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.

Afterthoughts: A Foster Family

It has been a few years now since my identity has fallen away. It was just a piece of paper, kept in a drawer most days, but it represented so much more than I would ever realize while it tied me to the words written in simple computer-generated letters. We had a family identification number, a maximum capacity, and regular licensing reviews and social worker visits. We no longer have any of those; our foster care license has long since expired. Now, though, we have much, much more.

We have the reality that comes with signing on to a somewhat mysterious, intriguing, wholly encompassing and challenging pursuit.

While the reasons that some have for fostering are different from those of others, our initial intentions from before we began echo much the same as they do nearly a decade-and-a-half later: we were not really sure where this journey would lead us.

We have opened our doors and our arms; we have fought, fallen, and pulled ourselves up; we have been broken by the very acts of trying to ease the pain. We have realized that with more experience comes more uncertainty, and with more advocacy comes greater anxiety and fear.

On the days when we have been so spent, so vulnerable, so completely usurped by the waves of emotion, we look forward to the quiet dark of night, and the comes a primal cry from someone who, unaware of the emotional states of others, needs what you didn’t know you had left to get her through yet another surge of hurt that has pulled her from her sleep.

It’s your own box of burdens, maybe things that you would never have otherwise recalled, that opens up to haunt you, that begs to be set free, as you desperately try to make sense of how it has come to this.

There’s a loneliness in the way that he hugged me. It made me believe that I, too, am lonely in a far-off, hollow, unidentifiable way.

Some call foster carers “angels” or “saints”. Some of my children have called me “the devil”. I am none of those. I am human, as are we all, just trying to make sense of the nonsensical.

We are all who we always have been.

Foster care means a new rhythm to your days: a rhythm that holds no rhythm at all. Sometimes it means allegations thrown at the easy target. It means investigations, questions, and our own questioning of the very motives that brought us to this day.

It means nearly forgetting who you are, or who you have been, in favor of becoming guarded, hardened, and weary. It means questioning yourself and wondering if even your own instincts are to be trusted in a place where blame and hyper vigilance abound. It means forever wondering if you have done the right thing.

It means looking for the smallest things, the tiniest triumphs, in a field of fury.

It means that once your license is gone, your life will not be as before. You are at once simpler and more complicated. Your family may have expanded, your limbs may be scratched or even broken, and you may no longer recognize yourself in the mirror. You may not look, too, for fear of what you might find.

You will, though, have forged relationships with people and places that have caused your soul to grow. You will have stood arm-in-arm with others and will have borne their pain along with yours.

You will lose your sense of purpose, only to realize that this was not up to you in the first place.

You will look, eyes wide, to the Maker, and cry out from your soul for putting you in this place, in this life, because though we are torn we are all of this earth, for this moment of time.

We’ll always be a foster family: all of us, collectively, through the connections that we have often fought to let go. There’s nothing separating us from the next person…not a piece of paper, not a harsh word, not a judgment.

What I have learned, I guess, is that we will never know.

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The need for foster caregivers is always strong. Consider this if it may be part of your journey.

The Purple Couch

If ever you were a visitor to our family at the house on the hill near the university, the Third Street bungalow, or our current homestead, you sat on the purple couch, or, at the very least, took note of its presence.

The purple couch was like an old friend. It accepted us, its people, where we were, with our dirty baseball cleats, fevers, and bad attitudes. It has been sat upon by State of Illinois caseworkers, librarians, hundreds of children, and a chicken.

I nursed my last birth son well into toddlerhood on that couch. I spent the night there with a mug of chamomile tea after disagreeing with a seafood salad from a local sandwich shop. My children lined up on the cushions through nearly two decades for our annual Christmas photo. I sat there waiting for my teenagers to return from first dates and movie nights, and I sunk into the plush purple pillows with my tissues in hand, bracing myself for a good cry as I watched my almost-grown children close the door behind them, crossing the threshold to seek what their futures held for them.

We first spotted the purple couch in all its magnificent glory showcased in a lifestyle magazine in an advertisement for flooring. Much to my great delight, a mom-and-pop furniture store in a neighboring town was able to special order the purple couch.

