Second in a series on heartbreaks and hopes from the sports world.
She came into this world with a mother and father, and for a short while, they were all together. She remembers a baseball game when she was small, sitting on her daddy’s shoulders, hearing the crack of bats and the roar of a crowd. She remembers feeling happy and secure, the way a child needs to feel. That was a long time ago.
Then her parents split up. Her father moved to Chicago. Her mother had another baby with another absent man. By the time she was in junior high, they were living in cramped quarters in Detroit, and her mother had grown weary of the whole single-parent thing. They fought. They argued. One day her mother said that’s it, I can’t handle it, go to your father and live with him.
That’s when Safiyyah Bibbins joined the ranks of the disenfranchised, another kid bounced around like a basketball. She tried living with her father in Chicago. That didn’t work out. She moved back with him to Michigan. That didn’t last. She returned to her mother. Then back to her father. Then she lived with friends. Then she went to an aunt’s. She was her own private moving company, toting with her, wherever she went, the same three items: a large bag of clothes, a teddy bear and a Bible.
She was 15 years old.
There is a difference between “living” somewhere and “staying” somewhere — the difference between being watched and being nurtured — and that difference is what this story is about. Safiyyah Bibbins, a few inches shy of 6 feet, wearing a
T-shirt and sweatpants, her hair flipped up, is sitting now at a dining room table in Southfield. This is where she stays. Not lives. Stays. It is a cozy home with a Christmas tree. There are family pictures on the walls. But she is not in any of the pictures, because it is not her family, and it is not her home.
Whose child is this?
“My mom can’t handle me, and my dad doesn’t think I’m his responsibility,” she says, matter-of-factly, as if talking about the weather. “I don’t have any anger towards them. I still love them. They’re still my parents. But I’ve learned to depend on myself.”
Now, let’s be clear: This is not your typical problem child. Headstrong, perhaps, the way most teenagers are headstrong. But she doesn’t do drugs. There’s no violence. No pregnancies. No expulsions. She is bright and determined, she gets good grades, she plays point guard on Southfield High’s basketball team and dreams of a scholarship to college. But besides all that
— more important than all that — she has two healthy parents who seem fully capable of taking care of her.
Except for their own justifications.
So her mother explains her absence by saying, “I may not be there physically, but I give her what she needs spiritually.”
And her father explains his absence by saying, “People get divorced and split up all the time. It’s not that unusual.”
Whose child is this?
Her meager possessions
“This bear has gone with me wherever I go,” Safiyyah says, smiling. She holds out a plain brown teddy bear, with black plastic eyes, a gift from her grandfather many years ago. She is standing in her current domicile — a spare bedroom in the house of her Southfield High basketball coach, Ben Kelso, where she has been staying since the summer. Kelso and his family offered their place, he says, only after Safiyyah called one night distraught, saying “she had nowhere else to go.” This year alone, she has called at least four places home.
Here, in her latest bedroom, Safiyyah — a high school junior who does not want sympathy, does not want to be perceived as “some poor little kid” — seems the very intersection of childhood and adulthood: a strong young woman, on her own. With a teddy bear.
How she got here is both unusual and sadly common. According to statistics, Detroit is the worst city in the nation for single-parent homes. Sixty percent of our city’s kids — almost twice the national big-city average — are missing at least one parent in the house. Many are being raised by grandparents, uncles, aunts, even neighbors.
In that way, Safiyyah, 16, is part of an urban epidemic that is as crippling as drugs, gangs or guns. It is the absence of consistent parental influence, being able to rely on the same person to be there after school, or waiting in the car, or at home for meals. As the years pass, it seems that making a stable home for a child has become, increasingly, too much to ask.
How does that happen?
Everybody has a story.
The mother’s story
Safiyyah’s mother, Fatimah Lewis, now lives in Southfield, just a few miles from the Kelsos. This is how she explains Safiyyah’s situation:
Lewis and her ex-husband got married young, had their daughter, and split up before her sixth birthday. Lewis did all the child-rearing for the eight years that followed, living in Detroit while her ex-husband avoided his responsibilities by moving to Chicago.
“He didn’t pay child support, and his family wouldn’t even tell me where he was,” she says. “That’s how he is. If he doesn’t want to do something, he’ll just move. He’ll even quit a job to keep from living up to his responsibilities.”
Lewis says she reached a breaking point when Safiyyah was in junior high. They were fighting over little things. What she would eat. What she could wear. Her curfew. You might say these are typical teenage sticking points. No matter. Lewis, a religious woman, says she caught Safiyyah smoking once and was
“devastated.” She felt herself losing control and, having located her ex-husband, demanded that he take his daughter before she lost it completely.
