My foster son was late to his own high school graduation party. While we waited for him to arrive, his mother and I sat together on a worn picnic table in a community park, watching the family gather.
And as excited as I was to host the party, I was also nervous; arranging the food on the picnic table earlier (Texas barbeque on one side, vegetarian on the other) I worried the guests, when they arrived, would stand around uncomfortably, as segregated as the food.
But if others in the family shared my fears, they set out purposefully to calm them: Tre’von’s African-American maternal grandmother stood by the ice chest with her sisters, talking and laughing with my Mexican step-mother and Jewish mother-in law, their plates piled high with ribs, fried chicken, and green bean salad with red onions and goat cheese.
Farther away from where we sat, the children played without effort on a large grassy field. A nine-year old corn-rowed cousin of Tre’von’s I’d never met ran around in circles holding a puppy; our two green-eyed toddlers chased her, pulling her beads and the puppy’s tail whenever she slowed enough to let them close.
When Tre’von finally arrived there were sixty of us in all, and we were mingling in the way I’d hoped, for his sake, we would: honestly, loudly, emotionally, if awkwardly. He pulled up, stepped out of the car, smiled shyly, and we applauded. He had made it.
Halfway through the party, as I was clearing the picnic tables and waving the little ones away from the cake, Tre’von’s great aunt approached me. She was smaller than me, and decades older, but the hands that grasped my own were strong and sure. Her skin was a shade darker than Tre’von’s, the bright blue of her shirt lit up in contrast. She was crying outright, not trying to hide her tears. I braced myself for what she had to say.
“I want to apologise to you,” she said when she could speak. With her shoulder she wiped a tear from her chin, not letting go of my hands. “I want to apologise to you personally, for this family; for the fact that no one in this family could take care of this boy. And I want to thank you, for everything you have done for him.”
Instantaneously I felt my body flood with emotion; not pride or gratitude, but shame; the hot, inescapable kind. I wanted to cry with her, wanted to sit down, wanted to leave. More than anything, I wanted to apologise. No, I wanted to say. I’m sorry.
Tre’von came into our family his freshman year in high school. My husband was working as principal of an urban transformation high school - the kind of public charter school determined to do whatever it takes to give the mostly minority, low-income student body the education they need and deserve to be successful in life. So when Tre’von ran away from home - barefoot on a cold January night - and ended up in a receiving home, desperate for a ride to school, my husband did not hesitate. He left every morning at five am, drove the forty-five minute loop from our house to the receiving home to school, and did the whole trip again in the evening.
After two weeks of this, my husband and I began to talk seriously about inviting Tre’von to live with us.