I Wish I Could Tell You

As a little girl, on my sick days from school, the best part of the day was the half hour when I could sit in my dad’s recliner in my pajamas and watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I found great comfort in staring at the trolley while it circled the neighborhood, where I could pass some of my time with this great man who had so much to show me. He always knew the right thing to say to make me feel better.

After nearly thirteen years of fostering, we surrendered our license, which was somehow at once sad and celebratory. During that tenure, one of the greatest challenges lay in trying to answer questions which were essentially unanswerable.

“When am I going home?”

“When can I see my mom?”

“Will I be staying here forever?”

As I, too, longed for answers to these questions, I knew it was my job to reassure, to be honest, to share what I knew could be understood, and, often impossibly, to comfort, even when the words I could provide were not what the children longed to hear.

When our license capacity had been and would be at the maximum for many years, when our final adoption was made official, and when the many needs of our family made the decision clear (well, maybe not to me…), it was time to close our doors to fostering.

It seemed, then, that the questions might stop.

They didn’t.

I know that the hard questions came from the birth families, too, who had loved and lost so much. At the judge’s decision, the life long grief is hardly an answer.

My children still wonder when they will see their birth parents, why they cannot be with their first families, if they had always been loved, and whether they will really be staying with us forever…because the formality of adoption, for many, is not enough to answer those questions.

The state of our recent days reminds me of the challenges of unanswerable questions.

“When is this dumb virus going to be over?”

“When can I see my friends? When can I ride dirt bikes with Ray (our revered family friend)?”

“When is baseball going to start?” (I am in on this one, too, for sure).

“When can we see the big kids? When can we go on an airplane to California?”

“Are we all going to die?”

Am I actually going to be able to help them through this? Because, really, I have no idea. No one does.

I guess I can try to apply the fostering philosophy for handling these questions, too, and I will likely wind up feeling just as bewildered in my inability to really give them what they need.

The truth is that we don’t know what we need. No one does. I wonder if we ever will again, or if we ever even did. If only Mr. Rogers was still here…

As my children are tucked safely in their beds each night, the stars shining high over the forest, in this home where they will be welcomed forever, I can’t help but think of those who, even in this period of great uncertainty, have even bigger questions. Those youth in care and those who have just aged out of the system have the same unanswerable questions that I have heard many times, only now there are harder and more uncertain, even more foreboding questions. An uncertain future in an uncertain world is just too much to bear…and far too much to bear alone, wondering.

In the night, the claps of thunder shook me awake, but then I heard the rumble of the train in the distance, in quiet competition with a soft, steady rain that carried on through most of today.

The wisdom of Mr. Rogers advises us to “look for the helpers”. These days, certainly, they are not hard to find.

I wonder, really, how best to be a helper in these overwhelming, often lonely times. Maybe just doing our best to listen to those questions and worries, maybe just being there, is being a helper. After all, we can’t really go anywhere…

Once the rain had passed, it really was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Loss

It’s helpful, necessary, and smart. It’s good practice. Also, it’s terrifying.

There’s no more solace to be found in the garden these days. “Put them to work with you,” advise the well-intentioned folks who do not understand my reality of the transformation of a tiny farmer that uses a three-quarter-scale shovel to scoop compost into a wheelbarrow, only to turn (in the time it takes to pull two weeds) on a brother who had let his thoughts escape into words. I can only hope to reach the angry pair before the shovel strikes.

It’s the images of the masks which hide the faces; the hands, including mine, fitted with gloves; the grocery store carts topped with hand sanitizer and bleach as though a disinfectant sundae was on the dinner menu; the plastic shields intended to protect the brave cashiers who come to work so we can eat; and the heaviness of fear, both known and unknown, that’s terrifying beyond measure. Terrifying, too, is that we don’t really even know what we’ve lost.

Maybe I should have wiped down all the packages from today’s supply runs. I didn’t. Maybe I just needed another thought to wake me at two in the morning, when the boys are actually sleeping.

