from Chapter 1

Note - most chapters begin with an excerpt from the teen mother's in-progress autobiography, "My Life as I Know It," or a quote from a written interview she did while Walk with Us was being written.

That October I thought I was pregnant. I didn’t know what to do so I said I would wait to tell my mom, but before I could find my mom my aunt put me out her house at one o’clock in the morning and I had to go to Renee’s house and Lamarr didn’t know where I was again. At that time I didn’t know what to do. Finally I got in touch with Lamarr and I told him where I was, he was glad to know I was all right but he didn’t know what to do. A few days later we had to go to an ultrasound appointment and the doctor said “I see one, no two” then she said “wait I see three.” When she said that Lamarr passed out. When we told everyone they thought we were lying to them but we weren’t. I got in touch with my unreliable dad yet again. This time he was doing ok. By then it was November 7th. He was suppose to come and get me and finally take care of me but the next day I waited as usual and he never showed up. I was left hanging all over again. It was about two weeks later Renee’s mom told me I had to leave so that she wouldn’t get in trouble for breaking her lease by having me live there.
--From My Life As I Know It, by Tahija Ellison

Chapter 1

The marble steps of Dobbins High School ended, with no more buffer than a sidewalk, at Lehigh Avenue — four lanes of traffic that on this cold and drizzly afternoon moved slowly to and from the light at the corner. Had you been driving by you probably wouldn’t have noticed her, though she stood at the top of the steps, alone and still within the stream of dismissed students: a short, brown-skinned girl in a black robe and tight black headscarf that gave her the appearance, against the marble wall, of a silhouette.

Her first name was Tahija (pronounced Ta-hee-juh), her surname Ellison. Tahija she had chosen herself when she converted to Islam in eighth grade. Her mother had named her Dianna, and some in her family still called her that. Ellison came via her great-grandmother Mary Millicent Ellison from a South Carolina cotton planter.

She offered the traditional Arabic greeting to other Muslim students, “Assalamu alaikum” (peace be to you), and received theirs in turn,

“Wa alaikum assalam,” (and to you be peace).

Her mind wasn’t on her peers, though, and her heart wasn’t peaceful. The day before, she had called her father and asked if she could move in with him. Since starting high school a little more than a year before she had lived in five different places. She was staying then with her friend Renee, but Renee’s mother was paralyzed and lived in federally subsidized handicapped housing with a strict, strictly enforced lease: no guests longer than a week. If Tahija remained they’d all be put out, and it didn’t seem to matter to anyone but her and her boyfriend Lamarr that she was four months pregnant, with triplets.

Triplets. Two boys and a girl the doctor had said. She looked down. The robe hardly showed it. She looked out at the street. It had been almost a year since she’d seen her father, and that time . . . she didn’t like to think about that time. He’d been junking bad. All she could do was pick out the matted mess his hair had gotten into and braid it up nice. He might lie dead to the world in an alley somewhere but at least folks stepping over him on their way to work would know someone cared about him, loved him, quit drill team so she could spend her afternoons searching the streets for him, and her heart racing now, racing, when a man with his profile turned to look at her through a bus window, not smiling a smile not his.

She waited until after all of the students and teachers and staff had gone and the custodian had come to pull shut the big doors one by one, one by one winding a chain through their handles. Then she centered her backpack on her back, walked down the steps, left to the corner, around the puddle and slowly across Lehigh to stand with the others waiting in the rain for the 33 bus — the bus that would take her back to Renee’s, where she could stay, she hoped, awhile longer.

It was November 8th, her fifteenth birthday.


When we were living in the same house and I was helping with the triplets, I’d sometimes pick Tahija up after school. Because she had told me about waiting for her father that day and other days, I was anxious to be on time. But I could have been on time a thousand times and early a thousand more and still in some rainy November of her heart Tahija will always be waiting for her father.

