Saving the World : Motherhood as Advocacy

Saving the World : Motherhood as Advocacy

by Michelle Brockway

She crouched behind the bed and whispered into the phone. She had called the police, she said. A voice outside the bedroom door threatened, demanding that she pull the chair from beneath the knob. The voice belonged to her father, a man who had pressed a pistol to his handcuffed wife’s head, crushed his child’s hand in his own — who most recently had lifted the sheets under which this girl, his younger daughter, had feigned sleep…

A confusion of sounds. She would call me back, she said. But my phone didn’t ring, and no one answered hers. She could be downtown, she could be dead. I sped along dim freeways, past the yellow lights of the factories on her side of town. I imagined her father as powerful and crazed. I knew he was a member of an evangelistic church, but this was a sect I knew little about.

In the courtyard of the apartment complex I heard only the scuffing of my shoes — no sobs or shouts, no ambulance, no crazed intruder. Then a flick of a curtain, a tap on glass. Teresa was peeking through a window, beckoning me inside. I hesitated beyond the threshold. I was only her teacher, after all. She leaned out the window to check the apartment’s front door. Her voice was small, her brown eyes red-rimmed and shocked. But no, I protested, I could not come in. She seemed half her 16 years, though, and she said please. If good judgment prevailed, she would grieve alone. It didn’t. The cops had come, she explained as we huddled in the dark, but they’d just missed the father. Her mother had unplugged the phone — her child’s isolation the punishment for communication; “he never raped you,” her best wifely defense. Court documents would later confirm the incest.

Fear prevented more than a minute’s reassurance. I knew how this looked, and I would not be able to explain it, especially in light of that other complication even Teresa didn’t know about.

The next evening her last refuge coughed her up; her sister wanted her out. I would fetch her, I told the caseworker; we would figure out something tomorrow. My patient partner of six years slept alone that night while I took the couch and Teresa stayed in the spare room under the roof of her English teacher: Miss Brockway — pretty cool, too smart, hard, funny, a real bitch, I bet she’s a dyke.

In the morning Teresa embraced her bag of belongings and I drove her to school to wait for the miracle we both knew wasn’t going to happen. Later that afternoon the caseworker lingered outside the door of my classroom. He was returning Teresa to a shelter, he said; then she would be sent off to a “home” for girls in another city to sit out the last 18 months of official childhood. I can’t let that happen, I told him. I’d promised her that much. But her options, he stressed, had been exhausted.

“She can stay with me” — a reaction merely, immature perhaps, failing to consider the implications or even to call home first. The caseworker was young, but he’d been in the business long enough to know nothing was going to come up for Teresa, not even foster care. If she refused to go with him, he wasn’t going to drag her out to the county van; but he saw the bigger picture, and he challenged me: “Are you willing to keep her till she’s 18?”

I contemplated the empty hallway. I had a contented, child-free life and a doting girlfriend. I could not make that commitment, not here, surrounded by lockers and school bells ringing and the 150 teenagers I called work. But the shelter — that was not acceptable. It would mean the final corruption of a surprisingly uncorrupted kid.

So I took her home that day, with no plan, nor much hope for one — two lesbians, two cats, and a straight girl without a clue. Even I prayed.

With poetic cruelty, Teresa described four weeks in a shelter — chicks tougher than she who sought power in crack and comfort in promiscuity.

I met Teresa in the English class I taught in a high school in an area where working-class people had once lived rather well. My seven years in public education had blunted the shock of poverty and pregnancy, child abuse, incest, crime. Kids came and went. Teresa, too, had appeared, leaden-eyed, gum-cracking, then disappeared. When she returned in January, after a month’s absence, I had scribbled a list of assignments. The drifters rarely made up missed work, but Teresa surprised me. She read the literature, passed the semester exam, turned in a notebook. And what a notebook: With poetic cruelty she described four weeks at a government shelter — the anonymous bunk-bed rooms, common showers, chicks tougher than she who sought power in acid and crack, comfort in promiscuity, the tears of all in the honest night.

Teresa had come back to school via a compromise with county authorities: She could stay with her sister, herself just 21 and so very few blocks away from the parents’ home, provided that the father stay away. By that time, she had little left: a few school chums, a position on the student paper. And talent. It separated her from the many ruined others. For Teresa, there was hope. There had to be. Because if there was no hope for her, then why bother?

In February Teresa handed each of us a card. To my partner she wrote, “Thank you for taking me into your home and for being so kind. You literally saved my life.”.

