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Authors: Richard Miniter

The Things I Want Most

BOOK: The Things I Want Most
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Praise for
The Things I Want Most

“A riveting and at times harrowing account of a family's first year with an emotionally disturbed foster child. Beautifully written and urgently important, this book is a must read for parents everywhere.”

—Dave Pelzer,
New York Times
bestselling author of
A Child Called “It”
and
The Lost Boy

“An important read for anyone who has even a mild interest in foster parenting or adopting an older child, sibling groups or children with special needs. The story is honest—painfully so—and heartwarming.”

—
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

“The story of a dogged persistence in the face of a child who physically refused to be loved.”

—
Publishers Weekly

“If just one family reads this book and decides they would be willing to try with a child like Mike, it could literally save a child's life. This is an incredible story of amazing people. Richard, Sue, Mike, and their family, when faced with impossible odds, had the courage and love to go on, to beat the odds, and to teach that everything is possible with love.”

—Marian Wright Edelman, President, The Children's Defense Fund


The Things I Want Most
is about the redemption of a child who desperately needs to find a place in the world and can't do so without a great deal of help. It is also a story about the vast difference even one drop in the bucket can make in a child's life.”

—
New Age

“Hard to put down—and even harder to forget.”

—
The Florida Times-Union

“Here is an unpretentious and unsentimental, wonderfully engaging account of American idealism as it was lived out, day by day, in a particular family—a story of what is possible when an aroused parental loving-kindness takes on a child's legacy of disorder and early sorrow.”

—Dr. Robert Coles, Harvard Health Services, author of
The Spiritual Life of Children

This story is dedicated to Laura Ronning
Taken from the family on July 27, 1991

P
REFACE

This is the true story of a remarkable and profoundly emotionally disturbed boy who descended upon our woefully unprepared family in late summer of 1993.

It is the story of his first year, of his progress, the changes he forced in the family and in himself, and to some considerable degree it is a story of animals, of legends and woodsmoke, and of a special program called Harbour.

The book is based upon numerous letters, documents, and a detailed, day-by-day diary I have of eight of those twelve months. At the request of the Dutchess County, New York, Department of Social Services, the name of the boy and the names of some other individuals have been changed. To provide a clearer illustration of the various lessons the family learned and to explain why we acted the way we did, I've occasionally altered the chronology and frequently indulged in mind reading, for which I apologize. None of the conversations in the book was ever recorded electronically and then transcribed. Many conversations were recorded word for word in my diary at the end of the day, but others were reconstructed in the following year based on diary entries and some questioning, but mostly on the memories of family members.

To other new parents of emotionally disturbed, difficult, or abused children, I can only say “God bless you,” because despite being very experienced parents, we survived that first year in part, as my wife Sue says, “because after firing every arrow in our quiver, we threw rocks,” but then as our “rocks” grew too heavy to shoulder, we were sustained with prayer, imagination, and by other family members, not the least of whom was the boy himself.

C
HAPTER
O
NE
a family a fishing pole, a family

“Why would they even show us something like this?”

It was the spring of 1993, and I was asking the question of my wife, Susan. We were alone in an office on the top floor of a house the Mental Health Association had converted to its headquarters. There, for the better part of the morning, we had been examining a file. And if the file was only half accurate, the child described in it was a monster. In fact, as I read on, one word kept tramping back and forth in my thoughts with heavy boots—
sociopath, sociopath, sociopath
. The person—the child—I was reading about was a sociopath.

At this time in my life I hadn't had any thought at all of helping anyone else, much less someone who needed this much effort. But we had been working up to this point ever since Sue had erupted with a sudden, bizarre interest in foster children a few months ago. It wasn't the first occasion in our married life when she had roared off after something. In fact, I often thought of her as a tiny door that opened on an immense furnace. But that extravagant force had usually been directed at some issue in the lives of our own five sons and one daughter or, as they grew, at the building of SCM Tax Prep, her tax preparation and financial planning business.

