Thursday, September 7, 2017

A hairy situation

One time, our family went to a graduation party for one of our students. We were sitting at a table eating hamburgers when an African American woman approached and slid into a seat next to me and Patience.

"Would you mind if I fixed your daughter's hair?" she asked.

I looked at Patience's head. It was definitely a mess...the flat twists I had put in were starting to come out and needed to be re-done.

"Um, I'm not sure we have time right now," I said. "We've got three more parties to go to today."

The woman waved my words away. "Oh, it'll only take me a minute."

To this day, the memory makes me cringe. I know this woman meant well, but I walked away from that party feeling like a failure.

You see, during our adoption process, we read numerous books and watched webinars about "how to care for black hair." It was required. These books and webinars freaked me out. I was more nervous about the hair than any other adjustment I thought we might have to make when Patience came home. The books talked about how "hair is an important part of identity for women in the black community" and one webinar I listened to even had an interview with a black woman in which she said she always checks out a black child's hair if she sees they have a white mother.

No pressure.

I never knew this until I met my daughter, but there is actually a "chart" that classifies hair. The chart goes from 1 to 4c. The number 1 is for totally straight hair and 4c is the kinkiest possible. My hair is number 1. Patience's is 4c. Learning to do her hair has been a long, frustrating, time-consuming, and sometimes painful process. And every time I go to town or to a place I've never been before, I look at my daughter's hair and think "Is it good enough?" "If a black woman sees it, what will she think?"

Then, last week, something happened. I stuck Patience in the tub to wash her hair, and it took 20 minutes just to wash the shampoo out. We hadn't even gotten to the conditioning and detangling part and we were almost out of hot water. And I snapped. Before I knew what was happening, the scissors were in my hand.

I stood over her beautiful black head and swallowed hard, wrestling with myself. Would cutting her hair be admitting defeat? Would I just make it worse? If I messed it up, where could I even go in small-town rural Montana to get it fixed?

I grabbed a clump and pulled it straight, every insecurity I have as a mother rising to the surface and causing my hand to tremble. What was I thinking? I held up a ruler. The stretched-out hair reached to about eight inches. I held my breath and snipped it at four.

Then started to cry.

The tears were about fear, that I will never be what Patience needs. They were about doubt, that maybe I was breaking some unspoken rule or violating some secret code. And they were about relief. Thirty minutes later, thick, black clumps were everywhere, there was an entire 'fro on my kitchen floor, and one thing was clear.

I should've done it sooner.

I don't know what I was trying to prove, wrestling with her hair the past year, causing her pain as I tugged at her tangles, spending hours of my time trying to tame the wild beast. I don't know why I care so much more about how she looks than how I do. I guess I just want people to think I'm doing a good job and that it's not a mistake for her to be stuck with me. I want them to think she's in good hands.

But at the end of the day, they are my hands, and I have to do what I think is best for my daughter. I cannot base my decisions about her life, our life, on other people's opinions or what I read in a book. I don't know what regrets I might have in the future. I don't know what she's going to think when she is older and has to live with the choices I've made for her, including the choice to take her from her home country and raise her in Montana. I just don't know.

All I know is that I'm doing the best I can, and I love her.

And she looks pretty darn cute with her new 'do.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

When campouts self-destruct, Part 2


Our family campout saga continued. (read Part 1 below first, for the full effect)

It was the end of our third day at camp. (Only the third day? Felt like we'd been there a month). We walked down to where a duo called the River Town Rounders were performing folk tunes in the gazebo. Who doesn't love folk music?

As we sat on benches and listened to them sing, a guy in a black Punisher t-shirt openly carrying a Glock with an extra magazine joined the crowd. O-ka-ay. Sure. I mean, it’s legal in Montana…but, wait? Really? Regardless of your opinions on handguns, it was a bizarre sight in the gazebo with the folk singers. Then, even more bizarrely, the Punisher guy's mother asked the River Town Rounders if she could go back to her camp to get her harp and play with them. Because, you know, who doesn't bring their harp to camp, right?

You can't make this stuff up, people.

So, Punisher’s mom lugged her harp to the gazebo to jam with the River Town Rounders, and we decided it was time to hit the hay. Back at camp, we found the rock in the bathroom door had been removed yet again, but the door code was still wreaking havoc. Not only did you have to push the numbers in the correct order (a difficult task for a 4-year-old), but you had to turn the handle just so within a certain amount of time after hitting Enter. Good luck. And if the person before you had failed, heaven help you.

