A few months before I met Don, when I was 22, I applied for a job as a social worker in London. We'd been dating for about six months when I got my visa and moved there. My plan was to live in London for a few years before joining the Peace Corps. Funny how plans change.
I was hired to work at a social work agency in London as a child protection social worker, but on my first day of work, I was told that I was being placed in an office in the most impoverished borough in the United Kingdom. It was in Birmingham, three hours' drive north of London. Ha. I still remember the shock I felt when they told me how far away it was. I asked if the train would be the fastest way for me to get there. The agency supervisor laughed. "No," she said. "There aren't trains to Birmingham. You'll need to move there." This was a Friday and my first day at the new agency was Monday. I don't know how it all worked out, but I found an apartment to rent and managed to buy bed sheets and soap by Sunday afternoon, when everything closed in Birmingham. That was it, though. I remember that I literally didn't have anything to eat because all of the shops and local restaurants were closed and I was STARVING on my first day of work.
I try not to think too much about my time in Birmingham. Working there was the hardest thing I've ever done. I lasted exactly six months, and I didn't renew my work visa. I didn't join the Peace Corps. Working in Birmingham opened my eyes and let me know that giving absolutely all of my personal strength and love and heart and mind for a job was not for me. I had 16 children in my caseload. The oldest was a teen boy who was in remand for sexually assaulting another child, and the youngest was an unborn baby whose mother was a drug addict and in a violent relationship. Isn't it interesting that in England, you can be a social worker to an unborn child? I couldn't ever separate myself from my kids. I tried and tried, and nothing worked. I always felt directly responsible for each child, which I wasn't. But I felt that way. I was still a child myself in many ways, but most of my kids clung to me as though I was their mother.
My youngest child was born a few weeks before I was scheduled to return to the US. I spent hours holding him and rocking him in the hospital, holding him tighter as the drugs left his system. The words baby and withdrawal should never be in the same sentence. I cringe even as I remember.
When we lost most of our photos this week, all but four pictures of me in the UK were lost. It's just as well. One that remains is a picture of me at my desk, smiling for people back home.
See the glass of purple flowers in the window behind me? I tried so hard to surround myself with comfort and to remember that there was happiness to be had, even in a dark place.
If I am completely honest, I will admit that every once in a while, when the doorbell rings, I half expect to answer it and see one of my teenagers standing there, holding a suitcase. I know it won't happen. How would they find me? I don't even have the same name. Besides, there is a whole ocean between us.
A friend of mine is adopting two children and she sent out a Christmas card that asked what I was doing to help orphaned children. I couldn't find the words. I conjured up those 16 faces.
Dear Lord, please protect each of those 16 children. You know them all by name. Please draw them near to you, and wrap your cloak around them, and shroud them in comfort and peace. Please stretch my heart and make it grow. Please let there be enough room for William and my future children and these other children. Please don't let me forget them, even if there are no pictures to remind me. Amen.