No Elderberry Tree

“Mom, why are you crying?” His question came from a place of innocence that I feared was about to fade before my eyes, which could no longer contain what I knew.

“Because she loves you,” said the nurse softly, gently, poignantly.

I knew it would be different this time, for so many reasons.

So I’m gonna weep a while…

It wasn’t at all what I had thought. They were words that I had heard, words that resonated and meant something to me. They weren’t even the right words.

Shortly after moving to the farm, we were delighted to discover the elderberry bushes that we had inherited with the land. We learned to make elderberry syrup, elderberry jelly, elderberry liqueur, elderberry vinegar, and, at the urging of Uncle Bob, elderberry pancakes. Elderberries seemed almost magical, promising health and well-being to me and my family in many forms.

I often play a song over and over, for weeks or even months, if it means something to me…if the lyrics strike a chord somewhere inside of me…even if their meaning is far from the writer’s intention. Sam had shared such a song with me; with a line that I had interpreted to include “there’s no elderberry tree….” After the song had made circles through my head, I found out that I was wrong. I had misheard the lyric. I think I needed it to sound just as I had heard it, though, in that space of time. I know there’s no elderberry tree, at least not one that can fix everything. But I think I much prefer to keep believing in the magic.

Oh, the demons come. They can subside.

It was the first time since he had come to us that we had been separated. Every time we talked during those longest and shortest twelve days, he asked if one of the dogs had died yet. He wanted to know how the birds were doing and if the chickens were okay. He asked about the bearded dragon, and even about his brother’s friend’s visiting bearded dragon, whether it was still at the farm. The barn cats, I assured him, were out every night, and the stealthy raccoon had returned with the warmer weather to show up each evening precisely when I replaced the food for the cats. His voice was happy, and he always seemed eager to get back to watching movies and winning prizes alongside his hospital mates.

“I tried really hard to hold in my crying. I only couldn’t a couple times.”

Twelve days.

How could I have known?

This time, I had to enter through a tent where a young woman with mirrored glasses and a mask which nearly engulfed her entire face motioned for me to enter the hospital. From this port of entry, nothing seemed the same. After reporting my child’s name, I was directed to sit on a nondescript, unexpectedly comfortable chair next to the elevator. Voices rose from all directions. Sharp, fast, thick, unintelligible words formed conversations from behind the doors and inside the closets. The glare from the lights bounced towards me in an attempt, I was sure, to flatten me.

These lights, they haunt me like orchids in a graveyard.

Men and women crossed lines before my eyes as they moved to wherever they were going. I wondered if they were coming for me, or if they thought they should be, or if they even noticed me. Time slowed with every breath. I wondered if I would be here again.

I was only for your very space.

I heard a person screaming. A child, not mine.

“Stop smiling at me,” bellowed the child. Then there was more screaming and this time, some very discernible bad words.

The screams turned into the rumble of the elevator. The heavy sounds filled my bones, making them hurt. The doors opened slowly as theater curtains, revealing the towering blue food cart which I had studied previously. Years before, it had been pushed by an old man who leaned heavily to one side when he walked and who always greeted me with his eyes, without smiling. As the cart emerged from the elevator, I saw the same man, leaning similarly, perhaps a bit further, to one side, pushing the cart. I knew his kind soul behind his mask. I heard his voice, though he said not a word.

Time slowed with every breath. I wondered if this would be my last time.

No one could understand all the lyrics: not anyone, ever. How could they?

It’s hard to find it when you knew it.

A masked attendant brought my little boy to me, then, simultaneously announcing that my son’s boots were lost and thrusting paperwork toward me, one piece that she noted was attesting that he had been given back all of his belongings. I wondered about the boots, his muck boots that he wore when we foraged for elderberries in the swampy August dawn.

We stopped at the donut store, because we always do on our way home from this hospital. Maybe it’s our reward for making it out; maybe its meaning is as magical as my elderberry tree, which isn’t really an elderberry tree at all. On the way in to get our donuts, my little boy reached for my hand.

