“Break Me into Pieces” // Chapter III

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States // March 9, 2013 // Saturday // 01:20am

Catelyn had been asleep for about an hour, but despite my exhaustion, sleep continued to elude me. I paced the room, tried to read the books on my iPad’s version of Kindle, but the tension and the fear coiled in me refused to let me focus on anything but the present. I collapsed back onto the bench, my head in my hands and tears dripping free to slither down my arms like vipers. The dreamer that I am who usually found it so easy to escape from reality couldn’t find the threads even if my life depended on it. Kim’s words hung over my head like angry storm clouds colliding into each other as lightning and thunder danced in their terrifying beauty.

“Just in case we have to take your children away…”

A sob choked its way out of me as I wrapped my arms around my middle and curled into a ball on the bench that doubled as a bed. My knees met with my forehead. “Is there no end to this nightmare?” I asked.

I didn’t get it. I don’t know what I did wrong to have someone issue me a warning such as that. Did I actually do something wrong, or was that their way of retaliating because we weren’t as cooperative as they wanted us to be? It was one injury, severe as it was.

I still don’t have an answer for it, to this day.

Despite the answer that I didn’t suffer from depression, I have battled with the condition since I was fifteen. The depression wasn’t constant, and I’ve long since understood why I get depressed and how to go about getting myself back out of the black pit without medication. During the last seven years or so, James had always been there, despite the distance separating us for so many years, and helped me through the darkest hours every time I was depressed.

But that was then. We didn’t have children to worry over or the hell hounds barking at our door.

I picked my head back up and glanced over at the small sleeping form. Catelyn fell asleep without a fuss, exhausted from the day’s events. I counted the rhythm of her rising and falling chest, under the tumble of her trusty blanket that she simply could not sleep without. Her hair fanned out over her pillow like a shiny black halo against her pale skin, and I offered up another thanks for the beautiful little girl I was gifted with.

“Just in case we have to take your children away…”

I paced the room relentlessly. Every insecurity I faced as a new parent when my children were born plowed into me like a runaway freight train. Could I do this? Be a responsible parent? Teach them to love instead of hate? Leave the world’s prejudices out of their lives even when both sides of our families lived with millions of them? Would I know what it is they needed? Most importantly, can I still be what I should be as a parent when the darkest hour of depression finds me in its grip?

How do I not fail them? What do I do?

But you have, a sneering voice echoed in my head. Haven’t you lost patience with them when you knew they were just being babies and toddlers? Didn’t you resent the nights where you must walk three miles for your son to fall asleep despite your exhaustion? Or what about when they got sick and all you could do was hold them through the nights while they slept in your arms? What kind of a mother contemplated getting away from her own children?

The sneering voice was my own, contorted in the way I often affiliated with the devil-incarnate from horror movies. I leaned against a wall before plopping onto the floor, my head buried between my knees.

“No,” I whispered. “Stop it. Go away. Please,” I begged. “I never meant it. None of it.”

No? Catelyn fell off the bed that night, and you didn’t remember any of that until someone else triggered your memory. What kind of a mother does that? How could you possibly believe you deserve to keep her?  Or Adrian?

Neither the voice nor the thoughts stopped, and I knew I was drowning. Tears blinded my vision, and I couldn’t find my cell phone to dial for James.

You’ve been a fuck up your entire life, you know that? Your parents gave the world to you, and you were never grateful. Your father busted his ass to give you the best medicine could give. Your mother had to raise two kids on her own in a foreign country where she neither had friends nor knew the language because of you. All you gave back were average grades and a metric-ton of resentment. Attended some university no one’s ever heard of. Still managed to get yourself suspended for bad grades. How much did your education cost your parents? Then what? Ran off on your own because you’re a spoiled brat while all they did was try to protect you? And somehow you thought you’ll be a good mother? Your children have a good father. I’m sorry your children have you as a mother…

My depression spawned from self-flagellation of the worst kind. It is one thing for me to recognize my own flaws in character and learning to correct them. The voice of reason will always be there to remind me that “nobody’s perfect” and “knowing is half the battle already won.” The voice of depression is the exact opposite – “Everybody’s perfect, and I should have been abandoned for being anything less.”

Inside my mental world, I usually find myself standing on the side of a mountain overlooking the most gorgeous view of the ocean, the forests, the valleys, and the spread of home communities and estates in front of me. Cotton balls of clouds will float both above and below me, and for those rare moments, it is possible to live with myself in its entirety. The top of the mountain is my goal in life that signifies who I want to be and what I want to achieve. The bottom signified where I have come from, and the trail will be filled with a lot of stumbling marks, skid marks, places where I had fallen and scraped my knees, and areas where I have learned to stand back up and kept going. Some places have just my footprints while others have multiple sets.

Depression takes the physical form of me – the sneering self that is at the very top and looks down with scorn, laughing at my goals. She will wait until I’ve had my back turned to rest and look at the view and come flying down the mountain side to body slam me into space. I will fall, all the way to the very bottom, and land in a heap of broken everything.

I had always lived under the impression that courage is found and had searched for years for hidden courage inside me. All I had to do was find it and yank it out with both hands. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Strength is found within me.

