Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A broken Christmas

It was one week before Christmas, 1994. Multi-colored strands of lights blinked in the windows. My mother's tree, with its white lights and crystal snowflakes, graced the living room, while the tree in the family room that belonged to us kids...well, let's just say what it lacked in beauty it made up for in enthusiasm.

My siblings and I were eagerly awaiting the big day. The excitement was mounting. Just like every Christmas before.

But this would not be like any Christmas before.

Our farm did not see much traffic in those days, situated as it was on the outskirts of a tiny, one-horse town. It was a quiet night as we ate dinner. Then, a blast of frantic honking cut through the peace. Beep, beep, beeeep. Strangers driving by had been able to see from the road what we could not from our dining room. The house next door was enveloped in flames. The house I had visited a thousand times. The house where she lived.

I stared wide-eyed across the yard at the unholy firelight and knew in my heart she was in there. Her mental health had been holding her prisoner in that house for years.

For a moment, we all froze in horror. Then, mayhem ensued. 9-1-1 was called. Boots were hastily pulled on. My father dragged a hose from the garage in a vain attempt to contain the blaze while the rest of us stood in the yard in the freezing cold darkness waiting for a fire truck we knew would be too late.

I won't bore you with the details. All you need to know is that at some point, after what felt like hours, an exhausted and filthy team of firemen wheeled a sheet-covered figure from the house on a gurney, staked CAUTION tape around the property, and slowly drove away.

We woke up the next day to a different world, the blackened shell of a house next door like a terrible mouth gaping open. "Merry Christmas," it mocked. "Joy to the world."

But I didn't care about Christmas anymore. Grandma was gone.

The next couple of days dragged by in a sluggish whirl of well-wishers, ham and potato casseroles, and stoic relatives, capped off by standing at Grandma's open grave in the pouring rain watching my father's broad shoulders shake. I had never seen him cry before. Never felt like this before. Never faced death before.

Christmas Eve arrived. The dull gray of the sky matched my mood. Dysfunctional as it was, I had had a special relationship with my grandma. I had felt...protective of her. With her, I was the grown-up and she was the child, unhappy and unsure. Unwell. I had thought she would get better if I loved her enough. I had hoped she would be happy again some day. But I could never seem to get through.

The house, her house, called to me. It drew me like a magnet, pulling me in to its soot-covered destruction. I ducked under the caution tape and slipped through the front door. It was quiet. The sharp smell of burned everything stung my nose. I didn't cry.

I saw her chair. Where she had spent most of her days and nights. Where she had watched soap operas on TV and pretended not to hear me when I'd sneak in to check on her. I stared at it. Was that where they'd found her? Why had she never turned around when she heard my footsteps? Never called my name? I had thought I could make her smile. But maybe she didn't want me there at all.

I was eleven. I knew nothing about how utterly a heart can be broken.

I wandered into another room in a daze. The carpet squished beneath my feet, saturated by thousands of gallons of water that had done nothing but keep the house from collapsing entirely. I stopped. There on the old, blue couch was a small pile of gifts. Wrapped and labeled.

My feet left dark prints as I crossed the room. The gifts seemed unharmed, a tiny piece of life and promise in the midst of despair. I saw my name.

To Katie
Love Grandma

I recognized her shaky handwriting. I sucked in a breath. She had remembered me. I picked up the small square box and the sodden red paper disintegrated under my fingers. I opened the gift.

A dainty gold bracelet, cheaply made but beautiful to me. I put it on and twisted my arm back and forth, back and forth. As the charms on the bracelet swung against my wrist, I thought of her in her chair. When had she gotten these gifts? How? I had thought she had fallen so deep into her addiction and hopelessness that nothing else mattered. But the cold piece of metal on my wrist told me otherwise.

I had mattered to her. She had seen me.

That Christmas was different than any before, tainted as it was by shock and grief, but I can see now that it taught me something. I learned that even if they don't seem to notice, you never know what your acts of kindness might mean to someone who's hurting. I learned that any Christmas can be someone's last so you should never take their presence in your life for granted. And I learned that being seen by someone else, being known, is a greater gift than anything that can be found in a box.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Are you done fostering?

It's been awfully quiet around here lately. No more belly laughs from Little Man. No more begging for cottage cheese. No more throwing balls at people's heads. Never thought I'd miss that.

Over three weeks have passed since he left, but I still hear him in the morning sometimes, babbling to himself in his crib while he waits for me to come. But of course, he's not there. Many people have asked me if we'll ever do it again. Take another placement. The way they ask and the look on their faces tell me they wouldn't blame me if I said no. If I said I was done with this whole fostering thing.

I'm not.

Let me tell you something I've learned in the past three weeks, after the loss of my foster son and the loss of a dear friend's son. It came at a high cost, and it has nothing to do with fostering. It has to do with grief, and time, and family. I've learned that those three things are more connected than I ever realized. Nothing can cause us greater grief or comfort us more in our grief than family. And the amount of time someone was part of your family doesn't change the amount of grief at losing them. Whether you had them for 5 days or 3 months, 10 years or 75, you will grieve. The tone of your grief, the look of it, the after-effects, will differ depending on time. But loss is loss. Grief is grief. And family is family.

