Saturday, December 23, 2006

December, 2006: Goodbye, Teenasia, #2

Our foster daughter left three days before Christmas. Teenasia has been a member of our family twice in her five years. The first time, she came to us as a one-year-old — sad, scared, unable to walk, barely able to stand, and having never slept in a crib. Our boys were just four and eight when she came the first time. She left a little over a year later to go live with her father, the result of her father completing a year of parenting classes and supervised visits. She left a smart and outgoing two-year-old — a fast runner who could say the alphabet forward and partly backwards, too, thanks to the obsession Jacob and Liam had with singing the ABC song backwards.  “Stop singing it in front of T,” I’d tell them a few times a day. “You’re going to mix her up.” But T loved the song, and the boys loved the reaction they got from other people when they sang it, so T was returned to her biological father able to say, “Z, Y, X, W, V, U, T.”  I figured every family has its quirks, and in the scheme of things, this wasn’t such a bad one.
When T left the first time, we waited for six months before once again putting our name on the list to receive another foster child. The social worker assured us that there was little chance T would end up in foster care again. Jamie was the next foster child we received, and we adopted her after she had lived with us about six months. 
            The second time Teenasia came to live with us was this past September, and we weren’t expecting her at all. Bill and I had taken our name off the foster care call list once we adopted Jamie. Maybe once Jamie was in school, we’d consider foster care again, we agreed, but not now. With three kids plus Bill’s 125 eighth graders, we felt like we had enough people in our lives who needed our help finding either their socks or last night’s homework. But when Teenasia’s biological mother called us early one morning to tell us T had been detained from the custody of her dad, we knew we were entering the foster care ring once again, ready or not. 
In the weeks leading up to Teenasia’s placement with us, I had mixed feelings. While there was no doubt in my mind that this was the right thing to do — that indeed it was what God was calling us to do — I was afraid for how Teenasia’s arrival might affect our family. Teenasia was almost five and had lived a very difficult life compared to that of our own three children. I worried about what she might bring into the family. I worried what habits Jamie, just 20 months younger than Teenasia, might pick up from her. I worried that the boys might feel neglected because of all the energy I knew we’d need to devote to Teenasia. Two days before her arrival, though, Bill went to a bedding store, and chose a comforter for Teenasia’s new bed. I opened the bag, prepared to not like whatever Bill chose but ready to say it was great, nevertheless, because he made the effort to go and get it.
I took the comforter out. It was perfect. Yellow with pink, and dragonflies everywhere. Dragonflies, for me, are a sign of the presence of my friend Amy’s father. A gentle and caring man, he died two years ago, and Amy noticed that whenever she would pray to him or ask him for help, she would likely see a dragonfly. Amy’s father was a big fan of our family’s decision to be foster parents. Seeing the dragonflies on the comforter allayed my fears. Looking at the comforter, I understood that while the issues I was worried about could come to pass, they would not level our family. The dragonflies told that Mr. Galvin was involved. Saint Mr.Galvin.
Teenasia’s three months with us were the most intense three months I’ve had as a parent. The little girl who left us a happy, confident, backwards-alphabet-saying two-year-old came back to us at age five not knowing any letter except O. She sucked her thumb constantly, and was quick to anger and tears. She and Jamie needed almost constant supervision in order to play together appropriately. Bill and I dropped some of our regular volunteer commitments and concentrated on just keeping the family on track. But one month, then two months into her stay here, I felt like I was finding my rhythm and so was T. I began to see glimpses of the happy baby I once knew. Glimpses of the girl she could become.
Despite knowing the court’s plan was to reunite Teenasia with her father, I allowed my mind to see her growing up in our family. T and Jamie shared a room, and the word “Jamie” was the first thing Teenasia would shout after coming back from a visit with her father. Even as the social worker explained to us that Teenasia’s father had once again met the conditions for her return to him, Teenasia told us that she didn’t want to go back. She would cry before visiting him, and say she wanted to live here, with us. But what a five-year-old wants, and what indeed might be best for a five-year-old, is not the same as what the law has to say about that five-year-old’s future. What Teenasia’s father did to land his daughter in foster care was not serious enough, in the eyes of the court, to terminate his rights, or even to keep his daughter in foster care for longer than five months.
And so it was that three days before Christmas, we packed up all of Teenasia’s things, and said goodbye to her once again. We printed out the same Irish blessing prayer that we had said to her the first time she left, “May the Road Rise Up to Meet You.” Last time we said goodbye to her, Liam, just five, could not read well enough to participate in the prayer. This time, at eight, he was the only one reading by the end of the prayer as Bill, Jacob and I wiped our tears, unable to speak. Liam’s clear voice didn’t falter, though, and he blessed his sister as she left him once again.
May the wind always be at your back, Teenasia.
May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Until we meet again, Teenasia. May God hold you.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

