“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.“
As said by Christopher Robin to Pooh in “Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin”
At the start of last summer I was trying to find my place in my newest reality. I was still a wife but no longer a mother. The boys had been home for a little over two months and we were still without another placement. I was, however, the caregiver for my mom who before that time only really needed me for minor things. Now she needed me around for day to day living so she came to live with us. It was evident that I could not have a full time job. However that didn’t mean there weren’t down times in my day where my mind didn’t wander and hit me with the impact of the loss in our lives. Some days I felt like I was in limbo waiting to find out what would happen next. That was my reality at that moment.
Whether your time is packed with working, parenting, care giving or something else, it is easy to understand how the monthly issues of a favorite magazine easily get stacked somewhere for future reading. In one of those moments where my schedule was not packed with being a wife or care giver, I had picked up an outdated magazine that I had wanted to read for months but couldn’t because of toddlers and an ailing mother. At the back of the magazine there was a brief write up asking readers to submit their stories about love. I was excited about this topic before I remembered one important fact… the magazine was outdated so the submission date was also most likely long past.
Sure enough, the submission date had passed by almost thirty days. I was a little crestfallen. I had only just started writing again and some topics were much easier then others such as the articles about high end resort-like gated communities I was writing about for a freelance job. Then there were more personal topics that I found rather difficult to think about let alone write about. The topic of love though was one that I knew without much thought what would be written.
Those who know would most likely think I would write about one of two things: how I met my husband or my close relationship with my mom. While those are both great stories to tell those aren’t the ones that I felt the need to share at that moment. What I wanted to share was a story of love that many just can’t wrap their heads around.
I get asked a lot about how I can be a foster parent. Don’t you get attached to the kids? How can you just give them up? Don’t you want to adopt? And the questions don’t stop there. They just go on and on and on.
A good portion of the strangers I meet as well as friends and family have a hard time understanding how my husband and I can be foster parents. We get asked about why we don’t have children of our own. We even get asked why we aren’t working through a private adoption agency to make life easier on us.
The truth is so hard to put in plain words because that explanation is as much of a journey as is love. I shared the first part of my journey with everyone about a month ago. Explaining how fostering was something that I have wanted to do since I was a little girl. The second part is that nothing in life is easy. One day I will share our four year journey into becoming foster parents.
Of all the questions I get asked, the two reoccurring one are: “How can you love a child that isn’t yours? If you love that child how can you let it go back to its parents?”
Just because I am not a biological parent does not mean I can not have the love a parent has for its child. Any adoptive parent knows this without question. But I am not an adoptive parent, not yet. We hope one day but so far the children in our lives have been so lucky to have LOTS of people want them and fight for them. I am also not a biological parent and the potential of that is left up to my creator and his works of miracles.
I am a foster parent and some days I feel like a temporary solution or an innkeeper because I don’t get to make permanent decisions for the children who live with me. I can take them to the doctor, I can help get them services that they need, but I don’t get to decide if they can even cut or dye their hair, if they can get an ear pierced or have an important surgery. All of that is left up to the state and their parents.
So this is where the understanding of love and care breaks down. That if I know from day one that the goal for the children in my care is reunification with their parents or family, how can I allow myself to become attached to them. How can I let myself do more then care? How can I love those children as if I was their birth parent?
The answer is much the same as how can you let yourself stop falling in love. You can’t. There is no amount of telling your heart to stop that will actually make it stop. You can’t just simply say “Be careful. This child isn’t yours. You have no rights to it. It is going back to its parents or family as soon as things get worked out with the state. Stop loving this kid before you get hurt.”
No, there is no amount of that kind of talk that will make any difference, especially when you are holding the most perfect baby and that baby is snuggling into you as tight as it can. Then you see his first smile, bounce that baby boy on your knee, get told he is so ahead of other babies developmentally as he sits up, rolls, crawls, stands and walks all well before the national average. No, your heart is forever lost to this child. You can not tell your heart to stop. It just won’t listen. You cheer him on with every advancement, encourage him at every stumbling point, soothe him through each vaccination and love him no matter what. Yes, then one day, after months of going to court, you get the news you knew was coming: his family has finally worked out all the details with the state that they were meant to so now the baby you have loved and cherished is going home.
Just as much as nothing prepares you for how much you will love a child who is not yours, nothing will prepare you for the loss of that child. The word devastated is the closest in our vocabulary but it still barely touches the surface.
This however is not where that story of love ends. It isn’t even really the beginning. It’s a little like an episode of Dr. Who (my favorite science-fiction show of all time!) with all the “wibbly wobbly timey whimey stuff”.
