Today I recount a remarkable story I have encountered during my visit to Slovenia. A recent radio drama by Polona Ramsak, the foster mother of a Slovenian exchange student who lived with me last semester, moved listeners with its “raw” account of their relationship. Polona and Jonathan invited me to their home in Celje over the weekend.
Incidentally, Julia and I set up the exchange program in the memory of our oldest son. We bring Slovenian English majors to St. Mary’s College for one semester and sends St. Mary’s MAT students to Slovenia for student teaching. To make the program affordable, we have the Slovenian students stay with us.
Jonathan told me last semester about how, when he was 14, Slovenian social services came to his school and informed him that he would be placed in a foster home because of his mother’s serious mental difficulties. Although he had been abused, he took the news badly, so much so that he asked his favorite teacher whether he could live with her. Although she was a single woman with no children, Polona instantly said yes.
The doubts showed up later, and these she recorded in a journal. When asked to participate in a radio interview about foster situations, she shared the journal and, on the basis of that, was urged to compose a radio drama. Recently she was asked to translate it and submit it it to international competitions. I read the translation this past weekend in one breathless sitting.
Readers have described the drama as raw because Polona straightforwardly describes her feelings of inadequacy. She wonders what makes her qualified to become the sudden mother of a teenager. Much of the drama contrasts what she’s thinking and what is being said, as in the following:
Polona (voiceover): He is terribly sweet and very obedient, he never talks back, he is satisfied with everything. But every time he holds me, I can’t help but ask myself if he is actually hugging his mother, not me. I have been in a situation before when I hugged one person and thought about another.
Jan: In many ways you are a better mum to me than my real mum.
Polona (voiceover): I wanted to ask him in which ways I was worse. But I didn’t. Of course not. You are not supposed to ask things like this.
Another powerful moment occurs when she is interviewed by a psychologist to determine whether she will be a satisfactory foster mother. Because of her insecurities, she worries about giving the wrong answers:
Polona (voiceover): Yesterday I had to take a psychological test. It was awful. A woman who had never seen me before set her mind to professionally find out if I was suitable to take Jan, to let him stay with me. I was terrified. What if she finds out I’m bad for him? What then? She asked me the most annoying things.
Psychologist: What drew you to Jan in the first place?
Polona (voiceover): That he was so very different from other children.
Polona: I can’t remember.
Psychologist: How do you two solve arguments?
Polona (voiceover): I hug him.
Poona: We talk it through.
Psychologist: Why did he choose you among all the school faculty?
Polona (voiceover): Because I was the only one who felt his horrendous sadness and let him close.
Polona: I don’t really know.
Psychologist: Describe a conflict that you two had and describe how you solved it.
Polona: He got terribly drunk and I almost died of sadness.
Polona: We haven’t really had a serious conflict yet.
Psychologist: Which words of affection do you use with him? Specify them.
Polona (voiceover): I will never ever leave you, as long as you need me. I love you to the moon and back.
Polona: I am very proud of you because you are such a good boy.
Polona (voiceover): How do you tell someone who is sitting on the other side of the desk, staring at you, waiting for you to slip, how do you tell them that you are not important anymore? That the only thing that is important is the child. It’s only important that he will be prepared for life, that he will know how to make himself happy, that he will have faith in himself, that he will love himself, that he won’t succumb.
Psychologist: What are you going to do in case you notice his father’s schizophrenia in him? [Jan’s father, an artist, committed suicide shortly after he was born.]
Psychologist: What do you mean, nothing?
Polona: Would you ask me the same question if he was my biological child?
Psychologist: Well, there is a difference…
Polona: No, there isn’t. Not for me.
The play grips us because, while we want everything to work out, real difficulties must be surmounted at first. Jan pulls into himself and Polona initially has difficulty establishing and maintaining ground rules. At one point, after a drinking episode with friends, she almost sends him away. There are moments of despair and hopelessness as well as moment of joy.
I can testify that, six years after they began living together, they have come to love and trust each other. Jonathan turned down an extension to the exchange program because he had to return to Polona. It helps that both are voracious readers, which gives them a deep understanding of how human beings work, and that both have a sense of humor. One doesn’t develop a deep relationship without a struggle, however, and the radio drama does full justice to the difficulties.