Courage needed to be coaxed out by an eternal source of itself – like the act of a hand reaching out, in a smile that did not judge, and in patience and empathy. One needed both strength and courage to get up and start over again, to fight the same fight knowing that scars might rip back open, new wounds would be inflicted, and no assurances that I would get back to where I was before I was knocked down.

Depression had DYFS as reinforcements that day. I was alone and scrambling for a grip. I never found it.

*   *   *   *   *

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States // March 9, 2013 // Saturday // 05:00am

I woke to the light for the other hospital bed being turned on. I didn’t remember how I had gotten onto the bench bed or when I had fallen asleep. I thought the nurse came in to check on Catelyn’s vitals, but she was busy with the other hospital bed, prepping it for another patient. The nurse didn’t turn the light back off when she left, and any sleep had disappeared the moment my eyes opened. Whatever few hours I did get will have to suffice to get me through the day.

Catelyn had moved during the night, sleeping nearly sideways in her bed, her legs akimbo and left arm wrapped around a portion of her blanket. I righted her clothes so she was more comfortable and gently tucked her blanket around her before pulling the hospital ones over her.

My head pounded from little sleep and lack of food. Grimacing at the nasty aftertaste of water on my tongue, I left for a juice box and a carton of chocolate milk. My portion of last night’s dinner was still sitting in the bag, so it became breakfast. I could only manage half of a six-inch and the chocolate milk. I cut my water with a little bit of apple juice before inhaling that.

Shortly after I gathered up all the trash in the subway plastic bag, the door opened again and new voices entered the room. The privacy curtain between the two patient areas had been drawn, but I heard a woman and a man’s voice apart from the nurse. After they’ve shuffled and settled in, the nurse left and a small voice piped up to say, “It huds, Daddy.”

Perhaps it was curiosity or just simply wanting to offer my sympathies, my feet found me at the divider curtain before I realized I was even moving. A father and son sat on the bed. A woman, who I assumed was the mother, was pulling things out of bags. I stood there and watched them as the father comforted his son and asked if he wanted to listen to a story.

“Lightning McQueen,” he requested, and thus the Disney story began. I smiled, having memorized the story myself. This boy loved Cars as much as Adrian did.

The mother, probably sharing the same parental sixth sense I did, turned to find me standing there. “Hello,” she said.

I tried to smile, unsure if I had failed or succeeded. “Hi. Sorry. Heard you come in. Just wanted to say hi and introduce myself,” I said. “I’m Lavender.”

“I’m Janice,” the woman introduced herself as she walked up to me.

“You look like you’ve been up all night,” I said with a sympathetic smile which was returned in kind. The woman had bags under her eyes, and the man looked like he was staying vertical through sheer force of will alone, but patiently told the story of Lighting McQueen to his son. I’ve been there and done that, too.

“We have,” Janice confirmed. “Michael broke his elbow playing at the park yesterday, and we’ve been in the emergency room ever since. That’s my husband Travis.”

“My daughter did the same thing. Her name’s Catelyn. We’re scheduled for surgery this morning,” I said as I pulled the curtain back a little with the invitation for Janice to peek over. Catelyn slept soundly still, the noises and extra lighting not so much as registering in her little brain.

“Oh, what a doll. How old is she?”

“Two years and five months,” I replied.

“Michael’s two years and nine months,” Janice sat down on the bench. “Excuse me for sitting.”

“No, no, please, rest. I completely understand the exhaustion,” I replied, keeping a smile on my face despite not feeling too much of it. “What kind of break does Michael have?”

“The elbow joint? This bend right here?” Janice pulled her arm up to show me and pointed to the exact location Catelyn broke hers. “The doctor said this piece of the bone at the joint fractured. They’ll need to put a pin in it and cast it,” Janice explained.

“Same one Catelyn suffered.”

“Apparently, it’s a common injury. Playground, too?”

“No, at home, on a wooden trunk of all things, I think,” I sighed.

“It happens. Michael’s scheduled for surgery this morning,” Janice said. “The doctor said the hospital’s already done twenty of these procedures this week.”

“Oh… wow,” was all I could manage. Surprise registered on my face the same time disbelief ran smack into my back. I was confused. Spending what felt like endless hours of unforgiving interrogation and forcing my daughter and I to suffer through twenty x-rays for an injury the doctors treat twenty times in a week made little sense, if any sense at all. Surely the authorities cannot possibly think that every falling injury is the result of negligence?

Did they have to talk to DYFS, too? I wondered.

The conversation hung a little stale in the air, and with my own turbulent and restless thoughts, I decided taking a short walk might help clear my over taxed mind a little bit. “Do you need anything? I’m going to go get some juice and things out of the service area for this floor,” I asked.

“You know where that is?” Janice asked as she folded certain items while unfolding others.

“Yes. Just take the path right next to the nurses’ station. It’s the first door on the right. There are labels so you’ll know,” I provided.

“I’ll go get something later. Thank you,” Janice refused politely.

I gave a short nod, “It’s not far, but could you keep an eye on Catelyn? I doubt she’ll wake, but…” I twitched my shoulder in a soft shrug.

