Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

I thought a lot about fathers today, of course, and how important their presence can be in our lives.  A good father (or stepfather) can serve as a teacher, a guiding star, an inspiration, or simply a haven of love and support that you know will be there, for as long as life allows.  (The same is true of mothers, of course.)  If you have a father like that, don’t miss your chance today (and every other day) to show him your love and gratitude for the gift he has given you.

I wish (as I have my whole life) that I would have had that kind of father, so I could be typing his praises right now.  But nobody promised me a rose garden, and hey – we all have our cross to bear.  I hope you won’t mind if I share this particular one with you.

For my brothers and I, fathers were more like a game of musical chairs – every time the music stopped, another Dad had left.  My older brother Marty and I were left by our father when I was 2.  No visiting, no child support.  My mother married again in 2 years, and 9 months later my little brother Frankie was born.  Within 6 months of his birth, my mother had a nervous breakdown, and spent a few weeks in a mental ward.  While she was there, Frank’s father loaded up his things, and some furniture, and left.  Different father, same story:  no visiting, no child support.

According to our mother, the third game of musical chairs was the charm – when the music stopped this time, the new Dad stayed.  And for our mother, he was the charm.  He worshipped her and was a wonderful husband.  And by far the most wonderful thing he did, according to our mother, was when I was seven and Frankie was three.  It was then that our “three times the charm” stepfather legally adopted us.  Still, it was hard to be happy about it–for us, this was yet another paternal let down; our biological fathers had now both given up all rights to us forever. Adios, kiddos!  sSee ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!  That’s not exactly inspiring to a child.  And the man our biological fathers gave us to?  Our mother saw him as our savior, our “real father”, the man who put a roof over our heads, the man who deserved to be called “Dad”.  We kids, on the other hand, soon began to see him for what he really was – a father imposter.

Oh, he played the game in front of our mother.  Or manipulated the facts, if need be.  But when she wasn’t around–which was often, as she became a hypochondriac and spent a lot of time in bed with a “sick headache”–he was not a father.  He was mean, and ignorant, devious and (for me) dangerous, but my mother was either completely fooled, or, more likely, simply refused to see.  He drove us all away, one by one.  My older brother joined the Marines; I was kicked out at 18 “because you can’t get along with your father”, and my little brother Frankie dropped out of high school, and was arrested for the first time at 17.

In the aftermath, our “family” was broken for good, though my mother’s marriage to the imposter lasted till death did they part.  He got her, and my brother Frank and I lost our mother.  Marty moved to Florida with them, a choice I could never understand, and stayed a part of their lives till their deaths – it was only after their death that I learned that “Mom’s favorite” had instead been mentally abused by them both for years.  He now lives on disability and suffers from scoliosis and severe panic attacks.

My brother Frank and I instead sought out father figures.  Frank’s father figure was a criminal, who led him into a variety of crime and drugs.  My first marriage was to a father figure – not because he was so much older, but because he was as stern and domineering as the “father” I’d grown up with.  I would eventually seek out my biological father, and reconcile with him, and leave the domineering husband.

I guess we all learn in our own way, our own time. There’s a saying, “All that water and not a drop to drink.”  For my brothers and I, it was “all those fathers, and yet no fathering”.  Without a proper guide, we each stumbled through parenthood in different ways.

Marty married a woman who couldn’t read or write, with three children.  He later adopted a baby (a child of one of her relatives who had severe mental/physical handicaps, and was unwanted).  When she died, her children took her insurance money and left my brother with the burial bill and his adopted, physically/mentally challenged son.  Marty had to move back in with my mother and stepfather, and there he remained till their death.  No wonder he suffers from mental disability now.

Frank married young, had a son, and then spent the rest of his years in and out of prison, committing crimes and doing drugs.  He didn’t pay support, though he did see his son when he could.  He was a loving but absent father, and a very poor role model.  His son became addicted to crystal meth, and now suffers from schizophrenia.

I divorced my first husband, who had fathered our two sons, and when I met the man who would eventually become my second husband, I was very, very wary of bringing a stepfather into their lives.  Their own father was still in their lives, and I wanted to be sure that anyone I married would treat them right.  But my sons loved him almost from the start, and I soon became convinced, and rightfully so, that he would be a good father – and he has never disappointed me, or our (now) four children.  I am grateful, every day, that he is a loving and good man, and has been a positive influence in all of their lives.

So what was different about the men my mother brought into my life?

Let’s start with my father.  He spent the ages of 8-15 in an orphanage and when his mother finally came back for him, he told her he no longer needed her.  I found that out years later, when he and I were on a road trip to Bellingham Washington to see my oldest son graduate.  My Dad was telling me how his mother gave him and another sibling up for adoption when times were hard, and how he couldn’t believe she’d expect him to just welcome her back into his life when she finally returned for him.  I looked at him then and said, “Did you ever think about the fact that you did the same thing to me?  Only you never came back – I found you.”  My Dad was silent.  I don’t think he had ever considered that.

