After people find out that I’m a foster parent, I know that I’m on some sort of timer before the inevitable question or comment about taking care of kids that aren’t really mine and how the other people in the conversation couldn’t imagine having someone else’s kids in their homes for however long and then seeing them go home because it would break their hearts. People respond with that sort of thing so often I actually get a little confused whenever I don’t hear it. I’ve said all kinds of things in response but in the last couple of weeks something struck me out of the blue: they really are my kids.

That may sound disingenuous for me to say as a foster parent who will never have children of his own. I even label myself “Rent-a-Dad” in a very tongue-in-cheek way. Part of the reason for that is because I’m easily amused, but the other more serious aspect of that for me is the constant reminder that I am at most intended to be a temporary parental presence. Not “forever dad” or “favorite uncle”, definitely never “daddy”, because the children we’ve fostered have had fathers who love them very much. “Rent-a-Dad” is the temporary guy you get when actual dad can’t be there for whatever reason.

Then why would I say something as clearly untrue and arguably click bait-y as claiming that they’re actually my kids? It’s a matter of perspective, really.

Because we’ve supported reunification in all of our cases, I can only imagine labeling a biological parent as “not really the parent” in the worst possible situations of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. The sorts of things that people hear about on the news that make them sick to their stomachs and that we can all agree means that no child will ever return to that home. I can’t conceive of ever claiming a child as “mine” in an exclusionary sense that implies their biological parents are somehow not valid. That’s one narrow way to read “mine” and not at all what’s going on when I use the word inside my head.

It’s fairly common to say “this is my company”, “my job” or “my coworkers”. “My friends”, “my family”, “my parents”, “my wife”. “My graduating class”, “my school”, “my chosen field of study”. “My religion”. All of those things are mine, but not in the sense that I own them. Also, “my cats”.

If anyone reads that and thinks the statement implies I’m somehow claiming ownership of the cats, they clearly have never had any sort of feline presence in their home and don’t understand that the ownership very definitely goes the other way.

All of those things that I listed aren’t things that I own, but things that I’m part of, belong to, am devoted to, have some responsibility to. Just because I have some connection that makes them mine doesn’t mean that I have them locked up and no one else can ever have another connection to them, that they can’t be someone else’s “mine”. When people ask “oh, are they all yours?”, what they’re really asking is “did you contribute half of their genetic material” or “did you adopt them and on paper do they belong to you”. In that sense, they’re not mine and never will be regardless of the fact that I could not possibly love them one iota more if they were really my offspring.

In the sense that I am always going to be one of their biggest supporters, that I will be there every moment I can be as long as they want Papa or Uncle B around, that I will fight bears for them if required? In the sense that if anything gets past their parents and evades me and manages to hurt them somehow, I will devote a nontrivial amount of time to finding a way to fly around the planet backwards to reverse time a la Superman III because I can’t stand the thought of any of those kids being anything but happy? Yes, they are absolutely mine. They will always be my kids, and they are more mine every day because that’s one day longer that I’ve had to love them, one more day that I get to see the amazing people that they’re growing into all the time.

In the spirit of full disclosure I’ve found that I can handle a certain amount of upset when they’re visiting and being horrible little snots about sensible nighttime routines. I mean, seriously? Some of us have jobs and enjoy sleep. Where’s Samuel L. Jackson to read a bedtime story when you need him?

We’ve been lucky enough that I still get to see all of my kids regularly and be involved in their lives. I think my nephews’ mom had it figured out long before we did – it’s been over a year ago that she said something along the lines of “whenever they’re over at your house and I ask how our kids are doing, I mean ‘our’ as in all four of us”. Of course she knows that we aren’t their family by blood and don’t have a “claim” on them, but looking back on that offhand comment I’m starting to think that she had figured out most of these things within the first year of the boys being home and I’m late to the party with my sudden personal revelation.

Fortunately, Stinkerbell’s mom seems to feel much the same way. When our baby girl was hurt and needed to go to the doctor several months ago she was extremely fussy and kept asking for us. The doctors and nurses said that only family could stay with her while she was being examined and they asked if I was dad. I said no, I wasn’t her biological dad but her mom spoke over me and said that for all practical purposes and if they wanted Stinkerbell to calm down at all, I was dad in that moment. All three of us ended up going back with her because the staff decided that she had a better chance of calming down and being comfortable if she had her whole family with her, blood related or not.

Looking back on that day, I think that maybe Stinkerbell’s birth mother figured this whole “mine” thing out before I did too. I’m starting to wonder if I might be the slowest kid in this particular class.