“Of course,” Janice answered.

“Thanks,” I said and disappeared out the door.

Upon my return a few minutes later, the room was dark again. Janice was laid back on the bench bed trying to get a little bit of rest. Michael was lying down on the bed with his father attempting to get some sleep. The child mumbled and complained about his discomfort, and my heart went out to the father who could only vocally comfort his son and hold him in a half-cradle. Every empathetic parent who loved and cherished his or her offspring understood just how gut wrenching it was to be helpless against a child’s discomfort.

Michael mumbled something against his father, but it was intelligible from where I was seated on my own bench. “What was that, buddy?” I heard his father ask.

“Pe’at ba’er,” the boy repeated.

“All right, we’ll find you some peanut butter,” Janice’s tired voice replied.

The inflection in Janice’s voice drove me to my feet and back over to the curtain divider. “There are peanut butter sandwich crackers in the pantry area,” I whispered to Janice.

“Thank you, but we can’t let him eat anything right now,” Janice said.

“I know, but you can snag some for after the surgery,” I replied.

“True.”

I returned to my side of the curtain to pace, the small amount of food I ingested giving my body enough energy to feel utterly restless. I was a caged animal, and the time was passing both too quickly and too slowly at the same time. Too quickly in that I needed more time where Catelyn’s slumber could give me more rest, but too slowly in that I wanted to get this all over with. Being torn in so many directions is starting to seriously fray me at the seams.

Ignoring the warnings my brain was issuing, I found myself back at the curtain divider. It wasn’t my business to pry, but I had to know. I needed to understand the “why” to my personal hell, and that required information gathering at the worst places and times.

“I’m sorry. May I ask if you had to talk to DYFS over Michael’s injury?” I asked Janice while standing at the curtain.

“No. We were over at Virtua in South Jersey since last night for hours before we got transferred over here because they said they specialized in children here,” Janice replied. I raised an eyebrow and confirmed that Janice and I were actually in the exact same hospital emergency room. We were two families in the same hospital room under the exact circumstances but with such drastic difference in how the cases were treated.

So why am I under investigation while they aren’t? I wanted to scream at the skies.

“I take it you knew of Michael’s injury the moment it happened?” I asked.

“Yes. We were right there on the playground when it happened,” Janice confirmed.

Was that the difference? They knew? Or was it because it was at a playground and acceptable to have accidents there? But not at home? I didn’t know which was worse – that there weren’t any answers to be had or that I didn’t have anyone to ask to get them. The burden of my own inquiry was quickly becoming more taxing than not knowing.

Janice was watching me with inquiring, albeit tired eyes. “I didn’t know what happened to Catelyn, and right now, I still don’t. I doubt I’ll ever know. I can only guess her fall off the bed and on the wooden trunk had something to do with it. DYFS had been waiting here at the hospital when we arrived, and they’ve been interrogating me for…” I trailed off. I didn’t want to acknowledge what it was DYFS was trying to claim I was not being – a responsible mother.

“Anyway, I was just wondering if they investigated every instance or if there was simply something special about me? I suppose it was because I didn’t know that triggered the investigation,” I half-chuckled, although my voice carried a nary trace of humor in it. I was flustered and beyond frustrated at that point.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I hope things get resolved,” Janice offered in sympathy, but the feeling didn’t reach me even if the words did. Nevertheless, I was grateful for her support.

“Thank you. Sorry to disturb you from your rest,” I replied and retreated back to my side of the room to wait for the staff responsible for Catelyn’s pre-surgery preparation.

*   *   *   *   *

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States // March 9, 2013 // Saturday // 9:30am

The surgical waiting area at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was quite large, but not large enough for my incessant pacing. I had been gouging trenches into the carpeting for the last hour, trying every mental exercise I knew to calm myself down. The waiting area had plenty of bench couches and individual seating separated into three sections. The center open space was filled with a few tables and chairs, probably for eating or paperwork. Books and magazines decorated certain flat surfaces, and there was even an activity section for young children to either build things or draw. There were shows being played on two separate units, but everything that surrounded me only served as a reminder just how utterly alone I was.

I was the only one constantly in the room, nodding and smiling at people who initiated contact first as they passed through. A couple were hospital staff, others were parents with a child or two in tow. The longest duration any of them stayed was about twenty minutes, and then they were on their way. A second passed in eternity, and I finally collapsed onto one of the single seats in agitated exhaustion, forcefully damming the tears I felt prickling at the edges.

I was going out of my mind.

The dull thunk my head made on the back of the seat drowned in the vastness of the room, and my mind kept replaying the last moments of Catelyn being wheeled away to the operating room like a ten-second video.

Catelyn had been wary of the people continuing to touch her, but seconds after the plunger of the syringe hit bottom, I leaned in to kiss her forehead and give her praise for not struggling.

A smile split her face in half for fractions of a second, displaying her two tiny dimples right by the corners of her mouth in all their glory before breaking out in the gleeful laughter when she was abundantly amused or happy with whatever captured her attention – and it was all just for me. I swelled with pride and love, the grip of anxiety easing just a little bit with how well she took to everything that morning, and the entire room of nurses chorused various “oohs,” “ahhs,” “d’awws,” “look at that smile!” phrases, and variants thereof.

