GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT. From PRX and NPR, the guide episode. My name is Glynn Washington. And today, we're following behind those people that lead the way. And if we're very, very lucky, we have someone there to hold our hand through life transitions. But if we're not so fortunate to already have someone, we may just have to go looking.
NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Carmen(ph) was eight years old when her mom, Evelyn, delivered the news.
CARMEN: I remember I came home from school. She told me she had to talk to me about something. And then she explained to me that she was sick. That she's probably going to get really sick and she's going to be in and out of the hospital. And that, you know, some things might change. I know that I had heard about it before. I had heard what AIDS was. And I broke down. Like, I started crying and I ran to my room and I wanted to be left alone. And I was just thinking that if I didn't face it, it would just go away. Go away or disappear or somehow be fixed.
LOPEZ: But with her mom going in and out of the hospital and getting weaker by the day, Carmen couldn't ignore it anymore. By the time, she was 11, she started to accept the fact that her mom - the only parent she had - was going to pass away.
CARMEN: I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. I couldn't imagine her not being there.
LOPEZ: Carmen was still a kid and wasn't exactly sure how to express all these feelings. And she still held that hope that her mom would get better. But then one day, when they were in their living room...
CARMEN: She was laying in bed and I had went over to go talk to her. And I was sitting next to her and I was holding her hand. I had never seen her in this state, where she was just completely - it's almost as if she was lifeless and she was still here. That's when it really hit me that it was time to find someone else to take care of me and...
LOPEZ: Carmen looked up at her mom and asked...
CARMEN: Mom, who's going to take care of me? It seemed like she was tearing up a little bit, even though she didn't cry. But I remember her telling me, don't worry about it. That we were going to find somebody really great.
LOPEZ: Right then and there, they decided to do something rather unusual. They were going to find Carmen a new mom together. And in a situation like this, you would still expect for the mom to make all the decisions, right? Not in this case. It was Carmen's idea, after all. So she was going to get to choose her new mom. Carmen's mom contacted an adoption agency. She set up appointments. But it was her 11-year-old who asked the questions.
CARMEN: The two questions that I always asked where, do you like animals and do you believe in God?
LOPEZ: When they met the first candidate...
CARMEN: My mom was in the hospital. I was by her bedside. The woman came in. She was wearing, like, a nice suit and stuff. She looked very presentable and stuff like that. One of the first questions I asked her was, do you like animals? And the woman kind of just turned up her face and she said, no, I don't like animals. So I had asked the woman if she could please leave the room. That's when I told my mom that this woman wasn't the one. That I didn't like her.
LOPEZ: It went on like this for months. One woman wasn't warm enough. One didn't believe in God. Another one changed her mind and backed out. There was one couple from Massachusetts that did look promising. Carmen and her mom even visited them at their home. But when Carmen's mom suddenly fell ill and had to be rushed to the hospital, the couple wouldn't let Carmen visit her.
CARMEN: All these thoughts crossed my mind, like, you know, when she's actually dying and stuff like that, these people are going to try to keep me away from my mom. Of course, I realized that those weren't the people I wanted to go stay with.
LOPEZ: Then, they found Susan and it seemed like the perfect fit. Susan was a single mom with a little boy named Jeremy. She was a social worker, who had always wanted to adopt a little girl.
CARMEN: And I remember Susan coming to the house. She brought her little boy with her. His name was Jeremy. And just her personality - she seemed very warm, very loving, you know. Very kind of mother like.
LOPEZ: They started slow. A lunch date here. A movie date there. And eventually Carmen's mom wanted her to stay over at Susan's on the weekends, to sort of test run her new family. But at first, Carmen was terrified to leave her mom alone. What if she got sick or had to go to the hospital?
CARMEN: I was a little frightened. And I was scared and I would actually call my mom up, like, I mean, several times a day. You know, as soon as I got there, I would call her. And then a couple of hours would pass and I would call her again.
LOPEZ: But Carmen wasn't just worried about her mom's health. She was feeling kind of guilty, too.
CARMEN: There was a sense of maybe feeling like - am I doing something wrong by looking for someone else? Like, I don't want to lose that connection with my mom in the process of trying to look for someone else, you know.
LOPEZ: But as the weeks went by, and Carmen started to get a real picture of what her life might be like with Susan, she relaxed.