This, I had thought to myself many times at the start of those months, wasn't her. And it wasn't me, either. I had spent twenty-five years in manufacturing, beginning fresh from four and a half years in the Marine Corps as an expediter for a division of North American Phillips before winding up as a director of manufacturing for a medium-sized corporation in New Jersey Then, determined to finish a novel I had begun while on a job in South Africa years before, I refused a reassignment, pocketed a check, and decided to see if I could make some sort of a living out of the abandoned and haunted old pile of a country inn in New York's mid—Hudson Valley that we were now calling home. And it all had just started coming together.

It wasn't as simple as I had first thought. But the place was getting finished on the inside, at least; we were renting bed-and-breakfast rooms on a long-term basis to some very quiet guests; I was working temporarily for a tiny, cobbled-together local manufacturer; and the book was finished. Meanwhile, I wasn't wearing a suit, I hadn't been on an airplane for business in a couple of years, and even though I had gained about twenty pounds, my blood pressure was down thirty points. I felt healthy, I still had all of my red hair—it was graying a bit in my mustache and on my temples, but it was still there—and every morning I'd get up with the dogs and climb the beautiful mountain we lived on. In milky, rainy dawns and violet sunrises I hiked every day for an hour through our overgrown hay meadow, past the beaver pond, up into the neighbor's manicured orchard blocks, then by the lakes and far up to where I could grin at the distant silvery stream of cars commuting south on the crowded New York State Thru way.

I had just finished helping myself, and life was good.

Our boys—even though they were large enough now that whenever they were home together, they reminded me of five young stallions, restless and cramped in a wee paddock—still required a lot of our time and energy. Our eldest son, Richard,

was off and gone on a mad career as a writer and film producer, but others of them hadn't finished college. Henry was a senior and Frank a second-year man at Norwich, the Military College of Vermont, Brendan was just starting George Mason University in Virginia, and Liam was charting new boundaries in the typical male Miniter indifference toward high school. Our second child and only daughter, Susanne, had graduated from the State University of New York at Albany and was working, but this summer she was getting married and we were holding the reception at the house. It wasn't as if we didn't have things to do.

Yet whenever I raised any of these issues, Sue just paved over my objections with, “Rich, we're just looking into it and we're not making any decisions yet. I just want you to go along for a while. You can always say no later on.”

“It's the empty-nest syndrome, isn't it, Sue? All the babies have grown and you miss them.”

“No, I just have to take a look at this thing.”

And so, confused and doubtful, not quite understanding what was driving her, I followed along.

What Sue hadn't told me—wouldn't tell me until long after our orderly, smug little life had been turned on its head—was that she had been struck much as Paul was smitten on the road to Damascus. She hadn't heard a voice or been knocked off a horse, but she had seen a picture—many pictures—and then been challenged in an extremely personal way.

During tax season Sue typically takes a short break around six or six-thirty in the evening in our inn's old barroom, where she perches on a stool, flicks on the news, and then eats a quick dinner, which I've laid out for her. It is a quiet, private time for her—twenty minutes or a half hour when she can be all by herself, get some nourishment, and recharge her batteries before going at it again for the next four or five hours.

It was in her second-story office that Sue made the leap from a job she commuted to in Manhattan and a part-time business

into a flourishing full-time practice, and much as I do now, she revels in the thirty-second commute from our apartment with a second cup of coffee in her hand to the remodeled room where she toils happily with her cat dozing on the copy machine behind her. But the hours have stayed brutal—often eighteen hours a day during the months of January through April, as client after client comes calling.

I'm usually extremely careful to leave her entirely alone during her sole break of the day, but what I didn't understand this year was that other, darker presences were intruding.

Night after night in that early spring, the evening network news was full of pictures of starving children in Africa. Children dying in their mothers' arms, children being buried in shallow graves, children helplessly begging for something—anything— to eat. And meanwhile, there would be Sue, sitting all alone in the dim light, night after night, slicing into her juicy lamb chop and swallowing asparagus and mashed potatoes. Finally, one evening, utterly helpless and angry, she slammed down her knife and fork and jerked the TV directory over to her to find something other than news to watch. But when she riffled through the little booklet it fell open to an advertisement—a plea from an organization called The Harbour Program for experienced parents to provide a structured, nurturing home for abused and neglected children.

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