So we decided it was time to get serious. Bladders were at stake. We pulled the door all the way open and dragged over the nearest garbage can AND one of those Safe Smoker cigarette receptacles to hold it open, then sat back to watch.

It wasn’t long before a woman came by loudly wondering why the door was open because “doesn’t anyone bleepity-bleep know that all the critters are going to bleeping get into the bathroom?" Could she be the one who'd been thwarting our attempts to make the bathrooms available to all people, regardless of sex, age, finger dexterity, and number recognition? Maybe. But she made no attempt to shut the door, so I wasn’t convinced she was the culprit. We went to bed without any clear answers.

The next morning, there was once again some sort of activity involving balloons and white canopies going on in the little field next to our sites. What now? A Daughters of the Revolution rally? It could be anything at this point. OH, it's some construction company's annual summer BBQ that apparently lasts ALL DAY, complete with an open bar. Right next to our campsite. Sure, why not. They also have access to the KOA splash park, where one kid split open his chin and another lost both her top front teeth playing King of the Hill on the mini-slide.

At least there weren't any helicopters dive-bombing us, since we apparently were NOT at war, and the hot tub was hot again. But there was a mysterious puddle forming under our tent. Where was all this water coming from? Turned out one small soaker hose came from a different valve than the rest and had been slowly but surely dripping away directly beneath my and Andy's air mattress. No wonder we'd been so cold at night.

My brother's tent seemed to have been spared, though...oh wait, the KOA people set up a giant field sprinkler on the grass on the other side of the trees. Well, that shouldn't be a big deal, the trees should protect us. Except the sprinkler was so powerful it actually shot through the trees and hit the side of my brother's tent with the force of a tidal wave every five minutes. For eight hours straight. Eight. Hours.

The last night finally arrived. My suspicions about the bathroom door were finally confirmed. It was not the foul-mouthed critter-hater shutting the door, but the harpist. The harpist! And what could we do? She was Punisher’s mom for crying out loud. Not someone we particularly wanted to start a feud with. But after she pulled the garbage can and Safe Smoker away and slammed the door with a huff, I snuck over and put them back. I ain’t afraid of no Glock. Or maybe I am, which is why I waited until she left.

Aside from a brief but intense showdown with the fat squirrel, who tried to shred one of our camping chairs to use for his nest, the rest of the night was pretty peaceful.

Check-out morning came. Sleeping bags were rolled up and tents torn down. Finally we were going home. My mom joked about the worst campout of our lives, and my brother mumbled that he was never going camping again.

But I laughed. Because today's series of unfortunate events are tomorrow's fond memories, and there's no one I'd rather make memories with than my family.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

When campouts self-destruct - Part 1

It started with a "Daddy, I don't feel good" before we even got to camp. (And by camp I mean the KOA in Great Falls, which I know doesn't even qualify as camping to some of you, but we needed an easy place to meet up with my family and this was it.) Andy pulled over JUST in time for Simon to fling himself from the car and puke in the gravel on the side of the road.

It was all downhill from there.

We pulled into Site #6 at the KOA and stepped out onto a way-smaller-than-it-looked-in-the-pictures grassy area covered in dog poop. Right where our tent was supposed to go. You know what else was waiting for us where our tent was supposed to go? A yellow-jacket nest. Before I could even get the dog poop cleaned up, the horrible, vindictive buzzing creatures had zeroed in on the most vulnerable among us: poor Simon.

While Simon wailed in pain over two stings to the neck, I frantically tried to find some ice or something to give him. Why hadn’t I packed Benadryl cream? I’m a horrible mother. Then, another scream pierced the air. My sister-in-law limped over from neighboring Site #7 bleeding from her foot. She had stepped on - of all things - a tiny American flag pin laying on the ground pointy side up.

We’d been in camp less than 20 minutes.

