Having lost her street clothes, To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Scout is forced to walk home from the school play through the darkened streets of Maycomb, AL, wearing her large papier-mâché ham.
Escorted by her brother Jem, the children are attacked by Bob Ewell, a wretched man seeking revenge for the public courtroom embarrassment he suffered at the hands of Atticus Finch, the children’s attorney father.
In the film, much of the attack is captured from the point of view of Scout’s pork peephole. Her ability to see clearly is limited by the small eye opening, darkness, and the sheer terror of being assaulted. Later, when she shares the frightening experience with Atticus, the details are sketchy. Only a few facts are sure: They were attacked; someone saved them; Jem is bearing the scars of the encounter.
Like many others, I appreciate the genius of this book/film for exploring the heavier realities of life through the eyes of innocents. In this case, mental illness, prejudice, rape, and murder are some of the ugly topics forced onto little hearts.
In the past year and a half I have had the distinct privilege of walking along side a friend who is fostering two children. (That sounds like I have been way more involved than I have been) Each time I am with them, it is a tangible, “Here’s mud in your eye,” to the selfish pig I face in the mirror everyday. This past week was a huge day for all the hearts involved in this particular drama. The biological parents were surrendering their legal rights to their children.
On juvenile court day, the larger courtroom is filled with biological parents, extended family, foster parents, social workers, attorneys, police officers, and the children on whom all the activity is centered. Some of the older kids looked all too familiar with the reality of family bonds turned to legal battles.
My friend entered the room with her charges. The children immediately ran to their biologicals who were waiting with drinks, snacks, and Halloween costumes. Each ripped into their packages and slipped into their warrior alter-egos—complete with masks. If I could show you a picture of the two, you would think we were at a party. They were eating, drinking, and giddy with their guises.
Play time was over when a court official stood at the door and called for our group. All six of us made our way into a much smaller room. It was packed with representatives of the state, a couple of attorneys, some social workers, and a judge.
The parents were asked some clarifying questions and also made statements of their own. In a matter of 10 minutes, it was finished. Future Kodak moments with Thanksgivings, Christmases, birthdays, graduations, weddings, grandchildren…forever altered. The original hope of a thing was over.
I don’t know what I expected, but I can guarantee you I was not prepared for the flood of emotion I experienced bearing witness to the legal death of a family. Even when a necessary ending like this takes place, it is still a tragedy.
How surreal to sit in a little room and have a few people agree to make such a devastating declaration. I kept waiting for someone to step forward and say, “This is crazy! People don’t just give up their children.” But they do. And they did.
It’s easy to sit back and judge and say, “I would never do that.” But back up your judgmental truck a few feet and take a hard look at humanity.
Most people would say they want to leave a positive mark on the world. They want their 15, 50, or 106 years on this revolving door of a planet to matter. Unfortunately, things happen to get us off our well-intentioned paths: dysfunctional families of origin; difficult circumstances; physical limitations; lack of support, opportunities, courage and/or resources; and good old-fashioned poor choices.
I don’t think anyone sets out to abandon their children anymore than someone sets out to be an adulterer, embezzler, liar, glutton, abuser, or addict. The world is not supposed to work like this.
We sat outside after the hearing so the children could have a little time to visit with their biological parents. As I watched the kids run around the courthouse lawn in their costumes, I couldn’t help but think of my dad. He and his three siblings were abandoned as young children. I know it is the hope of this foster mother to allow these children to remain connected with their birth parents, but no one can predict the future and how those plans might get thwarted.
My dad has no pictures of himself as a child with his biological parents. And so I snapped as many as I could of these two newly minted wards of the state with their parents. The oldest sat in a tree. His costume put on a brave front, but the sadness and uncertainty of the eyes staring out of the mask did not. In the same way Scout could only see a small part of a bigger picture, so too this little one. He did not fully grasp what he had lost this day, but knew instinctively it was something important.
People romanticize the idea of “saving” a child from homes where things have gone terribly wrong. However, my limited exposure to the fallout is anything but glamorous. It is quagmire of expectations from the state, biological parents, and the courts. It is dealing with the repercussions of unknown trauma which presents as night terrors, bedwetting, physical outbursts, and lots of tears.
Is it unbelievably difficult? Yes. Will everything turn out great? There is no guarantee. Is it worth it? I believe it is. I watch this precious family unit figuring out a new normal and it is beautiful. Fear of the unknown is slowly being replaced with dependability. Boundaries are being set and enforced providing a sense of security. The freedom to grieve over loss in the safety of the arms of a surrogate mother is encouraged. Love is on draft.
While the scope of their understanding is limited today, hopefully one day these children, like Scout, will come away with the big truths of this trauma: Their biological parents loved them enough to let them go; someone loved them enough to take them in; living with scars means you survived.
Characters in literature always face great obstacles as the set up for redemption in the end. These two little human books are in the early chapters of their lives. The best is yet to come.