Palouse by vwl
An Arrival and a Departure – March 1984
In the spring, the Palouse becomes a giant quilt of green, beige and earth-brown. The land is not flat but seems to billow up from below, as if pushed upward by air currents. From the air the fields form square patterns, but from the ground the fields slowly climb and descend, leaving the undulations of the property lines as the seams stitching the landscape together. And the plows’ furrows try to fit workable undulations onto squares of land. Often, clouds produce irregular shapes of shade, intruding upon the mile-by-mile geometric perfection of surveyors’ transits and measuring rods and expressing nature’s reluctance to accept the unnatural orderliness of civilization.
The boy in the passenger seat of the large, tan-colored van didn’t notice any of this beauty. He had different things on his mind. Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced from time to time at the driver – a middle-aged woman with honey-colored blond hair cut in a page-boy style. The woman’s face was square, her chin strong as she concentrated on the road in front of her, gripping tightly onto the steering wheel; when she turned her face to the boy, he saw outdoor eyes of a strong blue hue. Betty Kingman at 43 was the mother of three children of her own, the last one dying at childbirth, when she lost her ability to have more children. She became the adoptive mother of four more, and she fully expected Micah – nine-years old and half Navajo – to be the eighth to love and nurture.
Micah’s seatbelt was securely tightened. Betty had insisted.
Micah knew very little about Betty Kingman and her family. The only thing he did know is that this would be the fourth house that he would have lived in after his mother abandoned him – for cheap whiskey and flophouses – an abandonment he didn’t know about until years later. His most-recent foster home was with the McDougalls, an elderly couple that took children in, but Mr. McDougall had had a stroke, and Micah was now being moved from Phoenix to yet another home.
The McDougalls had been nice; they had encouraged him at school, and they had made him feel like part of a family. The McDougalls home was far better than the previous home he had been in – a place where there was no nurturing and where he often had to work in the fields from morning until evening – and where he was slapped around almost daily. The social-work lady had said that the Forsters had been violating child-labor laws, whatever those were, and were being dropped as foster parents. The social-work lady didn’t know that the Forsters also beat the children they were in charge of. Micah had been too young to remember anything about the foster homes he was in before the Forsters.
Micah felt that maybe the reason he had to leave the McDougalls was partly his fault because of what he had done that April afternoon. Mr. McDougall had been away, and Mrs. McDougall was at work outside in the garden. So Micah sneaked into the attic, closing the stairway door quietly behind him. He wanted to see what was up there. He peeked into boxes, looked at the stuff that was out in the open and snooped around everywhere. Mostly, there were boxes of papers; there were also boxes of dishes and some boxes of pictures of the McDougalls when they were much younger. Some of the pictures had children in them, playing or sitting on the McDougalls’ laps. There were pictures of a younger Mr. McDougall playing violin in an orchestra.
Micah lost all track of time as he pored through the attic’s contents.
As he turned to reach yet another box, he bumped into an old lamp and knocked it over. Fortunately, there was no glass on it, so it only made a loud thump. Micah stood stock still, waiting to see if he had attracted the attention of anyone. He didn’t hear anything; the only thing that he had disturbed seemed to be the dust motes backlit by the windows at the ends of the attic. So he went back to peeking into things.
Suddenly, the door at the base of the attic stairs burst open, and Mr. McDougall came stomping up the stairway, his face red and his white hair flying out at the sides.
“What are you doing up here, Micah? We’ve been worried sick about you.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt anything, Poppa M.”
“You get downstairs right now and wait for me in the kitchen.”
Micah scurried past the old man, ran down the stairs to the kitchen and sat at the table, sobbing. In a few minutes, a stern-looking Mr. McDougall appeared at the doorway before taking a chair across from Micah, its legs scraping across the linoleum.
“I’m very disappointed in you, Micah. You worried me sick. We’ve been looking for you for two hours. Mother is out driving around the neighborhood searching for you. She’s worried sick, too. You are not to do that again. Do you understand?”
Micah nodded, his eyes filled afresh with tears.
“Now go to your room.”
