Tuesday, September 14, 2004

September, 2004: More than coincidence: Welcome Jamie!

I met my husband because of a spinning pencil.
            Bill was 22, a new college graduate recently moved back to Milwaukee. After a summer of living with his parents, a high school friend convinced him it was time to move out. The pages of apartment rentals in the Sunday paper seemed daunting to the guys, so Bill spun a pencil and announced that wherever it ended up pointing to, they would live.
            The point stopped on an ad for the apartment across the hall from where my college roommate and I were moving in.
            Meetings and beginnings are fascinating to me. Looking back on Bill and me moving in across from one another, I know now that there could not have been a better way that we could have met and started dating. I got to know Bill as we picked up our mail together; as we talked in the hall with our keys in the locks, not opening our doors. I took note of the environmental posters and the cross on his living room wall. He was glad to see I had a high quality bike. Bill’s subtle humor and thoughtful personality came through quietly and gradually. If I had instead met him while out with friends, I might not have slowed down enough to learn who he was.
            Thirteen years, one marriage, two sons and three foster children later, I think about the Holy Spirit present in that pencil spin. While I’m cautious about using the phrase, “It was meant to be,” I do believe God offers us opportunities through the people we come in contact with. God nudges us to meet those who could help us grow and learn or who could benefit from something we might be able to teach. Whether we seize the opportunity or not is where free will comes in. Yet, even as I hesitate to say, “It was meant to be,” it seems that sometimes, it is.
            We received our third foster child last week. The other two have been returned to family members. For the sake of confidentiality, I will call this new arrival Jamie. She is 14 months old, Latina and beautiful.
            Jamie has been in foster care for over a year, since she was two days old. Social Services called us a month ago to tell us about her situation. She was with a wonderful foster family, the social worker explained, but it was now looking like there was a chance her birth parents’ rights would be terminated. Because of this possibility, Jamie needed to be moved to a foster home where the parents were open to adoption, should this become necessary. Her current foster parents were in their 50’s and adopting baby  Jamie was not an option — they had grown biological children and an adopted 13-year-old. Bill and I said that we were interested and set up a time to meet.
            The night before we were to meet Jamie  for the first time, I went to my monthly book club meeting.
            I had not told the group about the potential foster child yet, and as we stood around drinking wine and chatting, Kris, a mom of two, turned to me and said, “I thought of you the other day. The grandmother of a girl on my son’s soccer team is a foster mother, and her foster baby needs to be moved. I told her I knew the perfect family — yours, but she said social services already picked out a family.”
            Something about the situation made me ask some follow-up questions. Was the woman white? Yes. Did she have a 13-year-old African American son? Yes. Was the baby about a year old and of Puerto Rican descent? Yes.
            In a metro area of over a million people, someone from my eight-person book club had met our soon-to-be foster daughter — had sat next to her at soccer games — and was telling me this twelve hours before I was due to meet her for the first time.
            “She’s darling,” Kris said, as we realized it had to be the same family. “You’ll love her. Her foster mother’s name is Judy.”
            Over the past month, as we have transitioned Jamie  to our home, there have been other profound coincidences —  spinning pencil moments —  that have made both her foster mother, Judy, and Bill and me pause.
            Judy’s best friend, another foster mom, turns out to be the foster mother Bill and I  invited over three years ago when we were first considering foster care — we had received her name from a friend of a friend. Listening to her story inspired us to sign up for the certification classes. We had not seen her since, but Judy sees her a few times a week.
            Jamie’s physical therapist, we learned, is Julie, a good friend of mine from college. Julie was working with Jamie one week, and when she heard the description of the family Jamie would be moving to, she recognized it as ours.
            Jamie shares a birth date with my friend’s brother who recently died unexpectedly.
            Judy told me her pastor doesn’t believe in coincidences — he calls them God-incidences, or incidences of God. My friend Amy calls them signs, and says once you start looking for them, they’re everywhere.

            To me, they will always be spinning pencil moments. A flash of the divine in the ordinary. A whisper from God, who is standing closer to us than we dare to hope; closer than we have the courage to believe. Spinning pencil moments. Not lightning bolts or thunder claps, just quiet reminders that the grace of God is here. Is everywhere. Welcome Jamie. 