The first night was miserable. Every hour the sound of my brother’s air pump whirred through camp as he re-pumped his air mattress, because it, too, had been punctured by the American flag. (This is the price of freedom, people.) Then, every time one of the kids had to get up to go to the bathroom…guess what? They couldn't get into the stupid building because the code on the door wouldn’t work. Not to mention that the man in Site #5 snored so loud we thought there was a landslide, and the drip hoses strewn willy-nilly all over the ground squealed like incoming missiles in the quiet of night. Needless to say, no one got much sleep.

So we were all exhausted the next day. But we were together, and that’s what camping is all about, right? Spending time as a family away from TV and cooking implements and clean sheets.

We spent most of the day at the Electric City Water Park in Great Falls and returned to camp with high hopes of having a better night. After all, we figured out how to shut off the squealing hoses, we stuck a rock in the bathroom door so no one would have to pee their pants, and my brother patched the hole in his air mattress. Things were looking up.

Then, in the wee hours of the morning, what was this? What are these strange sounds? Is the KOA being invaded by hostiles? Nope. A church group had come bright and early to set up a day camp in the field next to our sites, of course. Because the only logical place to hold a Bible camp is in the middle of a KOA while people are sleeping.

Did I mention the automatic paper towel dispensers in the bathrooms did not, in fact, automatically dispense? And that there was an overweight squirrel casing our supplies every time we turned around?

Anyway, our third day at camp was very strange. Everywhere we turned, there were little kids in matching neon green shirts doing crafts and singing about The Golden Rule. The hot tub at the KOA splash park was about as warm as the Gallatin River. And we caught probably a hundred yellow-jackets in the traps we set up.

But that wasn't the weirdest part. The weirdest part was that so many helicopters from the nearby Air Base were flying back and forth directly overhead that we literally went to the KOA office to use their Wi-Fi so we could check and see if we had gone to war with North Korea. I'm not even kidding. We thought World War III had started and we had missed it. Plus, someone from a neighboring site was working against us to keep those wretched bathroom doors closed. We didn't know who it was, but every time we stuck a rock in the door, they would come along and kick it out.

A mystery was definitely afoot.

And we had two more nights to go.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

80's music and saying goodbye

I love 80's music.

I hate saying goodbye.

If I had to describe 80's music in three words or less, one of those words would have to be "dramatic." From synthesizers to rock opera, from androgynous lead singers to big hair and bangs, 80's music was nothing if not dramatic. I guess that's one reason I like it so much.

There's also something surprisingly profound about it. I mean, have you ever really listened to the words of Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time or U2's With or Without You? Then we have the Christian pop of the 80's. I'm talking Michael W. Smith, Sandi Patty, Steven Curtis Chapman, Amy Grant. Those were the cassettes my mom played while she drove us around in Big Red, our GMC van. That stuff is in my soul. It's some of the best stuff ever made.

But, 1989 eventually became 1990, and that glorious 80's era ended. The synthesizers gave way to saxophones and the bangs to frosted tips and boy bands. Things changed. Life moved on. A new decade commenced.

In two short days, I will reluctantly say goodbye to one of my best friends when she moves away. I'm not happy about it one bit. It makes me want to roll around on the ground wailing like a 2-year-old, as dramatic as any 80's power ballad.

But being faced with her imminent departure is also surprisingly profound, like the immortal Cyndi Lauper. Because my friend's leaving makes me think about how much I appreciate her and how thankful I am for the years we've been doing life side by side, heart to heart, trial after trial. I don't know where I'd be right now if not for her love and encouragement the past 10 years. I don't know what I'm going to do without her.

I don't actually wish she'd stay, though. She's leaving with her family to pursue a calling from the Lord, and I can't and won't begrudge that. We both have to do whatever God asks us to do, whatever that might be. And our friendship isn't over. Sure, it's going to change, but in the also surprisingly profound words of Michael W. Smith in his 1987 hit "Friends": Friends are friends forever, if the Lord's the Lord of them. And a friend will not say 'never,' because the welcome will not end. Though it's hard to let you go, in the Father's hands we know that a lifetime's not too long to live as friends.

So, yeah. No matter how great the 80's were, the 90's could not be stopped from coming. It's the same with the past decade of my life. I'm going to miss it, for sure. A lot. It was a wonderful time with a wonderful friend who is and will always be, like all that 80's music, some of the best stuff ever made.

But, also like the magnificent 80's, I'm just glad it happened.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Listening between the lines

They'd been showing up at our house to play almost every day, these two kids. Close to Michael's and Simon's ages. Polite, but reserved. New to town.