“Mom, you know all those times I said I wish I had a different mom? I kind of regret that.” His words were clear as the sky’s vibrant blue, even through his mask.

Everything that happens is from now on.

Maybe there’s no such thing as an Elderbery Tree, in a theoretical sense. I did make some elderberry jelly last week, because I had more time than usual while the boy was gone. As long as there are still some elderberries in the freezer, though, I am holding on to the hope that one day, I just might find the recipe for what we are really looking for.

XOXO

*Musical inspiration from randomly heard and interpreted (or perhaps misinterpreted) lyrics mostly from Bon Iver (Salem, Towers, Re: Stacks, Calgary) but also from Ben Howard (London) and Keaton Henson (How Could I Have Known?)

Tie Me to a Tree

The six year old practices every bad word he knows in one long stream, shot directly at my quiet request to put on fresh underwear. Three days seems a little long for the same pair of boxers…even during e-learning.

“Home is their haven.”

These were words that I shared more than once or twice over the years, words that, if nothing else, helped me to define the gray lines between home and school, between running outside in the grass without shoes (and sometimes wearing underwear alone…even three-day-old ones) until dusk or sitting frustrated alongside half-inch-thick piles of worksheets at the kitchen table as the sun draws the shades on the day; between having fourteen snacks in a six-hour span and ranging free with the chickens, and following a bell schedule when you really just need someone to say, “it’s okay.” The hard stuff that happened at school wouldn’t have to be a worry once the bus home stopped in the afternoon…until this year, when things are different.

I think my sons’ teachers (angels from heaven, every one) might say that my kids do eat fourteen snacks and run all over (albeit inside the house) during school hours. At least our cameras are on. And we are trying.

“Shit. Hell, yeah.” Sideways glance, just to make sure I am listening.

My grown sons would certainly be aghast at some of the parenting techniques (or lack thereof) in place at the farm these days. I have been studying (in my spare time…yes) about beekeeping. Worker bees produce propolis or “bee glue” to seal up the hive and for other things, too. When a mouse or another intruder makes its way into a hive, it seems the bees “propolize” this enemy, wrapping it like a mummy with their bee glue if it is too large to carry out of the hive. It might be fun to have some propolis, just to keep everyone still enough for me to be able to use the bathroom with the door closed for a change.

“Sure, you can play video games for two more hours…”

Dan and I have decided that the holes in our walls make our house look lived-in. That’s charming, right? We’re not defeated; not yet. But they might as well tie me to a tree. With propolis, even.

People are getting vaccines. A magical sunrise brings the first hint of above-freezing weather, nearly warm enough for the boys to run around the farm in their underwear. A lot has been lost, but maybe that will make what we have left stronger and brighter.

The bees number tens of thousands, living harmoniously in the hive for the benefit of the colony. Home, their hive, is clearly their haven. After a long, cold winter, a global pandemic, the hopeful end of what must be the hardest days, it’s going to feel pretty good to look back on how much we have learned, bad words and all.

The Secret Room

Once, I cried at a baseball game. It was dark, so no one probably even knew. By some sort of twist in the interpretation of a rule…or something…the very reliable little league pitcher for Aaron’s team had to be pulled from the game. Though the details elude me, I remember that much was on the line. This could have been the last at-bat before this precious team of nine-year-old sluggers and playground base runners could be crowned league champions of their beloved summer game… Not, though, before my small backyard hero was called on to face the other team’s hope that the championship would instead be theirs.

He could throw a fierce, hard strike for his fifty-five pound frame. In step with his personality, though, he also tended toward wild unpredictability with his efforts on the mound. Amidst some groans and eye rolls from the gallery of less-than-confident little league fans, I was at once hopeful and terrified as my son kicked the dirt beneath his feet and gripped the baseball with his tiny hand.

