Afterthoughts: A Foster Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are all who we always have been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Kindest of Wolves

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not into thine own understanding.” –Proverbs 3:5-6

“Shut up, you stupid idiot, or else I’m going to punch you in the eye.”

“Hi, Miss K. I love you.” I am secretly just a bit jealous of the spontaneous embrace that my little boy gave to his teacher. After all, I was still recovering from unsuccessfully dodging the sippy cup that had been hurled at my head just moments before. And it was me, not her, that had made him waffles for breakfast.

My child skipped off to join the other four-year-olds at the playground. I watched as he offered his friend, clad in Dalmatian spotted pajamas and cowboy boots, a boost onto the climbing apparatus. “Thank you,” said the polite Dalmatian child.

“You’re welcome,” piped my son, who, apparently, does actually have manners, evident only when he doesn’t think I am watching.

On a given day, it seems as if someone has swapped out my child for a ghoul, a monster, or a demon. He’s a little boy, but he’s also a fierce child who came into this world fighting against things over which he had no control.

“Is that your grandson?” I have been asked this question many times. He’s not, but he certainly could be. I wonder if I parent more permissively than I did in the early days, if I am less aware of my surroundings, or if the often baffling behaviors really are bigger than me.

It’s defeating to be overpowered by someone that weighs one-fifth as much as I do. It’s more than defeating when, after nearly three decades of parenting, I really have no idea what to do. And really, I don’t.

At just the same time that the nation was thrust into World War II, a seedling, called simply “3-35-40”, was being developed in France. During this period of unthinkable devastation, a thing of great beauty was born. This seedling, further propagated after being sent to the United States, became the world’s most beloved rose, called “Peace”.*

I wonder, if I collected all of the hours turned to days, and strung them together into weeks that I have spent sitting in an unforgiving vinyl recliner, waiting for someone with a name tag to make a decision about the next supportive action for the mental health of a child in my care, how much idle time has slipped away in favor of the angst of things out of my control?

Parenting is relentless.

“He doesn’t act like that around me.”

Well, he acts that way around me.

“You’re his safe person. He knows he can let his true feelings flow, and he will be okay.”

Well, I don’t think I like this. It’s tiring living in a cartoon where body parts and random expletives spin in circles over my head, and I feel poorly equipped to tame the wild that has been given me. And when the child is bigger and stronger, when the fight burns hot inside, when the child is almost no longer a child, when I don’t know what to do…when I cannot draw on my vast parenting experiences of pushing strollers in the park, school shoe shopping, rescuing frogs from the basement, and sewing laces on pointe shoes to manage a child who, eyes filled with rage, takes on a strange state of being, writhing, nearly foaming at the mouth, tossing heavy objects into newly-painted walls, and, perhaps the hardest to bear, expresses the wish to no longer be part of our family.

There’s no answer here.

The wolf is revered as signifying loyalty, guardianship, and spirit. A young wolf may leave the pack, trying to fend for itself in search of independence and freedom.**

Pushing away, fighting, searching…

We are here, maybe along for this journey, but definitely not running the show. It’s hard, a different hard from the physical labor of turning a compost pile or carrying a 40-pound bag of layer feed to the barn.

It’s hard, as in “how could this possibly be happening?” and “how could there be any more than what has already been?” and we know it.

I look at my image in the mirror and wonder, bewildered, who is this shell of a person raising, or struggling to raise, these children?

As I turn to the Maker for strength, no longer for reason, my grown son appears through the hospital doors with an iced soy milk latte and a single Peace rose.

It was hours later when, through eyes bleary and body weary from the emotional weight of the recent days, I sent my son a message thanking him for what he had done.

His formative years included many scenes where burdens of trauma and pain were indelible, yet he recalls the good, too. He returned my message of thanks with words that will not be lost on me:

“I was raised by the kindest of wolves.”

When I am called home at the end of this life, I wish to look back with peace, if not understanding, knowing that all of my wolves have returned to the pack, with or without Dalmatian pajamas or cowboy boots.

References:

*www.starrosesandplants.com

**www.pure-spirit.com

Thank you for reading. Kindly share if you have found meaning in my words.

Circles

Yesterday, a child came out to wonder”.

