Two days after meeting the shy, nearly mute boy in the corner, we returned to the shelter with a large cheese pizza in hand. It was a Monday night and I had left work early to make it to the shelter before they served dinner to the children at 5:30 p.m. The sun was setting as we walked in. They led us to the same visitation room where we met Marcus two months earlier. We sat in silence as I nervously arranged the plates and napkins and pizza on the tiny, low table. We brought a bag with coloring books and crayons and JENGA.
After our first visit with the boy, shelter manager Kathy had called to see how things went. We were at a Thai restaurant close to the shelter when she called. I eagerly answered and described the visit. I finally paused long enough to hear the background noise. She had sensed this and apologized. She was at the mall Christmas shopping with her children, she told me. I felt a pang of guilt and told her we could talk later but she insisted.
“I couldn’t wait to hear how it went,” she said. “He’s such an angel.” She went on, “I dug a little deeper on his case and I’m really glad you are a permanency minded family.” She went on to describe the child’s lack of extended family, the unlikelihood of reunification with his mother, and the low odds of even locating his father.
So by the time our Monday visit rolled around, my mind was racing. Even more so than other foster placements, this one could be forever.
It was a while before the staff member opened the door and guided the reluctant and wide-eyed boy through the door. I put a big smile on my face. He stood in the doorway – taking in the scene. When the staff member gently pushed him forward into the room and shut the door behind him, he appeared more like a prisoner of war than a child about to have a special pizza dinner.
“We brought you pizza!” My husband exclaimed, “You like pizza, right?”
The boy looked from my husband to the pizza and then to me as I opened the box and put a slice on a paper plate. He took it and eyed it suspiciously. I set a water bottle in front of him on the floor (we didn’t have a lot of space) before serving myself a slice and sliding down to sit on the floor.
He finally took a slow bite and some of the tomato sauce spilled onto his shirt. He looked embarrassed and rubbed at it sloppily with a napkin – making more of a mess than he started with. He looked longingly towards the door.
He struggled to chew his pizza. “My teeth hurt,” he told us. I remembered all the dental work Victoria told us he had.
We tried to ask him questions. About his day. About school. About his teacher. He barely answered and when he did, it was a simple nod of his head or “no.” Usually “no.” What is your favorite color? “No.” How was school? “No.” We would come to learn that was his favorite word.
After he had struggled to chew as much pizza as he could, we cleaned up our plates and asked if he wanted to color. He didn’t. Instead he pulled out some of small plastic animal toys sitting in the corner of the visitation room.
He banged them together, made fart noises, and giggled. “Poop!” He yelled. We played along. I made the animal sounds. “Baaaaah” for a sheep. “Mooooo” for a cow. But he continued to just bang the animals together, make farting noises, and say “poop!”
It was jarring to watch. We knew he was seven. But his play was like that of a 2 year old. His speech was similarly like that of a much younger child. I wasn’t sure if he understood us when we spoke to him.
“Do you like your teacher?” I asked. “I’m in second grade,” he answered.
I continued as if this tracked logically. “What is your teacher’s name?”
“Ms. Johnson,” he said. I was satisfied. Maybe he did sort of understand me.
After a few minutes, he asked to go outside and we headed out to the basketball court. He seemed annoyed that we were following him and looked anxiously around for the staff and other children who were inside watching a movie.
What we saw on the court was equally jarring in its stark contrast to what we saw inside the visitation room. He was miraculously coordinated. Weak to be sure – he had to take a break to cough and catch his breath every few minutes. But he could dribble, run, and ride a skateboard.
Kathy came out as we were playing and I jogged over to her. We made a plan to come back in three days – that coming Thursday to try to take him off-site.
When we said goodbye to our new friend, he looked relieved and didn’t say a word as he quickly turned on his heels and scurried back into the shelter.