Today was slow for the most part, and I was bored, flipping through the equally boring books on a back shelf, more than a little resentful of the fact that YANA would close if I left early. Then, when it was finally almost time to go home, Janet came in. Janet was one of the first clients I met at YANA. Chronically stoned, speech slurred from drugs and not enough teeth, HIV positive, very actively prostituting, pregnant again with a small legion of children already scattered about the city in other people's custody, Janet sized me up and decided to call me "mom." Have I mentioned that I had no training and no background in working with prostitutes, or with addicts, or, for that matter, even with the poor? I found my new "daughter" (only about 10 years younger than I am) more than a little overwhelming. If she noticed that fact, Janet didn't care. She kept slipping me little notes about the hardships in her life and asking for small amounts of money. I didn't give her cash -- at least not all that often -- but Janet worked her will on me. I did become a sort of mom to Janet, paying her extra attention and doing extra favors for her.
It was hard not to feel for one of the most abused of all our severely abused clients. Janet's uncle began raping her when she was 3. He continued for 8 years, until he was arrested and convicted of it. He served one year in jail and was then welcomed back into the family with open arms. Janet's father began giving her heroin at about the same time. I've never heard why, but I'd be willing to bet he was raping her too or prostituting her out to his friends. What else would have justified the 10, 20, 30 dollars a day it cost him to keep her enslaved? When she was in her teens, her cousin killed her mother, and the aunts who had cared for her in the past abandoned her. When her father died many years later, Tim Bridges, YANA's deputy director, took her to the funeral. Her family hadn't wanted her to come. Apparently, they thought she wasn't good enough for them.
Despite her childhood of abuse -- and her adulthood of continuing abuse -- Janet had an oddly adorable, high spirited nature. She was an open hearted little girl who burst into tears when she was sad, then called herself a "crybaby," dried her eyes, made a joke, and went back out, smiling, to join her friends on the street. I don't think anyone expected her to make any big changes. She was our perpetual lost and loving child. Janet, however, had other ideas.
She is clean today and has legally regained custody of her two teenage daughters. The girls, who had endured years of, at minimum, emotional abuse, are giving their poor mother a run for her money. The little one shows her teacher and principal disrespect "in a horrible way" by pulling down her pants and telling them to kiss her ass. Janet, as she puts it, "perseveres." She tells them the right things. She goes to the school, monitors homework time, plays games on "family fun day" at home for as long as her teenagers will sit still for something like that. She takes them to Kennedy Kreiger for counseling. She is currently desperate for money, and we are arranging for her to talk to some people about a job. Maybe I'll slip her a hundred tomorrow, as a present to myself if nothing else. We don't see her very often any more, but it was something very fine to hear her talking today. For those of us who know what it is to be a parent, the example of Janet doing so much with so little is a wonderful thing.
And while I was talking to Janet, Tina came in with a client from the past I didn't recognize. Tina pulled out an elaborate, music playing Mother's Day card, asked the spelling of my name, and made it over to me with several inscriptions offering sweet kisses and warm hugs. She had several other Mother's Day cards as well, for, I assume, her own mother (see previous posts about the attempted hanging) and whatever other women she has adopted as her own.
The client I didn't recognize, Gloria, told me that her mother was murdered in 1992 and that her son "died at her feet" 7 months ago. I told her that we would celebrate Mother's Day tomorrow and that if she came back she might want to participate in a talk about our mothers and our children. I told her that a lot of the women had children who had died, and that many of them would want to share happy memories of their daughters and sons. Gloria seemed eager to come.
Motherhood -- the failings of our clients' mothers, the failings of our clients with their own children -- is a deeply felt theme in the women's lives. So many of them try so hard. So few of them give up hope.