The voice in my head pleaded, “Don’t cry…don’t cry…don’t cry on your way to the post office.” I had been unexpectedly emotional since the early morning phone call from the postmaster letting me know that my new chickens had arrived. Chicken keeping, like most everything else, has a rhythm, and we find ourselves in our fourth year of what has become a most beloved hobby.

It’s so quiet, here in the dark, but I just cannot turn off the noise in my head. Silence cuts all the things that were never said, never gathered into form to be witnessed and set free.

Seconds that seemed stretched into hours have now passed, and I wonder what took so long.

“And the seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down.”

The cautious nature of new love, holding the words deep within as a best effort to protect myself from the vulnerability of my own truth; this is how our child comes to us, afraid to love, afraid to trust, for fear of the eventuality of rejection and abandonment, a lifelong pattern.

It’s not a fair comparison, but the emotional commonality of simply being human offers up the possibility that the bridge to a relationship can be challenging to navigate. We are afraid that who we are will not be enough.

Parenting any child is both daunting and beautiful. We cannot know what to expect, and sometimes we can never know just what the days, what the years looked like before the child’s path met ours.

We’re captive on a carousel of time”.

The doctor is running late. My little son is on my lap, content with his threadbare blanket in the moment, and still under the spell of the travel sickness medication. If I close my eyes, I can almost pull open the capsules which hold the lives of those here with me: people that I have not seen before.

The television is loud, perhaps not loud enough for those that are actually trying to make sense of what is happening in this cartoon: a cat jumps from a the head of a boy with skunk hair as the boy yells, “no fair!” The rest of us stare at the screen for a random moment or two, processing nothing but our previous thoughts.

One young mother, waiting in the appointment line and dressed in very high heels, lets her distraught toddler son free from his stroller. Light moves across the child’s face as he rolls to the floor, clumsily pulls himself to his feet, and promptly escapes down a hallway, running in circles into the rooms as he cackles and showers the office with crumbs from his snack, likely given as an attempt to avoid this entire scenario. The mother wipes her brow, rolls her eyes, and disappears in her high heels in pursuit of the boy.

“We can’t return; we can only look behind from where we came…”

I have been this mother, minus the fancy shoes, for nearly thirty years. Most of my children are older, and often I find myself chasing not them, but who I thought they wanted to be, who they used to be, or what I thought they might need.

Today, I felt relieved that I was not the one breaking a sweat, running around the hematology wing. Today, I was grateful to hold my own uncharacteristically calm and quiet child as we waited our turn at looking for an answer.

Just a few days ago marked thirty years that Dan and I have been together. My brand new sisters-in-law did the music and vocals for this Joni Mitchell song at our wedding, and still it plays on.

“Then the child moved ten times round the seasons…skated over ten clear frozen streams”.

I watched as my nine-year-old little league player/acrobat seemed to listen at about twenty-five percent attention to what the baseball director had to say about the high school team that had come to teach these boys to bunt at this spring clinic: “They’re all here because they love the game.”

And “loving the game” is enough. I know this now, many years removed from the day that my then almost sixteen-year-old tied his cleats for his final game. To me, it hadn’t been enough; I craved more seasons on the bleachers, more Saturday tournaments, and more of the dichotomous heartbreak and joy laced up in every baseball and stitched through every glove. I wanted him to keep playing, but for me, because I so loved the game. What I hadn’t realized at the time was that because he, too, loved the game, it was time for him to look ahead.

“Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now. Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town”.

We’re afraid to stop because we don’t know what comes next.

Still, we love the game.

The wait was longer than usual at the doctor’s office. We didn’t get an answer today. I wonder if anyone did. In this moment where we have found ourselves, we are okay. We walk away from where we have been, on the way to where we are headed.

The dark of the night offers clarity, just until my eyes are opened once again. I can’t remember what it meant. I just think we need to keep going.

Soon my little-leaguer will again take the field. My days of chasing small boys around the clinic won’t last much longer. I am ready for both of these.

And they tell him, take your time…it won’t be long now till you drag your feet to slow the circles down.”

The hard parts will continue, though they will promise new kinds of healing and hope.

I didn’t cry until after I picked up my package from the post office. Even then, with a box full of eleven peeping baby chicks in the car beside me, I no longer had much to cry about.

We can’t return…we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game”.

Song lyrics from “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell❤️

Raccoon Vs. Chicken Vs. Me

As far as I could see, the gravel road stretched into the expanse of the dreary midday. The road seemed to lead to nowhere, but I felt as though I knew where I was going.