It arrived on a truck just as promised, with five loose back cushions and two throw pillows which, when folded just right, were the perfect support for holding a sleeping little one (or twenty). Over time, all seven pillows have morphed into somewhat lumpier versions of themselves, having had many runs through the washing machine, and having actually spent more time on the floor than on the couch as intended. Our next couch, I swear, will not have removable cushions.

Over the years, the couch aged gracefully…until recently. In addition to the hairy and puffy cats that we have had over the years, all of whom seemed to prefer this couch as the best nap spot, we added a dog: an old one that loves to roll on fabric things and sheds in the process. The purple couch became his favorite place; this only added to the charm and personality of this beloved piece of furniture.

To some, it was just a couch. Others have fond memories of what this couch meant to them:

“It was a very comfortable couch. It looked good under the painting in the old house, with the green couch (which, also, is now just a fond memory),” recalled one frequent visitor.

One son remembers being bullied by an older brother’s friend, and being told: “you are what you eat, and you eat poo.” He said that he then sat on the purple couch which gave him comfort and made him feel better.

“I liked it. I loved it. It was amazing,” offered another.

In later years, the purple couch began to stab us in the back, not intentionally, but because the cushions were always strewn about, and because the wood and springs were gradually wearing through the fine purple fabric which had so many memories woven into its threads.

“I want a black leather couch. To replace it,” chimed one small son who perhaps didn’t fully appreciate what the purple couch stood for.

And then: “it smells like a butt. And bad feet.”

Oh. No.

What about the wedding? How could we replace the purple couch before the wedding, when it had borne witness to so many other celebratory moments with us, it’s family? Should we take it to the burn pile? That was a heartbreaking thought, but, after all, it smelled bad.

After a little online research, out came the baking soda and the vacuum cleaner, followed by a thorough essential oil spritz. The cushions went through the laundry. Guests to the morning-after wedding brunch sat on the purple couch, and I don’t think anyone suspected a thing. It had seen our family through another rite of passage, and it had served us well.

Soon after the big day, its freshness faded with the wedding flowers, and we knew it was time.

I just couldn’t bear to think of all those years of life lived going up in flames. I decided to try passing it along on a social media marketplace site. But why would anyone want the purple couch? How could they not? How could we not? We did, but…it was just time.

While cleaning out the purple couch, I found a fork, a whole lot of legos, and two phones.

Within the course of a few hours after posting the ad, which apologetically offered a well-used candidate for a college apartment or basement, seven locals expressed interest in the purple couch. One by one, appointments were set, and excuses were made.

“I wasn’t able to get the truck.”

“It’s too big.”

“I forgot that I had to work.”

“Go on to the next person.”

Until it came to the polite lady at the end of the list: “yes! I will be there soon!”

Within about ten minutes, she appeared on the front porch, where the purple couch was already waiting for her. She was so gracious and grateful. As our husbands strapped the couch to the roof of her vehicle, she shared that just a short time ago, she had lost most of her possessions in a fire. She was so happy to have a couch again, and it was so ready for its new adventures.

We rolled out our forty dollar estate sale find from the extra bedroom into the living room to stand in place of the purple couch. It was never intended as a replacement, for no one couch could ever hold as much meaning within its cushions. But we needed somewhere to sit.

People that come to the farm for the first time will never know about the purple couch. The lady that came for it sent a photo of two of her cats resting comfortably on the purple couch. It makes me wonder, just a little bit…did we act too soon?

The legacy of our beloved couch carries on. At our home, it had enabled teenage romance and supported my coffee habit. It had been the seat of numerous video game battles, a retreat for grieving children who had come through our doors bearing burdens deep within their souls, and simply a place to just rest with one’s feet up.

The purple couch was not ready to go up in flames. We have trusted it with our secrets, which we know it will not share. It has room to hold another family with more animals, more butts, and more bad feet.

We love you, purple couch, and we will always miss you, though we are kind of glad you are gone.

XO

Photo Credit: EMILY STRATTON

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

I’m sorry.

