This year’s theme: “What love is.” Dozens of youth entered the contest from all over the United States. The winning essays appear in the May/June issue of Fostering Families Today (FMC’s magazine for foster parents).
Following is a piece by one of our two Runners-Up, Thalia Bernal. Check back all week to read the work of our other top finishers.
As a child, I always noticed there was something wrong with my “family picture.” Something really important was missing. My mother was influenced by drugs and hung with the wrong crowd while my father could be anywhere on this planet but it was obviously not with his children. I felt as if my life was going to be impossible to live happily, especially with what is crucial to a “perfect family” missing. I wanted to be wanted. I wanted to be loved.
Growing up as a foster child was never easy, but this experience has shaped my life in ways one cannot begin to imagine. It changed my life for the better. How so you ask? It’s going to take a bit more than just a couple of sentences to understand, so I mapped out a blueprint in essay format so that you can follow some of my most memorable experiences. It is also important to note that “memorable” is often associated with one’s greatest and most fond experiences, but that is not the case in this journey. I will show you both the good and bad.
Welcome to my journey, the journey to happiness, the journey to discovery, and most importantly, the journey to finding, understanding and accepting the love I was surrounded by.
Home is Where the . . .
My brothers and I were taken away from the care of my mother at a very young age. I was upset that she would let such a thing happen to her own children, and although I didn’t want to accept it, I knew that it had to be done. I quickly learned that I was now part of what was referred to as “the system.” These were words I heard often, but did not completely understand.
After spending some time in different homes, my two brothers and I were eventually passed around to different family members and treated horribly. We were three young kids who were already confused, yet we were constantly harassed with comparisons to our mother: “You are going to end up just like your mother.” We were kids — of course we were going to forget to put the milk in the fridge. We were bound to leave our toys all over the house. We weren’t perfect. Again, we were kids. Such actions resulted in verbal abuse that left us traumatized and made us feel as if we were to blame for having a mother who made such mistakes. It wasn’t fair.
I knew that they were wrong for saying such things, but I always bit my tongue and took the abuse. I still loved them. I was thankful that they took us into their care, but I didn’t feel welcomed. I didn’t feel loved. So the search for love began.
“Thalia Bernal?” “Here!”
Many people have their own unique way of escaping their realities, and mine happened to be school. I loved learning. I especially loved writing. I was intrigued by the power of writing. I could release all my anger, happiness and worry onto paper.
It was magical. My elementary school language arts teacher was very interested in my writing, but not only as a teacher who suggested a comma or corrected my grammar, but as someone who really cared. She encouraged me to explore beyond my own experiences. Instead of writing about my reality, which kept me stuck in those moments, I took a creative leap and wrote short stories that I eventually shared.
One story in particular entertained my teacher so much that she had me share it with my classmates. It was a story about a flying Hot Cheeto — all my friends ate them too I guess that’s what inspired me to write about them — who had a best friend on another planet. They were very different, and not to mention, millions of miles away from each other. But, regardless of their distance and other characteristics that made them different, their relationship remained strong.
The lesson behind this story was the power of friendship, fueled by love. I knew what love was supposed to feel like. What it was supposed to look like. I wrote all about it, but I was still searching for it.
Another Teddy Bear for the Collection
Up until age 13 I was still visiting the Children’s Court on a monthly basis, witnessing my mother fail over and over again in attempts to get us back. My grandmother knew that it was time to put a stop to it all and take us under her care. A month after she decided to become my legal guardian, I began to have mixed feelings about the whole situation as I understood it was really over. My mom had lost the battle.
I was angry and felt as if maybe my mom didn’t love me, maybe the fight wasn’t worth it for her, but then I thought about all the teddy bears that were given to me at each court appointment by the judge; one themed for Halloween, one for Christmas, one for Valentine’s Day, and so on.
As cheesy as it may sound, each teddy bear represented my mother trying. It represented another month of her showing up, and although she might have failed in the court’s eyes, she didn’t fail in showing me that she was truly trying.
This moment served as somewhat of a lens through which I viewed the rest of my life. Love existed. Love could sometimes be disguised in strange ways, but it definitely existed.
You Have Five Minutes Left
My mother may have lost the fight for custody, but this didn’t mean she could never see us again. We were allowed to visit her twice a month, but our visits were limited to government-controlled facilities where a social worker was present. It was the most awkward thing ever. The social worker would sit there and observe us the whole time. She would take notes, and I would stop talking as soon as I saw her write in her notebook. What is she writing? Did I say something wrong? Am I jeopardizing our visits? The whole thing was very strange.
Months passed before we were allowed to meet with my mother in public, this time at our city’s McDonald’s. My grandmother was the “supervisor” of these visits, so they weren’t as awkward as our visits in a room too small for four people and, not to mention, a complete stranger observing us.
Things were going really well with my mother, but it was too good to be true. I was right. Our visits went from twice a week to twice a month and eventually faded away. I was very upset and questioned the whole situation: Is this really happening? Why me?
I had been starting to feel important. Starting to feel cared for, loved. I wanted to fight for her love, but I knew that I would only hurt myself in doing so, so I accepted it.
Maybe my mom realized she was harming us. Maybe she realized we were better off without her, no matter how much it might have hurt. Maybe love meant keeping her distance while trying to better herself.
Maybe love was there, but I couldn’t clearly see it.
I’m So Proud of You, Thalia
I was now 18 years old, graduating high school.
“I’m so proud of you, Thalia.” It was like a broken record. My mother told me this all the time. She, of course, couldn’t be at my graduation, but I wasn’t surprised. Till this day, her reason for missing my big day remains a mystery.
I accomplished something huge. Something no one thought I could do. I was proud of myself. I thanked my mom for everything despite all the harm she caused.
I love my mom, but people still question my logic behind that. No one understands. My mother tried to get me back, but once she realized she was doing more harm than help, she backed away.
Love sometimes hurts. LOVE. HURTS. That’s it. As I said before, love is sometimes disguised, and it isn’t until moments like this that you truly realize that you are loved. Love is often sold as smiles, red hearts and endless joy, but this is not real. This love does, of course, exist, but not always.
After my high school graduation I thought long and hard about the first 18 years of my life and I realized that I was loved, that even though it might not meet typical expectations of what love is supposed to look like, I was loved.
Growing up in the foster care system was never easy, and until this day I think about my experiences and can’t help but be thankful for them. I went through tough situations, but I came out stronger than ever. I learned things most people don’t learn until later on in their lives, and for this, I will always be thankful.Yes, I was hurt both physically and mentally, but I was loved.
My mother, regardless of all her mistakes, loved me. My family loved me enough to take me under their care. My social workers loved me. My counselors/advisers who pushed me to reach higher loved me. My teachers who spent their free time helping me loved me.
I was loved. I am loved, and all I want to do is bring this love to others and make it as transparent as possible. Most importantly, I want to assure others that love is there, even in the darkest of times.
Life is a huge lesson, and all we can do is thrive off of it and use our circumstances as a main source of empowerment. Most importantly, we must remember that love exists, and that we are all loved.
Our only mission is to find it.
Thalia Bernal is studying rhetoric and writing, television and film, and communications at San Diego State University. Growing up as a foster youth was difficult for her but she used writing to face her troubles. She is fascinated by the magic behind using writing to capture something. She uses her creative energy to tell stories that leave impact, and transforms what most people call unfortunate circumstances or imperfections into strength through writing.
The “Love Is…” Youth Voice contest was generously supported by The Zellerbach Family Foundation.