When Grace Comes to Call
The ear-piercing ring of the telephone at four o’clock on a Saturday morning jolted me from a sound sleep. When I lunged for it, it toppled off the bedside table and landed on the floor. I tumbled after it, hit the light switch, and grabbed the receiver.
“Hello?” I said breathlessly.
“It’s me,” whispered the voice on the other end. “He’s going to kill me.”
“Where are you, Becky?” I asked, recognizing her voice immediately.
“In Stockton. I need you to come get me.”
“Hold on a minute,” I said.
I put the receiver down and hurried to the next room for pen and paper. Becky gave me the address and, without another word, disconnected.
Fully awake and trembling, I slipped into my robe and went downstairs to wake Allison. She was already sitting up in bed rubbing her eyes and wondering what was going on.
“It’s Becky,” I said. “We have to go.”
Becky was Allison’s drug-addicted daughter, now nearly 30 years old and still very much under the sway of her addiction. At Christmastime a few months earlier, she had shown up unannounced and very pregnant. A baby girl arrived on schedule in early January, but we had never seen her and knew next to nothing about Becky’s current circumstances.
Allison and I had been life partners for over a decade. Recently, we had been talking about separating, but it was complicated. We had joint bank accounts, owned a house, a business, automobiles, and in those days before the legal protections afforded by domestic partnerships and/or gay marriage, we were on our own to sort ourselves out. It seemed easier to put off dealing with it, and that’s what we’d been doing of late.
Allison made coffee while I studied the map that would guide us to the address Becky had given to me.
“When’s the last time you heard from her?” I asked.
“It’s been months,” she replied. “She was in jail the last time she called.”
“Where was the baby?”
“I didn’t ask.”
Typical Allison, I thought.
A few minutes later, we were on the road for the 90-minute drive to Stockton. Allison sat pensively in the passenger’s seat as I sorted through the list of scary thoughts that were just now beginning to bubble up. Why had Becky called us, and not the police? Why hadn’t we alerted the police ourselves? Why were we inserting ourselves in the midst of what could be a dangerous situation?
The sun was blinding as it rose over the eastern horizon, and it forced me to slow down considerably. I glanced at Allison and could see the tic by her left eye firing repeatedly, a sign that this situation was more stressful than she was letting on.
The address in Stockton was easy to find. It was an old Victorian downtown on California Street, and like many of the once stately homes, it had been carved up into separate apartments and now stood in disrepair.
“I’ll wait here, Allison. You go get Becky and the baby. If you’re not back in five minutes, I’m calling the cops from that pay phone over there,” I said pointing to the booth less than half a block away.
“Okay,” she said climbing out of the car.
I watched her walk away swinging her arms, her fists clenched. Allison loved nothing more than a good fight, and she was gathering herself. As soon as she disappeared around the corner, I checked my watch and debated whether it wouldn’t be best to call the police immediately. Before I could decide, however, Allison and Becky rounded the corner and scurried toward the car. Once Becky settled herself in the backseat with the baby perched on her lap, I turned to have a look.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Alyssa,” she replied.
The infant was dressed in a stained white undershirt and disposable diaper but warm enough for mid-June. Drool trickled down her chin, and she stared at me with her big brown eyes. Fine whisps of straight blond hair grew over her forehead. Oddly, neither her features nor her coloring revealed the slightest trace of her mother’s African American heritage.
“The bastard ran into the bathroom when I came in,” Allison growled as she swung the car door closed.
When we got back to the East Bay, Becky treated us to a tour of her battle scars, which she displayed with more pride than dismay.
“Are you using, Becky?” I asked.
“Not right now,” she replied, but her emaciated body and the way her eyes slid to the floor told me otherwise.
While an exhausted Becky went off to take a bath, Allison and I undressed the infant and inspected her tiny body. She, too, was in need of a bath, but other than a couple of superficial bruises, there were no visible injuries. We did note that the back of her head was flat, and the left side of her head, unlike the rest of her scalp, was nearly devoid of hair.
After bathing the child, we discovered that Becky’s bag contained only a few random items of clothing, but no diapers, bottles, or baby formula. I headed out to get supplies.
Over the next couple of days, and with uncommon candor, Becky filled us in on her life since the birth of the baby. George was someone she met at the rehab facility where she had gone to detox during the latter part of her pregnancy, she told us. After the baby was born, she and George reunited, and together, they resumed the familiar pattern of drug abuse, pimping, prostitution, and frequent homelessness. The only difference now was that Becky had both an abusive partner and a baby to add to the mix.
Dealing drugs and prostitution paid the rent on the apartment where she and George were now living. Alyssa was often left on the bare wooden floor while people came and went, day and night. Nor was it unusual for the baby to be left alone while George and Becky took care of business on the streets.
“George says I just need to learn to trust, whatever that means,” said Becky.