I must have waited at the edge of the road for at least twenty minutes. The wild grasses were so tall by this time of year, whatever time of year it actually was.

It wasn’t going to change; no matter how long I waited, watching for nothing in particular, I was not going to be able to see. I just took the risk, running along the edge of the road, where the gravel met up with the wild grass, faster than I had been able to move in recent memory.

I made it to the other side.

For a very long time, just over 30 years, I had been pining for a particular tattoo. The image is a simple moon and stars design, artwork from a formative album from my college days. A lifelong fear of needles and the audible thoughts of others over the years kept my little wish tucked away as just that, until last year when my son, already very much decorated, took me to a tattoo shop on our spring break trip to Florida.

In much the same way as I had to trust to get to the other side of the road, I got up in the chair and waited for my assigned artist, who just a few days earlier had to have his man parts repaired after what sounded like a most unsettling situation that was the topic of one-sided discussion for most of the nearly three-hour process of the manifestation of my dream.

Nancy, my Lavender Orpington hen, has been through some things. As a tiny chick, she spent time in isolation after a neck injury. I fed her with a dropper and before long, she was back with her young flock. Another time, she came up with an alarming cough for which we gave her a special chicken respiratory remedy for several days. Once again, she bounced back. Last fall, she again fell ill and, after several days of taking up residency in a brooder in the bathroom, she had a ride in the car for nearly an hour to a vet that had experience with chickens. She was okay.

One day last week, Nancy was not in her usual spot on the roost at dusk. It was a frigid night, with temperatures going well below zero by the morning. My post on social media inspired a trail of good wishes, and the next morning Nancy was discovered behind the feed bins, safe and warm.

On the day that I crossed the gravel road, I was wearing a light cottony dress which had caught upon some relenting brush and ripped in a few spots. Though winter’s aftermath had left great frozen shapes of black-gray which I often mistook for bear-or-raccoon vs. car mishaps along the road, I was wearing flip flops, one of which I lost as I hopped the fence in the snow…but I had to keep going. I didn’t want to look back, but I was afraid, too, of looking ahead.

Somehow, I had found my way into a school. There were gangs of people going place-to-place with stern determination. I had no purpose here. The heavy din of hurriedness broke momentarily. People gawked and stared as I asked for help.

“Can you show me the way out? I’m just trying to get outside.” I no longer felt assured that I had a destination, or even a purpose.

The small design on my arm was looking pretty good. It hurt, but it felt different from how I had expected it to feel. Then came the green.

“I’m having trouble with this color.” This time I felt a different kind of pain, less tolerable than before, and I wanted it to end. My artist again went over the area and seemed to cut deeper into my skin with each trial. Still, I envisioned the perfection of my finished design.

“Done!” The artist proclaimed his completion of my tattoo. He sprayed my arm with something before wrapping it with plastic and masking tape. I was hopeful.

The day after Nancy had been found safe in the coop, she fell victim to a raccoon attack. It was a young raccoon who, after the battle with Nancy that left her injured and motionless behind some plywood in a corner of the chicken run, stretched out in a corner of the coop in anticipation of meeting up with the ten-or-so chickens that perched on the roost in fear.

Nancy is not doing very well. We brought her in the house and treated her wounds. A stuffed rooster is perched on the bathroom counter, keeping vigil by the brooder that has all-to-often served as a place of safe-keeping for this ill-fated chicken. I fear she may be joining those flock mates that have gone before.

My tattoo is healed. The ink has faded, and I am left with a bit of scarring. The imperfections in the color are very evident, but only to those who know the original design. To others, that’s just how it is. I guess I like it that way. I like knowing that in spite of some unexpected challenges, healing can happen.

Once I opened the door to the school, I had no idea where I was or even where I was going. Even when I opened my eyes, still I didn’t know.

I think I like it that way.

When I look at Nancy, resting atop her fresh nest of pine shavings, with no competition whatsoever for the sunflower seeds and mealworms before her, sometimes she seems okay. At other times, she doesn’t. I think I am a lot like that, too. I think we all are.

Circus Freaks and an Animal Parade

I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.

I had no idea what to do, so I did nothing.

Still, the days passed, and there was another sunrise, a ball of red-orange casting a spell of yellow softness onto the white snow, but only for a short time.