But family means something different to me now than it did ten years ago. Ten years ago, I had never adopted a child. Never fostered a child. Never had people in my day-to-day life as close or closer to me than anyone biologically related. But now all those things are true. And my life is richer for it, but the pain is also deeper. The loss cuts even more.

Now one piece of my heart is living in another state with a new family and another piece is living in heaven. But they will always be with me. Because when you open your heart, open your home, well, this is what happens. You open yourself up for more pain...and more family. More everything, good and bad.

No, I'm not done with fostering. I dove into it head-first and almost broke my neck, but I'm going to do it again.

It's going to hurt. Choosing to love others always does. But if you try to spare yourself from grief...you miss out on life.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

To the woman who will take my place

Hello. I've been putting off this letter, but time is running out. In a few days, Little Man will leave me and find himself in your arms, in your house, eating your food, riding in your car. And it won't matter that I rocked him through the night at three days old as he went through withdrawals. It won't matter that I held his legs down when he got all his shots. Or that I was there when he learned how to walk.
He'll be yours.

I don't begrudge you his love or his smiles. I'd be happy if every woman in the world could have them because they're the best love and smiles around. It's just that here with me, in this house...well, this is the only life Little Man has ever really known. It's not your fault that you weren't there when he tried peanut butter for the first time or saw his first horse or had his first birthday. It's not your fault you don't know what his favorite foods or best tickle spots are. It's a broken world and a broken system and that's why we find ourselves in this situation. I don't blame you.

But I need you to do something for me.

When Little Man walks away from me and goes home with you and starts his new life--when he looks back wondering why I'm not going too--don't pretend it's no big deal. Don't believe that just because I know it's best for him and knew it was coming that it doesn't hurt like hell. Or that what I did for him doesn't matter.

He won't remember me a year from now. But you will. You will always know there was another woman who loved Little Man during the time when you couldn't. So please, I beg you, if he ever asks what happened to him when he was a baby, don't just say he was in foster care for a little while. Don't just say someone else had to watch him until you could take him home.

Tell him he was loved. Tell him he brightened the lives of the five people who took him in, cared for him, shared with him, sacrificed for him, opened their hearts to him. Tell him that even though he was in foster care he never spent a single day unwanted or unloved.

Not one single day.

There's more I could say about all the things I'm hoping and praying for Little Man and his future, but I think you know. I believe you want what's best for him, just like I do. So I will simply say this: I will never forget him. Ever. And despite the pain of loss, the buckets of tears, the sleepless nights, the desperate prayers...I would do it all over.

For him.

Take good care of him.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A moment of wavering

Little Man has never really enjoyed riding in the car. Even as a baby, he would fight his car seat. Now, as a toddler, he still whimpers when we buckle him in and then proceeds to fight sleep the whole time, even if we're driving for hours.

So there we were, about four hours into our six hour drive. Little Man had thrown every toy we'd offered onto the floor. He'd eaten every snack we could reasonably allow. He'd shouted incoherently at the top of his amazingly-powerful-for-his-age voice for at least half of the drive time so far and had grabbed at every thing and everyone within his reach until nothing remained within his grasp. I was about over it, to say the least. But he was starting to fade.

From the front passenger seat, I turned around and sent a telepathic signal to the other kids with my eyes: Don't make a peep. He's almost asleep. They nodded solemnly. Not a one of us would dare mess with Little Man's one chance at a nap.

I turned back around, turned the radio down, and fought the urge to check on Little Man until I was sure he was out, because heaven forbid I look back at the wrong moment and accidentally catch his eye and cause him to rally. When I hadn't heard him move for a while, I dared a glance back to make sure the magic had happened.

It's hard to explain what happened at that moment. There he was, slumped in his car seat, finally spent. Head leaning contentedly to one side. A half-smile on his little face. My heart should've melted at his precious sleeping sweetness, but all I could think was: What have I done?

It struck me with such clarity at that moment. I had willfully, intentionally taught a child to love and trust me unconditionally, knowing--KNOWING--I would have to betray him. Knowing it wouldn't last. Knowing...

Oh, God. What had I done?

I stared out the window at farms and houses and mountains streaming past, and I wavered. We should've never become foster parents...Should've never taken Little Man back the second time...Should've never let him love us so darn much, I thought. How could I live with hurting him? How could I live with the sound of his voice in my head, screaming my name long after he's gone?

Yes, I wavered. Have you ever done that? Ever suddenly doubted something you were so sure of only moments before?

Maybe it's just me.

I snuck another peek at his sweet little face. He loved me completely, as only a child can. And I loved him like a son. I had made my choice to step into his broken life and be what he needed. I didn't want to answer the questions What have I done? or Was it worth it? or Would you do it again? or anything else. I only wanted to remember that face, remember that moment when he slept peacefully without a care in the world, utterly trusting me and my family. Utterly secure.

I will waver again. I'm just being honest. But I will remember that moment. Life is hard. This is life.

