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.

Advertisements

Trying to be a Farm Girl

My nine-year-old and a couple of his buddies were loading into our car after baseball practice. Before I had started the engine, he surprised me with what he had to tell his friends:

“My mom’s going to play stupid ‘Follaton Wood’.” He neglected to tell his teammates that he has been asking for that song each time we had been in the car together lately.

I wonder…when exactly do I fall from being a light to the darkness? When does the outside circle open, only to become a force with much to contribute to what that child will become?

I am abruptly reminded that no longer am I alone at my child’s center, at least not around his people; at least not in this situation.

Does he really think our song is stupid? Did he really mean that?

Do the words and influences of others change who we are?

Maybe it’s just a flippant remark, but what if our words impact another in a way that we could never even know, in a way that could alter a part of who they are?

I was called to pick third same boy up early from camp following a behavior episode. In trying to understand what had happened from an outsider’s perspective, my emotions clouded my reason. In his fit of anger and physical angst, my little boy related to me that he was told by staff that they could “control” him. To me, this was dumbfounding, as in our life of chaos and uncertainty, I have worked hard to make certain that my children know that though they cannot control the behavior of others, they are the only ones that can control their own. These words triggered my son into a further state of confusion and rage at the camp. Through my reflections I can understand that the camp staff wanted my son to know that there were rules to be followed and that the counselors were in charge, but the delivery of those words sent my son into a place of helplessness. The incident haunts me, and causes me to wonder if the words that I have so often used to instill courage and confidence have caused him fear in the arms of the outside world, where I was not there to guide and defend.

When my sister’s friend pointed out my awkwardness as I showed her the routine I had so arduously perfected to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, my dreams of performing with the American Ballet Theater smashed with the same unfortunate end as the chicken egg that I dropped on the floor of the coop this morning.

I wonder if my words have ever kept someone from dancing for the rest of their lifetime, or even for one song. For my child, I hope that he will lift others with what he chooses to say and do; that he that he will be able to include rather than exclude; that he will be a person that makes a difference; that he will grow up to be kind; that he will choose to include rather than exclude.

When I was a lonely young mom, I raised my hand to greet a neighbor that was waving enthusiastically in my direction, only for her to tell me that she was not waving at me, but at someone else in the distance.

We never know how our words or actions will affect someone else.

I was almost fifty when I finally began to understand crop rotation.

Blissfully planting my tomatoes in the same two square feet every summer, I had never really given deep thought to why my first effort, many moons ago, had been my greatest yield.

My gardening has always been a seat-of-the pants endeavor. I liked it, so I planted it. If things got crowded or if a plant did not do well, I moved it to a different spot. There wasn’t a book that taught me what I longed to know. Rather, my teacher was experience, sometimes with multiple trials over time.

I guess parenting has been a bit like that. We try. We give it what is our best effort at the time. Sometimes, often, we fail. We do what we know. Then we try to learn more, and we do it all over again.

Maybe I shouldn’t have planted that vine right there. Perhaps I should have fed that apple tree at an earlier time in the season. Perhaps I should not have let my daughter go to that party. Maybe I should have collected my son from camp that day without questioning a thing. Maybe I should have just let them eat ice cream for the second time today. After all, I eat it whenever I like.

We’re on our fourth year of keeping chickens. It’s going pretty well. I hadn’t thought that I could fall for a chicken, much less 34. I may not yet be a farm girl, but I am pretty sure I am officially a chicken keeper.

And…I am pretty good at drinking well water from a garden hose…does that count for anything?

While my chickens learn instinctively to retreat to the coop at dusk and to lay eggs in their nest boxes, I am not quite so lucky. There are many things that do not come naturally to me. Give me a little time, though, and I will do my best to learn. I will try. But I still won’t be able to dance. And those words, that admission, is actually a little bit liberating.

I won’t stop trying to be a farm girl. I hope I’ll get there some day.

As we neared our destination, one of the friends piped up from the back seat of the car: “I kind of like this song. It’s pretty good.” I may or may not have turned the volume just a bit higher, and in that moment, I didn’t have to say a word.

🐥❤️

“Follaton Wood”, by Ben Howard, is very much worth a listen.

