Thursday, March 11, 2010

March 2010-- Bananas

During the Offertory, I started thinking about bananas.
            It was a Friday in Lent and I was at 8 a.m. Mass in part because Bill and I were going to have a staffing that afternoon with our foster daughter’s biological parents, her social workers, her guardian ad litem, the foster parents of her biological brothers and their social workers. Quarterly staffing meetings are often uncomfortable, sometimes volatile, and usually unproductive. Waking up the day of a staffing produces in me the same emotions as waking up the day of a scheduled tooth filling, but without the assurance of Novocain.
            And that’s why I had bananas on my mind.
            At the afternoon’s staff meeting I was planning to ask Teenasia’s biological father for permission to have her baptized and receive her First Communion. The social worker had asked him for permission a couple months earlier, and the answer had been an unequivocal no. Despite Teenasia’s father’s two-year no-contact order with his children, he still had parental rights, and as such, retained authority over decisions in his children’s lives in areas of religion, health and travel. He said “no” simply because he had the right to do so— refusing T the opportunity to cross state lines for our family vacation last summer; refusing to allow the medication that his son needed; and now, refusing permission to baptize.
            Complicating the matter was that Teenasia was focused on receiving First Communion in a way that went far beyond what I saw of my sons’ interest when they were second graders. “Of all the children in my class,” Mrs. Wong told me at conferences, “no one wants First Communion more than Teenasia.”  So I needed that permission — because Teenasia needed the permission. She had been hurt by her father enough.
            Bananas. I sat there in church, not feeling spiritual in the least. The readings did not produce that sense of resonance they sometimes do, as if the writers were speaking about my life in particular. The homily didn’t stir me. I was not moved by the congregation around me, the songs, responses or the petitions.
            The offertory song began and I realized I was there for the Eucharist, for the grace it offered, with a dry, matter-of-fact belief in the Eucharist that was suddenly reminding me of bananas.
            When I was a competitive runner in high school and college, I would get so nervous before races that I didn’t want to eat at all. I wasn’t hungry and had no desire to do anything but get the race over with. The morning of each race, though, I knew that whether I felt like it or not, my body needed energy. And so, dry-mouthed and sometimes slightly nauseous, I would force myself to eat a banana, knowing they were quick energy, easily digestible and provided 100 precious calories. I didn’t eat the banana because I felt strongly about the banana, or had a desire for the banana. Instead, I ate the banana because, strangely, I had faith in that banana. Not the kind of faith that makes you cry or tell your story of conversion. Rather, my faith in the banana was simply that I knew the banana had 100 calories, and those calories were going to work for me.
            Before the offertory song began, I had been alarmed by my own sense of spiritual apathy. I knew it was an important day; knew that I had chosen to attend Mass for a reason. I wanted to be buoyed by faith; I wanted emotion and connection to the liturgy around me.  Yet, as I sat, barely singing, watching the words in the hymnal go in and out of focus, I understood that I would take the Eucharist that day much as I used to eat bananas—without desire or emotion but with the knowledge that I was doing the most nourishing thing I could at that moment.      
            The gift bearers handed the bread and wine to the priest and I noted, without joy or excitement, that I would receive grace from the Eucharist that day— not because of anything that I was, but because of what the Eucharist was. The banana’s power was in the banana, not in my belief in the banana, and the same was true for the Eucharist. I would receive Christ, and Christ’s grace would fill me whether I desired it or not; whether I had emotion about it or not, whether I understood how it would happen or not. Bananas give energy and the Eucharist gives grace. My emotional state at the time of consumption of either was irrelevant.
            And so I received Communion. I went back to my pew, knelt down and did not pray. Could not pray. I just knelt there and looked around, feeling nervous and thinking of bananas.
            Later that afternoon, the grace came. It came so brightly and so well that I didn’t even have time to think of bananas. I brought to the staffing a letter Teenasia had written to our seminarian, explaining why she wanted to receive her First Communion. I told Teenasia’s father about how well she was doing in school; in sports; in her life at home. Her father nodded, listened and then asked if we had a picture of Teenasia playing soccer. I did not, but Bill opened his wallet, took out his picture of T in her M&I pink jersey, holding a soccer ball, and gave it to her father. Then I showed Teenasia’s father her letter; told him how much it would mean to Teenasia to be baptized; to be a Christian; to receive First Communion.
            Her father nodded, then said, “Well, if it’s what she wants. Okay.” He signed the necessary forms. He looked at the photo again. I blinked back my tears.
            T’s baptism will be April 18. Her First Communion will be May 2.