I suggested we try to publish her story. She agreed, less for the project, I suspected, than for the promise of companionship. Soon she was slipping me envelopes — “Miss Brockway” in blue curlicues outside; inside, confessions of weariness and rage and bulimic disgust, of solitary nights shared with a tiny niece while her sister worked in a topless bar for tips. She missed her mother. I gave her my number. From the beginning the gay issue offered the most dramatic potential in our relationship. As my sense of responsibility outgrew the teacher-student confines, I agonized over professional propriety. There was ethics, I decided, and there was compassion. But would Teresa, so young, from such a past, accept the purity of feelings I myself could not yet comprehend? Yet she had no one else.

“Where do you sleep?” the caseworker asked, clipboard in hand, scrutinizing our home soon after Teresa moved in. He peeked into the pantry, opened the refrigerator, studied her room — once my room, or the room of my things — with a door she could close nights. I slept with my friend, I said, cringing behind implausible nonchalance. He noted this without comment. Weeks passed. Teresa craved contact, pouncing like a favorite cat the moment I slowed my pace, plopping down beside me wherever I rested, touching my arm, holding my hand. “Always keep a pillow between you and the child,” a county worker emphasized, “regardless of your sex.”

But after that, it all went wrong. Suddenly our home was engulfed in tender nerves and distraught passions, unnerving flashbacks to the mother-daughter frictions of half my life ago.

One night we faced each other cross-legged on the couch. Teresa rolled mascara off her eyelashes, flecked pink nail polish onto a tissue, wiped her nose with the back of her unlined hand. “I love you,” she said. I cried. I loved her, too.

But what if she found out? She’d grown up following the Bible her father’s way. Only 144,000 people were going to Heaven. And, according to her father’s Bible, I was not counted among them. But she’d renounced that world view the day church elders dismissed her father’s gropings as mere “body chemistry”; sin, they said, but not mortal sin. But isn’t homophobia — the only obstacle between us, it seemed at the time — always the last to go?

Coming out to Teresa would put so much more than my own personal rejection at risk. I had a job in a conservative school district. More important, I didn’t want to complicate Teresa’s first safe breathing space with fears promulgated by a culture that didn’t know me. Legally, we needed a judge’s authorization for Teresa to stay with me, an unrelated person not certified as a foster parent. Just days before the court date, Teresa’s ad litem attorney called. “It doesn’t matter to me,” she began, my gut twisting at her tone, “but I have to ask you: Are you and your roommate any more than best friends?” The parents had voiced suspicions. I envisioned journalists dogging me up courthouse steps, Teresa hauled off to the Lazy R Home for Girls. I could survive the infamy, if necessary, but what good would making the good fight do Teresa? Only the most courageous and least ambitious of judges would risk defending a gay foster parent in this state, still home to an obstinate sodomy law, regardless of the child’s other options. I lied — terrified that I would be asked the same question under oath the following week.

On the day of the hearing, Teresa and I entered the courthouse dolled up and trembling. We sat in the judge’s chambers as Teresa’s attorney and the parents’ attorney, from their church, dickered. Hours later we peered up at the bench, relieved. The lawyers had reached an agreement. Today, I would not commit perjury; all I had to say was “Yes, sir,” and we were out of there. Teresa and I exited the courthouse doors, past the beds and blankets of protesters — some other cause, not ours — into the soothing sunshine.

Later, during home visits, low-budget government counselors excavated the dramas of my family — had I “confronted” my parents about this or that, standard questions that seemed inappropriate, given Teresa’s experiences. Then that question again: “Is there a sexual component to your relationship with your roommate?” The lie was scarcely credible: my partner and I the last of the great spinster virgins?

It was a game of chicken, and we squawked, forgoing the monthly stipend granted upon foster parent certification for the vestiges of privacy and relief from the taint of illicitness.

“Nothing’s for free,” Teresa’s sister warned her — Teresa’s sister, for whom, indeed, nothing ever had been free. “Keep your bedroom door locked.”

“Her love for you is perverted,’ her mother insisted, ascribing her own pain to everyone except the tyrant with whom she still slept.

Finally Teresa approached me with the familiar words: “It’s really none of my business…”

Afterward we wept — the truth and I were out. We laughed, too. Wasn’t it funny that I, who’d sworn off children so young, the big talker who was now, it seemed, accidentally a mother?

