After years of misery and abuse, I finally learned what it’s like to have a loving and supportive family—right before my childhood officially ended.
Earlier this year, I legally became an Esparza, five years after they took me in. It took five years for me to realize that these people were serious about being my parents; five years of doubting their love, but yearning for what they claimed to offer.
We had to go to court and wear dresses and ties — it was kind of like a marriage. When I entered the building my body immediately tensed up, and my mom put her hand on the small of my back. We walked into the courtroom where the judge said she was grateful to be administering something positive for once.
The lawyer asked my parents if they understood that this bound them to me legally, something about provision for me, and they said “Yes” in unison, very straight-faced.
Then he turned to me and said my name, smiling, “Do you understand that from this day forward your legal name will be Lyric Alexis Gabriella Esparza?”
“Yes,” I heard myself say, anxiety now tearing through my chest. I felt both my parents’ hands rest on either of my shoulders.
“And you understand that from this day forward, Toni and Juan Esparza are your legal parents, and your biological parents’ names will be replaced on your birth certificate?”
“Yes.” I looked straight ahead.
“Then it’s settled.” The lawyer said, beaming, and I jumped at the crack of the judge’s gavel.
Afterwards there was a moment when I hugged my mom, and all my siblings came around me and wrapped their slinky little arms around legs or purses or whatever they could get to. My dad even bumbled in on it, and he’s not one to get very emotional. I was shaking and I couldn’t let go of my mom — memories of the things they had done to fight for me over the years shot through me like fire. I closed my eyes and rested on her shoulder. I had found my way home. These people had always been my family.
* * *
Six years before that day in court, I was at one of my high school’s basketball games, where I saw the school’s Executive Director/Principal, Toni Esparza, and her loudmouthed, sarcastic husband who happened to be our chaplain, Juan. They had brought their two little girls with them. As I sat with one of my friends, I watched Juan from afar while he playfully whacked his daughters’ small hands away and sat them on his lap so they could take turns making the buzzer go on and off during half time.
I felt pangs of jealousy as I recalled memories of my own parents, like the time my mother yanked my head around with the hurried pulls and twists of her fingers while she strapped my pink bicycle helmet on.
“Mommy,” I said, “Where am I going?”
She stopped bustling and looked at me, her soft brown face pulled tight with a flush expression I had come to know as her fear.
“It’s okay, Lyric,” she said, “You’re gonna go to Chuck E. Cheese’s with your uncle, okay? That sounds fun, right?” I nodded excitedly.
“Can Bryan come, too?” I asked, wondering where my brother was.
She ignored my question and put her hands on my shoulders. “Listen, Lyric. If you see your dad, you do not go with him,” she said. “Do you understand? If you see him, you run away. You stay with your uncle.”
I nodded like I understood. I walked out with my uncle and we rode our bikes past the end of our cul-de-sac and left toward the main road.
When we turned the corner, I saw my parents’ rusted blue car pulled over on the right side of the road. My father, dressed in all black with matching sunglasses, was leaning on the open driver’s side door, staring at me. He held a Maglight in one hand and his leather-bound bible in the other.
He opened his mouth to speak and my uncle interjected: “Lyric, let’s go. We get to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s, remember? C’mon, let’s go!”
“Lyric,” my dad said, and I paid him the attention and respect most seven-year-old girls do their father. “Come with me.”
My chest froze over with anxiety. Which parent was I supposed to listen to? Both were my heroes, and I was stuck with a choice, inevitably disappointing — or infuriating — one of them.
Before I could process the conflict I was feeling, my father said, “Lyric, come with me, or you will never see your brother again.” At this I broke. The thought of losing my brother — my protector — terrified me.
I turned my bike around and rode home crying. I heard the start of my parents’ car behind me and my uncle calling my name.
My father and I pulled up at the same time. I lay my bike in the grass of our front lawn and stood there paralyzed, staring at my mom who ran out of the house brandishing a bread knife.
“Where is he?!” She hollered at my dad. I realized she meant my brother.
My dad walked toward my mother with a disturbing air of calm, his black sunglasses painting fractals on her face. Later I would learn that his erratic behavior on this day was caused by methamphetamine withdrawals.
“You tell me where my son is now,” said my mom.
My dad turned away from her and walked into the house, “I’m leaving,” he said. “I’m taking the car. I am leaving.”
“Oh, sure you are.” My mom spat, and I watched her rip a hole in each of the tires of our car with the knife. My dad heard the sound of slit rubber and seeping air and ran outside with the phone, announcing he was calling the police.
They came quickly. The cops weren’t unfamiliar with the whereabouts of our home. Somehow my brother showed up in the middle of the scene. Both of our parents were arrested. The police left my brother and me with my uncle and the two homeless people who lived in our backyard. I chased the cop car carrying my mom down the cul-de-sac and to the right as they took her away, weeping. The car was too fast to keep up with.
