Hold it Lightly Feet in black boots, viewed from above, standing on asphalt. Spray-painted arrows point out from the toes in two opposite directions.

Published on February 22nd, 2022 | by Cheryl Klein

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Open Cases: When You Can’t Know How It All Turns Out

“Who’s been picking up my kids?” demanded the father next to me on the steps in front of my son’s elementary school. He wore black track pants and a gaiter mask. “I want to see the emergency contact list. I’m going to remove certain individuals.”

“Of course, of course,” said the after-school program coordinator, a woman in her twenties with the calming voice of a preschool teacher. “It’ll take me a minute to pull up the list, if you don’t mind.”

A white board on an easel announced the program’s phone number in dry-erase marker. Beneath the number, someone had written, Please be patient. We are short-staffed today. The plea had been there all month.

“I’ll wait,” said the dad. To me, he said politely, “You can go ahead of me.”

“I haven’t seen you in a while,” the coordinator said to the dad.

“I know, I don’t know what happened.” He sounded genuinely mystified, a man adrift on the choppy waters of life. “The case is still open. I haven’t seen my kids in a month. Their mom has been planting things in their heads.”

My ears perked up at the mention of an open case. My partner and I have been going through training to become resource parents for children in foster care. Twice a week, we parked ourselves in front of a two-hour Zoom session to hear about trauma and attachment styles, broken systems and a complicated network of social workers, unpredictable outcomes, and all the children and adults who persevered—because what other choice did we have? Our seven-year-old son hovered in the background, mainlining YouTube and occasionally making a cameo dressed as a red Power Ranger.

The goal of the foster care system, we were reminded regularly, is family reunification. Even though we are ultimately hoping to adopt, the chances that we’ll be able to adopt the first child placed with us are slim. Either way, years of court dates and appeals stand between us and adoption. And so I’ve been trying to get behind family reunification, and taking it day by day, and living in the middle of someone’s open case. 

It goes against every fiber of my wiring.

Hopscotch painted on asphalt; green weeds grow through cracks in the pavement in the background
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The dad shuffling his sneakers on the cement outside the school was probably referring to a custody case, not a Department of Children and Family Services case, but I tried to imagine him as someone I’d eventually send my foster child home to. I found his presence and even his distress strangely heartening. 

So often, as I pulled myself away from a dozen daily worries to greet my son, I imagined the other parents at pick-up as carefree—despite the the fact that they showed up in work uniforms with end-of-the-day hair, despite the mother who kept saying, “Now imagine having four. As a single mother,” like a mantra she needed the world to hear.

Two girls, maybe nine and ten, emerged from the building and hugged their dad as if it had only been a few hours, not a month. 

“I missed you,” he said. “You wanna go eat?”

*

Years ago, I listened to a morning radio personality recap an episode of The Bachelor, mocking a contestant who told the camera, “I’m twenty-three and I’m tired of dating. I just want to know who I’m going to marry already.”

Twenty-three! the radio guy exclaimed. As if the only point of dating was to figure out how it ended! As if the point of marriage was to solve an annoying puzzle. As if the point of a mystery was to skip to the end and find out whodunit.

But I sort of got it. My partner, who is a therapist, likes to remind me that the Myers-Briggs personality test is not recognized in social science circles, but when I read the description of INFJs, I see myself. The P/J axis stands for perceiving/judging. Perceivers, like my partner, prefer to gather information and keep things open-ended for as long as possible. Judgers, like me, are not judgmental in a moralistic sense; we just like things decided. The gavel hits the block. Case closed.

Blank "Hello my name is" labels on a wooden desk next to four Sharpie markers
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I wish I had wild oats to reminisce about, but the truth is, I never dated anyone unless I thought it was at least possible I might marry them. I didn’t come out as queer until after college, partly for the usual reasons—it was the early 2000s, when NBC was still squeamish about allowing Will of Will & Grace to kiss a man—and partly because I wanted to be very, very sure. I wasn’t about to just sleep with women and see where it took me. I also wasn’t ready to dismiss the fact that I was at least a little bit into guys. Some people feel shackled by labels, but I wanted one that would hold me like a weighted blanket.

*

I wonder what we’ll call our foster child when we introduce them to people. This is our foster child sounds harsh, a step down from full family member. This is our child sounds hubristic, an assumption of a future that has not yet come to pass, not to mention an erasure of the child’s existing family. 

