"Let's go to the dining room. I think dinner is about to be served."
We walked together to another building, just across the lawn.
"I'm sorry there are only little kids here this evening. The older kids will be back later; they're at the Oakland A's game right now. You'll meet them all when they return."
The lady welcoming me to the shelter was nice. The officer who took me away from my mom made me ride in the back seat of the police car, just adding insult to injury. The last thing I needed was to feel like a criminal right now.
Suffering from chronic homesickness as a child, being away from my mom and in this strange place stole my appetite and sapped the life right out of me. Lasagna - my favorite - was being served. Not sure if my body would cooperate, I sat at the table, graciously accepting the plate placed before me.
There were probably fifteen or so young kids in the dining room. A variety of ages were represented. Even a little 3 week old baby was there. Sitting next to me, at the head of my table, was a friendly girl, about 7 years old.
"Why are you crying?" Genuine concern was in her voice.
All while trying to catch my breath and not break again, I carefully formed the words, "I miss my mom."
"You have a mom?!?" she replied, without missing a beat. I then realized, I might be pretty bad off right now, but at least I had hope of returning to a mom. This poor girl, she had no family, thus confirming for me a fact I couldn't ignore - I was in an orphanage.
After dinner, the lady took me to the teen house to get settled in. It wasn't really a house, it was more like a large building - old nursing quarters for the county hospital nearby.
It was the hospital where I was born.
Up the stairs and down a long hallway, we arrived at a storage room full of shelves and random pieces of clothing donated to the shelter. She told me I could pick out anything I wanted. I visually skimmed the product, wondering what I should pick. In my memory I know I took away a very small stack of items, yet can only recall a sleeveless shirt with surfboards on it. Under better circumstances I would've thought this was a really cool shirt. Also in the storage room, there was an attempt to find a pillow for me. There were none. With a small stack of clothing and piece of foam for a pillow, I followed the lady to my bedroom.
Dimly lit, I can remember there were two beds, a dresser, and a closet. I would be alone in the room, which I thought was great, because trying to sleep with a stranger sounded ludicrous to me. Wanting to believe my stay here would be short, I placed my small clothing stack on the top of the dresser.
"The rules here are that you need to have your room clean with the clothing in the drawers. In the morning you will need to be ready for breakfast at 7am."
My head was foggy with frustration and fatigue. I was a good kid; reluctantly, I placed the clothes in the very top drawer. I met the group of teens returning from the ball game, hyped on adrenaline from their fun filled, court-approved outing. As soon as I could, I made my way to my bed. Exhaustion took over my body, my dreams quickly soaking into the thin foam pillow.
The following day, all the kids - big and little - would be going on a field trip to Marine World. I was not permitted to attend because my case had not yet gone before a judge, and it was the weekend, so I'd have to wait. The kids left, and the lady told me I could pick any movie I wanted from their collection. In front of a big screen TV I made myself cozy, again alone, trying to keep from thinking about why I was here and my overwhelming homesickness.
Late that afternoon, the children once again returned, hyped on adrenaline from yet another, fun-filled, court approved outing. Knowing I was left behind and alone, a little boy gave me a gift. It was an ink pen. It had killer whales and other marine designs on the cap. It was beautiful. His name was Maurice. This special gift was the tool to release my voice and begin to tell my story; I will forever be grateful for Maurice.
On Sunday morning, breakfast was delivered in large pans. Their first delivery was to the local juvenile hall, then the children's shelter for the final stop. We had green eggs and ham that day. It was discovered, if you leave scrambled eggs in a tin pan for a bit, they turn a strange looking chartreuse green color on the edges. At least it made for a good laugh. The eggs tasted fine. I wished I was home.
Fashion wasn't really a strong suite of mine as a teen. I tried, but would quickly return to my favorite items. Maybe it's the clinging to something familiar is what we do when everything around us is unsettled. At this age, carrying a blankie would surely be frowned upon. I wore the surfboard shirt as often as I could during my stay.
Another visit to the clothing closet was not on my wish list.
The teen girls gathered in the make-up room. An amazing vanity stretched the length of the wall with those movie star lights across the top of the mirror. The girls talked about the things they knew how to talk about all while starring intently at their own reflections, accentuating their young beauty. The rules were that you could not share make-up. I did not have my own, my exit from my house being so expedient with the local police officer. My reflection did not look like me. Just a gaunt resemblance of a girl who was brave and told her mom the terrible truth. Sad, yet grateful the times of abuse were over, I was proud of the me in the mirror I saw that day.
Breakfast was over and chores had been completed. The lady on shift that morning came to me letting me know I was wanted at the annex building next door for a medical review.
"They told me that my mom's friend could be with me if they needed to do an exam." I tried asserting my wishes, which felt more like an attempt to wave for help while drowning in ocean waves.
She told me I could talk to the nurse about it.
Confused by the vague directive, I reluctantly walked to my surprise appointment.
"OK, lay back so I can take a look."
I assumed the position. Fearing she would use the strange plastic contraption I saw on the tray, I cried. Terrified, I tried asking why my mom's friend wasn't there. The nurse dismissed my question and told me this would be real quick.
Any sign of salvation was quickly fading from my vision. Feeling violated, once again, and hope fading, I feared my new reality - would they ever let me go home.
It was a Wednesday. A social worker drove me to the county court. My mom was there, as a civilian, and my dad was there, as an inmate. I saw him from afar. We did not speak. In the courtroom, the judge asked me if I thought it was safe to go home with my mom. I said yes and I meant it. She would do anything to keep me safe. The only reason we were in this situation was because she's the one who listened, and believed me, and started us on the path to healing. That day, leaving the surfboard shirt behind, I went home.
Later that night, exhaustion took over my body.
Safe in my own bed, my dreams quickly floating, on my own pillow.
That was 29 years and 11 months ago, yet the memory is still so fresh. I often wonder, how many other children picked that surfboard shirt, and did they have a mom, and did they ever get to go home.