Eyes

If our eyes are windows to our souls, the other features certainly help with interpretation.

The thoughts are higher, bigger, and more pervasive. There are questions in everything. Our world is different.

For some, it’s really the only world they know. A quandary in the world of child welfare is the often dumbfounding loyalty from a child to a parent who has hurt them, from a child who has suffered terrible things at the hands of those that they love best. This is not something that I could begin to understand until, through life experience, I could see it with my own eyes.

They loved, quite simply, because along with the hurt, there was also a lot of good. And that love, that good, carried them through the unthinkable. This life of hurt…and also of love…was what they knew.

I took my teenage daughter to the doctor for a routine physical last week. I was conscious of each door handle I touched, however hesitantly, and grateful that I hadn’t been asked to sign anything. Many times I reached for my hand sanitizer which I now carry in my purse.

Wearing twin masks that covered our noses and mouths, we walked the length of the clinic to the office of our longtime pediatrician, whose services we value even more in these days of uncertainty. A profound thought registered inside of me as I smiled at a young mother, also masked. I was unsure if she knew I smiled, though I am certain that the age lines at the corners of my eyes must have deepened. I really had no way of knowing if she returned my smile. Her glorious baby girl, perhaps six months old and the picture of happiness and joy, wearing a soft cotton floral dress and a matching headband, stood in her mother’s lap. The baby wore no mask, as they are not recommended for the youngest population. Her face was pure. There was no question that the baby was smiling, squealing, and showing the waiting patients her sparkly new teeth. Her bright eyes took in all there was to see. She looked to those around her, making eye contact and blowing raspberries.

No one, though, blew raspberries back to her. Not then.

The world outside that baby girl’s home is suddenly different from how her mother likely envisioned it would be. For me, and for my teenage daughter, it was a curious thing to see people out in public begin wearing masks. For this baby, for now, it will be what she knows, and how she sees most people.

She won’t see the facial expressions or smiles of passing strangers. Her interpretation of body language and communication in society will be different than mine. But it will be what she knows.

All my life, I have marveled at how those with sensory impairments navigate the world. My longtime friend works with children with visual impairments. She often shares stories of her small clients and the victories that they achieve and the ways that she supports them as they learn to grow within the world as they know and experience it. I have sat in homes of children and families that have learned to speak with their hands and to listen with their eyes. I am brought to my knees at the wonders of humankind.

Maybe I wear a mask when I am afraid to speak. Now, the mask may cover what I need to hear. The beautiful baby will learn to talk, communicate, and interpret language as she grows. There may, though be some differences from how babies learned before the world changed before us, and before we put on our masks.

I have lived through many hopeful experiences in the child welfare system, where things changed for a while. Hard things happened, and children were separated from their families. There was a period of time when things were different…confusing…sad…and where we all sometimes felt like covering our faces so that nobody would know that we were crying. Changes had to happen, and when they did, families were reunited. They were, though, forever changed by what they had been through.

To us, this time is unsettling. It seems we are missing out. That little baby, though, reminded me of all that we do have, even as we are forced to wear masks, masks which protect us from the unknown, masks which can keep all of us safe during this time of great uncertainty.

If I can’t see your smile, I hope to hear your laughter, and perhaps to feel your energy from six feet away.

“Without a noise, without my pride, I reach out from the inside.”

—Peter Gabriel, In Your Eyes

My View from the Back Seat: This Life-Altering Course of Parenting

I would always have someone with me, and I would never be lonely, not ever again.

At twenty-four, and I was about to have my first baby. Early Motherhood, though inherently challenging, treated me gently. It had been my deepest wish, to become a mother. With my new mom friends, I passed idle days walking to the Chocolate Moon for coffee, nursing my tiny sons, washing diapers, and learning to make wildflower jelly.

It’s just not that simple anymore.

It seemed a good idea to sit in the back seat with a tiny infant on the trips with our new family. I could keep an eye on the little being and feed him, entertain him, and clean him up if something happened to erupt. With him beside me, I knew he was safe.

When our second baby was born, his older brother was a bright and contemplative preschooler, capable of replacing a pacifier or making the little one laugh. I returned to the passenger seat for our family road trips, for an unsuspecting decade.

Our recent years have been peppered with people, with helpers that came to our home, that saw who I was deep inside, that saw the things I didn’t even know were inside of me; people that sometimes knew me better than my best friends. The helpers would come, some for short times and some for longer. I have never really known if we are better once they have gone, or if they were just there to help us pass the time.

And we have a lot of time to pass these days.

