Hiraeth – Welsh (n.) the homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.
The home to which one cannot return. Mum’s boyfriend screams obscenities as the TV blares, there are sounds of breaking glass as she throws her half-consumed beer bottle at him. Police, sirens, lights, neighbours staring in the hallways of the apartment building, not even pretending that they are not watching the show. A woman takes my hand and asks me to gather my things. I take my stuffed puppy and put on Mum’s discarded sweatshirt, even though it is stained and hangs to my knees, it is soft and smells like her. The rest of my clothes are dirty. I push my tangled hair away from my sticky face, scared, watching Mum stumble as the police take her away. She doesn’t look for me, she’s forgotten me. The woman takes me from my home to a foster home. I am seven.
A home which maybe never was. My third foster home in five years is a business, not a home, and I am a paycheck. I am fed and clothed, I play soccer and take swimming lessons because the Agency pays for it, but I am left behind when they take their real kids to Disney. Sometimes I can pretend that I belong to them, but deep down, I know that I do not. I am an outsider. I am twelve.
The nostalgia. The foster home “doesn’t want teens”. Their real daughter and I are caught vaping behind the garage, we just wanted to see what all the hype was about. She loses her media for a week. I am kicked out. I am sent to my Gram’s. She has pictures of me as a small child, she knows stories about my mom growing up, she can tell me about the day I was born. There are pieces of me that belong here, have a history, have a past. But there are reasons why my mum struggled, generational curses and abuses that run strong. The smell of whiskey in Gram’s glass. Her boyfriend who creeps into my room at night. I start to run. I am fourteen.
The yearning. He is 23, dark, brooding, so good-looking he makes me dizzy. His car is fast and his gaze makes me feel like a million dollars. It is easy to give myself over to him, I will do whatever he wants to prove to him that I love him completely. He drinks, but so does everyone else in my life. The white lines of powder are easy to ignore. So is the way he grabs my wrist to tear me away from the crowd, the way he pulls my hair and spits in my face as he accuses me of flirting with the guy across the room. I beg and reassure him that there are no others. I can’t lose him. He’s the only one who has ever loved me, he gives me reason to breathe. I desperately want to belong to him, to someone. I am seventeen.
The grief for the lost places of your past. She cries, choking, hysterical sobs. I know those sobs, I cried them myself when I was three and terrified as Mum’s boyfriend pinned her up against the wall, hands on her neck. I gasp for breath, praying Hailey’s screams won’t wake her baby brother up, as his cries will further enrage their father, now 27. He makes me dizzy not by my love for him, but by the stranglehold he has on my neck, my life, my children. He pushes me away and I fall to the ground, my ears ringing. I can taste the metallic stickiness of blood as my lip swells. I am twenty one. I am back in the lost, dark places of my past, only this time I am my mum and my daughter is me. For her sake, for her brother’s sake, I can not do this any longer.
The nurse at the pediatrician’s office saw my bruises, the fear in my eyes, and gave me a business card. I carried the card for six months before I gathered up the courage to call, to meet with the kind woman who answered the phone.
"Safe Families," she said.
I outwardly laughed. Families aren’t safe. Families aren’t for people like me. But inwardly I weep. I want so badly to have a family. A grandmother who could baby-sit the children when I was overwhelmed. A father who would fix my toilet when it was running non-stop and the water bill was too high. A sister who would drop by for coffee and talk and laugh for hours. Cousins to run and play with my children. A family to ease the burden and the loneliness. Safe Families could help, this woman said. They could help care for my children while I leave their father, they could help me create a new life for the three of us. They could help me find an apartment. They could help with furniture. They could help me not be alone anymore.
I know that I am at a crossroads, that something must change if I don’t want my daughter or my son to grow up in foster care. I don’t want them to have my past. I don’t want them to have my future. I don’t want to have my future! I wanted to rewrite my story, create a future for myself that is different than my mum’s, my Gram’s. A tiny flame of hope starts to grow - maybe, just maybe, I could.
I call that Safe Families woman back. We make a plan. She introduces me to a family who could take Hailey and Daxsen, who could keep them safe while I make arrangements to leave their father and find a new place for the three of us to live. They won’t be a paycheck for this family for long, I would come and get them - - - they don’t get paid? Stunned, I can barely take this information in, that a family would want to take care of my children, feed and clothe them, without compensation. This can’t be true. No one does anything nice unless they want something in exchange. But as I watch this family with my children, the joy shines from their eyes and smiles. They genuinely seem to want to help.
The Safe Families woman helps me to find an apartment I can afford. Several pick-up trucks show up at my new apartment loaded with a sofa bed, a small kitchen table and three chairs, a toddler bed for Hailey, a crib for Daxsen, a coffee table, boxes of dishes, a shower curtain, towels, sheets, blankets. A silly framed picture of a llama that the kids will love! These people are from a church, and they say they want to bless my little family. One man who is in his late forties brings some tools from his truck and disappears into the bathroom. He whistles when he emerges. “Fixed the leaky toilet,” he says. “Don’t want the water bill to skyrocket!” I can not stop the tears from streaming down my face. I hadn’t even noticed that the toilet was running.
It doesn’t stop there. A lawyer volunteers to take my case and helps me file for sole custody and child support. The man who fixed my leaky toilet is an RCMP officer who helps me obtain a Protection Order. When Hailey and Daxsen return home, I discovered that in the three weeks they were with the Host Family, Sarah – the mom - potty trained Hailey and got Daxsen to sleep through the night! The burden of parenting is no longer solely mine to bear, it is being shared. Sarah takes my kids every other weekend to give me a break. Sometimes I revel in the bliss of being able to sleep in and make myself pancakes and not have to share! Sometimes the depression and sorrow floods in but I am able to sit with it and sort through it without needing to focus on my wee ones. The other day I gathered up the courage to ask her to watch Hailey and Daxsen while I went to the dentist for an infected tooth. She said yes! When I got a flat tire that left me stranded on the side of the road on the way back, she sent her husband Ron to change it for me, and then he took me to the garage to see if the tire could be patched.
I am seeing my children blossom. Sarah has become a friend, she and Ron are like a safe aunt and uncle that I never had growing up. I started going to the church that gave me the furniture, and feel like some of the other young moms there might become friends as well if I let them. I won’t lie, it’s a struggle after years of not belonging to anyone, to feel that I am not alone, that I don’t have to do life by myself, that I am worthy.
Because that is the key. I am worthy. I am worthy, and because they reached out and helped me to see that, my little family is now safe. My children have a home. They will never know hiraeth.
This essay is a work of fiction, but is all too true of the families, women and children that Safe Families strives to serve. Growing up in foster care, growing up without safe supports, being isolated and alone leads to situations where children become unsafe simply because the parents have no healthy emotional or physical supports available to them. Creating a caring, compassionate village is so simple, yet so effective! Safe Families strives to build community with extended-family-like support around parents who just need a helping, loving hand to raise up their children and themselves. This mission to display radical, Biblical hospitality is core to the Christian faith: helping the poor, loving the lonely, giving shelter to the stranger and inviting the hungry to share our table.
If you would like to view more information on Safe Families, please visit www.safefamiliescanada.com.
For further information, including how to become a Safe Families volunteer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
~ Michelle Peters, Director, Safe Families Steinbach