Months later she found out what happened to him. In the morning he had gone to help a friend collect scrap from the yard of a house the friend claimed to be living in. But when a police car flew around one corner, that friend (so-called friend, Tahija always said when telling the story) tore off around the other, leaving her father with a shopping cart of bent and rusted sheet metal that thanks to the three-strikes law and his stormy youth was going to get him locked up for a very long time.
One in three American black men between the ages of eighteen and thirty in the criminal justice system — an often quoted statistic, but the human reality behind the numbers wouldn’t drip chemotherapy-like into me until, loving the triplets as I would come to love them, I felt how fiercely they loved and needed their father.
Should they lose sight of Lamarr behind a tree, say, in the park: “Where’s my daddy” — the pride and proprietorship, the fear, as if they knew, sensed, had breathed in on the polluted air, the steep drop their young father walked alongside every day of his life. One in three.

“He’s right over there baby, see?”


How long Lamarr Stevens had been at the front door I didn’t know. I was up on the third floor painting my new bedroom (white with dark green trim). A guy from the apartment building across the street was washing his car, blasting brassy salsa like it could blast him a lawn and circular drive. During a quiet interval (was he washing the speakers?) I heard the knocking.

I opened the window on a stream of bus exhaust and looked down to see a big head flanked by broad shoulders, arms very dark against a white t-shirt. Though it was cold enough, he wore no coat, no sweater even, and nothing on his head but the silver curve of headphones. He pushed these back and hung away from the handrail, looking up at me.

“You Kathryn?”


“I been hearing about you.”


“A lot.”

He smiled, and I saw he was a teenager, fifteen or sixteen.

“I’m Lamarr. Kaki said I could use the shower.”

And I said, “What, now?”

And he said, “Yeah.”

And the salsa music resumed its pinballing up and down the street.

I went down the stairs to find out about this promised shower. Before me, on the other side of the wrought-iron bars of a security door the house’s previous owners had put in, was a young black male, on the stocky side, wanting in. His white t-shirt reached low over creased jeans so baggy only the orange tips of his boots showed. I was being seen through the bars too: middle-aged white woman, medium build, ruddy face, small hazel eyes, short hair, jeans and sweatshirt marked by green paint. Hesitating.

“I called Kaki last night,” he said, “asked could I use the shower, I have this meeting, with a record producer? She said yeah, she’d tell you.”

I’d been living in that neighborhood known as the badlands long enough to notice how even the small children formed protective associations. The very postures of the stray dogs and edgy cats said it: don’t trust anybody. But he had an open, expressive face, eyebrows like strokes of charcoal on a dark brown canvas, and he spoke in a reassuringly even voice.

“She must have forgot,” I said.

He smiled, his cheekbones two knobs nudging the outer corners of his eyes
upward. “That’d be Kaki.”


Kathleen Nelsen became Kaki on the way home from Hawaii. Her missionary brother had invited her there, for a vacation, he said. And the hotel was four star, but it wasn’t a vacation, exactly, it was an Intervention. A born again former lesbian locked her in earnest conversation and did everything short of kissing her to persuade her that lesbianism was a sin. At the airport, she bought a key chain with the Hawaiian spelling of her name on it: Kaki (sounds, she tells people, like cocky, but with the stress on the second syllable). Perhaps to buffer herself from the family that loved her but couldn’t seem to love all of her, she adopted the new name. Back at Penn Mutual her co-workers tripped over it — Khaki, Cookie, Keekee. It just didn’t seem the sort of name a mid-level insurance executive ought to have. But she wasn’t going to stay a mid-level insurance executive much longer, anyway.

One day a group she’d given a 401k presentation to went into the silence: fifty or so middle-aged people sitting, eyes closed, hands in their laps. They were Quakers. Kaki stood before them in her suit-set, hose, heels, and gold hoop earrings wondering what to do. What was there to do? She sat down and went into the silence too. Within a year she’d joined a Quaker meeting and begun going with its members into the prisons. She began to facilitate workshops in the Alternatives to Violence Program (AVP), and before long the disparity between her privilege and the extreme poverty so many of the prisoners had survived struck her as unconscionable. How could she share her faith in Transforming Power when she’d never walked the streets they’d walked, never been asked in the face of death to count on grace instead of a gun?