Micah ran up to his bedroom and closed the door, climbed on the bed and pulled the pillows and blankets around him, forming a cocoon that he hoped would shield him from the shame he was feeling. He cried. When Mrs. McDougall looked in on him a while later, he pretended to be sleeping, but after she closed the door, he cried harder.
When he tiptoed down the stairs the next morning to get breakfast, he knew something was wrong. In the kitchen were two paramedics, and they were carrying Mr. McDougall on a stretcher into an ambulance whose rear doors were wide open – gates, in Micah’s imagination, to some terrible unknown. He had seen paramedics on television, so he knew what they were, and he knew things were not good.
Micah ran to Mrs. McDougall, fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around her legs as he looked up. “Mother M, I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I was just exploring.” He sobbed, not out of shame as he did the night before, but out of guilt. “It’s all my fault. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Mother M was torn between this little boy beneath her and the ambulance that was near departure. “Oh, Micah, you didn’t cause Dad to go to the hospital. His ticker was giving him problems. It had nothing to do with you.”
She leaned down to kiss Micah on the head and reached to loosen the grip he had around her legs. “Micah, I have to go with Dad now. Mrs. Parker will take care of you until I come back. I need you to let go.”
Micah felt the fear and urgency in her voice and let his arms fall to his side. He knew this was his fault, that it never would have happened if he hadn’t been exploring the attic. He wanted to run after Mother M and climb in the ambulance with her, but Mrs. Parker was holding him to make sure he didn’t do anything rash.
“Come on, Micah,” she said. “Let’s get you some breakfast and get you off to school. As soon as we hear some news, I’ll make sure you know – even at school. Okay?”
Micah nodded, his black, bright eyes shiny with tears.
It was two days before Mother M returned from the hospital. Except for when he was at school, Micah had been at the Parkers’ window almost constantly, keeping watch on the street. The minute Mother M’s taxi pulled up, Micah was out of the house and running next door to help them out of the car. But there was no ‘them’; there was only Mother M. Micah kept looking into the cab for Poppa M, but he never emerged. Micah’s heart sank. He knew it was his fault. If only he hadn’t decided to explore the attic.
Mother M pulled Micah to her, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “Micah, it will be a while before Dad can come home. He’s had what they call a stroke, and they want to work with him for a few weeks to see if he will get better.”
Micah started to cry. “Now, Micah, you stop those tears. It wasn’t your fault, and he’s not going to get better unless we all give him as much love as we can – and pray for him – and the doctors work their miracles. Do you understand?”
Micah nodded silently.
* * * * *
The next four weeks were chaotic. For Mary McDougall it was a whirlwind: time at the hospital, time back at home with Micah, arranging for someone to take care of Micah, arranging for what looked like long-term care for her husband, and making sure that meals were made, bills paid, chores done and the myriad other details of running a household performed. It was also a time to think about her ability to keep on caring for Micah. She ended up calling the child-protective worker in charge of him.
For Micah, things were confusing. He was shunted to the Parkers and back to the McDougall house. After school, he was told to stop at the Parkers before he went home in case he needed to stay there. He watched Mother M frequently go off to the hospital, but he could not understand why she didn’t take him along even though he begged her. He knew he could be of help, and he wanted to talk to Poppa M as they had done in the den every night while they listened to Poppa M’s favorite music on the stereo. He wanted to tell Poppa M that he was sorry for climbing into the attic without permission.
* * * * *
It was an afternoon over a month after Mr. McDougall went to the hospital that things changed for him. Micah arrived home from school to find Mother M and the child-protective worker, who had visited him from time to time. They were sitting in the den – the child-protective worker was in Poppa M’s chair, and Mother M was sitting where she usually sat. There was something somber about the situation, and Micah wondered if something had happened to Poppa M; tears started to rise in his eyes at the thought as he looked back and forth between the two women. He noticed that Mother M had been crying, and a handkerchief was tightly gripped in her fingers, only the embroidered corners showing. He ran to her and flung his arms around her neck. That only caused the tears of both of them to flow more profusely.
The child-protective worker cleared her throat and started to speak. Mrs. McDougall held her palm up to stop her. “I want to handle this,” she said.
