This is her son, the light of my life and my little buddy, Levi. Notice the cheesy smile!
This was the last time I saw him in June, after his momma had been missing for a little over 3 weeks. He is at my house, and this is the only time he let go of me long enough for me to take a picture of him. The rest of the time he held my hand sitting right next to me on the couch as we watched videos and talked, or he sat on my lap. All 13 years of him.
Brenda and Levi came into my life like a hurricane eight years ago when I decided I wanted to go back to work in special education for the first time since the birth of my children. My daughter was in 1st grade then, and I wanted to be at the same school with her and to be able to bring in a little extra money at the same time. I had previously worked in the special education field for 20 years, all the way up to, and a little bit after the birth of my first child- when I decided I wanted to be home with my baby, and that getting my head bashed into the chalkboard was soooo yesterday.
Enter Levi. Levi is autistic, and my specialty in my career choice of special education was autistic children, especially those with aggressive behavior disorders. He fit that bill perfectly.
Tiny but powerful, Levi lived inside his head to the exclusion of all else. Full of anger and frustration that his limited communication skills would not allow him to express fully, he had already been there done that kindergarten thing, but it was decided it would be tried again here on the mountain and with a 1:1 aide. That turned out to be me.
Little did I know that my life would forever be changed by Levi and his mother.
The first time I met Brenda I recognized her as an alcoholic. I was able to see her with different eyes than most everyone else, as I am also an alcoholic- sober 18 years this past April. Most people just saw a drunk, I saw a woman who fought many demons daily. I saw a woman of courage and great strength who had to walk through a valley filled with traps each and every day. Someone who would do ANYTHING for her child. Someone who was lost, and had no knowledge at all that she was a child of God and that there was a father in Heaven who loved her more than she could comprehend.
To say that Brenda's life revolved around Levi would be the understatement of the century. As a single mother, Brenda was the hub of Levi's existence, and her reason for living. She loved him fiercely. As it is with most autistic children, Levi had trouble with self control. He was on the path to trouble with his hitting and slapping, and Brenda was the recipient of that all too frequently. Still, she stayed.
There were times in my career where I found myself forced to call Child Protective Services on a parent because their child was at risk for injury or abuse. That child would be healthier, happier and safer outside their home environment.
I knew that Levi would die if he were taken from Brenda, and that the same was true for her. They lived and breathed for each other, and their lives were richer for their relationship. They were like the earth and the sun orbiting around each other.
When Levi was in second grade, I wrote a book about him. It is called "Donny is Different".
Brenda was thrilled by it, and everyone who read it loved it. Levi was very intelligent, sweet, kind and very affectionate to those whom he loves, a very different kind of child from the typical autistic children I had ever worked with before- at any age. Capable of learning reading, and basic math, yet still super involved with self stimulation, prone to be extremely loud and to horrible tantrums, Levi was able to show impulse control- something most autistic children are not able to exhibit at all. Levi was mainstreamed all throughout his school time here with regular classes, and made many 'normal' friends who were kind and very accepting of him.
It was my pleasure to be able to work professionally with him from kindergarten through third grade, and to see him mature and completely stop any aggressive behavior and tantrumming.
To grow into a fine young man who can carry on a normal conversation with you, express himself fully and coherently, and whose loving personality and winsome smile can light up a room the instant he walks in.
Over the years I became close to
Brenda, and even after I stopped working with Levi in the school- he went on to the middle school up here and I stayed home with my daughter who was having health problems- Levi would come to my house once a week and I would tutor him. My children learned all about autism from Levi, Cameron and Codi both learned to love him. My daughter especially held a special place in her heart for him because they attended the same schools all through the years and she saw how cruel children could be and stuck up for him whenever she could.
We went to his birthday parties, exchanged gifts for all the holidays, and often we would just stop by and tell them we loved them. I advocated for him at IEPs and spent some time in his middle school classes so I could report back to Brenda that everything was indeed going well.