As for my younger brother’s father, I don’t know his story.  We never saw him again, and our mother never provided any details (we weren’t encouraged to ask about them, since she insisted our stepfather was our “real father”.)  But I’d wager a guess that his father wasn’t such a great example either.

Finally, our stepfather, too, was an orphan.  So he married a ready-made family, one which he had no idea what to do with, and obviously didn’t really want once he got it.

Compare those three to my husband and one thing stands out:  he learned by example.  My husband’s father, rest in peace, was an exemplary father.  He was kind, hardworking, loving and endlessly patient, both as a father and a grandfather.  He had a heart of gold, and my husband has many of those qualities.  The men my mother brought into our lives, conversely lacked a father, and their own parenting suffered for it.  The lack of a good parent can cause a chain reaction that continues on for generations – unless someone breaks the link.

That’s where I was lucky.  I am so thankful, every day, that my children have all their links intact (and an extra one to boot).  My older two boys have both a loving father AND a loving stepfather, and my younger two children have both parents, still together.  My eldest son has two children, and I am so proud of the love, time and devotion he shows them every day.

One good man can make a difference that can leave its mark on generations.  As parents, we all need to remember that, and if you’re not a parent, you can still have a positive effect on children whose lives you touch.

Here’s to all the good men in the world, whether fathers or stepfathers or uncles or anyone who positively influences a child:  you make the world a better place, for now and in the future.  Thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

As we sat in a waiting room before Frank’s scheduled court appearance, we chatted with the other two occupants of the room. One was a woman who was out on bond, on charges of embezzlement, and the other was a man who was out on bond, charged with attempted murder. He was tall, dark, and relatively nice-looking, dressed in a gray suit, white shirt and tie, so his revelation that he was accused of a violent crime came as a real surprise. What surprised me even more was that my brother was locked up for stealing a stupid toolbox, while this man was sitting in the waiting room with us. I couldn’t understand how that was fair at all.

We waited and waited, but Frank’s public defender, Mr. Wagner, was nowhere to be found. There was another public defender’s office near the waiting room, a Mr. Romano, and finally I poked my head inside his open doorway to see if he was there and might be able to help.

“Hi! I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you knew where Mr. Wagner is. He’s supposed to be here today for my brother’s case.”

“I’m not sure, but I can check for you. I’m Tony Romano. And you are . . .”

“Donna Delaney. Nice to meet you, Mr. Romano.”

“You can call me Tony. C’mon in, Donna, and have a seat. I’ll call and check to see where he’s at.”

“Thank you. Oh—I have a friend here with me, Natalie. Can she come in, too?”

“Sure, no problem.”

I waved to Natalie to join me, and we both waited in Tony’s office as he made a phone call. I couldn’t help noticing that the artwork in his office was all clowns—one a painting of a single clown, another a painting of the seven dwarves dressed as clowns, and even a clown statue lamp.

Tony hung up the phone. “I left a message with his office. Hopefully, we’ll hear back soon.”

“Thank you. So, you’re a public defender, too?” I asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“I don’t mean to be nosy, but I see you’re a big clown fan. Your office is full of them.”

“Well, they were gifts from a client. You’ve heard of John Gacy?”

I was stunned. “You mean John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer?”

“Yes, I was part of the team that had to defend him.”

“Wow! That’s creepy. I heard that he liked clowns, so I guess those pictures make sense now. What was it like defending him?”

“Creepy,” he said, and Natalie and I laughed. “The law provides everyone with a defense, so . . . let’s just say I was doing my job.”

“So, you did it because you had to. I can see how that would be hard, especially defending someone as obviously guilty as him. I wouldn’t want to do it.”

“Not one of my favorite jobs, that’s for sure. So, tell me about your brother?”

Natalie and I filled him in on some of the background of how Frank had come to live with me, the signs of drug addiction, his moving out and finding a job, and then his eventual downward spiral back to drugs and his arrest for stealing a toolbox.

“So he needs help for his drug addiction, not another jail term,” I told him. “Frank is not violent, he’s a coke addict. This is the first time he has asked for help with it, and I’m afraid if he just goes back to jail and gets out again, it will start all over.”

“That’s too bad. But it’s good that he has the two of you when he goes before the judge. Judges like to know that a defendant has someone who cares and can give them support.”

“But is there any way we can get them to send him to drug treatment instead of jail?”

“There’s no guarantee, but I would recommend that you write a letter to the judge, telling him of your concerns, and your brother’s drug history, and make a strong appeal to him to send your brother for treatment.”

