Thursday, September 17, 2015

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.

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