I understand.

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

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

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

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

But you don’t.

And you won’t.

I understand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I understand.

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

Lions and Lambs

Darkness had already fallen when I finally made my way out to close the chicken door on this cold March night.  I was almost startled by the nondescript, shadowy figure that mimicked my gait against the grain bin, until the motion sensitive light snapped on, taking me with it,  back to the reality that it was just my own image.  It could have been anyone, though, in the dark.  I could have been anyone.  

My first semester of college was going just fine.  I had a fabulous roommate who quickly figured out how to make me laugh until my stomach hurt, at things that noone else might even find funny.  I fell head over heels for the university city, which held such treasures as Cracker Jax, a vintage haven beyond worthy description; Record Revolution, where I found rare music and, later, my best job; the balcony in the old public library where I could spend hours buried in the musty air among the stacks of books; and the nondescript square stone wall, which, to me, held promise and mystery at the same time, and which was just the right place for people-watching, in a clandestine downtown alley.  

I went home for Thanksgiving break, which began abruptly after I sheepishly turned in my exam to my PolySci 100H teaching assistant named Tom, who, as the story goes, once had a Cheerio stuck to the inside of his glasses for an entire day.  

When the turkey, cranberry sauce, and all of the leftovers were gone, when my friends were on their own journeys back to their college towns, when darkness had fallen, I said my words of farewell to my family and began the short drive back to DeKalb.  Though I loved the freedom of living on my own, there was part of me, that day, that just wanted to go home. I wanted to turn around and run straight back into the arms of those who raised me.  I didn’t really want it to be over. Not yet.

Wish us back to the day when we wanted to be where we are now.  What, really, was behind our hurry?

I’m not sure where it came from.  It fell from somewhere as I was moving the March china girl and some other little things on the top of my dresser.  I had given it to a young teenager on the day of her baby brother’s memorial service. A simple silver chain bearing a tiny fairy who held a sprig of lavender: this was my attempt to bridge meaning to what had happened, and to show this young girl that as I had loved her baby brother, who had come unto this earth without a fighting chance, I, too, had loved her. When you spend hours of days that stretch into years as a helper to a family, if it ends, a part of you is still there. Years passed, though, and chance encounters told me that our time together was done. Meeting the eyes might be too painful.  Maybe they didn’t remember, or maybe they needed to forget.  And then there was the fairy; how did she get back to me?  Perhaps this was not the same charm?  Perhaps it was a message from the little boy that I had so loved so many years before?

I have never taken my children to the mountains, where they could shout from their souls and breathe freedom.  I want to take them to the seashore, where they can abandon their burdens along with their shoes, taste the salty waves, and let the sun turn their hearts warm.

Just when I have heard so much of the endless string of words, random facts woven through stream-of-consciousness chatter and reiterated movie scripts, there is silence. I look back at him, and his eyes are glassy. His pink lips are slightly open, as if the words had somehow been halted by an outside force.  He is turned to the window, but he seems to be somewhere else.  

“I want to go home.”

Sometimes, the thought of my own shadow is something to fear.  I long for one more story through the silence.
When it was over, when this moment’s tirade of impossible anger had passed, he lay over me in a puddle of grief.  For the first time, his fear for his own future was palatable.  He cried out for things that a nine-year-old should not have to hold.

My boy, if you have nothing, if you have nowhere to go, I will come for you.  I will find you, and I will bring you home.  I will take care of you.  You will never be alone.

After a while, we can’t really go home anymore.  We can’t go back to where we long to be, because it isn’t there anymore.  The scenes change: the street signs read differently, and the chairs around the table hold different memories.  Home is no longer a physical space, but something more.   I could have gone anywhere, and I could have been anyone. Still, I am going home.

The brightness of pink that lit the otherwise black grayness of the night sky was a beacon: the connection, the recognition, the fairy that materializes to remind me of a past encounter, the way I feel after a spirit-cleansing cry. We are not in this space forever.

Home is where we are on the inside, and, someday, when I take you there, we will find the air more crisp than that at the top of any mountain, and the sand will be as white as the heavens.