So she left; left the promising career, the house designed in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, the relationship of fifteen years. She was forty-one. She rented awhile then bought a row house in the neighborhood whose young men fed the bellies of the upstate prisons. Now when she talked about non-violence she drew upon real-life encounters set on real-life corners: Broad and Erie, 2nd and Diamond, Kensington and Allegheny. She told about confronting a man as he beat a woman in front of a grocery store, how he’d been so shocked by her mild “Do you need help here?” that his outburst stalled and he went into an explanation that ended in tears. The prisoners said she was crazy, said she should move out of the neighborhood or at least learn to mind her own business in it, but they had encounters to talk about too — conflicts, fights, crises that might have gone

So much could go differently with peace as an alternative. Asking people to consider that became her work. She lived simply, and much of what she did she did for free. Because “Kaki” sounded to some of her neighbors like a Spanish slang word, many called her Aki instead: in English, here.

copyright 2009
Elizabeth K. Gordon

Chapter 15

[At this point in the book, the triplets are a few months old. Two of them are doing well, but one, Mahad, is not.]

Mahad was said to be failure-to-thrive only because he wasn’t the same weight as the other two. He was a small child then he’s a small child now and if I could I would sue them for discrimination of age because like the doctor said he wouldn’t have given me a hard way to go if I would have been older, but I know I have always acted older than my age and I am real responsible.

--from an interview with Tahija Elison

A tutor from the school district’s homebound program came for a few hours each day, and some evenings Tahija and I met on the third floor to discuss poems and stories I’d given her to read. She liked Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart,” Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (though the use of dialect made her uncomfortable), but Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was just too sneaky. She was a good reader and a tough critic. I looked forward to seeing the English books she’d bring home once she went back to school.

As we talked, one or more of the triplets might be crying downstairs. And even if not, I had a sense, a weight, like a dragging anchor, of their needs waiting to be met; Mahad especially, but Damear and Lamarr too, needing to be held, talked to, stimulated. Tahija bathed and dressed them every morning. Their cribs and the nursery were tidy, sheets and blankets laundered, bottles washed, formula ready. She was efficient, and had spurts of manic energy from which the whole house benefited.

But she didn’t hold them, didn’t seem to like holding them.

Had I supposed she would? I guess I hadn’t thought that far ahead. But now that they were in the house my maternal-instinct tricorder was beeping wildly — such a density of infantile need so near. And there in front of me, not quite fifteen-and-a-half-years-old, was their mother with all her needs, some born of her stage in life and of the role she found herself in now, some remaining from her past.

Tahija’s needs felt to me like a maze I must wind through in order to reach the boys, whose present, raw, very meetable needs called out. Why, though, did I feel they called out to me? They had a mother and a father. I was not even family. Now and then Tahija called Kaki mom, as she did her friend Renee’s mother. It seemed an affirmation of their connection, a freestyle extending of family. But I was just Kathryn, a friend, available for baby-sitting, not a meeter of needs.

And yet I felt them, wanted to meet them, or through them to meet my own unmet infantile needs. Which we can never do, really. Accepting that, mourning the past, moving on — that’s maturity, isn’t it? In that sense, though I was forty (and-a-half), I was not very mature. Maybe that’s why Tahija never called me mom. Maybe that’s why I kicked and screamed like a baby myself.


Mahad was so detached. His eyes didn’t focus, and when you picked him up his whole body stiffened, as if touch stung. A nurse came weekly to weigh them and over his first few weeks home Mahad actually lost a few ounces. Kaki and I offered to help feed them, were eager to help. Tahija said no, thanks, they were all right, she was all right. She’d ask if she needed it.

