Family First?

[1] We had finally gotten her off to college, we being the village that it took, pastor, social workers, vaguely present but unhelpful grandmother, and various church friends who responded to confidential appeals. We had deposited Keyshante 300 miles away, on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line from New Haven, CT. After years of a mother who cashed and kept her paychecks for camp counselor jobs, of working at McDonald’s not to get a teenager’s spending money, but to feed her high school age sister and young teen brother, after years of missing 25 percent or more of the school year, due to crises in which her mom needed support, lack of clean clothes due to lack of laundry money, no alarm clock to get up to catch the bus, or too little sleep after a night of trying to find her aunt out on the streets, so that her cousins would not cry themselves to sleep–after years of all this, Keyshante, a bright, engaging, “personality” young woman, was away at college, finally too far away to be dragged down further by her family, finally free to start living for herself and not always having to be directed by the responsibilities for and expectations of others.

[2] Then I received a phone call from a social worker, one of the “village mothers.” Keyshante’s 16 year old sister had been arrested and was in jail 70 miles away–arrested for shoplifting. She had been caught in one of the classiest suburban malls, an hour away from home, shoplifting–with $132 in her pocket. Talk about a cry for help! “We can’t survive without you, Keyshante, please come rescue us, please carry us forever, we will get in trouble so big that you will have to drop your own life and dreams, and help us hold our lives together.” Immediately, because we knew Keyshante, we contemplated not letting her know. Instead, we called her and told her about her sister, and in the next breath, we practically shouted, “Don’t come back!” But it was probably only the lack of knowing the logistics of travel, that prevented Keyshante from dropping her life, her future, and her own self-fulfillment, to answer the call to the care of her family, whom she loved deeply, and to whom she was fiercely loyal. Holding them together was a habit of her heart, and one of the most deeply fulfilling things she had ever done with her life, so far.

[3] Some years later, Keyshante had graduated from college, and was beginning graduate school. As most young adults do, she embarked on the adventures of her first apartment–lease, security deposit, getting utilities turned on. But when it came time for her phone arrangements, she discovered that her mother (an ongoing addict) had at some point in the past, put the phone in the name of her minor daughter, run up a large bill, and left it unpaid. Now, in order to get a phone in her own name with the state-wide phone company, she would have to pay her mother’s unpaid bill in full before she could receive service. Even years into adulthood, her family was still sabotaging her success, in completely unexpected and overwhelming ways.

[4] Jane had a son who was never, all his life, particularly forthcoming. Although he did passably well in school, he would get arrested every so often–for getting in fights with his girlfriend, for driving an unregistered car, or for speeding. At times, she suspected he used drugs, but so far, he had never been caught doing that. When he decided to join the Navy, it looked like things were really improving. Jane proudly displayed the picture of her son in full uniform, just finished with basic training, as spiffy as only a sailor can look.

[5] Five months later Dwight came home, discharged. He said that it was his recruiting officer’s fault, that the officer had not disclosed his previous arrest record, and that when that eventually came out, he was discharged. Full of sympathy for her first-born son, Jane let Dwight move back home again, even though his room was needed for his younger sister, who was rapidly making it known that “she needed her space.”

[6] It was not until nine months after the date of his enlistment into the Navy, four months after his discharge, that Jane discovered that Dwight had been discharged for drug use–he had tested positive upon returning from a brief home leave after his basic training. She knew that if she kicked him out of the house, he would make no other choice than to move in with friends who were regular drug users and dealers.–and his last state would be worse than the first. Yet if she allowed him to stay in her home, she indicated a tacit acceptance of his deception about his discharge, as well as a tolerance of his drug use, which was sure to be noted by his observant and astute younger sister. Dwight was the first of three sons, who were all watching closely what their big brother would do, and what course of action their mother would take.

[7] How can Jane love her son without letting his life infect and possibly shatter her family? How can Keyshante have the life, choices, and freedom she deserves, and also pour out the deep love that she has, for her family? How can we care for those who need far more than we can give them–or who need just what we can give them–at the price of our own life, freedom, and fulfillment?

[8] I have read that immigrants often face these same difficult choices. Rosa goes to another country, and there she begins to find her own life–more money than she has ever had, interesting new experiences that she can explore on her own, dreams that she never thought were within her grasp. And then, the letters begin to arrive from her home village–Uncle needs a new roof on his house, Grandma is in terrible pain and needs dental work done, sister needs to have that special Sweet Sixteen party that we were not able to give you, with $300 Father could repair his car enough that he could start his own business. This is your family, your village–aren’t we important anymore? Do you think that the only things that matter now, are your own self-centered ideas and interests?

[9] Who are we to value in our families? Who are we to care for? Who are we to love? Of course we are to love our neighbors (our own family neighbors) as ourselves–but so often, the one seems to preclude the other. As lousy as our family may be, they are the only family we’ve got, our only port in a storm–and if life has been mostly chaotic and stormy, it is essential to know that there is one port that will shelter us and even care for us. However, our own boat may be perpetually leaking, never fully seaworthy, if we do not attend to it seriously.

[10] Looking for “the greatest good for the greatest number” does not begin to take seriously the deep and unspeakably powerful love and commitment that our families can engender in us. Watching choices tear at the hearts and souls of those with whom I minister has often left me in silent agony and wordless pain, for what they go through. I lift myself from my pain, at times, to murmur, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” But I realize that in reality, we all, not just God, go with Keyshante and with Jane, as we try to commit ourselves to the common good (of our families, of our society), at the same time desiring or needing a bit of the individual good, for our fulfillment, nurture, and perhaps even delight. If we ignore the difficulty and delicacy of this balancing act, we will no doubt miss the grace of God that comes to us, regardless of which way the balance tips.