Heart like a Stone

From my seat at the table, I could see Marla walking across the courtyard with a young woman, probably her foster care case manager. They were walking fast, in step, almost like they were a couple that might be holding hands except Marla was holding a notebook and some papers in her arms. The wind blew her unbuttoned shirt open, her black t-shirt, ripped with iridescent hand drawn hearts and arrows matched the black fingernail polish I knew she was wearing. It would be cracked and old, her nails rough and chewed. So many times I saw her teenage hands and they never once had new nail polish, always just the remnants as if they had been painted that way to match her shirt. If it wasn’t ripped or damaged, raw, unfinished, cold and concerning, it wasn’t Marla.

I thought about going outside to speak to her. The only door had an emergency bar across it so unless I wanted alarms to go off in the mental health facility where I was waiting for a meeting to begin, I would have to backtrack down a long hall to reach an open door. By then, I knew Marla would be in her case manager’s car being driven to wherever she was living now. I couldn’t very well run after them. And if I did, what would I say?

Would I say “I’m sorry?” “I miss you?” Would I tell her that she looked well, introduce myself to her case manager, explain that I used to be someone important to Marla, her advocate? Would I tell her case manager that I had meant to never quit on Marla but I did? That one day I would run out of ideas, use up every plan for a good placement for her, have nothing to offer? Would I admit that I had loved this willful, ripped, damaged girl until one day I didn’t, that one day my heart for her had just turned to stone?

When it happened, when my heart for her turned to stone, it was as if a small hand had reached inside me and flipped a switch. After two years, dozens of meetings, phone calls with school social workers and therapists, fighting with the authorities, speaking on her behalf at court, and trying to keep the child welfare system from swallowing her whole, I sat across from her in our county’s juvenile detention facility, a place with the same metal and durable plastic furniture that graced the adult facility where her mother was currently living and it was in that moment, probably when she needed a tireless advocate the most, that I felt the switch flip and the lights go out.

Several months later I got a text from a strange new number.

“Why did you leave me?”

I don’t know, I wanted to tell her. I didn’t have a reason. I just became empty for you, Marla. That’s what I wanted to say. But it would have been a cruel and indecipherable thing to say.

I couldn’t even say I was sorry. I just stared at the text for a long while and then closed it.

22 Comments on “Heart like a Stone

  1. This is probably my favorite thing that you’ve written since I started reading you. [I’ve started writing five other sentences but none of them come even close to what I want to say so I’m leaving it at this.]

  2. Thank you for this incredibly honest, personal glimpse into this world. We often forget just how burnt out those in helping positions get. That this is emotionally, psychologically and physically exhausting work. I hope Marla found the assistance she needed, and that you find the peace that you deserve.

  3. hm. initially as i read this, when i got to that last text, it really hit me. i work amongst so many youth from disadvantaged backgrounds and broken homes that i can understand a child’s need for support, love, encouragement, because they don’t get that at home.

    but i also recognize how exhausting, draining, laborious, and consuming that it is.

    *hugs* that’s for sharing this vulnerable piece.

  4. You know, it’s strange – there have been numerous occasions where I have read something of yours that has been so in sync with my own life at that exact moment that I’m dumbfounded. Not to be all me me me about it, it’s just that your candor, your willingness to share the hard things and the deep thoughts that come before, during, and after tough decisions, really gets to me. My heart broke a little for both of you having read this. I’m not sure where I found your blog in the first place, but I may have mentioned before that I am very glad that I did.

    • Thank you Shannon. It took me a couple of years to be ready to write this piece. I’m so glad it rang true for you.

  5. Wow! On the one hand, this is such a strange cold thing to do but on the other hand it’s completely relatable. I agree with another commenter that the switch is a spiritual message telling you it’s time to take care of yourself. We can only do so much.

  6. I think of that switch as God or your closest approximation thereof saying gently, “Time to let go. You’re not the teacher for this lesson anymore.” It takes such courage to admit that. And some of us have to do it with people we love. Which just seems to add insult to injury.

    • You put your finger on it — ‘you’re not the teacher for this lesson anymore.’ This is just exactly right.

  7. I’ve done that, maybe not exactly the same situation, but I’ve turned my back on people right when they most needed me. Sometimes, the needing never stops and self-preservation takes over.

  8. Once again you captivate me with your words. Sometimes it is impossible to give anymore. Know that you did the best you could for Marla.

  9. This reminded me of my relationship with a grown woman with severe mental illness. Oh did she test me – and need me. When I was working full-time, writing on my dissertation, and doing a 20 hour a week internship I had to stop my private practice work. It was so hard for her and I still wish I could have continued to be there for her in her life-long struggle to keep her mood swings stable and to slowly increase her trust in people. She was prone to thoughts of suicide so I can take heart in the fact that she didn’t threaten or attempt suicide as she made the transition to someone else. How wonderful it would be if we weren’t so human, with normal limits on our ability to give.

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