“I was 28 years old when I got the phone call that destroyed my life. I was sitting at my desk, when my cell phone started ringing, displaying the name of my stepmother. I’d only spoken to her a few short hours before, so I remember finding it odd she was calling me so soon after our last chat. ‘Are you sitting down?’ she asked, before following up with, ‘Your brother is being life flighted to Indianapolis. I don’t know what happened, but it seems your father hurt him.’ The next few hours were a blur, bouncing between phone calls, trying to figure out what happened – was it an accident? Was it purposeful? What was his status? Would he be okay? Part of me believed this was all a huge mistake and I would get a call with a more rational explanation of what happened.
I lived in Alaska at the time, where I served in the military, and I made the choice to take a red eye flight out the next night – a decision I regretted for years to come. Shortly after landing in Illinois, I received a phone call asking me to call the hospital, and I knew the worst was to come. After roughly 36 hours of varying degrees of rise and decline, it was determined that my brother had no brain activity and wouldn’t survive without the assistance of machines. The decision was made to remove him from life support, and he passed away shortly after. I never got to say goodbye, I never got to say how sorry I was. To this day, I wish I had left Alaska sooner, so I could have done those things.
Gabriel James was my brother, and on April 6, 2017, he passed away from injuries sustained at the hands of our father. He was 5-years-old.
I am my father’s oldest child, but one of eight girls in a family full of half siblings. A sense of responsibility for my siblings has always been important to me. While navigating the loss of my brother, I turned my attention to my three youngest sisters, who had been placed in emergency foster care while my brother’s death was investigated. I asked to take the girls back to Alaska with me; I believed they deserved to be with family. Over and over, I was told no – an investigation needed to take place, and reuniting the children with their mother was priority number one – the children being in Alaska wouldn’t aid in that reunification process.
But, I was relentless. I kept asking, every single month, for an update. What would it take for me to be their foster parent? How much time needed to pass? Was there anything I could do to support my endeavors to reunite them with family so we could work toward healing together? Meanwhile, my military service continued and I enrolled in grief counseling; the weight of the hurt was immeasurable.
Every day I focused on making it from one meal to another. Life felt like me, fifty feet of glass, and everyone else. When you lose a loved one in such a terrible way, people don’t know what to say – they are terrified of saying the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all. I felt no one cared about my loss, that few cared about the hurt that I was carrying with me every day – and not just for my brother, but for my father who was now jailed for what he did. Love is funny like that.. although he had done a terrible thing, I still felt love for my father.
I read the hurtful things people had to say about him, calling him a monster, saying he deserved to die – it tore me apart. These people didn’t know his mental health struggles, they didn’t know his adult children were sitting here reading these things, they didn’t know the circumstances behind his actions – as horrendous as they were – I still wanted to protect and defend him in spite of what he did. Before I knew it, I fell into a deep depression, angry at everyone as I felt they were so easily forgetting about my brother. I was angry at myself for not doing more to alleviate the stress my family had been under, angry at myself for not leaving Alaska sooner. Every day was consumed with the nagging feeling that I was somehow at fault for what happened – I could have, should have done more.
All the while, I continued my military service, but started making plans to transition from active duty to a guard or reserve position. I decided I would enroll in a university, get a full-time job, and focus on caring for myself and my 5-year-old son. And then, the call came. ‘The state has decided to pursue adoption for the girls – do you still want to foster them?’ And just like that – my plans changed.
I immediately said yes, and the following duty day, began the process to extend my military contract, move into a bigger home, trade in my vehicle for one that was capable of transporting all of us, and began the endeavor to become a licensed foster home. For months, I had appointments, background checks, fingerprints, home studies, and reference letters, but finally in December 2018 I found myself on a plane home with ‘my girls.’
