A little over a year ago, I wrote an essay entitled “The Mentor.” It told the story of a young boy’s challenging early life and his subsequent “salvation” through adoption.  I thought the piece uplifting, even inspirational, and I took pride in my role as Jake’s mentor in the years leading up to his formal adoption. Toward the end of the piece, I wrote the following in reference to Jake’s high school graduation.


As I sat in the high school auditorium that night and watched Jake walk across the stage to receive his acknowledgement, I thought about all that this still very young boy had been through—the painful loss of loved ones, the horrid abuse of supposed guardians, the loneliness of institutional life, the rediscovery of parental love and support, and now his place of importance as big brother to others whose needs were great. It made me proud to realize that, through it all, Jake had never given up on himself. And it made me happy to have played my own very small part in his story.

I have no illusions that Jake’s troubles are over. He’ll carry the burden of his experiences with him for the rest of his life. But he’ll also carry with him the realization of what it is to grow up. What it is to not give up. And, most importantly, what it is to be loved and supported.


To which I must now add: And what it is to be ripped off and cast out…yet again! This is the rest of Jake’s story.


*  *  *


A few months after I wrote “The Mentor,” I visited with Jake who was then living about 100 miles from my home. The good news of that time was that Jake had a part-time job and that “his family” had recently rented a small tract house in a nice-looking rural neighborhood. I picked him up from his job (loading trucks for a big retailer from 6 to 10 am a couple mornings a week) and we headed off for an early lunch before checking out the new house where Jake now lived with his adoptive parents, another adopted child (a six-year old girl with communication issues) and twin foster children—a pair of mentally-challenged toddlers.

When we arrived at the house, I was already reeling from some of Jake’s comments over lunch. (More on that in a moment.) As we pulled up, Jake’s adoptive mother was about to pull out—on her way to pick up the twins from some sort of “therapy” session. Jake was relieved to see her, as he had no access to the home without her and he was anxious to show me around inside.

Jake lived in the basement—an unfinished, concrete-floored, cinder block-walled, unheated space of which he occupied about half. It looked pretty grim to me, but Jake was quite proud of it. The upstairs had the somewhat disheveled look one would expect of a home with three small special needs children, a dog who was prone to snap at everyone and, therefore, lived mostly in a cage, and two cats.  The whole place could have used a healthy shot of air freshener and the kitchen was a hodgepodge of dirty dishes, leftover breakfast foods and upended pet food containers. (I had seen one of the former homes—a double wide trailer—of a different iteration of this “family” a couple years earlier and had been quite impressed with its neatness and order. Housekeeping had gone decidedly downhill.) But it wasn’t the physical aspects of Jake’s life that concerned me as I drove home later that day. It was our lunch discussion.

About a year earlier, when Jake turned 18, he had come into a substantial sum of money—well over one hundred thousand dollars—the result of a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital in which Jake’s mother had died when he was quite young. At lunch that day, through the most casual of conversations, I learned that “Jake’s money” was virtually gone—used by his adoptive parents to buy a single wide for his “adoptive grandmother” and transport her to Maryland’s Eastern Shore from the Midwest, and fund a vow renewal party for Jake’s adoptive parents, a new car, and other sundry items. In return for this “loan”, Jake lived in the basement of a rented house (the family’s third in a year) and paid rent for the privilege, had no key of his own, little money of his own, and no prospects of a brighter future. And, he was no longer taking his meds. (Jake is bipolar, hypertensive, and subject to seizures.)

Arriving home that evening, I told my wife about the visit and expressed my concern for Jake who was, at best, wandering aimlessly through life while experiencing a whole new level of “parental” abuse and, at worst, heading for a terrible crash landing. A couple months later, when I received a phone call from Jake as he sat in the back seat of a police car following a serious physical altercation with his adoptive mother, I knew the downhill skid was picking up steam.