This is love.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

An abundance of sacrifice

I knew going in that being a foster parent would require sacrifice. When you take in a child, you're making room for them in your home and your life. You give up time and attention and sleep. You give up clean floors. You adjust your daily schedule to accommodate their naps or therapy appointments. You rearrange your birthday dinner around their bio family visits.

I knew all that.

And the heart sacrifice. Oh boy. You give up a certain amount of peace and stability and certainty and sanity the moment you open your door to a foster child. You start sacrificing tears and prayers almost the moment you lay eyes on them and begin to love them instantly. And I knew it was coming when we signed up. I couldn't imagine how hard it would be, but I knew it was coming.

What I didn't know was how much sacrifice would be required from those around me. Foster care was a decision Andy and I made--a lifestyle we chose--but it has impacted our friends and family members as well.

Certainly our kids have had to sacrifice, that wasn't surprising. And they've been super troopers about it. But so many others have been super troopers as well, and I'm so thankful. I have been blown away by how much others have been willing to sacrifice.

There's my mom and mom-in-law who have whole-heartedly given their grandma love to any "extras" we've had. They've willingly accommodated our extras on family vacations and during special Grandma times. They've bought Christmas and birthday gifts without hesitation and gone above and beyond to not only help us with our extras but also help the bio families.

There's the lovely ladies at church who have sacrificed to provide childcare for our current extra so Andy and I could keep co-teaching our Sunday School class. There are all the wonderful friends who have taken our extra during times we needed to do something as a family and couldn't include him. There's the people who have dropped off clothes or diapers for kids who have shown up unexpectedly with none of their own. All these people have given of themselves even though they never asked for any of this. We brought it on them, brought it into their lives, when we made the choice to foster. And they've been nothing but gracious.

I've never seen such an abundance of sacrifice. We are blessed and grateful for the people around us who love us so much that there's enough to cover an extra (or two) as well. Thank you to everyone who has sacrificed along with us. We notice it. We appreciate it. We love you all.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Choose your own adventure

As a child of the 80's and 90's, I read my fair share of "choose your own adventure" books. You know, the ones where you start reading a story and then throughout the book you have the chance to choose what happens next. I thought they were fun books as a kid. You just never knew where you might end up.


Now, as an adult, I know that in real life you don't make a choice part way through a story. Instead, the moment you make a choice is when the story begins. And sometimes you know exactly what the difficult, painful, complicated ending will be.

But you choose it anyway.

Though we've only been licensed for two years, Andy and I chose the twisting path of being foster parents ten years ago. In the fall of 2008, we attended a training class, filled out a bunch of paperwork, thought we were ready to move ahead...and then found out I was pregnant with Simon. This big news resulted in a long, winding detour, but after the birth of our second son and the completion of an international adoption (a whole different story), we were back to where we'd started. In a foster care training class.

I admit that the first time we took the class we were idealistic. Our parenting experience consisted of two beta fish who lived for about a month, two cats from the shelter, and one very amiable 2-year-old boy who never disobeyed and who potty-trained in mere days simply to please me. Plus, we were in our 20's. What did we know?

But we made the choice and eventually circled back to it. The second time our idealism was gone. Obliterated by the unmet expectations of adulthood, family conflicts, death and loss, experiences with trauma-informed behaviors, and over a decade of marriage. This time we knew what it meant when the social worker said, "It's going to be hard." We knew what it meant to feel lost and hopeless. Knew how deep the word hard could be.

We chose it anyway.

There are times I wish I could escape the pain. The hard. Times I almost wish I could go back to the beginning of the story and choose a different adventure. But if I did--if I flipped back to the first page and skipped all those chapters of heart-wrenching foster-care agony in favor of an easier ending--then I'd have to skip all the good parts, too. And I'd always wonder what I'd missed. I'd always wonder who would've helped the kids who came to our house if it wasn't us? Would they have been good people? Kind? Would they have loved them like we did?

So we keep reading, keep turning pages, knowing what lies ahead. Knowing it's going to hurt. And we trust in God, the Author of all Stories, to give us the strength to keep going. One adventure at a time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

"Come with me, little girl"

That thing happened. The one every parent worries about while simultaneously believing it could never happen to their child. Because their child would never walk away with a complete stranger while their back was turned never to be seen again, right?

My children are safe and everything turned out fine, thank goodness.

But.

That thing happened. And this story could've had a very different ending.

I was talking with one adult, and another adult - whom neither I nor my child had ever seen before - beckoned my daughter with a smile and wave from behind my back. And she went. Without a moment's hesitation, she went. I turned around just in time to see her disappearing around the corner without a single glance back at me.

Upon further (and somewhat frantic) investigation, this person "luring" my daughter turned out to be a nice lady who only wanted to give her a toy to play with while Mommy was busy, but my daughter didn't know that. Trusting soul that she is, she just followed. And I didn't know that. Discovering the truth didn't stop a sickening pit from opening up in my stomach when I realized how close I could've been to losing my daughter forever. Had this person not had good intentions...had I turned around two seconds later than I did...that could've been it.

My daughter would've been gone.

It still makes my heart pound, even now.

