Vacant Chapter 18 Twelve Years Later
“It’s something I want to do, babe.”
Emily stands silent, looking at me like I’m a two-headed monster.
“Please say something.” I really can’t handle the silence. “It’s crazy, I know. Just say it’s a bad idea.” I feel like a balloon deflating.
My wife slowly moves to where I pace in front of the couch. “Ethan, after fifteen years together, you still have the ability to surprise me.”
Her expression has softened. This means she’s going to let me down easy. That’s just Emily. She never says no, never yells, and never makes me feel guilty… she’ll just phrase something so I realize how fundamentally bad the idea is; and trust me, there have been some terrible ideas over the years.
“You are the most virile, yet sensitive, man I know…”
Here it comes, the compliment followed by the let-down. “Let’s make the appointment.”
I know I look like, as Mark would say, “a total douche” right now. My son has many great qualities, but his honesty is often overwhelming. Nevertheless, I find that he’s rarely wrong.
“Um, what?” I need clarification, because it sounds like she just agreed to this.
“I said, set up the appointment. We have been through so much, and we know what it’s like, Ethan. If we can provide someone else with the opportunity to live in a safe environment, to grow, and be part of a family, then let’s do it.”
Emily wants to do this; with no reasoning, and no explanation, she agrees to this life-changing idea. I know my wife is an extraordinary person, and today she proves there are no exceptions.
“Should we talk to Mark first?” I want this to be a family decision, and this affects our son as well as Emily and me.
“Your son takes after you in the compassion department, sweetheart. I don’t think we have anything to worry about. As a matter of fact, I think you’ll find him to be a little excited about the news.” As usual, it seems my wife may be privileged to information I am not.
“It will be hard, Emily.”
“Nothing worth doing is ever easy, Ethan.”
“Welcome to Cornerstones Ministries, Mr. Parker.”
“Thanks, Erin, I’m excited to do this.”
“We are exceptionally pleased that you have returned to us as a mentor. As you know, sometimes our stories don’t have happy endings. So, to have one of our own be a success and want to come back and mentor…” I almost think she’ll cry. “It’s special to us to have you here, Ethan.”
After Mark was out of the toddler stage, I decided to volunteer for ongoing work with kids placed in “the system.” They were there for a variety of reasons, not just those abandoned by their parents or abuse/neglect cases. I was supposed to do tutoring, mentoring, or classroom/school assistance, but honestly, I just wanted to take the kids to a ball game or whatever, just to give them something normal.
Tanner was my fifth Buddy.
“I have something a little different this time, Ethan – if you’re up for it.” My previous Buddies had been kids from group homes where there was no family involvement.
“Tanner is seven. He lives at home with his mom.” Erin’s face begins to redden a bit. “She has a terminal cancer diagnosis; they’ve given her about six months. There’s no family, so Janice has decided to begin working with us for possible foster placement or adoption.” Erin sets down her pen and looks at her hands. I can tell this one has gotten to her.
“We need someone to fill the void. Jan is so sick, and she can’t do much with Tanner. Is this something you think you could handle?” The way she’s looking up at me tells me there’s something else. I give her a look that suggests I expect as much.
I take a deep breath, bracing for whatever it is.
“He’s also autistic.”
I went to the library and read every journal article I could get my hands on. If I was going to mentor this kid, I wanted to know what I was in for. Emily was awesome, too. She gave me a lot of strategies for working with him given his limited communication capabilities and responsiveness. Erin also recommended I take a course in dealing with behavior as Tanner had frequent… meltdowns. While a typical child has tantrums, he would have fits lasting hours. No amount of coaxing or pleading would make a difference. Tanner would harm himself and others in the process, but it never detoured our decision to keep him.
The first month was a little rocky, and by rocky I mean there were huge fucking boulders. However, it never crossed my mind to give up on Tanner. Not only was this kid watching his mother die, he couldn’t even express how he was feeling about it in a typical manner. His expression manifested in screaming and biting instead of crying or saying he was sad.
Outings were always… interesting, to say the least. The last seven months had been better, though. I’d learned what his triggers were by meeting with his behavior therapist so I could keep up with his program and provide some consistency.
The last couple of months, we’d gone to a restaurant, eaten an entire meal, and left again without a tantrum. There was definite progress.
Last week, Erin had called with news that Janice was in the hospital and being moved to hospice. They would provide comfort and care in her final days. Erin let me know they were going to set up some panel interviews for prospective foster families and asked if I could join them.
While none of the families were bad, none of them were good – at least for Tanner. When I asked them how they would deal with his special needs, there was usually a long pause, followed by an unsure smile. That told me they had no clue, and that worried me.
Emily and I went to Cornerstones the day after I came home with the idea of taking Tanner. She said I was there when she needed me, and now someone else required my attention. Erin was encouraged by my – our – decision to take Tanner. She felt he would continue to make strides with our family, even after Janice passed. There seemed to be a collective sigh of relief that a plan was in place.
“So, it’s official. The Family Services worker approved your application. You will be Tanner’s foster family for the next year. At the end of that year, should you still wish to pursue it, you can petition for adoption. The judge granted and signed a temporary placement order for Tanner to live with you. When Jan has…” Erin can’t finish, but I know what she’s getting at, so I finish for her. “Then, we’ll get permanent guardianship.”
The judge signed the order for temporary guardianship at 3:07 this afternoon.
Janice has been in a drug-induced coma for the last three days, and has no knowledge of Emily’s and my intent to foster Tanner.
“Do you think we should go see Janice and tell her? I know she’s unconscious, but then I’d at least feel like we were somehow asking for her bless – “
I don’t finish as Emily’s phone rings with Erin’s special ringtone. “When I see your face, there’s not a thing that I would change, ’cause you’re amazing just the way – ” Fucking Bruno Mars.
We left the courthouse ten minutes ago – Erin must’ve forgotten to tell us something.
I glance to Emily as she listens to Erin on the other end of the line. Her smile softens and then her face turns grim. I suddenly wonder if there is a problem. I look up in the rear-view mirror at Tanner. He’s sitting stock still and perfectly straight in the seat, looking out the window. Mark can tell something is wrong, but he stays silent waiting for us to say something.
Then, Emily nods as if Erin can see her. Her eyes are turning glassy and I know what that means. I pull over to the side of the road. Tanner begins to rock since the car has stopped and then starts to moan. The longer we sit still, the louder his moans get.
I reach for Emily’s hand, my silent question waiting for verification.
“She passed at 3:12 p.m. It’s like she knew, Ethan.” Emily begins to cry while Tanner groans. “She knew he was okay.”
I think Tanner knows, too. People assume he doesn’t understand because he can’t express it, but I think he does.
Now, I’m torn. Do I comfort my wife or my new son? “Let’s move to the back seat,” I whisper.
We sit on the shoulder of Route 35, in the back seat of our two-year-old Corolla, embracing each other. Emily and I sandwich our boys between us as Tanner continues to rock and hum.
“This, too, shall pass,” my wife whispers as she – we – hold our new family together and continue living.