December, 2006: For crying out loud

I cried at my wedding. After we exchanged the vows, I sat down next to Bill on the altar and the tears started. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those dainty women criers who can get a bit misty and then dab neatly at the mascara under their eyes. No. When I cry, my face scrunches up, my nose runs and my shoulders shake. A wedding guest told me later that she had thought something might be really wrong, like I didn’t want to marry Bill after all. But that wasn’t it. Sitting next to my brand-new husband on the altar, the enormity of the sacrament hit me. I had just promised to live my entire life with this one person—promise so big and so long that the church made the promise into a sacrament. Within the vows I recognized the sub-promises—promises about parenthood, good times, bad times, health and sickness. Within the vows I recognized I had made a promise not just about Bill, but about me and how I would spend my life. Within the vows I heard the whisper that God would be with us in all those times; that God had led us to this moment, and would be in all the moments that would follow. And so I wept—both overwhelmed with the hugeness of what we were undertaking and overwhelmed that God was part of it.
            The word sacrament is defined as a visible sign of God’s grace. I’ve noticed that in the years since our wedding, I cry more easily when either I receive a sacrament or witness someone else receiving one. I don’t really like crying in public, and I wish my tears weren’t so quick to come, but I have come to view my reaction to sacraments as natural. In the presence of God’s grace, I cry. I liken it to my fall allergies. In the presence of ragweed, I sneeze. It’s really not all that different. Both the crying and the sneezing are a physical reaction to something I know is real; something I can feel is real, but something I cannot see.
            Recently, our family went to Reconciliation. As I told the priest my sins, I began to cry. Jamie, who I was holding as I received the sacrament, looked alarmed. “Don’t be afraid of that man,” she said, wrapping her arms more tightly around my neck as we walked back to the pew when I was done.
            I was still wiping away my tears as I sat down next to eleven-year-old Jacob. Jacob has often seen me cry in church and wasn’t too surprised, but he did glance around to see who else was looking.
            “Mom, people are going to think you robbed a bank or something,” he whispered.
             It wasn’t the place to explain to Jacob that I wasn’t crying because my sins were so bad — I really don’t have time for the real glamorous or complicated sins--  but rather because in the moment of Reconciliation, I feel the grace of God. I feel God’s grace as I explain to the priest what I’ve done to separate myself from God, and I feel God’s grace in the absolution that follows. I feel God’s grace in the clean slate.
            I cry at baptisms—both those of our children and those of children of friends and family. Nowhere but baptism would anyone talk to new parents of their child’s eventual death, but baptism takes it on. Baptism reaches past adorable sleepers and ingenious baby gadgets to a place where we are reminded of the inherent dignity of human life. God’s grace in baptism is the affirmation of the child as a profound gift — the child as God’s instrument.
            Thankfully, I don’t cry at every Eucharist, just at select ones. Perhaps if I were truly present to each Eucharist I would cry at each. Often, though, Eucharist is the exact time of Mass that three-year-old Jamie and five-year-old T are drawing to the end of their quiet reserves. The fruit snacks were gobbled during the homily; pictures colored during the petitions; books flipped through during the offertory. By the time of the Eucharistic prayer, I’m just trying to keep the girls quiet and still so that those in the pew behind me can pray. The times I can remember crying at the Eucharist are times I’ve gone to church without the kids. Looking back at those moments, often my tears were tears of thanks — thanks for the strength that the Eucharist provides. And maybe a little bit of thanks to be at church without small children.
            I’ve never been to an ordination, and even though I was seventeen when I was confirmed, I don’t think I quite realized the significance of the sacrament enough to cry. If my children choose to be confirmed, I’ll no doubt cry at theirs, and maybe I’ll try to teach them enough about what they’re receiving to get them to cry as well. Jamie received the anointing of the sick once, and I did cry at that, but that might have been as much worry for her health as it was awe of the sacrament.
            I told a friend once of my embarrassment over all these sacramental tears. She, too, is quick to cry, and I was thinking that perhaps together we could think of a way to stop our public weeping, or at least contain it. But she gently redirected my thoughts.
             “In the face of God, we can’t help but cry,” she said. “Be thankful for your tears. Be thankful that the grace is real. When you stop crying, that’s when you need to wonder what is wrong.”    