He didn’t know. In his starry-eyed innocence, he had no idea of the magnitude of the task at hand. He struck out that batter and his team won the game, earning the title of champions. It was, in the end, just another day, the end of another chapter. But I did cry as my son’s teammates crowded the mound to join him in celebration. It was the flash of the failure-to-thrive infant whom we had propped up through so many dark nights to make sure his airway was clear; that’s what brought the tears: tears from a chapter that had closed years before but the reminders of which still bring me right back to that place of fear and uncertainty, of medical appointments and thoughts of what might have been. I cried because my eyes had been opened, and I understood that the gravity of what had just happened on the baseball field actually extended far beyond the game.

The main bathroom at the farm has a closet that was part of the original house. It extends under the stairs into a small space that was perfect for my boxes of paperwork that I had packed up years before we moved. I had nearly forgotten that they were there, tucked far beyond the toilet paper, extra toothpaste, and guest towels. I thought about this space that nobody knew of except me, considering that it might be worth cleaning out to make a “secret room,” a fresh spot for the little boys to do their schooling. Following an afternoon spent pulling the boxes from the closet, sweeping out the spider webs, and setting up a disco light and cushions to make the space enticing, the two youngest boys retreated to their new area while I set out to look inside the boxes that had spent the last five years under the stairs.

Three of the boxes were from my days working as an in-home therapist, packed with obsolete case files and assessment manuals. A slip of paper dropped from one of the folders that held my collection of resources for working with babies with visual impairments.

“Vision is the ability to gain meaning from eyesight.” These words, copied in my writing by an unknown author, resounded in my head with added interpretation.

A fourth box was full of files from our years as foster parents. Letters from caseworkers, service plans, receipts, notebooks used to communicate with parents, licensing files, a few photos, and an avalanche of emotion was unpacked on our kitchen table that afternoon. There was so much inside that box; so much that once consumed every bit of me, so much that I did not even remember, now nearly lost in the tide of today.

All of these books, these files, these papers, opened and closed. Still I am here, turning the pages of the new chapters, chapters which one day soon may themselves be taped up in boxes forgotten with the turning of the years.

These days, as many things keep us quiet and inside, I am trying to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless. In discarding the files of the last few seasons of my life, I wonder if this time of questioning where or what I am is actually a season in itself, part of a greater vision that’s much bigger than me, and bigger than anyone could see with their eyes alone.

Spring will, if I am lucky, bring another season on the baseball field…another chance for a little boy to be a hero and for his mama to remember what brought us to where we are. All of the manuals, medical appointments, emotions, disappointments, sadness, fear, twists of fate, pitches, and even magic that we have taped up and hidden away inside the boxes of our own secret rooms bring meaning to something beyond our greatest vision. When we take the chance to lift the lid just a little, to look inside, we are reminded that through those seasons we have come to be where we are, wherever that is, which is probably just another passageway to the next adventure, disco lights, cobwebs, and all.

A Little Toast to Hope

Yesterday, I was having a good day, which really wouldn’t seem extraordinary except there just haven’t been a whole lot of them lately.

A year ago, I had just lost 22 pounds. My hip didn’t hurt anymore, and I was a little closer to keeping up with the boys. All of the big kids were coming home for Christmas, and we were looking forward to taking the little boys on a spring break trip to Florida to visit my mom and dad.

It’s different now.

When I encounter people for the first time, they see me on the screen as I carry a chrome book, doing my best not to slip on the cheese or whatever is stuck to the floor while I chase my kindergartner through one disastrous room after the next. We meet again and again in this same, awkward manner. They don’t know who I used to be, and I don’t know how to tell them because I am not sure I even remember.

Maybe it started during the first days of this forgettable year when I decided to try combing out my dreads. It took nearly a month of stolen time with my stiff hands to salvage probably four inches of hair; the razor would have been so much easier. Now, though, I want them back. It’s easy to forget about the incessantly itchy scalp, how bad they were for my already-bad posture, and the chickens getting stuck on my head. I just miss how things used to be.