Trying to navigate life as a single mom not only to my then six-year-old son, but to three of my sisters was a challenge I never thought I’d find myself in, but we were ready to try our hardest. It was a long process, full of visits with social workers every month, and counseling every week, but we began to make progress. Ten months into the foster process, and I had to make another agonizing decision. One of my sisters needed more than I could give her; her sweet heart was in so much pain, and I found myself realizing she needed and deserved more than I could offer – a therapeutic foster home, and one-on-one attention was where she thrived, but it wasn’t what I could provide. Separating our family again was never something I thought would happen. I so badly wanted to be the one to save and fix all that had gone wrong. Saying ‘see you later’ to my sweet girl was a hurt I didn’t know how to handle, but I did my best to reassure her I loved her just as much as I had before, and I hoped we could continue to heal and rebuild our relationship and hearts.
I learned to do my best to focus on what I could provide for the two girls who remained in my care, reassuring them of my love and intentions to adopt them, while simultaneously ensuring my son continued to thrive in his new environment of ‘brother’ to my own siblings who were closer in his age than they were in mine. We impatiently waited for our adoption hearing, but two dates came and went; I stopped telling the girls about the rescheduled court hearings, as they lived every day wondering if their placement was in jeopardy. They’d been in two foster homes before living with me, and my teenage sister would occasionally break down in tears, explaining she felt like a piece of property who had no where to really call home. I cried at night, wondering if I was enough for them, if I could be who they needed, if someone else could parent them better.
I doubted myself for months, feeling ill-equipped and less-than-qualified. Still, we continued on. I got word of another court date, but I held the information close, not wanting to disappoint the children with another rescheduled hearing. Finally, the day came, and I must have checked my phone every twenty minutes for a phone call or email letting me know what the judge said – and finally, it came. ‘The judge approved everything.’ My co-workers rallied around me as I cried tears of joy. That night, I set up my camera and live streamed for friends and family as I read the court order approving the adoption. ‘Yes!!!! We aren’t foster kids any more!!!’ was the one of the first things my sister said. We hugged and cried and cheered as we felt a weight lift off of our hearts. We were officially and legally a family!!!!
It’s only been a few weeks, but the euphoria is still there; while we still hurt for our brother, for our father, and for our sister who still remains in foster care, we are so happy to feel a sense of closure with the nearly three years spent navigating the foster system. Our father was sentenced to 65 years in prison, and although we are angry and hurt by what he did, we still love him and hope he continues to get the mental health help he needs, and that forgiveness finds the hearts of those who hate him for his actions.
In the meantime, we try and find healing in ways we can – one of which is through our endeavor RAKs for Gabriel. ‘RAK’ is an acronym for ‘Random Act of Kindness’ and can be gifted to a friend, family member, loved one, or stranger; we started RAKs for Gabriel as a way to purposefully honor our brothers memory, and we perform them in small ways like paying for a coffee in the car behind us, or even anonymously paying for a birthday cake at the local grocery store; each time, leaving behind a card emblazoned with his name and the line, ‘Please accept this Random Act of Kindness, gifted in loving memory of Gabriel James Baldwin.’ Anyone who wants to participate in RAKs for Gabriel can send us a Facebook message with their address, and we will mail 5 cards at no charge. Gabriel’s birthday is coming up at the end of February, and the kids are already coming up with RAK ideas to perform in his honor.
I never thought I’d be in this position. I never thought I would be a mom to my own siblings, but I’m able to do it because of the love and compassion that has been shown to me throughout my life, from my own tumultuous upbringing, to the village that rallies around us as we grow and heal from the pain of losing our brother. If this experience has taught me anything, it’s shown me how important it is to practice kindness, compassion, and patience with those around you. You truly never know what they are going through. You never know how your support and kindness can impact a hurting heart. I encourage everyone to be the reason someone believes in good people.”
Read more stories like this:
‘Oh, are you babysitting?’ ‘They’re mine.’ I’m a 30-year-old single black woman with 3 white kids. Love has no color in my home.’: Woman adopts 1 boy, 2 siblings from foster care, ‘love is love, no matter the color’
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