Sunday, October 24, 2010

My CASA

CASA:
Court Appointed Special Advocate: An adult volunteer, assigned by the court to study and protect the best interests of a youth in a civil or criminal abuse or neglect case. The CASA and the youth should talk on an ongoing basis. The CASA is your voice in the courtroom.
I don't feel this definition of a CASA is really fair.  My CASA was so much more than that.  Maybe I was just lucky and got a CASA that went way above and beyond.  Maybe there is a CASA and then there was Eileen McDuff. I know she went above and beyond for me--for us.  She is the reason I am here today.  She is the reason I'm not totally insane.  She is the reason I can speak today.  She is the reason I am alive. 

I met Eileen when I was 9 years old...or maybe I was 8.  I'm not sure.  I remember the first time I met her.  She came to my foster parents house, about 45 minutes outside of town, through cotton fields and vast nothingness just to meet me.  She could have waited to meet me at my next court date, but she didn't.  She drove up the driveway in her white car.  I used to love to race cars up the driveway so I took off after her little white car.  When she got out of the car and knew my name I began to worry that maybe I was moving again and maybe this woman was going to be the one taking me away.  "Nice to meet you, I'm Eileen.  I'm your CASA, do you know what a CASA is?"  I just stared at her and didn't respond.  "Well a CASA is someone who goes to court and tells the judge what you want.  I'm here to do whatever you want."  I don't think I really knew what she was talking about but I remember that I liked her voice and her smile.  I liked the way she smelled...I liked her perfume.  It made her fancy... she was like a fancy grandma. 

From that day on Eileen was a constant in my life--The ONLY constant in my life.  She was the one that made sure I got to visit my siblings, that I had birthday celebrations, that photos were taken of all of us. She told me I was intelligent and beautiful and worthy of love and success. She believed in me, encouraged me, and helped me succeed in everything from playing the violin, to graduating the top of my class in high school, to going to college. I owe everything I am and have to her.

Eileen encouraged me and stuck by me even when I was less than grateful.  She encouraged me to do well in school when others told me it was not worth the effort.  She opened a bank account and added money every time I got A's.  She gave me this account when i graduated from high school.  I had $2500 in it.  I couldn't believe someone would do this for me.  She also gave me a Tiffany's bracelet, but the money and the gifts didn't matter to me.  The fact that she came to my high school graduation and watched me become an adult meant the world to me.  This woman drove two hours one way, a week after having heart surgery, sat in bleachers and watched me graduate from high school.  I couldn't believe someone would do that for me.

She always encouraged me.  She always cheered for me.  I was so sad my Freshman year of high school when I had a huge performance in which I gave a violin solo in the orchestra and a solo dance performance in the same show and nobody came to watch me.  Not one person was in the audience for me.  There usually wasn't anyone in the audience for me.  This was normal, but this time it really hurt.  This time my group home was supposed to come and watch me but they didn't because one of the girls got arrested.  As I began my sad walk out of the school building there was Eileen waiting for me just outside of the auditorium with a giant bouquet of flowers.  No one had ever given me flowers before.  She saw the whole thing.  She was there for me, cheering.

Eileen was the reason I have any photographs of my childhood.  When I was 16 she contacted my biological aunt and found photos for me.  Before this I had never seen a photo of myself before the age of 10.  I think most people take photographs for granted.  When you don't have any photographs of your childhood it's as if it never existed--you never existed.  You can't go back when you're 70 and look at your photos.  You can't show your children or grandchildren what you used to look like.  You forget what you looked like.

I always yearned to be included on the wall of family photos in my foster homes.  Usually these photos were on the wall in the hallway, but sometimes they were in the living room, or along the stairs.  I would always stare at the family photos and wish I could see myself up there too.  I was never included in family photos as a child.  I remember going to a photographer with my foster family once.  They were all posing for the photos in their matching black and white outfits.  I sat in my pink shirt and watched the family get their pictures taken.  I wanted to cry.  If any foster parents or future foster parents are reading this, never do this to a foster child.  Eileen found out about my foster parents photo shoot and the next time I saw her my siblings and I had our picture taken. 

Because of Eileen I had sibling visits.  Before Eileen, I never saw my brothers and sisters.  She would arrange family visits and drive my siblings out to see me.  I lived in a small town about 45 minutes outside of the nearest big city in Arizona.  I hardly ever saw my siblings or my case worker for that matter.  Eileen changed that.  She drove them out to see me.  We had potato sack races and sour candy eating contests and posed for photographs.

She was a constant supportive adult in my life, but I did see her less and less as all my siblings were adopted and moved away.  I think she was no longer our Casa, but she was still supportive of me and visited me when she could.  I'm not sure I would be here today if I had not had her.  When I was 12, mute, anorexic and suicidal she told me she would be sad and miss me if I were gone.  I know that sounds simple, but no one else told me that.  She would call me on the phone when I was mute and say "I know you can't talk to me right now but I wanted to call and tell you I'm thinking about you."  What would I be today if I didn't have Eileen back then?  Would I still be mute?  Would I be as mentally ill as my siblings?  Would I be alive?  I'm really not sure but the very first words I spoke after a year of silence were for Eileen. 

Eileen didn't go away when I turned 18.  I called her all the time when I moved away and went to college.  We would get coffee or lunch whenever I was in town.  She would send me cards and gifts on holidays and birthdays.  I wear a necklace around my neck today.  It's a simple silver Celtic triskele symbol.  I will never take it off.  It is the last thing she ever gave me.  Eileen McDuff saved my life but her own life was cut short.  She died of bone cancer when I was in college.

She called me one day and I was so happy she called because I wanted to tell her about a film I had just made.  She listened to me ramble on and on before she told me her news.  She told me she had bone cancer and it was really bad.  She told me she wasn't going to be around very much longer.  "I just want you to know how special you have been to me in my life.  I want you to know what a difference you made in my life.  I love you very much and I am so proud of you."  I couldn't say anything.  I felt like she was sucking the air out of my lungs.  This couldn't be happening.  She can't leave me.  Say something!  Anything!  But I didn't.  I just listened.  "I also want you to know that I know you are gay and that it doesn't matter to me.  I love you and I'm so happy you have love in your life."

Those were pretty much the last words she ever said to me.  I tried to call a few days later to tell her that I was going to take a leave from school and come down to see her, but when I called her husband answered and I heard her screaming and crying in the background.  This woman was the strongest woman I have ever met in my life.  I never saw her cry except with joy.  I heard her pain and I panicked.  I wrote her a long email telling her what she meant to me and that she saved my life, but I don't think she was able read it.  Her husband said he read it to her but I don't know if she was able to hear it.  I never drove down to see her.  I was too scared of what I would see.  I abandoned her.  I left her before she could leave me.  I regret that I didn't drive back to Arizona to hug her one last time.  I never told her what she meant to me--what she still means to me.  She saved my life.  I never told her that.  I never told her that I love her.   I miss her so very much.

I love you Eileen.  Thank you for everything.