I remembered thinking that if DYFS could see that little face in throes of joy and laughter, they would understand that abusing and neglecting such a child fell in the realm of “impossible.”

I had hung on to my daughter’s hand for as long as I could before I had to let her go. “I love you, sweetie. I love you. See you when you wake up. Mommy’ll be right here,” I promised to the still giggling child. One nurse stayed behind, and when Catelyn left my line-of-sight, she motioned for me to follow her. I gathered my things and arrived in the waiting area on her heels.

“We’ll keep you updated as the surgery progresses,” she said. I offered my thanks, and she turned her back to head back to wherever it was she needed to be. I had taken a sweep of the area with my eyes, wrapped my thick jacket around myself just a little bit tighter and wondered how long it’s been since I’ve ever felt as cold as I did then – if I ever did at all. I wasn’t used to the sensation and understood in that one moment why some people absolutely despised winter. The ice was debilitating.

Lifting my head back up from its fallen position, I looked around for any form of reading material to distract myself. The waiting room was littered with celebrity magazines; and try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to touch them and wished that I hadn’t left my iPad locked in my luggage bag back in the hospital room. The Kindle books always made a much better companion than gossip and celebrity news.

Just in case we have to take your children away… a familiar voice echoed in my head.

“Stop it,” I whispered, standing to my feet again.

Stop what? It’s the truth. It’s going to happen. Telling me to stop isn’t going to change anything, dear, the voice sneered.

“No… stop it. That’s not the truth. They have no reason to take my children away,” I whispered, words failing to convince anyone, least of all myself. My feet carried me without summons to do so, and I knew I paced once more even though I didn’t feel physically attached to the body that was pacing, nor did I think I was giving it any commands at all. I saw myself stumble a couple of steps but didn’t feel or register it.

They have every reason to take your children away…

I may or may not have smacked myself upside the head, but something did make my temple throb. I knew the voice was a figment of my own imagination – just myself, torturing me for whatever reason beyond my comprehension. My fingers curled around my cell phone in a death grip, my eyes glancing at the clock every two to three minutes, urging the time to pass faster than the crawling speed it was, and fought every muscle in my body attempting to speed-dial my husband. He needed sleep and rest. I couldn’t be so selfish in dragging both of us down Exhaustion Avenue because I couldn’t deal with a small psychotic breakdown in the waiting room.

I believe the medical professionals would more aptly have called it a panic attack. I lost track of time as I paced with my hands gripping my upper arms so tightly, I felt the bruises rise to my skin, a light imprint of the cell phone I clutched in my right hand marred the skin on my left arm for a day or so. I tried to count the number of steps I paced, restarting at every hundred in an effort to trick myself into patience and calm.

None of it worked.

I finally pressed the speed dial button and hit “send.” I’ll just leave a message, I had told myself. Just to update him on what’s going on, to let him know that Catelyn was in surgery. In truth, I needed to hear my husband’s voice, even if it was the short “James Wynter” recording in the midst of an automated answering message.

“Hello,” a sleepy voice answered, and my surprise was enough to make my knees buckle. I collapsed into a chair.

“Hey,” I answered, voice shaky. “I didn’t mean to wake you. Was just going to leave you a message.”

“What time is it?” James asked, and I imagined him trying to twist his head to look at the clock on his night stand.

“Almost ten. Catelyn’s been in surgery since eight-thirty. Hopefully they’ll be done soon,” I told him.

“How’re you doing?” James asked.

“Fine. I’m okay. Just pacing… and…” I drifted off.

“Don’t beat yourself up, honey. This isn’t your fault,” James said, as if he could hear what was going on in my head.

My breath stuttered, and I wished at that moment for his hand to clutch and hold instead of the armrest of the chair I found myself in. “It just feels like it is. If I had done more, looked harder, maybe.”

“No, don’t do that. There is only so much we can do as parents. We make our best effort. Accidents will happen. We can try to prevent them, but we can’t stop them completely,” James said, and I heard the sound of bedroom doors opening and closing. James was probably looking in on our son to make sure he was fine. Adrian has a habit of lying in bed awake until the house stirred and someone came to get him.

“Do you think they’ll come by again?” I asked. They were in reference to the women who represented and worked for DYFS.

“I don’t know, hon,” James answered shortly before the sounds of water being pressurized and pushed through an espresso drip vibrated its way through the earpiece. Nary a word was shared for minutes. “Still there?” James asked.

“Yeah. Still here. Just, don’t know what to say…” I heaved a sigh big enough to make my lungs hurt. “I’ll let you go to eat breakfast. Did you let your boss know what’s going on?”

“I did, last night. She’s given me today and however many days we need off. She sends the best our way,” James confirmed.

“Okay. I’m going to let you go. Hopefully I get an update from them soon,” I said.

“All right. I love you,” James said.

“I love you, too,” I echoed back and disconnected after stereo good-byes.

