How a scary looking kid helped me get my head screwed on straight

The first night I met him, he glared at me then leaned back a ways before slamming his head down on to the table. That thud of skull connecting with wood was so hard it made the walls shake and the windows rattle. I choked a bit on my heart, and my stomach churned with that nauseous fear that comes when everything is wrong. Very, very wrong. What were we doing with this kid in our home?

To say I wasn’t thrilled about my mom’s decision to take in foster kids was an understatement. That she was specifically interested in taking developmentally challenged kids, made it worse. This was a bad idea. I was sure of it.

Matt’s case manager told mom that he was a “head banger.” Those two little words were inadequate to describe the frequency and force with which his head made contact with any nearby hard surface.

He was difficult to look at. His brain had not developed properly, and he was born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus.  His hair grew in funny little tufts around the patchwork of scars on his head. His face was scarred, and frequently bloody from the head banging. He couldn’t stand up straight, and could barely walk.

And he was angry. Mad. Furious at the world. And with good cause.

It was Matt’s story specifically that finalized my Mom’s decision to become a foster parent.  At the time she first heard about him, he had been living in a motel for 3 months, hired care givers taking shifts sitting with him in that room, because they could not find a home that would take him. He had been through more than 15 homes in his 16 years of life. He had been abused. He had extensive medical needs, that required a great deal of work to manage. And developmentally he was a two year old, still a baby.

He didn’t know what was going on; he just knew that most people were mean, and no one could be trusted.

It was a long period of adjustment: him getting used to our large boisterous family, and us getting used to this new person in our midst with so many new needs (like needing help with toileting, among other things), and of course, that head banging.

But one day we discovered something.  If you put your hand on the table, or wall, or whatever else was the target of his swiftly moving head, he would stop mid-swing. He would bang his head, he would hit things, he would break things, but he would not hit us.

That discovery started a little shift.  For one thing, it helped us significantly cut down on the head banging by just putting a hand in the way. But it also started to change the way we saw him: self-destructive, yes, but not violent towards others.

He got easier to look at over time as well.  Eventually, we started to see past all the scars, and notice other things, like that mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Matt was a little prankster, especially once he got comfortable with us.  He was funny. He’d blame his farts on you. He’d pull your chair out as you were trying to sit down. If he was done with you, he’d dismiss you: “Bye!”

And he was gentle, so very gentle, especially with babies.

The obvious lesson here is about not judging the book by the cover, or the person by how they look.  But there’s more.  It wasn’t just the way Matt looked that was scary at first. It was his behavior that terrified us. Matt also taught us a lesson in looking past the angry in others – that the attitude is likely a hard-earned, self-protective shell, and not necessarily indicative of what’s inside.  Its a difficult lesson, and one I forget frequently.  But I’m still trying.

Over the years, Matt went through dozens of procedures and surgeries.  His hydrocephalus was managed by a shunt that drained the excess fluid from his brain. That shunt frequently had issues, perhaps caused by the head-banging, but that pressure may have also been the cause of the the head banging – the pressure caused a great deal of pain, that bang momentarily equalizing the pressure.

He actually became quite popular, at school, at church, in the community. He passed away from complications of surgery when he was 24.  He was still a toddler developmentally, but he was a happy toddler. When he died he was surrounded by his family, foster family perhaps, but family still. And he knew he was loved. His funeral was standing room only; the community had learned to love him as well.

It has been 11 years since his death, today would have been his 35th birthday. I still think of him often.  He taught us so much about accepting others, and about resilience and redemption. I’m still learning that lesson about forgiving and understanding the angry.

See also: My Mother’s Gift for more on this story.

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