Before everyone jumps on me for not teaching my kids Stranger Danger, let me assure you that I do. In fact, only four or five days before this incident, I talked through this article with my kids and we discussed and practiced multiple "abduction scenarios" and what to do in each situation. And the "what to do" is almost always the same in cases where an adult tries to lure a child: Talk to mommy or daddy before going anywhere with anyone.

Someone asks you to come check out the baby bunnies in their car? Ask mommy or daddy first. Someone wonders if you can help them carry their bags into their house? Ask mommy or daddy first. The assumption is that an adult who wants a child to do something secretively, without asking their parents, is up to something.

But that assumption isn't necessarily accurate, is it? The woman who "lured" my child wasn't a bad person, but because she wasn't, she didn't think about her actions. She knew she meant my child no harm, so she didn't consider what she was doing.

We, as adults, need to help the children in our lives by reinforcing the "what to do." None of us want a child we know to be abducted, it's one of the worst things we can imagine, and yet we don't always think about the implications of our own actions toward children because we're "nice people." We know we're not doing anything wrong. We know a child has nothing to fear from us. So we do whatever we want.

But there are people out there who are not nice. People watching for opportunities to lure a child away. We need to make it clear to our kids the difference between a "good guy" and a "bad guy." The difference is a good guy will tell the child to talk to their parent before doing anything. A bad guy will not.

The lady from my story didn't encourage my child to ask Mommy first. She wasn't a bad guy, but she should've either asked me herself or had my child ask. And that's my point here. All the "good" people out there need to be on the same page, telling kids to ask their parents, helping them make good choices, NOT trying to sneak around behind a parent's back, so that if a "bad" person comes along, the child will easily be able to recognize something is wrong.

I can't watch my kids every second of every day, and I'm guessing I'm not the only one. So please, all you good guys out there, make sure you're acting like it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Give it to me straight

Nothing brings out insecurity in the white mother of a black child quite like hair. Thick, beautiful, natural, black hair.

(read about the panic attack I had the first time I gave my daughter a haircut here)

Whenever I see a black woman, whether in person or in a movie or on a magazine, I study her hair. More than one woman at Wal-Mart has probably wondered what my problem was as I stalked her through the hair products aisle trying to spy out what kind of leave-in conditioner she uses. Only once have I dared ask a black woman how she created the hairstyle she was wearing, and that was because she spoke to me first.

Insecurity, remember? (she gave great advice, by the way)

I'm doing my best and learning as I go, but doing Patience's hair doesn't come naturally to me. My friends are always so nice and tell me how cute her hair looks, but frankly, it's not their approval I long for. It's the black woman with two black children at the store who looked back and forth between Patience and me with a question on her face, who put a hand on each of her children's heads as her eyes flicked over my daughter's hair. That's whose approval I crave. And I don't have it.

A couple days ago, I told Patience it was Hair Day. Hair Day is when I do the whole two-hour rinse, wash, condition, comb out, condition, style routine that we thankfully only have to do about once a month. As we headed for the bathtub, I gave Patience's hair a playful tug.

"What style shall we do this time?" I asked.

The only answer she'd ever given to that question before was a shrug. Her preference always seemed to be "whatever gets done the fastest." But this time was different.

"I want it straight," she said. "Like yours."

Oh. Gulp. My heart beat a little faster.

"Okay." I forced a smile. "Let's see what we can do."

We rinsed and washed and conditioned and combed. Then I settled Patience in her "hair chair" and got out the coconut oil, hairdryer, and paddle brush.

"Straight all the way around," Patience reminded me.

I knew no matter how much I combed it out, how much hot air I used, how much product I applied, it was never going to be anything like mine. I would never be the mirror that she was looking for. But she didn't know that. So I brushed and brushed and blew and blew the best I could. Her smile grew the closer I got to the end, and when I said I was finished, she leapt from her chair.

"Now we're the same!" she said.

"You're right." I knelt down beside her, face-to-face. "We both have pretty hair."

"And we both eat scrambled eggs."

"And we both like to ride bikes."

She giggled. "And we both love daddy."

"I guess we're practically twins, then," I said.

I ran a hand over her hair, trying to smooth it down, but it just bounced right back up. It would no sooner lay flat than sprout wings and fly. She gave me a hug and said "Thank you, Mommy," and ran off to play. I watched her go, marveling at all the things we did have in common, despite obvious differences.

Maybe I'll never have the approval of that woman at the store. Maybe I'll never feel confident in my ability to do my daughter's hair. But maybe those aren't the most important things.






See? Twins!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Top 8 Reasons Not to Become a Foster Parent

Every foster parent knows that when someone new finds out about their foster parent status, the response is always the same. "I could never do that."

And why would they want to? Being a foster parent is hard. Really hard. They don't call it "foster care hell" for no reason. "I could never do that" is a perfectly legitimate response.

But maybe you've thought you could. Maybe you've considered taking the leap and getting your foster license.

If so, I'm here to tell you: DON'T DO IT. In fact, here's a list of eight reasons not to foster, in no particular order:

1) Though you designate on your paperwork which kinds of placements you're open to, you're constantly called about placements that aren't even close to what you've designated. You're open to girls ages 0-4? Great, here's a placement for a 13-year-old boy. Can you take him?