Raccoon Vs. Chicken Vs. Me

As far as I could see, the gravel road stretched into the expanse of the dreary midday. The road seemed to lead to nowhere, but I felt as though I knew where I was going.

I must have waited at the edge of the road for at least twenty minutes. The wild grasses were so tall by this time of year, whatever time of year it actually was.

It wasn’t going to change; no matter how long I waited, watching for nothing in particular, I was not going to be able to see. I just took the risk, running along the edge of the road, where the gravel met up with the wild grass, faster than I had been able to move in recent memory.

I made it to the other side.

For a very long time, just over 30 years, I had been pining for a particular tattoo. The image is a simple moon and stars design, artwork from a formative album from my college days. A lifelong fear of needles and the audible thoughts of others over the years kept my little wish tucked away as just that, until last year when my son, already very much decorated, took me to a tattoo shop on our spring break trip to Florida.

In much the same way as I had to trust to get to the other side of the road, I got up in the chair and waited for my assigned artist, who just a few days earlier had to have his man parts repaired after what sounded like a most unsettling situation that was the topic of one-sided discussion for most of the nearly three-hour process of the manifestation of my dream.

Nancy, my Lavender Orpington hen, has been through some things. As a tiny chick, she spent time in isolation after a neck injury. I fed her with a dropper and before long, she was back with her young flock. Another time, she came up with an alarming cough for which we gave her a special chicken respiratory remedy for several days. Once again, she bounced back. Last fall, she again fell ill and, after several days of taking up residency in a brooder in the bathroom, she had a ride in the car for nearly an hour to a vet that had experience with chickens. She was okay.

One day last week, Nancy was not in her usual spot on the roost at dusk. It was a frigid night, with temperatures going well below zero by the morning. My post on social media inspired a trail of good wishes, and the next morning Nancy was discovered behind the feed bins, safe and warm.

On the day that I crossed the gravel road, I was wearing a light cottony dress which had caught upon some relenting brush and ripped in a few spots. Though winter’s aftermath had left great frozen shapes of black-gray which I often mistook for bear-or-raccoon vs. car mishaps along the road, I was wearing flip flops, one of which I lost as I hopped the fence in the snow…but I had to keep going. I didn’t want to look back, but I was afraid, too, of looking ahead.

Somehow, I had found my way into a school. There were gangs of people going place-to-place with stern determination. I had no purpose here. The heavy din of hurriedness broke momentarily. People gawked and stared as I asked for help.

“Can you show me the way out? I’m just trying to get outside.” I no longer felt assured that I had a destination, or even a purpose.

The small design on my arm was looking pretty good. It hurt, but it felt different from how I had expected it to feel. Then came the green.

“I’m having trouble with this color.” This time I felt a different kind of pain, less tolerable than before, and I wanted it to end. My artist again went over the area and seemed to cut deeper into my skin with each trial. Still, I envisioned the perfection of my finished design.

“Done!” The artist proclaimed his completion of my tattoo. He sprayed my arm with something before wrapping it with plastic and masking tape. I was hopeful.

The day after Nancy had been found safe in the coop, she fell victim to a raccoon attack. It was a young raccoon who, after the battle with Nancy that left her injured and motionless behind some plywood in a corner of the chicken run, stretched out in a corner of the coop in anticipation of meeting up with the ten-or-so chickens that perched on the roost in fear.

Nancy is not doing very well. We brought her in the house and treated her wounds. A stuffed rooster is perched on the bathroom counter, keeping vigil by the brooder that has all-to-often served as a place of safe-keeping for this ill-fated chicken. I fear she may be joining those flock mates that have gone before.

My tattoo is healed. The ink has faded, and I am left with a bit of scarring. The imperfections in the color are very evident, but only to those who know the original design. To others, that’s just how it is. I guess I like it that way. I like knowing that in spite of some unexpected challenges, healing can happen.

Once I opened the door to the school, I had no idea where I was or even where I was going. Even when I opened my eyes, still I didn’t know.

I think I like it that way.

When I look at Nancy, resting atop her fresh nest of pine shavings, with no competition whatsoever for the sunflower seeds and mealworms before her, sometimes she seems okay. At other times, she doesn’t. I think I am a lot like that, too. I think we all are.

Circus Freaks and an Animal Parade

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.

