What’s In Your Egg Basket?

Something happened.  Something went wrong, or maybe it didn’t.  Words that interrupted my idle thoughts as I stood at the kitchen sink,  face-to-face with dinner’s aftermath, cannot be taken back.  Even as I feel the blood rush through my legs and the empty space grow in my soul, I find solace in a cupcake.  It’s the last one, hidden in the back corner of the freezer, leftover from a forgotten celebration.  Rich chocolate of the most devilish kind, with a perfectly swirled pink vanilla piped frosting, made extra special with a fairy dusting of sparkling sugar…gone in an instant. The experts would probably call this emotional eating.  Alone on it’s plate, it beckoned, and I ate it.

If I get out to the coop at just the right time, I can get an egg that still feels warm to the touch.  Fresh from it’s laying hen, this egg rides in the cup holder of my car as I take the baby in to town for therapy. It acccompanies me across the road to the mailbox.  I hold it gingerly in my hand as I look around the farm, thinking of the blooms that will pepper the summer’s garden and imagining the tiny herd of goats that might one day entertain us in the pasture.  Everything seems to hold a bit more promise as I am reassured by the blue-green chicken egg that brings so much to me.

It’s an egg.  I could get a dozen eggs for a little more than a dollar at the grocery store.  

After what seemed like two hours but was actually just over ten minutes, I could feel his body melt into mine.  He made his way to the pink chair, my favorite one.  The storm had subsided, and Dan was home by now.  There were no more cupcakes, but I could get my egg basket, and I could see if there were any eggs to gather.  Even if the hens were done laying for the day, I would breathe the peace of the outside air and know that in this moment, I am okay.  We are okay, right now.  Even if I returned to the house with an empty basket, I would know, because of what it represents, that the basket is actually quite full, if not of eggs. 

There might be different things inside the basket on a given day. Pink sparkly cupcakes, my best well worn sweater, the anticipation of my sister’s visit, my special water bottle, the thought of my fairy roses and my Christmas milk punch: these are in my basket.  In it I can also find the way it feels when all is quiet, when I am washing the last plate, when bedtime has blanketed the little ones in a soft hush (at least for a few hours), when I am able to sneak down to the cellar to start my onion seeds in their fresh peat pots, and when the promise of spring is tangible in the form of garden catalogs that have begun to arrive two-a-day by mail.

To me, it’s much more than just an egg.

There are people, many people, in my egg basket, which is also full of robust donut shop coffee and baseball.  These people fill me up when I most need them, and even when I don’t know what I need.  One brings me ice cream in the middle of the night, another sends me a message that makes my stomach hurt from laughing, and another came to sit with me and did not mention one word about the cheese that stuck to the bottom of her shoe as she walked through my  kitchen.  

When the questions are bigger than the answers after a quarter century of parenting, when the pancakes burned because I had to step away from the griddle to mediate a fight, when I don’t want to look past today for fear of what I might see, and even when someone has eaten the last secret cupcake, I can go to the chicken coop with my egg basket, and I know that I will feel better for having gone.  Experts might think that this is emotional egg gathering.  Though I am far from an expert, I think it might be.  

I don’t think we can really know what is in someone else’s egg basket, at least not everything, anyway. It’s probably not even an egg.  For our deepest friendships, yes, we sometimes do know some of what the basket holds, or we can do our best to try to figure it out.  And even the thought of someone trying to understand what is inside can be enough to fill it up.

When the bread is baking, when my grown son calls to share his excitement at his new venture, when I take a minute to look at my vintage cookie jars, when my daughter’s eyes flash so brightly that I can nearly feel the warmth of her happiness, when the little boys drive their construction trucks in rare harmony, perched together atop the gravel pile; these are the times that I have enough to share my basket with others.  

I might miss the glory of the Northern Illinois sunset if I don’t hurry out now to close the chicken door for the night.  While I am out there, I will be sure to check for eggs one last time.

