In early December one of my street friends, she who once brought me a striped rose, who spent much of the warm days of summer and fall reading on my porch, who looked as though she had stepped, sweet and slightly grubby, from the frame of a PreRaphaelite painting, came into the shop and sat in the chair usually occupied by Champ.
For her, Champ was glad to make room.
She looked pale. The storms had been hard for a while, and she was staying beside the river with a friend. He, at least, had a tent. A little better than a single tarp to keep the rain and wind off.
"My stomach hurt all night long" she said.
I looked at her, considering. I knew she was pregnant, but she had said the baby would be coming in mid January. I had been looking for housing, support, and help for her and the coming child. We had just managed to get a copy of her birth certificate and started applications for services and foodstamps. She'd just had her first meeting with the midwife who delivered my babies, a dear friend, two days before.
"I didn't get any sleep at all" she said.
I asked what kind of pains these were. I asked if I could feel her stomach during a time of pain. It was rock hard. I made some phone calls, the last to a nurse friend at the clinic. He asked to talk with the young woman and then told me "Holy sh*t, get that girl to the ER".
Which I did, with the help of a customer who was browsing. I left the shop wide open, telling another customer to take her time and I'd be in touch later.
And a beautiful baby girl was born that night. Her mother called her Reign. She had her mother's red hair and the face of an angelic elf. Yes, I fell in love with her at first sight.
Child Protective Services immediately moved to take custody of this baby. I gathered all my contacts and all my fierceness and got the mother and child into a local women's shelter and got Child Welfare to back off for a moment.
And we had a party at the bookstore celebrating the child and her mother, a party to which everyone came--street kids and very important business people and folks from every corner of my community. Oh, we loved that baby and her mother, and we were so happy. The light itself seemed rose colored. Gifts and supplies poured to this baby and her mother from all over the country, not only from our little town. We were so glad.
I saw her daily, the little one and her mother. Her mom was having some new mother adjustments, for sure. Sleep was hard to come by. She couldn't have friends at the shelter, so met them in town. Child Welfare had watchers everywhere, who reported that the baby was out in all weathers with the mother.
I got calls from investigators. I told them I thought the mother and baby were doing quite well, thank you.
But the baby began to lose weight, and the public health nurse began questioning the young mother's feeding style. To me the mother cried "I am feeding her, I am doing everything they are telling me, I don't know what's happening."
The baby saw a pediatrician every week. He noted the weight loss but didn't seem alarmed, not really alarmed: "come back next week, we'll check".
The mother said the baby spat up a lot. I wondered. I asked the nurse, my midwife friend, and doctors "could there be a physical problem?"
All of them said no, all of them pointed at the mother--a street waif, after all, a little wanderer, a tough girl who didn't thank everyone for their advice--all of them said she was obviously not feeding the baby enough. Or at all.
I saw her feed Reign, often.
But a week ago the police backed up a child welfare person and my young friend was confronted at the local market. She unwrapped the snuggly sling that held Reign against her body as she shopped, and handed the little one to the waiting child welfare officer.
And then she went back to the shelter and cried all night long, rocking in a corner, clutching one of her daughter's sleepers.
I went to the meeting with Child Welfare the next day, to sit beside her and speak on her behalf. Perhaps my passion was admired, but "the baby has lost weight since birth" they said, and the baby was indeed hospitalized up north. Slam dunk neglect case. She was going to foster care; the hearing a few days later would just be a formality.
The next day the doctors at the hospital diagnosed Reign with pyloric stenosis, a condition whereby the infant could not assimilate her food; it would not pass into her intestines from her stomach in sufficient quantity. Surgery on Saturday.
I thought "well, it's obvious this isn't her mother's fault; she'll come back to mom". And Reign's mother was by her side as much as the hospital allowed, day and night, watching and holding the baby's hand and taking over some of the feedings under the watchful eyes of nurses.
The judge said she should have known her baby was sick. Clear neglect. There will be a trial at the end of the month.
So today Reign went away from the hospital with some foster parents; we will not be told who they are. I am sure they will love her.
And today Reign's mother came to me, with her bundles of legal papers, and her determination, and a sheaf of photos of the baby, and her bemusement.
Me, I alternate between tears and fury. But when I talked with the current child welfare worker and she asked "are you continuing as an advocate for this baby and mother?" I said yes, forever, wherever they are, whether they are together or apart. Yes, I am here for them.
Someone has to be.