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.

Where We Are: My Medical Cannabis for Autism Update

“I had a great time. Can’t wait until next week.”

Well, that was a relief, because the faces he made during the hour-and-fifteen-minute basketball clinic had me believing otherwise.

We have come a long way, but we have so far yet to go. Four years ago on this day, I stepped out of character and shared testimony to a room full of people at the Holiday Inn in Countryside. I described, in two-and-a-half minutes, what it had been like to parent my son, and the frustrations and challenges that had led me to this place, on this day, pleading to have autism added to the list of conditions that could be legally treated with medical cannabis.

On this day, four years ago, autism was recommended but ultimately rejected by Illinois’ medical director. What followed was much campaigning seemingly to no avail, and a series of legal appeals that led nowhere but to disappointment.

Meanwhile, we struggled in the trenches through a few more hospitalizations, many medication changes, trials of alternative treatments, more physical holds, broken windows, damaged property, and defeated spirits.

We love our son. Thoughts of the future were overwhelming, as he continued to grow bigger and stronger, and the effects on everyone else were glaring.

Our psychiatrist recommended in-home applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy; eighteen months later, the services began, with a provider working in our home six days a week. Our son continued to attend the therapeutic school where he had gone since the second month of kindergarten.

It seemed that he would struggle each spring and fall, but we would manage to come out on the other side. Very slowly, we had seen some of the aggression subside. And then, a transition of one of the workers would set the shaky ship off course yet again.

We have had some successful times, and some good family times, even in the community. We have also had to drag ourselves through the dark waters of fear just as we thought the light was coming.

Time marched on. Late this summer, as my mind had been full of many, many things, I received surprise word from an attorney’s office and also the patient advocate (connected to us by our older son) who had sat by my side in that auditorium four years ago on this day. There had been no fireworks, no great celebratory feasts of which I was made aware, but autism had indeed been approved as a condition treatable with medical cannabis. This seemed to be the culmination of a fight that I had all but walked away from, only to have it circle back, it seems, in God’s timing.

The angst has begun to rise once again. It seems the boys take cues from one another, modeling negative behaviors and forgetting to be kind. We seem to forget where we were. We need something, and maybe this is finally it.

I was excited to contact our psychiatrist, a doctor who had been supportive of our journey to try to help our boy with medical cannabis, and who we first traveled many miles to see, and who we now see by virtual office as she has since moved across the country.

We were all set, it seemed…until the need arose for standardized testing which resulted in an autism spectrum diagnosis. I have a cabinet of paperwork on this child, and many files hold hospital reports, office notes, and clinical diagnoses of, among many other things, pervasive developmental disorder and autism spectrum disorder. The elusive standardized test, though, was nowhere in that cabinet, because it had never been done.

Lots of bad thoughts ran around in my head. What if, when we were this close, we were actually in a place where it never could be? What if, after all of this, his autism diagnosis could not be “officially” confirmed? Did it matter?

We have been hoping and rallying for about five years now. We owed him the chance. Our kind lead behavior analyst recommended a psychologist that could do the requested test. We waited about two weeks, made the trip for the testing, and waited three arduous weeks more.

The report came, and I wondered what I had wondered about, when, of course, we had known all along.

It was good to see our doctor’s response when I forwarded the report: “Received, thank you…I will move forward with the application…”

So we wait, once again. And again, we will wait when the application has been submitted to the state. But like everything else, it’s going to be okay. In this very moment, we are okay.

We are back at basketball clinic again, and our boy is smiling and joking around with the other participants. He misses a free throw, and still he smiles.

It has, though, been a rough week at home, for not just this boy. My body is sore from a few too many physical holds of writhing boys. I am glad the sun came back out today, as that always beckons a sense of hope from the darkness.

I am hoping that the time, this time, finally, is near.

*Many thanks to EVERYONE who has helped and supported us as we have desperately tried to make our way!

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.

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🐥❤️