But Mahad couldn’t ask. I longed to hold him, to wear a baby sack and carry him with me everywhere, to bathe him slowly, gently, the warm water an invitation to relax, live a little, live. A nurse friend told us about ICU trauma, a condition of premature babies caused by too much exposure to hospital lights and noise. For Mahad, life so far had been hunger and pain, needles and glare. Why stay?
Tahija was down in the livingroom with her tutor. I stood at the top of the stairs listening: algebra still; history next. I went into the nursery. Damear lay on his side playing with an activity board. Lamarr slept. Mahad, because he overheated easily, had on only a diaper. I laid my hand on his chest, my thumb and pinkie touching mattress on either side. I felt his heart flutter like a moth in a jar. I thought of a dream I’d had . . . two babies playing while a third tried to climb up a narrow set of stairs.

“Mahd,” I said, “Mahddy.”

Tahija’s feeding method was to lay the baby on his side and prop his bottle on a folded blanket. I didn’t think Mahad was getting enough that way. Often his blankets were wet. I’d coax her to, but whenever she tried to hold him he arched his back convulsively and made unpleasant snuffling noises — a side effect of being premature, the doctor had said, and probably temporary. Mucous bubbled from his nose. Tahija couldn’t put up with this. She had about as much patience as, well, a fifteen year old. Mahad would have been a hard baby to care for even had he been the only one.

I held him. His spine arched. I massaged his back and walked him around the room, visiting Lamarr, who slept on his belly, bottom in the air, and then Damear, who lay playing with his toes now.

“Damear wants you to stay, right ‘Mear-mear?”

I laid Mahad beside Damear and did The Itsy-bitsy Spider for them. Mear laughed when the sun came out “and dried up all the rain” (I made a rainbow with my arms), but Mahad just gazed at that spot on the ceiling that he’d been gazing at all along. I walked him more, hummed, rubbed his back. When he finally untensed a little I wanted to rush him downstairs to his mother so she could hold his softened body and tell him she wanted him to stay too. But I dared not. I held him until I heard the tutor leaving. Then I laid him back down and brushed his cheek . . . as wind would, and leaves, soft cloth and lovers’ hands, if only he stayed.

When I left him his little fists were tight to his chest, as if reining in a team of horses only he could see.


Mid-April and the cherry trees in the park were in full bloom, but it wasn’t until you left the city that you realized the whole hemisphere was in bloom. I had driven with Marcelle to her Quaker meeting in the suburbs, and was standing on the porch of the old stone meetinghouse when I heard persistent chirping close by. A tiny bird no bigger than my thumb hopped along the wall, sideways from stone to stone. I watched awhile then went in to join worship.

There were only about ten of us in worship, but the silence was good, drawing me down through physical tension and mental static to the depth where I could better open to the Light within. I was not moved to stand and give a message, but about half way through a message seemed to come to me, for me alone, in the form of an image: the bird hopping from stone to stone. I realized it had been trying to climb upward. To what? It must have fallen from a nest and had been struggling, was probably struggling even as I sat there, to get back to it, and live. And Mahad — wasn’t he, even as I sat there, struggling like the tiny bird to survive? I had to do more.

When I came out, the bird was gone. When I got home, I talked to Tahija about the bottle propping and asked if there wasn’t more I could do. At that time, she was weaning Damear from the breast and he was having a hard time with it, crying a lot and earning the label spoiled and greedy. Little Lamarr was very active, demanding much attention. Poor Tahija was exhausted and stressed. When Lamarr came to watch them she caught up on her sleep, sleeping once for twenty-four hours straight. I don’t know if she could have done more if she wanted to. And not wanting me to do more than I was doing (the WIC shopping, a share of the laundry, babysitting when asked), she dug in.

The visiting nurse declared Mahad failure-to-thrive. A nurse friend told me the only hope was to hold him non-stop. I didn’t know what to do but I felt I had to do something.