My half-full glass sometimes seems to be evaporating. I think I’m sinking. As the walls cave in around me, I might soon be swallowed by this very earth that I love so desperately, that I dream of feeling in my hands, that I did not get enough of, as with so many other things in this sorry season.

Yesterday, my son brought in the mail, including a little paper package tied up with a string. My friend had left for me the sweetest pair of fingerless gloves, knitted with flowers in colors of red, purple, gold, and robin’s egg blue, vibrant as a street fair or holiday market, neither of which I could attend this year. In the attached note, she said she thought of me when she saw them. I was so touched that I nearly cried for the fourth time that day. The sun was peeking out, and I had the best new pair of fingerless gloves, just perfect to temper the burn of my arthritic joints. Maybe things were finally going to turn around.

We know what we need to do. We just need to do it. At some point, defeated too often by the slamming of the chrome book and the falling of our collective spirits, I stopped doing what I knew was right. I ate sugar and bread and bakers dozens of Christmas cookies. The creak came back in my hip, accompanied by all but about five of the pounds that I had lost. It was too much to think about. I knew what I needed to do; I just didn’t do it.

When we returned from the grocery store that night, the usual frenzy of carrying bags and unloading food ensued. Some hours passed, and as night fell I thought of my precious new gloves. I went out in the darkness to look in the van where I found only one glove. It had fallen between the seat and the door. How could I have lost its match on the very day that they had been given to me? At least, I told myself, I still had one glove.

The year has taken so much from us. I wonder if we will ever get any of it back. If I don’t even remember who I was, how is anyone else to know?

I went to bed wishing for things I no longer had, forgetting that so many things still filled my glass.

I’m trying. I haven’t had sugar in three days. I have been drinking beet and kale smoothies. Maybe the shortened time in the garden this year was actually good for my achy joints. Maybe they will stop aching if I eat more beets, which I actually love, and less Oreos, which I also love. Maybe I could dye my hair pink. Chickens would probably stay away from that.

Someday, the boys will be back at school, and I will have stretches of my days before me. I know my people don’t care if I have lost or gained twenty pounds, or if my hair is pink or my scalp is itchy. We know what we have to do to get through all of this. We just have to keep doing it.

I could hear the roosters crowing on my way to open the coop early on this cold, gray morning. There was, though, a small patch of jubilant brightness on the frosty ground near where the van was parked. It was the missing glove.

After warming it up on the heat vent inside the quiet house, I slipped it on my “bad hand,” which immediately felt better. The little gift…actually a big gift…from a blessing of a friend was a bold reminder that we can find what we once had. It may, though, be extra bright and beautiful, and warm like never before, because we felt, if only for a short time, what it was to have lost so much of what we had known.

Peace, love, and hope to all! XO

Strip Me Bare

Last year, they were probably heard screaming through to the second floor of the clinic, and there were fights…battles…battles that they did not win. No one did.

A friend shared a link on social media yesterday, and I read every word, as often I do when this particular friend posts things. If she finds something worthy of her time, I know it will be worthy of mine. What I read was a post on the toll taken by the coronavirus from the perspective of writer and blogger, Helene Wingens; I have shared the link below. The words which spoke great truth to me were these: “Being the keeper of everyone else’s sadness and hurt (even if I am self-appointed) is heavy. So heavy.

Heavy, indeed. These resolute words were a painfully accurate summary of how I, and certainly many others have felt about what is going on around us these days.

As I read, my feelings took me elsewhere, to a place inside of me that evoked a similar level of exhaustion and fear, but for very different reasons. As with any art form, the viewer, the listener, or the reader will find meaning in its interpretation. We will make sense of what is before us from our own experiences.

I never liked getting shots, but what seems far worse is watching my children endure a similar fate. As a two-year-old, Elliott had to have a lead screening for preschool class. I was the anxious and fearful one: a young mother more than half my lifetime ago. I remember taking the stoic boy to Burger King after the appointment. My sense of relief must have been palpable as we ordered our Whoppers and as Elliott donned his cardboard crown.

