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.

You Always Did Love the Ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We were better.

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

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

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

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

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

Even baseball is canceled.

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

I hope I have read all the messages.

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

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

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

Sunsets and Storms

“How long do you think I’ll last? I mean, when do you think I am going to die?”

Ethan’s questions still sometimes catch me a bit off guard. I am not sure I ever give him answers that satisfy or even make sense to him.

I had to come up with something. “Well, Grampa is eighty. You could live a very long time.”

“Grampa eats fruits. If you eat a lot of fruits and healthy stuff, then you can live a long time. I don’t eat that many fruits.” He went back to what he had been doing before. The conversation was enough for him, though to me, rather unsettling and incomplete.

There are times when nothing makes sense…to anyone…at all.

I had hoped to hide from my embattled reality for at least three minutes. Just as I turned the lock to the bathroom door, I heard the skip that is unmistakably Aaron, embodied, bounding upstairs.

“Mom? Are you up here?”

He knew where I was; there was no hiding, no refuge to be sought. I was glad that he spoke first, before my annoyed retort for befallen peace sent him away, certainly without skipping this time.

“Mom? It’s a beautiful sunset. You should come see.”

That’s why he had come upstairs. That’s what he wanted to tell me: that the sunset was beautiful. He wanted me to see.

My little son knew that tonight’s fleeting gift of God’s creation would be worth more to me than a little time alone in the bathroom.

My birthday is coming up again. I am keenly aware that I am at the brink of the manifestation of the sunset of my life. While the future had once been something to envision from a great distance, that tide has now caught up to me, and my steps are not defined as I had expected that they might be. They melt; they disappear into a million grains of sand, indiscernible from the tracks of those who have gone before.

I wonder how my son, my child who views the world through a black and white lens, would make sense of the loss of a child. I wonder how anyone would.

The behavior specialist from Ethan’s school called last week. After analyzing the data from the past year, she was pleased to report that though the incidences of physical holds had increased, the overall challenges with his behavior had decreased to the point where he would be dismissed from her caseload. This, for us, is a type of victory.

Are the days that follow the second half of what has already happened, or is it a new start? Is it the end of the beginning, or will there be an entirely new purpose?

Olive Chickens (thanks, Elliott, for the middle name) does not appear to know where she is going in a given moment. Her feathers hide her eyes, and one wonders how well she can even see. Somehow, though, she finds her way home, or close to it, at night. Once, though, she almost didn’t.

I had taken Ethan to the specialist out of town. The driving rain made travel hard, and it was well after dark when we finally returned to the farm. Dan and Aaron had locked the other chickens down for the night, but Olive, who had been with us for just a handful of days, was nowhere to be found. She was certainly scared, cold, wet, and tired, if she had even been spared. After what seemed an eternity in the darkness of the still-stormy evening, I heard her unmistakable peep. I was a child on Christmas morning: Olive Chickens had wedged herself in a less-than-two-inch wide space between the coop and the run. She was trying to get home. She was scared, but she was okay. With the help of a rake and some urgent prayers, she was soon safely perched with her coop mates.

The boys were waiting for me when I finally made it inside. Ethan was first to approach. “Mom, you really care about that weird chicken.”

If only he knew.

So when the storms are inside, coming from a now medium-sized boy, and they overtake an hour or a day, I remember that we have come far. I remember that the beautiful sunsets had been further between. I only hope that we won’t run out of time before we make it home.

When I am gone, when my days are done, I hope that someone will be glad that he is alive, that someone will search for him when he is lost in the storm.

Here’s to eating lots of fruits, always finding our chickens amid the thunder and lightning, and never, ever missing out on a beautiful sunset.

Going Home


It could have been a driving snowstorm, or maybe the thickest, most dense fog that I had experienced; I don’t remember the precise conditions, but the fear will never leave my memory.  I’m a nervous driver anyway, but this night, travel would have been unsafe even for the seasoned race car driver.  I should have stayed at my friend’s apartment, but I was eager to make it home after my night class.  I was so afraid, once in the thick of it, gripping the wheel as tightly as I could, that I might not make it home.