“Micah, this is very hard for me because I care very much for you. You know how things have been this last few weeks. With all that is going on, I’m afraid I’m too old to take care of you and Dad and this house at the same time. Dad isn’t coming home for a very long time, and I have to be with him as much as I can.
“This means, Micah, that I have to make one of the hardest decisions that I have ever made. For the past two weeks, I have been talking to your child-protective worker, Mrs. Colbert, and we have found you a new place to stay.”
Micah began to sob. “But I don’t want to go to a new place.”
“Micah, you can’t stay here, much as I would like you to. With Dad incapacitated – I mean, at the doctor’s – I can’t really take care of you. You were going to be our last foster child, anyway. We knew we were getting too old before you came, and we took you because so many people who loved you, including Mrs. Colbert, wanted us to.”
“But I can help out. I know how to make cereal for breakfast. I know how to pour milk and to put the carton back in the refrigerator. I know how to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and to rinse the knife before I put it in the dishwasher. I’ll make my bed. I’ll vacuum my room. I’ll sweep the front walk like Poppa M did every week. I’ll pray for him every night. I can take care of myself and help take care of you, too. I won’t be any trouble.”
Mrs. Colbert tried to suppress a sad-sweet smile. “Micah, that is sweet,” she said, taking over. “Mother M and I have found a wonderful family for you – on a farm up in Washington State – where you can grow up with brothers and sisters and have a new and different kind of life. Their name is Kingman. Stan and Betty are the parents, and they have six other children of their own or that they have adopted. They want to adopt you.”
“I don’t want to go.” Micah grabbed Mother M’s leg. “I don’t want to go,” he repeated with a heart-rending wail.
Mother M hugged Micah closely. “The Kingmans want to adopt you and take you back to their farm in Washington State. That means you will have a family. And you’ll have brothers and sisters to play with – and animals around. The Kingmans can give you much more of a life than an old lady like I can.”
“But I have a family. I have you and Poppa M.” Micah clung tighter to Mother M. “I’m afraid.”
“Micah, there are some things in life that we don’t choose. They choose us. We have to live with what God has given us and make ourselves happy with that. Now go get ready for dinner, and I’ll come and eat with you after I finish talking to Mrs. Colbert.” The two women watched as Micah climbed the stairs to the second floor to wash up.
“I’m sorry this has happened so quickly,” Mrs. McDougall said. “I suspect I’ve fouled up all your procedures.”
Jane Colbert laughed. “These quick changes happen all the time. Usually, it’s under darker circumstances – a foster parent is sexually abusing a child, for example, and we have to get the child out immediately. In this case, we have a wonderful home situation here, but we have to find something else for Micah because of what’s beyond everybody’s control. However, we also have a family up in Washington that is looking for a child to adopt, and all our research on this family comes up with accolade after accolade. Mrs. McDougall, Micah will be in the finest of hands.”
“But this family hasn’t even met Micah. How could they possibly decide to adopt him sight unseen?”
“He comes highly recommended,” Ms. Colbert said. Mrs. McDougall stared at the child-protective worker, seeking more information. Ms. Colbert smiled. “My college roommate works for an adoption agency up in Spokane, and she called me a few months ago and asked if I had any special children for a really special family. I told her I did, but I didn’t want to break up a good relationship. I knew the time might come, however. Now, with what has happened, I called her, and she said the Kingmans are still very interested. The upshot is that Micah will be well taken care of and will have opportunities he wouldn’t have here.”
“I certainly hope so. Micah is an intense and special boy. He’s smart, he’s polite, he’s compassionate and he’s eager to learn – but he’s a special boy who’s waiting for me to fix dinner.”
“Go ahead. I’ll see myself out.”
* * * * *
Over the next week the telephone lines between Washington State and Arizona buzzed with the details of Micah’s move. The Kingmans spoke with the child-protective workers and with Mrs. McDougall, and they had conversations to introduce themselves to Micah. Micah was less than animated, with single-word, unenthusiastic responses to their questions. A not unexpected reaction, Betty Kingman thought.