We don't mind when the boys have friends over. As long as you follow our house rules, you're welcome here any time. These two kids, I'll call them Jack and Jill, knew the rules and were happy to abide. All too happy, it seemed.

At first, they made comments like, "Wow, your house is huge," and, "Why do you have so much food?" I love my house, but "huge" is never a word I would use to describe it. And all that food? Just a couple stacks of cereal boxes and canned goods I'd stocked up on. Nothing extravagant, by any means. But listening between the lines I heard, "I'm hungry," and I gave Jack and Jill some milk and apple slices with cheese.

Then I heard comments like "He sleeps a lot" and "I don't know" when I asked if their dad was at work. And I heard them refer to him by name instead of "Dad" and wondered who this man really was who was sleeping at their house while their mother took swing shifts at the gas station. Probably not their dad, after all. And I listened between the lines and heard, "He's a drunk" and "We avoid him." I'll refer to him as Loser.

Jack and Jill continued to show up at all hours of the day and night. Were always hungry. Always happy just to be on our property. As they became more comfortable they began to say other things, like "Mom says we're moving again soon."

"Who is?" I asked. "All of you?"

"Yes."

"Even Loser?"

"No, we're not telling him."

And I listened between the lines.

That night, I laid awake thinking and praying. Were Jack and Jill in danger? Were they moving to a better place? Should I have said something to them about coming to me if they needed help? About calling the police if they REALLY needed help?

The next day, they showed up again and said "Our mom couldn't go to work today because she fractured her arm last night." But I heard, "Loser found out about our plans to leave and lost his temper." I swear, that's what I heard. But did I listen correctly? Was I reading too much into it?

Better safe than sorry. We called the cops about our suspicions and gave them as much information as we could, but it wasn't much. We didn't know where their house was, only the general area. Didn't even know their mother's first name. All we could do was ask the police to keep an eye out.

Again, I laid awake. If the police snooped around their house asking questions, would Loser think the kids said something he told them not to say and get angry? Had we made things worse for them in the name of trying to help? Should we call CPS? Were we overreacting?

The kids disappeared for five days. We waited for them to knock on the door, drove by where we thought their house was. No sign of them. Maybe the big move had happened and they were long gone. Or maybe....no, I didn't want to think about that. I prayed.

Then they showed up. "We came to say goodbye. We're leaving tomorrow. It sure smells good in here, what are you making?" My relief was immense. I fed them dinner and gave them hugs and slipped a piece of paper with our phone number on it into Jill's hand.

"Call me if you ever need anything," I said. "We'll miss you."

And that night while I laid awake, I cried. I should've done more. Fed them more. What kind of chance do those kids have? Who's going to look out for them in their new town? How did I never know growing up that I was so lucky just to have two parents who loved me?

And I came to realize it's a difficult and serious thing to listen between the lines. Because sometimes it's easier not to hear, not to know. Not to get involved. Not to have to worry. I mean, who has the time and energy and courage it takes to listen between the lines?

I hope I do. Do you? Do you really listen to the people you cross paths with? Do you ever listen between the lines and hear things like "I'm lonely" or "I'm scared" or "Something's wrong"? Let's take a chance this week and open up our hearts (and our ears) to the people around us. Because, like Jack and Jill, I believe God put them in our lives for a reason.

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...
Somewhere.

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...
Somewhere.

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,
                                                           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...
Somewhere.

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

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.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

When "No" means more than No


Moms have to say "No" a lot. No, you can't have cookies for breakfast. No, you can't go outside without a coat when it's -20 degrees. No, you canNOT talk to your sister that way. No, no, no, no, no.

We get kind of used to it, don't we? Kind of numb to the idea of it, the effect of it. We say "No" with both nonchalance and impunity, believing we know what we're doing.

I said "No" yesterday.

But it wasn't like any No I've ever said before. It was a No that cut me up and opened my eyes to what a burden the word No really is.

One of the hard-working, vastly underappreciated people at the Department of Public Health and Human Services called about a possible foster placement. LH has been gone for almost two months now, as you all know, and we've been wondering when we might get a call like this. We've been expecting it. Anticipating it, even.

But I said No.