Jake proceeded to tell me that the police were taking him to the local Medical Center for a competency check-up after he threatened his adoptive mother and grandmother over their pilfering of not only his money, but also his “stuff” (not sure what he meant, but I did know there wasn’t much “stuff” to pilfer). He went on to tell me that he had recently moved out of “the basement” and joined a church group where he slept on a cot in a back room, but that arrangement wasn’t working out, so he had tried to return to the basement, only to find out that his adoptive parents (the ones who had just blown a chunk of Jake’s money on a “vow renewal” party) had split up. The adoptive father was now in a drug rehab program, and the adoptive mother was living with the “grandmother” and the six-year old in the single wide that was bought with Jake’s money. Meanwhile, the mentally challenged twin toddlers had been returned to Social Services (making those poor souls possibly the only winners in this deal).

About an hour later, my phone rang again. This time, it was the adoptive mother calling to offer her side of the most recent dust-up. “Nothing makes Jake happy.” Jeez, I wonder why, I thought. “He’s not eating right. He only eats junk food.” In all my visits with this “family,” junk food was the staple of the house; french fries the vegetable of choice. “He’s been stalking a girl in town.” I knew from my recent lunch with Jake that he not only wasn’t stalking, but that he’d blown what little money he had on the girl and her mother. Jake essentially walked around with an “I’m a patsy” sign on his back. “I called the cops because he threatened my mother and me, screaming about wishing he had a gun and throwing things all over the place.” Let’s see…bipolar, no meds, no home, no money…

The following day, I received a call from Jake, saying he was being released from the Medical Center to the care of his drug-rehabbing adoptive father’s parents “just until I can figure out where I’m gonna live.” That lasted almost two weeks, during which time the adoptive father returned, subdued and depressed and, it turned out, determined to kill himself.

“Hey, Mr. Don,” Jake said when I picked up the phone one Sunday morning shortly thereafter. “I’m in an ambulance with Lester (adoptive dad). He won’t wake up. He wrote a letter…”

Well, Lester did subsequently wake up. And, after doing so, he proceeded to decide that there was only room in his parents’ home for one “child” and that was going to be the 37-year old Lester. Jake, recently turned 19, would have to find his own way now.

Over the course of that summer, I spoke with Jake every couple weeks, and virtually every conversation had three commonalities: new living arrangements, new crises, and new revelations—the first of which was “I moved in with my birth father and his girlfriend.” I’d known Jake for about eight years at this point and this was the first time I ever heard him refer to his “birth father.” I thought the guy was either long-gone or deceased.  At any rate, Jake had now moved about forty miles west, had no job and no means of transportation (we’re talking about very rural country—public transport is not an option) but he did have a plan. “I’m going to enlist in the National Guard, Mr. Don.”

This is where it really starts to get confusing.

A Sunday morning in early June…Jake calls. He had moved again, this time thirty miles east to live with friends, Dan and April—a 30-something married couple with four young children. “I was in the hospital this week. Started shaking. Felt weird. Doctor said my heart was racing—150, I think. Feeling a little better now.” Jake went on to say that he had been scheduled to take the National Guard recruitment test that week, but “the recruiter says that’s off the table now until I get better.”

A Monday afternoon in mid-June… Jake calls to tell me he’s excited because, “in a couple weeks,” he’s going to move in with his “fiancée” and “mother-in-law.” Huh? This was right up there with the “birth father.” What fiancée? (To short-circuit this episode, which could qualify as a story in its own right, Jake apparently still had his “I’m a patsy” sign on his back and just enough money in his pocket to be a prime target for a pair of mother-daughter scammers. More on that in a moment.)

Two weeks later…Jake calls and it’s obvious from the proximate noise of traffic that he’s near a busy highway. “Just got released from the third floor of the Medical Center.” What’s on the third floor? I asked, though I could have made a pretty accurate guess. “The psych ward,” Jake said, “Police took me because my biological uncle said I threatened him with a gun. I did, too, but it was just a BB gun. He owes me $1,000, Mr. Don. I lent it to him months ago and now he’s saying I gave it to him. Wish I’d had a real gun.” Before I could even absorb this statement, Jake blurted out that he was walking along a highway, trying to figure out how to get to a funeral. Abruptly, he then asked if he could call me back.