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What I Hope You Will Know

 

 “And just as the darkness got very dark, he bumped into his big fur mother, and she took her little fur child home in her arms and gave him his supper.”  –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown

Here is what I hope you will know: it is different.  Raising babies that I have birthed is not the same as raising children not born to me.  Do I love you, my children, differently?  I would like to think that love can rise above the unknown, and even that which is known but unthinkable.  I would like to think that love transcends all boundaries and fills the hollow spaces with what needs to be there.  The difference lies in circumstances, in history.  With my biological children, whom I have known since before you were born, the history is ours.  Together, we have been one.  For my children that came to me when the journey had already begun, for you that were matched to me by the stars and the forces beyond, at the expense of a different path and different players, the history is yours, mine, and others’.  Only eventually is it ours, too.

I hope you know that you are not fortunate or blessed to have me.  We have been given to one another in this life, and we have each other to stand alongside against our struggles.  There’s a place between wanting to cover up and hide away from all the bad things that happened, to pretend that they never were, and wishing I could share more than I even know, to help your actions and behavior make just a little more sense to others in a world of judgment.  I don’t want to make excuses, nor do I feel that I should hold your hand through all of the challenges and conflicts, which are almost daily, and which are often sporn from a place deep inside and from many yesterdays ago: a place from where the fallout never ceases.

I hope that some day, you can see yourself as I see you;  I hope that you will let others hear your laughter and let them see the real sparkle that dances in your eye.    I hope, too, that you know that when your day is guided by anger, grief, sadness, despair, and darkness, these hours will not define you, and you will not be alone.

I hope you will believe and understand that what “happened” is not for all to know.  I hope you understand and believe that you will be a strong adult for what you have overcome, but that you are still yet a child who is trying to find your place in a world that is not always gracious or forgiving.

When you fall, when you are shattered, I will do my very best to help pick up the pieces.  I know, though, that in the end it is up to you to forge the path to your future.  No matter where the path leads, you will always have a place here, at home.

I hope you hope, right along with me.

I hope you know, too, how very deeply you are loved, no matter how or when you arrived.  

 All of you.

“Sleep, sleep, our little fur child, out of the windiness, out of the wild.  Sleep warm in your fur all night long, in your little fur family.  This is a song.” –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown

Foster Parenting 101

My first son slept “like a baby” from his very early days.  As a well-rested young stay-at-home mom, I sometimes found myself making a bit of noise outside the nursery door by about nine in the morning, when I was ready for some company.

My second little boy did not follow this pattern, as he woke many times through the night for his first three years until, curiously, his baby brother, also prone to night waking, arrived.

I really didn’t mind getting up with the babies.  A mostly quiet house in the dark stillness of night offered a sense of peace, even serenity, which restored me much as if I had slept a full night.

I guess my little boys prepared me, but only in a small way, for the endless night wakings that were to come.  Now, the imagined demons in the night reach their accusatory hands toward me, and anxiety speeds through my insides as I wonder, “Am I enough?”

The dull ache in the hip of my nearly half-century old frame gives me pause as I move to the room at the west end of our farmhouse, listening outside the nursery door.  I am working hard at sleep training with this little one, because those every-two-hour wakings are no longer exactly enchanting.  I had read Margaret Wise Brown’s “Little Fur Family” (my miniature version bound in pretend fur) before putting him down tonight, and I am hoping the mother bear’s advice to “sleep warm in your fur, all night long” will do the trick.

Other than possibly my little fur-bound volume, though, there is really no book for any of this.

Over the years, people have asked many questions and made plenty of statements about fostering.  I am convinced that the vast majority of these questions and comments come from a place of curiosity, from well-intentioned people that are genuinely interested in our family.  I have decided to share some of these questions, along with the responses that I have to offer.

“Are they yours?”

They are my heartbeat; they are my priority.  They were born to another woman, and while they are with me, they are never completely mine, yet they are, without a doubt, my children.

“Why doesn’t she live with her real parents?” 

Many things relative to foster care are confidential.  It is not up to me to disclose this kind of information to the lady in line next to me at the bagel shop, but I can give you an idea.  As parents, we have much in common.  We love our children, and we work hard every day to do our best for them.  Sometimes, though, something happens…something unfortunate, something tragic,  something unexpected.  We may be just one “something” away from being unable to care for our own little ones.

“I could never give them back.”

