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.