When I was in my mid-twenties I decided, finally, to run away from home. I'd been trying to do it since I was about eleven but I had never really been successful. Oh, I'd managed to disappear for a few days at a time, but I'd never reached my real goal: to disappear from the world where everyone knew me for long enough to find out who I was when they weren't around. I guess at some point or another it's every kid's dream. At least, that's what I like to tell myself.
As I got older I ran away from home in many of the traditional ways – job, marriage, university – but none of them really met my needs. Finally, I just took out a student loan, packed my bags, bought a one-way ticket to Amsterdam and disappeared from the world inhabited by anyone I knew. It was glorious.
So, one Christmas morning, I woke up in a sleazy hotel in a foreign country in eastern Europe where I didn't speak the language and had no understanding of the customs, routines or expectations.
Because I was there by choice, it was exciting. But I wonder what it would have been like if I hadn't been there by choice.
I wonder what it must be like to wake up on Christmas morning in a group home, or a residential center, or a detention center? I wonder what it's like to wake up in a place you can't call home, knowing that you either can't go home or you have no home to go to? I wonder what it's like to spend Christmas in care? Or any other 'special day' for that matter. Imagine the scenario. Especially if it's not well planned.
* * *
At seven-thirty this Christmas morning, Susan wakes up in the narrow single bed she's slept in for the past fifteen days. She was sent to the treatment center a few weeks ago by a judge who felt that her behavior, and the inability of her mother to care for her, put her 'at risk' if she was to stay at home. To make matters worse, the judge ordered no contact between them unless it was supervised by a social worker. Because none of them are working on Christmas day, it means that she won't get to see her mother today.
As she struggles into the world this morning, she lingers in bed for a while, thinking about the Christmases she spent with her mother. Oh, invariably there were arguments, and most of the time her mother ended up getting too drunk with one of her male friends who dropped over for a while during the day; but she remembers the other things as well.
Like the way her mother's eyes sparkled as she opened whatever present Susan had been able to afford to get her that year. Or the thrill her mother expressed whenever she opened a present that Susan had made herself--like the year she had made her mother a colored cardboard box to hold her earrings. Or the year she had made her some fancy candies from the recipe that her grandmother had used when her mother was little.
Susan shakes her head and rolls from her bed, her feet touching the cold institutional linoleum as she struggles to repress the anger she feels welling up inside. She loves her mother, regardless of the problems they have and she can't understand why the stupid system won't let them spend Christmas together.
As she drags herself down the corridor to the bathroom she wonders who will be working today. The staff on duty last night couldn't tell her. All she knew was that it wasn't going to be one of the regular staff. They're all off for Christmas. Spending the days with their families. probably just some stupid student who needed the money, she thinks, as she closes the door and turns on the water.
For a few minutes she stands there leaning against the wall of the stall letting the water run over her. Then she turns it up hotter and tries to convince herself that she doesn't care. Tears mingle with the steam. The coarseness of the towel, as she dries herself, snaps her into the day. To hell with them all. She doesn't care. Her mother probably won't even call. Shell be too drunk to remember. If her mother really loved her she'd get her out of this place, especially for Christmas.
Wandering back to her room she pulls her jeans and T-shirt from the floor
and remembers how they had to get dressed up for dinner at her grandmother's
place when she was younger. But they hadn't been there for years. Not since
the Christmas that her mother had got too stoned and dropped the turkey on
the floor in front of the old dog. It seemed funny at the time; how her
grandmother had thrown them out yelling that they should never come back
Susan and her mother had laughed as they ate hamburgers at the little cafe
they had found open that night.
Later, Susan had put her mother to bed and stayed up late to look at the lights she had put on the tree, the night before. It wasn't much of a tree, She had ripped it off from the guy at the shopping center. But if she hadn't done that they wouldn't have had anything at all. Susan looks at herself in the mirror bolted to the wall in the corridor. Her T-shirt is wrinkled and her jeans could use a wash but what difference would it make? She wasn't going to see anyone important today. Just whatever stupid staff was here to make a few bucks extra by looking after delinquents on Christmas day.
And she sure wasn't going to dress up for them. They probably won't care anyway. They don't care that it's Christmas, except that it means that they probably make more money.
Before she leaves her room she looks at the little package sitting on the floor beside her bed. It is wrapped in bright colors and has a bunch of ribbons streaming from a bow hanging precariously from the side. Her social worker had given it to her a few days ago and had wished her a Happy Christmas. Right! Like Christmas in the Center is going to be a barrel of laughs.
She kicks it into the corner as she closes the door and heads for the kitchen where she's sure she'll find the staff eating breakfast.
As she walks down the stairs, she wonders if the other kids were having a good time at home. They'll probably all come back with presents and stories about how they had a good time. Well, it will probably be all bullshit anyway. She didn't care; they were always lying all the time.
Maybe I'll just take off today and see if I can find Gerry and some of the other guys. They'll probably be having a party. It would be better than hanging around this stupid place watching T.V. all day, which is probably what the staff will want to do.
She turns into the kitchen to see what the day will hold. 'Merry Christmas." she whispers to herself.
* * *
And the kids in your program ... what is Christmas like for them?