That night I tiptoed down to the second floor and stood listening outside the nursery door. Was she asleep, or listening too? I inched the door open and passed into the baby powder scented warmth. Two steps brought me to Mahad’s crib. In the dark I could see Tahija on her stomach on top of the covers, one arm flung out.
Mahad was awake. I picked him up. Three steps and we were out in the hallway. Carefully I pulled the door closed and went into her other room. If I got caught at least I wouldn’t have taken him out of her space. I had a bottle of formula waiting on the armrest of the orange chair, the chair where I’d seen Lamarr holding Damear that first day. Where was he now? Running the streets, Tahija liked to say, out running the streets with no coat on. But what did that mean? And had we freed him to do it by taking his family in, or would he be doing it anyway?

I didn’t know. I only knew this baby was slipping away, and that knowing it I had to do what I could. I sat down and turned on a dim light. I talked softly to him and caressed his cheeks as I fed him the bottle, letting him go as slowly as he liked. When he finished, I held him against my chest, talking to him, rubbing his back, rocking a little from side to side. He fell asleep in my arms.

When I laid him back down, the crib creaked. I heard Tahija breathing. It was not the breathing of sleep.


In the morning, cleaning bottles at the kitchen sink, Tahija held one up for me to see, “Mahad played me.”

The bottle had an ounce in it. “What do you mean?”

“Trying to act like he was all hungry, but he wasn’t.”

“Oh,” I said. I didn’t admit what I had done; she didn’t confront me. It was a kind of compromise, I guess, and the best we could manage.

But that “oh” haunted me. Was it a compromise, or cowardice? Had I lost all sense of boundaries — to be sneaking around in the night? Should I have called DHS? Did bottle propping warrant calling in the very thing Tahija most feared? She had three, after all, I told myself. And three helpers — Kaki, Lamarr and me — that she wasn’t using enough. But she had a firm idea of how much was enough. And if it didn’t seem enough to me? Was this the infant in me talking, worrying, whining for more? Or a witness called to speak truth to power, even if that power felt herself to be powerless?


“We’ll have to draw blood from an artery,” the doctor said.

They were testing Mahad to see why he wasn’t gaining weight. The doctor, an older man we liked, had tried already to draw blood from veins in Mahd’s arm, his leg, his foot even; each time the vein had spasmed.

“You’ll have to sign a release,” he told us, and left to get the form.

Tahija and I waited. Mahd lay listless on the table, too drained even to make the paper under him crackle.

“I wish we could just dress him and get out of here.”

“Without letting them do the tests? They’d be after me. You’ve got to keep up with shots, all that. I haven’t missed an appointment.”

“I know.”

“And I save every piece of paper they give me.”

She did too. Her purse was a veritable filing cabinet.
The doctor came back. Tahija signed the release. The doctor prepared the needle.

“You want to wait in the hall?” I said.

She shook her head no. “You want to?”

“I’ll stay.”

The targeted artery was high on the inside of Mahad’s thigh. Tahija held his hips and legs while the doctor worked. Mahad’s head fell to the side, eyes locked on mine. In them I saw an elemental human plea: Make this stop! Maybe the procedure didn’t last as long as I remember, but that look with which he met my eyes will last forever. Because I could have made it stop; could have told the doctor he wasn’t gaining weight because we weren’t feeding him enough, plain and simple.

Finally the doctor had his vial of blood. I noticed sweat at his temples. As Tahija dressed Mahad, like putting clothes on clothes, the doctor looked at me. They didn’t generally look at you.

“You’re her caseworker?”

“No. We live in the same house.”

“You going to stick with her?”

I said I was. Weren’t we joined by Mahddy’s blood? If she had failed in any way I had failed in the same way, and one way more: I had failed to persuade her to give more to the snuffling, rigid one who came after the other two had staked their claims.

It was left to Mahad to persuade her.

copyright 2009, E.K. Gordon