Tears on the Grass
by Nicole Janeen Jones
The afternoon I left the cemetery, I promised myself I would not go back to Elliot's* grave until October 31--what would have been his second birthday. He was twenty-one months when he was murdered and in my mind he remains frozen at that age. Even twenty years from now he will be the little boy that was ripped from us before he could say anything more than, "Please", "Mama", and "Up."
I felt compelled many times to visit his tiny plot at the edge of the cemetery, next to the road I had to drive to go to the fairgrounds. He would have enjoyed the rides. But I resisted. I feared that if I went too often, it would become easy and I did not want the power of the circumstances as to why I was there to wane. I refused to let it become a mundane task that evolved into a chore; routine, like taking out the garbage, or cleaning out the gutter every spring. It had to remain difficult and painful. Tears must drip down onto the grass. If I ever became used to Elliot being dead--it would be insult to injury.
People criticize day care centers, and there are some out there that give ample reason to do so. I know that Lakeview Children's Learning Center is a deviation from those examples. The entire staff cares deeply for the children. Some of the children, ranging in age from birth to five years old, are by our sides for more waking, quality hours than they spend with whoever they lived with. The majority come from single mother, multiple sibling households. Each staff member has very different experience when it comes to child care. The former director is a licensed elementary school teacher. The present director owned a licensed family daycare for four years. There are mothers with adult children. And then you have me --the youngest and childless. But I've been babysitting since I was thirteen. For myself, I consider many of these children to be like my own since I am the one who potty trains, teaches, disciplines, encourages, studies, and monitors their safety for at least eight to ten hours a day. Many days were beyond difficult while I learned what was appropriate behavior and what wasn't. Ten years of babysitting didn't prepare me for children who had either witnessed or experienced firsthand abuse of every type. During the days I seriously contemplated quitting, I recited continuously to myself, &qout;At least I know they are safe for eight hours a day when they are with me. This may be the best place, the safest place, for them to be."
It wasn't long before I learned this was truer than I realized.
Elliot wasn't the easiest child in the world. He was emotionally needy, begging for constant one on one attention and lashing out in jealous aggression when focus shifted from him. But he was still endearing. He was chubby and strong and built to be a Green Bay Packer defensive lineman. His eyes sparkled with mischief and his smile caused me to give in on more than one occasion to whatever his whim. It was hard to put him into a crib after he was rocked to sleep in my arms because he was so beautiful and peaceful. Everyone was drawn to him. Volunteers always chose to be in the baby room because he was there. We all loved him, and I think he knew that.
Elliot's mother was Reeba, and her new boyfriend Joel seemed incredible. He took care of the kids, dropping them off, picking them up, sometimes keeping them the entire day. He offered support to Reeba ,who was in desperate need of some, after recently opting for adoption for her newborn because she couldn't financially support another child. We revered her for making dramatic, difficult changes in her life in order to provide for her sons. The boys loved Joel, too, running to him when he came in the front door, crying when he dropped them off. But the day arrived when Elliot didn't burst into his happy dance when Joel walked in. Instead, he ran to his teacher and cried. It was a cry of fear.
None of us wanted to let Elliot go, although we didn't know why. But, we had no choice so his teacher pried his chubby arms apart from their vise grip and handed him to Joel, who stopped long enough to ask us about Issac, who had reverted to his old aggressive ways of hitting and hurting. I explained how we had dealt with the behavior in the past and currently, reciting our key phrase, "Hands are not for hitting, they're for clapping." Joel listened intently, promising to try it at home, too, so that the discipline would be consistent. And then he took both boys, Elliot screaming, tears hitting the carpeting.
The next day we noticed unusual bruises and a scabbed over, circular burn-like mark under his arm. After a lot of discussion, the assistant director called Social Services. They came, took pictures, expressed enough concern that they took him to a doctor, and later returned him because of "insufficient evidence". Reeba returned that night after work, enraged, and claimed it was diaper rash, and injuries from two weeks ago, and that the boys would not come back because the daycare staff were "making her life too difficult."
One week, four days later, Elliot died.