“Now we have to get you ready for Mrs. Kingman,” Mother M announced. “She’ll be arriving in two days to take you to your new home.”
The next two days were spent cleaning and packing Micah’s things in between Mother M’s visits to the hospital. They went out to Burger King for dinner one night, and the night before Betty Kingman’s arrival, Mother M fixed Micah his favorite macaroni-and-cheese dish and chocolate-frosted cupcakes.
The next morning, Mother M and Mica were sitting in the den for the last hour before Betty Kingman was scheduled to arrive.
“Before you go, I want to give you this.” Mother M held up a jewel case containing a CD that Micah recognized instantly. “You and Dad used to sit and listen to it at least once a week. I know he would have wanted you to have it.”
“But it’s his. He won’t have it to listen to.”
“Micah, honey, it’s going to be a while before he will be home.” Tears rose in Mrs. McDougall’s eyes as she composed herself. “In the meantime, I’m sure this is what he would want. He knew you loved Mendelssohn. You were the only one of our children who would sit and listen to it with him.”
“Mrs. McDougall, I’ll just borrow it, okay? If he wants it, I will send it back to him. I’ll send it airmail.”
She looked over at this black-haired and dark-eyed 9-year-old boy, smiled and nodded her head. “That would be just fine.” She held Micah to her bosom and rocked gently back and forth. Micah couldn’t see the glistening in her eyes.
It wasn’t long before they heard a car drive up. Mother M peeked through the curtains at the taxi. She saw Betty Kingman open the rear door and get out. The cab door was left ajar as Betty Kingman walked up the sidewalk to the house and rang the bell. It didn’t look as if she would stay even for a cup of tea.
“Hello, Mrs. Kingman. Welcome,” Mother M said, extending her hand in greeting.
“Hello, Mrs. McDougall. It’s nice to finally meet you in person.”
“Call me Mary. I see that you’re holding the cab. Do you have time for a cup of tea? I’d be happy to take you to the airport.”
“I’d like that, and I’m Betty,” Betty said, smiling. “I wasn’t sure how you’d react to my arrival, so I asked the driver to wait. I’ll pay for the taxi and send it on its way.” She walked out to the curb, closed the car door that she had left open, walked around the cab and paid the driver through his open window.
Inside the house again, Betty and Mother M sat at the kitchen table with cups of tea and a pot covered with a knitted, pale-blue cozy on a trivet between them. Mother M had set out a plate of homemade snickerdoodles. Micah stood in the doorway, observing the two women while he ate a cookie that Mother M had offered him, careful not to spill crumbs on the floor. The women chatted amiably, but the conversation turned more serious as Mother M related the events of the last few weeks.
“I’m sorry to hear about your husband,” Betty said. “I certainly hope he recovers quickly.”
Mother M glanced over at Micah then said carefully, “I’m sure he will.” But her face didn’t display the confidence that was in her words, and Betty noticed. She also had noticed the glance at Micah before Mother M had spoken.
“Were Micah and your husband close?”
Mother M. nodded, and her eyes gleamed from the emotion of her answer. “As you will soon find out, Micah is a special person, and he and Dad were wonderful with each other.”
They continued talking, with Mother M describing Micah’s school activities and educational achievements. “He’s a very bright boy.”
After a while, Betty began to look at her watch, so Mother M knew it was time to load Micah’s few possessions into her car and get on the road. Traffic to the airport was light, so they made the trip with time to spare. Betty insisted that Mother M not park but just leave them at the departure level. They all got out after Mother M popped the trunk open. They unloaded Micah’s suitcase and two cardboard boxes onto the curb. The moment was awkward for all.
She turned to Betty. “I can see that Micah will be in good hands, Betty. Please let me know how he does.” She turned to Micah and gave him a warm hug. “Good-bye, honey. You are a wonderful boy. You lit up both Dad’s and my lives. We will miss you.” She turned around with tears in her eyes, walked to the driver’s side of the car and got in. With a wave, she left Micah’s life, and with her husband in the state he was in, she felt terribly alone for the first time in 41 years – since the day before she and Dad had stood at the altar and exchanged their vows.