I had no idea what to do, so I did nothing.

Still, the days passed, and there was another sunrise, a ball of red-orange casting a spell of yellow softness onto the white snow, but only for a short time.

The hours pass with little fanfare, until dusk, until a strip of the brightest pink opens the clouds, swallows them up, and draws the curtain of darkness onto the night as my eyes close.

I am afraid of what I cannot see.

We were not expecting to be more of what we have already been. We didn’t know, though, that we would become less.

This winter season has seemed endless. One more day of short-stepping my way across the many-times-frozen expanse of the driveway, crunching along the top layer of compacted ice and snow to tend to my chickens, who attempt to venture only a few feet outside the run on most days.

The season of angst, too, has carried on. And that’s how it is.

We are circus freaks or an animal parade, embattled, defeated, yet still called to continue. I guess we’re not done yet.

Our eyes are open, but we can’t see.

The magnolia tree is budding out with the first hope of spring; I noticed it yesterday through the still-frosted living room window. It’s true: this season will yield to the next. The chickens will begin laying again, prolifically, and the baby chicks will arrive at the farm.

We don’t know what you have been through. We don’t know what has broken you. We don’t know how to uncover what’s real.

I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. I hope, with all that’s inside of me, that you can hear me.

Open My Eyes; Take Me To My People

It sure is cold outside.

She was as sweet a baby as ever I have known, and I was so happy that she was mine.

But actually, she wasn’t mine.

The first time I took her to the social services office to visit with her mom, I had dressed her in my daughter’s outfit, the one that had been my favorite from her early childhood. It was the softest pink cotton, a one-piece jumpsuit with rolled ankle cuffs. I have memories of my little girl wearing this in her first days home from Korea, when she was just the same age as my foster daughter. They both wore the leather little bird shoes, too, that I had saved all these years.

“They’re ugly.”

I looked up, perplexed.

“Those shoes. They’re ugly.”

The seasoned caseworker must have felt my heart sink . “I think they’re cute.” Her voice trailed away, but I know she knew.

I had entered the office, confident in my abilities of parenting another person’s child, but having no concept of the depth of feeling and emotion that each interaction could present. I left the office with someone else’s baby, and the first-hand experience that this journey was not going to be just about a little girl and her foster family. The picture was much bigger, much more important than that. The foster family, I would find out, would take a seat in the second row. This was about supporting families…this mom and this baby…not about a walk through my own pleasant memories as I dressed someone else’s little girl in my daughter’s jumpsuit.

Have I been blind? Have I been lost inside myself, in my own mind?”

–Natalie Merchant, “Carnival”

She had come with several bags full of clothing, some still with tags and others worn. For the next visit, and each visit thereafter, I chose an outfit from those bags.

It wasn’t really about clothes, though, for either of us. I was given the task of taking care of someone else’s child, and it was my job to do just that, and to never forget that she had someone that loved her first and best, and that I was a mere bridge of support between the two, for this moment in time.

It wasn’t long before this sweet baby was moved to the home of a relative. Family connections are so very important for children in care.

She had outgrown all of the clothing that had come along with her. The day she left, she was dressed in a brand new jogging suit that I had bought for her; the caseworker said her mama was going to love it.

She left in a driving snowstorm. My son, ten at the time, dissolved into a heap of tears on the floor of the bedroom where this little girl had slept for four months. He loved her deeply, as we all did. She was someone else’s child, and we were a stepping stone on her path. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t think it would be so hard.

These days we have a therapist here for one of the boys six days a week. We are grateful for the support, which has been long in coming. The outbursts, the holes in the walls, and the fear still abound, but now we have someone to share the burden, to stand by our sides, at least for the two-and-a-half hours while he is here. Most importantly, we have someone who sees the magnitude of the behaviors and its effect on the whole family; someone who acknowledges that we are, through it all, trying our best.

I was trying my best to be a good foster mom. My eyes are open, and I see that I am merely standing by, reminding myself of what is most important…because I know, until I don’t.

There is an online support group for chicken keepers. I am so worried about my precious flock in these arctic temperatures. “They’ll be fine” was the overwhelming response when I shared my fears with these people that I have never met. My wise friend, not a chicken keeper, but a keeper of much else, suggested some extra straw. I took her advice and added a bed of straw to the coops, right on top of the pine shavings. And I hoped.

