Monday, March 23, 2015


He sits at my island, directly across from me, while I chop peppers, stir the sauce, drag a soapy rag over crumbs.

Robert sits to his left. On the stools, you'd never know D is a full eighteen inches shorter.

They say they're brothers. Or maybe cousins. I don't remember for sure, but they've bound themselves by some intangible, untraceable forever. It took me a while to realize this, but it actually means something to them. This is their code of honor, and it overrides the lectures they dole out to each other in turn. It supersedes the days when they write each other off, cuss each other out, fall clean off the grid. If I asked them (and I should,) they'd probably say they're stuck at this point. You can't pick your family.

But they did.

His chipped front tooth holds the light like it often does and all I can see is him, as a child. A ten-year old, just like Calvin. A boy who dreamed of owning the block and kissed his mama every night.

I stand there in my weekday ponytail staying busy so they'll keep on talking. It doesn't matter that Robert is my son, I study them like it's the night before finals. I've missed so much, but cramming has its perks.

I can always tell who Robert's talking to on the phone just by the tone of his voice. There are at least three distinct dialects, and he falls in and out of one of them while they make fun of each other's hair and drop their g's. Every "you" becomes a "y'all", in the singular. Their eyes shine.

This is the language they share, so they speak it. Sometimes.

D "has'ta bounce," and I invite him over for dinner the following night.

It's the exact thing that makes Robert's friends nervous and put-on-the-spot. It's not what these kids are used to, this "professional" way of making plans and keeping them, the premeditated torture of sitting twitchy around a table without their phones.

I know all of this, but I don't make it easier. I need this one in my life. I can't explain it. I loved him the second I met him, and nothing else about him mattered. He's loved by his mama, I'm pretty sure, but call me an Auntie, if Robert's your brother. Call me your foster mom (this is a weird thing that happens when a kid from hard places feels loved by you but isn't exactly sure how to define it.) Call me your second cousin once removed. I don't give a rip what you call me, just stay. Here.

"We'll order pizza," I tell him. That might be easier to commit to than the stuff I usually cook. Besides, I think, stirring the pot on the stove, I don't have time to cook tomorrow, anyway.

His face flashes uncertainty, then rebounds.
I've made a life of catching those wisps before they've diffused.

"Do you not like pizza?"

"I do...I was just hoping for those chicken sliders."

The light bounces off the angle of his front tooth and hits me square in my soul. It breaks the earth. I'll feel it there for days. I'll watch it grow.

For all the time I spend wondering how to love people better, the moment feels suspiciously lacking in bullet points. Plans and programs and promised prayers still fit so nicely in my hand. I know they're traps, shoddy stand-ins for relationships and actual sacrifice, but they're tidier and they almost never break my heart.

"I'll make you chicken sliders. Extra pickles," I say without hesitating, pulling chicken thighs from the freezer, not so much a gesture of kindness but a veiled, preemptive guilt-trip. Do you see me thawing this chicken? Auntie isn't playing, so don't play with me. You'd better show up.

In an instant, my agenda shifts. My plans are left leaning in the corner, waiting for a different day. My priorities realign. I'll be making chicken sliders. And you don't need me to tell you a chicken slider is useless without homemade mac and cheese.

The point here isn't that I'm good or kind or extra-sacrificial. You'd have done the same thing. I know you would have.

The point is, relationships grow relationships.
Community changes us.
Opening our hearts to the unexpected frees us from our tired standy-bys.

The point is, love means sacrifice, and sacrifice is freaking hard.
But not always.

D showed up early the next night, an extra guy in tow.
We filled our paper plates then went back for seconds.

Our measly definition of family slips easily between the cracks of what God calls family.

All three of them felons, they talked about prison - which one was the dirtiest, which one the "freshest". When I asked D if he'd been to prison, his response was quick and without a hint of humor, "Nope. Not yet."

For three hours, we loved those boys the best we could.
We parented them, because they secretly like it.

We played board games and like usual, they hesitated. Then, like usual, they didn't want to stop.

When they left, we had a talk with Calvin and Ruby, and not for the first time, "It probably seems like everyone eventually goes to jail, but it's not true. We've never gone to jail. You will never go to jail."

I would trust those men with my home. My children.
My hunch is, trouble hasn't seen the last of them.
But their hearts are good and I know God is gunning for them.

I don't know if a chicken slider is enough to nudge them anywhere, but the good news is, a chicken slider was never meant to save them, and neither was I.

My job is to love, and some days, it's like breathing.
Some days it's brown sugar with cayenne, meat falling off the bone.

Those are the days I hold near me, a promise for the other days.
You couldn't snatch them away if you tried.

{Recipe: Jenna's Pulled Chicken Sliders with these pickles.}