Tristen was Courtlen’s middle brother, older than Court, but younger than Devin. He died almost 4 years ago. Tristen had a liver transplant when he was 3 years old, just after Courtlen was born. He died at 17 years old. A lot of things in that household revolved around Tristen and his illness. As it had to. His mom, Taja, originally hired me as a live-in to take of the boys so she could run a bar she had just bought. Their father was in the process of divorcing her and he was a truck driver, gone for days at a time.
Tristen was a generally happy child, though prone to some nasty headaches. I was so angry at Devin about 3 weeks after I moved in and started the job. Devin, while screwing around with the neighbor kids, whacked Tristen in the right temple with a metal garbage can lid. The goose-egg knot and bruise that popped up was at least 3 inches across. I was furious! Devin could have killed him with a blow like that without meaning to. I hauled Devin into the house and tossed him in his room. Devin was 12 and Tristen was 6 at the time. I told Devin to stay in that room or so help me I would lose my temper and control and beat the crap out of him. I think he took me seriously… I guess my angry scary face is pretty convincing.
I finally was able to check Tristen’s head, looking for blood, making sure his eye wasn’t damaged and making sure he kept awake in case of concussion. I got him calmed down and quieted. I was even angrier. I knocked once on Devin’s door with my fist (shivered the door too, guess I hit it pretty hard) and opened it. I told Devin he needed to come see what he had done. I took him to Tristen and showed him the results of that head bash. I explained why it was so dangerous and why he should NEVER hit anyone in the head, especially at the temple, with any object. I had him apologize and then told him to stay in his room until his mom got home to deal with him.
Well, she finally got home about an hour later. I explained what happened and where the kids were. She looked Tristen over. Then she let Devin out of his room without saying a word about the situation. Nothing. Not one thing about it. At all . I was shocked. And then I got pissed at her. I left the house for 4 hours, to keep my temper and try to swallow that I was going to have an interesting time keeping order and safety in that house.
Not long after that, Taja was diagnosed with cancer. It had already spread. Her lungs, her breast, her sternum, her lymph nodes and her brain. Everything changed instantly. I took care of her, the house and the kids. I drove her to chemo and radiation. I did what I could to keep hope alive for her. Toward the end, she would only take her medication from me and her sister-in-law. Her mother, at the very end, almost crushed my soul. It was the day Taja died. I left the house to stay the night with Charleen, the sister-in-law. Then came the call a couple of hours later that Taja was gone. I went back.
She died 5 months after hiring me. Courtlen was already very attached to me. I considered leaving, since his father was/is an asshole (sorry Court, but he is) and I knew things could get ugly at some point. But I stayed. I just couldn’t have Court lose me within a week of his mom. How can a 3 year old cope with that? So I stayed 3 more years, until he finished kindergarten.
Tristen seemed to hate me. I know why. I am the first person that didn’t automatically give him what he wanted just because he was sick. Other than the transplant, he was actually as healthy as any other boy. So, I said, constantly, “You want it? Then earn it.” That went over like a lead balloon. He and I fought constantly about his homework, his chores, his medication, you name it. God, that child frustrated me! But I stuck to my guns. I always explained why I was giving or denying based on his actions. For little things and the big things. I honestly felt that consequences had to be learned, both positive and negative.
Thanks to Tristen, I had my 3rd bout of chickenpox. Yes, fuckin’ chickenpox. I had to get him to the hospital, since with his suppressed immune system, chickenpox could kill him. My stress had gone through the ceiling and I got them again. My doctor told me that extremely high stress would suppress my own immune system and that I could keep getting them each time I was exposed if my stress was high enough. Lovely to share the itchy sores with the little creep, just lovely. *sigh* He made it through, so did I. Life went on.
So, he and I battled for 3 years. Then I finally had to go. I was approaching a nervous breakdown due to their father. It was a close thing. I moved on to my next family and kept in touch with Courtlen. Tristen didn’t seem interested at first, so I didn’t really worry about him. Devin was kicked out and then off in Arizona. Then things changed again. Enter the wicked stepmother. She made fairy tales seem like light reading.
Not long after Court and Tristen spent the night with me (blogged last week), I came over to visit Courtlen at their house. Tristen took me aside and told me that she was beating on them both, but Courtlen more. He gave me detail after detail. Now, due to our past, I knew Tristen would lie at the drop of a penny. I told him to stay in his room and went to Courtlen. He was doing his homework in the kitchen. I carefully asked him about things, doing my best not to lead him with the questions. Everything Tristen said matched. Courtlen was reluctant to talk, but eventually it all came out in a gush. I was so ANGRY. This woman, this creature was hitting them with coat hangers, wooden spoons, pulling their hair, kicking Courtlen in the stomach, and a ton of psychological torture. She was talking major crap about their mom, who she had never met. And then there was the other stuff, lists of it. Example – if the clothes in their drawer did not look the way she wanted, she would empty the drawer on the floor and make them put everything back… over and over and over. What boy’s drawer has perfectly even rows of socks, underwear, etc.? I looked before I left. The drawers were ‘perfect’. Their stories matched.