It took another twenty minutes for a nurse to show up and inform me that Catelyn’s surgery is finished and that the surgeon will come talk to me when he’s ready. I nodded my thanks as my heart thudded painfully within my chest. The reaction confused me. This was the point I had been working towards since the very beginning, but learning that Catelyn’s arm is now set didn’t seem to alleviate the burden on my shoulders. Instead, it made the whole situation and burden heavier.

Because someone had to fix your mistake? Because Catelyn has to pay for your mistake?

I gave up fighting the voice, energy drained and lacking any words to retort with. I did feel that someone had to fix my mistake, and Catelyn did have to suffer and pay for it. Despite being at a loss what I could have done differently, it didn’t mean there wasn’t anything I couldn’t have done.

It just simply meant that I didn’t know how to be better.

An older gentleman still wearing surgical scrubs showed up in the waiting area and walked over with easy stride. Stretching a hand out, he introduced himself. “I’m Dr. Cameron Cartier, and I operated on your daughter Catelyn. She’s being wheeled back to the preparation area as we speak,” he said as I shook his hand.

“Thank you very much,” I said, unsure of what else to say.

“Come, please, sit down,” Dr. Cartier never let go of my hand and gently led me over to a chair. Perhaps it was the distraught I had given up on hiding from my face, or the exhaustion exuding from every pore of my body, but the good doctor began with the words, “The surgery went very well, and I believe that Catelyn suffered an injury consistent with a fall. We see this exact injury so often that I am beyond a shadow of a doubt that’s what it is, and that’s exactly what I told DYFS.”

I could only nod because my vision was blurred with tears. Dr. Cartier covered my hand with his other steady one, and the only thought that went through my head was that he was comforting me with the same set of hands he used to help Catelyn. “Now, I don’t know what they’ll do with the information I gave them, but I’m telling you Catelyn’s injury is consistent with a fall. I don’t believe she’s been neglected or abused, as per their inquiry.”

“Thank you, doctor,” I said as well as I can. “When will I be able to see Catelyn?” I asked.

“As soon as you’d like. The nurse can take you,” he replied and nodded to the woman standing by the door waiting.

I rose to my feet and Dr. Cartier rose with me. With a reassuring pat on my shoulder, he let go of my hand and I headed for the door. “Thank you, again,” I said to the surgeon before closing the door and followed closely on the heels of the woman in front of me.

Catelyn was still under the effects of the drug that put her to sleep. A tube was blowing oxygen at her nose and mouth, and the monitor behind the bed kept Catelyn’s vitals under close watch. Her arm was in a soft cast, and I reached out to clasp her left hand. “She’s still sleeping,” I said, more in peaceful reverence than asking a question or making a statement. Kettle bells of weight slid off me, and I heard the fathom clangs they made on the floor. Catelyn’s arm was finally where it should be, in the process of healing, and for the first time in a long time, her facial features were at peace. She was without pain, and I didn’t want to wake her up.

“She needs to come out of sleep,” the nurse told me after a while.

Reluctantly, I reached out to rub the small chest gently. “Catelyn?” I coo’d lightly. “Catelyn, baby, it’s time to wake up,” I said. Catelyn stirred a little bit, but her little eyes weren’t willing to open. I kept calling her name and rubbing whatever parts I could reach, and eventually Catelyn came out of her drug-induced sleep with an irritated cry.

“Hey, there, sweetheart,” I greeted her with a smile. “You did good, baby girl,” I reassured her, for what I am not certain to this day, but it felt like the right thing to say.

As alertness slowly seeped into her little brain, Catelyn started fussing over an empty stomach and parched throat. The nurse brought some apple juice and water upon request, and while Catelyn wouldn’t drink the apple juice, she drank the water sip by sip and complained when the cup ran dry. The nurse returned with a refill, and I fed Catelyn slowly until she was satisfied.

We sat together, mother and daughter, for over a half-hour as the tube continued blowing oxygen at Catelyn. The nurse had returned to try turning it off a few times, but the monitor behind Catelyn’s bed beeped shortly after since her body was having some trouble with breathing on her own after the anesthesia. “What’s the problem?” I asked after the fourth attempt.

“She still needs to stay on oxygen. Unless she can come off it, we’ll have to keep her another night to monitor her,” the nurse replied.

My heart sank. Just as the largest obstacle course was finally behind us, now I faced the possibility of another night in the hospital if Catelyn couldn’t come off the oxygen. I blinked back the tears and just kept holding the little hand in mine, rubbing it, allowing the touch to sooth me as much as it might be soothing her. The nurse gave it another hour before attempting to take the oxygen tube off again.

Catelyn’s numbers dipped almost immediately, but held steady and above the alert point before steadily coming back up to where it was when the oxygen was being offered. Relief washed over me like a waterfall opened up in the ceiling. When Catelyn passed the following half hour without any further incidents, we were cleared to be transferred back to the hospital room.

Now if only we could have our discharge papers, all would be right with the world as far as the hospital stay was concerned. I can fight DYFS at home on my own turf.

If only things were quite so easy.