The story seems to start with getting a call about two boys needing at least a temporary placement and falling in love with them the moment we met just like any parent in a delivery room. Where the story actually begins I didn’t even know until months after the boys returned home.
You see Branden and I have been rather lucky. The boys’ parents told us that they wanted us to stay in their lives. We were hesitant because we know that even the best of words and intentions do not equal promises, in this case though the parents have stood beside their words as best they can. At first we saw the boys about once or twice a month. Then we began to see the boys a little more often than that. About five months into this new relationship, the boys began to stay at our house over night from time to time. Now the boys are our godchildren and we call them, and their new sister, our nephews and niece.
Let’s back track a little though. About three to four months into our new relationship, JoBe, the little baby that won my heart, was beginning to have some severe attachment issues. When we would visit JoBe would be happy and fine but when we went to leave he would melt down and it would break my heart. We knew that within five to ten minutes of us leaving he would be just fine. We knew that because we saw how he was with his family and how much JoBe loves his parents. He smiles, hugs and kisses them all the time. We could also tell that JoBe missed us. He was just as emotionally confused as our own hearts were.
The act of JoBe crying at our departure bothered both me and his mom. I was torn. I knew how much he loved his parents so it wasn’t as simple as to say “if he was ours”. I also hated seeing him cry and causing him pain. I knew his mom was conflicted and concerned as well. We both sought answers and potential solutions because his crying hurt us both so much.
At first I blamed myself and thought our visits were causing him too much pain and possibly trauma. I even considered stopping our visits completely. I didn’t want him to be permanently scarred because he didn’t understand what was going on. I also knew never seeing him again would break my heart but knowing I was the cause of so much pain was also breaking my heart.
Then an answer came in the form of a memory. Something I had buried long ago because the pain of that love and eventual loss altered my life forever.
I remembered a time when I had a special goodbye routine with my maternal grandmother. When she was visiting and it was time for her to leave I would give her goodbye hugs and kisses but that was never enough. I would follow her out to the car and say goodbye again and get more hugs and kisses. Still that was not enough. So as she pulled away I would follow the car the three houses down the street to the corner waving all the time. As she would pull around the corner and drive out of sight she would wave her hand out the window and honk the car horn.
I talked about that memory with my mom as I thought maybe we could start doing something like this to help JoBe. That maybe he was having attachment issues the way I had as a child. My mom agreed but thought maybe JoBe was still too young to grasp the concept that I would keep returning since he was only a little over a year old at the time.
My mom suggested that I should think about another time a little further back then the memory of me chasing after my grandmother’s car. I wasn’t sure quite what she meant so she started telling me stories about how I would cry and scream uncontrollably every time I left my grandfather’s side. How my mom felt like a second fiddle to my grandfather, well she said more like just part of the background music because I was a daddy’s girl almost until I started school, then I was tied to my mom’s skirt tails ever since. My mom said that if I was even given a choice between my dad and my grandfather that I would kiss my dad and then run to my grandfather. So that made me think further back and pull up memories that were half hidden by the pain of loss.
My mom had me when she was on the cusp of turning thirty-three. In 1979 this was not a common occurrence as it is today, at least not in our community. You were generally done having kids by your late twenties. Although my parents were only in their early to mid-thirties, they both saw themselves as getting older, and my brother was nine at the time. Having a baby was almost like a new experience to them and having help was greatly appreciated. That help came in the form of family. At that time my paternal grandparents had no idea I was conceived let alone when I was born. They wouldn’t find out about me until I was almost four. Thankfully my mom was extremely close to her parents and sisters.
It’s not like my maternal grandparents didn’t have any other grandchildren. I was the last one of eight. There were five other boys and two other girls born before me. In fact one of those boys was only a month old by the time I came along. That didn’t stop my grandparents from having enough room in their hearts or in their lives for little me.
They were a constant fixture in my life. If they weren’t visiting my parents and helping out at our house, then we were visiting them, or even better… I got to stay with them a lot! Only being born a month apart, my cousin and I were with our grandparents constantly. I would be in my grandfather’s arms while my cousin was in my grandmother’s. They each got a baby. There were even great times of both of us falling asleep on my grandfather’s chest.
A lot of my likes and dislikes came from being bounced on my grandfather’s knee. I love that special Christmas hard strawberry candy, strawberries and strawberry jam, butterscotch candy, butter pecan ice cream, butter-brickle ice cream, stuffed peppers and more because I ate whatever my grandfather fed me. I even have the stool in my kitchen that he used to sit me on at when we visited his mother’s house. We would have morning conversations and afternoon naps. My grandfather was my buddy. I loved him very much with all my heart. My mom said we were kindred spirits.