On the bus ride home, I was so angry, my fist clenched. The ring on my finger burst the weld. Still have that ring and never got it fixed. It is a reminder of what happened. I called Child Protective Service as soon as I got home. Reported everything the kids had told me and how I had done my questions and what I saw in their drawer, how it all seemed to match what was said. It was all I could do. And it did nothing. They ‘investigated’ by talking to her in Spanish (which the kids did not speak, by the way) right there in front of them. They never asked the kids ANYTHING. Not once. And they left. The only good that came of it was she quit hitting them, but the psychological warfare continued all the time that she was there.
So, time passes. She does her best to get rid of me. Even going so far as to tell me I can take Courtlen for a weekend, let me drive the 84 miles to pick him up and then tell me I can’t take him. I was furious. Courtlen was now 10 or 11, while Tristen was 13 or 14. Just as I was leaving, Tristen came out to talk to me. He asked me not to give up on Courtlen. That he realized I wasn’t as bad as he had thought before, now that he knew what ‘bad’ really was. I looked him in the eye and my heart almost stopped.
His eyes were wrong. The whites weren’t white any more. They were quite yellow. I was close to panic. I had been told years before that if they went yellow, it was probable that his liver was rejecting and that he HAD to get to the hospital as soon as possible. I calmly asked him if he realized that it had happened. He said, sure he knew and when he asked his dad about it, he was told it was just from the chlorine in the pool. I was furious. I told him, “Tristen, your eyes get RED from chlorine, not YELLOW. You need to get your dad to take you to the hospital. Soon. Like now would be good. When was your last blood screening?” I almost choked when he said 2 YEARS. He was supposed to have them every 3 months to monitor his liver function.
He managed to get his dad to take him the next day. Sure enough, he was in rejection. His meds were off and because they hadn’t done the blood screening, it had gone who knows how long without being adjusted correctly. He came so close to having the liver reject that it wasn’t anywhere near the solar system of funny. I shiver still when I think about what might have happened if we hadn’t talked.
Come forward another 4 years. Tristen is 17. Devin is home with them again. The stepmother has just been kicked out after Tristen lands in the hospital again. He had screwed up taking his meds again. Devin called me to let me know Tristen was in UCLA medical center until they could stabilize him. My poor heart spasmed. I explained to Aaron that I needed to go see Tristen. Now. Tonight. It was already 9pm and we both had work the next day. I didn’t care. I had to go. Aaron didn’t want me to drive, so he drove me. He took a book and waited in the lobby. I called Tristen and he came down to get me.
We went back up to his floor. Once there, we sat in a window seat and talked. And talked. And talked some more. The first hour, I chewed his ass about the meds and taking care of himself. That soon, he would be completely responsible for it all and that he had to get with it. The next four hours was something else altogether.
We talked like we never did when I was living there. He thanked me for all that I had done for him. For trying to get him and his brothers ready for what the real world was going to be. For being there when they needed me. For caring so much about them, especially Courtlen. He made me promise again that I would never give up on Courtlen, no matter what. That he loved me. Those 5 hours seemed a flash. They went by so fast. We settled all of our crap between us. And it felt right. I went outside to have a cigarette and Tristen talked with Aaron until I came back in. We left at 3am. I was glad I insisted on going. I thanked Aaron for being so understanding and for bringing me and letting us talk for so long. He told me to quit being silly.
Tristen went home later that week. Then I got a phone call at 7am a month later. It was Courtlen. Tristen was dead. Pneumonia was the official cause of death. But he had gone back on the transplant list at the last visit. I told Courtlen was I coming, that I would be there as soon as I could. I called work and told them I had a death to deal with. I was calm.
I stopped at my student Wolf’s apartment. Now the shakes had come. A few tears driving to her, but not major. I rested for 45 minutes and then got back on the road to get back to Riverside as soon as I could. Once I got past the 405 exchange, then the real tears came. I sobbed the rest of the way. Courtlen was there on his porch when I got there. I hugged him for a long time. He was very detached, but I expected that. His crying had been earlier.
I stayed for 2 days, keeping Courtlen company and helping make some of the arrangements for the funeral. At the service, I spoke for part of his eulogy. I talked about that last time I had seen him, when all that had been wrong between us was set right. He had known. Somehow. And he wanted things fixed so that I wouldn’t tear myself to shreds over it. And he wanted to make sure Courtlen would be protected.
We buried him next to his mother. I sat with Courtlen through the funeral. It was incredibly hard to watch that coffin lower. To know that this kid was gone. The one I had fought so hard to educate and even just to keep alive. I haven’t forgiven his father or stepmother yet. I may never. They own a piece of responsibility for his death. I am not a big enough person to let it go. At least not in my heart. I’ve held my peace. That is the most I can do, so far.