*   *   *   *   *

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States // March 9, 2013 // Saturday // 02:00pm

When we returned after Catelyn’s surgery, Michael and his parents were not in the room. Michael was probably also in post operation procedures just as Catelyn was. A lunch served on a tray sat on the mobile table. When Catelyn’s bed had been returned to its original location, I presented the food to Catelyn. After glancing at her options, Catelyn took to the fries and the chicken fingers presented. The juice she drank this time, and she had two more cups of water. It was good that she wanted to eat and could keep her food down. It was one of the things the nurses asked for me to look out for.

When everything she would eat was devoured, I cleared everything off to the side and pulled out my laptop, loaded a couple of movies she loved on it, and used it as a distraction for the time being.

My cell phone rang. Not recognizing the number, I braced myself for one of the DYFS women from yesterday. “Hello?”

“Hello, Mrs. Wynter?” the voice on the other side asked. I didn’t recognize the voice as either of the two women who questioned me.

“Yes?” I replied cautiously.

“This is Melanie Sanders. I’m the DYFS representative who works with the hospital administration here at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. How are you doing today?” she asked.

Seriously? How am I doing today?

“Well, I’m talking to you, so I suppose more bad than good?” I answered.

“I’m calling to tell you that it’s a policy with the hospital that when a child is being investigated and DYFS has been notified, we cannot discharge Catelyn until we have inspected your house, ma’am,” Melanie said.

The blood in my veins turned to ice chips, despair and the urge to retaliate took a hold of me in the same instant, and my temper flared.

How dare they?! I seethed.

“Excuse me?” I asked, the razor edges of my voice clear and loud over the phone. “You have to inspect my house?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Melanie confirmed.

“You have no right. You need a warrant to inspect my house, and you have no legitimate reason to,” I said.

“That’s correct, ma’am, but we won’t feel confident in releasing Catelyn from the hospital if we don’t inspect where it is she lives,” Melanie replied again.

I wished I had an attorney on the line with me, because this is as good as coercion. They were going to hold Catelyn hostage unless I submit to their demands, even without proper use of a warrant. The lack of rest, the panic attacks, the pacing and the exhaustion finally took its final grip on me mentality and I bit back.

“So this is how you get around laws, is it? The two women yesterday who treated me like I’m a convicted scumbag, asked all sorts of things irrelevant to the situation at hand, and threatened me with taking away my children? Oh, wait, sorry, she said ‘if,’” I spat. “Well, feel free to call my husband. It’s not like I can let you into my house since I’m stuck here with my daughter you’re holding hostage.”

Silence ticked by in seconds, I suppose, because I shocked the woman on the other end into it.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but did you say they said they were going to take away your children?” Melanie asked, caution so thick in her voice I thought of a mouse tiptoeing by a hunting cat.

“Yes, the black lady, whatever her name is, wanted us to fill out paperwork, and I quote, just in case we needed to take your children away,” I replied back, none too gently.

“She should have never said that, Mrs. Wynter. She had no reason or cause to,” Melanie replied. “I am sorry for them having caused you so much distress.”

“And yet here you are asking to inspect my home without reasonable cause,” I replied.

There was a bit more silence on the line before Melanie answered, “Given the situation, we are only interested in three things. We just wanted to know that the house has sufficient heating, that there is food in the house for Catelyn, and that she has own sleeping place. Those are the only three things we’re looking for.”

It was my turn to be silent. I didn’t envy this woman her job because I’m sure she had to make plenty of these phone calls and deal with parents who most likely responded the same way I was responding, if not worse. Some may have been too scared and just said “yes” to anything, but for those of us who were more difficult to ply – like I was – and having been told something I shouldn’t have been told, they knew this was a lawsuit waiting to happen. This woman was trying to meet me in the middle, but there was nothing I could do for her, anyway.

“Just those three?” I asked.

“Just those three things, Mrs. Wynter. Nothing more.”

“You’ll have to talk to my husband. Do you have his number?”

“No, may I have it, please?” Melanie asked. I gave the woman the phone number and we hung up. I speed-dialed my husband the next second.

“Hey, Honey,” he greeted me.

“Hey. The hospital just called me. Apparently they cannot release Catelyn today unless DYFS signs off on it, and the only way for that to happen is to let them inspect the house,” I said.

“What?” James voice carried a metric ton of anger braided into it.

“I told the woman, her name’s Melanie, that she’ll have to call you, so you’ll probably get a call from her in a little bit, if not right now.”

“They have no right,” my husband’s barely contained anger was understandable and dually felt by us both.

“I know. I told her the same thing. I even told her what that black lady said to us, and she apologized,” I slumped into the bench and just hated everything.

“I’m going to have to clean this place up. Did she say when or for what?” James asked.

“She apparently just wanted to make sure we have food in the house, that we have working heat, and she has her own bed to sleep in,” I clarified.

A sigh so deep made my heart ache that I couldn’t be there with James. “Catelyn’s surgery went smoothly without too much issue. She had trouble maintaining oxygen levels after the surgery for a little bit. All’s good now. She ate lunch and everything,” I said. Despite everything else going on, Catelyn really was the most important update. “She should be able to go home today… just this, crap is…”

“Hug and kiss her for me. I miss you two so much, but I’m going to have to let you go and clean house, hon. We got a couple of tools out from the bedroom project I want to put away and pick up all the toys all over the place,” James’ voice had calmed down with word of Catelyn’s progress.

