Monday, November 29, 2010
She was twelve when I got the call. “You are the only relatives
she remembers,” the representative from Child Protective services
said. “You must sign some papers and then you'll have guardianship.”
I felt my peripheral vision close as I gasped for breath. “Of course,”
I said. My two sons had recently moved out and my husband and I were
finally kid free and ready for new adventures but now we were asked
to parent again. I called my husband.
“What happened to Sheri?” he wanted to know when we met at the
“According to the social worker, Sheri is unfit to care for her
daughter. She is abusing alcohol and prescription drugs so Jewel
will be removed from their home. This is temporary until Sheri is
sober again. Until then we have to supervise their weekly visits,”
I told him.
We were scrutinized and questioned before we were allowed to bring
Jewel home. She couldn’t be left with anyone without background checks
nor could we take her out of the County without approval. We raised
boys, were we prepared to raise a girl?
I asked Jewel what happened and she told me in detail.
“I called seventy-five numbers before I found someone who agreed
to take mom at no cost. She promised she would stay but checked
herself out before I got home from school. I walked in and there
she was sitting in her chair stinking drunk. I lost it and started
screaming at her. Mom ordered me out of the house. I was hungry,
cold, and scared. When she finally fell asleep I tried to sneak
in but she woke up and started screaming. I escaped to the neighbors
and they called the Child Hotline.”
"How long has she been out of work?"
“Mom had a DUI but didn’t appear in court, then she got fired from
her job. Things couldn't get better unless she got sober. I made
all those calls to get her into rehab but then she just walked out.”
The first thing we did was attend an Al Anon meeting. Afterwards
I told Jewel, “We’ll try working with your mom but if she doesn’t
make the commitment to stay sober we can’t ruin our lives chasing
after her. We can’t wear her skin to make her choices. Ultimately
she has to want to be sober to make it happen. Our lives have to
work even if hers doesn’t.”
With the aid of social services we made heroic efforts to help
her mom but alcoholism is a baffling disease and wrecks tremendous
damage on the wicked and the innocent. For a while Sheri was able
to move out of rehab into a halfway house. She met regularly with
a counselor and actually managed to get sober. She found a
descent-paying job and moved out of the group home to her own
apartment. She was able to have unsupervised visits with her
daughter and plans were made to reunite them in a few months.
During spring break I took Jewel to visit my sister in Napa.
Sheri was comfortable with our trip even though she wouldn't
see her daughter for a full week. We had a wonderful experience
as we toured San Francisco, Napa Wine Country, and St. Helena
Health Spas. We looked forward to sharing our adventures when
Unfortunately Sheri decided to save her uncle, another alcoholic,
and ended up getting drunk with him instead. She moved in with
him and all the work of the last six months unraveled. She lost
her job and was back to restricted visits. I decided I wouldn’t
take Jewel for visits in that filthy apartment. I demanded Sheri
come to my home. It required for her to be sober enough to get
into a car.
During their last visit Jewel pleaded with her mom to get sober
again. They had an argument and Sheri refused to take her phone
calls. Jewel was ready to travel to Washington D.C. for an eighth
grade fieldtrip. She called her mom to say good-bye but there
was no answer.
“Do you want to go over there to make sure everything is okay?”
I asked her.
“No, if she doesn’t want to talk to me I can’t make her, “Jewel
cried as she packed her luggage.
Bob and I took her to school early in the morning and made plans
for our first weekend away since she arrived in our home over a
He asked, “Do you think we should check in on Sheri before we go?”
“No, because if we find something,” I said, “we will have to handle
it and I think it is important for us to be selfish this time and
take a break.”
When we returned Sunday night we received a call from Bob's sister,
She said their brother, Lee and Sheri were found in his apartment.
They had been dead since Wednesday. Their dogs were without food
for several days and started to eat the bodies before they were
All I could think about was how to protect Jewel. My husband and
I decided we didn’t need to disrupt her trip because there was
nothing she could do at this time. The news was broadcast all
over radio, television and the newspaper but her mom had no ID so
her name was never mentioned.
We contacted Jewel’s school principal, who was in Washington D.C.,
to tell her what happened but asked her to keep the information
confidential unless the news went national and Jewel heard something.
