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.

Garbage Mom









Monday had a promising start: the sun shone brightly, and I had a few minutes to spare before I would be meeting my longtime friend, so I stopped at the post office. Two pairs of ladies occupied the lobby in front of me; both sets engaged in separate conversations.

The first pair consisted of the very pleasant post office clerk and a vibrant middle-aged customer whose hair was tied in a floral bandanna and whose presence radiated some sort of energy that (I inferred from my unintended eavesdropping) was clearly born from the relaxation of a beach vacation.

The second pair, two ladies who were standing eight feet or so from the first pair, off to the side of the line and presumably finished with any mailing business that had brought them there in the first place, exchanged a bit more concern with each turn of their conversation, which seemed to involve some unfortunate surgical mishaps or medical disturbances.

The two stories, in that space of time, in the stiff environment of the post office, blended into one conversation that was at once uplifting and unsettling, depending on which part I allowed myself to focus.

What entered my brain from the post office lobby went something like this:

“So good to see you… what a lovely day we have…”

“He lost part of one foot, then the rest of it, then the other foot…”

“I have my list, and I’m sticking to it. We just got back last night….the sun’s out for us; how lovely…”

How lovely, indeed, and how tragic, this dichotomy of our lives.

“Horns from my head, wings from my shoulders…”

I hadn’t seen my friend in more than a year. We had worked together for a period of time, what seems like a lifetime ago.

She spoke of her children, now nearly grown, of places that she had visited, and about how she had been starting flowers from seed. We talked a bit about growing older, about worrying about things, about food, and about how much changes in a space of time….well, mostly.

She asked about each of my older children, whom she had known as the young children that they once were. I told her, too, about the trials of parenting this second wave of children.

The struggles are mighty. My older sons referred to me as “garbage” exactly zero times (out loud, anyway) during their collective years at home. This week alone, I have been called both “trash” and “garbage”, a “toddler” (because I cried; perhaps I earned that one), “lazy”, “mean”, and a “pig”. I have also been told that my glasses were pretty, my pajama pants were cool, and that I smelled good. I have been fallen asleep upon at least six times, and I have been given no less than twenty-seven crayon drawings, also in this week, which I chalk up to mean that I am loved.

So maybe one skill that I have learned is to let the insults, the comments spun in webs of anger, bounce from my back like a crumpled paper which, I suppose, could be classified as either garbage or trash, depending on the moment.

These days, we have therapy sessions and behavior plans in place of baseball practice and band…oh, wait…we have that, too…

“Quick, Mama, look up…your baby has grown up…”

My friend and I drank good coffee and ran out of time before we had run out of things to talk about. At some point it occurred to me that I could try to fight and defy the challenges that interrupt my path, or I could spend that same hour, minding my own business, in my garden. While I might not have control over my problems, which may not even be my problems in the first place, I can surely stand to breathe in something of nature even as I bend in defeat. I suppose, then, all would not be lost. There might even be a flower at some point, maybe some sunshine instead of the amputation of some toes, depending on how I see…or hear it.

My friend went back to her work late on that Monday morning, and I went home to meet my little son’s bus, wondering if he would still think that my glasses looked nice, or if he would give me a few more reasons to spend a late hour in the garden.

Song lyrics from “O Behold”, by Kevin Morby, courtesy of Sam who, for the record, never called me either “garbage” or “trash”

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.

    Snow on the Corn and Other Things that Just Don’t Seem Right

    I guess you only get so many chances, at least in this life. Nancy, my favorite chicken, went quietly in the early morning cold of All Soul’s Day. She had never really been the same since she had survived the raccoon attack last winter, though she tried her best to keep up with the others in the flock. I could tell she was slowing down. She mostly hung out under the roost in Coop #2, which seemed to be the place for ailing chickens, chickens at low places in the pecking order, roosters that had fallen from favor, and other chicken outcasts. It was also the place where I would discretely drop mealworms and sunflower seeds to let these beings know that though I could not do much for their situations, still they were loved and cared for.

    Tonight marked the beginning of a journey which also stamped the end of another. I made it to the dispensary to get our first round of medical cannabis for our son. He had a small piece of chocolate tonight. He didn’t really like the taste, but soon he was tucked in his bed, sound asleep. It is too early to tell if this long, hard path has been worth it, but we are finally on our way. There is a sadness recognizable in this culmination of emotion, perhaps because hope…hope can be hard. Hope, even, can be uncertain.

    There are some things I’m not going to understand, no matter how long my place on this earth.

    In our foster parenting classes we discussed the concept of expected loss versus unexpected loss. Aunt Marion lived a long life by anyone’s standards, so her passing, at age 100-ish, was not surprising. Still, though, the news was as unwelcome as all of the “what-ifs” that made their way into my head. Her brother, my Grandpa Gene, has been dead for nearly three decades. Dan and I had made the trip to St. Louis with our young family nearly every year, to visit Grandma Evie, so that I could spend time with one of my dearest people, and so the children might know their great grandmother. The trips usually included a visit to Aunt Marion, who did not live far from Grandma, and who desperately loved birds. She was an independent, positive-spirited lady who was a vegetarian and who wore her hair longer than any of the older women that I knew. Though we likely wore her out with our visits, she never bid us an early farewell, and her incessant smiles are marked in my memory. I know that I have taken more from her than I was able to give.

    Grandma Evie died near the beginning of our fostering journey, during which road trips were only successful if they were about ten minutes long and involved me folding myself into the third seat to break up fights and to award quiet moments with some sort of candy. We had meant to go for another visit. We had meant to do many things. We just didn’t. We couldn’t. There were cards and letters, but we never made it back to St. Louis.

    Aunt Marion died, but also, she lived.

    I couldn’t explain the depth of emotion I felt as I gave my child the small piece of chocolate which was to assure his rest, to still his mind and carry him to his winter’s nap on this fall evening where the temperature rivaled the most fierce of any January cold.

    There is still so much work to do in the garden. Mounds of golden mulch stand frozen from the days of rain followed by an early deep freeze. The garden gate, still propped open with a log to allow access to the chickens for their harvest time foraging, exposes mother nature’s angry deed. My hard-working cart, full of leaves, wilted weeds, and tired jack-O-lanterns, stands frozen amid the empty raised beds and blueberry bushes which still await their blankets of compost and pine needles. Perhaps there will be more days. Perhaps there will be more time. Perhaps I will have to close the garden shed for the winter and catch up with myself in the spring.

    There wasn’t enough time. How did I know when I packed those pumpkins into the cart, that this would be my last day in the garden? How do we know that what we have fought for for more than four years is going to make a difference?

    Maybe it’s best not to know we are out of time, until we actually are.

    Rest In Peace, sweet Nancy.

    Rest In Peace, dear Aunt Marion. I believe I have you to thank, at least in part, for my love of birds.