By Sandy Musser
I’m standing at my front door saying goodbye to my second-grader, Chastin, as he hops on his bike. He’s riding two doors down the street where my neighbor Sarah will transport him to school with her own two children. I will then pick them up in the afternoon. There’s nothing too unusual about this scenario; it occurs every day across America among moms and dads and their kids. The major difference is that I’m his 73-year-old great-grandmother who he calls Mom.
I can still recall the first time he called me Mom. He was almost 3. We were in the kitchen and he glanced up and said “Mom, can I have some milk?” I looked at him with a shocked expression and said, “Did you just call me Mom?” He nodded. I decided right then that he could call me whatever he felt comfortable calling me. It felt very strange in the beginning; especially if we were in a store and someone overheard him call me Mom. Their expression said it all! But now that we’ve been together for almost 8 years, it feels quite natural.
As he takes off on his bike, I yell for him to have a great day. He was diagnosed at age 3½ with ADHD and more recently with ODD, so I try to give him as much encouragement as I can, knowing what a struggle it is to live with the disorder. While I feel extremely blessed to have him in my life, in my wildest imagination I never thought I’d be raising another child. I had been a ’60s mom — married right out of high school and gave birth to four children in quick succession. Though I thoroughly enjoyed being a mom, I was totally unprepared for becoming a mom again this late in life. How in the world did this happen?
How does a mother walk out on her infant for a stupid drug?
I had no clue at the time that four years prior to his birth, his mother (my granddaughter) had made the streets her home. That was when and where she met the love of her life; a love she couldn’t seem to resist. This old lady had never been exposed to this type of love or even heard of it — its name was CRACK! The only thing I knew about “crack” was cracking a joke, cracking a bone, cracking gum, or if I stepped on a “crack,” I’d surely break my mother’s back. I had been a little aware of her “partying” but soon realized that my ’50s idea of partying and her type of partying were two completely different things. Nor did I have any idea how serious it had become. What I soon learned was that it’s one of the cheapest and most addictive drugs on the street today.
I learned of her pregnancy early in 2004; it sent me into a tailspin. Knowing there was a little child growing inside who was the blood of my blood — my great-grandchild — immediately drove me into action. The computer and printer became my printing press, my avenue for trying to track her down. Within a few days, flyers were printed, nailed to poles and distributed to convenience stores and gas stations all over “crack town” and surrounding areas. A plea was even placed in the local shopper newspaper in hopes that someone might know of her whereabouts and contact me. My desperation and mission were obvious. The mission was to save this innocent baby who shared my DNA.
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My efforts came to fruition rather quickly. I received a call from a local cab driver who knew of her whereabouts and was willing to provide me with a general location. With a dear friend of mine, we drove the streets of crack town until our inquiries took us to an exact location. She looked thin, straggly, unkempt, sad. She cried when she saw me and begged for help. I brought her home, cleaned her up and let her know, without any uncertainty, that we were going to be like Siamese twins; she would not be out of my sight or leave my side for a single minute until this innocent little child was born.
That day arrived a few months later. In July 2004 a gorgeous little blond-haired, blue-eyed baby boy popped into the world and filled my heart with joy. I had no doubt that this little guy was going to change his Mom’s life in a very positive way and that her “partying” days would surely be over forever.
That “forever” lasted six weeks! Apparently, this crack stuff held much more allure than her little baby son. I didn’t get it then, and I’m still struggling with it now! What goes through one’s mind when the decision is made to walk out on your newborn for a stupid drug? Knowing she was back on the streets, I could only pray each day for her safe return. I felt with certainty she would return any day. There was no doubt that she would realize fairly quickly that her first-born child was more important than anything else in the world.
But days and weeks went by before I realized that she wasn’t coming back and that I needed to take steps to assure permanency for my little great-grandson’s life. Though I was 65 and looking forward to trips with friends, an occasional movie or visiting with family, I knew that I had something much more important on my plate. This child’s life was now in my hands. There was no way I could drop this ball — especially since I’ve always been a proponent of children remaining with extended family whenever possible. The time had come to go to Family Court and apply for custody. A major concern was whether my age was going to be a hindrance. I recalled the “old days” when older parents were not able to adopt children. I wondered and worried if possibly I would be stonewalled.
It was the end of September 2004. While waiting for service at the courthouse, I kept asking myself the same old questions: How does a mother walk out on a child for a stupid drug? What goes through her mind? Does she make a conscious decision to absolve herself of any responsibility or doesn’t that even enter her mind? Or does she come to the realization that motherhood isn’t for her and say to herself, “I’m out of here”? My thoughts were interrupted when my name was called.
I began to explain my story as to why I must have custody of my great-grandson. The Family Court worker was extremely helpful and explained that it would be considered “Emergency Temporary Custody.” I understood the emergency but wondered why it was temporary. However, I didn’t argue the point since I had already made up my mind to be his caregiver. And then again, maybe it was good that it was “temporary.” Even though mom had decided to take a sabbatical and return to the streets for a while, surely she might return soon to assume the responsibility of this beautiful first-born child she had given birth to.
As I was quietly uttering these thoughts, the worker made me aware that if I felt the need and desire to do so, I could always apply for permanent custody later. She then informed me that the court date was set for October 13 and that both parents would be notified of the court hearing — based upon the addresses I had provided. Dad was in the local Salvation Army, and Mom was somewhere on the streets of crack town, Ft. Myers.
With paperwork in hand, I returned home — and then broke down and cried. My feelings were overwhelming. They were a myriad of emotions: fear, frustration, hurt, disappointment and anger toward my granddaughter who had placed me in this position. What I knew for sure was that I needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other simply for the sake of this little guy who was now about to be placed in my care.
The court date arrived, and I officially became his “custodial” parent. They assured me that my granddaughter could not return and take the baby away from me without first going through a court procedure and reapplying for custody. That was extremely comforting. The custody paper was my proof that I was his legal parent.
It was only a few months later that I was glancing through my local paper and saw an ad for a group called Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Wow! This was surely the lifeline I needed.
Note: This article was originally published in GRAND Magazine 2012