I went to visit Steven last Saturday at the Correctional Center. After proving to the clerk across a counter that I was, indeed, the person listed as “mother” on Steven’s file, I was sent to the next desk.
“Take everything out of your pockets.” This female correctional officer looked sweet and vicious at the same time. “No phones, money, paper, pens; put your stuff in this basket,” She shoved a plastic bowl at me. “I’m going to search you while this officer,” pointing to a very tall, large man in uniform, “searches your purse. Do you agree to this search?” in rote she asked. “Yes.” I mumbled. Did I have a choice?
I walked through the metal detector, and then the fem ale officer took me behind a screen and did a physical search—at least I was spared a cavity search. And lest I forget I’m a visitor and not an inmate, she says “Thank you. You can put your belongings in a locker over there,” gesturing toward the far end of the room. I walked over to the lockers; they required a quarter deposit. Good thing I hadn’t left my wallet in the car, I would have had to go through the whole ordeal again.
When I was finished with processing, one officer led me along yellowish-white cinderblock walls, through a locked door, slammed locked behind us. Another officer opened the next door from the inside, let me through and relocked the door. It was a large gymnasium that smelled of sweaty boys. Did I mention Steven was an awesome wrestler? We spent a lot of time at smelly Wrestling Meets. For a child who had been developmentally delayed and physically damaged, it was a remarkable feeling to see him run at the State Track Conference two years in a row and perform as a dynamite running back as well.
“Who are you here to see?” not even looking at me.
“Alright. You’re at table 16. Take a seat and we’ll bring him to you.”
Steven’s father is not my husband. In fact I’ve never met him. No, he was not a sperm donor; unless you count sex with his prostitute while he was pimping. My son is adopted. I know where to find his birth parents. There is a hyperlink on the Department of Corrections website for “Inmate Search.” Most of the time that’s where his parents can be found.
The State tried to create opportunities for Steven to bond with his birth father. When he was six months old two caseworkers, whom we had never met before, took my baby on a plane to the southern part of the state for a visit with his birth father—in jail. They put oatmeal in his formula bottle and he refused to eat it. He’d never been fed that way. When they returned him to me late that night his diaper was full and he was screaming hungry.
After Steven Sr.’s release from jail, the judge told him to get a job and a place to live so that he could bring his son home. When Steven Sr. didn’t come to the follow-up court date, the judge revoked his parental rights. Mom had given up rights at Steven’s birth, just like she did with all her other unnumbered, unnamed children. I often wonder what kind of father Steven Sr. would have been. Could he have saved Steven from the irretrievable chain of poor choices and inevitable police involvement?
Steven was born exposed to cocaine, heroin and alcohol in utero. After he had gotten through withdrawal, he was sent to a shelter. We walked into the nursery at the shelter, a room with rows and rows of cribs. The lights were dim to keep the environment soft for all the over-stimulated crack babies. The caseworker stopped at one of the cribs, double checked the patient ID number and the name on the crib with her paperwork. Satisfied, she reached into the crib and pulled out little baby Steven and lay him in my arms. His life force blew through my soul like a hot wind in the desert. Surely such powerful warmth would overcome his difficult beginnings.
We’re in Chicago at the Daley Center standing on the outside of the bureaucratic countertop in some nameless department. We find it only because of the room number. Steven is three. He had been our foster child since infancy. After presenting our documents from the courts and signing a dozen others, the woman behind the counter says, “I have to ask Steven these questions. Why don’t you have him sit up here on the counter?” I’m thinking, he just turned three what is he possibly going to be able to answer.
“Steven,” she says, “Do you know who these people are?” motioned toward my husband Al and I. Steven looks on blankly—not unusual. She tries again, “Steven, what is her name?” and she points to me. Steven’s face brightens and he says, “Mama.” When the clerk is satisfied, she asked Steven to raise his hand and take an oath that he wanted to live with us and would now and forever more be our child. Steven didn’t have a clue. Or so I thought. The next day at preschool he told his teacher “Now I have a forever home.”
“Mom,” Steven says after a tough football practice, “Am I gonna get any taller?”
“I don’t know honey. Your dad was only 5’ 6”, but your mom was 5’ 10!” I add as a consolation. “But your dad was a good looking man; you look just like him. Here, look at the picture.” It happens to be the mug shot from his most recent incarceration.
Steven Sr. has a shaved head and a peppered beard sparse along his cheeks and chin. But it’s the shape of his head that stops my breath. It is the same head as my son. My son, whose beautiful eyes could melt any girl’s heart, whose life-spirit comes bounding from the deep, deep brown-ness of them.
When Steven reached puberty, he decided that he wasn’t black enough: didn’t talk black enough, didn’t walk black enough, and didn’t dress black enough. When he said he would never be like my “lily-white family.” I remember looking at him quizzically. “My” family? It was his family too, or so I thought. He stole a gun and took it to school to appease a bigoted bully.
67! Sixty-seven police involvements in two months in our town. Sixty-seven. I’ve lost count of how many arrests that really made. Of course, there were the surrounding towns. Like the town in which he attended high school. I loved him. I thought love and family would be enough. I think I was wrong. At least I’m wrong right now. Right now, Steven is in a Juvenile Correctional Center.
Is he already lost? My tears tell me that Steven will never be lost to my heart, or to our family. My head reminds me Steven may never care that he is loved. Perhaps inside, he has always been Steven, Sr.’s son, not just by the way he looks, but in some genetically pre-determined way my mother’s heart will never understand.
Finally, my smiling boy comes into the gym. I’m not sure if I can hug him, but he initiates so I hug him big—enough for the five months he’s been gone. He is thinner, but in good spirits.
“I don’t really didn’t mind it here,“ he said. “I just wish I could get more to eat.” Truthful or not, he played the mother-feed-your-children card.
“I put money on account for you; can’t you buy chips and stuff with that?
“Yea . . well . . I haven’t been on level, so I can’t go to the commissary.” He was alluding to his constant fighting. About a month ago he accepted five snacks in exchange for beating up some kid he didn’t even know. He’d figured out a way to get extra food.
Steven, with his flawed adolescent choices has been turned into an inmate who learns to work the system to get what he wants. I fret that this new behavior won’t translate to life in a family. But, then again, he can’t come home to his family because he is violent, and there are domestic battery charges against him from attacking me.
So what is home to a child without a home? Prison. It becomes the home. He continues to fight and break the rules and receives an additional 30 days in prison for each one. It seems as if he has chosen this “family” at the prison over our family. Maybe even over his biological family. I don’t know.
His mug shot looks just like his dad might have looked thirty-five years ago. It’s the head. The slight tip of the crown toward the back, the gorgeous eyes half closed.