“Yeah. Just wish I could help,” I said.

“I love you.”

“Love you, too. Give ‘em hell,” I replied back knowing that James would anyway.

Despite my isolation and the lack of people I could call and talk to about what was happening, I scrolled through my phone list and dialed Addilyn Waters, James’ cousin on his mother’s side of the family and they had been best friends since they were children – both finding the rest of their family people best avoided most days out of the year. Having put herself through law school, Addilyn possesses a quick wit, great sense of humor, and a heart the size of Texas and Alaska combined. After meeting her in Georgia when Adrian was only six months old, we declare each other sisters.

It took about thirty minutes of phone-tagging for Addilyn and me to find each other, and I told her about what was going on. Addilyn wasn’t surprised at what was happening. She was rather shocked that it happened to us. While I did ask Addilyn for an opinion, she couldn’t advise us about laws in New Jersey as she didn’t practice in this state. However, she was adamant in telling me that after we make it home with Catelyn, we are well within our rights to slam the door on the DYFS investigators.

I thanked Addilyn for being there and listening and promised to keep her updated as things progressed. Catelyn made a slight fuss on the bed as her blanket became slightly entangled around her legs. Rearranging her blankets and wrapping her favorite tightly about her in a mimic swaddle, Catelyn settled back down to watch her videos. I sat and waited for news, desperately attempting to hang onto the hope that we could make it over this next hurdle without having to jump through more blazing hoops.

*   *   *   *   *

Southern New Jersey, United States // March 9, 2013 // Saturday // 06:30pm

Whether it was simply the surrealism of the last two days or frequent unpleasant surprises, I couldn’t bring myself to believe my own senses. We were in our gray SUV, the children strapped safely in their seats, and I was seated in the front passenger seat looking at everything as if I was seeing it for the first time. When James finished stowing everything in the back, he climbed into the driver’s seat and looked at me. Concern clouded his intelligent blue eyes.

I couldn’t stop the trembling in my jaw as the tears broke free. I felt the first two drops splash onto my shirt before the torrent followed. James reached over to grip my small hand in his large one, pulled his long torso over the center console and kissed me on the forehead.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I sniffled.

“Then let’s get my ladies home where they belong,” he said with a soft smile.

Home. We were going home. Finally.

James threw the SUV into gear, backed out of the ridiculously tiny parking spot for our large SUV and exited the basement parking lot. Evening greeted us, and it occurred to me that I haven’t seen sunlight since the ambulance delivered us to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I felt stripped and raw, and the feeling of flight didn’t leave me until we were safely on the other side of the bridge and back on New Jersey ground.

When James’s call came after the DYFS representatives left our home, I had sunk into an internal mental nightmare where they found something wrong and decided Catelyn will not be released back into our care. Most of the words James said to me were lost. I only ever remembered “She said everything looked fine, and she’s going to put in the call for Catelyn to be released and the paperwork through. I’m on my way to the hospital. Okay?”

I was trying to reconcile the reality I had expected to face with reality itself, and my body parts got mixed signals on which side they were supposed to be on. I was being shuffled in two directions until I received a second call from Melanie who echoed James’s words about everything being fine and that we should be getting discharge papers soon.

It took about twenty minutes for me to get the tears and myself back under control. I was in the middle of packing up our things when James showed up with Adrian. The discharging nurse showed up five minutes after that to take a final vital check on Catelyn and give us the paperwork concerning proper care of Catelyn’s condition. I asked all the basic questions I could think of, thanked the woman when everything was said and done, and changed Catelyn out of her hospital gown into her brother’s clothes as they were bigger and could accommodate the temporary cast. We were told to schedule for an appointment in a week to return for a full casting. It will take six weeks for the arm to fully heal.

Catelyn was happy to be home. Without the energy to make a proper meal for everyone, and James had the SUV to unload, the children had the option of their preferred cereal for dinner paired with a can of corn and some juice. James heated up one of his Lean Cuisines in the freezer for dinner, while I bathed the children. I made a mental note to grab plastic bags from our grocery stores on my errand runs. Catelyn’s arm couldn’t get wet, and since I had bought reusable grocery bags from Wegmans a few years ago, we never kept any plastic bags on hand more than one or two for our bathroom trashcans.

After the children were bathed, I sat with them until they fell asleep together on Aden’s bed, then gently placed Catelyn in her crib in our bedroom, made sure she had her blanket to snuggle to, gave her another kiss on her head with a whispered “good night” and “I love you,” and found my way back downstairs again.

I found James still sitting at the dining table, swirling a glass of red wine in his palm, staring at our fireplace. He looked up when I settled into my usual spot.

“What would you like to eat, honey?” James asked.

I shook my head in reply. I didn’t have the energy, and all I wanted to do was sort through the mess in my head before the night ended. I needed tomorrow to be clean. James got up to pour me a glass of water, topped it off with apple juice, and placed it in front of me. “At least drink something,” he said as he leaned in to plant another kiss on top of my head. Both my hands reached for his, and taking comfort that I was home, I let whatever was left of the tears fall.