I had envisioned a brightly-colored piñata hanging from the tree in the sunshine, with my little line of children barely able to contain their excitement. It would be a treat for us all during this time of uncertainty. The box came from Amazon, but I told them it was a surprise for the next day. One boy became incensed; he didn’t like surprises, and he hated me. “Sorry! It’s a piñata,” I blurted. “I thought it would be fun.” At that, another brother announced that he, too, hated me, and pretty much everything, because I had ruined the surprise.

Next, there were cartoon-style clouds of body parts swirling through the air to the tune of an anguished choir. Maybe we should have called for help. That concept, too, is terrifying for so many reasons.

Come tomorrow, I will have to decide what to do about the piñata. It might feel good for all of us to take a turn at striking.

There’s so much loss going on all around us…so much on top of what’s already there, most of which may be hidden so deeply within that we cannot call it up. It must come on its own, in its own time.

It’s hard to know how to help my children through all of this, when my band of supporters must keep a social distance or communicate over a screen.

Maybe it’s like hitting a piñata, where finally all the beating and shaking becomes too much, and it just breaks apart. What it once was is lost. The masks and sanitizer will just help soften the blow.

I did manage to get some seeds in the ground earlier in the day. In about a month, my lettuce will be ready to harvest, and soon I will be able to transplant the seeds that we started inside. There will also be sugar snaps, beets, and carrots to follow. By mid summer, I hope that we will have stored our medical gloves and masks away. I hope for a lot of things. We all do.

We’ll try to record our piñata adventure, if it even happens. My guess is that everyone will be lined up and ready to take a swing. Even me. Especially me.

You Always Did Love the Ocean

It was hard to discern where the brilliant blue sky became the ocean’s choppy waves, where the hope looked more like fear.

From his little spot in the Florida sun, my dad sends me things to read: funny and interesting things…things that he has found on the internet or in the newspaper, things that he hears the neighbors talking about, or things that he thinks will remind me of something from an earlier day. Many of these things are about baseball.

This year, we are going to have to wait for our great game. We are going to have to wait for a lot of things.

Sometimes I don’t get to these things right away; often I have the intention to return to my messages later in the day. Often, though, my time gets swept up in other things, and more messages come. I know there are some that I have yet to open, messages that my Dad knew would be worth the two minute read.

A car trip to the ocean to visit my parents who, though gracefully, are nonetheless aging, seemed like the perfect way to pass the time leading up to the start of our great game. I wanted my little boys to know them as our grown children do. With the ebb and flow of behaviors in our home, traveling has not been easy. We took a chance, and we planned our seventeen-hour car trip one week before the school’s spring break, just because the timing seemed right.

The night’s sparring match began with one brother wanting to play a racing game and the other not wanting to give up his Minecraft berth. The first brother, miraculously, decided it would be okay if the second brother kept on playing his game. Dumbfounded, I watched as the second brother announced and then acted out his rage that the first brother “gave in” to him. After some yelling and escalation, he stood, abandoning his game controller and the coveted spot on the couch.

When it gets hard, we sometimes go outside and run around the property. By now, he was shaking and crying, saying over and over how he didn’t want to be here, how he needed to go.

The hard part is that even if we could go somewhere, we wouldn’t know where to go.

First it was the play castle, an outside climbing toy that we had inherited from a good friend whose many children had hung up their capes and crowns years before. He ran at the castle, kicking, hitting, yelling and turning over a structure many times his size with the force of his fierce anger.

Next was the giant maple tree, pummeled by my strong little-leaguer’s strife, channeled through a baseball bat, which had been lying nearby. “I hate the tree. I hate everything,” he cried. Barely four feet tall, in this fit of angst, he had the strength of the tallest giant…the wrath of a little boy whose pain was taller than a hundred-year-old Maple tree.

I stood by him for what seemed a terribly long time, watching the fire burn from his tormented soul. I told him that I needed to lock up the chickens. Before I had reached the first coop, I turned to find that he had nearly caught up to me. Somewhere along the way, he had abandoned his baseball bat. He had also dispelled most of the rage, and he was ready to say goodnight to our flock. We closed the chicken doors. The hardest part of the night was behind us.

We spent a few minutes more walking around the property, looking for spring’s promise in the form of new buds on black raspberry canes, young apple trees, and fairy roses. He apologized to the castle and to the tree.