Saturday, September 11, 2004

September, 2004: 10 year anniversary Mass

Last September, my husband Bill and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary, as did four of my roommates from my senior year at Marquette. The five of us and our husbands, along with two other Marquette couples and a total of 14 children, gathered in the middle of the Marquette campus at the St. Joan of Arc Chapel for a Mass and renewal of vows.
            As Marquette students, we had often attended 10 p.m. daily Mass together at the chapel. Now, thirteen years out of college, we were back in the tiny chapel. And the theme seemed to be sippy cups.
            As we prayed together, sang and broke bread, there was the constant underlying noise of small children. A book being dropped. A pacifier being thrown. A question being asked in a loud stage whisper. And occasionally, a wriggling, crying toddler who was quickly scooped up and taken outside the chapel for a few minutes. 
            We listened and prayed as we could, and the children participated in the liturgy as they were able. Jacob and Jeremiah, both 8, proclaimed the second reading together, and a few of the preschoolers brought up the gifts. It was not the quiet, reflective Joan of Arc Mass of our college days, nor was it nearly as formal or well-organized as our weddings. Instead, the liturgy bore witness to our mode of worship and of living right now — noisy and messy and full of interruptions, with the vows and the Eucharist in the middle of it all.
And I couldn’t help but think, as I stood with my friends and made those promises to my husband once again, that we all understood so much more of what we were promising this time around. We knew about arguments and tears; about loss of jobs and late nights with sick children; we even understood more about the true duration of a lifelong promise. There were no flowing white dresses to give us the illusion that we were beginning a fairy tale. And because of these things, I believe that our 10-year anniversary vows held more weight than our original ones could have hoped for. Having experienced both the joy and the sorrow of marriage, we were coming back for more. 
As our children watched, the older ones from their chairs, the younger ones in our arms, we vowed once again to be true to each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health; we vowed to love and honor each other all the days of our lives.

And then, our children, who somehow managed to make living those vows both more wonderful and more difficult than I could have imagined as a young bride, clapped for us as we kissed.

Saturday, September 4, 2004

September, 2004-- Jacob is 9!

Jacob, my oldest, is on the second floor of his school this year. Fourth grade. 22 steps above the primary grades. Not on the same floor as the kindergarteners anymore. He’s on a different level now, both literally and figuratively. Fourth grade is the beginning of the intermediate grades. Intermediate — in the middle. Jacob and his classmates are in the middle of childhood. Nine years old, they are halfway to 18. Halfway through grade school.
            And while I understand the whole point of parenthood is to help your child grow and develop — this is what God intends — I’m still getting used to being the mom of a larger-sized kid. Jacob’s clothes aren’t cute and tiny anymore and haven’t been for some time. I could wear his t-shirts if I wanted. (Yes, if I wanted to constantly walk around with large numbers on my back and chest.) If his feet continue to grow at their current rate, I should be able to fit into his shoes in a few months. Already, I have mistaken his black dress pants for cropped pants of my own; I hung them in my closet and only realized my error when I began to put them on and they stopped suddenly at my hips.
            Jacob is still a good ten inches shorter than I am, and I easily have forty pounds on him, but my days of being the expert at everything are clearly numbered. This summer, I had to admit that he is better than I in baseball. If I were to be completely honest, I would acknowledge this might have been true as many as two years ago, and quite certainly one, but this summer was the first summer I thought about it.
            We went to a park one afternoon, and I stood on the pitcher’s mound, Jacob’s sometime-position in little league, and I pitched to him. It looked so easy when I watched him from the stands, but as I struggled to get the ball over the plate, I apologized to my son for making him wait so long for a decent pitch.
            “That’s okay, Mom,” he said. “You pitch pretty well, for a writer.”
            My child was giving me qualified encouragement that I was doing okay. I wasn’t doing as well as him, of course — who would expect that? He wore the numbers. He was the baseball player. I was the mom. And the writer.
            And though I knew Jacob’s assessment of the situation was accurate, somehow in my mind, it wasn’t possible that Jacob could be better at baseball than me — after all, I was the one who taught him how to hold a bat in the first place. I was the one who pitched the enormous white whiffle ball directly at his fat red bat when he was a toddler, willing the ball to stop in mid-air so he could make contact. I called it a hit, even when it would more accurately be called a pitch that tapped the bat. And now he is better than me. Much better.
            I told my friend Eric, who has a two-year-old, that the day is coming when his daughter will be better than him at something.
            “It’s already here,” he said. “She can dance better. She has more rhythm.”
            I look at Jacob and know baseball is just the beginning of a long list of things he will one day do better than I. If early childhood was for learning basic skills, middle childhood is for refining those skills. And while one side of my heart cheers wildly for Jacob as he conquers long division, the strike zone, and increasingly adult-looking novels, the other side of my heart wants to freeze time. For the middle of childhood — age nine — is so clearly the beginning of something big. And I have learned from babyhood on that beginnings are fleeting. I am afraid that middles may be fleeting, too.
            He’s on the second floor this year. Halfway through grade school. Halfway through childhood. A tall, skinny kid with a huge appetite, a big smile and talents neither of us knows about yet.
I’m running to keep up.