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Essay

MY LIFE AS A GAMBLER began at three years old, when my Aunt Charlotte taught me to play blackjack. She lived in western Idaho, where many Japanese Americans had settled after being released from Minidoka. She always made inarizushi for us when we came to visit, pulling out cans of fried soybean wrappers that she had bought on her last trip to stock up at Anzen in Portland, a day’s drive away. The inarizushi pockets fattened moistly in her deft hands as my sister and I took turns fanning the steaming seasoned rice. She was a mother to three boys, all of whom were out of the house by the time my sister and I came along.

We were the first girls born to the family in forty-four years, and Aunt Charlotte taught us the feminine arts of holding tea parties, drying our nail polish flawlessly, and the proper way to split a pair of aces. We played with slippery decks of cards that had holes drilled through the middle, discards from Cactus Pete’s in Nevada or Wildhorse Casino in Pendleton, where she sometimes went with her girlfriends. At age three I could count up my cards but couldn’t gauge the probabilities of a hit option putting me over twenty-one and into dreaded bust territory. My aunt would look at my open hand and tell me, “If you have fifteen, you want to hit.” I would nod, my glossy black bangs fringing my eyes. One penny was the minimum bet, but if I was feeling bold, I’d venture three pennies, sides touching in a flat triangle, or even five cents in a compact stack of varying shades of oxidized copper. When I was older and she let me deal for games of Tripoley, if her hand was bad, she’d frown at her cards and say, “Who dealt this mess?” Later, when we scooped and plucked the pennies off the table and tipped them into her banker’s zippered purse, it wasn’t so much a player’s reckoning as time for dinner.

When I was a junior in college and visiting over spring break, she dropped me off at the Boise airport in her Crown Victoria and gave me a twenty-dollar bill with instructions to play the slots in Reno during my layover. I laughed and pocketed the money. In Reno, I paced the terminal near the slot machines, wondering if it was a dalliance on the dark side to play the slots with my aunt’s money. I was going back to my Christian college, where enrollment required signing “the pledge,” a student behavior contract that excluded drinking, sex, smoking, and “most forms of social dancing.” I couldn’t remember what the pledge said about gambling. With ten minutes left before my plane to Chicago O’Hare was to board, I pushed aside my aunt’s twenty dollars, pulled out my own fiver, and fed it into a slot machine with furtive determination. I pressed the “play max credits” button and watched the icons roll through. The three dials stopped, one after another, in a configuration that made the machine flicker and flash. I blinked at my good luck, took my winnings, and walked away, heart thumping. I had doubled my money, but I dared bet no more.

 

Twenty-five years later, I was trying to beat odds of a different kind: getting affordable residential treatment for our teenage son, whose volatile moods and unsafe behaviors meant that we couldn’t provide the supervision and safety he required.

We were quickly draining our savings. Insurance was paying for very little. I found myself spending ten to fifteen hours a week documenting his needs and trying to find care for him. No one could make a decision unless they had the full dossier of psychological exams, psychiatrist’s notes, CPS files, juvenile court letters, police reports, counseling notes, caregiver narratives, and school reports. Even then, he was often denied treatment. It was a part-time job with heartbreakingly real consequences. I wanted to collapse with despair and indignation and, most of all, boredom. The futile administrative tedium was what Charles Dickens described as being “drowned by drips [and] going mad by grains.”

We needed to do some concurrent planning, a concept our foster care social worker had explained to us when we were in the process of adopting our three children, a sibling group born so close together that rattling off their ages was kindergarten math: one, two, three. Social workers always make reunification with birth parents the primary goal of foster care, but at some point they also start taking steps to secure an alternative home. It’s the foster care version of not putting all your eggs in one basket.

I wrote a summary for my husband of the concurrent planning situation. Keeping editable documents on Dropbox was one of the only ways we could keep the details straight without having to use up our quality time to hash out our approach to our son’s “lack of clinical progress.” We had four concurrent plans:

Plan 1. Find a residential facility out of state that insurance will pay for. Get psychologist to establish medically necessary condition. Get a facility to accept him. Get insurance to pay for it. Maybe hire a lawyer if insurance companies are recalcitrant.

Plan 2. Get him into public in-state youth hospitalization program. Collect and submit documentation. Wait for committee review. Stay on wait list for twelve months (unsafe at home or expensive residential). Pray that he doesn’t opt out of this voluntary program. Note: total of ninety-four beds in a state of 7.9 million people.

Plan 3. Bring him home and get county wraparound services: team of four people in and out of our home, coaching, counseling, and monitoring medication, education, and therapeutic tools. He will still need to be supervised twenty-four hours a day by us.

Plan 4. Win the lottery and keep paying out of pocket for residential without fighting to have insurance pay.

Winning the lottery didn’t seem like the option with the longest odds. Plus, it was the only one that offered a hint of anything like good fortune or blissful rescue. Plans one through three were provisional and uncertain at best: each stood upon the edge of a knife. But lottery winnings! What would I do with lottery winnings? Spend it like manna from heaven, a fast track and direct provision for my child to safely learn to overcome or at least manage the bad hand he had been dealt: permanent brain injuries from alcohol exposure in utero, impaired attachment skills from living with five caregivers before his second birthday, and complex trauma from all of that.