The placement was for three children. Young children. Siblings DPHHS is trying to keep together if possible. Children who had already been removed from one home and turned out from another because the family couldn't make it work. (And go ahead and try taking in three traumatized little ones out of the blue one day before you dare judge a family who gave it their best shot but couldn't make it work.)

We knew going in that there would be moments like this. We knew it would be our responsibility to decide which placements we would or would not take. But nothing could have prepared me for the crushing weight of that small two-letter word.

No.

I didn't want to say it. I knew what my No meant to those kids. It meant they would remain in limbo. It meant a loss of whatever love and stability they would find in our home. It meant they were that much more likely to lose each other, because with every No, DPHHS would become more and more desperate and begin to consider other options. Such as splitting them up. I did not want that for them. I did not want to say No.

I had a lengthy conversation with the woman on the phone. We discussed every angle of the situation, searching for solutions. Searching for hope. But in the end, we both agreed it wouldn't be a good fit. I can't and won't go into all the reasons for that, nor is it necessary for anyone to know, but a lot of it came down to simple geography. And so my answer was No.

A wise friend once told me that every time you say Yes to one thing, you're saying No to something else. Since that phone call yesterday, I've been trying to decide if the opposite is true. If saying No to those kids meant saying Yes to something else. And I think it did.

I think I said Yes to my family and what's best for them - Yes to the bigger picture of what's hopefully best for those three kids - Yes to the feeling in my gut that it was the right thing to do.

Yes to trusting that God has a plan. That He knows what He's doing.

But I sure hated to say No.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Standing out in a small town

"Which one is yours?" the other mom asked.

It was a birthday party where a dozen adorable munchkins were bouncing around like giggling ping-pong balls, getting hyped on sugar and sunshine.

"The black one," I said, pointing. "Her name is Patience."

"Cool," the other mom said. "Mine's the one with the ringlets."

"Cool," I replied.

Maybe it was politically incorrect, what I said. Maybe I should've said, "The one in the pink shirt." But there were several little girls in pink. Or I could've said, "The one next to the birthday girl." But the birthday girl was surrounded by a whole gaggle of girls. So I simply described my daughter in an easily identifiable way. Because guess what? She's black. And she was the only one.

We live in a small town painfully lacking in diversity. That's our reality. It is what it is. And I've noticed something about having a black daughter in a rural, white town: She stands out. (I've blogged about that before, here.)

In fact, when another little kid sees my daughter for the first time, they usually gawk. Because they're experiencing something new. They've never seen such dark skin. They've never seen such a magnificent 'fro. They stare, and sometimes reach out and touch, and take it all in with wonder and curiosity and zero judgment. And I love their unabashed honesty. But their parents often swoop in, embarrassed, and snatch them away, saying, "Oh, I'm so sorry."

What an interesting reaction. What are you sorry about exactly? That your child invaded my daughter's personal space? No big deal, that's what kids do. That your child is observant and curious? No problem, those are positive qualities.

Or are you sorry that your child drew attention to the fact my daughter's skin is black? Is that what's going through your mind?

Whoa. Now we're getting serious. Is that what you're sorry about? Are you uncomfortable because your child either directly or indirectly acknowledged the color of my child's skin and you're not sure how I'll react? Allow me to let you off the hook right now: That doesn't bother me one bit. It's okay to notice that Patience is black because...well, she's black. Noticing that about her is no different than noticing that Shaq is really tall. Or Dwayne Johnson has really buff arms. Or Amy Adams has the most beautiful red hair I've ever seen, and yes I'm jealous.

No, it doesn't offend me when people notice. We should celebrate the things that make us different and unique. The things that make us special. I want my daughter to be proud of who she is. Proud of the swirling thunderstorm of the tightest curls God ever made on her head. Proud of the burnished mahogany polished to perfection that is her skin. It's not racist to notice those beautiful things about her. It's only offensive if you try to pretend she isn't who she is. It's only racist if it changes your perceptions, actions, or responses.

And woe to you if that happens, because then you will have to meet Mama Bear. But that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Heartless


I've started and abandoned this post a hundred times. I've tried to process and put down words that would make sense...that would sufficiently articulate my feelings. (Ugh. Feelings. Gross.) I've typed and then erased dozens of words that no one will ever read in my quest to share my heart with you. And I think I'm ready to talk about it now.