For these years sprawling into decades of throwing my best effort into parenting children with trauma and mental illness, I have certainly tried to hold the sadness, hurt, fear, grief, and anger of my children. Often, though, it cannot be contained. It flows from me, as from my child, and we drift from one another through trials and misunderstandings, displaced anger and defeat, perhaps even to be washed away entirely, back to nothingness, where we are stripped bare of all that we have.

I took the three little boys for flu vaccines yesterday with the promise of not Burger King but Nerf guns from Target after the battle, which somehow was not even a battle. They knew. The magic of one child’s medical cannabis regimen along with new psychiatric protocols for the others might have a bit to do with how things went this year, but we made it through. Somehow, we have arrived at today. It wasn’t easy.

It’s just a short time here, really, to be full of so much that cannot be understood. Just maybe, we are not fit to try to understand.

Maybe there really isn’t going to be a watershed or a life-altering turn of events. Perhaps things will really begin to get easier. Perhaps we will get used to how things are, and for this they will seem easier. Maybe the hard things that I hold so tightly will not seem quite so hard anymore.

The littlest boy, equally brave yesterday as was his big brother Elliott some twenty-seven years ago, kept his bandaid carefully in place “in case his arm might hurt.” At some point this evening, he was ready to take it off. He asked for my help, because he was worried that it might hurt. As I stripped the superhero bandage from his tiny arm, I knew that then that the true healing could begin.

For my big kids, most of whom have historically cooperated with their vaccines, thanks for seeing me as more than I am, and for believing that I am worthy of your company. I will be ready when you find your way home.

Here is the link to Helene’s writing which inspired my blog post:

https://grownandflown.com/exhausted-moms-these-days/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow&fbclid=IwAR2wA_N9PJrFQlWZ56xBkvb4ahgk3KBBQziGbtsP16UYmF-_I6E3xZ4gUcE

Let Me Be Your Lesson

“Everything is either a blessing or a lesson.”

Who was it that said that, anyway? Maybe, some things can be both of those at the same time.

Perched on top of the hill at the edge of my grandparents’ property, my brother, my sister, and I spent strings of days looking out onto the St. Louis traffic, wondering who inhabited the curious round apartment tower building, talking about where we could hide Grandpa Gene’s cigarettes, and dreaming of getting a can of Faygo Redpop from the grocery store across the highway. I think my body still hurts from rolling down that grassy slope so often during my childhood. I wonder how many times I narrowly avoided my demise by slowing just before I rolled a little too far.

Grandpa Gene would offer me a dime to pick apples from the tree that stood perfectly in the middle of his backyard. He would sit on the glider swing, eyeing the birds splashing in their pristine concrete bath as he coached me.

“You missed one,” he would laugh, but he was not joking. The shiny-skinned, gold- green apples were plentiful, with leaves rhythmically fertilized and untainted. Grandpa would send me inside to collect my dime after his carefully-directed harvest was complete. The apples, though, didn’t taste very sweet. At least, I didn’t think so at the time.

Every so often, competing for space with the swirl of “to-do’s” and “how-can-I-possibly’s” in my brain, a thought presents itself. This time, it was “blueberry Toasties.” When we were lucky, our grandparents would take us to the Howard Johnson hotel diner. There, I would have a special breakfast of two little square corn cakes, stuffed with blueberries and slathered in butter. I would cut the bites as tiny as possible, so the Toasties, which somehow were crunchy but melted in my mouth at the same time, would last as long as possible. Toasties may have come in other flavors, but I had never wanted to even explore that possibility. At some point, Grandma Evie found blueberry Toasties in a box at the grocery store, so we didn’t even have to wait to go to the diner. Maybe that was when they stopped tasting so good. Then, I forgot about blueberry Toasties for nearly fifty years.

Our end-of-the line child, our runaway caboose, starts kindergarten this fall. Thirty years of catch-up projects and neglected home keeping chores will have to wait just a little bit longer, as this boy and his brothers will be home at the farm this fall. We never expected this. Nobody did. His voice might plead, “Let me be your lesson, Mama.”