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

October, 2006: Four kids

We have four kids.
I really never thought that such a sentence would refer to me. As a child, I knew I wanted to be both a mom and a writer. I fancied myself growing into a popular children’s book author, and I think my ten-year-old self might be disappointed to know that I’m well into my thirties with no Newberry in sight. I remember as a child, riding my bike with my doll in my front basket, planning how I could effectively be both a mom and a writer. I liked that my own mother stayed home with me as a child, and wanted to do the same, but didn’t want to “lose” too much time away from what I imagined as a phenomenally prolific writing career.  My plan was twins. I would get my writing career established before having children, then I would have twin girls.  Twins, unlike singleton births, would allow me to have two babies simultaneously, thus saving time waiting for two children to get through babyhood and the preschool years. I know this sounds like an unlikely thought for a child to have, but I spent a lot of time riding my bike and planning my future. I really thought it was an outstanding approach to being a working mom. My twins would have blond hair and I would dress them alike.
While my plan faded over time as I matured and began to understand that not everything in life can be so carefully strategized, I have to admit that I am still somewhat surprised to be the parent of four.
“T,” the foster child we had for over a year before we adopted our daughter Jamie, was removed from her father’s home. She is in foster care once again, and was placed with us last Friday. While “T” is ours only as a foster daughter, not an adoptive one (or even a pre-adoptive one), her presence in our home makes us parents of four.
There are plenty of jokes about big Catholic families, and while four children is still on the “small” side of a big family, four has ratcheted the intensity of our family life up a notch or two.
Four children mean that there is rarely a moment in the day when we’re not attending to someone’s needs. Three-year-old Jamie calls for a wipe in the bathroom; four-year-old T needs someone to open her granola bar; eight-year-old Liam is hoping that Dad will read him his spelling words and 11-year-old Jacob wants to tell us a story about recess. The little girls’ needs seem so acute and immediate that it’s easy to give them precedence over the older boys’ needs, which are more easily shelved. Liam, after all, will not start to scream if we don’t get on those spelling words right away, whereas Jamie — still in the bathroom — will.  Yet, if we don’t get to Liam and his words, the risk is that he will drift away from the words towards the basketball hoop outside, and by the time we notice this, and are ready to read him his words, we have set ourselves up for an argument. And just because Jacob, a quiet kid, a rule-follower, and a generally helpful fellow, will not complain when we say we don’t have time for his story about recess right now, doesn’t mean we should take advantage of that.
Just a week into my experience as mother of four, I do understand it will probably only get easier from here. T, new to our home, needs our supervision just about every moment so she can learn our rules and blend into our family. And Jamie and Liam, on either side of T in age, will not need as much reassurance of their place in the family and in their parents’ hearts, as time goes on.
But even when things get a little easier, four children is still twice as many kids as grown-ups. Eleven years into parenting, I feel like I am once again learning to how to manage my family. From experience, I know that every addition to the family requires a shifting of time and priorities until the right rhythm is found. Baby Jacob shook my world, yet now, I look at just having one baby around the house as something that would be incredibly easy. Each subsequent child pushed me to redefine how I used my time—how I balanced that child’s needs with what Bill and I needed in our marriage and with what I needed to remain a person in my own right, beyond being a mother. “T” is still so new to our family that the needs of our children are still trumping everything. Bill and I remarked that even at night, all we’re dreaming about is one child or another in a crisis. 

Yet as crazy as my life is right now, with overflowing hampers and toys scattered everywhere, I wouldn’t trade this family of mine— two lanky boys, two big-eyed girls — for those mythical easy twins who would have allowed a smoother and more literary life. My life is not how I imagined it as a wondering ten-year-old. I’ve written fewer pages than I would have thought. But I’ve given more hugs. Maybe the Newberry will wait for me, and maybe it will go the way of the blond-haired twins—a fantastic dream of a little girl on a bike. Time will tell.  But right now, my life is bursting with life itself. I’m a mother of four and I’m still getting used to that. And somewhere within me, the little girl on the bike is watching in awe.