The hours pass with little fanfare, until dusk, until a strip of the brightest pink opens the clouds, swallows them up, and draws the curtain of darkness onto the night as my eyes close.

I am afraid of what I cannot see.

We were not expecting to be more of what we have already been. We didn’t know, though, that we would become less.

This winter season has seemed endless. One more day of short-stepping my way across the many-times-frozen expanse of the driveway, crunching along the top layer of compacted ice and snow to tend to my chickens, who attempt to venture only a few feet outside the run on most days.

The season of angst, too, has carried on. And that’s how it is.

We are circus freaks or an animal parade, embattled, defeated, yet still called to continue. I guess we’re not done yet.

Our eyes are open, but we can’t see.

The magnolia tree is budding out with the first hope of spring; I noticed it yesterday through the still-frosted living room window. It’s true: this season will yield to the next. The chickens will begin laying again, prolifically, and the baby chicks will arrive at the farm.

We don’t know what you have been through. We don’t know what has broken you. We don’t know how to uncover what’s real.

I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. I hope, with all that’s inside of me, that you can hear me.

Open My Eyes; Take Me To My People

It sure is cold outside.

She was as sweet a baby as ever I have known, and I was so happy that she was mine.

But actually, she wasn’t mine.

The first time I took her to the social services office to visit with her mom, I had dressed her in my daughter’s outfit, the one that had been my favorite from her early childhood. It was the softest pink cotton, a one-piece jumpsuit with rolled ankle cuffs. I have memories of my little girl wearing this in her first days home from Korea, when she was just the same age as my foster daughter. They both wore the leather little bird shoes, too, that I had saved all these years.

“They’re ugly.”

I looked up, perplexed.

“Those shoes. They’re ugly.”

The seasoned caseworker must have felt my heart sink . “I think they’re cute.” Her voice trailed away, but I know she knew.

I had entered the office, confident in my abilities of parenting another person’s child, but having no concept of the depth of feeling and emotion that each interaction could present. I left the office with someone else’s baby, and the first-hand experience that this journey was not going to be just about a little girl and her foster family. The picture was much bigger, much more important than that. The foster family, I would find out, would take a seat in the second row. This was about supporting families…this mom and this baby…not about a walk through my own pleasant memories as I dressed someone else’s little girl in my daughter’s jumpsuit.

Have I been blind? Have I been lost inside myself, in my own mind?”

–Natalie Merchant, “Carnival”

She had come with several bags full of clothing, some still with tags and others worn. For the next visit, and each visit thereafter, I chose an outfit from those bags.

It wasn’t really about clothes, though, for either of us. I was given the task of taking care of someone else’s child, and it was my job to do just that, and to never forget that she had someone that loved her first and best, and that I was a mere bridge of support between the two, for this moment in time.

It wasn’t long before this sweet baby was moved to the home of a relative. Family connections are so very important for children in care.

She had outgrown all of the clothing that had come along with her. The day she left, she was dressed in a brand new jogging suit that I had bought for her; the caseworker said her mama was going to love it.

She left in a driving snowstorm. My son, ten at the time, dissolved into a heap of tears on the floor of the bedroom where this little girl had slept for four months. He loved her deeply, as we all did. She was someone else’s child, and we were a stepping stone on her path. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t think it would be so hard.

These days we have a therapist here for one of the boys six days a week. We are grateful for the support, which has been long in coming. The outbursts, the holes in the walls, and the fear still abound, but now we have someone to share the burden, to stand by our sides, at least for the two-and-a-half hours while he is here. Most importantly, we have someone who sees the magnitude of the behaviors and its effect on the whole family; someone who acknowledges that we are, through it all, trying our best.

I was trying my best to be a good foster mom. My eyes are open, and I see that I am merely standing by, reminding myself of what is most important…because I know, until I don’t.

There is an online support group for chicken keepers. I am so worried about my precious flock in these arctic temperatures. “They’ll be fine” was the overwhelming response when I shared my fears with these people that I have never met. My wise friend, not a chicken keeper, but a keeper of much else, suggested some extra straw. I took her advice and added a bed of straw to the coops, right on top of the pine shavings. And I hoped.

I sometimes wonder if the therapists that work with our son believe that there is hope for him to learn other ways to express his emotions. I wonder, but I am afraid to ask. There is promise in the unknown. For me, too, there is fear. And for this boy, fear. For the young mother who watches another woman care for her daughter, there is an uncomfortable fear for what is or what is not to come.