Brenda always said we were family, that I would always be a part of their lives, no matter where they went or how old we all got to be. She said that she told her sister- who was Levi's guardian in case something ever happened to Brenda- that I was to be kept in his life, always. That I was family.
We talked a lot, about everything. She was there for me through a whole lot of crap in my life, and I always told her how incredibly strong she was- and she never believed me. Always positive about everybody else and always self deprecating, that was Brenda.
Once she touched my daughter deeply by taking her into her room and opening her jewelry box, and giving many pieces of old and beautiful costume jewelry to her. She said "I don't have a daughter, so you will be mine and I'll share you with your mom from now on."
Last year she found love. It was a man who said he loved her, and who -more importantly- loved Levi. This was what Brenda had been looking for, she was beaming, and lovely in love. They moved out of their little trailer and into his house. She sold all of her belongings, truly believing this would be the last move she would ever have to make. Levi would have the daddy he deserved, they would be a whole family...
Things were strained but she tried to make it work.
Then things became abusive, and she moved back into her mobile home, and that was the beginning of the end.
This is my Levi in the third grade with his science project.
Now for the hard part and I apologise ahead of time if I am too brief and short on the whole story, it is very painful and I only hope that writing about it might ease that a little.
I said that the last time I saw Levi was in June. The day after this picture was taken he moved off the mountain and with his aunt.
In May, Brenda went missing.
Prior to this, everyone had noted a change in Brenda. I noticed she was more depressed. She wasn't returning my calls. Since the hard break up a few months earlier, she had vacillated between an "everything's gonna be even better now" attitude and being overwhelmed and frustrated, and then there was the sadness...
She went through a stage shortly after the break up where she was trying to figure out her life, Levi had her smoking outside all the time, handwritten "No Smoking In The House!!!" signs on the door, and Brenda was talking about getting sober. Having quit drugs already after a scary stint in rehab, I encouraged her- you can do it! It lasted for a while, and during that time Brenda looked for God. She looked in books, she prayed all the time, and she even asked me about my church. She had often said she wanted Levi to know about Jesus, and I had invited him to church many times, but to Levi Jesus was in his heart, and church was where you had to be quiet all the time.
Brenda invited the missionaries from my church to come and talk with her, and invited me as well to come. She said she saw what God was doing in my life, and she wanted that for herself. She always had faith that He was there, she gave thanks to Him daily for the many blessings in her life- what was missing was the personal knowledge that she was a highly valued daughter of God. That she had a divine purpose, and that most importantly, she could find redemption through Him.
I had great hope that she would find what she was looking for, but she couldn't.
She became morose, called me a few times crying, could I just take Levi for a while?
Then, I heard nothing from her for a whole month. Then came May, and she was gone.
That May day Brenda dressed up nicely, and got on one of our local transit buses. Everyone thought she was going to work, but later her friend found a note from her saying she just couldn't do it anymore.
In the note she said to take Levi to her sister, that she loved him with all her heart, and that she was tired.
She left a perfectly packed bag for Levi in her house, and her wallet and purse with all her ID in it next to the bag where it would be found easily.
She was last seen in a mini mart where she bought a turkey sandwich and a bottle of vodka.
People said she just took off, she had done it before- before Levi was born anyway- and she would be back.
Friends searched the mountains for her around where she was last seen without finding any trace.
I knew. I knew Brenda would never leave Levi if it wasn't for good. I knew....
A couple of weeks ago a hiker's dog found some remains near a secluded spot in the mountains with a spectacular view of the valley below, and the house where her dreams were dashed to bits.
Yesterday the coroner identified the remains as Brenda.
I haven't seen Levi since. I hear he is adjusting well. He had been told previously that momma was gone taking care of a sick friend. But he knew, as the months passed, he knew...
I remember that last day I saw him, how he clung to me and told me he loved me over and over- "I love you Mrs. Black- you're a true friend"
Brenda's sister has never contacted me, and I fear I may never see him again.
Brenda, I miss you. You were incredibly strong with the heart of a lioness.
Levi, I think about you all the time I miss and love you ever so much.