I called Jewel’s social worker and wanted to know how I should break
the news. The circumstances were gruesome and I wanted to tell a
story to protect her.
He said, “You better tell the truth because if you lie to her and
she finds out you lied she will never trust you again. Don’t tell
her more than what she asks but make sure you tell the truth.”
All this sounded easy until the night we picked Jewel up at the
airport. She was so excited. She had stories to tell about her trip.
She was thrilled to be one of the students selected to place the flag
on the grave of the Unknown Soldier and laughed about how they jumped
on the beds when they were supposed to be sleeping and on and on and on.
After several minutes she said, “I want to call my mom to let her
know I'm home.”
That’s when I said, “Jewel, something happened to your mom.”
“Is she in the hospital?”
“There is no official cause of death but it is suspected she and
Uncle Lee drank themselves to death,” I explained. “There were
empty whiskey bottles and beer cans all over the apartment. They
were probably dead before you left on your trip.”
She made a high-pitched moan like a bird falling from the sky and
then doubled over and sobbed. “I wish I could turn back time. I
should never have gone on this trip. Stupid, stupid, mother!”
My husband and I held her until she fell asleep.
The next morning Jewel asked, “What about Natasha? Is she dead too?”
Natasha was Jewel’s dog but Sheri insisted on keeping her. They
fought about it but in the end Natasha lived with Sheri
and Uncle Lee.
I hadn’t even thought about Natasha. I assumed that due to the
circumstances she was put down. I remembered what the social
worker said, “Tell the truth.”
“I don’t know… but before I find out I need to tell you more of
the story,” I said. Then I told her how the dogs started eating
the decaying bodies.
“But what if Natasha is still alive? How can we find out? Can we
call the police or the dog pound?” she pleaded. “I can’t lose everything.”
“Let me find out,” I tried to stall. I called my husband and
told him what was happening; I asked him, “What if the dog is
alive? Do we bring her home?”
He said, “Do what you think is best. I’ll back you.”
Next I called her counselor, and the woman sputtered and choked
but didn’t give any helpful information. Then I called a vet.
I explained the circumstances and asked, “I need to know if
the dog is dangerous. Can she be brought into a home and
not be a threat?”
“What happened was due to a lack of food," he said. She was a
hungry dog. She wasn’t dangerous before the incident, she is
not dangerous now,” but that’s not the answer what
I wanted to hear.
My fourth call was to the Humane Society where the dog was held.
“Do you have a white husky mix that was picked up from an
apartment with two dead people?”
“Yes, you can pick her up between the hours of 8 to 5,”
was another answer I didn’t want to hear.
We arrived at the pound and were escorted to a back room to
meet with the person in charge. He asked Jewel to wait outside
and started to explain the circumstances but I interrupted,
“We already know. I’ve spoken to a vet and he assured me the
dog would be okay. You saw my niece. What can I do? It’s her dog
and it is all she has left.”
“Okay, if you’re sure that’s what you want you can get the dog,”
Natasha was lying in the cage with her head bowed. Her eyes
distant until she heard Jewel’s voice. She jumped up and ran
around in circles until the cage was opened. While Jewel tried
to attach the leash Natasha kept licking her face. We got the
dog into the car and she started howling. She howled and howled
for several minutes. It was the most mournful sounds I have ever
heard. She was telling us her tragic tale.
After we brought Natasha home guests didn’t come to visit as often,
but Jewel was busy with basketball, swimming and school dances.
Natasha lived four more years and eventually died from pancreatic
cancer shortly before the end of Jewel’s senior year. Natasha
brought Jewel lots of joy and we were glad we decided to let
the dog live in our home. Jewel graduated from high school that
year and went away to college.
Eight years ago we promised Jewel to keep her safe and to promote
her best interests. It wasn’t always easy but last June she
graduated summa cum laude.
People who meet Jewel think she had it easy. She is beautiful,
always perfectly groomed, articulate and lives independently.
If she lets anyone get close they are humbled by her story. She
has demonstrated courage in the face of adversity, hope in the
depth of darkness, and faith in a future when the past has been
less than kind. She is truly an inspiration.