As I’ve dropped some of my other hobbies, one of my favorite new ones is watching people try to do mental math when we’re out in public with the boys and their little sister at the same time Stinkerbell is visiting. We get the typical “oh, aren’t they all so cute!” and “you’re very patient parents” reactions so many times that I’ve lost count. Whenever someone asks their ages and we respond with the impossibly close range between the four children, though, I can almost hear the gears grinding as they try to figure out how we could have that many kids with birth dates that close together. No one has ever asked if they’re all ours and we’ve never offered that information because it’s none of their business and it would take too long to explain properly anyway. I will admit that I sometimes want to respond to their looks of confusion by simply saying “different moms” and walking away, but I’m told that would be a horrible thing to do and I would somehow be a bad person if I did that.

The next time the topic comes up or anyone so much as drops a hint in that direction, I’ll be ready. Of course they’re really my kids. Always will be. And we’ll probably be dropping them back off at their parents’ house sometime on Sunday.

I’m sometimes asked why I refer to myself as a “rent-a-dad”. This is usually by people who haven’t known me for a very long time at all because most friends and family either know the origin story by now or were present for some parts of its formative years. Some, I suppose, have simply accepted that they will never understand the way my mind arrives at any given phrasing and have learned to roll with it the majority of the time.

A good friend and former coworker once stared at me, unblinking, for a solid thirty seconds or more in the middle of a conversation before coming out of his apparent trance and saying “oh, sorry, sometimes I just need to take a minute to process and figure out whatever it is you just said”. In this case there’s definitely some method behind the silliness.

For a number of years Nicci worked with a choir where she came into contact with a lot of children. I kept showing up at rehearsals and other events to support her at first, but over time it became as much about being there for the kids and interacting with their parents as it was about volunteering to help her. I’d sometimes help younger siblings with homework while rehearsal was going on or help keep an eye on the kids while we were waiting for their parents to pick them up afterward. I got to know some of them better than others because we sometimes helped supervise the summer tour trips for the 13-18 year old choir members which was a much different experience than just seeing them once a week at rehearsal. Now that it’s been several years since I first met some of the children, I’m happy to say that some of them are still friends now that they’re young adults. Thanks to this occasional dad-like behavior and the rapport I established with some of the kids, I became a part time father figure. Rent-a-Dad, affectionately I hope, for short.

Before we became foster parents, there was no time in my life that I felt more solidly rent-a-dad than the time I went to a father/daughter dance. We had become friends with the family of one of the younger girls whose mother asked me in early February one year if I would take her to the dance that was being hosted by another organization in the community. Her father had taken her before he passed away, and when the subject came up she said that she wanted me to take her in his place. I don’t know how anyone could refuse a request like that. She had a great time with her friends and seemed very happy to be there, and when I ran into friends and coworkers who were actual biological fathers and knew that I wasn’t I simply explained that I was a rental. She’s since outgrown that sort of thing and now goes to dances with boys, something I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around because I keep thinking of her as nine years old instead of nearing her graduation from high school. As actual fathers sometimes do, or so I’m told.

I’ve written a little bit here and there about how much it hurt me that we don’t have children that are biologically ours. It’s taken more time to come to terms with than I would have liked, and I’d be lying to say that I never think about it any more. There was even, I suppose, an occasional hint of bitterness when I started referring to myself as rent-a-dad because it always reminded that I will never have a child that’s biologically mine. Sometime after we got our first placement though, a switch was flipped and since then it’s always come from a positive place that’s filled with silliness and hope. I’m not likely to ever see a baby’s eyes light up and see 50% of my DNA staring back at me, but I’ve snuggled a handful of babies in the past few years who still call me papa even after they’ve gone home and are (usually) thrilled to see me when they come back to visit. I’ve been there for a lot of their big milestones, several of the high points of their lives so far, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’ve got little buddies who aren’t blood relations at all but who have somehow “inherited” some of my little mannerisms like the way I tilt my head quizzically when I’m confused or a particular stance I adopt when I’m grumpy. I’ve got a Stinkerbell who is almost as excited to see me as I am to see her whenever we’ve been apart for any length of time. I get the chance to be a positive presence in all of their lives and I might be able to do the same thing for more kids in the future which is something I couldn’t begin to understand the significance of before we got our first placement. I think that maybe Rent-a-Dad is exactly what I’m supposed to be.

At the start of our foster care journey I had no idea how I could sympathize with birth families as a whole let alone individually.

Why?

There were many reasons from the number of negative stories we had heard about birth families to the horrible situations children had been removed from. Then there was the simple truth that I could not sympathize with what I did not yet know.

After our first foster children the question became “how could I not?”

