“True,” 20, was born in Manhattan and, by his teenage years, had been back and forth between relatives, group homes, and foster homes numerous times. “Being away from home and from my family all those years,” he writes, “made me a real strong person.” A recent high school graduate, True is now studying to be a plumber.
My foster mother, Ms. Bradley, taught me more than my own blood mother. Through her I learned how to cope with my emotions and how to deal with life. I think it was God's intention for me to live with her and have a learning experience that stays with me to this day.
I moved in with Ms. Bradley a couple of days before my 13th birthday. Previously, I had been living with my aunt and uncle in Queens, and before that I had spent three years in a group home. My agency felt that my aunt and uncle couldn't provide me with a stable family situation and that it would be a good idea for me to live with a foster family. I wasn't too pleased about that because I wanted to stay with my aunt and uncle, but I didn't have any choice in the matter.
When I first moved in with Ms. Bradley I couldn't accept her as my foster mother. I didn't want to let another woman come into my life and pretend to be my mother. As far as I was concerned my aunt was my mother, because my real mother had abandoned me when I was two months old and I'd only seen her twice since I was born.
So I entered Ms. Bradley's house with a very low self-esteem. I was a lost person. I had been bounced around from my family to the system and back again many times. I couldn't admit my anger to anyone because I didn't think that anyone could understand. But Ms. Bradley understood.
There was another foster child living with us named Matthew. Every morning after Matthew and I got dressed and ate breakfast, Ms. Bradley made us stand in front of the mirror in our bedroom and say out loud that we loved ourselves. Then she made us give ourselves a pat on the back and hug ourselves.
Matthew thought Ms. Bradley was nuts. He had enough on his mind to be bothered with hugging himself and patting himself on the back. He used to get in trouble every morning because he would have a very nasty attitude about it, and Ms. Bradley would always make him do it over.
Me, I was good. I thought the whole thing was silly, but I couldn't see getting in trouble because I didn't hug myself.
It sounds funny, but each morning I went off to school in a good mood and came home in a good mood. After a couple of weeks I came to understand what Ms. Bradley was doing. She was teaching us how to love ourselves, how to build our self-confidence. I began to feel better about myself.
She helped improve our self-esteem in other ways. For example, whenever Matthew and I said, “I think I can” (which we used to say often), Ms. Bradley corrected us and made us say, “I know I can.” She wanted us to have faith in ourselves. It feels better to “know” you can do something rather than “think” you can do something.
I felt loved by the way she hugged me and showed concern for my well-being. She took care of me as if I was her own. I didn't have the sense that I was taking up space in Ms. Bradley's house.
When I lived with my aunt and uncle I had every material thing, but I didn't have real love. My aunt and uncle couldn't relate to my pain because they didn't want to take the time to understand and help me. But Ms. Bradley's love was genuine.
Once I sensed she loved me, I began to trust her. I started to open up. I wasn't afraid of getting hurt by her because now I felt comfortable. As the first year went by, I slowly began to accept her.
We would have long conversations together every night. Ms. Bradley said, “You can come and talk to me about anything, anytime. You don't have to worry about holding back your feelings, because I can understand.”
We didn't have to have a reason to talk. We'd talk like best friends talk. I told her everything about my life and she would tell me everything about hers. She tried to help me benefit from her experience.
We respected one another because we both had similar backgrounds when it came to our parents. She had a rough childhood, just like me. Her mother didn't want her, just like mine didn't want me.
The only difference was that Ms. Bradley hadn't been in foster care when she was a child. She lived with other family members. I guess that's one reason why she never pushed me into calling her “mom.” She knew what it was like not to have your real mother. She said that whatever I decided to call her would be just fine.
Everything I was going through, Ms. Bradley had already gone through. She always seemed to know the reason why I did certain things.
If I acted out in school, she would say to me, “True, I know how you feel, I went through the same thing myself. I know where you're coming from. You're upset because you want to be with your parents. That's why you're acting out, because you have no one else to take it out on.”
I would look at her and say to myself, “How does she know what I'm going through?” Then I'd go to my room and think about what she said. When I came back, I'd say to her, “You know, you're right.”
I used to rebel against everyone who wanted to get close to me. I had been hurt by a lot of people, so I had made up my mind never to get hurt again. Ms. Bradley felt the same exact way when she was my age.
I lived with her for about eight months before I finally called her mom. The first time I called her that, the look on her face was like the moon shining. It wasn't all that hard calling her mom. When that happened, we both knew I had finally accepted her.
I lived with Ms. Bradley for three years. During those three years I became a happier person as my self-esteem grew. But when I was 16, the time came when I had to choose between going back home to my aunt and uncle or getting adopted by Ms. Bradley.
Ms. Bradley wasn't pressuring me to get adopted and she wasn't insisting that I go. If she adopted me, I would still have full contact and visitation with my aunt and uncle. The choice was mine to make.
I remember one thing Ms. Bradley told me before I made my decision. She said, “True, if you leave, I'm still gonna love you like my own, but you know that once you go you can't come back.” It hurt inside to know that if I went home to my family and messed up, I couldn't have a second chance to come back to live with her.
I didn't understand why she said this, but through writing in my journal I answered my question. You can't come into someone’s life, have a heavy impact on them, leave, and then come back whenever you decide. I thought what Ms. Bradley said was fair, because I wouldn't want anyone doing that to me.
I finally decided to go back home to my aunt and uncle, even though everyone was telling me it wouldn't work out. Although I loved Ms. Bradley, I was scared to get adopted. I always had my heart set on going back home to my aunt and uncle and this was my final chance to be with them. I wanted to give it a shot. I felt like I had to prove I could make it with my own family. Ms. Bradley was very understanding and respected my decision.
But I felt so empty as I was packing up my clothes, because she had helped me buy some of them.
After I left, I used to wonder, “True, did you make the right decision by deciding to go back home to your aunt and uncle?” For a long time I couldn't answer that question, but now, looking back, I know I made a big mistake. When I got home to my aunt and uncle, I realized I had grown into a new person with Ms. Bradley. I had changed, but my aunt and uncle hadn't.
I needed a certain kind of love that my family couldn't give me. I couldn't go to my aunt and uncle with my problems. I couldn't be friends with them, like I could with Ms. Bradley. I wanted to go back to her, but I couldn't tell my family that.
I realized Ms. Bradley was the mother that I had always wanted, the family I never had. I wanted both Ms. Bradley and my family, but sometimes you can't have both things.
There was so much tension with my aunt and uncle that I got kicked out of their house a year after I returned. I ended up being bounced from group home to group home for a whole summer before I finally moved in with other relatives.
I don't blame anyone for what happened because it was my decision to go back home. I should have listened to what everyone was saying, but I was too blind to see what they were talking about.
Ms. Bradley is deceased today and it hurts to know that she is gone physically, that I can never see that smile and or hear that laugh again. I no longer have her to talk to when I need some advice or when I do something wrong. She's not around to tell me the reasons why I behave the way I do, so I can learn how to change. I don't have her shoulder to cry on anymore and I don't have my best friend.
But she is forever in my heart and soul and in every footstep I take. I feel that we are closer now than we ever were before. Maybe not physically, but spiritually. I can sometimes feel her guiding me through all the rough spots as I come upon them. She was and is a blessing to me.
Without her, I would still be just another lost kid in the system.
Love you, Mom.
Your son, True.
This feature: The Heart Knows Something Different: Teenage Voices from the Foster Care System. Youth Communication. (1996).