2) You drag your foster kid out of bed early on a Monday morning, and dress him and feed him and pack him a lunch so he'll be ready to go to a visit with his bio parents by 7:30am. At 7:15am, bio parents cancel the visit. Again.

3) Despite their best efforts and intentions, case workers are overloaded and provide little to no communication about your foster child's case or the timeline for their stay with you. Are the parents making progress? Is there hope for reunification? Was bio mom sent to jail? Is the state planning to move the child to a different state to live with the bio dad's sister? Who knows?

4) You bathe and feed and kiss and hug and love and love and love a child for days, weeks, months...sometimes years. And then, the child leaves. Sometimes with little notice. Sometimes for reasons you don't agree with. And you have no say in it.

5) You squeeze your heart out to maintain a good relationship with the foster child's bio parents, for the child's sake if nothing else, only to have them accuse you of abuse or neglect or theft behind your back. Your foster baby has chronic diaper rash? Must be because you don't take good care of him.

6) Appointments and scheduling. Doctor's appointments, dental appointments, physical and/or occupational therapy appointments, counseling appointments, CASA appointments, WIC appointments. Not to mention weekly visits with bio parents.

7) Behaviors. Every foster kid's got some. They're frightened, confused. They've had little to no positive influences in their life. They're usually behind developmentally. They have to navigate a new world and new relationships. So they act out. Add "attend support group so you don't lose your mind" to the list of things you have to schedule.

And last but not least,
8) Inner turmoil. Am I doing the right thing? Is this fair to the children already in my home? At the end of the day, do all my efforts make any difference whatsoever? What if my foster kid goes back to his bios and something bad happens to him? What if he stays here and something bad happens to him? How many times can our family go through the ups and downs of this process?

No one in their right mind would ever sign up to be a foster parent with a list like that to consider. Those are eight great reasons to NEVER GET INVOLVED, and no one will blame you - least of all me - if you decide not to foster. In fact, that's what this list is for. To talk you out of it.

But...there's one more thing you need to know. One more important thing to consider before you make your final decision.

Those kids - those vulnerable, at-risk, abused, neglected, traumatized, helpless, innocent, wonderful kids - are going to go through foster care hell with or without you. They're going to be removed by CPS, sent to live with a stranger, jerked around between the state's best intentions and their parents' efforts or lack thereof to get them back, with or without you. With or without me.

And we can either stay away and spare ourselves from all that suffering that doesn't really change anything anyway, or reach a comforting hand into hell and hold on to a child for dear life.

The child's already there, arms outstretched. Take his hand or not.

But don't take it if it's easy for you to let go.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Invisible

I read an interesting article called "Why High-Functioning Autism is so Challenging." The article talked about how people with high-functioning autism "pass for normal" in most situations, until a situation comes along where their responses are not "normal," and people around them often end up surprised or upset.

In other words, people with high-functioning autism appear to be like everyone else - until they don't.

So how do you parent a child like that? Maybe it's autism, or maybe it's one of a hundred other invisible challenges, such as SPD, Asperger's, TBI, epilepsy, RAD, PTSD, anxiety, or something the doctors don't even have a diagnosis for. Maybe it's debilitating headaches with no known cause. Maybe it's hypersensitivity to sugar or red dye 40 or a potentially fatal allergy to peanuts.

All invisible from the outside.

How does a parent meet such a child's needs, set them up for success, and get the world to accept them for who they are when everyone else sees a "normal" child who should be able to do everything the same as every other John or Jane Doe on the block?

I wish I knew.

When our daughter joined our family, she was 17 months old. Many people perk up when they hear this because they assume her transition must've been easy since she was so young. She'll never remember her life before. She was basically a blank slate when she arrived.

What those same people often don't realize is that the first year and a half of life - the year and a half that we missed - are the most crucial for brain development. If trauma, abuse, neglect, malnourishment, etc. occur during that first year and a half, it can have a long-lasting negative impact on a child's brain. It can cause a child who appears healthy and "normal" on the outside to struggle with dysregulation on the inside.

Did you know that? I didn't. Not until we began our adoption process and had to start reading books and taking training classes about common challenges adopted kids face. But I know a lot about it now.

And I'm not the only one.

There are thousands of parents out there (many of them adoptive or foster parents) struggling to parent a dysregulated child. They want their child to be treated the same as everyone else, but they also break into a sweat when little Johnny is invited to a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese. Because they've seen that movie before. The one where little Johnny gets overstimulated in a public place, has a meltdown, and doesn't sleep for three days.

These parents often feel alone, and don't ask me how I know. When they succeed at controlling their child's environment and schedule so as to minimize opportunities for problems, they are seen as overbearing. When they fail, others say they need to "discipline more." Part of them wants everyone to keep believing their child is "normal" for as long as possible, but another part wonders...what does normal mean anyway?

What if society at large, and the church - God's hands and feet in the world - in particular, could come around families like this and turn invisible challenges into visible support? What would that look like? Maybe a good place to start is the same place we should start when facing just about any challenge: with knowledge and compassion.