I talked to my friend Lucy, who had just said goodbye to her two-year-old foster son—a child who had been with her all through his infancy and toddlerhood, and who had thrived under her sweet care. She was grieving that he had been moved to live with a grandmother out of state, but I couldn’t help being glad that she had given him so much of what my own son now suffered the lack of. “We’re not getting anywhere,” I said. “Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket.”

“Do it,” she said. “God needs to provide somehow. Just do Powerball. We ain’t got time for the small stuff.”

I bought my lottery ticket at a local corner store. The sign read King’s Deli and Grocery smoke dvd vhs magazine. The last three items dated to a time when pornography still had some sort of footprint and wasn’t something any middle schooler could consume with two minutes of unsupervised screen time. This corner store came to mind as an apt place to buy a lottery ticket, because the day before, on a walk with my dog, I’d seen a man outside it on the scrubby tree lawn with his penis out. It wasn’t out in a sexual way, exactly, more in a desultory, post-urinary pose, like he was going to put it away but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I was at a bit of a distance when I noticed this, looked away, and crossed the street.

When I came back, I tied the dog to the chain-link fence in the same tree lawn and walked to the door. I had chosen eight quarters from our coin jar, which overflowed with nearly twelve dollars in quarters that I had found when emptying my son’s backpack the day after he went to residential. I speculated that it was the remains of a stolen twenty-dollar bill he put through a change machine at a nearby laundromat. I stepped past the iron-grated windows of King’s Deli and Grocery smoke dvd vhs magazine and through the entrance. A few feet in, I stopped and looked around. There was a chest freezer with ice-cream cartons marked 6.99 and frozen paletas marked 1.99, just one cent less than the lottery ticket that I was going to buy.

The lottery machine was in the back corner. I had decided to play Mega Millions and not Powerball because the odds were similar and the Mega Millions jackpot was bigger: $400 million versus a measly $20 million. I noticed that the machine had a bill slot and a debit card reader but no coin slot. There was a stack of fillable bubble sheets on a little shelf. I slipped a sheet off the tidy, thick stack, reached into my pocket, and smoothed out the slip of paper with my numbers.

I had typed “=randbetween(1,70)” in Excel to randomly generate five integers between one and seventy and one more between one and twenty-five for the gold Mega Ball. My theology allowed me to believe that winning the lottery might be a way the Lord could provide for my son, but it didn’t allow me the hubris to think that my guesses would outperform random numbers. I realized I didn’t have a writing utensil.

There was a man at the counter buying a lighter. The clerk called him by name in an unsmiling way that struck me as personable yet not friendly. The customer looked up at him—the clerk stood quite a bit taller than us on a plexiglass-encased platform—and said cheerfully, “I’m not thinking so good right now with this heat and my recovery and all.” The clerk nodded and handed him his change, and he left. I stepped forward and asked if he had a pencil I could borrow. He picked up a cup from the counter and tipped it out in his hand for a half-size pencil inside, spilling several pennies on the floor. He handed it to me, then stooped to pick up the pennies while I bubbled my Mega Millions sheet: 14, 18, 24, 63, 66, 9. I was mildly concerned about how many even numbers there were but reassured myself that even random configurations look designed sometimes. I wondered if I would regret not paying an extra dollar for a multiplier option. I had brought only the two dollars though. I handed the clerk my quarters and the bubble sheet. The pencil made a hollow clink when I dropped it back in the holder. I wanted to make conversation and ask him questions like, “Where do you get the paletas?” and “What do you make of the tree-lawn man with the penis?” but that seemed stupid. I wasn’t a tourist.

He fed the slip into a little printer behind him, and a pale green ticket came out. The whole process took five seconds. He handed it to me with my bubble sheet. I glanced at the thermal-printed My Lottery 360° and my Mega Millions numbers, thanked him, and walked out. I folded the ticket into my pocket and untied the dog’s leash from the fence. The dog frisked in desperate delight to have me back, grabbing the leash with her teeth, then let go and fell into a graceful lope beside me as we headed home.

Two days later, I wasn’t searching the lottery results right at eight p.m. when the numbers were drawn. I took my water glass downstairs and put it in the dishwasher. I brushed my teeth. I checked my work bag for the papers I needed the next day. Then I pulled my lottery ticket from the slot in my secretary desk and sat down, phone in hand.

I hadn’t won. One second’s glance let me see that the numbers were all wrong. I folded the ticket in half and let it filter down into the trash. I lay down on my bed, feet dangling, and covered my eyes with my forearm.

I thought of the day my son entered my life. It was a Sunday, late in August. We had gone to church; I had even attended a church board meeting, almost like I wasn’t expecting three children under four to arrive after lunch. When the foster family pulled into our driveway in two large SUVs, I was putting sheets on one of the beds. Seeing them through the window, my stomach turned over.