A Wednesday evening, ten days later… Jake called. I had been trying to reach him for days (his phone would regularly “run out of minutes”) so I was relieved to hear from him and asked if everything was alright. “Pretty good, but…I’m in a brace up to my thigh and on crutches. Had a freak accident running into Dan & April’s house (where he was apparently still living, more or less). Hurt my knee and ankle real bad. I’ll be ok, but April’s not doing so good.  Ambulance took her to the hospital last night—she had a mini-stroke. Dan’s there with her now. I’m at their house, waiting for my NEW girlfriend to come over.” At this point, nothing surprised me so I didn’t even bother trying to plum the depths of “new girlfriend” news. Besides, Jake, as he was wont to do, had already moved on to another subject, this time backfilling his previous call—the one that had been accompanied by the sound of passing 18-wheelers.

The previous girlfriend (aka his fiancée) and her mother (aka his mother-in-law) “scammed me out of $2,000, Mr. Don. They played me for a fool. $1,000 for an engagement ring for Mandy, $600 so her mother’s car wouldn’t get repossessed, about $200 for groceries, and another $300 for her grandmother’s funeral. Turns out, her grandmother’s NOT even dead!” (Yes, that’s the “funeral” Jake had referred to in the previous call.)

I won’t belabor the details of several subsequent calls. The pattern should be painfully obvious. But here are just a few of the storylines that ensued over the next sixty or so days:

  • Took the National Guard recruitment test, but failed.
  • Adoptive mother and grandmother evicted from the single wide.
  • Somehow managed to rent the single wide to “some guy, but he’s way behind on his rent and I’m trying to get him evicted.”
  • Working once in a while with a crew that travels the state, taking carnival rides to various towns for one- or two-night stands. “They said they’d help me evict anybody I want.”
  • Adoptive father got a restraining order against Jake for threatening phone messages. Shortly thereafter, adoptive dad had bigger problems, as he was arrested for supplying under-age teens with alcohol and other substances. “Cocaine” briefly referenced in this conversation but without elaboration.
  •  “Dog-sitting” a friend’s pitbull—“she’s a sweetheart. I love that dog! Owner said I could keep her.”
  • Lived briefly with an aunt…until he got the dog.
  • Had another falling out with his birth father, this over the dog. Meanwhile, a “neighbor” hated the dog and threatened to break Jake’s arm with a chain unless he got rid of it.
  • Jake refused to abandon the dog and the pair somehow found a room to rent in an old farmhouse in the town where Jake grew up.  A woman, who appeared to be in her twenties, lives there too, along with her dog. The woman’s mother apparently owns the house, but doesn’t live there.
  • Jake remains without a job and lives mostly on food stamps, and the single wide rent, when it’s actually paid.
  • He remains determined to retake the National Guard recruitment test “as many times as they’ll let me until I pass.” He has failed twice so far.


That pretty much brings the story up to date, as it was at the farmhouse that I dropped Jake off recently, after he and I had watched the Baltimore Ravens trounce the Oakland Raiders 55-20 at M&T Bank Stadium.


*  *  *


Throughout the long and winding road that has been Jake’s last year (his entire life, for that matter), our phone conversations have been regularly sprinkled with talk of the Orioles and the Ravens. Ironic as it may be, conversations with Jake can jump, in the blink of an eye, from truly life-altering/threatening events to “Is Suggs playing this week” or “I told you Manny Machado would be great.” It has always been sports in general and Baltimore’s baseball and football teams in particular that have been Jake and my common denominator. Indeed, our many visits together to Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium over the past eight years have been an oasis for us both—a respite from the trauma of a soon-to-be-20-year old and the mentor who wishes he could make it “all better.”

Yet here is what’s really surprising. Despite the trauma Jake endures and, at times, undoubtedly exacerbates, he somehow soldiers on. He does not give up. While he does get angry, he never seems bitter. There is absolutely no sense of woe is me.

I often think of Jake and it makes me want to cry. Yet, I have NEVER seen Jake cry.  Perhaps I want to because I know how good life can be. Perhaps Jake never does because he’s only known how hard life can be. And perhaps in some strangely twisted way, that is how he survives.


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