CARMEN: After I actually settled in at their house and, you know, they actually made a bedroom space for me and everything, I started enjoying the time with Susan. And I felt, in a sense, that I kind of, like, belonged there. Like I matched up very well with them. You know, and her son even, like, kind of had some of the same physical characteristics that I had. You know, blonde hair, blue eyes. And then, as a couple weekends went by, I started calling my mom less and less. You know, there were moments where I finally was able to be a kid again. And I completely forgot, you know, my mom was so sick. You know, I would forget that these are the things that I'm dealing with in my life.
LOPEZ: After two months, the arrangement was working so well that Carmen, her mom and Susan decided to take the next big step. They signed the legal guardianship papers and celebrated with cake after. Carmen officially had a new mom. But then one weekend, Carmen didn't want to go to Susan's, because her mom wasn't feeling well. Her mom insisted.
CARMEN: And then, on Sunday afternoon, I got a call from my mom. She said that she was back in the hospital. And I remember being on the couch with the phone in my hand and I started crying hysterically. Susan came over to me to try to console me and everything like that. And then my mom was telling me I'd probably have to, you know, stay there couple of extra days or something like that.
Jeremy kept on bothering me and bothering me to want to play. And I guess he was being a regular three- or four-year-old. I forget how old he was exactly. And Susan was trying to actually, like, make me play with him. And she told me, you know, this is going to be your little brother. You really need to go play with him. And I think that's when things really started getting - when things took a little turn for the worst. Even though I had previously felt like I was part of the family, I felt as if her son's feelings were just the main important thing and that mine didn't matter. And I felt like I didn't belong there anymore.
LOPEZ: Susan called Carmen's mom at the hospital later that night, telling her that Carmen was refusing to play with Jeremy. And suddenly, the two moms were at odds with one another, each one fiercely defending her own kid. They had a blow-up. A couple of days went by. Carmen's mom was released from hospital. Carmen got to go home. And then Susan called.
CARMEN: With Susan kind of pressing the issue about how my mom needs to speak to me. That I can't do things like that and that this is going to be my little brother. That I should give him attention and play with him.
LOPEZ: A few days went by and Susan called again. But each mom kept holding her ground.
CARMEN: I actually overheard a conversation on the phone with my mom telling her that, you know, it wasn't fair for her to expect me to want to start playing around with her son if I just found out she was in the hospital. And telling her that this is just something she's going to have to deal with or not deal with.
LOPEZ: What started off as a petty fight over whose child was right was now turning into a discussion about something else.
CARMEN: My mom had had the fear of Susan always feeling that her son is right or son's needs have to be met before my needs. You know, and not putting us both on the same level, because that was her biological son and I'm not, you know, her biological daughter. And that's what really brought my mom over the edge. My mom just told Susan, like, you know what? Maybe you're not the person to take care of my daughter.
LOPEZ: And like that the whole arrangement fell apart. The co-parenting, Susan's legal guardianship, everything. Carmen never saw Susan again. And maybe Susan wasn't sure how to balance her son's needs with Carmen's. Evelyn probably wasn't ready to let her daughter go. Carmen - she went back to spending the weekends with her mom. And then eight months later...
CARMEN: She had slipped into a coma. I was sitting next to her and I was holding her hand. And she had just stopped breathing. It kind of, like, really hit me, like, oh, she's really gone. Like, she can't talk to me. She's - you know, I saw her there, but she was just completely gone. You know, and I just remember sitting by her for, like, a really long time. And I didn't move.
LOPEZ: The moment she feared had come - a life without her mom. With all of their planning to make this easier, time had run out.
CARMEN: You know, I'm not sure if we would have had more time to actually even find someone else if I would have felt any different about them. I didn't want anybody else to take care of me. You know, I wanted her to take care of me. This was the only parent that I knew, and me and my mom had such a close relationship. So the idea of somebody else, you know, stepping into that position wasn't something that I really wanted to happen.
LOPEZ: Carmen went from staying with a family friend to living in a residential facility run by the state. At the age of 16, she ran away, got a job and struck out on her own. Turns out, there was no replacement.
CARMEN: It seemed like there was always something that I was going to find wrong with someone. No one was ever going to measure up to my mom.
WASHINGTON: Carmen Mirach(ph) is currently studying to be a nurse. Much love to Carmen from Snap. And thank you so much for sharing your story. That piece was produced by Nancy Lopez. The sound design, by Leon Morimoto. You may have put two and two together to determine that this is not the news. No way is this the news. In fact, you could run through the woods in a Bigfoot costume, holding a hot dog, slathered in quatch sauce and you would still, even then, not be as far away from the news as this is. But this is NPR.
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