Our foster daughter has been gone six months now. While I’ve referred to her by name in print in the past, now that she’s no longer a member of our household, I’ll just call her T. T came to us in February of 2003, age 14 months, and was given back to her birth father — who fulfilled his court-ordered conditions — this past March, 2004.
Throughout T’s year with us, one of the comments Bill and I heard a lot was, “I could never be a foster parent. I couldn’t give them back.”
But when you’re a foster parent, giving them back is part of the deal. In some ways, being a foster parent is like being a tornado shelter. When the storm is over, you come out of your shelter, spend a great deal of time cleaning and rebuilding, and then resume your life. To wish a child could stay is tantamount to wishing the his or her family’s storm — be it alcohol abuse, drug addiction or one of the many other effects of poverty — will level the original family, destroy it, make it unlivable. It happens, yes, but you don’t wish for it. In Milwaukee County, three of four foster children are returned to either a rehabilitated birth parent or a willing relative. The others, whose parents’ rights are terminated, are adopted by their foster family or another family.
Giving them back is part of the deal.
T’s birth father chose to sever contact with us after she was returned to him and we haven’t seen her since. The most difficult part, for me, seems to be over now. I think about her in little ways; when I find a marble on the floor and remember how I was always sweeping her mouth to check for small toys. Sometimes one of her socks shows up in the wash. I never know how it gets there, but then, the where and when of socks and laundry are a great mystery to me. We have photos of her mixed in with pictures of the boys, on the wall and in albums.
Bill and I both dream about her. Scary, searching dreams where we’re frantically looking for T, who is inexplicably lost. Somehow, in the dreams, we never remember she was returned to her father.
I often think of her when go for my daily run through Lincoln Park. Our Glendale neighborhood, just east of the park, is mostly white; the neighborhood just west of the park, in Milwaukee, is mostly black.
Running in Lincoln Park reminds me that too often, in Milwaukee, skin color is an “either” rather than a “both.” Either you’re white and you live and play here, or you’re black and you live and play there. Lincoln Park is a reminder that T, who is black, might not have had it easy in our white family, much as we loved her and she loved us. I know the family life she has been returned to won’t be easy either, but the large family picnics I run past are a hope for me — a hope that T’s family will heal to the extent that someday, she’ll have a family celebration of her own.
The time I remember T most, though, is during Eucharist at Mass. I never plan to see her then, but a memory nevertheless dashes in, a fast toddler with someplace to be. I see her scribbling with a fat orange crayon during the Consecration and feel her squirming weight in my arms as I walk up to Communion. Once, during the fraction rite, as the priest was pouring wine into four glasses, it reminded me of how many times the past year I poured juice for three kids, and now I pour for two. Our family fraction rite has changed. My boys are so used to seeing me cry during the Eucharist that I sometimes notice them peering over as we kneel, to see if I’ve started yet. We smile at each other in recognition of the strange, new ritual.
But from my vantage point of six months after T, I can honestly say that the joy of having had her far outweighs the hurt of having lost her. Six months after her leaving, we have been assured by her social worker that her family situation is stable enough that she is unlikely to bounce back into the foster care system. Knowing we aren’t needed for T anymore, we are once again ready to put our name on the list to accept another foster child. We don’t know who that child is, but many nights at dinner, our boys pray for that child after they pray for T.
“Bless T and bless whoever we’re going to get next,” one of them will say.
It’s not a prayer for tornadoes, but a prayer of recognition that tornadoes exist.
We are readying our shelter. Wondering if our shelter will be a temporary haven or a permanent home. And as we get ready, we are remembering T, knowing somehow, a part of her will join us in welcoming this new child.