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

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 with hired care givers taking shifts sitting with him in that room, because they could not find a home that would take him. 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 he didn’t know who to trust.

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.

lesson from matt

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.

My Mother’s Gift

In 1991 my mom brought home Matt; I was not happy. Although I had moved out, I still had a room at the homestead – a room I needed to clear of my belongings so it could go to this new kid. But that’s not the whole reason I was upset.

Taking in kids was nothing new in our home. I had four younger brothers and we had all, at one time or another, brought home friends to stay for extended periods of time. My parents took in my cousins, kids who had aged out of the foster care system, and runaways (there was always a phone call to the parents to let them know where the kids were). My parents would not turn their backs on a child in need. Eventually they decided to start taking in foster children, and Matt was the first of many special needs placements my parents welcomed into their home.

mothers gift

But Matt was scary. He was a 16-year-old, severely developmentally challenged kid that had been held in a motel room 24 hours a day for  months because they could not find a home that would take him. After time in the foster care system, Matt had an attitude, and he was very difficult to care for because of his medical needs as well. Along with an improperly formed brain, Matt had cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus; he functioned at the level of a two year old. He was difficult to look at. His hair grew in funny little tufts around the scars from all his brain surgeries, he shuffled along all bent over, he had a vocabulary of only 50 words, and he was a head banger. By head banger I mean that whenever he was frustrated or angry or for whatever other reason he would haul off and slam his head on whatever hard surface was handy, often drawing blood.

He terrified me. I did not like the idea of this kid living in my parents house.

Why am I using this Mother’s Day post to tell you about Matt? Because Matt became a part of our family. My Mother would not give up on him. No matter how hard it was, no matter how many late nights she sat up wondering “what have I gotten myself into,” she would not be just one more foster home that sent him back to that agency. He deserved better than that. And we learned a valuable lesson about acceptance and love, because we all came to love Matt. As he became more accepted and comfortable in our home he started to blossom at school, and at church where Mom took him every Sunday. By the time he passed away in 2000, he had touched so many lives that his funeral was standing room only. An entire community had learned a lesson about acceptance and love.


Mom has always been a caretaker. It’s her calling, her gift, and she’s very good at making people feel better when they are ill. When my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October of 2006, we were all devastated, but we all knew that he was in the best hands. While the doctors may be prescribing the chemo and performing surgeries, and the nurses attending to vital stats, it was Mom that cared for him and fought for him. She was the one that kept him going, and made sure he kept his brain active, and held his hand through the emotional roller-coaster of dying.

My Dad was never a big talker, that just wasn’t his style, but Mom always made us talk on the phone together even if we didn’t think we had anything to say. Dad and I would sit there on the phone, sometimes it felt like forever, trying to think of something to say to each other. We talked a lot about baseball, we talked about mom, we talked about work – his and mine, we talked a little bit about the cancer and it’s side effects, we talked about the weather, but most importantly, we talked.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Dad. It’s just that both of us are introverts – and completely unskilled in the art of small-talk. The point is, I had conversations with my dad, about nothing and everything, that I hold dear in my heart, and I wouldn’t have had them if she hadn’t made us talk.


She is the glue that holds our family together, and through the most difficult time of her life, she found ways to meet each of our needs.

In the six months since my father’s death, Mom packed up and moved to Seattle. Sure part of it was to be near me. But really she’s here because she’s taken over as the primary caretaker for my 97 year old grandmother. And she’s loving every minute of it, because helping people feel better is what she does, it’s her gift.

Happy Mothers Day, Mom. Thank you, and I love you.

Happy Mothers Day to the rest of you moms out there too.