Monday, February 07, 2011

Dear Readers: When I read this story in Indian Country News on my way
 home from Eureka, I was so moved I wanted more people to read it.
 So I e-mailed Dr. Arne Vainio andhe gave me his blessing.  The first part is
 poetry, to give the readers an idea ofwhat happened in Arne's life.
 Then later he tells how he tried to rescue a child. Don't miss this telling story.
I think I could have saved him. 
By Arne Vainio, M.D. 
My father’s suicide. 
Suddenly life was different, worse. 
My mother grieving, adults yelling at us, 
“You kids play outside!” 
You at sixteen infinitely stronger and faster than me at five. 
Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, 
You caught me easily. 
How many times?  I choose not to remember. 
Strong hands on my neck promising pain if I told. 
So I didn’t. 
I kept the secret and told no one, 
Not even myself. 
Another child makes me remember 
 things buried long ago. 
It would have been fine by me if they stayed buried. 
I scan the funeral notices every Sunday, 
I know the lifestyle you chose. 
I know you’ll go before I do. 
You show me your obituary first, 
And our secret will be mine. 
Christmas always makes me think of him.  We first met him several years ago at a 
picnic in a park.  He wasn’t related to us, he just happened to be a kid who was 
7 when Jacob was 6.  His thick southern accent told us he was from Alabama or 
that part of the country.  His mom was happy the boys were running together and 
even though it was only about noon, her boyfriend was stumbling drunk. I watched 
him carefully stay out of the boyfriend’s way and I knew he was consciously 
trying not to draw attention to himself. 
We went to get him most weekends after that and I always looked forward to the 
end of the work week so I could pick him up.  He was always outside and his 
smile lit up his face every time he saw my car.  On that first Sunday I told him 
it was time to go back home.  He looked surprised and said in his southern 
drawl, “I ain’t going back, I’m living here now.”  It took a while to convince 
him that he did need to go home, but I promised I would pick him up on weekends 
if I could and he accepted that. 
Poverty was evident in everything about him.  He showed us his Christmas present 
from the year before.  It was a snow globe that you shake and the snow falls on 
the sleigh and the house in the scene.  It was coated with greasy yellow 
nicotine stains and he told us it came from a pawn shop.  He had a small set of 
cars, but otherwise no toys.  
Ivy bought him a toothbrush and he didn’t know how to use it.  She showed him 
how it worked and when he opened his mouth all of his teeth had deep black 
cavities.  We took him to a Chinese buffet and he took some of everything there.  
He was eating broccoli and things he didn’t recognize like he’d never eaten 
before.  He initially didn’t believe he could go back for seconds and actually 
went back for thirds.  I didn’t think his scrawny little body could hold that 
much food and I couldn’t stop smiling as he made his choices with wide eyed 
It took me several weekends to build a shed in the yard and all he wanted to do 
was help me build it.  He could have been riding bikes and pedal cars in the 
yard with Jacob or swinging on the swing, but instead he diligently helped me 
and I could tell he was pretending this was a father and son project.  I read to 
him and Jacob each bedtime and he listened intently to every story. 
He was one of those kids who life just picked on.  He was teased and bullied in 
school because of his thrift store clothes and his southern accent.  He told me 
the teacher always sided with the other kids when there was trouble, even if she 
was watching. 
I called on Thanksgiving to see if I could pick him up.  His mom told me they 
had already eaten a frozen turkey roll she had heated up, but I could come and 
get him.  When I got there her boyfriend was passed out on the couch and snoring 
hard.  There was a half empty bottle of cheap brandy on the floor next to his 
coffee cup and he clearly hadn’t moved in quite awhile.  His cigarette was 
between his yellowed fingers and the ash was long and burned out.  The lights 
were off and the radio and TV were off so he wouldn’t wake up.  He and his mom 
moved quietly in the house as she was getting his few belongings ready.  We had 
a huge Thanksgiving dinner at my sister’s house and he ate several times.  We 
dozed next to each other on the couch as only best friends can. 
It was early December and we had started thinking about Christmas.  I wanted to 
have Christmas the week of December 8th, just for him and we already had his 
presents ready, but we instead decided to celebrate Christmas at the usual time. 
Things happened fast after that.  We heard he showed up at school with a boot 
shaped bruise on his back and that social services had been contacted.  By the 
next day, we heard they were gone.  We went to the apartment they lived in and 
the door was open.  There was a half empty cup of coffee on the table and the 
ashtray was full of cigarette butts.  The cupboards had been partially emptied 
and whatever didn’t fit in the car was left behind.  And he was gone.  We didn’t 
know how to contact them and heard they probably went back down south. 
A couple of years later his mom called Ivy.  They had moved back to Minnesota 
and she was no longer with her boyfriend.  She told Ivy that in the time they 
were gone, he had been repeatedly sexually abused by a 16 year old boy.  Ivy did 
the right thing and told her she needed to contact social services and offered 
to look up the phone number for her.  I wanted to go and get him, but she 
wouldn’t tell us where they were and Ivy didn’t know if his abuse would manifest 
itself in our house with Jacob.  I found all the brochures I could on sexual 
abuse and brought them home.  Ivy talked to his mom again and was told they were 
going to move again, were going to go some place where nobody knew them and 
start over. 
I called his mom and she told me they were packing to leave.   “I shouldn’t have 
opened my big mouth.  I don’t want social services involved and I don’t want his 
teachers to know.”  
I am required to report suspected abuse, but this had happened a year ago in 
another state and they were out of that situation.  This was too close to me and 
I didn’t want them to run, I didn’t want to lose him again.  I didn’t even know 
where they were or their last name.  I was pleading now, I was desperate, I was 
wrongly blaming Ivy.  
“Don’t go.  Please, don’t take him.  Ivy won’t say anything.  He can come and 
live with us, he can be my son.  We’ll raise him and we’ll put him through 
college.  Please… please…don’t take him.” 
“No, I’ve given this a lot of thought.  We have to leave.  We have relatives out 
east.  I’m changing my phone number. Don’t try to find us, we’re going to start 
over and we’re going to be fine.” 
She hung up the phone and he was gone again. 
I think I could have saved him.  And I think he could have saved me. 
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation 
in Cloquet, Minnesota.  He can be reached at