Keep me safe, lie with me, stay beside me, don’t go.”

–Natalie Merchant, “Motherland”

I may be okay to lay here with my eyes closed, hoping tomorrow takes its sweet time in coming. I’m afraid to open the door to the chicken coop. Afraid to face another long day with no programming, I am secretly hoping that the challenging behaviors might take a snow day.

I found out some years later that my first little foster baby has thrived with her family. We had been a tiny part of this story, a part of our collective purpose.

About a month ago, I had an exchange with a fellow foster parent. She offered words that have carried me through more than just that day. She assured me that there would be healing, on this or that side of heaven. What she said has offered new hope and fuel along this often tiresome journey, where I have learned to rely on the support of others, of my people in faraway corners, of my tribe, in so many ways.

My lungs burned as I breathed in the twenty-degrees-below zero afternoon air from the quick trip to the coop to check on the chickens, but my hand was warm in my pocket from the egg laid by a hardy hen. I can do this, for another day, forever, as long as I am in good company.

XO🐥❤️

Luke Ate The Snowstorm

“Last year, at this place in Michigan, they got FIFTY-THREE FEET of snow IN ONE DAY.” The words spilled emphatically from his mouth and sent forth little drops of spit that distracted me, but only slightly, as I imagined this extraordinary snow occurrence which, in his mind, had certainly happened.

“Maybe you mean fifty-three inches? That’s still quite a bit.” Dan was always the polite voice of reason.

“No, I mean FEET, you idiot.”

Okay.

There was an impending snowstorm. We may have been ready. The news reports described something nearly as foreboding as our son’s description of what had hit Michigan last year.

“Luke ate the snowstorm.” Our youngest boy had to offer a fantastic tale of his own. “Luke” often emerges in conversation. He seems to be a phenomenal boy, quite skilled for just four, who has done most everything and who shows up randomly but is never seen by anyone except our own four-year-old.

Someone once told me that having an imaginary friend is a sign of high intelligence. If that is so, what does an imaginary snowstorm signify? Years ago, Ethan also had an imaginary friend. The friend’s name was Jake Harrison, and he lived in a yellow house near the university. He had never been described as doing outlandish things such as eating a snowstorm; rather, he would sit alongside Ethan and sometimes accompany him around town. Perhaps in this simplicity of character, Ethan found some calm for his restless spirit.

Luke, though, seems to seek the thrills, get the latest haircuts, eat the greatest amounts food, and own the most exotic animals. My child was quite convincing, and I was curious enough that I felt compelled to verify his non-existence at our preschool meeting. The teacher, principal, and therapist assured me that this extraordinary child was indeed my little son’s imaginary friend; they could think of no one named Luke that fit the description.

I thought so. But sometimes I just don’t know.

Dan has had cycles of painful headaches for years. They are debilitating when they occur. An eight-inch blanket of snow had fallen overnight, as predicted, blanketing the farm in winter’s magical and bountiful, and also heavy and sloppy, offering. Through the window, I watched him drive his tractor, recently fitted with the snow attachment, and I admired his courage for doing his best to take care of us even during the worst hours of his affliction. There is much to read about these cluster headaches, but what people do to get relief seems as random as the manifestation of our imaginary friends. Dan and I had both read about drinking Red Bull or some sort of energy drink at the onset of an episode. Today, after the snowstorm, he tried it, and very quickly, he felt better. We shouldn’t ask the questions. We should just go with the answers…for now, for today.

So often in parenting, and in all aspects of life, really, I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. So I just don’t do or say anything. Perhaps by not doing anything, I am doing something. But I just don’t know.

One of my more spirited foster children told me that her sister had the second longest hair in the world. I had actually met the sister, and I had admired her pixie-ish haircut. But, in this little girl’s world, where it was just her and her sister, her sister did have the second longest hair, second only to her own. So I guess she was, in her own way, right.

“Luke ate the snowstorm, and it turned into ice cream.”

Now, we are getting somewhere.

While our resident farmer was plowing the snow, the boys and I were busy making snow ice cream, a winter treat that we have grown to love. Aaron gathered a bowl of freshly fallen snow to which we added milk, sugar, and a little vanilla.

We, then, ate the snowstorm, but not fifty-three feet’s worth. We will leave that to Luke.