The day my son, Porter, was hit by a car I knew I couldn’t keep him anymore. My other children hovered nearby. His baby brother, Jackson, was strapped to my chest as I leaned over Porter’s six-year-old body to protect him while we waited for the sirens wailing in the distance to reach us. He curled on the pavement crying after running in front of a car in a store parking lot. His autism and impulsivity made him bolt – only this time I didn’t catch him. His body healed, but the disarray in our lives did not. I scrambled to fix things I couldn’t as a single mother with small children. At some point- I broke.
But let me back up. Finding my son’s other mommy was foreshadowed by having a similar experience in my own childhood. It made this one with Porter understandable. I knew the difference that a second mother offered if we were lucky enough to have one.
When I was eight years old, my parents joined five other families, buying ninety acres in Northern California, in a tiny town called Forestville, on which we built houses and a community center. The adults were a group of psychologists who met in the 1960s doing low-cost counseling in Berkeley. Twice a week, all the families ate dinner together at the community center.
Our community celebrated holidays and anniversaries as a group, and each adolescent had a Coming of Age ceremony when we turned thirteen. The weekend-long event marked our transition from childhood to adulthood. On my thirteenth birthday, I began my celebration Friday night, by meeting alone with all the women in the group.
“You can ask anything you want to know about sex, marriage, love, or womanhood,” my mother spoke for everyone. I asked my questions, and they answered all of them. It was no-nonsense, but informative.
“What is it like to be married to someone?” I asked.
“It’s a wonderful friendship and a lot of hard work,” Lyn said from my other side. “It is the best, deepest, and most interesting relationship you can imagine, but there are times you feel like you want to pull your hair out.”
We continued talking until almost midnight, laughing and telling stories, passing bowls of mixed nuts and sipping on spicy hot cider. When it was time to go home, we hugged each other goodnight in the dark and I walked with my mother down the twisty road past the creek to our house. The following morning, the entire community met for a ceremony in which I chose a second mother, Lyn, as she was someone that I felt closest to. Lyn was part-mentor, part-parent, and someone I admired. She influenced me through-out my life including dark and painful moments like the day I entered recovery from drinking. I turned to her when I couldn’t turn to my mother.
It wasn’t a question of whether us kids needed close adults in addition to our parents, it was the assumption. My own mother had the tiniest tendency to overreact to things and Lyn was a steady presence that gave me perspective and support. This background made it normal to me when I had the anguished realization I couldn’t care for my son alone. I knew he needed another mother. Porter found his “Mona-Mommy” when the challenges of his special needs outpaced my abilities to manage them.
We were told that Porter couldn’t be placed in care because of his behavior and intractable seizures, but our social worker Maria didn’t give up. She knew a woman that might be able to help. Her name was Ramona and she provided long-term care to children with disabilities. Unfortunately, she had decided to retire that year- she was no longer taking placements as most meant at least a 15-year commitment. Maria convinced Ramona to meet us anyway.
“I don’t know why I agreed to that,” Ramona said later. “I just knew that I needed to.”
Maria drove us to Ramona’s house where Porter’s dad and I wheeled him up in a stroller. Our marriage had broken up months before amid the stress and weekly hospital trips, but we were still glued together by our children. We co-parented well. As we stood on the front steps of her old Victorian house- it happened. Porter screamed and had a grand mal seizure. It eventually stopped and I knelt next to him stroking his face. “That was that”, I thought. I was sure Ramona wouldn’t take him. She later told me she saw “the look” in my eyes. It was the sad and tired expression that hospital wards, CPR, and failed medications will bring. Our gaze met and then she looked at Porter. No one said anything and we packed him back in the car and drove away.
A week later, Ramona called to say she wanted to care for Porter. I don’t know if she knew in that moment that she would become his second mommy. The truth of the situation was clear a year later when Ramona and I took Porter and my other children on a camping trip and we gave him a bath together. As we poured the water over his head he said, “Mommy?” and in unison, we both replied.
Now, 17 years later, we still see the secret smile he gets when we are all together and he sits between us. Porter can’t communicate in full sentences but loves playing this game: He looks at Ramona and then looks at me and says, “Mommy?” and then laughs when we both answer back.