A Single Word, A Life Changer

By Gene Kwak

Moreover, not one of those big, obvious gut punches like AIDS, death, or cancer, think a tiny word, an innocuous word. A word so connected to a downy, ideal-life sensibility that it conjures forth images of popsicle-tinted teeth, flying kites, and being buried in blanket forts. A little hand wrapped around a separate hand’s larger first finger. Think: child. A word so innocuous, in its single syllabic, right off the tongue soft lilt, it's nearly a non-word. See, the lawmakers in Nebraska neglected to define the word on the proverbial books. So, hordes of parents up and packed their kids and drove them to Nebraska, Omaha, specifically, or if a native of the state, found the nearest hospital, said their goodbyes, and left their kids still pawing at sleepy eyes, the parents but dust and tractive rubber burning west on I-80. Bye-bye child. Anyone up to seventeen years and three hundred and sixty-four days being considered one. Quentin, of the constant dirty wife-beater, six-feet three, ropy musculature, with a spotty mustache that makes him look like he's smuggling Oreos whenever a back is turned. Quentin, who's probably more a man than the one who lent his sperm to half him. Or Linelle. The high school sophomore a semester away from junior year. Linelle eats grass and swears Jesus rides the MAT bus every other Wednesday. She also wants to someday be doing En dehors pirouettes across the stage at Lincoln Center. There they were, the unwanted. The left behinds. Scrubbed free from their parents’ social calendars, like some backward Biblical cleanse. The Omaha hospitals that served as buffer zones dubbed, “safe havens,” though mostly comprised of third-shift nurses willing to placate the younger children with forgotten toys or freebie suckers, ignoring the older ones, until an actual emergency whereupon all would be seen as little more than a nuisance. The white walls and thumbed through magazines sucking any energy from the room. The too-clean chemical scent used to mask the sick smell. This, being the haven of safe.

Follow this with police custody for the first forty-eight hours. Something that is not alien to a few of the children. Those first forty-eight are the worst. Every backhanded comment and hard stare shared between parent and child gets replayed in the child’s head like the animated films they watched on loop in yesteryear. Some wear reminders. Bruises, like dirty coins, mark their backs and upper-arms: the hideaway places. Every detail of the drop-off is memory-etched. The salt-crusted old ball cap he wore fishing. The expensive looking but Payless-purchased shoes she wore for church and work functions. The inside of the car smelling like gasoline and old fast-food bags. The kids wonder how much was pre-planned. The difference between manslaughter and murder being the thought before. Was it premeditated or was it something the parents felt they were driven to? More important, what was the final straw? Did some of the parents drive up hoping to scare some sense into their children only to find that as the odometer shifted in its slow tick and the hospital loomed, the reality of it seemed genuine, a possibility, a what-if brought to what-now? The children are nothing but wonder in the first forty-eight.

Next, they're shuffled off into homes. For some, again, nothing new. For the older of the ilk, this is scary. Not scary-for-young-ones-scary. Not like under the bed, boogie man scary, more popularity contest playing on their nerves. Imagine being a pre- or just turned teen and knowing the foster family would preferably start with a toddler or someone they could mold into a smaller, not physically representative but at least of a closer moral fiber, version of themselves. Someone the family would be proud to carry on their particular surname. Add in the oddity of getting used to a new home, not being able to shit for at least a week until everyone else left the premises. Mistaking a linen closet for a bedroom. Being overly apologetic for using a spoon. Also, most are not from around Omaha. Not used to the cold that could snap off a car key in a car door or the humidity that feels like walking through soup. Not used to the Saturday morning tornado sirens. Or the sheer lack of high rises. The nothing but Walmart, Target, and Home Depot trio every other block that feels like running past cartoon backdrops. What's worse than this, however, is being from down the street. Reassigned home and school-wise, but still in a city small enough to see the same faces. So what do they do when they see those familiar faces? With the whys and whats? How do they answer those questions is the question.

And this is when they start to seethe. Everything before: shock, sad clouds, acclimatization. Now they’re just pissed. Jamie, the redhead. He knows it, everyone knows it. Redheads don’t mesh well come family-picture time. Grace, who knew an omen when she saw her Playskool Kitchen and other accoutrements: plastic pots, plastic pans, plastic buttered brioche, all in perfectly upstanding condition albeit with a few crayon scribbled surfaces, being dragged away by donation collectors. Safe haven drop off: next day. They grit their teeth. Eat the overly starchy meals and say the prayers of their new families (this commonality of religion an obvious one) and sleep on beds not their own. The discomfort of using a bathroom in new environs is tenfold with regard to beds. They'll go months only sleeping the sleep that their bodies force them into, the just enough to stave off dying sleep. The right before they konk out there's a slight tweaky pain in their elbow sleep. And the cunts and fucks and shits will pepper their murmurs. And some won't even pretend to speak softly. Anything and everything will be a motherfucker. Most of all, their new fathers. This rage trumps the typical tantrums over the wrong nail polish. An ill-fitting pair of jeans. This is burn the nerve endings off, running hot. Veins pulse in foreheads and necks. Hands go through drywall. Things are thrown. Words and associations that can never be unsaid are said in stadium voices.

But eventually it gets easier. They’ll tell themselves to use the anger. Go to school. Get into extracurricular activites. Make better than good grades. For many, this will be easier said. Linelle dines on dandelion heads. Still. Plant saplings with their new, religiously-endeavored families. Help set the table. Fold your hands this way, fingers pointed skyward in supplication. Say Grace, Grace.

And as days pass and they're on their way to the Big League Dream (the picket-fence scenario: summer homes, 401ks, three children to better their parents’ two-point-five), they'll take time. Assess. Try to understand. Was it just too much? The onus, still on the parents, but could they have done something different? Not cut half the liquor cabinet with tap water? Not turned all eye-level clocks back two hours and still hemmed-and-hawed about thinking curfews were a.m. not p.m. set? Helped more with daily chores, swept better? No, they decide, no, it was still up to the parents. By sheer amount of life lived, the parents had the enlightened purview. But the children get it, they get it. Or at least they try. Some of them seem hard-wired for long-term hatred, but even this is probably due to nurture over nature. They thank their parents that at the very least the parents didn't snuff them out early under heavy blankets or drive them into lakes with the automatic windows rolled up. There's that. But the parents have gifted the kids this: Life probably won't be able to grant them a bigger let down human-relations wise. Being that in any other relationship, they'll have, at minimum, fifty percent say.

They’ll keep this with them as a reminder that trumps any sticker or badge or rubber band around the wrist. It will always be a low, deep ache. Will stick with them, like the memory of chicken pox or mumps. A bad haircut due to complacently set gum. Childhood pains. 

Originally published in Redivider.