Sunday, July 20, 2014

No Good Deed

The call came on a Friday night, from a number I didn't recognize. "Can you take them?" she asked, desperation seeping through her words. "It's just for the weekend, we hope. We're looking for their sister."

We've been working with Health and Welfare for three years, no one has ever called, no one has ever asked for our help. And now they needed us. But still, I hesitated. It had been a long week, and we were tired. I wanted to clean the house, work on our bathroom remodel, relax, be a family. It was that word - "family" - that gave me pause. How easily I was taking that word for granted, how quickly I was dismissing the needs of two small children whose own family had just failed them. How much I was regretting answering the phone.

And so we said yes. Morgan and I went to pick them up, prepared with nothing.

"Do you think they like gum? Maybe I can give them some gum. They might like that, right?" 

"I don't know, I have no idea what these little guys might like. But you can ask them."

Their caseworker brought them in. Their eyes scanned the floor, briefly sweeping across my feet. They looked at each other and then back to her, their tiny frames sharing one small edge of the doorway. She gently nudged them, encouraging them to cross the threshold. They edged in, slowly turning to meet my gaze. I smiled, awkwardly and expectantly, trying to mask the sense of panic that was welling within me. Morgan extended her hand, two pieces of gum clutched in her own sweaty palm. They both shook their heads, not ready to make this new connection. Morgan turned and looked at me; I nodded reassuringly. She was trying so hard.

I gathered up the few belongings they had and we made our way to the parking lot. The details shared were minimal: no food allergies, no bed wetting. Oh, and the youngest one had head lice. But it was being treated.

"Who's nervous?" I asked as we drove to our house. I raised my hand high. Theirs quickly followed. Finally, we had something in common.

David had made them beds on the floor, a pot of pasta was waiting for us when we arrived. We ate in near silence. I asked questions, they answered with nods or subtle shakes of their heads. It was going to be a long weekend.

I soon discovered they both had lice. And it was not being treated. The lice was so bad I could see the bugs crawling on their scalps when I parted their hair. We treated them until midnight that night, tediously combing through each strand. Morgan had been sitting next to them all evening.

The next morning, I spotted it. A tiny dot at the base of her hair. I wasn't sure if Morgan now had it, but I wasn't taking any chances. She wasn't going to the birthday party that afternoon.  I watched her little shoulders, shuddering sobs as I broke the news to her. "Sweetheart, it would be irresponsible. They will understand. We will do something special with them another time, I promise." But Morgan didn't understand. She looked at me pleadingly, begging me to change my mind. But I couldn't, and I didn't, and I broke her heart. And it made me question all of our choices.

Helping another family wasn't supposed to be at the expense of my own. But it was, and I couldn't fix it. Rationally, I knew that the loss of a birthday party paled in comparison to the loss of safety and security that brought these children to our home. I tried to convince myself that Morgan would one day appreciate this tiny sacrifice and look back on this weekend as a time we helped someone in need. But now, when it mattered the most in her little five year-old world, she was devastated, and I had caused it.

Despite her heartbreak, Morgan was gracious that weekend, sharing her space and her toys with two little people who literally had nothing but the clothes on their back. Over the course of the next three days, friendships were created, tough outer shells were cracked, and bonds were formed. And then they left.

The call came Monday morning. Their sister had been located and would pick them up that night.

"Do you think we will ever see them again?"

"I don't know. I hope not. If we see them again, that means their family is still broken. And our job was to help for just a little while until they could go home."

"Does this mean their family is fixed?"

"I don't know, baby girl. But I think they're working on it."

They left almost a month ago. David and I have still not talked about it. Health and Welfare has called us for two more placements. I declined both times.