Saturday, April 5, 2003

April, 2003: Goodbye Luchita

We never left the honeymoon stage with our first foster daughter, Luchita. She wasn’t with us long enough. Luchita arrived the day after Jacob’s eighth birthday. He told me later that when he blew out his candles, he had wished that a foster child would come very soon. At the time of his birthday, we had been certified foster parents for a week and had missed several calls to take children. Social workers would call us for a placement when we weren’t home, leave a message, but then move on down the list of available foster parents who could handle emergency placements. Coming home to the broken dial tone of the voicemail was nerve-wracking.
“Hello, this is Kara, from Child Protective Services. We have Kevin, a two-year-old boy who needs placement tonight. Could you give us a call back?”
“We have a two-month old on a heart monitor and we’re wondering if you’d be open to that?”
“I know you’re only certified for one child, but we’re looking for a placement for twins.”
  They had always found someone by the time I called back.
But the day after Jacob’s birthday, we were home when the phone rang. Four children were being removed from a home because of neglect. They would drop the youngest off in an hour. Bill called his sister to ask if she’d pick up some diapers for us, and I ran around the house, frantically cleaning. Jacob whipped out his homework and got to work, so he wouldn’t miss any of the action when the baby came.
            The doorbell rang as I shoved the last pair of boots into the closet, and the boys rushed to open the door. A social worker stood there, holding a crying one-year-old. Luchita. Another social worker waved to us from the front seat of a minivan in our driveway where she sat with the other children.
            The first social worker handed the baby to me. Luchita was chubby and small for her age. Her two front teeth were chipped and I couldn’t tell if the red mark on the side of her face was a rash or a large red birthmark. I stroked her fine, wavy black hair as we sat down at the dining room table to fill out paperwork. Both my boys had still been bald at fourteen months and Luchita’s hair was already almost shoulder length. Long enough to put in a bow.  Luchita’s cries turned to soft whimpers, then subsided completely, and couldn’t help but note this was my easiest delivery. No contractions.
            After we completed the paperwork, the social worker handed us a small, ripped plastic bag.
            “This was all we could find for her,” she said. I pulled out a size-four sweatshirt. I looked at Luchita. She probably wore size 12 months, at the most.
Bill and I went outside so Luchita could say goodbye to her siblings. Her sisters and brother were crying in the backseat and I promised them we would take good care of Luchita. Just four, six and nine, how could they understand what was happening?
“I will rock her in a rocking chair, and I’ll give her good food, and I’ll change her diaper,” I told them. “We have a lot of toys that she can play with. We will make sure she’s happy.”  I didn’t know what else to say.
I wiped my eyes and Bill gave them a box of fruit snacks, a bag of cookies and some juice boxes.
“Shouldn’t we be taking them all?” he said to me, turning, so they couldn’t hear.
I imagined my own boys in the same situation, in a van with two strangers, being split up and sent to live with other strangers. Wouldn’t I want someone to take them both? But it was in thinking of my own boys that I told Bill no.
“I couldn’t do it well,” I said.
Luchita stayed with us two weeks and five days. We had been out of the toddler stage for a couple of years, now that Liam was four, and there was something sweet about the return to baby wipes and talcum powder. Friends responded to Luchita’s arrival with cards and gifts. A couple people made me meals, even as I protested. Luchita seemed to adapt to our family life with remarkable ease, except perhaps for fusing to me a bit too tightly, and not letting Bill hold her or even get too close. She would wave to him across the room, however. He waved back.  And though she became almost an appendage on my hip, and would only sleep if she were touching some part of me, she was not with us long enough for this to get tiresome. In the not-quite-three weeks we had her, my main concern was to somehow, with constant touch, make up for the lack of touch in her life so far.
The call to retrieve Luchita came suddenly.
“Luchita’s grandmother is taking all the kids,” the social worker said. “Will you be home tomorrow at 3:00 so I could pick her up?”
The day Luchita was to leave, I came home from dropping Liam off at school and found a gift bag inside the front door. Six darling spring outfits from a friend who hadn’t known Luchita was leaving today. I packed them with her other things.
The social worker came, a twenty-something woman with a cropped shirt, jeans and a pierced belly button. Her outfit bothered me. This baby was once again leaving a family she knew to go live with someone else. Whether or not Luchita knew it, this was an important day in her life, and somehow, I felt the social worker’s clothes didn’t respect this. Probably, I was angry, but didn’t know who to be angry at, so I was choosing the pierced navel.
I put Luchita in the social worker’s carseat with a graham cracker and a pacifier. I helped the social worker load all the clothes and toys Luchita had received as gifts into the trunk. I had remembered to pack the sweatshirt, too.  And then I said goodbye. I said goodbye to the daughter who wasn’t quite a daughter. To the daughter who was another mother’s daughter. I said goodbye to my easiest delivery so far, praying for her grandmother who she’d be delivered to next.

