Grandgirls reunited. Now that all three of them are back in the same area, perhaps that little one in the middle will get a taste of normal life. When the other two were rescued with the help of their Dad, I started a short story I will probably never finish. Fictionalized sufficiently to protect their identies, and clean up the lack of flow that is real life, but the facts are true. We have to do better regarding our nation's children. Children's Services is broken. I'm sure the employees of this department are kind, caring people overloaded with too much work, but we can't continue to ignore the problem we have to fix it. The story is here to get it off my hard drive.
The call came at three in the morning, like these calls always do. That time of night when you’re deep into the subconscious fairy tale of your wildest dreams. So far from the natural world that waking to the ring of the telephone is like kicking up from the bottom of the cistern through sand.
“I can’t understand... you’ve got to slow down.”
I can tell from my husband’s voice that it’s our oldest daughter. The mother of our grand girls, our lost child.
“Yes, we’re coming. Pack a bag. Give me the room number.”
I hear him fumbling for a pen and paper, knocking over the cup of water we keep on the night table, his bottle of pills, and my glasses. I know I should be leaping from the warm cocoon of our bed, throwing on clothes, racing to the rescue of my, our, child and her progeny. That’s what good mothers do; at least that’s what they do on the Hallmark channel. But my heart rebels at seeing her, again, wallowing in squalor. Drunk, high or beaten, those are the only reasons she calls, and always at three in the morning.
Mack drives and I’m supposed to navigate as we pull out onto the highway for a three hour drive to her latest location. We share the road with bored policemen and the occasional truck, not enough traffic to keep us alert to the various twists and turns of our route, too much traffic to talk about the continuing drama that is our oldest daughter. Mack finds a talk show on the radio, relieving me of the duty of providing conversation to keep him awake. Left to my own thoughts, they turn as always to what went wrong.
We named her Julianne, a moniker that rustles up the vision of blonde sausage curls adorned with fat satin bows, and white socks ruffling over patent leather shoes. For much of her life, she fit her name, despite her sleek auburn hair and aborhorance of anything too girly. She was a precocious toddler rattling off nursery rhymes, a witty grade schooler entertaining her classmates with observations of their teachers, and then she went to middle school. Julianne tried many things. Softball, band, the student paper, she never seemed to excel at any of these endeavors, and spent most of Junior High and High School blaming her peers, her teachers, and me for her lack of success. As her younger siblings followed her to high school, each shining in one thing or another, we helplessly watched her searching for her niche. By the time she started dating at 16, she’d changed her name to Jules, and taught herself to lie successfully.
Mack pulls into a gas station to check the map and stretch his legs. In the dim light of this early morning, he looks like the young man I married as he trots across the parking lot to get us coffee. I imagine that under his baseball cap his hair is still lush and dark brown, his chest is still broad and tanned instead of scared by heart surgery. Laying my head back on the seat I close my eyes and pretend this trip will end at the crystal blue lake of our honeymoon. Long lazy days walking through shady woods or rocking gently on the bow of our rented boat, hip to hip, hands entwined under the blazing sun.
“You okay Sarah? Ready to roll?”
I assure him I’m fine. We pull back out onto the highway and I wish I would have paid more attention to life back when we were young and beautiful. Maybe we would have noticed what we were doing wrong with Julianne.
We reach the city during the peak of morning rush hour. Mack finds a new radio station and hums with the music as we creep along in the bumper to bumper traffic. I think about the things I know to be true: Christmas is my favorite time of year, it always rains on Mother’s Day, Mack loves Sarah, and Sarah loves Julianne, Wendy, Beth, Ben and Amy. We met on April fool’s day, were married by the fourth of July and had Julianne on our first anniversary. There were money problems, sexual issues, growing pains of every kind over our thirty years of marriage and the birth of five kids. We bickered about housework, cars, yard work and television shows. But the only thing we ever fought long and bitterly over was Julianne. It is only because Mack loves me that we’re making this trip today.
We idle in traffic next to a billboard admonishing against the evils of child abuse. One eight hundred save a child or some such nonsense. I know that the system is broken. We’ve tried to work within it. We’ve seen that in a system overcrowded with abused children, those that are only neglected are not the priority of Children’s Services or the police. Shining stars, like my grand girls, can be reared like wolves with nothing more than a lecture from the authorities. That is the American tragedy, these damaged children that will someday rule the world. I wonder what kind of adults they’ll become. If a Julianne can emerge from a home more full of love and laughter than grief, what will happen to these children jaded by life before they’ve reached puberty?
“There’s the exit, Sarah, help me look for an opening so I can get over there.”
Mack pulls across two lanes of traffic ignoring the honking horns and angry gestures from the drivers he cuts in front of to get to his exit. I close my eyes and will myself not to grab the dash, not to stomp on the imaginary brake on the passenger’s side. He’s driven all this way because he thinks it’s what I want. He thinks I still have the power to straighten her up, my, our daughter.
Julianne is sitting on the curb in front of the motel room. Head in hands, I can’t tell right away if her eye is black or her lip is swollen. It dawns on me in that moment, that I didn’t even ask Mack why we were driving halfway across the state, what was our mission now that we were here? Mack turns into a parking space and turns off the car. He sighs as he drops his hands to his side, a lost, forlorn sigh that breaks my heart and makes me long to pull his head down into my lap and rub his back until he falls asleep. The moment is broken by the sight of Jet and Arial, peeking out the door behind their mother.
I feel abnormally happy when Julianne stands up. Her face is unmarked and she’s nearly as wide as she is tall. The weight gain is a sign she’s not using to me. Her crack days kept her jittery and thin as a willow branch, with sores and scrapes all over her body. She’s dressed in her work clothes. Julianne works at a neighborhood bar and grill, her plastic name tag is stamped “Jules, Everybody’s Baby Girl”, and I wonder what exactly that means. Her hair is a tangled mess, trapped in a scrunchy to get it off her face, she’s not wearing make-up, or fidgeting or talking ninety miles a minutes.
Mack grabs my arm as I start to get out of the car.
“She wants us to take Jet and Arial for awhile, until she gets on her feet. Honey, I know the burden will be on you, but I can’t leave them here again.”
“What about the baby?” I ask him. My spirits fall when I see him shake his head no.
The seedy hotel room is a disaster. Empty beer bottles, moldering pizza boxes, clothes, toys and dirty diapers cover every surface. In one bed the latest of Julianne’s bums feigns sleep, in the other, the baby, Daisy, is sleeping fitfully in a tangle of dirty sheets.