I was reading through some of my old college files the other day.  Though the vision I had for myself twenty seven years ago is similar today, there are some detours.  I had seen myself pursuing higher education, with plans of fostering and adopting swirled together with one noble, starry-eyed wave of a magic wand, ending in a whole gaggle of little children.   I never made it to the PhD.   I did get the big family, but by no wave of a wand.  Rather, through the grief and pain of terminated parental rights, abandoned babies, and lives overcome by addiction and mental illness.   My family has also experienced the joy of working with birth parents whose children are returned home.  We don’t “give them back.”  We support them and love them as their fate is determined by the actions of others.   And yes, it is hard, whatever the outcome, but there can also be indescribable, unfathomable joy, and that truly is magic.

“How many are you going to have?”

If I had a crystal ball, I don’t think I would look.  At least, not yet.  No part of this is up to me.  We spend our days, and a call comes about a baby sibling to our son.  I wonder if I should pack up the bottles for good.  With my older children on the brink of adult life, I know the richness of motherhood, and while I learn so much from others, I sometimes forget what I used to know.

“Doesn’t this impact your marriage?”

Of course it does; however could it not?  We are destined for this, just as all the stars are numbered, there is reason and meaning behind all of our connections.  We could not do this alone.  Times are best when we work together.  After twenty-five years of marriage, we have learned ways to support one another.  Dan can tell when I have had too much; he knows when I am on the verge of tears, and my arms are sore from holding a writhing eight-year-old.  He gently takes over, and I can spend some mindless minutes peeling carrots.  I know, too, that if he slips upstairs to play his keyboard for a little while, this time will fill his soul so that he may be energized for the next round.

“Don’t you worry how this will affect your other kids?

I worry that my two-year-old will hear words that I hope he never repeats.  I worry that my daughter will learn certain things well before she should.  I worry that my children will see me cry, or that they will feel like I don’t have time for them.  I even worried about the cat when she was the subject of a bad experiment.  Then I see the collective joy of my little son and his baby brother as they chase each other around the kitchen.  I see the little sparkles shared between my girls as they talk about things that girls talk about.  I see in my grown sons a sense of compassion and understanding that can only come from having experienced this side of life.

We do this, plain and simple, because that is why we are here.

Today was a sunny Sunday, close to thirty degrees, and I felt only slightly guilty for calling an officer to help me install a car seat for our one-year-old.  I waited in my van outside the police station, and as he approached, I noticed that he looked slightly familiar.  I wondered if he was one of the many officers who had come to the scene during one of the four times this year we had to call for help for an out-of-control child.  He had done this many times before.  He flipped the seat over a couple times, adjusted a few latches, gave me some safety tips, and gave the car seat a final tug.  At one point, I looked sharply at this young policeman, beckoning him to pull up the details to my story.  He didn’t.  He did his job.  He was pleasant, kind, and unassuming toward the almost grandmotherly woman that needed help with the car seat for her baby.

There really are no answers to these questions.  We do what we do because out of all of this brokenness and sadness, there is a light.  I have seen it.  There is another day, another sun, and another chance for hope and healing.

There is, indeed, another story to be written.

And for now, “Sleep, sleep, my little fur child…”

Mercy

There’s nothing like an impending monitoring visit from the state’s licensing worker to motivate me to clean my toilets.  I have long since stopped worrying about most of the details that swirled through my brain in a jumbled checklist during our early years of fostering, but, still today, the toilets have to be clean before I can open the door for what is hardly a white glove inspection.  We have had other people’s precious children in and out of our home for eleven years now, but someone still comes to check up on us every six months because, as I so often tell my children for so many things, “it’s the rule.”

All nine of my kids were here this Christmas, and in the aftermath, there’s plenty of work left for me.   And when the little one is sleeping and the house is peaceful, I actually like to clean my house.  Even the toilets.

With my vinegar-and-water rag in hand, I studied what was before me in the downstairs bathroom, which also happens to be a laundry room: thick, weathered pine trim defines the opening to a closet under the stairs.  The smell inside that secret space, though not clearly definable, had been off-putting enough when we first moved in that I had to hang a basket of nag champa, my best incense, to make it as inviting as the century-old light fixture mounted proudly to an inside wall of this closet.  As my rag met the edge of the pine, I was drawn to hints of yellow-orange which almost seemed to cry out to beg my awareness.  In that moment, I did see the sun.   Our farmhouse was built in 1877.  Surely the washy beige, almost colorless wall, and the sunnier shade of a yesterday which can barely be determined, are not the only two colors to have graced these bathroom walls.  More than likely, there were many, many more.  More than likely, too, is that this was something other than a bathroom at some point in history.

