many - work very hard and have made significant sacrifices to love and support our children and to build a nurturing family. But I didn’t. The professionals and the system never had time for nuance.
One part of me knows it is pure fantasy to think that if we had been better able to create the perfect Ozzie and Harriet, Brady Bunch or Huxtable scenario then everyone would have turned out without significant emotional, spiritual or personality issues. Certainly, I could have/should have been more skilled.
But I was not, we could not, and our movie did not follow a predictable script.
Much of the time Caleb was happy with his sisters, but there were moments. Early on we noticed that Caleb exhibited signs of knowing too much about some sexual behaviours. Combined with other signs we tried counselling, many times. He would become so angry or withdrawn during those sessions. So, even though we had suspicions we would never find a way to explore of talk about what was rumbling within him.
So, how to love him?
By and large, the operating principle was to treat all five children in the family the same. Of course, such a principle of equality is false and impossible when raising five very different and gifted children. But you have to start somewhere.
Opportunities were not a problem. If one had a bicycle they all, eventually, did.
We all went on holiday together. The kids could choose extracurricular activities that interested them. On Hallowe’en, they would all get one big chocolate egg and the same number of small eggs. At Christmas, we developed a spreadsheet to ensure each received approximately an equal amount. (We still do.) They all received something new in September to start school and at Easter. They all took at least one year of piano lessons.
We identified and affirmed their unique gifts. In whatever way we could imagine, we tried to convey what was obvious to us - they were the most amazing children on the globe.
Boundaries were harder than providing affirmation and opportunity. How much anger and stealing could be tolerated from Caleb and not the others?
Every child had special interests - swimming, dance, soccer and track - but Caleb rejected almost all. We could not find anything in which he seemed to take both delight and show talent even though, to all observers, he was bright and capable.
Those who work with people grappling with issues of addiction and abuse will sometimes say that people will only deal with such things when they are ready. That may be true but waiting for that time defines agony, watching the self-inflicted destruction and pain to others. Terror hardly describes those periods of wondering, in all seriousness, whether he will live long enough and have a functioning brain left. The realization that, if something drastic does not change very soon, the odds are not in his favour feels worse than terrible.
I count as a miracle that he and I are even writing these blogs. And I am grateful.