KNOWLEDGE: Knowledge means to learn! Learn about a dysregulated child's needs. Learn about their triggers. Is it noise? Sugar? Unexpected transitions? Men with beards? It could be anything. I know of a child whose entire day can be derailed by anything resembling an octopus because of a traumatic experience. It might sound funny, but a terrified child is no laughing matter. Learn how you can make their day at school easier, or what you can do to bring out the best in them. Learn how you can support their parents.

COMPASSION: Instead of jumping to conclusions and condemning a child and/or their parents, try putting yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself, "Could there be a reason for that behavior that I don't know about?" "Could there be a reason for that parenting strategy that I don't know about?"

I'm ashamed to tell you this, but I was quick to judge the parents of kids with invisible challenges...until I became one. Now I spend my days redefining what "normal" means in my life and desiring to be the kind of person who is sensitive to the needs of others. Because everyone is struggling with something.

And it might be something invisible.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Saying Goodbye

(a version of this post originally appeared Oct. 7, 2015)

It was pretty nice as far as nursing homes go. Maybe the nicest I'd ever seen. But I hated it.

Walking down the hall to Room 117, I gripped the boys' hands, one on each side, and dragged them along behind me. They weren't any happier than me to be there, but they knew enough to be quiet. They knew enough to be scared.

The door was closed so I knocked lightly.

"Come in," I heard. I sighed a heavy sigh.

Here goes nothing.

"Hi Grandma," I said to the petite, frail woman with white hair sitting on the bed.

Please let her remember me.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Katie!"

Phew.

Even with all her things in there - her pictures and hats and knick-knacks - her room looked foreign and unfamiliar. I had sworn I'd never let one of my own family members end up in a place like this. Andy and I had even had plans drawn up to remodel our house, complete with a handicap bathroom, so my grandma could come live with us. But when Alzheimer's begins its cruel work in earnest, everything changes.

Grandma sang the "Teddy Bear's Picnic" song to the boys, and we visited. Then we left Room 117 and walked around the inside of the building, Grandma's slow shuffle appearing painful because of her hunched back. The boys stared wide-eyed at old women shouting at houseplants and old men sobbing in wheelchairs. I couldn't believe it had come to this.

At first Grandma spoke with a measure of normalcy about her disdain for "this place," her distaste for the food, and her disbelief that Grandpa would leave her here. As if he had a choice. Then, before my eyes, she transported to a different time, years ago, and found herself on a boat. She could no longer see what I saw or know what I knew.

Curse you, Alzheimer's. Curse you to the depths.

I was emotionally exhausted by the time Grandma found her way back to the present, back to me, and my kids can only take so much, so I told Grandma it was time.

"We've got to get going, Grandma," I said.

I knew she would be disappointed, but nothing could've prepared me for the look of desolation that passed over her face. Her eyes stared into me, asking a hundred questions at once: How could you leave me here? Where am I? What's going to happen to me? Who are you? But she didn't say any of those things.

"You'll come back again and visit, won't you?" she asked instead.

I answered, but as soon as the word "Yes" left my mouth, I knew in my heart it wasn't true. I knew that even if I had the chance to drive the six hours to visit her again, she wouldn't be there. Her body might be - but she would be gone. Lost forever in the murky, gray fifth dimension of Alzheimer's disease, and I would never talk to her again. She would never know me again. This was goodbye.

I knew it as clearly as I knew the sun was shining outside. I leaned down to give her a gentle hug, hating myself for being so anxious to get out of a place she'd never get to leave.

My eyes were misty, but I forced a smile.

My words stuck in my throat, but I forced them out.

"Goodbye, Grandma. I love you."

"Goodbye dear," she said. Then she sat down in a chair and peered down the hallway at another world, her hands folded neatly in her lap. "I'll just wait here for the train."

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Good, Better, Best

I was at a high school basketball game the other night with my family. We sat in the bleachers, side by side, eating snacks and cheering loudly. Go, Tigers, Go! Patience was to my left. Little Man on my lap. Andy and the boys to my right.

That's when it hit me.

As I looked around the gym full of students and parents and teachers, I realized there were exactly zero black adults and three black children in attendance. All three of those children adopted, and one of them my daughter.

She didn't notice. At least not on a conscious level. But she will. At a basketball game some day in the not-too-distant future, she will become painfully aware of her minority status. And my heart is having a hard time figuring out what to do with that.

Some people do not approve of transracial adoption. They are aware of the many pitfalls of the practice, the potential for trauma and identity challenges, the loss of a child's cultural heritage, etc. - and they speak out against it. Other people approach transracial adoption with a "savior complex," as in, "look at all those poor black (or Filipino, or Indian, or whatever) children wasting away in orphanages, I must save them!"

At different times over the past three years, I've gone back and forth between "What have I done? I've ruined my daughter's life" and "She would've died if not for me" and everything in between. I've lain awake at night wondering what her life would've been like if we had not adopted her. Better? Worse? Maybe not better or worse - maybe just different. I don't know. I will never know.

Is transracial adoption a good thing? Would it be better if a child was adopted by a family of their same race? Would it be best if they had no need to be adopted at all, but could grow up with their biological family?

Part of me wants to answer YES to all of the above. But I can't. There are too many ifs, what ifs, buts, excepts, and maybes to give any real answer. There's no way to guarantee a child even a halfway decent childhood whether they're adopted or not.