On the day of Elliot's "accident", Joel cared for both boys. Elliot sustained injuries consistent with, according to the state coroner at University Hospital, a fall from a four story building onto a concrete surface. This happened on a Friday afternoon. By Sunday the doctors disconnected his life support and he fought to live all afternoon. Elliot died in the early evening. He was the toughest child I've ever known.
There are other children in the day care that I worry about, more so than the others. When they sit on my lap, I hold their cheeks in my hands and look into their eyes and imagine a world without them. I try to visualize what they will look like as adults, all the while wondering if they will ever achieve it. In Wisconsin, anyone who works with children, in any capacity, is a mandatory reporter of child abuse. By reporting the suspicious injuries, we satisfied our obligation-- the power given to us by the state. However, the power is similar to that given a figurehead. Not only did we not have any authority, we were not trusted by the very people who gave us the mandate. They decided what was enough evidence and made it appear as though we overreacted. The children I worry about and fear for I cannot really protect because I'll never be considered an accurate judge of abuse. That fact is probably the most frustrating aspect to my job as an advocate for children.
Elliot's peers in the day care didn't say his name until he was gone. Maybe they heard everyone around them talking about what happened, rehashing the events, speculating. I preferred to believe that it was the only way they could express missing him. Some days I believed that he was still there, playing with them, and they were communicating with him in a way only children can. The older children didn't say much. Children possess a gift for swift healing. But I know they haven't forgotten because his picture hangs above their coat hooks and they look up there occasionally and remind me that he's in Heaven. Once, I witnessed a school aged child close his eyes, fold his hands, and pray to Elliot, expressing his sorrow that Elliot had died and how he wished he were still there.
During the initial trauma, I kept telling myself that I was too young to deal with this. I shouldn't have to endure sorrow this deep, I thought. My college friends are getting engaged, married, having children of their own. I should be enjoying my youth. Then I realized no one is old enough and what would make someone old enough? Mere age? Or, an accumulation of similar deaths to age and harden the heart against such atrocities? I hope no such person does or could ever exist by those criteria.
Like the usual course of grief, it evolved to anger. I was angry with Joel for extinguishing a life so vibrant and spirit filled. I was furious with Social Services for giving Elliot back to die, and for later stating they would do it all over again given the same evidence. I was angry with Reeba for not believing us, for supporting Joel by using the excuse of diaper rash to explain bruises and burns. There was a window of opportunity open for these people to save his life and what they did was paint the window shut. I even turned the anger toward myself for all the times I had become frustrated with him for his neediness. I should have held him more, been more patient, understanding. I felt tinged with anger, and tainted by the loss of innocence I used to have about caring for children. At least once a day I acknowledge I could lose any one of the children I take care of, at any minute, and there's nothing I can do to prevent it, even if I try. I worry that I'm expending everything I have on these children that aren't mine and that I won't have anything left when I do have my own. But at the same time, I can't give them any less, because they may not be getting any more at home.
I can't imagine perfect peace from this. It means a necessary separation from the involved emotions that right now is impossible. I need to remember, to have constant contact with the churning in my mind. Of course I can never forget Elliot. I still remember little things like his fear of a plush stuffed animal mouse, the pattern of his favorite blanket, the way his belly protruded over the top of his diaper. When I visited his grave on his birthday, I wrote a letter to him and left it. I thought I had the extreme emotions in check, the crying, until I turned to walk away from him again. I realized this is still a big part of me. And, I don't know when it won't be. But, for the first time since his death, I am beginning to think about how this has impacted me, instead of rehashing the cold order of his last days. I've decided I cannot honor his murderer in that way, to include him so much in my memories of Elliot. I cannot include him in my grief. It is bad enough he is the reason I grieve at all.
*all names, including the name of the day care center involved, have been changed in order to preserve confidentiality
About the author
Nicole Janeen Jones is currently a preschool teacher in a state licensed group daycare facility. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin- La Crosse with a degree in English and psychology. She currently lives in Wisconsin where she freelance writes and is working on two novels.
Other Nonfiction articles
We Never Said the 'F' Word
Home is Where the Garden Is
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