It is April 2, 1972. I have gone to work as a caseworker for Otsego County Department of Social Services in Cooperstown, NY where I oversee a caseload of 55 children, aged infant (and his 14-year-old mother) through 17, placed in foster homes throughout the large, rural county. I am engaged in a home visit in Edmeston, talking with a foster mother about the progress of her young-teen foster daughter, when the phone rings.

“Excuse me,” she says politely and walks to the next room. I am making a few notes on my pad when she returns and says, “It’s for you.”

I’m surprised for a brief second, then suddenly feel terror. I know what this call means. My hand shakes as I lift the black receiver to my ear. “Hello, Mary Jo,” says Lucile Gilchrist, my supervisor, her words low, halting. “I wonder if you’d come back to the office right away.”

“Keith?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says solemnly.

I quickly and somehow politely conclude this home visit, hurry out to my car, and drive the dozen miles to the new, three-story brick office where I’ve worked since graduation. My mind is frozen into five repetitive words, “He’s going to die today, He’s going to die today. Oh, God, he’s going to die today.” I cannot absorb their reality but I know this is going to be the truth of this day.

I hurry up the three flights of stairs and pull open the door with the sign “Child Welfare.” I pass swiftly thought the large office where eight desks are neatly arranged, a few occupied by one of the caseworkers for foster care, foster home workers, or adoption. I drop my note pad on my desk, not  seeing  the faces of my co-workers at their desks and no one speaks to me. Do they already know what Lucile is about to tell me, I wonder. No, of course not, she would never….

Her door is closed. I knock twice and pull it open without waiting for her to say, “Come in.” She is seated behind her desk, this soft-spoken, gray-haired lady who was my first role model for kindness and compassion, the woman who decided to hire me despite my shaky background. Our eyes meet: mine large and brown, hers hazel and sorrowful.

I sink into the chair positioned in front of her desk, facing her.

“Mary Jo,” she says, then stops.

I supply the words I think she’ll say. “The hospital called to have me come right over. Keith’s dying?”

She’s silent a second then whispers, “He’s gone. I’m so sorry.”

No. NO. How could they not have called me so I could say my last good-bye? My head drops and I stare at the tiled floor. Damn them. DAMN THEM. Hospitals always call the family when someone is close to death. My son, Chip, and I are Keith’s only immediate family.

Each day I had visited on my lunch hour and briefly after work before picking up Chip from the babysitter’s home. Perhaps I had said my good-bye last night though.

She walks heavily around her desk, pulls a chair next to me, and places her hand on my shoulder. We talk for several minutes as she hears my frustration, my anger, and my sorrow. Finally I am spent and I think of my other small son, 8, at school in the third grade. I look at Lucile with tears in my eyes, thinking about what I will say to him.

She is a wonderful, wise woman and I ask what I should do about Chip attending his brother’s funeral. She answers without hesitation, “Ask Chip what he wants to do, and that will be the right thing.” Of course. I leave, not knowing when I will return.

As I drive robot-like, I hear once again the horrific crash of metal last December 8 on that snowy Catskill night. The young girl who’d hit us head-on. Keith drawing in his last breath. The Good Samaritan who’d revived him. The jaws of life. The ambulance. The flashing lights.  The emergency room. My rigid denial during the past 115 days, until just very recently, that he would have to “live” on complete life support for the rest of his life. No, Keith would heal. He would come back home. Life would pick up where it had left off last December 8th.

I arrive at the school, walk into the office, tell the office staff briefly in a low quiet voice what has happened, and then Chip appears in the doorway. I hold out my hand. “I want to take you home early today, Chip.”

He is puzzled but doesn’t question my words. It’s a short silent drive home and, once inside our home, I say, “I have some very bad news,” and then tell him, watching him closely. He is quiet, stoic, but tears leak slowly onto his cheeks. I reach out to hug him and he lets me embrace him. I lean my head on top of his and say something to try to comfort us both.

It’s hard to remember the quiet blur of the rest of that day. We must have eaten. We must have made plans to go shopping in the morning for I absurdly decided I needed new shoes. Chip might have taken a bath. I probably read him a bedtime story although it’s hard to imagine which one I’d have chosen. Somehow we both slept, at least some, and finally the day was forever over.

