Thursday, August 31, 2006

Taking Christopher

In response to the very unscientific poll I took, I'm posting an essay I wrote for submission to Guideposts. They declined it at the time, saying they didn't have a place for it. Maybe it just wasn't good enough. However, it's a story close to my heart so I'm posting it here anyway. Hopefully, it will touch your heart too.
Taking Christopher

His hair was the color of a new penny, the same color as mine when I was a baby. So tiny and sweet, Christopher* was a perfect fit in our family. My parents and sister felt it too. I hadn’t realized how fast a bond could form with a child. From the very first moment I held him in my arms, I felt like he belonged to me - but he didn’t. In fact I guess most people would just call me the babysitter.

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I met Christopher’s mother in high school. She and I were both seniors, but Kerri* dropped out after only a few months when she discovered she was pregnant. Her parents disowned her and it wasn’t long until she was bouncing from place to place. Kerri and I weren’t great friends. At best, we were acquaintances. In fact, if you had told me then how our lives would be entwined, I wouldn’t have believed you.

High school graduation came and went. I was seventeen, excited and scared. There were so many decisions to make about my future. I was working in the circulation department of our hometown paper, and earning just slightly over minimum wage. I was okay with that; it wasn’t a lifetime job. I was going to go somewhere and be someone who would make a difference. I just hadn’t decided how.

The call came on a Friday evening from one of my oldest girlfriends.

“Are you available to baby-sit overnight? It’s Kerri’s eighteenth birthday and we want to go out and celebrate.”

I paused a moment to think about it. Did I want to give up my Friday night? To be honest, I had nothing better to do. I said, “Sure”, one simple word that would forever change the course of my life.

They dropped him off around six o’clock. Christopher was only three months old and it was the first time I’d met him. I picked him up out of his car seat and felt the strangest sensation hit me right in the heart.

I fell in love with him.

It was late July and the only air conditioning in the house came from the little window units in our bedrooms. I brought up our old cradle from the basement and set it at the end of my bed. Christopher was a good baby with bad colic and I spent the rest of the evening and half the night rocking him and rubbing his little tummy. Saturday I woke up tired but somehow happier than I could explain. The buzz lasted until he went home and a huge hole opened up in my heart.

I didn’t see Christopher or hear from Kerri again for several months. I celebrated my own eighteenth birthday in November. I was promoted to office manager at the newspaper, received a raise that most people would laugh at, and was still debating college. I stayed at my job with the paper because I didn’t know what else to do. It turned out to be a good thing I stuck around. In February I got a call late in the day.

“Circulation this is April, can I help you?”

“Hi, April, this is Kerri.” She sounded nervous.

“Hi, how are you?” I was a little shocked. She’d never called me before.

“I hope it’s okay to call you, your mom gave me your number at work.” The words rushed out.

“Yeah, it’s no problem. What do you need?”

“Will you take Christopher?” The words fell like lead weights. Take him? Did she mean baby-sit?

“Take him?” I parroted the words in slight confusion.

“I’m living in a drug house in Kansas City because I have no where else to go. We’re sleeping on the floor and I’m afraid someone will step on him. I’ll be okay here, but I’m afraid for Christopher. I didn’t know who to call. I opened my address book and your name was the first one I saw. I knew he would be safe with you.” She sounded close to tears.

“Of course I’ll take him. I’ll keep him as long as you need and you can come see him whenever you want.” I didn’t even think twice. My heart answered long before my head could process what was being asked of me.

She brought him to me two days later. I had scrambled around for baby furniture, borrowing a crib from a friend, and set up a nursery in the tiny spare bedroom next to mine. I had shopped for diapers and all the other baby necessities. I was ready, or so I thought.

It didn’t take long to discover that being a mom is a lot harder than I could ever have imagined. I had never felt so much empathy for those that struggle through parent-hood alone and I wasn’t even alone because I still lived at home.

I had an hour for lunch, so I came home to be with Christopher whenever I could. I didn’t go out much either. I took care of him from the time I came home until I left for work again the next day. The flip side was that Christopher became very attached to my mom, whom he called Nana. So, despite investing the time I had, there were times he preferred his Nana to me. It was hard to accept, but she was the one that cared for him during the day so I learned to deal with it. I never once wished that I could take back my promise to care for him.

Christopher lived with us for several months and in that time we helped Kerri to find an apartment and get set up to live on her own. She signed up for welfare and W.I.C.K. and soon took him home to stay with her. That began a pattern that lasted for quite some time. Christopher would live with me for months at a time when Kerri couldn’t take care of them and then when she’d worked things out; she’d take him back.

I never taught Christopher to call me Mama, but he was confused and called me Mama on a fairly regular basis. I corrected him, but deep down it felt good to hear him say it because that’s what I felt like.

I cried every time he left me and worried I might not see him again. Kerri loved Christopher, but she was still struggling and I was worried for his safety. I spent a lot of time praying for him.

I remember the October after we took him in; Christopher was nineteen months old. We had one of the largest snowstorms the Kansas City Metropolitan area had seen in a long time. Our home received over ten inches and so much ice that power lines and trees were snapping like they were made from thread. The electricity was out for three days. It was freezing in the house, with the only source of heat coming from the fireplace in the living room. The first night I dressed Christopher in baby long johns, socks and a heavy, footed sleeper before tucking him in under thermal blankets. He went right to sleep but I couldn’t. I kept going in to check on him and, like every child, he had kicked off his blankets. It didn’t take long before I decided he would be better off in bed with me. I carried him in, still asleep, and tucked him under the comforter with me. He slept like a log. I, however, spent the night pulling him back under the blankets so he wouldn’t freeze.

Moments like that were scary, but no matter how frightened I was, I knew God was in charge. Knowing that kept me from loosing sight of just who was taking care of whom.

Christopher was my first, but certainly not my last. As the years passed more children joined him. Marie*, Christopher’s half sister through his father came next. Then Kerri gave birth to Rene* and then Kathy*. With each new addition I felt my heart double beyond what I thought it capable of to include them.

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Christopher’s now eleven and all boy. Kerri has a home of her own and the kids stay with us on the weekends. The pressure of being the main caregiver has been eased for quite a while. I’ve pursued college courses and have a good paying job. I go out without worrying. It was a strange feeling at first, but I’ve adjusted. I’m proud of Kerri for working through so much in her life and I’m equally pleased that she chose me to help raise her children. To date I consider them one of the biggest blessings in my life. I love them dearly and it will always feel like in some way they are my own children. I wouldn’t go back and trade one single moment with those babies. I became someone who made a difference. I became a mother.

* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned.


chubby-girl said...

That's great Ape! I didn't know the whole story on that either...

April Erwin said...

Thanks. I noticed something last night when I was scanning my essays for one to post. My fiction tends to run toward the humerous side, even when it's a serious and suspenseful story. But my personal essays are all very serious and emotional. I'll have to be careful not to depress everyone! :)

Brenda said...

What a wonderful experience you had. Though the situations for your friend were sad ones, but glad to hear that she has made it through, because of your help (and your families help) and all the prayers. God blesses us in many ways. Sometimes it is a strange road we have to take in order to *get it*. ~hugs~