I love you, Luchita.

April, 2003: Welcome Teenasia

One of the first questions people ask when they meet Teenasia, our 17-month-old foster daughter is, “How long will she be with you?”
            It’s a natural question, and a good question, but it’s one I can’t answer. In our almost three months of being foster parents, one of the things my husband Bill and I have come to learn about the neglected or abused children who are part Milwaukee county’s foster care system is that the unknown is a fact of life. How long Teenasia stays in our home is dependent on her birth parents getting their lives back on track to the degree that they are able to care for their children. The attorneys and social workers in charge of Teenasia’s case can guess how long this might take, but they don’t like to, and the range of their guesses is so wide-- “anywhere from three weeks to a year”— that they are better off not making any prediction at all.
            So Teenasia is a part of our family for maybe the rest of this month, or maybe the rest of this year, or maybe even — and this would be unlikely — forever, if both her mother’s and father’s parental rights were to be terminated.
            We have a baby living with us and we don’t know how long she’ll stay. Everything is a reminder of the uncertainty of Teenasia’s situation. I look at the one-size-too-big shoes we received from a neighbor and wonder if Teenasia will still be with us when she fits into those shoes. I imagine her in a little summer dress, in a swimsuit, or on a family camping trip, without even knowing if she’ll still be with us when the winter jackets are finally put away.
            The uncertainty of Teenasia’s situation makes me realize how deeply we depend on what we perceive to be the duration of a relationship to know how to love someone or how much effort to give the relationship. When I talk with other women my age, we agree that it has become more difficult to make close friends as we tick toward the mid-thirty mark. We are so busy, and establishing a new friendship can be an exercise in risking precious time and emotional energy without a definite payoff. So we hold back unless we think the friendship has a chance of progressing and moving forward.
            The nature of foster parenting, however, is loving without regard to the future. And it’s a different kind of love than I’ve ever experienced before. From Teenasia’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether she stays a month or a year. She just needs her toes kissed and her chubby cheeks stroked. She needs someone to cheer for her as she learns to walk and understand that she means banana when she shouts “’Nana!”  If she is clothed, diapered, fed and hugged regularly, she knows she is loved.
Teenasia, at 17 months, cannot understand the uncertainty of her future, and because of this, cannot be concerned about it. And by living so deeply in the present, she helps Bill and me do the same.
Teenasia has made me question the categories I put people into — stranger, acquaintance, close friend, family. If two months ago I didn’t even know Teenasia and now she is like a daughter to me, what potential might my other relationships hold, if only I gave them a chance? How many opportunities do I miss for loving others because I’m looking towards the future instead of living in the present?
Teenasia reminds me that Jesus’ command, “Love one another” does not carry with it the promise of a long-term relationship with the one being loved. “Love one another” is a command made with Jesus’ knowledge that when we love people, they flourish. When we love others, they have the opportunity to become, more fully, the people they were created to be. Love, in its purest state, always transforms. But it never guarantees we’ll have a tomorrow.
Teenasia came to us at age 15 months without shoes and barely able to stand. She had a double ear infection, a scalp infection and sores in her mouth. She had never slept in a crib before and woke every hour of each night. She did not smile for the first two days she was with our family.
Now, she walks well and delights us with her giggly, outgoing personality. Her infections and sores have cleared and she sleeps in her crib all night long. She is happy and content. And while I may never be able to answer the daily question of “How long will she be with you?” I am able to say that Teenasia has been loved every minute of the 9 weeks she’s been part of our family. And whether she leaves when she is 18 months old, or stays until she is 18 years, I know she will go out of our home stronger than she was when she came.
As I was working on this column, I had to put it aside to work on something else. I hit the “close” button of my document, titled simply “Teenasia,” and because I forgot to save, a message flashed on my screen.
“Do you want to save the changes you have made to ‘Teenasia’?” it asked.
I pressed yes.

