“Ultimatum” comes from Latin, meaning “final demand.” Typically, the word has negative connotations—it implies a means of repairing a relationship that has soured because of one person’s words or actions. How many of us have heard something like, “If you don’t stop talking to [your ex], I will break up with you”? Not you? That might mean you’ve never been in a possessive relationship where co-dependency and mistrust dominated the scene. Lucky you.
But I digress. Ultimatums aren’t always about threats stemming from jealousy or intense discontentment in misguided attempts to motivate a partner and keep the relationship alive. While, by definition, an ultimatum is intended to encourage change, sometimes that desired change is positive and healthy for both people in the relationship.
This was the case with my parents. For those of you who don’t know my story, the short of it is I was brought home by my sixth-grade teacher to live with her and her husband as their foster kid. They’d never fostered before. And conversations about having kids ended in an agreement to let God decide.
And then I came along.
During my eleven-year-old summer, CPS placed me in a new foster home because the one I was in made me lonely, sad, and sick to my stomach. And when the school year started, I began school at Yorbita Elementary in La Puente, CA. My teacher, Mrs. Ferguson, greeted me with her kind, blue eyes, and she taught all of us with compassion and brilliance. As the school year progressed, and as I exhibited signs of both high intelligence and neglect, Mrs. Ferguson slipped behind the scenes to read my cumulative file and contact my social worker to discover more details about my situation.
I was hungry all the time because my foster mother imposed strict rules about eating. After I vomited the contents of my stomach in the school bathroom one day, Mrs. Ferguson inquired about my health. I thought I had the flu, but I was malnourished, and over several weeks, Mrs. Ferguson observed as I lost weight and showed up regularly but unbathed and with greasy, stringy hair.
And then one morning, when I sat at my desk, I noticed items in the cubby that didn’t belong to me. Class was about to start, so I didn’t have a chance to question or turn over the goods.
Then, Mrs. Ferguson spoke, announcing a classroom rule change. “I’ve decided you can now eat in class if you want. I figured if you’re hungry, you should be able to eat.”
I placed my hand inside the cubby, touched the foil-wrapped sandwich, the little baggie of pretzels, the bright reddish-yellow apple.
I looked around the room to gauge my classmates’ faces. Did they have food in their cubbies, too? Not that I could see—I was the only one.
When my dad tells of how I came to be their child, he merely says, “Your mother came home from school every day talking about you, worried about you, and wondering how to help you. I told her she had to either shut up about you or bring you home.”
So she brought me home.
I’m eternally grateful for my mom’s big heart and my dad’s ultimatum. Together, they did what most people would never think to do—they rescued a stranger from emotional abuse and provided unconditional support, guidance, and love.
I often wonder what my life would’ve been like had I never met Mrs. Ferguson and her husband. Would I have fallen through the cracks of the child welfare system? Would I have turned to drugs and other dangerous behaviors as a means of escape? Would I have died on the streets somewhere with nothing but loneliness and fear in my pockets?
Today is my dad’s birthday, and I’ve sent him a Bitmoji text with a little birthday wish in it. It’s not much, but no matter what gift I give or how many words I write in cards, I will never feel like I can appropriately express exactly what he means to me. He helped save my life, but he’ll never see it that way. He’s too humble—a man of few words who sprinkles sarcasm like dust on everything he says.
If you ask him about the time he gave his wife an ultimatum, he’ll say he just wanted her to make a decision. He got his wish, and I benefitted in the grandest way imaginable by being in the right place at the right time. I often apologize to my parents for my terrible teens and for costing them so much money and grief over the years. My mom will correct me and say I was easy to raise. My dad will say it’s about time I pay up. They may use different words, but lucky for me, they speak the same language.