Maybe Patience would've been better off with a black mother who would remember to put lotion on her legs every single day and could figure out how to do cornrows. Maybe she would be farther along in her development if she'd been adopted by a family who had experience with her particular kind of special needs. Maybe our family is not actually - gulp - the BEST thing that could've happened to her. But is our family good? Is a GOOD family better than no family even if it's not BEST?

These are the kinds of questions that run through my mind when I look around a very white high school gym and imagine my very black daughter playing there some day. I think about the people who would say I was selfish to take her from her native country and raise her in a white community. People who would say transracial adoption must be abolished before any more children fall victim to cultural identity loss.

And I wonder, and I fret, and I ask God to work everything out for good. And I ask Him to honor my imperfect efforts on my daughter's behalf and I pray she will have a happy, successful life regardless of whether it's because of us or in spite of us.

Then I kiss her nose and tell her how beautiful she is. And that's when I know that even if we're not the best thing that could've happened to her, she's the best thing that could've happened to us.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Second Time Around

Over a year ago, after an interesting day of "firsts," I posted about how there's a first time for everything. One of the firsts I was referring to was our first foster placement, and many more "firsts" happened after that. The first time we met our foster son's bio parents, the first time we attended a Family Engagement Meeting, the first time we doubted our calling to be foster parents.

The first time we had to say goodbye to a child we had spent months loving and caring for.

All those firsts taught us a lot. We got through them. And he went home, and life went on.

Then one night, the phone rang.

"There's been an incident," the social worker said. "Can Little Man come back to your house?"

My feelings were mixed. Happiness to have the chance to see him again, snuggle him again. Sadness that his life was in chaos. Disappointment that his parents had made poor choices. Worry about what it might be like the Second Time Around.

And there was guilt. Not the same kind of guilt I wrote about here, but this vague sense that maybe there was more I could've done to help Little Man's parents after he went back to them. If I would've checked in on them, asked about Little Man, encouraged them to continue their counseling...would this have happened?

That's what went through my mind. But I said yes.

He hadn't lived with us for months, but when the social worker came and I opened the door, he recognized me. When he saw Patience, he smiled. I held him for a minute, wondering what his life had been like since I'd seen him last. Wondering what his future might hold. Then I plopped him in a highchair, kissed the top of his head, and went back to making dinner.

When Andy and the boys came home and saw Little Man at the table, they weren't fazed.

"For how long?" Andy asked.

I shrugged.

"Cool," the boys said.

That was four months ago. So why haven't I written about this before? I wrote about spending Christmas with Little Man's parents, why haven't I written about my struggles with the Second Time Around?

Here's why: the Second Time Around is nothing like the first. It's scarier. Harder. A whole new set of challenges. He has the same bio parents as before, but our relationship with them is different now. He's the same kid as before, but he can communicate now. Before, he was a baby. Now he knows how to let me know what he's thinking and feeling. He reaches for me, wants all my attention. Calls me Mama.

I don't want him to, but he does.

"It's Auntie," I say. "Call me Auntie K."

He looks at me and cocks his head to one side. "Mama."

And there's another reason I've been hesitant to talk about it. Another reason I don't tell people that he's actually the same kid who lived with us before. I fear their reaction. Because some people think it's an exciting thing for us to have him back. They assume it's what I wanted. (No.) Or they have no idea how to respond. Or they think if he's back that must mean he'll never see his parents again because surely the state wouldn't send him back home a second time, right? Because people don't understand how the foster system works.

Now that the First Time for Everything has turned into the Second Time Around, I'm realizing the life of a foster parent isn't just about helping vulnerable kids. Isn't just about giving them a safe place to live temporarily. That would be easy. The hard part is learning and growing and letting go of all the things you can't control (which, in foster care, is just about everything). The hard part is answering all the well-meaning questions and misconceptions without compromising Little Man's privacy or my sanity.

So if there's a foster parent in your life and they have a child return for the Second Time Around (or third or fourth), don't dig for information or tell them how much harder it will be to say goodbye this time. Don't assume the foster parents plan to adopt the child now. Don't ask how long it's going to take.

Don't say anything except "Oh, I see. What's your favorite kind of chocolate?"

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The 5X8-foot pit of despair

We love our little house. We're thankful for it, we have no plans to leave it, but...it's small.

It has one bathroom for the six of us - a 5X8-foot disaster of hideous, ancient pink tile and heavy, built-in wooden cabinets that take up half the room. The tub is chipped, the caulk is peeling, and the toilet only flushes half the time. You do your business and hope for the best...it's a literal crapshoot.

A couple months ago we decided to go for it and use money from our savings and remodel the bathroom. It needs a complete overhaul. New plumbing, new fixtures, new floors, new walls, even a new ceiling. Even a new door. So we began making plans to gut the stupid 5X8 room and basically rebuild it.

We would need help, of course. It took Andy weeks to find a plumber and an electrician who weren't booked until next century. He spent hours on the phone searching for these people, planning the Big Day, and the bathroom must have overheard our dastardly plans, because it decided to revolt.