No I was not naïve enough to think that all situations would be like this one case or that all birth parents would work hard to get their kids back. However, I was no longer innocent to the possible circumstances we could see. Yes I was still a newcomer and had much to learn but I could not pretend that a spectrum didn’t exist in between the black and white cases we had been told about.

It is hard to see all birth parents as villains when some are just as scared as the children you are caring for. Not to mention how some birth parents are mourning the loss of the child who you will mourn the daily presence of soon enough.

When you stop seeing the birth family as a group of villains but rather people fallen on hard times, those who have lost their way, young adults lost on their path… well you start to better understand the children in your care and their needs. You can see how these kids miss the people painted as villains. And you might even better understand these “villians” in ways you never thought possible.

That is how I began to sympathize with birth parents. As I further get to know each of them then I can better understand them as individuals including the hardships they have faced. This includes how isolated and alone they have felt at the onset of both their DCS case and the point where they lost their way.

Sadly some birth parents are hard to humanize and sympathize with. They can be incredibly selfish, do horrible things, and won’t let anyone get near them including their own children. And those are the cases we had heard so much about. The good news is that DCS doesn’t require you to sympathize with the birth parents. Thankfully those are not the type of birth parents we have dealt with, yet.

For more insight on how we have been able to build working relationships with birth families check out another of our posts titled: Fostering Relationships.

Are first impressions getting in the way of being able to sympathize?

Remember my post about Misconceptions?

Well we all have them and sometimes those get in the way.

When we can push that aside we can see that maybe this isn’t the best parent, perhaps they didn’t have any guidance or help like us, but they are parents. Just like any parent they are  worried about who this stranger is that is taking care of their child, where their child is sleeping and what they are eating. When we can remind ourselves of that fact it is hard to see them as villains.

Just because we can understand them better doesn’t mean we have to be best friends. The important thing is to build a working relationship do the kids in our care have the best team possible to help them succeed.

While I don’t think there is a month safe from loss in our family, January through May is a bit difficult because these are our most recent set of losses. This includes my dad May 2011 to my last living uncle a year ago in February. Talking about loss can be difficult but talking about love after loss, before a loss even occurs, feels unfathomable. This is a topic most of my family has discussed in recent years and is one that is important to have with your loved ones while you have the chance.

My dad died in May 2011, one by one each of my other three uncles have passed away since. My youngest uncle lost his battle with cancer last January. As my uncle knew he was dying he had time to talk with each of us about all the things he didn’t want left unsaid. This included love after loss.

During one of our visits he sat first with my mom and then with Rent-a-Dad and I. He talked about the weather, projects he wanted to complete and the journal he was keeping in his final days. Then he brought up a topic which he thought might be a touchy with one with me.

Since my dad’s death, the roles have been reversed between my mom and I. My dad used to say that when I was a child that I was my mom’s shadow. Now my mom is my shadow. She does not want to leave the house unless I am with her. To some extent my uncle knew this. He wanted to make sure that my mom was not lonely and asked how I would react if my mom found love again.

I remember chuckling.

That initial response made my uncle ask if that meant I was against my mom marrying again.

Not at all. Love after loss has been a conversation I have had often with my loved ones since losing my grandfather.

As a kid I wanted to know when my grandmother was going to remarry. The first time I asked my mom that question, or perhaps maybe she asked how I would feel, I remember answering that my grandmother could marry anyone she wanted so long as they loved her. Then I followed up with the fact that whoever it was had to be rich enough to take care of all her grandchildren (financially). The last part was a condition one of my cousins and I had already discussed. If we were to have a second grandfather he needed to be able to spoil us. We were either four or five at that time.

After losing my dad the thought had crossed my mind about my mom marrying again but we didn’t really discuss it. The reason was my mom rarely left my side so how was she going to meet someone and fall in love? To my mom the question was silly because she didn’t want to be married again. For many reasons she was done with marriage. She was content with having her children, and now grandchildren, be her life.

There was a second reason as to why I laughed. I have never been opposed to my mom finding love again. As a kid I not only wanted to know if my grandmother would remarry but if something happened to my dad would my mom remarry. In essence I had been preparing for the inevitability of this kind of loss my whole life.

As an adult my only stipulation for my mom is that she marry not just for love but marry someone who didn’t see her family as their prize. When mom finds herself meeting a gentleman who is single they end up talking about how she is so lucky to have a daughter who takes such good care of her. I appreciate the compliment but that always makes me a bit leery. Why? I don’t need to have a stepdad who thinks I am going take care of him in the same way I have taken care of my mom. That is not to say I wouldn’t but rather that I don’t know if I have it in me after going from being one of my dad’s caregivers most of my life to then being my mom’s caregiver.

