“We have an unfilled urgent need,” the placement coordinator said on the other end of the phone line. “If you’re willing, we could use you now.”
During the previous weeks, we had completed the paperwork, the background investigation, the home inspection, the interview with the social worker, and the online training to be a host family for Safe Families for Children. We were fresh and ready to go.
“Tell me about the situation,” I said.
“There are two little boys. A four-year-old and a five-year-old. Their mom’s fine with separating them. Choose one, and the other one will stay in a host family near you.”
“Hm.” I flipped between the options, but it didn’t matter; whomever I chose would be the right one. “We’ll take the four-year-old.”
The coordinator explained that the boys’ mother had assumed the job of raising her ten-year-old sister after their parents had died on the same day in two different parts of Chicago. She was staying in a shelter in Minneapolis with the kids and struggling to cut through the fog of her days. Her to-do list was daunting: secure housing, find a job, raise her sister and her two boys, grieve her losses. A respite from her active little guys might help, she had said.
The director of Safe Families for Children drove Jamal, the four-year-old, to us the next day. In our living room, he stuck to her side while she pointed out his luggage and taught me how to operate his nebulizer. My girls—ages 8, 11, and 12—edged closer to him. His eyes glinted with curiosity as he watched them.
Dicka touched his hand. “Do you like basketball?”
Jamal’s face split into a smile, and he nodded. Soon, he darted out the back door with her.
Before bed that night, I read to him while the girls clustered around us. Together, we followed the adventures of Little Bear, Curious George, and Frog and Toad.
A tear trickled down his face behind the nebulizer mask. “I miss my mama.”
“I know, hon.” I closed the book. “We’ll call her in the morning.” I snuggled his stuffed dinosaur next to his cheek.
The next day, Jamal perked up. He ripped around the house, switching to a new activity every two minutes. One of those activities was nosing around inside the fridge. I whisked him out, but not before he snapped up his second yogurt of the day.
“This is the last one, okay? You just had yogurt an hour ago.” I steered him into the dining room. “And sit at the table to eat, please.”
He spooned up the creamy treat. Then the girls burst through the door from school. Jamal begged them to play basketball with him. They dropped their backpacks in the middle of the floor and scampered outside. Minutes later, Ricka stuck her head inside the house.
“Jamal just threw up in the back yard, Mom. I think he had too much yogurt.”
“Oh boy.” I followed her outside.
An empty yogurt container sat on the patio table. Jamal dragged the back of his hand across his mouth and bolted back into the game.
“You threw up, Jamal?” I said.
“No.” He swiped the ball away from Dicka. “I just spit.”
“No more yogurt today.”
The little boy whooped as Flicka chased after him. “You can’t catch me, Jo-Jo!”
I smiled at the nickname and passed through the gate, interrupting their game. “Did you hear me, Jamal?”
“Yeah.” He shot the ball, then flicked his gaze at me. “Can I have another yogurt now?”
One afternoon, Jamal and I left the house to run some errands. I smiled down at my little shadow. He watched me lock the front door, his focus glued on my keyring.
“Can I do it?” He tugged on the hem of my jacket. “Can I try?”
I flicked a finger under his chin and chuckled. “I already locked the door, bud.”
“Can I open the car?” As we walked outside together, he danced a jig around me, his eyes shining. “Let me open the car. Please?”
I recalled the girls’ intrigue with keys and how they had years earlier begged to do the same thing. Where was the harm in a kid learning a little independence?
“Push this one.” I pointed to the unlock button on my key fob, and he snatched the keys out of my hand.
He unlocked the passenger side door of the car, scrambled inside, and yanked it shut. I jogged around to the driver’s side, but before I could reach the door, I heard the click of the automatic locks.
I did some quick math and added up the facts: A four-year-old boy locked inside my car—with my keys. And me outside my car—with no keys.
Jamal got the giggles. I pasted on a smile.
“Hey, let me in.” I rapped on the window. “We’ll go get some candy—and more yogurt. Sound good?”
He pressed his lips against the glass and puffed his cheeks out. Then he laughed as if he had performed the funniest act in the world.
I slowed my breathing, the plastic smile still stretched across my face. “Jamal, open up, okay?”
After another second of amusement, he stared at the key fob and furrowed his brow. Then he looked up at me.
“See the picture of the little open lock on there? Push that one,” I said.
He poked at the fob, but the doors locked again. He shrugged and shook his head.
How could I expect a little boy to understand the symbol of an unlocked padlock? “It’s the other button. Try it again.”
He tapped the unlock button. Nothing. He probably hadn’t pushed it hard enough. Think.
Maybe Husband had left his extra set of keys at home today. But the kid had the house key too, and I couldn’t let him out of my sight long enough to find the spare key hidden in the back yard, go back inside our place, and search for the extra car key that may or may not be on its hook by the back door. An icy thought froze me: Jamal held the key that also drove the car, and if he had ever watched an adult put one into an ignition…
“Jamal, I have an idea.” I clapped to draw his attention away from the keys. He pushed his face up to the glass and peered at me. “I want some candy—you do too, right?—so listen carefully. See those buttons on the door? Push one of those, okay?”
Jamal jumped into the front seat and stabbed at a few knobs on the dash.
“No, here.” I pointed down at the door.
On his first attempt, he hit the lock button again. I poised my hand on the door handle. Maybe his next try would save the day.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date
*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.