The Greatest Gift of All

by francine Hardaway on December 18, 2002

Last week-end, I took a drive to Tucson from Phoenix. Any doubt I had that the long-standing rivalry between Phoenix and Tucson should be history was erased by the almost continuous development along the Interstate between them. In our lifetimes, Phoenix and Tucson will be one continuous megalopolis, not unlike the Bay Area in California.

Why go to Tucson on the week-end? Because my former foster child, the one we used to call Little Jerry (he’s 6’4″ and 205 lbs. now, and twenty years old), is in the Arizona Correctional Treatment Facility in Marana, just north of Tucson.

When I met LJ, he was ten, and his family was falling apart — crumbling under the weight of his parents’ drug addictions. He and his three siblings, one older and two younger, were pretty much raising themselves. Earnest and afraid in the gunshot-ridden ghetto he grew up in, (now part of a glorious downtown redevelopment) he begged me to mentor him. And when Child Protective Services removed him from his mother, my late husband and I became foster parents and took him into our home.

Things were fine until my husband died, and Jerry was seventeen. Suddenly, his behavior changed, and after months of denial, I had to admit he was on drugs. A police sergeant in South Phoenix who arrested Jerry helped me to this realization: “lissen, lady, your kid’s a drug user and a drug dealer. I don’t care what you think.” I piled LJ into the back of my Mercedes and drove him home. That sergeant must have thought I was blind, deaf and dumb.

Six weeks before his high school graduation, LH dropped out and went back to live with his birth mother, who “lived” in the Deck Park in Phoenix and worked part time as a crack whore. For three years, he was homeless, on crack himself, and in and out of jail for petty crimes — DUI, probation violations, failure to appear. I saw him once or twice during that time, and it made *me* feel like the failure; he weighed about 125 and looked ghastly. Why had I not been able to help him?

Finally, he was sentenced to two years in prison for various small crimes and one big one: breaking and entering. He called me and asked me to appear at his sentencing hearing, as a character witness, and I did. After all, he had broken my heart, but that’s not a crime.

I stood in the courtroom and told the judge about his interrupted school experiences, his disrupted childhood, and his bi-polar disorder. I said, “if you let this kid languish in prison for two years without helping him, he will be our responsibility for the rest of his life, just as his birth mother is. You had better get him treatment and help, or you’ll never see the end of him in this system.”

The judge turned to LJ and said, “you are lucky to have this woman in your life,” and sentenced him to the treatment facility instead of the prison.

But it took nine months for a space to open at Marana, during which LJ marked time at Safford. On October 15, he finally got transferred to Marana. On November 21, he wrote me to tell me he had finally gotten his GED.

So I, who had always been an advocate for education in his life, “rewarded” him by driving down to the facility to visit him before Christmas.

There aren’t any words to describe our joyful reunion. There he was, clean, sober, good looking, articulate and intelligent — asking me questions about everyone we knew in common including his dog, which I still have. He’s taking classes in business management, and he has read every Sidney Sheldon and John Grisham novel in the facility.

He is making plans for when he gets out — plans that include never going back. Of course I know there is recidivism. Of course I know there may be relapses. But as a mother, just seeing him healthy, strong, and using his mind was enough to make me weep for joy. One day at a time.

Everyone always asks me what I want for Christmas. This is all I want: the health and happiness of everyone I love.

And that includes all of you.

Namaste (which is Sanskrit for “the light that is within me salutes the light that is within you”)and happy holidays.

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