The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Child in Care. By Keith White

It’s been another of those weekends at Mill Grove, and I need to find ways of understanding not only how to describe and frame two extraordinary encounters that took place, but also how to identify and stay in touch with the personal feelings they have provoked in me.  Each of the people in question had spent part of their childhoods at Mill Grove because their family situations were so chaotic, fraught and fragile.  Neither of them knew their fathers, or even their fathers’ names.  And although they both had half-brothers and sisters, neither of them felt close to any of their siblings, or to their mothers.  So, they have had to navigate their long and lonely way through childhood, teenage and adulthood trying to find ways of making what sense they could of their own stories, of education, work, relationships and life by drawing mostly on their native wit, their intuitions, and hunches.

The male (who was substantially older than the female) had been abandoned twice by his mother, before later in his childhood she invited him and one of his half-brothers to live with her and her new partner.  Predictably this ended in disaster for both brothers.  Floyd, as I will call him, came back to live at Mill Grove for a time.  He then spent many years living independently before coming back to live with us as a mature adult.  He had encountered serious problems with housing and employment due to his lack of citizenship in any country.  We promised to help him with this, and the good news is that he is now a British citizen with his own passport.

My conversation with him was completely unplanned, and so for most of the time he stood holding a broom and a yellow work-vest.  It was only as the subject matter deepened that he sat down beside me.  There were times when tears welled up in his eyes, notably when he talked of how independent he had been all his life.  This was, of course, a matter of necessity.  From another perspective you could say that he had never formed a satisfactory attachment as a baby or young child.  Rather there was a succession of moves involving a variety of substitute carers, and his inner world had become separated from that of others. It was heavily fortified.  None of those who know him best feel that we have developed a close relationship with him, though we are very fond of him.

Then he started reflecting about the fact that he understood his mother better than one of his older brothers.  His brother was under the illusion (that was Floyd’s word, not mine) that their mother loved him, and that if he could live with her again everything would be happy ever after.  Floyd knew that this was untrue.  And I began to see that he had formed sensible and realistic views of not only his mother, but of other people in his life.  There was nothing in his re-telling of his story and experiences that was at variance with the facts as I knew them.  But at the same time his deepest feelings seemed suspended or frozen.  He interacted with others politely, caringly, but (understandably in the circumstances) without risking a genuine engagement of his inner world and theirs.  The emotional scars of serial abandonments were far too raw.

But the moment came when I felt it might be appropriate to ask him if he knew how much he meant to us and our family.  He had always been dear to us, and it had been excruciating for us (as we knew it was for him) when he had been forced to move into unsatisfactory settings.  I had been affected deeply by the distress he felt at being deemed a non-person (i.e. stateless and without citizenship by officials in Germany, where he was born, and the UK where he has spent nearly all his life.  His siblings dropped everything and came to see him when they discovered the fact that he had been abandoned by his father, mother and nation-state.  There was no response that I could detect involving his own feelings, until that is, he began to compare his life, his values and the person he was with that of others he knew (including his siblings).

Without mentioning him by name he described how he owed most of what he had become to my father.  From him he learned about right and wrong, about respect for others, about truthfulness and honesty.  And there were gentle tears as he spoke.  That is where our conversation ended.  And I am aware that it may not seem very significant.  But it is the farthest and deepest we have ever got. For he had talked about another person, one whom I knew loved him dearly, and who was fully aware of the pain that Floyd’s traumas, rejections and losses had caused.  My father did all he could for Floyd and was always there for him.  It seemed to me that there was a hint of an acknowledgement that my father meant something special to Floyd, and that, risky as it was, Floyd had admitted it, though in a rather tangential way.

Later that evening (it was a Saturday) Floyd asked me if I would pray for a friend of his who was in a hospice and dying of bone cancer.  He knew that I would be leading worship in a church not far away the following day, and I assured him that I would do so, touching him gently on the arm as I did so.  Of course, you could say that this request had little or nothing to do with our earlier conversation.  But my sense is that it was an eloquent, though probably unconscious continuation of our emotional interaction.  Here was someone he cared about, and that was part of his inner world, and he immediately wanted to share it with me.

In view of Floyd’s long-held way of coping with the cards he has been dealt in life, it is likely that there will be little chance of substantial change in the rest of his life.  But experience has taught me not to rule anything out, so I would not bank on it.  But in the meantime, it was such a relief he was able to receive just a hint of love, concern and care.

The other conversation was planned.  Melody, as I will call her, had arranged to come over to see Ruth and me on our return from North Wales.  It was the second visit since she had lived with us a young girl.  She was now self-employed and with a daughter at junior-school.  Her mother had struggled with chronic clinical depression and had undermined any relationships that we could establish with Melody.  After a desperately unhappy spell at home Melody spent the rest of her childhood and adolescence in the care system, with the relentless pressure from her mother to believe that she was bad, and that so were we.

Melody has always been intelligent, creative and outgoing and the fact was that we loved her dearly and were devastated when things turned out the way they did.  So you can imagine the joy we felt on her return.  As we chatted however the loneliness that she had experienced and felt year by year became all too evident.  She wanted to know if she really was that bad, and it seemed incongruous that someone so confident, bright and mature should have had any such doubt.  But she had not had anyone alongside her continuously to affirm her.  As a result, it took her ages to realise that her mother had failed her, and that she would have to move on.  One of the ways she does this it to call her mother by her name rather than speak of her as her mother.

In her lonely journey through the care system, she had virtually no recollection of several people who were alongside her while she lived with us, including at least one who was particularly understanding and close.  And it was only when we started looking at a diary that events, like cycle rides and a gym club, a friendly Sunday School, began to be recalled.  Unlike Floyd, she was able to relate to us with openness and feeling, and to express her own inner world and journey.  But in both cases I was left with a deep feeling of sadness that they had had to try to work things out for themselves when the world in which each of them was living was so chaotic, confusing and sometimes even mad.

The two conversations took place on the same day, and that was just 24 hours ago.  What are the elements that go into the mix of my own emotions, I wonder?  A regret that I/we could not do more for each of them?  A sense of guilt that they journeyed alone when I/we would dearly have loved to walk with them? The exposure of my own inner vulnerability and loneliness?  I am not sure, but there has been plenty of transference: that’s for sure.

Meanwhile Floyd continues to live with us, and there will be more opportunities to share, before hopefully he is able to find his feet again.  And Melody is keen to come over with her daughter as soon as possible.  So the stories continue, and there is hope.  There is always hope.  But in the process raw nerves have been touched.  I am not sure there is any other way after such lonely personal journeys.

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