It has been almost a year since I decided to let my hair dread.  If I had known that this journey would involve so much crazy looping and a really wild, tangled mess on most days for upwards of a year, two, or three, I doubt I would have stuck with it.  I would have combed it out and continued to wish for what will, as I know now, take years to mature.  Instead, I have forged on, embracing the knots, and tying my hair back when I have to go somewhere or clean something (or when a licensing worker is coming to my house).  I have decided to let this happen, to release control, because in the end, I am pretty sure that I am not in control anyway.  We have to start somewhere.

I wonder, too, had Dan and I known that so many years into standing up for our kids, hauling files and articles to the schools, keeping vigil through the night, doing our best to be consistent when we needed to and flexible when we could…explaining, begging, tolerating the same verbal rants over and again, being pelted by words which imply that this is all our fault, feeling fragile and vulnerable in our own home, and crying millions of tears, all in hopes of washing away the layers of paint, of pain, that cover, even hide, the time underneath…the years of life lived…would we have had the courage to begin this journey?

My kids have opened up the inside of my soul, and in some ways I know that time has painted over much of what I used to be.

My active little sprite tries to eat soap and lotion with the same passion his brother had, and occasionally, at six, still has.  I thought I might be clever and have at least five seconds of peace in the bathroom yesterday, so I put a safety lock on the low cabinet with the extra body wash and bars of Irish Spring.  Once he realized he couldn’t open the door, he took a few Frankenstein-style steps in front of the toilet (where I sat)  and managed to pull down the makeshift curtain (which was actually a Winnie-the Pooh crib sheet), exposing me in all my vulnerability to anyone that decided to drive down our country road.   At least it’s not well-traveled.

It’s still me inside.  And unless you know me, you might not really know me.  I might not really know my kids; I may never get to see their brightest suns.  There’s much more to them, and to me, that anyone may ever know.  Yet I am at their mercy, as they are at mine.

The licensing worker was in and out of our home pretty quickly that day; we are good for another six months.  I wonder if he would have noticed if my toilets hadn’t been clean.  As I gathered the basket of laundry to take upstairs, I noticed my neatly folded underwear, two pair, on the laundry table, and I wondered if the state worker, too, had seen them.  At least they were clean.

 

 Sparkly Things and Fancy Little Animals

 
I have no idea when the fascination first began.  It was never really an obsession, but rather something that I would allow myself to think of from time to time.   My mind would wander to some sort of enchanted place where dogs would be smiling and wearing overalls, lambs would ride little bicycles with bunches of flowers in their handle baskets, and mother cats dressed in Sunday finery would push ivory wicker carriages that held twin kittens tucked beneath sweetly embroidered cotton blankets.

The escalating turns of a little boy sparring match from around the corner bring me back to the present.   Later that evening, the dull ache in my hip and the scratch marks on my forearm remind me that my eight year old son will only get bigger and stronger, and that there will come a day when I can no longer hold him to keep us all safe from the tempest of his writhing body.  In that moment, earlier in the day, though, we were able to weather the storm at hand.

It takes a bit of might and determination to will the tears back as I think of his smallness in the wake of his overwhelming angst, and how things will have to be different when he grows older.  I cannot hold that thought, though, because right now, just as the ducks sit cross legged for a picnic of buttered croissants and strawberries on the clover-massed lawn, all is peaceful and well.

Our young mom coffee shop meet ups evolved over the years, and our beloved Chocolate Moon has long since closed.   My family moved away.  It seemed in the blink of an eye, my longtime friend Kathy’s toddlers turned to teenagers with their own games and recitals.  My older sons, too, were scarcely available when we were able to find time, usually at a bookstore somewhere between our two towns, to catch up over an afternoon latte.

There was always a baby (or maybe two) in tow on my end, and I was always grateful for Kathy’s capable  extra hands.  I would see the fancy little animals, the ones with pinafores and bunches of flowers, for sale at the bookstore, and I would admire them, out loud, for my friend knew.  She always did.