So when my uncle asked me if I would consider letting my mom marry again I couldn’t help but chuckle.

As usual there are a few more levels to this story.

My uncle wanted to make sure that each of my aunts found love again. He was thinking in terms of soul mates, partners, or companions.

Now, as an adult, I think about finding love on many different levels. The person who taught me that lesson, well it was my grandmother.

The reason my grandmother never remarried? She already had her soul mate and didn’t want another husband.

Love after my grandfather looked very different than what most would think of. My grandmother had a rich life with all of the organizations she was involved in and the children she helped as a substitute teacher, after retiring from being a full time teacher. Not to mention her family. That was the love she threw herself into. My grandmother moved to be closer to one of her children and help with her grandchildren. We all loved her so much that she didn’t need anyone else after my grandfather, or that is what she would tell us. There were plenty of men who tried to woo my grandmother from strangers to fellow church goers to members of my grandfather’s squadron from WWII who still kept in touch and had their own losses.

Just because I think of love in more of an umbrella terms doesn’t mean I haven’t had the talk about love after loss with Rent-a-Dad.

As a young adult I had this sinking feeling that I may never see life after the age of thirty. Honestly I have no real idea why except that maybe it is a feeling buried in my DNA because later I found out it was also a fear my mom had as a young adult. When I found out at the age of 29 that I needed surgery and might have cancer, I thought that fear turned into reality. In the days leading up to my surgery I made sure everyone knew what my wishes were if the surgery didn’t go well or if I did have cancer. This meant having the talk with Rent-a-Dad about love after loss should something happen to me.

The conversation was darkly humorous to him because as he says nothing bad is ever allowed to happen to me. My reply always is that I doubt the universe has the same plans (hint: bad things happen to everyone).

To me the conversation was about giving him permission to love again. He didn’t really need my permission but I know it is easier to love again if you know your partner felt that way. We talked about his type, yes he has a type and didn’t know it, and I actually named a few people I wouldn’t mind taking my place.

Sometimes I am more pragmatic than others. At the time, and well even to this day, I feel that is pragmatic. I wanted Rent-a-Dad to know I loved him enough that he should move on if something happened to me. Of course I gave him a list of what I wanted done with my stuff and how I didn’t want him to neglect our animals if his new girl had other animals. The point was I wanted him to realize it would all be ok and I didn’t want him to become a recluse like he vowed would happen.

Several months after my third uncle passed away, and the question about my aunt finding love again came up, Rent-a-Dad reciprocated the permission for me to find love after loss if anything ever happened to him. Years ago Rent-a-Dad didn’t want to think about the inevitable happening but after seeing my aunt’s spouses, their loves, slowly losing battles with their health, he decided it was time to have that conversation with me. He knows I am not good on my own and that I have this need to take care of other but also to be taken care of (on an equal level).

After watching how others were responding to my aunt, he wanted me to know how he felt. That he too wanted me to be happy and to do whatever it meant to find that happiness even if that meant being in love again six months after his demise (yeah we sometimes are dramatic with our words). After a few hugs and some tears we were both good. We knew how each other felt and had permission to find love after loss.

While we hope that we will be like Allie Calhoun and Duke in the Notebook, never truly knowing a day without each other’s presence, we know the likelihood of that really happening is small. We can still dream though while at the same time being practical with our final wishes.

Yes we are still young but strange and painful things happen daily. Somehow having this conversation and knowing each other’s wishes makes life a little easier to move through on days where loss can be so painful.

When my uncle asked his question about finding love after loss and I chuckled, it wasn’t meant to be disrespectful. We had all had this conversation, or a version of it, days, months and even decades before. All of us were good. Something about that made some peace with my uncle that day.

Information on Love After Loss

Love after loss is a hard conversation to have at any time. I am a very open person with the ones I love. They know my feelings and should never doubt how I feel. That is not the case with everyone. Even Rent-a-Dad has his moments when he doesn’t know how to share what he is thinking. If you are struggling with this concept and want more information, guidance, or just want to find someone like minded, here are a few links to help you with your journey:

Psychology Today has an article about widows (widowers) finding love after loss.

Christina Rasmussen explores her feelings about exploring feelings of finding love after loss in a post on her blog Second Firsts.

Huffington Post has multiple first person articles about finding love after loss.

Since becoming an adult and having my own place I have had a weekly ritual that has served me well. Friday is for cleaning, Saturday is for fun and Sunday is to prepare for the week to come. Even as a foster parent this has served me well. It is Sunday evening and I am preparing for my week. As I was mentally going over the list of what needs to get done this week, and when, it hit me that our home has been empty now for over a year. Empty of a placement, certainly not empty of children. For a childless couple this sometimes seems a bit strange at times.

