“Who’s the oldest?” I asked them. Four-year-old Darius reluctantly pointed to his 9-year-old sister.
“And who’s the boss?” I inquired further. Both Deasia and Darius quickly pointed to Mom.
“Smart kids,” I said to Jackie. She smiled and then quietly ushered them upstairs to do homework, which, surprisingly (kids being kids) they did without protest.
“Good kids, too,” I added, amused.
“Most of the time,” she chuckled with just a hint of amazement herself.
As the kids worked upstairs, Jackie and I settled on the couch in the living room and got down to our task at hand.
Listening to 27-year-old Jackie tell her life story was like watching someone mature right before my eyes. As she struggled to find the right words to explain the choices she’s made in life, I could practically see the wheels turn in her head and witness the evolution of her developing thought process. By and large she had to find her own way in the world. Sometimes due to circumstances beyond her control. Sometimes by choice. Along the way, she encountered a few detours and plenty of forks in the road and admits to not always going in the right direction. Still, over the years, she honed her own inner GPS system and discovered just who she could depend on for sage advice and trustworthy guidance. Though she’s arrived at a good place now, the journey has been anything but easy.
When Jackie was only 8, her mother was arrested for murder. She was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in prison, a term she is still serving. After her mother’s arrest, Jackie was raised by her maternal grandmother. Though Jackie’s parents weren’t married, her father was very much a presence in her life and, according to Jackie, he and his family were good role models. Still, when given the option, she chose to live with her maternal grandmother for reasons that made sense to her as a child. She missed her mother and this grandmother was the closest thing to her mother she had. It was a decision that would bring less safety and security to Jackie’s life, not more. Her grandmother had a hard time paying the bills. As a result, the gas and electric were often turned off in the house and there was seldom enough food to eat.
“My grandmother did the best she could,” Jackie conceded.
What’s remarkable is that it wasn’t just concession in her voice. It was forgiveness. As Jackie untangled the messy details of her life, and laid them out before me – as I imagine she’s done for herself many times before – she conveyed not a hint of bitterness. Instead, throughout the interview her demeanor was thoughtful and discerning. She seemed to have a real intuition about human nature and vulnerability and by the end of the conversation I would come to realize just what a compassionate and empathetic person Jackie is.
“My grandmother did the best she could,” Jackie repeated. “But I was determined, if I ever became a mother, to do better for my own kids.” That would prove easier said than done. Jackie had her first child, Deasia, at 17. She also dropped out of high school that year, a decision she immediately regretted.
“I thought I was ‘all that’. It was stupid. I ended up getting my GED at the same time that I would have graduated if I’d stayed in school.” Dropping out of school, bad decision. Getting her GED, good decision.
From there, she worked on and off for a temp agency. Though Jackie and Deasia’s father never married, they continued to date after the birth of their child. It was, at best, a turbulent relationship. But then, one day, he went too far.
“He put his hands on me,” Jackie said, haltingly, as if she still had a hard time believing it. ‘Put his hands on me’ – a mysterious euphemism for ‘beat the crap out of me.’ She remembers walking into the house with him that day a few years ago. The next thing she remembers is being carried out of the house on a stretcher. After that, she broke off the relationship. Another good decision. And with it, she gained a little bit more self-confidence and inner strength. Still, she was far from where she wanted to be in life.
Jackie continued to work on and off for the next few years. First at the temp agency, then at a Subway shop. She had two more relationships and two more children. The second and third relationships were not much better than the first. And while each of the fathers is involved on some level in the life of his respective child, Jackie is no longer dating any of them. She and her children continued to live with her grandmother until Jackie applied for section 8 housing, which she was eligible for and got. It took her a while to actually move into the new house, however. Jackie wasn’t afraid of the responsibility of single motherhood without the support of her grandmother and other family members. She was just… afraid. Of being the only adult in a big house at night. She was, after all, only 23 at the time. So much responsibility at such a young age. Finally, however, with the help and encouragement of relatives, she made the move. Not only to a new house, but towards greater independence and self-reliance. Another good decision.
And then, somewhere around the same time she said to herself, “I want more.” She wanted more from life, from men…from herself. She started with herself. She looked into certified nursing assistant programs (CNA) and came across Caroline Center. She applied and was accepted. Another great decision. She loved the program, staff, and other women. At Caroline Center, she learned not only job skills but also all important life skills. There, she received training and counseling. She was in a very good place. Then on her last day of clinicals, the final stage of the program before graduation, something happened. She went to pick up her daughter at school and Deasia’s father was there. The one who ‘put his hands on her.’ Earlier, he had tried to get a rise out of her over the phone. But Jackie was beyond that now and her buttons were not so easily pushed. So he showed up at Deasia’s school. When Jackie arrived, an altercation ensued. This time, Jackie defended herself. They were both arrested. Suddenly, Jackie had a record. Her dreams of starting a new life and career were shattered. It would be impossible to get a job with an arrest record. Her heart sunk but she remained calm and turned to the one place she could absolutely trust for help and advice. The Caroline Center. She consulted with Sr. Marie McFadden who told Jackie just what to do. Together, they got Jackie’s record expunged. She graduated from the program in 2009 and immediately got a job at the League for People with Disabilities, where she still works today. Over the years she has had several raises and promotions and is a trusted and valued employee. All of which has got Jackie thinking about her future. She is now considering nursing school.
“I know the ropes. In fact, I know what has to be done in most situations, but I’m not allowed to do it because I’m not an RN. I don’t have my nursing degree.” She does not say this begrudgingly. She understands the importance of further training and is respectful of the hospital hierarchy; another sign of continued maturity. She “loves what she does” and would undoubtedly make a very good nurse. As evidence, just the day before she had to help a patient who was having a diabetic seizure. The nurse was not around and Jackie knew what to do. With her supervisor’s permission secured, Jackie sprang into action, turned the man on his side, and got him breathing. I didn’t know what to be more impressed with: the expertise conveyed in the story or the compassion with which it was told. In one short example, Jackie displayed impeccable professionalism, respect for authority, diplomacy in not faulting the missing nurse who was surely busy with other patients, and urgent concern for the patient in front of her. She has come along way, thanks to those who have helped her choose the right path and thanks to her own inner compass. She had special kind words for Sister Marie and Sister Marta of Caroline Center who she credits with exemplary compassion.
“They never made anyone feel stupid. They never judged.” It is the way she wants to be and the example she wants to set for her children. She herself has not judged. She has not judged her mother, her grandmother, or the fathers of her children. She is forgiving and accepting. But she is also older and wiser. Though she is still vulnerable in some ways and not without needs, her children are her sole focus now. They come first and she wants the best for them. Her home, decorated for Christmas at the time of the interview, seems safe and full of love. The previous weekend, she and the children put up the Christmas tree together.
“I thought about asking Darius’s father to help me buy one and bring it home. You know, a tree is kinda big and hard to manage. But then I thought, ‘I have a truck. I can do this myself.’ Again, I can see the wheels turning. The thought process unfolding. She spoke as a clear-eyed adult. And she knows, some decisions are just hard. Even if it’s the right decision.
“I wish it were different. But…I’m happy.” Yes, she’s come a long way. But at 27, she still has her whole life ahead of her. And she’s in a really good place.
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