James caught me as I fell. It wasn’t over, yet, but at least now we could shoulder it together.

*   *   *   *   *

Southern New Jersey, United States // Epilogue

I didn’t think I could cry so much, or that a human body could produce so much water through eye sockets, but cry I did – for weeks. I lost all faith in myself. I didn’t trust myself to be a capable mother. It affected my ability to also be a wife. I sank the deepest I have ever sank into depression, and James had to take care of everything on top of keeping his full time job. His boss was understanding and transferred an extra technician up to our area to help cover the issues that arise so James could stay at home.

James only had to answer a few questions regarding the whole investigation with his employer, and nothing further was ever mentioned. A large care package arrived from Positron for Catelyn days after we were home. It was filled with an assortment of candy, stuffed animals, and balloons, much to the children’s delight. We’ve had to stop Catelyn from using her purple re-casted arm as a new weapon against her older brother when he tried to take toys away. She weathered her injury like a champ, and we couldn’t be prouder. Unfortunately, Catelyn’s arm never healed straight, so there is an evident bent at the injury point. She does have full usage and motion of her arm, so the doctors advised to leave it as is. After all, realigning will require her elbow to be re-broken.

I decided to leave that decision to Catelyn herself when she is older to decide if she wanted to go through that.

We waited for news from DYFS – whether we were cleared of suspicion or if we were going to be investigated. The county had six weeks to notify us of their decision. Finally, on a Saturday in April, an envelope from DYFS arrived.

There were two letters inside. The first one read:

Re: Catelyn Wynter

Dear Mrs. Wynter,

We have completed our involvement in regard to the above mentioned children. Since at this time no need for further services is indicated and you have not requested continued services, we will be terminating our agency’s involvement by April 3, 2013.

Thank you for your help and cooperation during our contacts with your family. If, in the future, you should need our services, please feel free to contact our agency.

                                                                              Sincerely,

                                                                                          Signed Kim and Alyson.

The second one was longer, and it says I am not allowed to disclose its information to anyone. I am uncertain if they were speaking about the letter itself or the documents related to their investigation. Either which way, this is my life, and I will share it for the purposes of my story.

It basically informed us that the allegation of the investigation was unfounded, and after a select number of years, if nothing else was reported, it would be expunged. The wording of the letter was very explicit in what it wasn’t saying. I am now on probation. They have a certain number of years to use what happened in this instance against me if anything else was to happen to my children that I couldn’t explain.

In other words, they are watching. That’s why the records aren’t destroyed yet. The clock starts, presumably, from when we received this verdict from them.

It hasn’t even been a year yet. We have a couple more to go as a family.

I am unable to heal from this hurt. The state of New Jersey sliced me deep with an infected blade, and this wound has been festering and bleeding for months; rotting me from the inside out and taking away the confidence I held in being a responsible mother.

I am not perfect. It should be all right for me not to be a perfect parent. No one is, but the system – vastly broken – decreed differently. I either meet their standards, or else.

A simple search on Google showed that DYFS, in numerous states including New Jersey, has suffered lawsuits regarding their handling of situations. Many of them were settled with millions of dollars in damages. I even came across the news story regarding children being sexually abused while in DYFS’s care. None of that matters, however, because the law is naturally on their side. For me to fight it, I will need an attorney I simply cannot afford.

How do I heal from this? How do I recover the confidence I had that they took away and smashed to tiny little pieces? I struggled, and am still struggling to keep things together. If it had only been Catelyn breaking her arm and needing surgery to recover, I wouldn’t feel like the system is just waiting for me to screw up. “Accidents happen,” I’ve been told, but my accident escalated to an investigation all because I uttered “I don’t know” in truth.

It broke this family. It broke the system I had in place to raise my children. It broke me. I cannot be responsible when I have to second-guess every decision I have to make. Should I have done this, or done that instead? Do I move forward or step back?

I’m trying to do the best by my family, but now I have shackles around my wrists and ankles. The state of New Jersey has made it possible for them to have an opinion and say towards how I raise my children. Was “just in case we have to take your children away” really a slip up?

No, it was a threat. More than that, it was a promise. This second letter confirmed it.

Every bump. Every bruise. Every accident – big or small. Every little thing triggers this nightmare.

Is there no limit to the amount of damage these people are allowed to cause with no repercussions? I cannot break these shackles on my own. Even if I was to pursue the legal avenue, it would be pointless. Settlements are done by taxpayer money. I don’t care about the money. I care about what they broke and cannot be repaired. They may apologize to me and my family, but what’s stopping them from doing this exact same thing to another?

These people are supposed to right a wrong – provide protection for children truly in dangerous situations. Instead, they broke a system that, despite minor flaws, was providing my children with love, care, safety, and security. Two letters in the mail later, they patted themselves on the back, dusted off their hands, and went on their merry way.

We are left to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

*   *   *   *   *

Finem

The Foyer // “Break Me into Pieces” Main Page

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