I sit today by the stream in my yard and I remember you, dear child. You are forever seven years old, a slim, brown-eyed, sturdy little boy with a husky voice and endearing manner. The sun is so warm. Grass is greening on the bank. Water trickles so softly, so gently, it evokes my tears. I can see you bent over in this stream, your dark hair falling forward, your hand intently reaching for something in the water. I look to see if there are tadpoles. No. I listen for frogs. None. But there were many that you and Chip used to catch and then release in another stream at another time in our life.

In this journey called life you left the pathway so early. Yet I can believe only—especially on achingly radiant spring days like this one, so filled with rebirth everywhere I look—that your beautiful spirit is part of it all and that, wherever you are, your dancing brown eyes are smiling.

I am home. You are home. I seek the peace you possess.

April 3, 2011


About Mary Jo Doig

At the turn of the millennium, I arrived at a cross-road that brought me to a splendid, if unforeseen place, almost as if I were a traveler on Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled. I was single again, my three children were grown and building their lives, I'd experienced a health issue and was working on an improved lifestyle. I also ached to do two other things: (1) change my long human services career in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains, where winter seemed to be at least seven months out of every year, and (2) move to a warmer place in the universe. My decision: did I want to continue on the path I'd been following pretty much all my life, or could I gather my then-fragile courage and start life brand new somewhere else? These were scary thoughts for a single woman in her late 50s. Five hundred miles away, though, I fell in love with a new mountain range, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where I knew not a soul except my daughter who was attending college in the Shenandoah Valley, and I moved. I rented a tiny cabin on a mountain in the woods and lived there in solitude for two years, working in a new career by day and, when home, communing with the incredible natural beauty that surrounded me. There I also began to write my life stories, which were aching for release. I joined the Story Circle Network in early 2001, a rich place in cyberspace for women life writers, where I strengthened my written voice and began sharing my stories. I found so many opportunities to grow: 10 year facilitator for an online writing circle of women writers across the country; thirteen year editor of the "True Words from Real Women" section of the quarterly Journal; a reader and reviewer of women's memoirs for the SCN Book Review site; program chair for two Stories from the Heart national conferences in Austin, T. Presently I'm teaching Women's Life-Writing and Older Women's Legacy workshops in my part of the world in Central Virginia and facilitating the ongoing Circle of Memories Writing Circle (formerly an OWL workshop that continued on) at the Crozet Public Library. I am blessed with three wonderful children, a son and two daughters; a small, huge-hearted family; dear friends; my beagle Addie and cat Button. My hobbies include reading, writing, editing, cooking, gardening, quilting, knitting, biking, and simply being with the profound beauty of the mountains that embrace my small two acres in the Blue Ridge. The life stories I began writing in 2001 have grown deeper with time, re-writes, and personal growth. All these years later, I'm scheduled to publish my memoir, Stitching a Patchwork Life, in 2018.
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3 Responses to Home

  1. Susan Ideus says:

    Your words have touched my heart deeply, Mary Jo. I feel your anguish as you try to get through that day–how you must have tried for the entire 115 days. It must have been excruciatingly difficult. And, yet, at the end, we (and I pray you) are left with hope that those we have loved are never really gone from us, living in our hearts and memories, and thus giving us a measure of peace. Beautiful writing!


  2. Mary Westcott says:

    Dear Mary Jo,

    I read your story, and realize that I have found our children’s caseworker. We met you 40 years ago this month, to learn about adopting a family of 4 children, who were later placed in our home (in June 1973.) Next week, the four children, who now live in 4 different states, their spouses, and our 7 grandchildren will be meeting us in Orlando to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the adoption. We have been busy scanning over 700 photographs for the family gathering, including one of you and Mrs. Gilchrist the day the adoption was finalized. I have recorded many of our memories and the stories of their grandparents, with the hope that someday I can give our family story to our children and grandchildren.

    Over the years, Ron and I have been so thankful for your efforts to assist us and the children in their transition from foster care to our home. Ron mentioned that it would be nice to contact you. I am so happy that an internet search helped me locate you.

    I had forgotten that you had lost a son only a short time before we met you. I cannot fathom the pain that you have experienced.

    After my mother died two years ago, I spent many hours selecting photographs to go with her life story (which she had written) to produce a book for my father, her children, and grandchildren. That process was a labor of love and I believe reliving the memories was a comfort to me. She was 92 years old. We were very blessed to have her for so many years.

    Wishing you the very best in your writing and your retirement.

    Mary Westcott


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