Upon further questioning, it became clear that in his twisted logic, teaching Becky to “trust” translated into a justification for the physical and emotional abuse he inflicted upon her. The baby was a bonus, one more tool at his disposal to be used when Becky resisted and bending her to his will required drastic means. Threatening the child’s life by dangling her by one leg and holding the point of a butcher knife to her belly while she screamed and flailed in mid-air, he had discovered, invariably made Becky obedient to his perverse demands.
“Has Child Protective Services ever gotten involved,” I asked.
Again, her evasive eyes.
“So, is that a yes?”
“Well, there was this one time. I left her at the welfare office and didn’t make it back before they closed.”
She claimed that was the only time, but I didn’t believe a word of it.
As the weekend wore on, Becky became increasingly restless and irritable with each passing hour. When we woke up on Monday morning, she was gone having left both her baby and a note that said nothing about when she might return.
“Oh, this is just great,” I protested angrily. “Whose going to take care of the baby?”
Allison and I both had full-time jobs. I was a practicing attorney, Allison managed the business we owned, and we had about an hour to get ourselves out the door.
“I’ll take her with me,” said Allison.
Miraculously, by the end of the day, kind friends sympathetic to our plight had provided for all of our immediate needs, including childcare. Weeks went by with no word from Becky.
Alyssa was an adorable, easy baby—too easy in many respects. For one thing, she never cried. There were other signs that all was not well. At six months, she had not met any of her developmental milestones. She was underweight, and a full meal made her sick. She startled at the least sound, her face registering alarm, her eyes growing wide and wild, her arms and legs stiffening. In her anxiety, she grabbed fistfuls of hair on the left side of her head and pulled hard until wispy strands dangled from her tiny fist.
I tried to keep my distance. I didn’t want to get attached. My own two kids were barely out of the nest, and I still intended to leave the relationship with Allison at some point. Allison was Alyssa’s grandmother, and as far as I was concerned, the baby was her problem to deal with. I assumed it was only a matter of time before the child ended up in foster care anyway.
Yet for all that, I thought it would be prudent to do a little poking around, given the extremes of abuse Becky had reported. That decision resulted in the second life-altering phone call in less than a month—the one I placed to the Stockton Police Department.
“Oh, sure,” said the officer on the other end of the line. “Becky and George. We’re breakin’ up their fights all the time. It was worse when they were on the streets, of course, but yeah, I know those two really well. It’s a dangerous situation, those two.”
“What about the baby?” I asked.
“You want my honest opinion?”
“That baby will not survive.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly.
I got up and closed the door to my office. I needed a moment to take in what I had just heard. Holy crap, what now? My head buzzed, and I couldn’t quite catch my breath. Up until that point, the scenario I had in mind was this: Becky would show up eventually. We would hand over the baby and the stuff we had purchased for her care, give Becky a couple hundred bucks, put her on a bus, and life would go back to “normal.” But that scenario drifted away like smoke.
When I told Allison about my conversation with the Stockton police, she barely seemed to listen.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
She picked at the skin around her fingernail for a while and then sighed.
“Oh, I don’t know. That’s just Becky,” she said, and then she got up and left the room.
Although the information from the Stockton police was obviously more concerning to me than it was to Allison, I was still determined to keep my distance. One way I did this was by referring to the baby, not by her name, but as “our littlest roommate,” as if, like many roommates, she would one day break her lease and disappear leaving us stuck with two dozen diapers and the baby furniture.
But one day, as I was driving home from a trip to the grocery store, I got stuck at an intersection with an unusually long red light. The littlest roommate was in her car seat in the back, and as I waited for the light to change, I studied her in the rearview mirror.
She was gazing out the window and smiling as if she had a secret. Her chin was tilted and raised in a gesture of defiance, as if she were in charge and had everything under control—OF COURSE. The expression was so striking and so at odds with her infantile dependence and uncertain future that I began to laugh.
I don’t know what kind of superpowers she was conjuring up back there, but suddenly, my laughter turned to tears, and I experienced in the most visceral way possible the absolute existential reality of her beingness—solid, present and so very much alive. How could I have been so cavalier about her situation and what might happen to her? All of my distancing maneuvers had failed, and in that moment, much to my surprise, I was possessed only by love.
After crossing the intersection, I pulled over and shut the engine off. I turned around to face her, this tiny, mistreated, now seven-month-old girl child who looked so vital and full of her own toughness. She was wondrous—and frightening. She took my breath away—and broke my heart.
“Okay,” I said as tears continued to fall. “I promise you this, little one. You will not go back, and you will never go into the system. I’ll see to it.”
She blew me a raspberry, waved her arms, kicked her legs, and the deal was struck. It took four years to clear the way, but finally, on a cold winter day, I sat before a judge and watched with bated breath as he congratulated me and signed the order finalizing her adoption.