We were better.

If I had called for help in the height of his anguish, there might have been none. Instead, our earth provided.

Just days earlier, this boy had the ocean nearly to himself. For blissful hours, he caught the waves and dug for shells. I sat on the hot sand with my dad, who, in that moment, was healthy and well. The Florida sun shone on his skin. He turned to me as he looked out onto the waves of the coming tide.

“You always did love the ocean, didn’t you?” he asked, but his question begged no answer.

The waves became more rough and uncertain with each news report. Our long-awaited getaway was overshadowed by fear and anxiety of the unknown. We cut our trip short, and drove across the country, barely stopping for an hour.

We have been ravaged and beaten by something that is beyond understanding. Did we do wrong by trying to travel at the early rumblings of what was to come? Will we be together again?

Even baseball is canceled.

We’re all fighting against the castles and the trees to find what we’ve lost.

I hope I have read all the messages.

It’s such a glorious time of year; it’s so easy to see God’s work and to know which branches to prune. It’s a clear, familiar path. It’s meaning, though, is elusive. Tomorrow was supposed to be opening day.

My son had a better day today. He had not said much other than to utter a few groans before we sat down to begin our school day at home. I looked over his shoulder to see that he was, indeed, working on his math.

Maybe we’ll make it to a baseball game this season: my dad, my son, and me, once this is all behind us. And hopefully, we will make it back to the ocean before sunset.

A Hero’s Hand

“Don’t let anyone say that it’s just a game…”

A friend mentioned that in just a few weeks, it will be time for pitchers and catchers to report to training camp. He didn’t really have to remind me, though, as I have been looking desperately forward to a fresh season since my befallen heroes hung up their cleats as the ivy turned last year.

There had been momentary struggles with this boy through the years, the most epic of which paled in comparison, though, to the regular antics of a couple of his siblings. Aaron had been through much in his ten years: the losses that come through foster care and adoption, obscure medical issues plaguing his early childhood, and growing up in the shadows of the chaos of mental illness. Aaron was often the target of the wrath of an older sibling who needed help carrying a burden, the target of misplaced anger and fear born from the confines of a tormented mind. This, certainly, was hard to bear.

There was an escalation in challenging behaviors. Something had changed; a limit had been reached, perhaps. There was much more conflict at home, provoked, even, by the child that had often found himself merely in the line of fire. There were calls from school, disciplinary measures, and consequences. There was rage, anger, and sadness…great sadness.

The harsh weather hit early last fall. My little boy came in from school with a bit of an extra skip in his boots one afternoon; this had not been his recent pattern.

I asked how his day had gone.

“Great!” He flashed the smile that I had been missing for too long. “I saved someone,” Aaron proudly announced as he went about putting away his coat.

He went on to tell me that just as the students were filing out for dismissal, the fire alarm had gone off. Notoriously pokey, he had been the last to leave the classroom, along with one other boy who was, according to Aaron, scared and crying. He told me that this classmate had trouble with one of his hands, and that it didn’t always work because of something that had happened when he was a baby. On that day, the little boy stood, frozen. Aaron put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and the two walked out of the classroom and safely out of the building, together.

“Give us the chance to feel like heroes, too…”

For a while now, Aaron has been doing great. I haven’t heard of any disciplinary measures at the school, and he has worked hard at home to be a peacemaker with a tough crowd.

We asked him what had changed, and he didn’t hesitate: “It was when I saved him from the fire, Mom.” To him, it was a simple act of heroism that altered the course of his behavior in the direction of positivity, courage and bravery. It didn’t matter that someone had pulled the fire alarm. Aaron had saved his classmate and saved much more in the process.

“And here’s to the men and the legends we’ve known
Teaching us faith and giving us hope…”

In a few short months, my hero will be back on the baseball field, giving new hope to the game as we cheer from the bleachers.

Maybe that little spark will be the one that ignites the fire for him to see just how brightly he shines.

To some, it’s just a game. To the rest of us, it’s a whole lot more. XO

Lyrics from “All the Way”, Eddie Vedder’s tribute song to the Chicago Cubs

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.

