Thursday, June 22, 2017

Collateral Damage

He had big, blue eyes and a floppy mop of dirty blonde hair. I'll call him M. He wore a bulldozer t-shirt and his heart on his sleeve as his foster dad knelt in front of him and put his hands on the little guy's shoulders.

"I'll be back tomorrow," he said. "Be a good boy."

We had volunteered to take 3-year-old M for the weekend so his foster parents could get a much-needed, long overdue break. Only another licensed foster family could take him overnight. "We can handle anything for one night," we said to ourselves. At least, we hoped so.

The fear and confusion in M's heart was almost palpable. Only two days before he had had his first overnight visit with his bio mom since entering foster care, and now the foster parents he'd been living with for six months had left him with complete strangers. How's a 3-year-old with developmental delays and a history of trauma supposed to deal with that?

M only knew one way to cope. He spit, and screamed, and banged his head against the floor. He threw toys, and clawed at my skin, and banged his head against my face. He cried, and cried, and cried. I still have marks on my arm from his fingernails.

"We can handle anything for one night, right?" We said it with a little less bravado now, but no less assurance. We were in it together. This is what we'd trained for, prepared for, braced ourselves for. It was only one night. But our own three kids were less sure. "How much longer until he leaves?" they asked. Were we being unfair, asking this of them? Sure, it was only one night, but how much could they take? Should they take?

It didn't take long to realize our plan to give M the extra bed in the boys' room wasn't going to work. He would have to sleep in our bed. Thankfully, because he had refused to nap and had thoroughly exhausted himself during the day, he let me tuck him in and read him a story. He went right to sleep.

We put our kids to bed, too. Then we pulled the futon mattress up from the basement and dropped it with a thud in the middle of the living room. It took up most of the floor. Light from the streetlamp on the corner poured in through the window as I tossed and turned on the mattress and tried to push back my fear that M would wake up in the middle of the night and tear our bedroom to pieces. I didn't get much sleep.

The next day was much the same. He chewed on toys, tested every boundary he could find, and ripped up the vintage red stool in my kitchen. My favorite stool. I studied the damage done and wondered if it was a physical representation of not only the internal damage that's been done to vulnerable kids like M, but also the damage kids like M unwittingly cause to others. To my own kids even. Collateral damage.

When he left, everyone heaved a sigh of relief. I won't sugarcoat it - it was hard. But as we sat down with our kids afterward to thank them for their patience, tell them we love them, and discuss with them why M acted the way he did and why we had offered to watch him for the weekend, I thought about their futures. How would they remember this experience?

Will they look back and think it was a crazy thing, what we did? A foolish thing? Thoughtless? After all, we allowed M to invade their space, wreck their toys, and compromise their peace without their consent. They had to make sacrifices they didn't choose. Endure a trial they didn't ask for. But we got through it together.

Will their memories of the experience be indifferent someday...or bitter? I don't know. I really don't. But my hope - my prayer - is that because of the experience, and others like it that will no doubt come our way, they'll have a little more compassion for others and a little more thankfulness for their many blessings. And that they'll face the challenges in their lives with a little more determination, a lot more grace, and a loved one by their side who's in it with them through thick and thin, and they'll say...

"We can handle anything for one night, right?"

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

She's In There Somewhere

Day by day
she disappears,
deeper into her memories and fears.
He watches her
fade to gray.
It's getting harder to care for her every day.
He thinks about the smiles they used to share,
and he wants to believe she's in there...

Sometimes she sings,
sometimes she laughs,
on the good days, if he can get her in the bath.
But most the time she
points at him and shouts:
"Why won't you let me in?" "Why won't you let me out?"
When she's calm he leads her to her rocking chair,
and he wants to believe she's in there...

She doesn't know what day it is.
She doesn't know the time.
But she knows every single word
to My Darlin' Clementine.
He knows he can't keep this up forever,
but he hates to let someone else take care of her.
The hardest part is that she can't remember
how much he's always,              
                                                           always loved her.

He shows her pictures and
repeats, repeats the names.
She wonders, "When are we leaving for the train?"
When she falls
he helps her up again.
He knows she would've done the same for him.
He still sees her as she was with golden hair,
and he wants to believe she's in there...

He will always believe she's in there...

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Crying Fowl: A Cautionary Tale

In all our five years of chicken ownership, I'd never seen anything like this. It almost defied description. But let me start at the beginning.

Our chickens have met their demise in a variety of ways over the years. Some have quit laying eggs and been "retired" to a friend's farm where they could live out their final days in the open air. Some have died as babies, having been either chilled or exposed to something during the transition between the suppliers, Murdoch's, and our house.

One inexplicably broke its own neck, possibly by coming in for a hard landing on the slippery floor of the coop. We found her body the next day.

These things happen. It's the circle of life.

Anyway, it was a mild, sunny day and my son Michael had been instructed to feed and water the chickens, and check for eggs. The chickens are his responsibility because he's the one who wanted them in the first place. Plus, it's good for a 10-year-old boy to have a job. So out he went to tend to his duties.

I knew something was wrong when Michael burst back into the house shouting, "Mom! Come quick!" Well now, he hardly ever needs me for anything anymore, so I went and I went quick. I followed him to the coop.

"One of the chickens is dying," he said.

Sure enough, one of the ladies was lying on her side in the chicken run, fully immersed in the throes of death. Each wheezing, gasping breath had the potential to be her last as she struggled to lift her head out of the dirt. I knew what I had to do.

Now, important to the story is the fact that chickens are bullies. As is the case with many creatures who live in herds, flocks, or other groups, they do not have any patience for the weakest link in the bunch. They live by the "pecking order." So I knew the quickly expiring chicken was in danger of being pecked at as she lay dying. She was defenseless.

"It's time for me to make dinner," I said to Michael. "But I'll move her out into the grass so she can die in peace."

"Can't you help her?" he asked.

"I don't think so, buddy."

She didn't put up any kind of fight when I picked her up and moved her into the yard. Her sharp, beady eyes stared at me, filled with panic, but she was unable to muster up any resistance. Michael sprayed a stream of water from the hose down her throat, hoping to either ease her discomfort or drown her, I'm not really sure, and then I set her down in a nice warm patch of grass and gave her a pat on the head.

"Thanks for all the eggs, old girl," I said. "Good luck."

Yes, I could've wrung her neck and put her out of her misery, but I lacked the conviction. And I had a meal to prepare, which was, incidentally, not chicken soup. So I went inside and, frankly, forgot all about it.

A little while later, Andy came home and we all gathered at the kitchen table for dinner. We talked and ate and laughed, and then Andy glanced out the window.

"Why is there a chicken wandering around the backyard?" he asked.

No. It couldn't be. That chicken was as good as dead.

"It's Goldie!" Michael shouted. "She's alive!"

It was nothing short of a miracle. Goldie was ambling around, pecking at the ground, as if nothing had happened. I had counted her out, and she had somehow found her way back to the land of the living to lay eggs another day.

The jury's still out regarding what really went down. Some say she faked the whole thing in order to get into the grass. Some believe she had something stuck in her throat that Michael's spray with the hose dislodged. We'll probably never know.

But the moral of the story is applicable to all of us: don't be too quick to give up. Even when things seem dire, there is always hope. Whether it's a person, a situation, a job, or whatever else that you're tempted to write off, hold on to your hope and don't give up!

And never believe a chicken when she tells you her time has come.