"Gut me, will they?" it thought to itself. "They think they're too good for me all of a sudden? I'll show those nosy tenants who's boss around here."

It started with a weird smell coming from the sink faucet. It smelled like dog breath. We cleaned out the trap and the aerator but it didn't help. Next, the fan gave up the ghost. Oh, technically it's still "running," but it's not actually "working." It's main purpose in life at the moment is to collect lint in hopes of burning our house down before we can dare remove it.

Then the good ol' commode began to leak. At first I thought one of the boys' poor aim was to blame for the puddles on the floor, but no. It was the toilet joining the rebellion. "Don't do this," we pleaded. "The plumber is coming in a couple weeks, can't you just hold on until then?"

The toilet grumbled that it would try if we agreed to stop using so much toilet paper, and could we ease up on the constant parade of children coming and going? A tank hardly has time to refill around here!

We struck a tenuous truce. We spoke to the toilet in respectful tones and put a bucket under the leak and listened to it drip, drip, drip as we fell asleep every night. We even told the kids to wait until the last person to flush if they all had to go at once. (Don't judge us - you weren't there! You don't know what it was like!)

Days slipped anxiously past. Each morning we entered the bathroom wondering if it would even still be there. We wouldn't have been surprised to find nothing but a big, black pit of despair where it had once been. Then last night we noticed the drip, drip, drip was much more fervent than usual. "What's this?" we asked the toilet. "The plumber's coming in six days. Have you gone back on our deal?"

It didn't answer. It just spewed water from it's joints.

Fine. So that's how it's going to be. Just remember, toilet, you asked for this.

Andy poked and prodded it, twisting and tightening with all his limited plumbing knowledge and skill. The drip all but stopped. We were saved! But wait. Now the toilet doesn't actually flush at all.

So if you haven't thanked your toilet for its service lately, you better do it. Or you might be sorry.
P.S. The only one around here not looking forward to the Big Day is Gizmo the cat, who has developed a taste for toilet water out of the drip bucket.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Big gifts and small

I'd never been invited to dinner by the parents of any of my foster kiddos before. Christmas dinner, no less. But there I was. What would my one and a half year old foster son (I'll call him Little Man) do when we went in the house? Would he think he was going home to stay? Was this really a good idea?

It was about five degrees outside, so standing in the driveway pondering my life choices wasn't an option. Not to mention I'd brought my husband and three children along for the ride. So, with a tray of cookies in one arm and Little Man in the other, I knocked on their door.

Bio Mom greeted us with an anxious half-smile and ushered us inside. It was a small house, and we immediately filled it to overflowing with snow-covered boots, rowdy noise, and good intentions. I set Little Man down on his feet and took off his coat. Bio Mom knelt in front of him a couple feet away, her arms open. Her eyes pleading. He didn't even look back at me. He ran to her.

My three kids made themselves at home as if they'd been there a hundred times and I swallowed a big lump of thankfulness. None of them gave a second thought to spending Christmas with Little Man's parents.

"It's our Christmas gift to them," one of them had said in the car on the way over. "They want to be with Little Man on Christmas, too."

Yes, time with their child was a small gift we could give them. Hadn't we been given that much and more?

I joined Bio Mom in her little kitchen and asked if there was anything I could do to help with dinner. She flitted around, her hands never still, moving bowls around the counter, removing wrappers from ranch containers, and setting, unsetting, and resetting the table.

"I can do it myself," she said.

I understood her need to prove herself to me. Wouldn't I want to show my child's foster mother that I could prepare Christmas dinner, if I was in her shoes? Wouldn't I want to show her that I was capable? She proudly pulled a ham out of the oven and Bio Dad sliced it up.

There weren't enough chairs at the tiny table for all of us, so some sat, some leaned against counters, some stood awkwardly in the living room balancing plates and cups in nervous hands. I did everything I could to ignore Little Man and let Bio Mom feed him however and whatever she thought was best. After all, it wasn't my house. And he wasn't my son.

A modest pile of brightly-wrapped gifts awaited Little Man when dinner was over. I stayed out of the way and let Bio Mom and Bio Dad shower Little Man with presents, assemble toys, and snap picture after picture. The gifts they gave him were big, not because of their size or expense, but because plastic trains and stuffed animals and new shirts were all that was left to give. I had already given him everything else.

As the time to go drew near, my heart twinged in my chest. What if Little Man didn't want to leave? What if he screamed for his mother and reached for her as I pulled him out the door? Had I inadvertently given him the terrible gift of confusion and fear?

Please, God. Help.

"Thanks for dinner," we all said, and put on jackets and gloves and hats. Little Man watched. I pulled his coat from the pile and held it out for him. He looked at it. Looked back at Bio Mom. He was waiting for something. One more gift was needed.

"Bye, buddy," Bio Mom said with a wave and a forced smile. "Time to go. I love you."

And he came to me. Shoved his arms in the sleeves of his coat and let me pick him up and take him home. We had given her the gift of snuggling her son on Christmas, and she had given back the gift of letting go.

There are big gifts and small. Some are valuable, some are forgotten. But perhaps the best gifts are those no one else can give but you.