These were people that I didn’t want to need, people that I didn’t know we needed, and sometimes even people that we couldn’t live without.

At some point, after enough questionable behaviors and dangerous things, I started sitting in the back seat again, with all riders in strategic places to encourage the least amount of consternation. I have never really made my way out: not yet, anyway.

So many years in the back seat have made me question who I am, and who I thought I might be. It’s a lot of waiting…and a lot of hoping…that when my time is done, it will have been enough.

Sometimes the roads are easier. Maybe that’s part of the rhythm of the year, or because we are driving through the countryside instead of the city’s traffic. We try to make it uphill. We run out of gas. Maybe we are all a bit safer when I am in the back seat, or maybe it wouldn’t even matter.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if I just let them be, if I didn’t intervene, if I didn’t try to separate the brothers from their torment. Maybe I am not helping at all.

There are times, of course, when I am driving alone with a little person or two. There are times when I am hit by a flying boot, and when I have to drive with one hand and mediate a fight with the other.

It’s so hard for them to understand all of this; it’s so hard for us to see when we don’t understand, when we don’t even know what we need.

I miss the front seat for the little things: sitting alongside someone that I have loved for so much of my life, having idle conversation, sharing coffee from the cup holder, reading a book in peace. It’s a bit harder when I am in the back seat. I guess we have gotten used to it. Nearly thirty years have passed, and I am not yet back to this place that I once took for granted, that I abandoned by choice. I’m trying really hard to get back there.

I guess I got my wish, though…for I always have someone with me. Always. And I am far from lonely, especially when I am in the back seat.

Garbage Mom









Monday had a promising start: the sun shone brightly, and I had a few minutes to spare before I would be meeting my longtime friend, so I stopped at the post office. Two pairs of ladies occupied the lobby in front of me; both sets engaged in separate conversations.

The first pair consisted of the very pleasant post office clerk and a vibrant middle-aged customer whose hair was tied in a floral bandanna and whose presence radiated some sort of energy that (I inferred from my unintended eavesdropping) was clearly born from the relaxation of a beach vacation.

The second pair, two ladies who were standing eight feet or so from the first pair, off to the side of the line and presumably finished with any mailing business that had brought them there in the first place, exchanged a bit more concern with each turn of their conversation, which seemed to involve some unfortunate surgical mishaps or medical disturbances.

The two stories, in that space of time, in the stiff environment of the post office, blended into one conversation that was at once uplifting and unsettling, depending on which part I allowed myself to focus.

What entered my brain from the post office lobby went something like this:

“So good to see you… what a lovely day we have…”

“He lost part of one foot, then the rest of it, then the other foot…”

“I have my list, and I’m sticking to it. We just got back last night….the sun’s out for us; how lovely…”

How lovely, indeed, and how tragic, this dichotomy of our lives.

“Horns from my head, wings from my shoulders…”

I hadn’t seen my friend in more than a year. We had worked together for a period of time, what seems like a lifetime ago.

She spoke of her children, now nearly grown, of places that she had visited, and about how she had been starting flowers from seed. We talked a bit about growing older, about worrying about things, about food, and about how much changes in a space of time….well, mostly.

She asked about each of my older children, whom she had known as the young children that they once were. I told her, too, about the trials of parenting this second wave of children.

The struggles are mighty. My older sons referred to me as “garbage” exactly zero times (out loud, anyway) during their collective years at home. This week alone, I have been called both “trash” and “garbage”, a “toddler” (because I cried; perhaps I earned that one), “lazy”, “mean”, and a “pig”. I have also been told that my glasses were pretty, my pajama pants were cool, and that I smelled good. I have been fallen asleep upon at least six times, and I have been given no less than twenty-seven crayon drawings, also in this week, which I chalk up to mean that I am loved.

So maybe one skill that I have learned is to let the insults, the comments spun in webs of anger, bounce from my back like a crumpled paper which, I suppose, could be classified as either garbage or trash, depending on the moment.

These days, we have therapy sessions and behavior plans in place of baseball practice and band…oh, wait…we have that, too…

“Quick, Mama, look up…your baby has grown up…”

My friend and I drank good coffee and ran out of time before we had run out of things to talk about. At some point it occurred to me that I could try to fight and defy the challenges that interrupt my path, or I could spend that same hour, minding my own business, in my garden. While I might not have control over my problems, which may not even be my problems in the first place, I can surely stand to breathe in something of nature even as I bend in defeat. I suppose, then, all would not be lost. There might even be a flower at some point, maybe some sunshine instead of the amputation of some toes, depending on how I see…or hear it.