            We’ll have banana cream pie for dessert.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

March, 2010: Lent and foster care

Six years ago, when our foster daughter Teenasia was two, we had to give her up for Lent. She had lived with us just over a year at the time, and over the course of that year, her biological father took the parenting classes and met the conditions the court required for her to be placed in his custody. We knew that the timing of the return was such that she would be moved from our house right before Easter. That Lent stands out as the most difficult of my life. Week by week, Teenasia began spending more and more time with her biological father. A full day. An overnight. A weekend. Two weeks before Easter, my husband and I and our two sons, then five and nine, said goodbye by blessing her with the Irish prayer of “May the road rise to meet you,” and buckled her into the car seat in the back of the social worker’s car. I remember waving as the car turned the corner, hoping that the Children’s Court judge knew what he was doing in putting T in her biological father’s custody, but not really believing that he did.
            It was my belief in the Resurrection that got me through. We went on vacation with the boys that spring break and happened upon an amazing Mass on Easter Sunday. The congregation was beautifully multicultural; the readings and homily were radiant with life; the music inspiring. Yes, the Mass said to me, yes, Jesus died on the cross. But now he lives. I thought of T and hung onto the Resurrection.
            Two more Lents and Easters passed by. We received another foster child, Jamie, and adopted her. She wore a pink frilly dress for her first Easter with our family and a blue one for her second. I wondered if Jamie was our Resurrection.
            Then suddenly, in the summer of 2006, Teenasia was detained from the custody of her father once again. She was once again placed with us. Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe this is her Resurrection. But after six months with us, her father once again met conditions for her return. And we once again said goodbye, did our Irish blessing, and sent a tearful T back to her father.  And at that point, I really thought I had my Resurrection theory all wrong.
            After T had been back with her father about six months, the Court told us there was no chance we’d ever see her again. “The placement is absolutely stable,” Teenasia’s court-appointed guardian said. “I have no reservations about the return of this child to her biological father.” Bill and I knew he was dead wrong, but had no legal recourse.
             As distraught as we were with Teenasia’s return to her biological father, we knew there was still profound need in the foster care system for adoptive parents, and decided it was time to adopt another child. We went through the licensing, the home study, the interviews. We requested that our placement be a girl, younger than Jamie, so as not to disrupt the birth order. And on the very day that we were supposed to be placed with a new child— just over a year since Teenasia had been taken away from us that second time— our little girl was once again detained from the custody of her biological father.  “She needs placement right now,” the emergency-placement social worker said over the phone. “Can you take her?”
            Teenasia was sitting at our kitchen table a half hour later. And once again, I believed in the Resurrection. 
            This Lent, T has been with us a little over two years since she arrived for that third time. Her biological mother and father have court-ordered no-contact with T. Milwaukee’s Children’s Court system has scheduled a trial to terminate their parental rights in early summer. T is eight now, and lives with wounds I will never fully understand. But she also exhibits joy, resiliency and faith that I wouldn’t have believed possible, if I had not experienced them firsthand. Our family’s journey with T has been our own passion—a cycle of suffering and new life. We are still awaiting the Resurrection. Still waiting to adopt Teenasia. This Lent, we may get several steps closer. And next Lent, we may be all the way there.
            Teenasia has forever changed Lent for me. She has changed how I view waiting; and how I view suffering. Because of my daughter, I better understand the weight of a cross and why Jesus fell three times. And because of my daughter, I pray I will one day better understand the Resurrection.

            Many people talk about giving up something for Lent or trying to start something new and good. And I see the value in that—I’ve done it myself and I’ll do it again. But another approach to Lent is to take a look at an existing desert in our life; and to enter into that desert rather than try to sidestep it. Lent can be a time to acknowledge the weight of the cross we’ve been asked to bear and to give ourselves completely to the job of carrying that cross. Accept the suffering. Take on the suffering. But most importantly, believe that the suffering will lead to new life. Will lead to Resurrection.