Because I do want to save the changes.

Friday, April 4, 2003

April, 2003: Thankfulness in kids

Teenasia, our two-year-old foster daughter, is a good talker. While came to us at 16 months with no words at all, she now makes up for that initial silence with a steady stream of comments about the world around her. She can name body parts and household objects, family members and favorite foods. She has even started stringing words together: “Wanna pretzel, Mom” or “I do it self.”
            My favorite phrase of hers, however, is “gank you.” Teenasia “ganks” us for everything. Breakfast in the morning. A drink before bed. Zipping her zipper. Blowing her nose. When her brothers hand her an out-of-reach toy or help her hold a crayon, she often responds with a hearty, “Gank you, Liam” or “Gank you, Gacob.”
            Both Liam and Jacob — 5 and 8 — are reasonably polite kids and usually remember their manners, but Teenasia has brought the art of thanking to a new level and often remembers when they forget. At the risk of sounding annoyingly braggy, I will state that Teenasia may be gifted at gratitude.
            Teenasia’s “ganking” has made me think about thankfulness more this Thanksgiving season than I ever have before. And in thinking about thankfulness, I’ve come to a startling discovery. Thankfulness, in its deepest form, is love. Thankfulness is what makes us strong.
            The other day, I was passing out pancakes to my ravenous children. They inhaled them so quickly, I could hardly finish pouring another round on the griddle before they were ready for more. As I tossed two more pancakes onto Liam’s plate, he suddenly looked at me and said, “You always get your pancakes last, Mom. You give us ours first. That’s generous.” As I blinked my surprise, he added that “generous” was a new word for him, and wasn’t I surprised he knew it?
            I was surprised he knew generous (or “gener-wuss” as he said it) but I was more surprised he noticed I got my pancakes last, and that he appreciated it.
            Seeing gratitude in my children has made me think about my own gratitude in my relationship with God. Liam’s comments made me feel proud of him — a moment of, “He gets it; he’s seeing me; he’s not thinking the pancakes just materialized out of nowhere.”  Could it be God has a similar reaction when I pray in a spirit of thanksgiving?  I imagine God chuckling, “She finally understands this is not coincidence or her own doing, but rather my hand at work in her life.”
            Thanking another person — or thanking God — requires the thanker to spend a moment outside of himself or herself. Gratitude is recognition of the other, and we cannot recognize the other if we are too focused on ourselves.
I don’t know if I demand more “pleases” or “thank you’s” out of my children than does the average mother. I do know however, that those words were drilled into me at an early age and when I became a parent myself, I passed on the tradition. It made sense to me that if being a child means you get your cereal poured for you, your shoes tied, and (if you’re lucky) cookies baked and given to you warm and gooey with a glass of cold milk, the least you can do is say “thanks.”
By teaching children to be thankful, we are giving them a lifetime gift. The exact opposite of being a thankful person is being a complainer, and as far as I can tell, complainers have awful lives. For a complainer, nothing is cooked well enough in restaurants or arranged conveniently enough in stores. Everything about their jobs, families and relationships is a difficult trial.
While we all have legitimate complaints at times, I would never want one of my children to grow up with an attitude focused on the negative. The best way to make sure my children find joy in their adult lives is to teach them to be thankful as children. Thankfulness, when learned young, becomes a habit and a vantage point.
A spirit of thankfulness will make my children stronger. They will be better able to look outside themselves and serve those people who truly do not have as much to be thankful for. They will have fuller relationships, because they will be accustomed to looking for the gift — not the flaw — in their neighbor.

In our family, only three of the five of us have mastered the “th” sound. But that will not stop us from giving thanks this year. Whether it’s Teenasia’s “ganks” or Liam’s “sanks,” we’re a pretty grateful bunch. And I’m thankful for that.