Monday, September 11, 2006

September, 2006: Teenasia a second time? We'll see

Few women know instantly if they are pregnant. For most women, waiting to find out whether or not they’re pregnant requires waiting between a couple of weeks and a month. As high-tech as pregnancy tests have become, most cannot accurately detect the pregnancy hormone before a woman has missed a period.
            For women either especially eager to have a baby or especially eager not to, those weeks of waiting can be torturous. Every day is a question mark. Every free moment is a mental journey into the land of What-If. Those hoping for a baby try to hold down their hopes and quash their thoughts of pastel sleepers so as not to be too disappointed if it is not to be this month. Those praying not to be pregnant spend a month trying to assure themselves it won’t be—it can’t be. And yet their minds take them to a place where indeed it might be — and what then?
            I have somehow joined this group. Not because I’m pregnant, but because we received a phone call from our past foster daughter’s mother. T is in foster care again, haven been taken from her father’s home where she has lived for the past two years since leaving our family.  
            Teenasia lived with us for over a year, and when she left, we promised both her and ourselves that if she would ever end up in foster care again, she would be as welcome here as our own three children are.
            For a month and a half, Teenasia has been in a foster home with an elderly woman. For some reason, when she was taken from her father’s home, no one checked her records to learn about her year with us.  I have spoken to her social worker almost daily since Teenasia’s mom called us, and the social worker and her supervisor have been trying to cut through the bureaucratic red tape to transfer Teenasia to our home. Hence the waiting. I feel like I might be pregnant with an almost-five year old. An almost-five-year-old whose past two years may have very well been more difficult than anything I will experience in my life. Knowing the signs we received before Jamie came as a foster daughter, Bill and I are looking for signs in this situation. We’re finding them.
            Several days before her mother’s call, Bill had a dream that we adopted Teenasia. Both of us dream of her every so often, and I didn’t think too much of it when he told me about it. The morning following his dream, though, he went to give platelets. There, at the Blood Center, he saw an enormous picture of an African American girl who looked very much like Teenasia. Later, walking out of the Blood Center, he saw another photo, this time a close-up, of the same girl. When he got home, I asked him how it went. All he said was, “Something is up with Teenasia. Something’s wrong. I can feel it — we need to call her.” That day was Liam’s 8th birthday though, and we were busy with the party. The next day was my high school reunion, and we didn’t call then, either. Driving home from the reunion, though, Bill and I planned to call T the next day to set up a visit. Her mother called us early the next morning before we had that chance — called on my birthday.
            The weeks that followed that phone call were (and still are) emotionally-charged. Bill started going to daily Mass to pray for T and for God’s will to be done in her situation. The first day he went, the first reading was from Jeremiah, all about lamentations of a hurt daughter. That same day, I picked up a newspaper I rarely read, glanced at an article and found it was about children just being in our care for a short time—that they belong to God and we should consider all children as our own. While Bill was watching Jamie in the kiddie pool section of a water park, a small African American girl walked up to him and after asking if Jamie could swim, said simply, “It took me a long time to get here,” and walked away. And the next day, I picked up a bowl at my sister’s house and noticed words on the rim. I tend not to like pithy sayings and got ready to make fun of it in my mind as I read it. “There’s no such thing as somebody else’s child,” it said. I put it down carefully.
            With days to go until we find out if Teenasia will be moved here, there’s not much we can do except pray and wait. If she does come, she will come as a foster child. If she does come, she will likely live with us for awhile, only to be returned to her father after he once again completes the requirements needed to get her back.
I once wrote, when Teenasia lived with us the first time, that when Jesus said, “Love one another,” the words did not come with a guarantee that there would be a future with the ones we love. I wrote that Jesus’ commandment is a promise that love transforms, but is not a contract for a tomorrow with those we love.  We’ll see if I can believe those words one more time. We’ll see how we do at living with the heartbreak of loving a child and then letting her go, once again. No matter what, our pain will be easier than what Teenasia will go through, and that’s what I plan to remind myself of, during the difficult days.
Am I pregnant with an almost five-year-old? I’m preparing, but with hesitation. I’ve bought some size-five clothes and some shoes, but not too many. We have a bed ready, but I haven’t cleared out drawer space yet. We’ve told our children she will probably come, but if it doesn’t work out, we’ll keep visiting her, just like we did before.

Preparing with hesitation, I have joined a group of women who wait to know if a child is on the way. A group of women who know that if the answer is yes, everything will change.