As a young teenager and beyond, I looked forward to my babysitting jobs as one of my peers might look forward to a homecoming dance or a trip to the mall.  I spent hours reading to my sweetest charges, Ryan and Daniel.  Daniel, the younger boy, would wait for me to turn the page and then point an eager toddler finger at the tiniest animal on the page.  Every time, and every page.  I don’t remember if I ever told his parents about that.  Little Daniel, too, loved small things.  I hope he still does.

Our Chicago friends gave us a gift certificate to the bookstore a few years ago.  When I had found the perfect family book with some funds to spare,  I bought myself one of those fancy little animals that were so much a part of my stolen reveries.  It was, after all, 25% off.

In the dark shadows on the hardest days, again I fight the demons along with the tears as I consider that when you live among those with mental illness, and maybe you also may not be far from a ledge of sorts, you need the little things.

A padded yellow envelope arrived from Kathy a few days before Christmas.  Inside was one of the tiny animals from the bookstore.  A little curly lamb, dressed in a pink sundress and seated proudly on a red train, now holds a place of honor on my kitchen windowsill and will forever be a reminder of the whimsy and delight that truly can be part of every day.

When we hope for something, when we love something, we have to believe, and we have to know, that one day, perhaps not even during this time on earth, that that something will come back to us, and we will know it, and it may even be wearing fancy sparkles.

💕Pink farmhouse table courtesy of my clever and lovely artist friend, Sue, who is fancy and sparkly, every single  day.

The Rainbow’s End

 Last summer, I spent at least ten hours in my garden every week.  It was the first time in all my years of gardening that when the leaves began to fall, the air turned cooler, and the blooms were mostly spent, I was able to put away my rose gloves and best weeder knowing that I had tended every square inch of this sacred space, and confident that, at least for now, my work here was done.  This summer, with the anticipated move to our farmhouse, the addition of a new foster baby to our family, and our struggles with the demons of mental illness, I have spent less than ten collective hours on my knees among the thorns, weeds, and unmatched solace of mother nature.

Sometimes, when I am thinking too hard, I wonder why I love the great game of baseball.  I look forward to listening to the radio every day, and I am secretly thankful for a late night West Coast game or even a rain delay, for I know that this means more time to anticipate, more time for the chatter of broadcasters, and, perhaps, a little something to distract me, to soften my reality, hours into the night.  At times I wonder, though, what it all means.   What really is the point of following baseball, day after day,  year after year?  And then, I remember how much joy this pastime brings into my life, and I think that maybe it doesn’t really have to mean anything at all to be worth something.

After a quarter century of parenting, I have earned an unenviable badge of honor: I have had two children in psychiatric hospitals at the same time for ten long days this July.

“Maybe if you were kinder to her…”

“Maybe if you were more firm with her…”

“She’s so sweet, and so charming!  I don’t see the issues.”

“Maybe if you just…”

Unless you have lived with a child with reactive attachment disorder, you really have no idea.

There are some thoughts that I won’t let myself entertain.  What would it be like?  What would be missing?  What would be lost?  I can’t think of what might be different or better, because there are no regrets.

“I’m never coming home.  Don’t call me; I’ll call you.  But I want my stuff.”

Armed with the watered down remains of yesterday’s latte and my Google map to Chicago Behavioral Hospital, I know I am not ready.  This is hard, hard stuff.  There is no book about it.  The pit in my stomach is not just because I, among the most nervous of drivers, have to travel the highway to meet my daughter for visiting hours.

I don’t know what to expect from my little girl, my frightened child, who is now nearly an adult.  What has she said? What has she yet to say?  Will her words come from that hurt place in her heart, from the place that knows only how to say things to keep a safe distance from those who care for her?  Will I once again feel the need to stand in my own defense as she casts, time and time again, the bitterest verbal stones?  Can those first, early wounds ever really heal? Do these patterns, these ways of walling herself from those who love her best, come from multiple caregivers and the abrupt disruption of early relationships?  Is this even worth wondering about?

There is no medication for reactive attachment disorder.

As she struggles to free herself from the pain inside, she knocks us down, time and again.

“She’s a teenager.”

“She’s hormonal.”

“Typical siblings.”

Attempts at comfort by those who mean well.  Yes, she is all of those.  And that makes it even scarier, for her, and for us.

These ramps and arrows confuse me as I navigate into the city.  So, too, do the messages that come from the lips of my child.