It's been almost four weeks since our foster son, LH, returned home to his biological parents, after living with us for six months. After coming to us at three days old and winning us over with his tiny button nose and pointy elfin ears. And in these past four weeks without him, I've discovered with renewed certainty something I've long suspected: I am blessed beyond measure.

Before I elaborate on that, let me address the question everyone's either been asking or thinking: How are you holding up? The answer is: Fine. I'm just fine. Yes, I miss him and I was sad to let him go and I ache for him sometimes...but I'm fine. Yes, part of me was devastated when his mom brought him to see me the other day and he looked at me like "Who the heck are you?" But I'm going to be okay.

And here's why: I am blessed beyond measure.

I'm so blessed, in fact, that I probably can't even begin to explain to you how "lucky" I am. First of all, I have a driver's license and a vehicle that starts up 99 out of 100 times. Many people don't. LH's mom doesn't. I own a home and have a stable, supportive family. Can everyone say that? LH's mom can't.

I know how to balance a checkbook, make a grocery list, keep a budget, make meals from scratch, and open a savings account. People, do you realize these are not universal skills? Do you realize how lucky I am that I was taught how to do those things? And that I was raised to have the confidence to either ask for help or figure it out on my own if I don't know how to do something? And by lucky I mean "by the grace of God go I."

Have you ever thought about how intimidating it would be to go into a bank if you'd never done it before, never seen it done, never graduated high school, never written a check? Never had anything real with your name on it?

There are so many people out there who are in need. In need of help, or a friend. In need of teaching, or guidance, or financial resources, or all of the above. People who were too busy being abused or neglected growing up to learn basic life skills. And here I am, my life overflowing with blessing, and not even appreciating it.

At least, I wasn't before. Before my foster son. But ever since he came and went - every time I think of him - I can't help but think of how "lucky" I am.

Like I said, part of me really misses him. And another part feels guilty for maybe not missing him enough. For not crying myself to sleep every night. But does shrugging and saying "I'm doing okay without him" make me heartless? I don't believe so.

Every day I got to spend with LH was a gift, but I'm not heartless for moving on and wondering when we'll get a call to pick up another child. I'm not heartless for saying, "Go with God" to the little guy and preparing myself for the next kid. Because by God's grace I have blessings to spare in a world where love, security, and peace are in increasingly short supply. So I'm not going to apologize for giving all I could to him and then letting him go.

It doesn't mean I didn't love him. It doesn't mean I'm heartless. It means I am blessed beyond measure.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Soon

Time is ticking. He's leaving soon. He who has been with us since he was three days old. Who weighed barely five pounds and could only eat one ounce of milk on a good day. Who now sports thick, chubby legs and scarfs down rice cereal and full bottles with wild abandon, and draws a smile from everyone he meets. He's leaving soon.

Part of me is relieved. I mean, a baby is hard work, you know? Let his mother get up with him at all hours of the night. Let her try to force-feed him medicine when he gets an ear infection, and change diaper after diaper after diaper. Let her wash endless piles of tiny clothes and get to the point where she doesn't even bother changing her shirt when he spits up all over it because she knows he's just going to do it again in three hours.

Right? That's what I want, right? That's what's best, isn't it?

Sure, the look of anticipation on his face when I hold out my arms and reach for him is one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen. Sure, he makes the sun shine when he smiles and fills our home with laughter. Sure, his arms around my neck and his cheek against my cheek touches something in my soul that words cannot describe. That only the vibrant, uninhibited colors of the sun rising with hope over the Bridger mountains can describe. Sure, I love him. I love him.

But he's leaving soon.

I knew this day would come and I don't begrudge it. How could I? A family being reunited is a wonderful thing. It's what I want. And I'm honored to have played a small part in this laborious process that brought a young man and woman from the pit of addiction to stability and life, and brought a boy back to his home. Because that was the goal. That was the plan. That he would be able to go home.

Yes, home. He's going home where his flesh and blood will have a second chance to do right by him and give him the love and security unique to biological families. Not more or less or better or worse than families whose DNA don't match, but certainly unique. No, I don't begrudge him that. I want what's best for him.

So I will hold back my tears and wish him well when this "soon" day comes, and I will rejoice for the sake of family. Family ...in all its broken, beautiful, messy, hopeful, bittersweet glory. Family.