Sometimes, I do hear voices. It is no secret that we are bound here by mental illness along with the foreboding threat of our world, but these voices come from within with an unmistakable fury. Maybe no one else hears them at first, but as with the insistent cry of a child in the dark of night, I must listen.

Some years ago, my brother and I were traveling by airplane. From somewhere in the air above the seats in the cabin, a gravelly voice simply stated, “p”. This was particularly curious, as sometimes I was called “P” by my brother or sister when they may have felt that two syllables were too much. More letters came from the elusive voice. The mystery was solved when we realized that the man in the seat ahead of us was playing “Scrabble” with his seat mate.

Through the years, voices have called us to adopt, to foster, to move to the country, to campaign to legalize medical cannabis for autism, to raise chickens, to start beehives, and, most recently, to make blueberry Toasties. The “goat” voice, I hope, will come soon. Sometimes, the message has been in the form of one of my children, a friend, a flower, a newspaper, a tree, or a bird. And sometimes, for certain, it has been that of God.

Our little orchard at the farm has grown. I believe we have seven apple trees now. Two years ago, we were delighted to spy the first apple on one of those trees, our Colonnade Flamenco. We watched it grow, all alone, and we shared its sweet goodness on harvest day. That was the one and only apple in the orchard, until this year. Dismayed by rust on the apple trees and determined to use natural methods to care for our homestead, I have not held much hope in filling my apple basket anytime soon. There are, though, three perfect baby apples growing on one of the young Golden Delicious trees now. The voice of the young apple, looking very much like those that grew on Grandpa Gene’s tree so many years ago, pleads: “Be patient. Don’t doubt yourself. Keep going. It’s going to be worth it.”

I wondered if somewhere in the world of Pinterest or Google, someone else had remembered Blueberry Toasties. Indeed, with a little pinch of this or that, the memory of my best childhood diner breakfast became a reality.

Here’s how I made them, if anyone wants to experience the nostalgia first hand:

Blueberry Toasties, adapted from “Nancy’s A Recipe A Day” blog

This time, the lesson was easy. Crisped to perfection, dripping with the combined intoxication of blueberries and butter, my breakfast advised, in a voice that was nearly audible, “Don’t forget. Don’t forget the little things that you once loved.”

Would Faygo Redpop be bad for my kids? We could always have it along with the apples once they ripen, to balance things out a bit. That would definitely be a blessing.

A Chicken Gets Her Wings

Love, young love,

I hope you are well.

At least we now both

Have a story to tell.

—Keaton Henson, “Sarah Minor”

I should have known by the way she spun in a circle as she moved among the pine shavings, even somersaulting as she crashed into the other chicks. Sometimes, she kept one eye closed.

Soon, she couldn’t stand up without tipping over. It turns out she was “stargazing”, looking skyward, for she had wry neck, a neurological condition perhaps due to a vitamin deficiency or an injury sustained during her travels to the farm.

If she had a fighting chance, we were going to give it to her. We held her tiny yellow body. We fed her electrolytes with a dropper. We positioned her in a little cup filled with soft pine shavings. We kept her warm.

Still, Sarah Minor made weak little peeps as she continued to look to the sky. She didn’t seem to be getting better.

Chickens already have wings, so getting to heaven would be easy. She wouldn’t need angel wings.

All of the little boy’s sadness came through the five-day old chicken whose stay here was short. His own life’s loss and grief came as tears for a lost soft feathered friend. There were other chickens in the flock, but none was Sarah Minor.

“I think I just felt her going to heaven,” said the boy.

Sarah Minor died.

We wrapped her lifeless body in a soft white cotton cloth embroidered with tiny white flowers.

We set her into the farm’s earth, tied up with all her little chicken hopes and chicken dreams. Sarah, we were so glad that you came. Even though your time here was short, we know you visited for a reason.

Sarah, I love you.

Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Peter Gabriel, In Your Eyes

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.

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

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

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

It’s just not that simple anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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