They brought in fifteen black plastic bags of clothes, stuffed toys, and even the eight-by-ten prints of studio portraits the kids had recently sat for. We took snapshots on the back deck, then the foster family said their goodbyes, stepped out the front door, and closed it. My little boy began wailing. He threw his arms above his head and rushed the closed door, hitting it with his hands. The air seemed to leave my chest. I reached under his arms and hefted him to my hip, my arm cradling his pudgy thighs; I opened the door and stepped onto the porch, waved with my free hand at the departing family and repeated “bye, bye” until they turned the corner and were gone.

 

I lay still, listening to the muted sounds of the kids getting ready for bed, padding down the hall, shooing the dog out of their rooms, closing dresser drawers. We’d need to install new bedroom doorknobs with locks at some point. I recalled  a conversation I’d had that week with the case manager at the youth services program. “Even if he qualifies, there is a two- to three-month wait right now,” she said.

“So, if we can’t keep paying the ten thousand dollars per month at his current program, and we need to bring him home before services are available,” I asked, “then we would just need to take on the risk of trying to keep our family safe and supervising him as best we can?”

“That’s correct.” I was grateful that she didn’t try to soften it. “There’s a crisis line you can call,” she said, “or 911.”

“What constitutes a crisis?” I asked. This was an important question, because when you’re considering calling the police on your son, you don’t know what qualifies. When he skips school and disappears on his bike? When he slams the door and the window shatters? When he jimmies a cabinet lock with a nine-inch kitchen knife? When he kicks a bedroom door and breaks the paneling? When he finds a lighter and you smell a whiff of smoke? When it’s midnight and you’re trying to sleep, but you hear the alarm on his door go off and know he’s roaming the house? I needed a decision tree.

Certain neurodevelopmental disorders result from injuries to the central nervous system that occur when a child is exposed to alcohol or drugs in utero. Attachment disorders can likewise be understood as injuries to a child’s relational and emotional hardwiring that happen when a caregiver isn’t able to provide consistent and loving nurture in the first years of life. Both are complex and can affect behavior, cognition, motor function, self-regulation and adaptive function, executive function, and mood. A lot of the time, it means that a child’s thinking is chaotic, their sense of self ragged, and they aren’t aware of or able to control their emotions and impulses. Reckless and aggressive behaviors can come out, similarly to what can happen for athletes who’ve suffered repeated concussions or people with advanced dementia—they are not themselves; their brains are impaired. Except my kid never got to experience life without these injuries. And like the effects of repeated concussions, these disorders often are lifelong, and treatments are experimental at best. And unproven treatments are exactly the ones that insurance balks at paying.

I felt a daze of unreality. All these people—the police, CPS, juvenile-court officers, teachers, friends, adoption support caseworkers, counselors, principals, lawyers, psychologists, insurance managers—had heard our story and kept talking like this was a livable situation, like we could solve this somehow, as if it was reasonable that it would cost us so much to care for this child. Maybe God himself was gaslighting me. I wouldn’t put it past him. Who dealt this mess?

I had wagered more than I could afford to lose on the probability that God was a friend to the orphan and a protector of the vulnerable. I heard a friend pray Psalm 147:3—“he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds”—and felt tears run down my neck and into my shirt from a longing for that to be true and a simultaneous numb fear that it was all magical thinking, a bad bet, and that all our efforts were merely throwing good money after bad. By adopting him, perhaps I had made an unjustifiable gamble. I had banked on doing some good by spending some of my healthy life to heal his unhealthy one; instead, the result was two broken lives.

I took my arm off my eyes and lifted my phone to dial Lucy. “Did you win?” she asked.

I paused. “No,” I said. “Of course I didn’t win.” My voice caught.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“I hate everything,” I said.

“I love you,” she said. “You better not be using those rough aggressive tissues on your face. Do you have the soft ones I gave you?”

Something shook loose. I was grateful that she loved me, but I also didn’t need to be told. Love unlooked for had been dropping, as fatness from clouds, into my daily life as I struggled to care for this boy—dropping in almost against my reason and my will. My daughter’s counselor noticed. “God loves your mom,” she once declared in session, like it was a salient part of my daughter’s therapy, “and God gives the people he loves hard things to do.” She had never billed herself as a Christian counselor; she had never talked like this before. What she said smote me as a prophetic word, beautiful and so terrible. I did a soul scan: my soul felt cherished and safe. “God is near to lowliness,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer said; “he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.” Walking with the weak and broken, and finding myself weak and broken, the Lord was near. I had to keep wagering that God loved my son and was concerned about him, even though I couldn’t put my finger on what that was supposed to look like.

The following day I flipped to a new page of my to-do list and jotted down my next tasks: assemble a new admissions packet, call the psychologist, email the insurance case manager. I also looked up how to play the state lotto. It had better overall odds than Mega Millions, and you got two plays for a dollar. I reached for my coin jar and picked out four quarters. The jackpot was on the small side, but $1.4 million would be plenty.

 

 


Wendy Kiyomi is an adoptive parent, scientist, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. Her work on adoption, faith, suffering, and friendship has appeared in Plough Quarterly, Englewood Review of Books, and on wendykiyomi.com.

 

 

 

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