“I guess you could say… I live with perfect strangers,” she concluded, as if she’d never really thought about it. Or never really had to explain, at any rate. And of course…she didn’t. Have to explain. I was just trying to connect the dots between her and the three people with whom she lives. On some level, she’s right. Jessica is in no way biologically related to any of them. Still, they are all the family she knows.
Jessica was born twenty years ago, the offspring of a drug addict. She came into the world jaundiced and went through withdrawal as an infant. She never knew her birth mother. Never knew her birth father. She was raised by the man she interchangeably calls ‘stepfather’ and ‘father.’ Though he was involved with Jessica’s birth mom for a time, the relationship was short-lived. As a child, she lived on the west side of Baltimore with this good man – her stepfather – and his wife. The three of them lived together until that relationship broke up, as well. He remarried another woman who also had a child – a daughter, 2 years younger than Jessica. A few years ago, the four of them moved to the east side of town to start a new life together as family. To Jessica they are mother, father, little sister, and herself…big sister. Their new neighborhood is not much better than the old one. Police cars and helicopters are a constant presence. And the 7-11 on the corner seems to get robbed “every day,” according to Jessica. Still, they are together and that sense of family makes Jessica feel safe.
” I have a good life,” Jessica says in a way that both warms your heart and breaks it.
At the moment, it is also a hard life. Jessica is the evening manager of a McDonald’s, working the 4 to 10PM shift. She commutes to and from work by bus and typically gets home around 11PM. That’s when she studies and does her Caroline Center homework, usually until about 1AM. After a few hours sleep, she is up again by 7 and out the door by 8, heading off to the Caroline Center, where she is enrolled in the Certified Nursing Assistant job-training program (CNA). The Caroline Center day goes from 9AM to 3PM for the trainees. After that, Jessica heads back to work at McDonald’s. I honestly don’t know when she finds time to eat dinner and it is hard to say when her day ‘begins’ and ‘ends’. Yes, it’s a hard life, even for a 20 year old. It won’t always be that way. And Jessica is “patient and motivated.”
It’s a good thing because the training at Caroline Center is rigorous and demanding. Despite her high school diploma, Jessica admits to being ‘terrible at math’ – a skill critical to the nursing profession. But, Jessica has a dream and that keeps her going. There is one other thing that keeps her going. Something, perhaps, even stronger than her own sense of will power. It is her Caroline Center “small group,” a support group of fellow classmates and counselors who get together and help each other over academic and emotional hurdles and encourage each other to succeed.
“I love my group,” Jessica says in a heartfelt way that suggests she doesn’t know what she’d do without them. To Jessica, they too are family. One that also provides a sense of safety, support, and understanding.
And Jessica’s dream? Well, eventually, she would like to continue onto nursing school and become a labor and delivery nurse. It makes perfect sense, when you think about it. She loves the idea of being there when a new life comes into the world. Of helping to make its entrance safe and easy. Of making each new baby feel loved and welcomed from the very first moment. And then, when her work is done, she smiles at the thought of delivering that child into the arms of caring parents who will bring her home and make her part of their loving family.
And that’s not complicated at all.
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