* * *
I walked into therapy on a Monday during my senior year of high school, after watching the movie “Precious.” I told my counselor, who I’d been seeing weekly, how I had wept at the film. I lamented how heartbreaking it was that such horrible things could happen to a little girl, asking how the world could be so evil.
“What about your world?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“I mean that this morning one of our staff members gave you a packet of instant oatmeal for breakfast because you said there was no food in your home. I mean that last week another teacher picked you up on the side of the highway because your dad left you there in a fit of rage.” He paused to look at me. “How is it that ‘Precious’ makes you sad, when there are obvious parallels to the life you live?”
I looked away from him and mulled this over a bit.
“You think my life is dysfunctional?” I asked, incredulous. He nodded. There was a moment of silence.
“You think my parents are dysfunctional?”
My counselor smiled. It was the end of the session. “I know I never give you homework,” he said, “but I’d like you to start trying to see your life as if it were a movie, and record how you feel. Think to yourself, ‘If I were watching this on screen, how would I expect the audience to react?’”
So I did.
I began to suspect that other parents might have intervened more sternly when they walked in on their daughter being sexually abused multiple times as a child. I considered whether it was ethical that my mom had lied about the whereabouts of my dad the day I was born, so my “unknown father” status would give her a tax break each year. I wondered why my dad didn’t beat down the door the time he clearly heard me having sex with a guy downstairs, and instead just stomped from above and hollered, “Quiet down!” Maybe other parents kept their rent payments on track so they could purchase staples like food and clothes for their kids, instead of purchasing a newer, bigger television each year? These suspicions were a catalyst to changes in my perception of my family that I would never be able to reverse.
During this transformation in my thinking, I started spending more time with Toni and Juan Esparza. Their oddly peaceful demeanor, which they claimed had its origination in their Christian faith, calmed me and fanned a little spark of hope in me that sang, “One day, I’ll fly away.”
I became a Christian — rather unwillingly. I didn’t want to but had fallen irreversibly in love with the God I learned about who had desired good things for me my whole life. My parents were confused but supportive, until it began to impact our family culture.
I had just come home from school and was in a good mood. I was indulging in my latest addiction — “Wizards of Waverly Place” — when my mom came through my door. We started having the same conversation we’d been scratching at the surface of for weeks, mostly her just asking questions like “Why are you a Christian — don’t you feel naïve?” and “Why do you spend so much time with Toni and Juan?”
My patience ran out that night. I told her what it was like to watch Juan with his daughters at the basketball game. I talked about the stark difference between the chaos of our home and the peace that I was finding in other, healthier families.
She began to scream at me.
“Toni and Juan would never speak to their daughters like that.” I yelled at her, wanting her to understand my pain.
She moved toward me like an animal toward prey. “Then you pack your bags and go live with them,” she said. “We’ll see how it is in a couple of months. I’m sure they’ll get sick of you too. See how it is when they know how you really are.”
I pushed her. She lunged back at me, hit me, and I backed away shaking. She chased me out of the house, pushing me out the sliding-glass door. I was shouting, “Mom, mom, let me get my things!”
“You want new parents?!” she yelled through the glass. “Let them take care of you!”
I had to pretend to leave so she would walk away. I needed my cellphone and my cigarettes — everything else I could leave behind. Panting with adrenaline, I snuck back in and grabbed them. When she heard me she came storming down the stairs, yelling, “Get out and never come back or I will call the cops on you!”
When I had run far enough I collapsed at a bus stop, weeping. I never lived there again.
* * *
In the morning I awoke at the home of a woman who was involved in my high school. Toni and Juan showed up — they had received the dozen or so desperate voicemails I left them the night before. They put me in their car, smiling encouragingly, and drove me to a local mall to buy me clothes.
“I can’t go back,” I stated numbly, my eyes fixed on the window as we drove. The Esparzas exchanged looks.
“We know,” Toni said.
When we arrived at the mall, Toni took me to Old Navy while Juan stayed with the little girls.
“We just want to get you some essentials,” Toni said while I stared at the clearance rack uncomfortably. “For now.”
I grabbed the cheapest things I could find in the stacks of clothes around me, and was headed toward the cashier when she said, “Don’t you need underwear?”
I stopped and looked at her. “I mean, yeah,” I answered after a while.
She grabbed neon-colored boy shorts off a shelf nearby and looked at me with a smile, “Do you want some boxers? Eh? So you can sag like the cool kids?”
I laughed, wondering at the Esparzas’ ability to make jokes in grim situations. We bought the shorts.
