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.”