I wrestled with the role and the affection I felt for the childlike girl who tickled my arm with still-plump fingers and constantly proclaimed her love, who erupted in giggles at my enduring ineptitudes. I could not defend the other mother, but I respected her resentment and frustrated maternal yearnings. Who the hell was I?

Teresa, too, pondered motherhood, slipping pages of her writing into my hands, watching me read. Of her birth mother: “She gave me just enough to comfort me after one of my father’s terrible beatings, but she never had enough to stop it. She had enough strength to wipe the blood from my lips with a cold wet wash cloth, but she never had enough to stop the punch to begin with.” And of me: “This is the mother who never hangs around me when I’m sick, because she knows I’m really not. The mother that would prefer to save me from a madman rather than a headache.”

In February Teresa handed each of us a card. To my partner she wrote, “Thank you for taking me into your home and for being so kind. You literally saved my life.” On my card a kitten floated on a raft trailed by a printed message: “You’re a real lifesaver!” The note inside said, “You took me in a year ago today with no intention of keeping me. Guess what? I’m still here. And I’m NEVER leaving.”

Teresa’s two Moms smiling over lacy Mother’s Day cards, perched on damp bleachers with binoculars and spotting their kid’s robe among a sea of green seniors, jostling with other parents at the Library of Congress for just the right photo as the daughter reads her work — her story, the project begun when she was merely my student, winner of a national writing award, one of several scholarships she received that year.

But after that, it all went wrong. Suddenly our home was engulfed in tender nerves and distraught passions, unnerving flashbacks to the mother-daughter frictions of half my life ago. I saw lies and manipulation; Teresa saw paranoia. In two years we’d gone through a decade of emotional growth, from sweet clinging childishness to this: adolescence. I had urged Teresa, sometimes dragged her, to this point, through driver’s ed, SATs, work. I had not yet made peace with being so very much needed, and now it was time to let go.

At 18, a college freshman, Teresa met a boy, a high school student she poured herself into. I panicked, stupidly surprised to realize that the education meant to fix everything provided no guaranteed escape from the misery of her mother and sister, their emotional and financial dependence, their restricted roles — victim, vixen. My ultimate fear, my mother’s fear for me once: a pregnancy that changes everything. Was it inevitable? I was 32 when Teresa arrived, my mother’s age when I was 16. Too young.

Teresa’s dishonesty paled in comparison with my own teenage antics. But in the context of our short past, it was devastating. My struggles, the risks I had taken, loomed now: the dread on the courthouse steps; the bureaucratic probes; the lost privacy, time, space; the household mess. Bitter betrayal bit through muddled comprehension. I could not go through this again.

One lonesome night Teresa ran shrieking out of her room, hyperventilating from a bad dream or the nightmare of actuality. That was the last time I held her, the first time in weeks. I walked through most of that night, and in the morning clutched a pillow and longed for conflagration. This was too extreme. A doctor put me on an antidepressant, and I asked Teresa to move out. We would help, I said. But she vanished. Afterward, I vacuumed from under her bed the accumulated hairballs and baby powder and polished fingernail clippings, a shredded photograph: my eyes, my lips.

I haven’t seen Teresa in three years. A letter or poem, a phone call, then she slips away again. I read the obituaries, the small notices in the newspaper of young women dying in car wrecks or from domestic rage.

The gay “problem,” the focus of so much anxiety, never became an issue. So much for victory.

A friend saw Teresa recently, holding the little girl she gave birth to one year after moving away. She was standing beside her mother, the woman who had watched one daughter flee and denied the other’s desperate appeals — who had failed, pitifully, to protect her children from persistent brutality. How had she remained in Teresa’s heart, while I, apparently, had not?

It is, I think, because she is her mother, despite all. I was just a woman with a lot of will and a craving for justice. I showed some courage. Maybe Teresa did owe me more. But in claiming that debt, I relinquished the maternal role. I was just a schoolteacher who had done a good turn, I told her finally, a friend only. You can’t treat friends as you treat your mother.

I was the crusader in Teresa’s life when she most needed such an advocate. But when it was time to lay aside the armor, I discovered more weakness than I had ever expected. I did not abandon motherhood to take the easy road; I could not take it. When I stepped through the window that night, I hadn’t meant to conceive. I’d only meant to be kind. Lucky me — I had an out.

And yet . . . I do feel like a mother, waiting for a lost child. She is grown, growing older. But if I ever see her again, I will love her well. Like a daughter. Meanwhile, the world will have to survive on its own.

Michelle Brockway is a freelance writer and former teacher who lives in Houston, Texas.