Later, we stopped at the food court. Espresso machines whirred and glasses clinked as bus boys and girls cleared the tables of exhausted consumers. I was eating chicken strips and fries.
“So, we want you to live with us,” Toni said, and I nodded. They’d offered their home to me before and I had passed, not wanting to be forced to go to church or quit smoking; now, it seemed like I didn’t have a choice.
“But we don’t want you to just live with us,” she continued. “That’s not what we are offering. If you come with us, we are going to treat you like our daughter. That’s different. Do you understand?”
I nodded as I munched on a fry. I didn’t understand.
“So what do you think?” she asked after a while. I stared at the people around us — Juan with the girls laughing next to us, older women and their crouched husbands with fading fedoras passing by. I looked at the stage before us, which I had sung on during an open mic night at my mother’s request as a little girl — before I knew about the drugs, before my parents decided to ignore the sexual abuse I suffered, before my father’s affair, before I lost them forever. When ignorance was bliss.
“Yeah,” I finally spoke. “I’ll come with you.”
* * *
We had a meeting with my biological mother where she signed a piece of paper agreeing not to claim the Esparzas had kidnapped me. She said she wanted me back and apologized for treating me like she did. I told her I couldn’t return. I couldn’t stop thinking of how terrible she must have felt. I still can’t at times.
Those first months living with the Esparzas were a crash course in family, and every day I learned something new about how parents are supposed to treat their kids and how daughters are supposed to relate to them.
I remember having our first conversation about the principle of curfews. The Esparzas didn’t have an official time that I was meant to return home, but they did require me to present my agenda for the evening (including who was involved) and to ask permission before those plans changed.
Not that long into it, I took advantage of the system. I stayed out way later with my friend than I had said I would, driving around smoking secret cigarettes in her broken-down Ford Taurus.
When I got home Juan was laying on the couch watching kung fu movies with his headphones in and he looked at me to say, “Little late there, aren’t we?”
I smiled, hoping to charm my way out of it.
“Change of plans?” he said, and I nodded. I went to bed.
The next morning we all had a meeting in Toni’s office where I was told, for the first time in my life, that I was grounded. I was a little miffed (and definitely pretended to be infuriated) but deep down, I was oddly honored. It felt like an initiation into adolescence that I had never had — like a rite of passage that my previous reality had been too abnormal to cover. I also felt protected and cared for, and could see past their frustration to the heart of why I was entitled to a consequence (not a “punishment,” the semantics of which they really wanted me to understand). These people were trying to parent me. They were trying to teach me that discipline shouldn’t involve violence or abuse — that discipline can come from love and concern.
During this time, I watched my biological family work through the stages of grief in dysfunction — at times begging me to return and at others accusing me of betraying the family. I was suddenly in the same position I had been as a seven-year-old, pulled between two sets of people I desired to completely trust without the tools to know which one was safe.
I took the Esparzas’ dog, Isabella, for frequent walks in an attempt to let my brain process all that was happening. I spent many an afternoon exploring their quiet, safe neighborhood with trails and ridiculously green grass and children riding scooters in the streets.
I would talk to Isabella as we walked, asking her what she thought of things and whether she believed the Esparzas actually loved me. It was terrifying. I didn’t trust anything Toni and Juan said. I very clearly remember a poisonous voice that lived inside my head back then, whispering doubts into me: “Who do you think you are? You think these people care for you? They pity you because they’re Christian. They don’t care about you. You are nothing but a burden to them.”
That voice resounded in my seventeen-year-old head whenever they bought me something, whenever we had a long talk about how much I missed my biological family, whenever I allowed myself to relax and just enjoy their presence.
I started to have what I thought were nightmares every night. I saw the way Juan interacted with my new sisters, and deep down the little broken girl in me yearned for that kind of connection with my father. I remember waking up and banging my head on the wall because I was furious with myself. I dreamt over and over again that I was the little girl crawling all over Juan, the one he cuddled and comforted when she was scared, and made laugh when she was upset about something petty.
I told this to Toni once and she looked at me the way she does when there aren’t really words to respond with. “I’m sorry,” she said, and gave me a hug.
I will never be able to have a childhood. That is something I mourn every day. There are moments, still, when I look at my little siblings (four of whom are newly adopted) and envy the second chance at innocence and stability they have. But for the most part, I have accepted it. There’s not much else you can do.
* * *
Lyric A.G. Esparza is a writer/comedian based in Seattle who watches too much TV and believes laughter is the one of the best ways to cope with tragedy. Watch her attempt to do so on her blog or Twitter.
Natalie Kassirer is an artist currently located in New York City. In her art, she is interested in exploring pop culture, human interaction, and nature’s relationship to humanity. Follow her on Twitter @NatalieKassirer.