My friend went back to her work late on that Monday morning, and I went home to meet my little son’s bus, wondering if he would still think that my glasses looked nice, or if he would give me a few more reasons to spend a late hour in the garden.

Song lyrics from “O Behold”, by Kevin Morby, courtesy of Sam who, for the record, never called me either “garbage” or “trash”

Fostering Words: Love Isn’t Enough, But At Least It’s Something

As a fresh spring chicken of a foster parent, I was given by one of my dearest friends a candy-pink shirt with the words, “Love is Not Enough” boldly stated for all to see. This puzzled me just a bit. “Hmm…we’ll see”, I thought to myself, as I wore it with pride.

That was about fifteen years ago.

Love, most definitely, is not enough.

Sometimes, I truly feel that I may have learned more about things through unfortunate experience than the professionals to whom I have brought my children for expert advice. I have felt the thoughts of some:

“You are making this up.”

“This is not a big deal.”

“I just don’t see it.”

Others, certainly, have sympathized. Many have been helpful. Some have been compassionate. Some have made me feel like I am doing it all wrong.

To that, I turn to look at my grown children, who come home to us, who remember what kind of soap I like, my best coffee drink, or what era vintage pottery makes me happy, who carry my groceries, who make a positive difference to others in their adult lives, who love me and whom I love, desperately.

And how I have loved, too, the little ones. Love alone, though, as I have seen, isn’t enough.

It’s not enough to melt what’s frozen inside, nor is it enough to erase the things that happened, perhaps, at the hands of the unknown. Not love, not anything, can make the hurt go.

It can, though, make the path just a little easier.

Lots of people talk about trauma these days, and it’s effect on the developing brain. Trauma changes people. Trauma also changes people that love people that have endured trauma.

As a foster parent, I learned a lot about behaviors that children who have been abused or neglected may exhibit: puzzling, disturbing, hard-to-handle behaviors.

Over the years, I have participated in several trauma workshops and classes. I have taken my children to therapists, neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, naturopaths, spiritual healers, and other specialists that may or may not have been able to make things easier or more understandable.

I have lain awake even on the rare nights when everyone else slept, worrying, wondering, and feeling all the things that could possibly fit inside of me.

Not long ago, a thought came to mind:

  • “Are we really helping these children to whom we have opened our doors? Are they better off in our care than they otherwise might have been?”
  • Sometimes, the answer is obvious. Often, though, it is more elusive.

    Multiple children come to the door wearing only the clothes on their backs but carrying much more than we can see. They bear witness, as do I, to the pain of one another until things are so mixed up that we can’t tell where the behaviors began.

    One child finds a peaceful space, but another must interrupt with his own, new found chaos as this is all he has known.

    So in trying to offer a safe place, have we just added to what is hard?

    I know there is no real answer to that question. There can’t be.

    Earlier in my tenure as a foster parent, I had often thought that it would have been helpful to know as much as possible about the pasts of the children in my care, but over the years that has really changed for me.  I feel like my job is to meet them where they are, and to help them embrace who they are, even the hard parts, and to let them tell their stories as they are ready.  It’s a hard job: it’s hard to be okay with just being, instead of always attempting to be helpful or trying to find a solution.

    I just hope that they will look back at the footprints one day when I am an old hen and see that they were deeply loved through the silence, and though love may not have been enough, at least it was something. And just maybe, they will return, with or without coffee.

    As for the pink shirt, I am not sure what became of it. My friend, though, was right.

    Darkness and Light

    My mom sent a photo. It’s hard even to think of my parents as senior citizens, though I am nearly one myself. The image shows participants in a charity race on a bright day, and front and center are my dad and my mom, both reflecting the sun, smiling and looking well…astoundingly so. They are eighty.

    I do worry about my aging parents, far away from me. For them, I hold the thought that theirs will be a long, fulfilling sunset to their lives, already well-lived. Their richest blessings are one another, and of that they are keenly aware.

    My older children are forging paths into their own trees, mountains, and skies. Their fleeting journeys here with me have evolved to include other pursuits, and I am here, hoping that they know what they stand for, and how deeply they are loved.

    Those still at home are my reasons to be here, too, right now, when the days, arduous as often they are, turn quickly to years.

    Aaron is sick. From his earliest days, he was the one to get pneumonia when the others had a sniffle. Still, at nearly ten, he seems to be hit hardest by these seasonal bugs. A sore throat, fever, and chills (“shimmers”, as he calls them) kept him (and me) from the last game of his fall baseball season, where his team played for the championship. I can hear him now, breathing erratically and talking about dragons, as he has fallen into a restless sleep.

