By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When I talked to Andrew Bridge, the advocate/attorney who headed up the task force, he was even less encouraging. "You know what I sometimes think?" Bridge said bitterly near the end of our conversation. "I think we ought to just be honest with ourselves. We ought to just stand up and say, 'Look, we have substandard schools in California, substandard care for poor children. We know that, and it's okay with us.' Let's at least admit what we're doing to the kids of this state, rather than turning our heads away and pretending it isn't happening."
NOW THAT WE KNEW SOPHIE WASN'T dead, the game plan was to get her to complete the guardianship paperwork quickly -- then begin six months of residential rehab. Isabel could keep the kids while Sophie got well. In the interim, Father Greg forked over enough money to get Isabel through the weekend. My party was set for Sunday, so by Monday even more resources should have arrived.
Sunday morning, my 14-year-old son helped me polish the silver and whip up a snappy array of hors d'oeuvres. The evening was awash in cheap champagne and good feelings. The next morning, I loaded up my car with gigantic bags of clothes and toys, plus an envelope stuffed with cash, and drove the lot out to Isabel.
Sorting through the clothes, we chatted optimistically. I told her I thought she was heroic. "The way I look at it," she said with her throaty Ethel Merman laugh, "Sophie's kids will get me in shape for when I have my own someday." She paused to squint at a pair of pants, deciding whom they'd be most likely to fit. "At least with me, Sophie can come by and tell the boys, 'We'll be together soon.' In foster care, Peter would be flipping out, I just know it."
Of the three kids, Peter was taking things the hardest. The night before, Isabel had sat him down and told him he had the right to be mad at his mom and his dad. "Of course you can be mad. I was mad my whole life," she said. "And if you want to talk it out, we'll talk it out."
Peter appeared to be relieved by the conversation. "It's okay here," he said to me afterward. "I'm not afraid when I'm here." When I spoke to his mother still later, Sophie appeared eager to hit all marks set for her. Maybe this story would have a happy ending after all.
NOTHING IS EASY. SOPHIE TALKED with a Legal Aid attorney who told her that, in order for her to get the guardianship documents, every single one of her children's close relatives also had to sign off on the plan. This meant Sophie would have to serve legal notice to her two sisters, her brother, both grandmothers, plus Angel, the dad in prison. In the meantime, Sophie agreed that she would come to Isabel's house and spend Christmas Day with the kids. "I'm still really pissed off at her," said Isabel, "but I think it'd kill them if she wasn't there. I mean, they've never been without their mother at the holidays."
On December 23, I drove presents I'd bought for the boys out to Isabel, then spent the next two days focused on my own kid and family. I didn't call either of the women again until December 26.
Isabel's voice was flat when she picked up the phone. "Sophie didn't come," she said. "The boys waited for her all day. I made tamales, and they opened gifts from you and my sister and me and Father Greg. But their mother didn't even call them. It's one disappointment after another, one heartbreak after another."
After hanging up with Isabel, I reluctantly dialed Sophie, who had a zillion excuses. The guy who was supposed to bring her flaked out, the dog ate her bus tokens, the sky was falling. I asked if she could imagine a day in the future when she would be able to rebuild her family. "The real truth," I said.
Sophie was silent for several seconds. "No," she said finally. "I don't know." I told her I understood there must be times when she felt like running away, assuming a new identity and starting over as a young woman without kids. "Yes," was all she said.
Of course. It was all so clear. Sophie didn't go to see the boys on Christmas because she intended to abandon them. That was what she'd been thinking all along. It was the only plausible explanation for her behavior. For a moment I thought irrationally that, if I were God, I'd set Sophie free to start over, to be the young woman she never had the chance to become. But I'm not God, and Sophie brought three wonderful little boys into the world of her own volition. Tearing herself loose from their golden umbilical cords would mean that she and they would bleed forever.
A few days later, Sophie once again promised the moon. Once again she didn't follow through. By January 2, Isabel was exhausted and near the end of her rope. "The baby has a rash," she said, "and I told Sophie I can't take him to the doctor until she sends the papers for his Medi-Cal, but she hasn't sent them. She was going to send me money out of her paycheck, and she hasn't done that, either." The situation was exacerbated by the fact that Isabel's mother, who suffered from severe diabetes, had just gone to the hospital to have her leg amputated at the knee. "Dancing was always one of my mother's favorite things," Isabel said.