Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Letter written by Liam to Teenasia

This is Liam's writing, to his younger sister: 

Dear Teenasia,
            Four years ago you officially entered my life with a bang. On September 30, 2011, a judge struck a gavel against a block of wood, and that crisp sound meant that you were officially part of my family; you were finally adopted after years in foster care. As incredible as the moment of adoption was, it was not as significant as the hundreds of much more ordinary, everyday experiences we have had together before and since that moment. These experiences—from the endless bike ride in Washington, D.C. to apple picking near the Kettle Moraine—have defined you as a member of my family and my sister. On this fourth anniversary of your adoption day, I want you to know how fortunate I feel to have you as my sister.
            You are an incredibly talented person. Your perseverance amazes me, your athletic ability impresses me, and your love and dedication to your family never ceases to astound me. You are very different from the average thirteen-year-old girl and I mean that in the best possible way. You catch the humor in everything, whether or not it was intended. You are undoubtedly the most observant person I know, while also being one of the most sensitive. Your optimistic and charismatic personality—still intact and not dimmed even after years of turmoil from different houses, foster families, and court cases in your first nine years of life—make you an inspiration. I know I do not always acknowledge your resilience, and it is commonplace that we start our day bickering about who gets to use the shower first, but that does not change how I feel. Our brother-sister competition is often frustrating and irritating, but it is part of being siblings, and deep down I know that as we overcome our differences, we will be closer as we get older. You are so deeply my sister—I feel it in everything we do, yet sometimes I notice the world has trouble recognizing that we are related. I know you notice it as well.
            We never talked to about the family trip in California--  what happened when we took the ride on the cable car. Mom paid for the cable car tickets, and we all found a space to stand as the car started to move. About two minutes later the ticket collector came back and said to Mom, “Excuse me, but which children are yours?” It was an understandable question, the operator couldn’t be expected to assume that a Puerto Rican girl, an African American girl, and a white boy were all siblings. Although I understood the ticket collector’s confusion, it still saddened me. The reality of the matter is that there is an image of what families are, and adoptive families don’t always fit that image.
            Adoption is a beautiful thing, and there is no reason why it should be so unusual. I am blessed to have you, Jacob, and Jamie in my life, and I would not have it any other way. I play, fight, eat, and pray with all of you and I treasure my unique relationship with each one of you. From my experience, adoption is the optimal gift, as both parties are on the receiving end. I was lucky enough to receive a sister, Mom and Dad were blessed with a daughter, and you got a loving family. This ultimate exchange is nothing short of miraculous, and it is something that can always be looked to as an example of the grace of God.
            In adopting you, Mom and Dad were putting complete and absolute trust in God. They couldn’t go on Consumer Reports and research until they found a daughter that fit their desired criteria, they had to believe that God would help them find a child that needed them, and just as importantly a child who would be able to prosper under their love, direction, and support. Prospering wasn’t easy, you had to learn the ABCs once as a todder, and learn them again when you came back after your years away, as a kindergartener. Moving back and forth has left its impact, but I have watched with joy as you have been able to climb your mountain of challenges, swim through your river of painful memories, and cross your desert of doubt. Your journey from one household and way of life to another hasn’t been easy or fast, and it is certainly not over, but though heaps of hard work, you have made an incredible amount of progress. You have prospered. You are amazing, and anyone who knows you well understands this. The years since your adoption have flown by and I have trouble accepting that you are already in eighth grade—last night during dinner I barely stopped myself from making a remark asking why you were talking about high school. Yes, I had to tell myself, she will be in high school next year. She’s not a little kid anymore. Your adoption is something incredible. It is an action that mirrors God’s love for humanity and I count myself blessed to have you in my life.


Big brother and little sister, from the beginning

            Over the summer, cleaning out big plastic tubs in the basement, I came across some newsletters, put together by Liam’s K4 teacher, Linda Kihslinger. Each day, Linda would have five children tell her about what was going on in their lives. She’d write down their comments—just couple sentences—and Xerox the page each day to be sent home to parents.  As I sat on the damp basement floor and re-read the newsletters, I was startled that the time had passed so quickly. Liam and his classmates were to be seniors in high school this year. It didn’t seem possible that it was 13 years ago that I was the parent helper in Mrs. K’s room, wiping the tables, cutting out large alphabet letters, pouring milk. Sitting on the floor, reading Liam’s words, as transcribed by Mrs. K, I remembered what was going on in Liam’s life, as a kindergartener.
            When Liam was four, Bill and I had just finished the final round of training and licensing we needed to become foster parents.
            “I’m going to get a foster child baby!” Liam said in the December, 2002 newsletter. “We saved Jacob’s and my crib for the baby. We needed to go to some classes and the teachers tell you what you need for a foster baby. I hope our foster baby will come on Christmas vacation.”
            What was significant to me, reading Liam’s entries, was how much ownership he took of the process. It wasn’t just Mom and Dad who were receiving a baby, it was the whole family. We all went to classes. We all needed to learn what to do. In the rite of baptism, the priest asks the parents, “Do you truly understand what you are undertaking?”  In adoption (which I believe should be a sacrament), we would do well to ask this of the entire family,  “Do you truly understand what you are undertaking?” because the whole family needs to be invested in order for there to be a successful outcome.
            “We almost got the baby two times, but not yet,” Liam reported in February of 2003. “We still have to wait. Maybe the next day you wake up. We got the car seat that I was using when I was little. It does not fit me any more.”
            Four-year-old Liam had no idea back then that toddler Teenasia would come into his life within the month, would live with us a year, only to be placed with her biological father for the following three years. Little Liam, preparing his old crib, lining up his stuffed animals in a welcoming pack, could not have imagined that Teenasia’s journey back and forth from her biological home to ours would go on for years, delaying her adoption until she was almost 10 and Liam was 13.
            “Somebody came to our house today, I do not know her name,” he reported in the spring, referencing the social worker who checked in each month. “She is one of the people who tell us who Teenasia will be with. I was watching her talk most of the time. Teenasia was crawling.”
             Most of Liam’s entries about Teenasia, though, have nothing to do with foster care and adoption. They are remarkable only in how deeply ordinary they are. A four-year-old boy talking about life with his one-year-old sister. “Now today, my mom and my baby were reading two pop-up books and my baby ripped one just by touching it. Then we gave her three baby books. She loved the baby books. Then we made lunch. I made cheese, bread and turkey.”
            And its the ordinariness of Liam’s life with Teenasia that is part of the undercurrent that kept Teenasia afloat even as the Bureau of Child Welfare and the State of Wisconsin botched repeated opportunities to prevent abuse and neglect. Whether Teenasia understood it or not, and whether Liam remembers it or not, Liam’s clear vision of Teenasia as sister helped carry her through those difficult years away from our family. Our life together in 2003 and 2004, with kindergartener Liam, second-grade Jacob and toddler Teenasia was nothing dramatic. It was a life of apple juice, Bob the Builder videos, and runny noses. And thankfully, Liam recorded a good deal of it with Mrs. K.
            In May, 2003: “Now because it’s warm, we can have a picnic, because when the sun shines warm, my baby doesn’t get cold.”  Was Teenasia able to hold onto some of the warmth from the sun that day, even as the Bureau and the State later placed her in a situation where she was deeply hurt? I believe she was. Not all of it. Some of that sun was eclipsed in the traumatic years that followed. But some of the warmth was retained. Warmth from a brother who was mostly was nothing more than regular, nothing more than ordinary, to his little sister.
            But most importantly, also nothing less.
            “Me and Teenasia took a bath.”
            Thank you Liam.