“Mom, I know I need to work on some things.  I do miss you guys.  I hope I can come home soon.”

The storm seemed to set in to the rhythm of my steps as I made my way to the car.  I braced myself for the drive home, which somehow did not seem nearly as daunting now that my visit was behind me.  The sky was certainly ominous; it seemed I would be driving right into it.  There was a great, bold flash of lightning against the stone gray sky, and just then the road curved to point me to clear skies.  The rain was light, and though I was too distracted to look for it, I knew there must be a rainbow somewhere.

I know, too, that whether or not I can find meaning on a given day, there will be a day, nonetheless, and I can listen to the game on the radio.  On that day, during that drive home, I listened to the Cubs win a great game.

Dan had taken some of the little kids on a bike ride, and I was able to steal forty-five minutes in the garden while the baby slept in his stroller.  My Bonica roses had always been glorious in their midsummer bloom, welcoming guests to our home with their fragrance and sweetness.  This year, though, there was just one lonely bloom in a thicket of thorns and dead wood.  I had already packed my rose gloves for the farm, so I braved pruning them to a just a few inches with some old work gloves.  My hands are sore, but I am hopeful the flowers will come back as before with new found strength.

And I know we are going to be okay.

 

Soul Emptying: Dreading Every Minute

Patty's Phone Photography 843

When things are going well, you almost forget about it.  In the brightest blue glaze of a surreal sky, frosted with opalescent pink clouds seeming to encapsulate you in their absolute wonder, the sun blinds the shadow and hides away the fear.  Then, with a trigger so indiscernible as never to make itself known, there is a clash of pained spirits, a conflict among hurt children.

After at least a decade of pining (mostly to myself), I stopped combing my hair.  Natural dreads, from what I understand, can take at least a year to upwards of three to look respectable (I suppose that means if you are of the camp that even thinks it is possible for dreads to be respectable).  I am determined.

There is a time of confrontation: guilty, perhaps, of a tiny crime such as wearing her sister’s best tank top without permission or eating the M&M’s that were supposed to be for the Emily Cookies.  Not even a big deal.

“I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have done that.  Do you forgive me?”

That’s all it would take in the moment, but those words are elusive.  The words that do come, though, are fast and fiery.  They find a place deep inside where my soul opens up, and the insecurities from my own early days pour out, breaking down my strength through a cascade of grief.  I can’t let her see, for her own burdens would flatten a mountain.   I can’t expect her to be sorry, grateful, or even kind.  Ever.

Maybe five or six sections of my hair now seem to have formed into baby dreads.  There is one section in the back of my head that I don’t even like looking at.  I’m glad it’s at the back of my head.  There are some mornings when I wake unsure that  I can face the day’s offerings.   If I go about my business without making eye contact unless I really have to, burying myself in pancake batter, signing field trip permissions, and generally doing “things” to soften the tension and to move the minutes along until the angst (with the unknown…but not really…source) dissipates or the bus arrives, whichever comes first.

“I hate you.  I hate you all.  I don’t want to be here.  I never did, and I never will.”

Never.  At the times when she needs comfort the most, she becomes unreachable.  What is she really looking for; what is she needing to know?  Why does she have to open every new package of food, put her mark on each notebook, and stir the batter exactly the same number of times as the preschooler?

She needs to know.  She needs to know that she matters just as much, again and again.  Still, it’s not enough.

Sometimes I think my hair is never really going to dread.

I am not giving up.  And I am not giving up on her.  I will continue to go to bat for her time and again, to try to explain her behaviors, to make excuses for why she took the teenager’s Ipod or threatened to bury another child under the school.

I don’t have to know what to say.  There is nothing to say.  I just have to keep going.

She is caught in a lie, and her deepest wounds open.  She misses her family.  She misses her life as it was before, however chaotic or unsafe.  And she tries to match the chaos inside her own soul by inciting conflict in every arena. This I have learned firsthand.

I wonder why I can’t ever be enough; why none of us can be enough; why nothing can ever be enough, except what cannot ever be.

We have been at it for a while now.  Just as with the knots in my hair, I like to think that there really are the tiniest changes happening with every passing minute, changes that let her know that we are are, indeed, going to stand by her, take care of her, and love her in our best way.

Forever.