The phone rang then, and Tonyanswered it. It wasn’t good news.

“Well, that was Mark’s office,” he told us. “Apparently he got hung up in another courthouse on a different case and won’t be able to make it today.”

That came as a complete surprise to me. I had no idea that your lawyer could just not show up for court.

“Are you kidding? But . . . now what? You mean we came here today for nothing? We . . . it’s not that easy to just take off work. And we can’t even see my brother!” Frustrated, I started to cry.

Tony grabbed a tissue off his desk and handed it to me. “I’m sorry, Donna. These things do happen. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional on Mark’s part.”

“But what happens now?” I asked, wiping away the tears.

“It will be continued with a new court date. Mr. Wagner will contact you with the new date.”

“Well . . . I guess there’s nothing else we can do. Thank you, Mr. Romano. I mean Tony. You’ve been so helpful.”

“Not a problem. Listen—here. Here’s my card. If you have any more questions about your brother’s case, I’d be happy to answer them for you if I can.”

“Thank you. I really appreciate your kindness.”

Natalie and I left, grateful to Tony but feeling dejected and helpless at the same time. We both missed Frank terribly and wanted to see him, even if it was just in court. And I was angry about taking an entire day off of work, without pay, for nothing. Still, it was futile to think about it too much.

We were at the mercy of the court system.

 

This is an excerpt from my book, “Relatively Criminal:  A Memoir

We in the United States like to boast that we are the greatest country in the world.   That may be true, though I’m not sure what statistic(s) bears out that boast.

True or not, when it comes to crime and our prison system, I beg to differ:  we suck.

A few important statistics:

  1. Incarceration rate (United States):  700+ per 100,000 people
  2. Incarceration rate (Norway):  65-75 per 100,000 people
  3. Recidivism rate (United States):  estimates range from 50% to 60+%
  4. Recidivism rate (Norway):  approx. 20%

Commit a crime in Norway, and you will lose your freedom, but you will be treated humanely, with a focus on transforming you into a law-abiding citizen, through education, mental health and substance abuse programs, and a job to do. Commit a crime in the United States, and you will lose your freedom, be treated like a wild animal in a zoo, deal with persistent danger from other inmates and abuse from guards, and eventually return to society no better and likely worse than when you went in.

I wish I could say that I had no personal knowledge about this sort of thing, but I do.  Twelve years of trying to help my brother Frank, who suffered from addiction while bouncing in and out of the prison system, was a painful lesson in what we do wrong in this country.

My first experience with “justice” happened about 6 months after Frank moved out on his own, with a job and a place to live.  He hurt his back on the job and could no longer work; he then fell off the abstinence wagon with his habit of shooting cocaine; and finally, resorted to stealing a toolbox from Sears (in order to fence it for money), a toolbox that was expensive enough to qualify the crime as felony retail theft.  Did he deserve to be arrested?  Of course he did.

The crime happened in Cook County, Illinois, so he was thrown in Cook County jail, and was basically scared shitless.  Cook County jail is not a nice place.  Frank called me, begging for bail money, but I was divorced with two small children and barely made it from paycheck to paycheck, so I had to say “no”.  He did manage to get himself segregated from the more dangerous characters by requesting to be housed in the drug treatment area (he was likely going through withdrawal), so for now he was a little safer as he awaited his court date.  In the meantime, I served as his “voice” with the public defender he was assigned, and quickly found that public defenders often have too many clients to do a good job.  His first public defender called me at work one day, all worried and urging me to go to court on Frank’s behalf because of an outstanding speeding ticket.  He thought this was important, because he had never read my brother’s record – had he done so, he would know that a speeding ticket was the least of his problems.  I relayed to his public defender that Frank needed drug abuse help, and wanted to be considered for the TASC program (a non-profit group that offers drug rehabilitation).

Frank’s request for help was denied.

At Frank’s first court date, his public defender did not show up, and I met another PD who seemed to be more caring and knowledgeable, so we switched to the new guy.  I explained to him that Frank needed help for substance abuse more than anything else, but had been denied.  The PD informed me that unfortunately, there were few slots open in that program, which is probably why he didn’t get in.  He suggested I try again to get Frank in the program, and told me to write a  letter to the judge on Frank’s behalf, explaining his severe cocaine addiction, his non-violent character, and his need for a chance to get “clean”.

In the meantime, my friend Natalie and I attended another court date for Frank. This time, we were at least able to see him in the courtroom. It was not what I expected. My heart sunk as they brought Frank into the courtroom, shoeless, with his hands and feet in shackles. The harsh reality of jail was never more clear to me than in that moment. I couldn’t fathom how stealing a toolbox deserved this sort of treatment. Did he really need to be brought into the courtroom in chains, no shoes, and zero dignity?