If the child is old enough to talk, what will they call us? When we adopted our son (at birth, via private open adoption, a totally different process), we anointed ourselves Mommy and Mama. But a few months into the pandemic, Dash started calling us Cheryl and C.C. The only other people he saw, for months, were the girls next door, who called us by our first names. He followed suit. It stung a bit, especially as someone who worked hard to earn the title of mother and still shared it with two other people (C.C. and his birthmom). I felt like I’d been demoted to just some lady who delivered snacks and picked up his toys.

But when schools reopened and our time with the neighbors receded—and I actually spent less time mothering him—he returned to Mommy and Mama. 

*

Over the summer, I noticed a small bump on Dash’s middle toe. I sent a picture to his pediatrician, who said “Looks like a trauma to the toe, just keep an eye on it.” I watched it for six months, during which time it didn’t do much. 

At his seven-year-old checkup last month, the same doctor speculated that it was a wart and sent us to a dermatologist. The dermatologist said it wasn’t a wart. She wasn’t particularly worried, but she recommended we get an x-ray and have it removed by a surgeon and biopsied.

When I try to recall the visit, it has a blurry aura. I didn’t faint, but whatever patina the brain applies after the alarm bells go off, after the building is evacuated, that’s what happened to my memory. I had breast cancer nine years ago, and the word “biopsy” turns on a fire hose of cortisol.

Triangle-shaped street sign indicating bumps ahead
Photo by Armin Babakhani on Unsplash

Intellectually, I know the chances of my son getting childhood cancer are something like one in a thousand. But I know this because I googled the number of diagnoses per year of the three most common (i.e. not common) childhood cancers nationally, divided it by the number of children in the U.S., and multiplied it by eighteen, the years that he will be a child. The years before he’s an adult, and therefore at risk of other cancers. 

I’m always trying to skip to the end to see how it all turns out.

I’d hoped that once I passed the five-year remission mark, I’d stop worrying so much about recurrence. I go for months at a time without giving it much thought. But then my kid gets a bump on his toe—which is not a symptom of anything other than itself—and I’m at the bottom of a well.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll stop worrying so much at the ten-year mark. But the further cancer recedes, the older I get. The only way to not die of cancer is to die of something else. Is this the finish line I’m racing toward?

It will be weeks, at least, before we can schedule an appointment to get my son’s toe-bump removed. White-knuckling my days sounds exhausting and pointless. The part of my body that believes worry manifests the future—I imagine it as a sort of calcified zombie seahorse crouched between my stomach and chest, though of course that would be something I’d want to get biopsied—says We can’t rest until this case is closed. 

It’s a toe bump, and life will always be full of toe bumps. I need to learn to live with open cases. I know this. But the zombie seahorse resists.

*

The algorithm will always tell you what you’re thinking about, and offer you more of it, until you become a parody of yourself. The “explore” page of my Instagram feed knows I’m terrified of and fascinated by unusual medical conditions—all the ways the bodies refuse to conform to what’s expected of them. That’s how I discovered that special-needs moms are a distinct subgroup of Influencers: the mom who coordinates her Western color palette of reds and tans with her son’s ventilator, the mom who sounds off on mean comments about her daughter’s atypically shaped head.

I have mixed feelings about these videos—the fact that these children’s medical histories are public knowledge before they can even talk, the fact that our society often values the opinions of parents of disabled children over the voices of disabled adults—but that doesn’t seem to stop me from watching them.

Blue plastic question mark—the kind that would come in a child's magnetic alphabet set—against a pink background
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

One TikTok mom did a dance with hand gestures as she answered questions she gets about her toddler. When will he walk? When will he talk? When will he stop needing a G-tube? The typed words bubbled around her and she answered each, cheerfully, with “I don’t know!” Open cases, all.

I don’t know how you do it is often seen as a backhanded compliment, an implication that the person navigating difficult circumstances somehow opted in. But I think about it literally. How do parents live with so many unknowns? Because I’m looking for tips. Maybe you dance. Maybe you make a video. Maybe you write up all your fears in an online parenting magazine.

*

Sex advice columnist Dan Savage has often pointed out that “till death do us part” is a weird definition of relationship success. By that definition, a marriage can only be successful in retrospect.

I agree that as a culture, we need to expand our understanding of successful relationships, and that includes parenting relationships. Maybe we’re only there for a few months or a few years, or a few days out of each month for many years. We’re still there. 

If we wait for the case to close, in the fullest sense, we’re waiting for death. 

But do I want my marriage to last until I die? I do. Does the unknown scare me so much that I occasionally wish I was dead—all the while realizing the irony of wanting to die because I fear death and loss? It does. 

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to live with the big and small open cases in my life. But here I am, doing it. Here you are, doing it too.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.



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