Separation | My Journey Through Foster Care, Part I

On one side of the bathroom door, we five children were huddled together in the bathtub.

Paul Knowlton April 04, 2016
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Some memories you can just never escape. Among my earliest inescapable memories is a hot summer night and the following days. It’s also among my most painful.

On one side of the bathroom door, we five children were huddled together in the bathtub. My mom, kneeling on the floor in front of us, said words and sang songs that I no longer remember. Sometimes events are just too big for words, especially for young children and toddlers. Those events can only be experienced and internalized, hopefully to be dealt with later. I still remember, however, her tears and the way she leaned in to drape herself over us each time the pounding at the door started.

From the other side of the door came the raging sounds of deep-voiced yelling, shattering glass, and splintering furniture. The sound of heavy footsteps was followed by sudden silence. The silence was usually broken by the pounding at the door, which surprisingly, didn’t break. My dad was on the other side of the door, destroying the interior of our tiny apartment. At that time I didn’t think of doors as something that offered protection or that separated people from each other. They were just doors. Although I was the oldest, I had only just finished kindergarten, and I had not yet had a reason to spend my days and nights thinking in terms of separation. I didn’t have to wait much longer.

Mom was a quietly beautiful woman, in a Penélope Cruz kind of way. Born in Cuba and educated in the United States, she was a trendsetter as the only Cuban woman in her college graduating class. Dad was a dangerously handsome man, in a Jon Hamm kind of way, born into the Depression and hardened in the Navy. They met in Miami and wasted little time birthing five children. All those lives—parents’ and children’s—would be derailed for at least 20 years before my father traded in his destruction for his sobriety.

The following day, or perhaps the next, I was playing on the sidewalk outside of our apartment when two police cruisers and three black cars with gold seals on the driver’s side doors pulled up and parked. I watched the ladies emerge from the black cars and the police from the cruisers. The police were a common enough sight in our kind of neighborhood, but I’d never seen black cars like that before. Together they all walked into our building. I kept my distance because they all looked very grim.

A few minutes later I was called to come inside. The apartment bore the fresh scars of my dad’s nighttime rage. There in the kitchen, to my surprise, were the ladies and the police. My mom held a sister and a brother on her lap while my dad stood by a window and a row of brown paper bags. I joined another brother and sister, peering up and over the kitchen table.

My mom and dad said words to us about going somewhere to live that I no longer fully remember. I do remember one of the ladies carrying my youngest brother and sister away, and another taking my younger brother. I remember hugging my mom and my dad good-bye. I remember clutching the hand of my younger sister as she and I climbed into the back seat of a black car with a gold seal on the driver’s side door. I was old enough to understand some terror had befallen our family, but painfully too young to stop it. I wouldn’t comprehend the term “foster care” for weeks or months to come.

The events of that day transcend words. At best, those events might be described as a kind of real-time surrealism where I suddenly found myself trapped inside a Picasso or Dali painting from which I had to emotionally separate but couldn’t escape. For me, the events of that day were the first of many sufferings forever seared onto the soul-scorched memory of my inner child.

As an adult I’ve asked myself a certain question thousands of times: “Is suffering the direct will of God or the result of humans acting in the absence of God?” I’ve finally settled on an answer I’m good with. While you think about your answer to that question, I owe it to my parents to say that my dad eventually traded in his anger for faith. Like the faith each of his children would first find, as we each struggled along our unique paths. A faith that eventually enabled us all to begin repairing the separation within our family that started with the bathroom door.

Read Part 2 of this story, “Re-placement”, here.

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Paul Knowlton

Writer, speaker, and thought leader Paul E. Knowlton is a former foster youth turned lawyer. In 2004, as the author of The Original Foster Care Survival Guide, he introduced and has since advocated for a better way to prepare foster and former foster youth for successful adulthoods, which includes mentoring, self-assessment, modeling wisdom and spirituality, and teaching critical thinking and leadership. Paul’s formal education includes degrees in engineering, law, and theology. He can be contacted through his website.


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