Our final visit to court for this case was the day of Frank’s sentencing:  June 10, 1987.  Again, he was paraded past us in bare feet and shackles, and it hurt me just as much to see him this time as it had before.  Natalie and I held tightly to each other’s hand as Frank stood before the judge with his attorney. We felt certain it had to go in his favor. It just had to.

Well, nothing is certain but death and taxes. The judge didn’t grant the request for rehabilitation and, while he mentioned that Frank was lucky to have Natalie and me to support him, he still went ahead and sentenced him to two years in prison, or eight months with good behavior.

We were informed by his PD that only one of us would be allowed to see him, in a conference room in the courthouse, before they took him away and off to prison. Natalie immediately suggested that it should be me, since I was his sister.  I was instructed to stand across the table from him, in that small conference room.  No hugging, no touching, no privacy.  I suppose this was necessary, in case he was hiding a toolbox in his underwear that he was going to hit us with.

“I’m sorry, Sis,” said Frank.   He looked ashamed.

“Me, too, Frank.  I tried.  I don’t want you to go back to prison.”

“It’s okay, I’ll be fine.  It ain’t your fault.  I screwed up.  Don’t worry about me.”

My heart was breaking.  “I can’t help worrying about you.  You’re my brother.  I love you, you big dummy.”

“I love you, too, Sis.”

We said our good-byes, and then Natalie and I walked outside and waited to wave to him again, as they loaded him into the prison van.

Just like that, Frank was back to where he started. Nowhere.  In eight months, he was released with no money, no new skills, and his addiction intact.  It was a scene that played out in his life over and over again, until he died of an overdose in 1997.

I can’t help but think that in Norway, Frank would still be here.

C’mon, America – we can do better.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read more about these issues:

http://www.dropoutprevention.org/engage/incarceration-within-american-and-nordic-prisons/

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/why-scandinavian-prisons-are-superior/279949/

http://www.publiceye.org/defendingjustice/pdfs/factsheets/9-Fact%20Sheet%20-%20US%20vs%20World.pdf

http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2011/07/25/277771/norway-is-safe/

http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1986002,00.html?xid=huffpo-direct

“Start doing the things you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in free speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.” ~ Adam Michnik

This is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-published memoir, “Relatively Criminal“.

I wept when the police called me.  Frank apparently didn’t want to speak to me, at least not until I had heard the bad news from someone else.

The call came nearly a year and a half from Frank’s first arrival at my apartment.  And it had been only three months since I had sent him off to a place of his own.  Fly away, little bird, I thought at the time.  Your wings are now strong enough to carry you wherever you want to go.

Or, what’s that other saying?  “If you love something, set it free…”

Too bad some birds have no sense of direction.  Frank certainly didn’t, or he wouldn’t have paraded himself for fifteen minutes in front of security cameras before walking out the door of  Sears, Roebuck and Company with a huge, expensive toolbox.

Worth, by the way, just over the limit for petty theft–which made it a felony.

As he told me a few years later:

“I went to that shopping mall, Golf Mill.  Ronnie was driving his blue Plymouth Road Runner.  I didn’t plan on “boosting” anything that day, or I wouldn’t have been wearing a bright red shirt.  Anyway, I ended up taking a toolbox from a big department store, just walking right out with it like I was a paying customer.

I was almost to Ronnie’s car when I heard footsteps behind me on the pavement.  I turn, and see this guy in a blue jogging suit, carrying a bag, running towards me.  When he gets closer, I realized he must be security or a cop.  The guy yells “Drop the toolbox and put your hands up”, so I threw the toolbox at his feet and took off running.

I must not have hurt him too much, cuz he keeps on coming at me, yelling “Stop” and I figured he could probably outrun me.  Suddenly the guy pulls a radio out of the bag, must not have had time to call it in before.  He catches up to me, and says “Stop and I won’t call the police.”  So I stopped, but then he whips out a pair of handcuffs!

So I’m like, no way, man, I’m gone, and I take off again.  I see this board on the ground and I grab it and start swinging at the guy and now I’m chasing him.  You know, I get scared, then I get all riled up and violent, too.   So he’s on the run and I take off the other way and use the board to hang underneath a van.  Just like one of them movie scenes, ya know?  I hear them come by, saying ‘he must have gone over the fence’ and they look around and then I hear them go back.  Must have given up, thought I was gone.

So I hung under there awhile, and then I get out and go back where the car was, and it’s gone!  And here I am in a fucking bright red shirt.  So I go back in the mall and switch it and called Ronnie’s sister to come and pick me up.  Guess he got scared that they’d connect us, and he just went in the mall for awhile like he’s shopping, then he left.”

Obviously, Frank didn’t make it out of the mall. And so it was back to jail.  Do not pass go.  Do not collect $200.  Break your sister’s heart.