Saturday, April 23, 2011

Visiting Cliff as a child

Cliff was fostered at the age of three with his older brother.

The foster family had two sons of their own and only took them in for the money, not for love. The three year old did not know what he ever did that was so bad, but he was always blamed for any wrong-doings in the house. One of their sons was a spoiled vindictive and sneaky child who singled him out, often tittle-tattling on him about things that held no truth. Or he did not understand that he should not touch their toys. It was only Cliff who was treated this way. The youngest in the house. Regardless, he was punished and harshly. Beaten. Scared. Not understanding. Fear. One day he reacted to this treatment – this constant state of unhappiness and fear. And in an expression of anger, he smashed all of the model aircraft that this son of theirs had collected, which were displayed in his room. Which he had touched or played with and … been beaten for doing so. So he smashed them all to smithereens … because even at that young age where he was helpless and powerless, he had no control over his situation but his attitude was forming. It was a statement. An expression of his anger and fear, of how unjust his treatment was. That if he was going to be blamed and punished for playing with another child’s toys, he may as well wreak havoc and destruction. But he never imagined how far their wrath would extend when their son howled with disbelief, upon discovering his collection of airplanes destroyed.

And Cliff told me that they really did beat him … “and I don’t really remember the rest of it, it goes kind of black,” he laughed, but with a laugh that is delivered with a shaky voice, a voice that is trying not to cry or show too much emotion. A memory that had been suppressed too long and too often. It did not go black … he blackened out the memory because it was too painful to recall. But he did recall it that once, to tell me … and I remember feeling my heart break for the little boy in him, wanting to turn back time and hold him safe, make it better. After he died I remember wanting to find out who these people were, to hunt them down, to hurt them, really really hurt them physically.

He and his brother returned home and this little boy starts to believe, slowly but shakily that his ground is solid again. But his faith is misplaced. And he is to be fostered once more.

When he has his worst fear confirmed, his little body reacted to the stress so severely that his little limbs swelled to twice their normal size. He was sent for blood tests, more and more blood tests to try and find out what was wrong with him. It was stress and fear. Terror in a child’s mind. Unspoken and not understood. In the end all the tests did for him was give him an irrational but very real fear of needles. He was needle-phobic for the rest of his life.

I remember this feeling of love and protectiveness emanating from me towards him, touching him, and empathy. But I never shared my opinion on what had happened … I’m sure he knew me well enough to know my thoughts, but he didn’t need to hear them. I saw nothing positive coming from voicing them. I hated what he went through, it affected me on a level that I can’t find words to express … and I had no understanding whatsoever for how this had happened to him. My own childhood – my point of reference – had nothing like this in its data banks. Nothing I could refer to. At that age, our worlds were poles apart. My heart wanting to rewrite history for him, but being powerless to do so.

Months, maybe a couple of years afterwards, we had had “words”. He shouted at me that he had told me more about himself, more about his life, than he had with any other person. He shared everything with me, so that I understood him … knew him better than any other person. All of him. That he had never told anybody else everything. He’d never bothered but he had wanted to share his whole life with me. Hold nothing back. So that we would stay together always … so it would work.

Strangely, instead of shouting back, I broke. Out of nowhere, but somewhere in my subconscious, my heart broke and I told him … wailing, “I want to go back in time, I wish I could go back to when you were a little boy. I would go back and protect you from what happened, for what those fucking bastards did to you. I want to go back and hold you safe and tell you it will be alright. Make it alright. Protect you from what happened. It breaks my heart to think about that …”

He stood there. Stunned. Speechless. The stupid argument was forgotten. Our eyes speaking to each other. Both feeling the emotions passing between us. An understanding. He looked almost comforted, almost healed or satisfied … as if my absorption of his pain as a child – my empathy and my retelling his story, albeit from my viewpoint, had given him confirmation that I had listened, really heard him … and he knew with conviction, that I loved him enough to hurt when he did, even if it was in a past that I had not even been alive in – not yet born.

With hindsight, I now understand that he’d finally been given validation. That what he’d had to endure as a child had finally been validated.

And with my deeper understanding of love and loss, two years after his death … I now know that it proved that my love for him was eternal, it was true and endless, it crossed borders of time. That I had loved him his whole life, that I had known him his whole life, even thought I physically hadn’t, somehow I did. He really did give me his whole life. He did more than share his life’s memories.

And so, Cliff and his older brother were sent to their second foster home. This time it was an entirely different experience, thankfully, and made as big an impact on him as the first foster home. “ They were an old couple,” he told me, “well they seemed old to me. They loved us and were kind. They fostered because they wanted kids, not because they were paid to. They understood me. One day, I decided to go for a walk. Their land was so big, it seemed huge to me at that age. I couldn’t see where it ended, so off I went exploring, not knowing the worry my absence would cause. The panic that I might have fallen in the pig pen because I loved to feed the pigs. They were always telling me not to lean in too far, to be careful. Always reminding me that I mustn’t do it on my own. Unknown to me, the whole place stopped, everyone ... all the farm labourers were pulled in to search for me. When they found me, I knew something was wrong. And I thought it was all going to happen again. You know, that I would be punished, beaten. But they understood little boys and they understood me. They cared. They knew how to deal with me. They told me, ‘this is your tree’ and that became my special place that I could go to alone … and safely. It was a compromise that I loved. It was mine. I had no desire to wander off anywhere else. They loved us. I’d never felt so safe and happy as a child.