    I worry that I will not be enough for all of these people to whom I have been entrusted as messenger. On the days where I fall short of keeping up, where even the thought of tearing down the mountain of legos or moving the discarded socks and sweatshirts to the laundry basket overwhelms me, it is then that I try to remind myself that it’s just a day, one day, and that I will have a chance again tomorrow.

    I worry that we will die before we are done living, but I suppose that most people do.

    It seemed a grand idea, to offer newborn chicks to my broody hen, in order to satisfy her mothering instincts and free her from months of occupying an empty nest. It shouldn’t matter that the nighttime temperatures were near freezing. Chicken Bernadette would keep her new babies safe and warm. We wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with the risk of having more roosters. These were rare breed female chicks, shipped to the local post office directly from my favorite hatchery.

    Aaron had a break in his fever when the call came; within half an hour, we were in the coop, opening the box and introducing the babies to their new family. Maybe it was just a little reminiscent of the days when I would hurry to the DCFS office to be entrusted with a tiny someone, for whatever reason, for however long.

    One of the babies did not look well. She was cold and barely responsive. We put her in the nest along with the other babies, and we hoped for the best through the darkness.

    It was a wakeful night. When I opened the coop at sunrise, Bernadette was still perched proudly on the nest. Two hours later, three of the babies were dead.

    Aaron’s fever would break and rise, more rhythmic than his breathing. Every chance I had, I checked the coop. The last little chick’s peep sounds reassured me that all was not lost; mother hen Bernadette was tending to her baby.

    At dusk, when I went to close the doors and to see that all of the chickens were tucked in for the night, I came upon the baby chick, who lay motionless outside the coop entrance. Bernadette was roosting with some of the other birds. Did she leave her baby out in the cold to die? Did I?

    There’s heartbreak in chicken keeping.

    There’s heartbreak in parenting.

    There’s heartbreak in living.

    It’s okay. It’s okay, even when it’s not, because when it’s not, we are probably not thinking of it.

    As parents, we try. Sometimes we aren’t enough. Sometimes we can’t be.

    I don’t know if I will sleep any better tonight. Aaron is restless, and his fever seems relentless. He is so hot and so cold at the same time. Soon, though, it will be spring again, and he will lace his cleats before heading to the field. There will be new baby chicks at the farm: rare breeds, from the hatchery, but also, perhaps, a feisty young rooster that hatched from a broody hen, if that’s what was meant to be.

    My big kids will have new plans.

    My parents will see more sunrises and sunsets, together.

    I will know that the day holds, maybe not the best or easiest lesson, but the right lesson, for me, for this day.

    Afterthoughts: A Foster Family

    It has been a few years now since my identity has fallen away. It was just a piece of paper, kept in a drawer most days, but it represented so much more than I would ever realize while it tied me to the words written in simple computer-generated letters. We had a family identification number, a maximum capacity, and regular licensing reviews and social worker visits. We no longer have any of those; our foster care license has long since expired. Now, though, we have much, much more.

    We have the reality that comes with signing on to a somewhat mysterious, intriguing, wholly encompassing and challenging pursuit.

    While the reasons that some have for fostering are different from those of others, our initial intentions from before we began echo much the same as they do nearly a decade-and-a-half later: we were not really sure where this journey would lead us.

    We have opened our doors and our arms; we have fought, fallen, and pulled ourselves up; we have been broken by the very acts of trying to ease the pain. We have realized that with more experience comes more uncertainty, and with more advocacy comes greater anxiety and fear.

    On the days when we have been so spent, so vulnerable, so completely usurped by the waves of emotion, we look forward to the quiet dark of night, and the comes a primal cry from someone who, unaware of the emotional states of others, needs what you didn’t know you had left to get her through yet another surge of hurt that has pulled her from her sleep.

    It’s your own box of burdens, maybe things that you would never have otherwise recalled, that opens up to haunt you, that begs to be set free, as you desperately try to make sense of how it has come to this.

    There’s a loneliness in the way that he hugged me. It made me believe that I, too, am lonely in a far-off, hollow, unidentifiable way.

    Some call foster carers “angels” or “saints”. Some of my children have called me “the devil”. I am none of those. I am human, as are we all, just trying to make sense of the nonsensical.

    We are all who we always have been.

    Foster care means a new rhythm to your days: a rhythm that holds no rhythm at all. Sometimes it means allegations thrown at the easy target. It means investigations, questions, and our own questioning of the very motives that brought us to this day.

