I broke the first rule the day I met her. We stood in the yard of her friend’s house while I explained that I had been appointed by Children’s Court to be her volunteer advocate. She was 14, I was 62. Okay, she shrugged, and then asked me to take her to the mall. Later, I would learn that I needed authorization from her mother, from whose care she had been removed, before transporting her anywhere. Dumb to this and wanting to impress her, we went to a store selling impossibly small jeans and gauzy t-shirts, thick leather bracelets which she fingered longingly. She had $20 to spend and it was a serious venture. She picked up and put down dozens of items while I stood in my wrinkled suit and ancient Coach bag trying to look casual like being there was nothing new to me. It impressed her. It was worth breaking the rule I hadn’t known about.
Later, I got her mother to sign off on my transporting her child and after that our relationship mostly happened in my car. I took her to therapy and court, and to visit her grandmother. She’d get in the car, dressed in jeans and a grimy hoodie, sleeves sometimes pushed up if she wanted to show me how stressed she’d been. The cuts were never deep. But they were there.
We talked about the cuts and what was wrong at the group home, how she wanted to change schools, how people were always trying to take her phone away and she was never giving up her phone no matter what. All the while, she texted nonstop, the black nail polish on her stubby fingers ragged and chewed. Every trip meant a stop at McDonald’s for an iced coffee and chicken nuggets. There wasn’t a single time that I saw her that she wasn’t hungry. Hungry was who she was.
The day I bought her a winter coat, I’d picked her up from the child welfare office where she was standing outside in the snow, wearing her hoodie. In the car, she turned up the heat and rubbed her hands together. “Where’s your coat?” I asked her. “I missed coat buying day so I didn’t get a coat,” she answered. “They said I missed my chance.” I thought about how long it would take to get the group home to buy her a coat, the endless discussion about how she needed to become more responsible by being present on coat-buying day. I thought about the rule that said I shouldn’t buy her things. And then we went to the department store and we picked out a coat.
“I feel like a million bucks,” she said, her new coat buttoned to the neck. A week later, she was in her hoodie again. I asked about the coat. “I lost it.” I quizzed her. Where did she lose it? Maybe it was in a lost and found. She shrugged. There was no coat, it was gone.
Buying the coat had felt like fixing something, fixing her, and now she was back to her hoodie as if nothing had happened. I felt stung, wronged somehow, like she hadn’t appreciated the coat or my breaking a rule she didn’t know existed. But now, three years later, I’m happy I bought the coat that day. It told her something that I’d never said. That I cared about her being cold. That I cared about her. In that moment, wearing her new coat, I think she knew that and so did I. We both felt like a million bucks.