I sometimes wonder if the therapists that work with our son believe that there is hope for him to learn other ways to express his emotions. I wonder, but I am afraid to ask. There is promise in the unknown. For me, too, there is fear. And for this boy, fear. For the young mother who watches another woman care for her daughter, there is an uncomfortable fear for what is or what is not to come.

Keep me safe, lie with me, stay beside me, don’t go.”

–Natalie Merchant, “Motherland”

I may be okay to lay here with my eyes closed, hoping tomorrow takes its sweet time in coming. I’m afraid to open the door to the chicken coop. Afraid to face another long day with no programming, I am secretly hoping that the challenging behaviors might take a snow day.

I found out some years later that my first little foster baby has thrived with her family. We had been a tiny part of this story, a part of our collective purpose.

About a month ago, I had an exchange with a fellow foster parent. She offered words that have carried me through more than just that day. She assured me that there would be healing, on this or that side of heaven. What she said has offered new hope and fuel along this often tiresome journey, where I have learned to rely on the support of others, of my people in faraway corners, of my tribe, in so many ways.

My lungs burned as I breathed in the twenty-degrees-below zero afternoon air from the quick trip to the coop to check on the chickens, but my hand was warm in my pocket from the egg laid by a hardy hen. I can do this, for another day, forever, as long as I am in good company.

XO🐥❤️

When the Gates Go Down: So Much I Wish I Could Say

I’m sorry.

I understand.

I mean I don’t understand, but I think I might know why. Not exactly…maybe…

I watch you. I can see you clutching your secrets tightly near your heart as you melt, ever so slowly, as a candle burning to nonexistence, into your grave.

I tried walking beside you, leading the way, following. There mustn’t have been room on the path, or maybe you couldn’t bear the thought of having company.

Let me help you with your bags. They must be heavy. Today, I am strong. I can help you bear your burdens, if only you let me.

But you don’t.

And you won’t.

I understand.

There’s no little crack, but rather the instant shattering of glass, with tiny fragments piercing my skin and creating a danger zone for anyone that should pass by.

We try our best to clean it up, but we can never put the glass together to make it whole. It has been broken in pieces for too long.

It’s former self is unrecognizable, as am I.

I am comforted by the rhythmic creaking of the rocking chair, and though the small beings have gone to sleep, the shadows are very much awake at this hour. Here, right now, is mystery in what is nearly still.

Someone that I had known half a lifetime ago comes to mind in a flood of tears. I don’t want her to pity me, stuck within the wrath of the minds of my own children.

When Elliott was a tiny boy, we would wait for Dan’s train to come in to the station. Sometimes, while we watched through the windows in the playroom, we could spot it as it made its way to the station. Our little bungalow on Clinton Avenue would shake just a bit at the passing of a train, and still that faraway rumble holds such wonder for me.

I am a messenger, here for a purpose that I have yet to discover. Sometimes, it seems , I am walking close to the gates. The horn blares, the lights flash, and I can feel the rumble of the nearby train coming from a distance. It’s too late to cross, for there would be too much to risk.

I thought I heard the voice of my friend. There was the flash of a hundred boxcars, red, brown, gold, and blue, shaking and shifting, keeping me from the other side. My heart raced as the last cars passed to the exaggerated blare of the train horn.

The gates lifted again, but my friend was not there. It had been too long. I may never see her again. Behind the danger of the gates and glass, there is a soul crying out for what it does not know.

And I understand.

Photo credit to Jeannette O’Toole, wherever she may be❤️.

Laughing

Sometimes,

I can see it getting closer,

But mostly, it’s really far away.

I try hard to keep it from coming back, but I can’t.

It’s fierce, lively, bright, sharp, glorious, and terribly sad, all at the same time.

Even from a distance, its force brings me to my knees.

I try to catch it, to hold it, to contain it. Rings of sage and flashes of yellow burst forth, laughing,

Laughing at me.

You’re a fool for trying.

I push it away, but it surrounds me, invades me, makes me small.

It’s always there. It’s everywhere.

Have mercy on me.

I’ll fall on my way back to where I thought I was going, again.

Again.