I’ve been harboring a painful memory since third grade. As hard as I try, I haven’t been able to give it the burial it needs and I may never. If I could magically relive any three moments of my life, where I’m the one in control and causing the damage, this would be my first choice.
My fourth foster care placement began an odyssey of misery that would darken at least the following decade for me. Reflecting on that odyssey, a scarlet theme that runs from start to finish is the relentless efforts of others to suffocate my spirit of freedom. A chick thrown out of the nest before its wings are strong enough to fly may survive, if only to squawk and flap helplessly on the ground. But now cruelly break that chick’s wings. In the unlikely event he then survives, that chick’s newfound awareness of cruelly, together with his vulnerability and immobility, will give you a sense of my suffocated spirit of freedom.
During my fourth placement, the Washington family lived next door. Mr. and Mrs. Washington had a son, Ricky, who was the friend I usually played with, and a younger daughter. They were very kind and I thought they were the perfect family; I still do. One day they proved it in a startling way.
On Christmas day the Washingtons surprised me with a new Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle. I had fantasized about my own bicycle but never believed it possible. Looking at it, my heart soared, my eyes watered, my hands began to tremble, and my feet started to sweat. I couldn’t move. I could only stare, waiting to be told it was for someone else. The bicycle called to me but I couldn’t permit myself to move toward it. Sensing either my awe or fear of another disappointment, Mrs. Washington wheeled it over to me and promised that it was truly mine. These were intoxicating words to a boy who owned only a paper bag of clothes and three books.
My own bicycle! With it I could steer a few blocks and escape to a place where I was safe and confident for a little while. I was now as free as my imagination could fly and legs could pedal. I didn’t understand this at the time, and have no reason to think the Washingtons did, but with that bicycle they bandaged two broken wings and breathed hope into a dying life. Their gift of freedom through an act of love made my later indiscretion all the more difficult to bear, for them and for me.
Later that spring or early summer, I was alone and bored. Sitting at the curb outside my house, just a few feet in front of where the Washingtons parked their car that day, I noticed the asphalt along the curb edge had started to crack. The asphalt was easy to split apart, and soon I had a small chunk that I juggled between my hands for a while. Juggling soon turned to tossing overhead and catching. I don’t remember exactly when I turned to imagining I was a major league baseball player, but it was at that point that I moved into the street to see how high I could throw and catch. Neither do I remember exactly when my toy became a missile. I only remember throwing it higher than ever before, watching it come down further away than ever before, and hearing the sickening sound of the Washington’s car windshield cracking.
Suddenly I was out of my mind with panic! I didn’t know what to do but run and hide. Later that evening I was discovered. I didn’t deny breaking the windshield and I don’t remember the punishment that followed, only that there was a punishment and that it didn’t matter. What I clearly remember was the look of Mr. Washington’s face as he scolded me for not coming to tell him, said that he was disappointed in me, and that I had broken his trust. He wasn’t wrong and I credit him for helping shape the future Paul, but did it have to cut so deep?
Although we haven’t spoken since, I love that family today as much as that Christmas day when they presented me with my gateway to freedom. I have ridden bicycles ever since. I wish I could tell them that. I wish I could again apologize. I wish I could tell them that I didn’t turn out to be a failure. I wish I could hear that they didn’t stop rescuing the lives of foster children because I failed them. Perhaps knowing they continued in love toward others, I could finally lay to rest the memory of their disappointment in me when I think of their lifelong gift of freedom.