None of us was surprised when she passed away. Levon, a 16-year-old African-American, told us when he arrived at St. Christopher’s that his mother had AIDS and was very ill. That was one of the reasons Levon was referred to us in the first place. St. Christopher’s is a residential treatment center, a place for teenagers who can no longer live at home. A family court judge decided that Levon’s mother was too unwell to take care of him. Levon had not helped the situation by hanging out with a gang and being picked up on a weapons possession charge. Like most of the young people at our facility, Levon was out of control; it would be our job to guide him back onto a positive path in life.
During his first few months with us, we knew his mother’s condition was getting worse. Levon didn’t tell us a lot, but his social worker Viola did. She also let us know that Levon’s entire family was pretty much in disarray. Levon’s father was a drug addict who had not played an active role in the family for years. Levon had four older brothers, two of whom were in jail. None of this fazed me; it was standard fare for the kids at our program. Our goal was to keep Levon from a similar fate.
When Viola called to tell me that Levon’s mother had passed away, I asked a counselor with whom he was close to tell him the news. Levon asked for permission to stay with his brothers for a few days until the funeral. Of course we agreed, and when I found out the date and time of the funeral I arranged my schedule in order to be there.
My plan was to bring as many of the 72 young people from our facility as I could. Levon was popular at our place. He had a pleasant personality, smiled a lot and could crack a quick joke. Staff members generally liked him, and so did his peers. I wanted them to be at the funeral as a show of support for Levon. But it didn’t work out that way. There were midterms taking place at school, and then I got busy doing a hundred other things. When the time arrived to leave for the funeral, I had only three kids with me, and I was angry with myself.
I parked a block away from the funeral home, and as we walked up Levon came out of a car parked in front of it. He waved us over and we shook hands. He seemed glad that we were there. He introduced us to his brothers, and I told him we’d see him inside.
The service was scheduled for 10 a.m., and when I entered shortly before that time I asked a chapel employee if the service would start in a few minutes. He responded yes. We sat down in a row of chairs near the back. The chapel was poorly lit and very small, able to accommodate perhaps only 100 people. In front was an open casket containing the body of Levon’s mother.
Ten o’clock came and went, and at 10:15 Levon’s social worker arrived. We chatted a bit, and I told her how bad I felt for not bringing all of Levon’s friends from the program. People entered the room, presumably relatives and friends of the deceased. Soon it was 10:30, and the service had yet to begin. At 10:45 I was getting antsy, and so were the three teenagers with me. I didn’t even see Levon and his brothers inside the chapel. Viola volunteered to go to the chapel office to find out what was causing the delay.
She returned with a distraught look on her face. You won’t believe this, Mark. Levon’s mother was on public assistance, and when someone on p.a. dies, the family is entitled to $1,000 for funeral costs. Well, Levon’s drug-addict father, who hasn’t even seen his wife in years, heard she died and went down to the welfare office and picked up that thousand. Now no one can find him. Chances are he’s out smoking it up right now.
I could not believe what I was hearing. She continued: The funeral director will not start the service until he has the money. That’s why we’re sitting here waiting. Where is the director? I asked. She led me to his office. We walked in and discovered several of Levon’s relatives speaking with him. He too was African-American, a small elderly man with gray hair, dressed in a suit.
I’m not going to start this service until I see the money, he said. I’m just not going to do it. They pleaded with him, promising that they would try to get the money refunded from welfare later in the week and pay him then. But he wasn’t buying it. I interrupted. How much do you need? He looked at me and paused for a second. Seven hundred, he said. Seven hundred dollars will do it.
At that point Viola grabbed me by the lapels and pulled me aside. I knew her pretty well; she was a street-smart woman who had grown up and still lived in the Bronx. She pulled her face right up to mine. Don’t do it, Mark.
Don’t do what? I replied. You’re thinking of writing out a check, and I’m telling you, don’t do it. She had read my mind. But I feel terrible, I replied. I mean, this is crazy. This poor woman is dead, her crack-head husband has screwed the family over, and they at least deserve to have her buried with some dignity. And the family seems to think they can get the money back from welfare.
Don’t be foolish, Mark. That money is gone, gone, gone. They will never see it again and neither will you. Do not write a personal check for this. I’m telling you, you’re making a mistake.
I knew Viola was right, so I returned to the main room, which by now was chaotic. Some people were on cellphones in an effort to dig up money. Hey, people from my office will kick in 50 bucks, I heard someone yell. Others were walking in with food they had purchased from the bodega next door. Who wanted the Sprite? Who asked me to buy Doritos? The body of Levon’s mother lay in state before us throughout it all.
I wanted to get out of there, so I lied and told the three kids that I had promised the school to have them back before noon. We left the chapel and discovered Levon standing out on the sidewalk. Each of us shook his hand, explaining why we had to go. The three teenagers headed for my car, and I had a brief moment alone with Levon. He exuded an air of embarrassment combined with anguish. Staring down at the sidewalk, he shook his head. I know I’m screwed up, he said quietly, but you know what’s scary? Compared to the rest of my family, I have it all together. I patted him on the shoulder and left, glad I had not invited all the other kids from the program.
Levon returned to us a few days later. He never brought up the funeral again, and neither did I. I never found out if it took place or not. I presume the latter.
We who work with troubled youth usually see only half the equation: a young person who is violent, disrespectful to adults, unmotivated, drug-involved, antisocial, homicidal and maybe even suicidal. What we do not often see is the family life that led up to all that. We don’t see the chaos. We don’t see the lack of responsible and caring adults who are positive role models. These are the ingredients that produce young people who seem hell-bent on destruction, their own and that of the world around them.
I was lucky, in a way. I saw it that day. I was afforded a snapshot view of what goes on behind the scenes with kids like these, and I know it probably goes on right from the moment of their birth. That experience changed the way I look at my work. I used to spend most of my time and energy thinking about better ways of reaching and changing troubled young people. I now think more in terms of how we can support and teach parents to do a better and more responsible job of parenting. I think more about how we can create neighborhoods and communities that will provide the support families need in order to overcome the obstacles they face. I think more about how to create a social and economic system that is based in the Gospel imperative to let justice flow like water, and uprightness like a never-failing stream.
If we succeed in these endeavors, there will be far fewer young people in need of help.