ďI think I could have saved him.Ē
My fatherís suicide.
Christmas always makes me think of him. We first met him several years ago at a picnic in a park. He wasnít related to us, he just happened to be a kid who was 7 when Jacob was 6. His thick southern accent told us he was from Alabama or that part of the country. His mom was happy the boys were running together and even though it was only about noon, her boyfriend was stumbling drunk. I watched him carefully stay out of the boyfriendís way and I knew he was consciously trying not to draw attention to himself.
We went to get him most weekends after that and I always looked forward to the end of the work week so I could pick him up. He was always outside and his smile lit up his face every time he saw my car. On that first Sunday I told him it was time to go back home. He looked surprised and said in his southern drawl, ďI ainít going back, Iím living here now.Ē It took a while to convince him that he did need to go home, but I promised I would pick him up on weekends if I could and he accepted that.
Poverty was evident in everything about him. He showed us his Christmas present from the year before. It was a snow globe that you shake and the snow falls on the sleigh and the house in the scene. It was coated with greasy yellow nicotine stains and he told us it came from a pawn shop. He had a small set of cars, but otherwise no toys.
Ivy bought him a toothbrush and he didnít know how to use it. She showed him how it worked and when he opened his mouth all of his teeth had deep black cavities. We took him to a Chinese buffet and he took some of everything there. He was eating broccoli and things he didnít recognize like heíd never eaten before. He initially didnít believe he could go back for seconds and actually went back for thirds. I didnít think his scrawny little body could hold that much food and I couldnít stop smiling as he made his choices with wide eyed delight.
It took me several weekends to build a shed in the yard and all he wanted to do was help me build it. He could have been riding bikes and pedal cars in the yard with Jacob or swinging on the swing, but instead he diligently helped me and I could tell he was pretending this was a father and son project. I read to him and Jacob each bedtime and he listened intently to every story.
He was one of those kids who life just picked on. He was teased and bullied in school because of his thrift store clothes and his southern accent. He told me the teacher always sided with the other kids when there was trouble, even if she was watching.
I called on Thanksgiving to see if I could pick him up. His mom told me they had already eaten a frozen turkey roll she had heated up, but I could come and get him. When I got there her boyfriend was passed out on the couch and snoring hard. There was a half empty bottle of cheap brandy on the floor next to his coffee cup and he clearly hadnít moved in quite awhile. His cigarette was between his yellowed fingers and the ash was long and burned out. The lights were off and the radio and TV were off so he wouldnít wake up. He and his mom moved quietly in the house as she was getting his few belongings ready. We had a huge Thanksgiving dinner at my sisterís house and he ate several times. We dozed next to each other on the couch as only best friends can.
It was early December and we had started thinking about Christmas. I wanted to have Christmas the week of December 8th, just for him and we already had his presents ready, but we instead decided to celebrate Christmas at the usual time.
Things happened fast after that. We heard he showed up at school with a boot shaped bruise on his back and that social services had been contacted. By the next day, we heard they were gone. We went to the apartment they lived in and the door was open. There was a half empty cup of coffee on the table and the ashtray was full of cigarette butts. The cupboards had been partially emptied and whatever didnít fit in the car was left behind. And he was gone. We didnít know how to contact them and heard they probably went back down south.
A couple of years later his mom called Ivy. They had moved back to Minnesota and she was no longer with her boyfriend. She told Ivy that in the time they were gone, he had been repeatedly sexually abused by a 16 year old boy. Ivy did the right thing and told her she needed to contact social services and offered to look up the phone number for her. I wanted to go and get him, but she wouldnít tell us where they were and Ivy didnít know if his abuse would manifest itself in our house with Jacob. I found all the brochures I could on sexual abuse and brought them home. Ivy talked to his mom again and was told they were going to move again, were going to go some place where nobody knew them and start over.
I called his mom and she told me they were packing to leave. ďI shouldnít have opened my big mouth. I donít want social services involved and I donít want his teachers to know.Ē
I am required to report suspected abuse, but this had happened a year ago in another state and they were out of that situation. This was too close to me and I didnít want them to run, I didnít want to lose him again. I didnít even know where they were or their last name. I was pleading now, I was desperate, I was wrongly blaming Ivy.
ďDonít go. Please, donít take him. Ivy wonít say anything. He can come and live with us, he can be my son. Weíll raise him and weíll put him through college. PleaseÖ pleaseÖdonít take him.Ē
ďNo, Iíve given this a lot of thought. We have to leave. We have relatives out east. Iím changing my phone number. Donít try to find us, weíre going to start over and weíre going to be fine.Ē
She hung up the phone and he was gone again.
I think I could have saved him. And I think he could have saved me.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.