Thursday, June 22, 2017
"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?"