Cliff explained, “Then one day my father appeared to take us home. I didn’t want to leave them. He had to carry me, kicking and screaming.

Afterwards I found out that they’d applied to adopt us both.

Imagine how different my life would have been? The opportunities I would have had?”

I commented that we might never have met if he’d lived that life. That he was the person that I fell in love with, the man who had been formed by his life experiences.

He said that fate was fate and we could have still met.

Then I added I didn’t think he’d have been happy cooped up in an office, conforming to a corporate world.

It was the only time I saw that tiny piece of him – as an adult - that expressed a wish for things having turned out differently should he have had the opportunity. He stated, “how do you know what I would have liked?”

And I realized that he was right. I explained that I saw him as a free spirit, self-governed, and the thought of him sitting in an office cube was tantamount to a tiger being caged. He concurred, but added that he wondered how things might have turned out for him, for us, if the cards he had been dealt had been different. That we might not have had to go through what we had. That we might have had our own kids or adopted some. That we’d have longer together, because his life would have been so different, that his lifespan would be longer.

He told me that he’d never resented that his parents couldn’t give him those choices. He understood. He never blamed them and never would. “But imagine …” he said to me. It made me sad to hear his broken dream. It made me feel guilty that I hadn’t made the most of the chance I had had laid on a plate for me. It made me finally understand what my father had done for me … yet I was happy with my life as it was. And he never once resented my background. It takes a man, a special person to go through all the adversities he did and come through it without bitterness, only strength, understanding and love.

I was quite shocked as he’d always insisted that he’d lived three lives and, “I wouldn’t care if I died tomorrow if I wasn’t with you Boo. I want to live longer for you.” He knew that his lifestyle leading up to when he met me, even though he slowed down with me … would mean he couldn’t have the years he wanted to give me.

His regret. Not self-pity. Just a wish that things could have been different, but they weren’t. He knew, he somehow knew all along that we wouldn’t get as many years as he wished for, or that I would long for after he had gone. Even in our first year or two together, he almost broke one day after we had talked about the Aztec prediction of the world ending in 2012, as if he knew that he wouldn’t even make it that far … his voice broke, his face dropped, he looked away and told me, “we’ll have to make the most of the years together then, really live while we can,” but he never spelled it out because he always knew what I could and couldn’t cope with … he knew me better than myself, but he hinted, he tried to prepare me gradually.

Hindsight and time to reflect gives you such clarity. That’s my regret. That I couldn’t see it all, that I didn’t decipher the words before. That I can’t tell him that I get it. Finally. But perhaps, he intended it this way. There is no doubt in my mind that he protected me always, but yet again, I recall his words, verbatim ... and after losing him, I understand what he told me fully.

I loved him with all my being and would have lived with him, penniless in a mud hut. That said, for his own fulfilment, this man who was more intelligent than most, whose intellect surpassed mine, who was capable of learning anything and quickly, who could have turned his hands or mind to anything – architecture, archaeology, a passion as opposed to the best he could do with the opportunities he was given who nevertheless earned a lot of money, and I mean a lot of money, but through taking risks and/or working untenable hours. Yes, he could have earned it with stability, learned with passion, and perhaps fate would have been kind enough to reunite us in this lifetime, and grant us longer together. He’d have still been the same man, had the same heart and soul and I would have recognized him and loved him as I did and still do.

We both felt it was strange that our home, our real home, the last home we shared and bought – was only minutes away from where he’d been so happy all those years ago. And now he finally had happiness again. The two times in his life he had been truly happy – played out in the same geography.

Yesterday, I went to walk along the flint wall that he told me of. The flint wall he walked along everyday en route to school. In his words, "I'd know it. I'd recognize it if I saw that wall - it seemed so big to me then." And in my mind I saw that little boy, happy and safe. I saw his little sturdy legs march across the landscape, solitary, exploring, fearless and adventurous. The little three year old that his older brother can only remember being happy (as a small child) when he lived there. The little boy who loved animals and always would - the catalyst for this being the "Lassie" dog that lived on the farm. And I left that little boy there, where he is safe. I took some flowers along too, from me and from him to say thank you to them and tell them he’s come back to see them.

They were called Mr and Mrs Walls and they lived in Stockbury. His brother and I are going to spread some of Cliff’s ashes there. It feels like the right thing to do. I know he’d like it.

I watched, through watery eyes, the sun rise over the landscape that is only 10 minutes away from home. The landscape that his eyes had known all those years ago ... that we never revisited together ... perhaps indicating that for Cliff in his own words, "you can never go back. Leave the past in the past, but carry the lessons with you into the future."

I have a feeling the landscape was firmly imprinted on his heart and memory, leaving no need for him to see it physically to remember it.

But yesterday I had to go. I can't explain it ... I just had to. I touched the flint wall that he touched as a child ... I could see his little chubby hands and I lost it. I felt him there. And I knew that he knew I got it. Finally.


  1. This story of your love is so beautifully told that I couldn't stop reading. All I can say is "Wow".

  2. Boo, such a beautiful yet heart-wrenching story. It never ceases to anger me that adults can treat children in such a way. But I am thankful that Cliff also found love & acceptance in his childhood, & lots of love & understanding in his adulthood with you.
    It's true that what we hear often becomes so much clearer in meaning with retrospect, but fear not, he will know without a doubt that you "get" it.
    So sad for Cliff, but so happy that he had you to round off his life.
    Such love, Boo & so deserved it seems x

  3. thanks for your lovely comments ... this was a tough one to write about x