    The Long Winter

    On most nights before the boys go to sleep, we have been reading the Little House books for close to a year now. I love the stories of honesty and simplicity, of struggle and triumph, of bravery and tenacity. Here at the farm, we love tapping our maple trees, picking dandelions and Queen Anne’s lace for making jelly, gathering eggs, and harvesting what we have planted in our garden. We love exploring the forest and sitting by the fire when the moon is up with the stars in the sky, and the boys love when their musical daddy sings to them or plays music on pretty much any instrument that he comes across. We also love coming in to our warm house which is bursting with the conveniences of today, and where we don’t have to worry about a bear sneaking through a makeshift curtain to torment us (or worse) in our sleep while we wait for Dan to build a proper door.

    We don’t have to go back to some of the hard things. We have come so very far.

    Last year at this time, as the cold set in, we were planning for a wedding. Our visions were often blurred through the snowflakes, which seemed to come with more strength and fortitude than in other winters. As the seasons turned, the weather didn’t, until the rain replaced the snow and ice. We reluctantly imagined wedding guests wearing rubber boots and holding onto their hats and skirts during what we had hoped would be a midsummer night’s dream.

    And it was, because despite the fierce winter, and the spring that really never came, the sun came out to shine brightly on that beautiful June day.

    When I first visited the dispensary, preliminary medical cannabis card in shaking hand, I hadn’t considered that there would be so many options. This is so typical for me: I can’t see the forest for the trees. For so many years now, my focus has been on the addition of autism to the list of conditions treatable with medical cannabis, and the attainment of what we felt would be the key for our son, without understanding that there would be more decisions and adjustments to follow. There always are.

    The snow was melting, but the ground was yet frozen.

    During the past year, our son’s behaviors have become more manageable. We have still struggled, but there has been significantly less physical aggression and combative behavior, perhaps due to maturity, therapy, karma, or some combination therein. The little boys often tried to provoke him, to try to recreate the chaos that they knew so well. It was what they were used to. This, to me, was surprising and unsettling. He would react in harsh anger, fueling the reaction that the brothers sought.

    I worried about letting them out of earshot for too long on the farm property, doing what most little boys want and need to do: run free and explore. What if I was unable to intervene in time, if they fought too hard and I couldn’t get to them?

    He doesn’t like the taste of the edibles that I chose from the dispensary; I hadn’t expected that he would. He is, though, cooperating. That, in a sense, is our first victory. The strain that we got in pill form had a hyper-focusing effect, which led to arguing and, ultimately, aggression. Though this felt like something of a defeat, the nighttime strain had promoted peaceful, easy sleep. After a bit of experimenting with a hybrid strain, we have a self-declared calm boy who has had the best consecutive three days that I can remember.

    I wasn’t expecting the snow in mid October, especially since I was still thawing from last winter. In some ways, it just seems like one arduous, multi season continuation of challenges. It’s beautiful, some days. And there are breaks from the cold, breaks to fuel the next part of the journey.

    I wonder if Laura and Mary expected to move around so much during their times on the prairie. If they had known what was ahead, would they have put themselves into each moment, would they have noticed the layers of sunset and the secret bird nests? Perhaps that was what kept them going.

    The littlest boy, in particular, has been relentless the past few days, trying hard to make his brother angry by throwing toys, turning off his video game, or sneaking his food. This hasn’t worked as well with the new sense of calm. For this, we are so grateful.

    Already, the pumpkins and chrysanthemums are frozen hard into the window boxes, and I haven’t had the chance to cut back my hydrangeas. I may not get to them, but they are magical in their own way, standing resilient with wind-dried, straw-colored blooms.

    The winter will turn in rhythm. Tomorrow’s hard things will be different from those of today. We can’t go back. We may not want to, but remembering will make us know just how far we have come.

    I will be returning to the dispensary this week for more counsel (and hopefully a hybrid in pill form for our boy) but, clearly, we are closer.

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

    “These faces of dust and stone are, the dirt and bone of loss.”

    –Ben Howard, “London”

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

    I share these things not to highlight my family’s personal struggle, but in hope that others can relate to parts of the journey, and that we can reach out in kindness and peace to one another. Please share with others, if you are so inclined.

    XO

    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.