But I hope his mother understands if I hold on to his hand a little longer than I should as I place him in her arms and say goodbye.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Mixed messages


A few years ago, I spray-painted one of the cupboard doors in my kitchen with black chalk paint so I could use it as a message board. It became a handy place to write notes, and also a useful surface for demonstrating lessons during homeschool, such as how to spell A-N-O-N-Y-M-O-U-S or something. Because ANONYMOUS is a tricky word.

After a while, I wrote the words "Ask Me About" in big letters at the top of the board. Then, I would write down subjects that we discussed during school so that when Andy came home from work, he could see what the kids had been up to. I might write something like "Galileo" or "three types of rocks" or "nouns and verbs." Then Andy will come home and say, "Hey, Simon, what are the three types of rock?" Or "Hey, Michael, what is the difference between a noun and a verb?"

It's been a great way to keep Andy involved in the learning process, and also a great way to reinforce lessons learned in school by making the kids review them at the end of the day. But the board is used for a lot of other messages as well. At any given time, it might have phone messages (like "Larry called"), reminders (like "return library books), and school notes all written on it at once. I'm usually in a hurry when I write things down, so the messages are often in shorthand. But usually the point comes across. Usually.

This year for school Simon got a really cool Astronomy book that he loves. Something about the immensity of space and the fact that a lot of celestial objects are made of gas appeals to him. We've completed the chapters on most of the planets already and when I write the name of the planet on the board Andy will ask Simon about it. Simon will eagerly explain everything he's learned. Often dramatic hand gestures are involved as well as explosions, whether they are relevant or not. Because Simon can't describe anything without an explosion.

Anyway, last week Andy ordered some metal pieces from Bridger Steel, which he needed to complete the new eave on one side of our house. When a nice lady from Bridger Steel called to say the eave pieces were ready, I wrote a quick note on the board so I wouldn't forget to tell Andy. Then, in school, Simon and I finished the chapter on a certain planet.

And so it was that when Andy came home, the board read:

Ask Me About:
the eaves in
Uranus
 
 
You might have to read it out loud to get the full effect.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Jumping to conclusions

There is a beautiful, older lady my family has known for years whom we call Miss Ellen. She is generous and kind and spends her life in service to others. Her heart overflows with love. She’s in her eighties now and is one of my heroes.
 
When Michael was little, before Simon was born, Miss Ellen would occasionally watch him at her house for an hour or two when Andy and I needed to take care of some business at the church. He loved going to her house because she always made gingersnap cookies and read him as many books as he wanted. She was like a grandmother to him, since none of his biological grandmas lived nearby at the time.
 
One evening, we left Michael at Miss Ellen’s house for a longer time than usual. We were hosting a dinner at the church and she offered to keep him. When we picked him up, he was not the happy, smiling boy he typically was after spending time with his favorite “grandma.” His shoulders slumped and the frown on his face worried me.
 
We thanked that dear, lovely woman and took Michael home.
 
“Did you have fun with Miss Ellen?” I asked.
 
Michael hung his head. “I guess.”
 
Andy and I exchanged glances. Something was wrong.
 
“What's the matter, buddy?” I asked.
 
He gave a small sniffle and a big sigh. “Miss Ellen beat me,” he said.
 
My heart constricted. Miss Ellen? She would never lay a hand on Michael. Would she? My mind raced with questions as I tried to remain calm.
 
“She beat you?” I asked, to clarify. He nodded, another sniffle escaping.
 
It was like my worst nightmare come true. How could this happen? What were we going to do? I needed to call her right away. I needed to call the authorities. My poor baby!
 
“What do you mean by that, Michael?” Andy asked, not willing to jump to conclusions.
 
“She beat me at dinner,” Michael said sadly. “I tried to eat fast, but she finished first.”

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Life is hard

I expected the sadness. I expected there would be times when feelings of sorrow would wash over me, filling me with grief for the broken lives we are destined to live in a broken world. I expected to dread the day he will go back to his biological parents, even though I don’t know when that will be.

But I didn’t expect the guilt.

No, I didn’t expect to be tickling his chubby belly, getting him ready for bed at night, only to be struck by feelings of guilt deep in my gut. I didn’t expect to feel like an imposter, masquerading as his mother when I’m not. Or to feel like a thief, stealing love and affection and moments of joy from his biological mother that I will never be able to give back. That I didn’t ask if I could have. That I didn’t earn.

