This conference room could be in any country, any town: a pale wooden podium, bright overhead lighting, an army of white-clothed tables and a carpet with loud corporate swirls. The difference is with the babies. So many babies: some held in slings close to foster parents’ chests, others strapped in car seats and strollers. “A great turnout,” the organizer told me when I signed in and picked up my nametag, “More than last year.” In my previous career as an academic I attended conferences across Europe and North America, but I am here now because I am a foster parent. We are all here because we are foster parents. Except the babies. The babies are here because they are addicts.
A woman with a wooden cross hanging from her neck stands at the end of my table. She is wearing a pale brown hand-knitted sweater and an old-fashioned skirt. She might be in her forties – my age – but the weariness on her face makes her seem decades older. There is a baby in her arms and I am close enough to see it all: the clean shine of the infant’s face, her wide-open vacant eyes. The woman brushes the teat of a bottle against the baby’s cheek and teases it across lips which remain absent-mindedly shut. Finally, with a movement reminiscent of my grandmother hoisting a basket of laundry onto her hip, the woman lifts the baby to her shoulder and stares at the latest in a series of PowerPoint slides.
This is Vermont, 2016; a state where, out of every 1000 live births, 45 babies will be born addicted to opiates. The keynote speaker at this conference says they suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), but the people sitting around me call them the ‘methadone babies’. Most will end up in state custody; many will spend their childhoods in foster homes. I am surrounded by parents who have been trained to administer methadone – an opioid which can cause dizziness, sleepiness, vomiting, sweating and death – to tiny blank-faced babies.
While the keynote speaker talks about “vicarious trauma” – the label given to the experiences of care-givers when they cannot give any more – the woman with the wooden cross flattens a yawn with the back of her arm and blinks her eyes wide, owlish with exhaustion. She pats the baby’s back. It is patterned with brightly colored hot air balloons.
We did not begin fostering until our eldest daughter, Eva, was a teenager. Since then we have opened our home to a series of teenaged boys and Red is one of them. He was an emergency placement delivered to our house by an off-duty social worker not long after we had moved to Vermont. For a while he made a home with us and then he was transferred through a series of more “therapeutic settings”, social worker-speak for something more secure than an everyday run-of-the-mill house where doors and windows open wide. When things are going well for Red, he is allowed to stay with us for respite visits. He takes our youngest daughter out on her mountain bike, shares music with Eva, plays ball with the dog and tries to beat my partner at pool. We love him and, when he’s at his best, we wish he was always here. But each visit has to be carefully planned; there are behavior management plans we must sign and medication forms we must complete. Every detail of Red’s life is scrutinized, analyzed and documented with reams of paperwork, and sometimes he runs away.
Once we saw him by chance. We were sitting on a bench, eating ice creams in a precinct of shops close to Red’s mother’s house. Isis, my youngest daughter, tugged my hand and pointed to where Red drifted along the sidewalk. He was tumbleweed, directionless and without volition, and it seemed his feet did not quite touch the ground.
I folded my daughter’s hand into her father’s, then hurried after our foster son.
When I touched Red’s arm, his eyes struggled to find my face.
“I’m a bit fucked.” A fleck of saliva landed on Red’s smooth-skinned chin; he isn’t yet old enough to regularly shave.
For a while I tried to talk to him but he was unable to hold a conversation and slowly floated away. Later, his social worker told me Red had been staying with his mother and it was likely he had taken drugs he had stolen from her home.
When I first met Chris I was a teenager and he seemed like an old man even though, back then, he must have been younger than I am now. He was a man of routine: every Tuesday morning he would fake a convincingly genteel Scottish brogue while waiting for handouts from the Presbyterian church; every Friday he would slur Scouse-inflected thanks to the volunteers who handed out soup and bread at the gates to the Catholic Cathedral. New to Sheffield, I volunteered at a Sunday lunch program for the homeless in the city center.
“Ey Up!” Chris took my hand and shook it vigorously. His fingers were nicotine-stained and graffiti-ed with tattoos, his nails were chewed down to the wick.
Nodding towards the volunteers with their paper chef hats and disposable nitrile gloves, he told me some people called him ‘Barnsley Chris’. “But my brothers call me ‘Ten Men’,” he added and jerked his chin towards the people sitting at the tables. Some slouched forward so that hanks of bead-knotted dreadlocked hair curtained the tabletops; others were elderly and rocked back and forth in the church hall’s plastic chairs.
“Why ‘Ten’?” I asked, and Chris shrugged, suddenly modest. It was weeks before I was told about the legendary strength he was rumored to have once had, and about the quantity of narcotics people claimed to have seen him ingest. I met him too late for his name to fit. By the early 1990s, his sparse-haired head was dwarfed by a seal trapper’s cap and his ginger beard was threadbare and fading.
