Amy soon realized the full price of her commitment. One afternoon she came walking home from school, clutching a sheet of paper. It was a letter from U.C.L.A. inviting her to come see the lush campus. It was what she’d longed for, a place where no one would know about her awful background, where she could study to become someone special — a nurse, perhaps, or maybe even an attorney.
Yet the letter only ripped Amy apart inside. The entire walk home she kept imagining herself at this prestigious university, kept picturing a life free of the worries and duties she’d always known.
Then, as she turned a corner, she saw her brothers playing outside her grandmother’s house, running, laughing. Adam, Joey, Tony. She’d diapered and fed them, held them when they were scared, read them stories, sung them songs.
Her dreams for herself, she realized, were no match for the love etched in her soul. She crumpled the letter up and threw it away.
One month later, after tediously filing piles of paperwork, Amy sat before a judge in family court. “You’re so young,” the judge said to her. “Are you sure you want this responsibility?” “There’s no other way to keep my family together,” Amy replied simply. The judge’s ultimate decision was a remarkable victory for an 18-year-old girl: Amy was named guardian of her siblings for a six-month trial period.
Meanwhile, instead of going to her high school prom, Amy had searched for a place to live. Finally she found a run-down one-bedroom unit. The salary from her two jobs — as a florist-shop clerk and as a waitress — along with her savings and foster-care payments from the state of California enabled her to pay the first and last months’ rent.
Her siblings didn’t make her task any easier in the months ahead. The boys sometimes ditched school and would curse at Amy when they were angry. And she had more than a few face-offs with Amanda.
“You’re not my mom!” the 14-year-old would shout at Amy when things grew particularly tense.
One day Adam rebelled at doing his reading assignment for school, hurling his book across the room. Only after some coaxing did he tell Amy what was really going on.
“Every kid in the class can read,” Adam said, bursting into tears, “and I can’t.” Remembering her own shame about reading, Amy began taking all the kids to the library. And for many weeks afterward she set aside special time to tutor each of them separately. Adam took pride in the way his reading skills improved.
As always, though, a fresh obstacle appeared — one that came as a huge shock to Amy. Despite taking birth-control pills, she became pregnant with Jerry’s child. The timing was horrible, but there was no way she’d consider either abortion or giving up the baby. Her love would enfold this child just as it had the others. And so another little boy, Donavin, entered Amy’s life at age 19.
The strain of things built up remorselessly. Finally it reached a breaking point that late night when Amy returned from work to an apartment in shambles.
She had left the boys in the care of Amanda, who had fallen asleep in Amy’s bed.
Shaken, Amy felt overwhelmed once more by the enormousness of all she had taken on. But she knew she had no choice: She could never let her siblings be ripped away from one another again. To make it as a family, she’d just have to get them to work together.
“All of you, get in here right now!” she yelled, trembling with frustration.
The three boys stumbled into the room. “How could you do this?” she asked, her words coming in a torrent. “You know they’re checking up on us.”
Within a few minutes, the wave of anger ebbed. “Guys,” she said more gently, “all we have is each other. If you want to stay together past six months, we’ve got to show we’re responsible. We’ve got to keep this place neat.
“And you need to watch your tongues. Also, don’t eat all the food as soon as I buy it, or there won’t be any next week. And you have to be bleeding before you can miss school.” Startled, the kids agreed to begin pulling their weight.