Then one day that all changed. I was just a little over three that Thanksgiving holiday. It was the day after the holiday and my mom was giving me a shower. I still remember that night like yesterday. I heard the urgency in my dad’s voice, calling down the hallway, even though I don’t remember the words quite as distinctly as my mom does. All I knew was something was terribly wrong. This was the first time I ever knew what it was like to feel the bottom drop out of my life. I ran out to our living room after grabbing a towel and getting out of the shower. My mom was crumpled on the floor in her towel and head wrap. She was sobbing holding onto the phone. I remember wrapping my little body around hers and holding on while she cried.
My next memory is of the trip up to the small town in New York where my grandmother was from and where they had been staying when he passed away. I had already had my shower and now pjs and all I was stuffed in with the rest of the grandkids asleep in my aunt’s van that night for the long trip. The adults and dogs were in a few other cars as we all caravanned up to Johnstown together. Sometime in the middle of the trip we stopped at a rest stop so the dogs could go to the bathroom, the adults could smoke and the sleeping kids could get out and stretch our legs. The tension was as thick as the snow on the ground… and then a snowball came out of nowhere. I am not sure if one of the kids or adults threw that first snowball but quickly teams formed and snowballs went everywhere. The dogs were barking and jumping around following in the antics. Soon everyone sobered up and the kids were all crammed back into the van to sleep.
I don’t remember much else about my grandfather’s funeral. Brief fleeting moments spent at the first funeral parlor in Johnstown. How dark it all seemed. How we had to wait outside while my Mormon relatives held a small prayer service to pray my grandfather into heaven. That’s about it.
What my mother remembers is us saying goodbye at the coffin and when we left the wake I wanted to know why my grandfather wasn’t waking up so he could come with us. That as my parents pulled away in the car I evidently kicked and screamed and wailed that I wanted my “pop-pop”, that I didn’t want to leave him. I couldn’t bear it. Then we made our way down to Athens, PA where my grandfather had been born, raised, and now where he was going to be laid to rest.
In the days, weeks and months that followed denial followed by reality sank in. Within the first couple of weeks my cousin and I both scared our mothers as we told them that it would all be ok. One of us told our mom that “pop-pop said it would be fine”. The other one said something like we were going to have lunch or a play date with pop-pop. I no longer remember what I said exactly nor does my mom but we do remember that my aunt and mom both freaked out and were worried that meant the reaper would take us next.
Talking about all of this with my mother brought all the memories flooding back. That it was following the loss of my grandfather when I started having dark nightmares. I would see nothing but darkness in my dreams and I would wake up hyper ventilating. I was suddenly terrified by death, paralyzed by the fear of the vast nothingness of it. Loosing my kindred spirit tore me apart as a child. I started having attachment issues with everyone I loved. I learned the value of telling my loved ones how much I loved them every time I saw them.
My mom and grandmother developed that special goodbye ritual to help me with some of those attachment issues. Even with that ritual I had learned at a very early age what it was like to start building walls around my heart, how to bury the pain of loss, how to joke when I was hurting inside and most importantly how to be strong.
While remembering all of that brought back a lot of the pain I had buried away it also reminded me of all that love. It helped me realize that as long as JoBe’s parents wanted me in his life I would be there. That not being there was cowardly and would hurt him more in the end, possibly leaving him with thoughts of “What was it about me that they didn’t love?” Branden and I love JoBe too much to do that to him. If I can spare him any of the pain I went through I will do that.
Although my relationship with JoBe has gone from mother and son to that of an aunt and nephew who are kindred spirits, my love for him has never changed. I want him to be the happiest little boy with every possibility open to him.
I still have the picture of some of his first steps as the wallpaper on my phone and keep baby pictures of him with me. Even though I have taken care of babies for friends and family, JoBe will always be my first baby even when he is all grown up. I am so proud of the awesome little guy he is becoming. I am also very proud of his parents and all of their achievements!
When someone asked me one day how I could give him, I told the person he is back with his parent’s but that I never gave him up. That his mom and I were given that hard task much like Solomon gave those two women fighting over that baby. We just found a much better solution then the two options Solomon gave those women. That JoBe’s parents are smart enough to know that sometimes it really does take a village to raise a child and we are honored and proud to be part of that village.
This story explains how far and long a journey of love can take. I will always love and miss my grandfather but am glad I have found another kindred spirit to remind me how much love heals.