He waited for me that first day and, after I had washed the dishes and mopped the floors, he invited me to join him in the Peace Gardens. We spent the rest of the afternoon in a neglected public space where curved walls of crumbling concrete separated worn lawns from rows of broken benches. The street drinkers were his family and they welcomed me. When Chris saw me shiver, he wrapped his sheepskin waistcoat around my shoulders; when I passed on the sherry bottle without taking a swig, he ordered his friend to shop-lift a bottle of red wine and a plastic glass. We sat together, Chris, his brothers and me, and talked and joked and threw words about until the sky turned red.
Over the following weeks and months, Chris and I became friends. He was an extraordinary story-teller and I was a keen audience to his tales. Sometimes we would meet in the Peace Gardens, other times he would take me to the top floor of a local art gallery where the curators knew him by name. He talked about the paintings as though they were his own. His favorite was a late nineteenth century watercolor by a British artist called Walter Small. On the canvas, sea water cascades over wooden flood defenses while an anxious woman points beyond the picture’s frame. She is comforted by an elderly man with an ample, snow-white beard and a wooden leg. In the crowd behind them, a small boy throws up his arms in terror. No-one comforts the child.
At the Vermont conference, the keynote speaker concludes her presentation and participants flood into the dining room for lunch. I sit down next to Mary and Tina. They have been married for nearly a decade and their foster daughter, their first, arrived 10 days ago. Despite the carefully measured doses of methadone and the fat scoops of baby formula and the unlimited attention they lavish upon her, the baby is failing to thrive. Mary tells us she spent last night sitting in the rocking chair holding the baby in her arms.
“She wouldn’t stop crying,” she tells us. “I couldn’t make her stop crying.”
Everything about Mary is tender, from the timbre of her Midwest voice to her perfectly manicured plump white hands. “It was the most awful noise, high-pitched and endless, and I simply couldn’t make her stop.” For a moment, her chin wobbles as though tears are close by.
We nod in sympathy and Tina lays her hand on Mary’s arm.
“It’s the methadone cry,” says a woman who sits across the table from us. “She’ll get over it eventually.”
“But you probably won’t,” says the man beside her, and we all laugh as though he meant to say something funny.
The baby is wrapped in a sling against Mary’s chest and her face is angled towards me. Miniature star-fish hands grasp at the air and her mouth puckers. She is smaller than either of my daughters have ever been. With the tip of my index finger, I stroke her cheek and coo baby noises. She stares through me. Her eyes are wide blue blanks, the color of a sky without weather.
Throughout my time as a student at Sheffield University, Chris took a benevolent interest in the things I studied. We would slump on the art gallery floor, and I would talk about Shakespeare, the Renaissance and Metaphysical poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Berryman. Chris sounded interested until the day I talked excitedly about a new local band called Pulp whose lyrics were, I thought, deep and meaningful and relevant to our lives.
“They know bollocks-all!” said Chris. “C’mon.”
He pushed himself up to standing. “I’ll show you the real Sheffield,” he said and picked his coat off the floor.
We walked through the East of the city, along streets where tourists and students were advised not to go. Snarling Rottweilers patrolled chain-link fences beneath railway arches, boarded up houses crouched in litter-strewn yards and shut down shops hid behind metal screened windows. As we turned off the main street, Chris began to hurry and, by the time we arrived on the stoop of a run-down concrete house, he was out of breath and I was sweating with the exertion of trying to keep up.
The face which appeared in the crack of the opened door stared at me with unconcealed hatred.
“Don’t be fuckin’ daft,” said Chris, but his voice was more wheedling than I’d ever before heard and he scuffed his toes and ducked his head slightly forward, as though in shame. It was the first time I felt I shouldn’t be where I was.
I don’t know why they let me in. Perhaps they thought I would be more conspicuous waiting on the street or perhaps Chris, even with his cravings upon him, didn’t want me to walk home alone.
I was hurried into a room which had been emptied of everything except the sofa. Someone had pinned a dark brown sheet across the window and the floor was sticky beneath my feet. Not daring to move, I sat on the sofa’s edge and waited and waited. Occasionally Chris’ voice—Chris’ new quieter voice which was splintered with hesitancies and half-words—drifted through the wall. Eventually he reappeared, a smile loosely pinned to his face, and called the man behind him “brother.”
No-one said good-bye as we left.
I wanted to hurry back to my student house and lay on my bed, listening to pop song lyrics and staring at the posters I’d pinned to my wall, but Chris turned the opposite way up the street and, not knowing my way home without him, I followed. In the corner of a tower block’s stairwell where the wind twisted garbage around our ankles and the graffiti was unreadable, he sprinkled pale brown powder onto a cigarette paper, rolled it, wet it, smoothed it and lit the end. We had shared spliffs before, but he didn’t offer me this. As evening settled, we strolled down the hill towards the city and Chris said it was as though elastic was being stretched through his brain.
The day before Red arrived in our home, we raided our home for things which might be unsafe. We hid a bottle of whisky at the back of an upstairs cupboard, replaced Nathan’s shaving kit with plastic safety razors, and gathered together two half-empty bottles of Oxycodone from the terrible time when Eva broke her leg. We put the drugs in a plastic bag and handed them furtively to a hospital pharmacist. He looked vaguely amused.