My own words played incessantly in my head: so many years, so many services and specialists, twenty medications, and no answers.  I wonder how we have landed here, in a place of self doubt, where we feel lower than the last few nuts that the squirrels have abandoned along the exposed tree roots on the frosty ground as the inevitability of the cruel cold looms just ahead.

This time, it was driving rain and, more than that, the emotions screaming from inside my head, that obstructed my vision and made me wish I could just turn around, or that I could just keep driving and everything would come clear.

“I’m not sure psychiatric hospitalization is the answer.”

This was the doctor that eight days before had sent us home on a safety plan because no hospital within three hours had a place for our little boy.

What, exactly, then, is the answer?

I am pretty sure he didn’t know.  I am pretty sure nobody does.  No, hospitalization is not the answer, but it is an all too necessary step along the arduous journey.

It was, on this day, to be the course, though certainly not the answer. He must have known, because the fight left him for a good while, and he walked to the ambulance from the school.

It dawned on me that I should put the finch feeder away for the season.  No finches would be coming, at least not until springtime, when the torrent will have subsided and the birdsong will play vividly through the open window.

The baby crib, for decades a fixture in our home in one form or another, has also been taken down and stored away, for its season is now behind us.

What if we are destined, as beings that walk this earth, to be good at one thing?  What happens, then, when that one thing is done?  What happens to us?  Does our purpose fade?  Can we take what we have been, what we have learned, and offer a new kind of energy to our spent course?

There was a bed this time, at a hospital  not far away and on a unit for children with autism.  He would be transferred soon.

It was all too much for this boy, or he was too much for them.  It was as if the driving rain continued within the walls of this emergency room.  There were four people, all wearing scrubs of the same blue, jumbled together as one mass.  I couldn’t see their heads, or perhaps I did not look at them.  In a flash, through the screams of angst, one of the headless figures pumped the shot into my son’s soft pink flesh.

They left the room with the same fury as when they had entered.  Nobody noticed my tears; maybe nobody noticed that there were any emotions at all.

I tried hard to listen to his stories; his speech was rapid and his tone was convincing.  He spoke of Lego figurines and of how the mother of his classmate was going to take six months leave from her jobs, which included helping people that had wheezing, working as both a doctor and a computer programmer, and managing a company that fixes basements.

My own thoughts, though, interrupted his spoken stream of consciousness and distracted me from honoring him with my full attention.  I couldn’t really hear what he was saying.  I wondered what any of this was even about.

Who will help him in the bathroom?  Will he like what he is offered to eat?  Will someone sit in his chair at the kitchen table while he is gone, or will it serve as a lonely reminder of the demons that continue to invade his childhood?

“I’ll be in the hospital for two weeks…,” he piped matter-of-factly,  as though he was accepting of his fate.  “We can build our castle then, when I get home.”

Yes, we can.  And it will be much better than any video game.

I remembered the donut store from another time.  It had closed at midnight, less than fifteen minutes before the end of this ten hour ordeal, when I had found my way to the storefront with hopes of bringing breakfast for those at home.  The  door was locked, but the lights were on.   There, proclaimed in red and blue neon letters, was a tiny saving grace after a day of sadness and humiliation: “DRIVE-THRU.”

So, there would be donuts after all.  Ethan doesn’t really like donuts anyway, which is good, because he wasn’t going to be home to eat one.

We have seen him a few times now, and he has let us know, through his  no-nonsense descriptions of the rhythm of his days at this new hospital, that he is doing okay.  Today, as we make our way through the season’s first snow on the way to visit, we will be hopeful: hopeful that the new medication may be the one that helps, hopeful that he will be home soon, and hopeful that there will be new paths on the horizon.

No, it’s not the answer, but it helps, if even just a little bit, to guide us home through the storm.

Blessings for a safe and joyous holiday season, at home or wherever your journey leads.