    It means nearly forgetting who you are, or who you have been, in favor of becoming guarded, hardened, and weary. It means questioning yourself and wondering if even your own instincts are to be trusted in a place where blame and hyper vigilance abound. It means forever wondering if you have done the right thing.

    It means looking for the smallest things, the tiniest triumphs, in a field of fury.

    It means that once your license is gone, your life will not be as before. You are at once simpler and more complicated. Your family may have expanded, your limbs may be scratched or even broken, and you may no longer recognize yourself in the mirror. You may not look, too, for fear of what you might find.

    You will, though, have forged relationships with people and places that have caused your soul to grow. You will have stood arm-in-arm with others and will have borne their pain along with yours.

    You will lose your sense of purpose, only to realize that this was not up to you in the first place.

    You will look, eyes wide, to the Maker, and cry out from your soul for putting you in this place, in this life, because though we are torn we are all of this earth, for this moment of time.

    We’ll always be a foster family: all of us, collectively, through the connections that we have often fought to let go. There’s nothing separating us from the next person…not a piece of paper, not a harsh word, not a judgment.

    What I have learned, I guess, is that we will never know.

    *******************************

    The need for foster caregivers is always strong. Consider this if it may be part of your journey.

    So Was That It?

     

    Lush green foliage exploded up the century-old corn crib which had been transformed in recent years to a hobby farmer’s fancy. The lace white blooms of the Sweet Autumn clematis were a few weeks from showing, but the vine was rich and full. It would, we thought collectively, make the perfect backdrop for next summer’s wedding.

    At the end of last summer, when Sam and Emily walked the property and decided to have their wedding at the farm, the vines were as strong and breathtaking as the promise of young love.

    The rhythm of the year continued.

    As we marched through the snow and braced ourselves against the winds and record-breaking temperatures, we made plans, sketched our thoughts and wrote down our dreams, washed the barn, collected things, and waited…how we waited…for the long, cold winter to leave us alone in favor of what we longed for.

    Somewhere, a whole season was lost. The rains came down even as the preparations continued; the time-thief assured us that the wedding day was approaching. Clad in muck boots and with steps sluggish from the weeks of excessive rainfall, I visited the corn crib daily. Just a month out from the farm’s grandest event, the only evidence of my Sweet Autumn clematis was manifest in a few sorry shoots trying furiously to stretch forth from the flagstone at the base of the metal grid walls. Maybe soon, maybe tomorrow.

    As I cry out for all the things I can’t change, just to try to make myself feel better, my tears are peppered with thoughts that are too heavy for my soul.

    The sleepy perennials struggled to look respectable, but the calendar turned and the time was near.

    Through the mist and clouds, a gathering of hands arrived to transform the barn and grounds with sparkly lights, tiny flower vases, hand-chalked signs, and countless other touches to add to the glory of the day. Emily had used avocado seeds to dye cheesecloth a sunset pink, and her friends gathered branches from the yard and tied these into the cloth to make my vineless corn crib simply beautiful for the occasion.

    As I turned, I believe I saw the sun.

    It was a miraculous, magical afternoon and evening where high school sweethearts became man and wife, and where childhood turned a memory to many more.

    The evening following the wedding, Moses was getting undressed before his bath. Family members were still in town, but the party was clearly over. I was pouring lavender bubbles into the water when I heard his small voice: “So was that it? For the wedding?”

    Yes, dear one. That was it, for the wedding. That was it, for the Sweet Autumn clematis. And that was it, for your big brother’s time as a child on this earth.

    That was it for the wedding. It’s just the beginning, though, of what’s to come. At the threshold of this new life, a new love, the beginning of relationships, with glasses raised, hands together, we celebrate what we have been, who we are, and where we will one day be. There will be more sorrow, grief, unthinkable hard days, loneliness, rain, laughter, belonging, joy, celebration, and sun.

    I can’t remember if I made an audible response to my little son’s question. He, though, seemed to have moved on to selecting plastic boats from the bathtub toy basket.

    So that was it, for the wedding. That was not it for the adventurous supply of spirits for the anticipated day or for the tissue paper flowers handmade by a sweet sister which still hang elegantly from a sycamore branch in the barn. That was not it for occasions to celebrate at the farm. And that was not it, I hope, for the Sweet Autumn clematis, though the splendor of its bloom could not have made for a brighter day.

    I love you, Sam and Emily.

    “Tomorrow will always come, and tomorrow may well bring the sun.”

    –Ben Howard, “Three Tree Town”

    If you find meaning in my writing, kindly share. My second book, “Ode to a Boy”, is now available at http://www.lulu.com.