While we try to keep all our foster children safe, we have been particularly keen to ensure there are no temptations for Red and, at the moment, he is doing well. He has been sober during his most recent visits and, apart from the occasional discrete cigarette in the tree house, he keeps out of trouble.
“I want to be a chef,” he announced last week.
He and Nathan were standing, side-by-side, at the kitchen sink. Each had a recently killed chicken in their left hand and a sharp knife in their right.
“I’ve got this mentor now and he says chef-ing is a great way to travel, a great way to see a bit of the world.”
Closely copying Nathan, Red neatly removed the bird’s crop, a shiny covered ball filled with half-digested food. He studied it closely for a few moments before flicking it into the sink. While Red’s eyes were fixed on his handiwork, Nathan and I shared a smile. Until recently, Red’s main ambition was to become a local marijuana dealer. He has traveled beyond the borders of Vermont only once. Red does not know how it feels to fly in an airplane, to see the ocean, to walk among skyscrapers or to ride a train. The number of times he has been arrested exceeds the number of books he has read.
“Yeah,” he added, in his new, deeper grown-up voice, “I’d like to work in kitchens around the world.”
Putting down his knife for a moment, he angled his head towards Nathan and watched the way my husband loosened the chicken’s heart and guts. With a quick nick, he cut away the spleen and it shone darkly in the sink, a tiny jewel among all the pinks and reds.
“You need to be careful with that,” Nathan advised, “if you nick its surface, all the bile comes out and spoils the meat.”
As Red copied my husband, I felt a hope so strong it soured the back of my throat and made my stomach flip.
“I think you’d make a good chef,” I said, and Red nodded confidently.
“Yeah. The social worker says I’ll probably be able to move home with my mom in the fall and there’s a MacDonald’s near her house. My mom says I should pick up some shifts there.”
When Red was twelve years old, he smoked crack at his mother’s house. There had been a fight between his step-father and his mother, Red had intervened and his mother had left. His step-father had filled his crack pipe and offered Red a hit. When Red told me about this in the early days of our relationship, he tried to explain how his step-father had been trying to thank him. He asked me to find out if any traces of the crack would still be in his system, and I phoned several drugs counsellors and doctors so that I could give him a factual answer. I can understand the chemistry of the drug, but I struggle to understand how it must feel to have so little that one offers a child the drug one is smoking as a way of saying thanks.
After Red and Nathan filleted the birds, I told them I would clean away the mess. I scooped together the innards and the feathers, dropped them in the trash and turned the faucet on high. The water splashed against my hands and arms as I sluiced blood and feathers down the drain. I tried to remind myself that his mother and step-father love him, that I can’t decide his life, that it is not my role to judge or interfere. Watching the water disappear, I wondered what happens to hope when hope is no longer enough.
At the conference center, Mary and Tina tell us that, next week, they will take their baby to the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital for a bronchoscopy. There, specialists in sterile clothing will insert a tiny camera up the baby’s nose and down into her lungs.
“Perhaps it’s just the methadone,” says Mary, pushing aside her dessert plate, unfastening the sling which holds them together, and shifting the baby into the crook of her arm.
“They need to check whether her lungs are sufficiently developed,” says Tina.
The word ‘sufficient’ hangs over our table for a moment, unquestioned.
“Our son will be two next weekend,” says the man who made the half-joke about not getting used to the methadone cry. “When we weaned him off the methadone, it was like something brightened inside of him. He started doing all the things that normal babies do. It was like his soul arrived in his body.”
When we walk back towards the conference hall, I see the woman with the cross holding the baby dressed in the hot air balloons. Perhaps all we are trying to do is to coax souls into these baby’s bodies, as though they float above them like hot air balloons while we pull gently on their tethers.
The only time Chris ever said he regretted being a junkie was when the hospital refused to prescribe him sufficient pain relief to quell the agonies of pancreatitis and a failing liver. In my final year at university, he was admitted to hospital frequently, only to discharge himself hours or days later. Demented by pain, his world contracted to the route between the city and his dealer’s house.
In one of our last conversations, he said he had lived a good life: it had been a wild ride, but he wouldn’t change any of it. His grin was huge on a skeletal face.
“But maybe,” he paused for so long I thought he had fallen into another open-eyed sleep, “I’d have liked a place of my own for a while. Nowt fancy, y’know. I’d have liked to have had a few mornings spent in bed – Janis Joplin on the record player and a woman beside me. A bed big enough for us both.”
I had graduated and moved to Scotland before Chris died. On a visit back to Sheffield, I heard the story of how he was found on a makeshift pile of coats and blankets in the attic space of a burnt out building on the Wicker. It was a room with no roof. Sometimes I imagine how his death might have felt. I hope the sky was clear enough for him to see the stars. I hope he felt himself floating painlessly towards them, like a hot air balloon tumbling upwards.
- Tumbling Upwards - February 8, 2017