A few weeks ago, someone put a warning sign on the door of Ezra’s old house.
That house had stood empty and unchanged since last summer.
When Ezra lived across the street, he was impulsive and determined– just about every six-year-old is, and I think six-year-olds on the autism spectrum are especially so, but Ezra was the most impulsive and determined child I’ve ever met. He was easily frustrated, and when he got frustrated he had tantrums. Tantrums are not uncommon with six-year-olds whether they’re neurotypical or not, but Ezra had enormous tantrums. He had two bright white callouses on the back of his right hand, from biting.
Ezra’s older sister and his younger sister were were easily frustrated too. His older sister seemed anxious and angry all the time. She’d panic over nothing; she’d struggled with eating disorders. The toddler was the most impulsive of toddlers, with a penchant for breaking out of the fenced-in yard and running off.
I used to watch them for their mother, when I could. All the houses are so tightly packed together in this neighborhood that there’s barely any room for yards on that side of the street; there was no way to keep balls and toys in their own yard. Next door, the neighbors in the tiny apartment building raised dogs, three or four dogs at once, and wouldn’t clean up after them– the smell got worse and worse as the summer wore on. If a toy fell into that yard, and if the dogs let him, Ezra would walk through the squalid yard and pick it up, and his little sister would bolt away down the street in the meantime. On the other side of Ezra’s yard was a neater property, with a blossoming tree in one corner. If a ball flew into that tree, Ezra would climb into the yard and shake the ball loose, and his little sister would bolt into the street again. If the ball flew into the street, Ezra would run after it and I’d run too, holding his sister’s hand and screaming for him to stop, because he never looked both ways.
If the ball flew where Ezra would not get it back, Ezra would have a tantrum.
When it got cold, we played inside. The house was old, dark and musty, with cracks in the drywall; there were repairs that desperately needed to be done, but the landlord kept putting them off. Ezra’s older sister talked about suing the landlord to force him to repair the house, but nothing like that was ever done either. Lawsuits cost money and there wasn’t any. Ezra’s mother talked of finding another place to move to, but moving also costs money. There wasn’t a way to get out of the house that she could see, not without money. And there wasn’t a way to get money when she had to stay home and care for her children. Ezra’s sister was sad at the thought of moving– she’d lived in this house for over ten years, after all.Inside the house, Ezra’s tantrums were uncontrollable; he’d rip apart the sofa, throw toys and slam cupboard doors. There was little I could do to help.
And then the fire started– a fire in the kitchen, while the family was visiting Ezra’s grandfather. No structural damage to the house, but the wiring was ruined and all of their property inside was wrecked by the smoke. And then they were gone– I didn’t know where; I didn’t have their phone number, I had no way to contact them.
They were homeless for four months.
They finally got into a rental a few blocks from here; we ran into them again randomly on a walk a few months after that. Rose came to play in their new yard. Ezra’s older sister was remarkably calmer, not angry or anxious at all; his younger sister was quieter and didn’t try to run off. Ezra’s vocabulary had improved drastically in three months, and he was catching up to other developmental milestones as well. He was still the same boy, an energetic seven-year-old on the autism spectrum, but he’d changed a great deal.
The callouses on his hands looked older, as if they hadn’t been bitten as much lately.
While we were there, Ezra lost his ball over the fence and couldn’t find it. Instead of having a tantrum, he quietly said “I want my ball,” and went inside to get another.
I chalked the change up to a miracle.
That brings us to a few weeks ago, when I saw the new sign on the house across the street.
I could see the word “WARNING” in bright red capital letters across the top, but the rest of the print was too small to read from the sidewalk. I glanced at the sign and tried to read it every time we walked past on the way to the bus. I did this for weeks.
Finally, my curiosity overcame me. I walked up to the porch to read the sign.
It was a warning that the house contained toxic levels of lead; that lead levels like these could cause brain damage and severe behavioral health issues in children. It warned that children and pregnant women should not go inside the house at all.
I’m told that children’s health can improve, after a prolonged exposure to lead like that, but that the damage will always be there and they’ll never completely recover.
I’m also told that poverty’s just a state of mind. That we can all choose our circumstances. If we work hard, we can move out of that house, get a new one, become better than the place we came from.
And some people can.
But for some, poverty’s not only a state of mind but a cause of brain damage. Some people can’t move away in time to stop that. Some people carry the dust of the place they come from, physically, in their bodies, for the rest of their lives.
(image via pixabay)