“You’re amazing,” people say. “I could never do what you’re doing. I could never be a foster parent.”

And I smile and say it is my pleasure and my privilege to care for him in his time of need, and that is absolutely true. But all the while I’m wrestling with doubt in my heart about whether I’m doing the right thing. All the while I’m trying to reconcile the fact that I’m snuggling him to sleep every night with the equal fact that his biological mother lays with empty arms, crying, missing him. And she sends me a little pair of shoes for him to wear and says "Kiss him for me."

“She brought this on herself,” you might think. “She made bad choices.”

And you’d be right. She has no one to blame but herself. But he has no fault in this. He didn’t ask to be taken from her, raised by a stranger, or passed back and forth multiple times a week like he’s in the middle of a custody battle. He didn’t do anything wrong.

And so the guilt comes. How will he ever understand that I only want what’s best for him? That I love him? And what is best, anyway? The longer I live, the more people I meet, the more I realize that what’s best isn’t always black and white. What’s best is often more like a mud puddle than a crystal clear stream. I believe in Truth and I believe in the Bible, but the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt be a foster parent” or “Thou shalt not deprive a mother of her child” or “Here is how you know if a mother is unfit.” But it does say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So what do I do?

Maybe it’s silly, but when the sadness comes down on me, the sorrow and grief, the dread, and yes, the guilt, I think about love and I think about getting old. I imagine myself as an 80-year-old woman, reflecting back on my life, and I ask the 80-year-old me: Do you regret what you did? Do you regret loving that boy and doing the best you could for him?

And inevitably she smiles with the wisdom of years, pats her white hair into place, and says, “No.”

No regrets.

And so I will love him. Through the sadness and dread, and the guilt no one prepared me for, I will love him, and pray that God will use whatever frail, broken gift I give for good, and that I will have no regrets.

Friday, January 20, 2017

New year, same old me

I've never been one for making New Year's resolutions. They just seem like big disappointments waiting to happen. To resolve something is so...so...I don't know, it just seems so definite.

But I do like to set some reasonable goals. For example, this year I figured I should stop buying so many books online and just GO TO THE LIBRARY, for crying out loud. That's what it's there for. There's no more room on my bookshelves, anyway. But of course there's that one book that's not available in the library because it's indie published, and if I'm going to buy that, I might as well buy some other ones because, you know, free shipping!

I also thought it was time to try to eat healthier. The extra fat on my stomach didn't get there by itself. Then again, I love chocolate ice cream and candy a LOT, and life is short, right? But I know I should make better choices, so I didn't eat the whole carton of Ben and Jerry's in one sitting. I ate it in two.

Then there's this crazy idea I had that as a 33-year-old woman I should try to not be such a slob. I'm a wife, mother of four (currently), homeowner, checkbook balancer. I have a blog, for heaven's sake. I'm pretty sure all those things make me a grown up. I should be able to shower before leaving the house, and wear clean clothes in public. But this morning I went out on day number three with no shower, and when I saw the big blob of something on my shirt (no idea what it was, sniff tests were inconclusive), I just buttoned my other shirt over it and called it good.

So I guess you could say I'm 0 for 3 so far. Not even February yet and I haven't been able to stick to a single "reasonable goal." But you know what I think is beautiful about a new year? It's that I still have eleven more months to visit the library, practice restraint in my eating choices, and tidy up my appearance. I haven't failed, and I'm not giving up. Instead, I'm going to thank God for another day, another year, to make better choices. To be a better person. And there's a whole lot more to that than how many M&M's I do or do not eat.

Maybe you made a resolution, or set a goal. Maybe you're discouraged because it's not going well. Or maybe you're knocking it out of the park, in which case, I salute you! But regardless of how the old one ended or the new one started, this year is full of possibilities...full of the potential to do better, to do good. The Bible says that God's love and compassion for us is new every morning. Every morning!

So let's all resolve to greet each new day with the love and compassion only God can supply and make the most of this new year. None of us knows what is to come or how many times we might end up doing that very thing we said we weren't going to do, but we can embrace love and compassion and have hope.

And that's a resolution I can get behind.