Two years later, when Safiyyah came back to live with her mother, things were even worse. They were now sharing a house with an elderly woman who was ill and whom Lewis was taking care of as part of the living arrangement. The arguing between mother and daughter continued. A confrontation arose over a high school party — one of those “I’m going”/”No, you’re not” kinds of things
— and afterward, when Safiyyah didn’t come home, Lewis called her ex-husband, who was now living back in Detroit, and told him to pick up his girl’s belongings. That was it.
Mother and daughter have not lived together since.
“I don’t need stress in my life,” Lewis says. “I don’t do well with it…. These people Safiyyah is with now (the Kelsos) are decent people, and give her a lot of what she needs as far as discipline, structure and order.”
But isn’t she your daughter?
“She’s my daughter, she came to this world through me, but I don’t try to possess her. I try to step back and let her be who she is.”
The father’s story
Safiyyah’s father, Keith Bibbins, is a college-educated man who lives in Detroit, and works “in computers.” This is how he explains the story:
He and Safiyyah’s mother did indeed marry young, had their daughter, and split up. He went to Chicago for a job. He admits he was not around for much of the next decade, but claims he wasn’t ducking.
“That’s a lie,” Bibbins says. “Safiyyah spent summers with me. When her mother tried to get in touch with my family, it was for money. That’s not their responsibility, it’s hers.”
Isn’t it yours, too, he is asked?
“Well, it’s mine,” he says, “but legally it’s hers.”
The Chicago thing didn’t work out, and father and daughter moved to Garden City. A year and a half later, he says, Safiyyah went back to her mother’s, at her mother’s insistence. Then came the party incident, when he was told to take her again.
“Her mother abandoned her child at 15 years old,” he says angrily.
Wait. Didn’t he abandon her years earlier?
“People get divorced and split up all the time,” he says. “It’s not an unusual situation. It only got weird when her mother said she couldn’t live there anymore.”
Safiyyah stayed with her father only briefly the second time. One day, last June, he found a note from her saying she didn’t feel wanted, and was leaving to stay with friends. From that point to today, Safiyyah has not lived with any immediate family members.
“She got away from me,” her father says.
She got away?
Bibbins now claims that he wants Safiyyah to live with him, even though he admits, “I haven’t always made her feel fully welcome.” He says she shouldn’t be living with the Kelsos, but “I think she is where she wants to be right now.”
He is told that his daughter says, at times, she feels unloved.
“I understand why. Her mother put her out.”
The next chapter
On the basketball court, Safiyyah Bibbins is in control. As point guard for Southfield, she averaged nearly 10 points and four assists this season, and helped the team to a division championship. She had a highlight game against Madison Heights Lamphere, playing tight defense, racing up and down the floor, and scoring 21 points.
“Basketball is everything to me,” she says. “It’s my escape — it’s like my life. Without it, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Ironically, her father comes to watch her play. On occasion, her mother does, too. She speaks to her mother on the phone nearly every day, and each parent periodically gives her money. In that way, they are more involved than many. The goal here is not to overly embarrass either parent, nor to deny that every family has its problems.
But at the end of the day, she goes home with neither mother nor father.
Which, for now, is the way she prefers it. Safiyyah and the Kelsos’ daughter, Jennifer, have become good friends. Safiyyah is doing well in school. She hopes to go away to college — “maybe Tennessee or UCLA, someplace far away, where I don’t have to depend on anybody.”
Little wonder where that comes from.
Her mother insists she has not abandoned her daughter. “I don’t have any guilt. You don’t see me with her physically, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot. That’s external. I gave her what’s important internally.”
Meanwhile, her father points to her report card on his refrigerator, and says he’s always there for her, despite the years he wasn’t.
Whose child is this? You keep asking that question and waiting for the answer, waiting for the parents to raise their hands and say that is our child, we are responsible, we have to do better than just making sure someone else is feeding her and getting her to school.
Funny. It used to be you lived outside your family only if some catastrophe happened, if your mother died or your father was too ill to take care of you. Now it’s a too-young mom, or a dad who isn’t interested, or a bad marriage, or a job, or simply the fact that parenting can be really stressful. Let someone else do it.
Sixty percent? Whose children do we think we’re having?
And somehow, Safiyyah Bibbins plows through. She has managed to steer clear of serious problems, and while she may be demanding in typical teenage fashion, her independent streak may prove to be her best friend. Then again, you ask where she will stay next — stay, not live — and she isn’t sure.
“As far as my mother, I wouldn’t want to go back there. And my father, he’s got a girlfriend there. So I guess I’ll be here until …I don’t know.”
She is not angry. She says she understands, and still loves her parents.
“It’s like we were talking about the other day in school.” She rises, stretching her long frame. “We were talking about adoption, and how children think, ‘Why don’t my parents want me?’
“But eventually you learn it’s not your fault. You didn’t do it. It’s not my problem, it’s theirs.”
She heads up the stairs, to her Bible, her clothes, and her faithful stuffed companion, and you honestly wonder who is the parent in this story and who is the child.
The last part of this series will appear in Thursday’s Free Press.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org