My focus this week is that Stinkerbell will be turning three. I am helping her mom with some of her party details including the cake. Stinkerbell has known the style of cake she has wanted for her birthday for several months as she has conspired with my mom and the other little loves in my life. For some reason they all think that I can move mountains and make their cake dreams reality. I am not always so convinced of this.

In fact the past couple of weeks I have been quite stressed over the process needed for this cake. So much so that I did a test run of the techniques needed to see if I could really do this without totally ruining a toddler’s dream. Based on this test run I know when I need to bake the cake, when to construct and frost it, how long it needs to stay frozen before I can glaze it, and so on. I am still stressed.

As per my normal Sunday routine I am doing a run down of events this week including the schedule for making the cake. That is when it all came to me. Stinkerbell has been officially home now for a year. I wanted to send a congratulatory text to her mom. This is a big deal and her mom deserves praise. Then I had to sit for a minute.

Stinkerbell has been officially home for a year.

That means our home has been without a foster placement for over a year. The realization of that fact suddenly made me very sad for a moment. Rent-a-Dad and I had planned a few months break from fostering when Stinkerbell returned home. It made perfect sense. She had been our longest placement. We needed time for us, time to catch up on foster training, and time to be available if Stinkerbell or her family needed us.

Shortly after the trial home period was completed our home status returned to normal and we have been awaiting a placement since. Other than our emergency placement in November we have not received any other calls. Our caseworker has told us of the many near calls but no actual placement has happened. On one hand that makes us sad but on the other hand our home may be empty of foster children but it is in no way empty.

Today has been the first day in over a week that our home has not had a child in it. That has been our normal since starting our journey as foster parents. The children who have come into our care have never quite left our hearts or our home. We don’t have to wonder for very long how they are doing because the longest we have gone between visits is two weeks. With three children having been in our care and returning for regular visits it is a bit like a revolving door at our house. So yes, for now our home is empty of foster children but our hearts, and home, are very full with the sound of busy happy toddlers.

After my moment of sadness of an empty home, I got over it. My week is full up of love and happiness. It is packed with the same busy tasks every parent has and yes, I am terrified that this cake is going to be a hot mess. No, I am not your typical parent. Heck, this week I am not even your typical foster parent.

Some days that news saddens me because my brain was raised with words like “normal” and “typical ”. Today I just smile and shake my head. I have all the love and worries that a regular run of the mill parent has. I just don’t always have the children living under my roof. The fact that they are all safe and happy children is enough for me. I can deal with not being normal or typical. After all I don’t have time to worry about that, I have a cake to worry about making!

Five years ago I was planning on quitting my job and becoming a full-time caregiver for my parents. My mom and I had talked with the physical rehab facility where my dad was staying and he was almost ready to exit their care. I knew my mom could no longer handle the care of my dad on her own and she did not want to be a burden. The decision had to be mine and I needed the support of my spouse.

My Dad

My Dad

Almost one year prior when I had been ill and took almost a month off from work, my Dad loved having me visit on a daily basis. We had time to do things together like craft, cook, and watch movies. We were even able to take long lazy drives. So I knew he would be excited that I would be available to support mom like she needed. I wasn’t stupid to think it was always going to be sunshine and daisies, after all most of the time my dad and I got along like oil and water. He was my dad though and I knew this was what I needed to do. The bonus was that Rent-a-Dad supported my decision 100%.

Then 7 a.m. on May 6, 2011, I received a call from my mom. My dad had been rushed to the hospital with breathing difficulties once again. He asked the facility to call us. Mom sent her love and said we would meet him at the hospital. She then called me so I could drive her to the hospital. I frantically rushed around the house to get dressed, grab a project or two for the hospital wait, and dashed over to my parent’s house to pick her up. We were at the hospital within the hour. Then we waited in the waiting room for what seemed like forever. After finally being asked to come back the doctors took us aside for a moment to let us know something had happened but we didn’t expect that it was the worst.

When they shared the news with us that my dad had thrown a blood clot to his lungs and they couldn’t save him we were devastated. The only peace of mind at that moment was that we knew one of the nurses in the ER. She told us she was with my dad the whole time and that he knew he was not alone.

The words “shocked” “devastated” and “out of sorts” only begin to explain how we felt at that time. My dad had never been 100% healthy since I was 8 years old. I lived with his illnesses for over 24 years and they had become a part of my normal.

My Dad was supposed to come home to us in a week… I never thought he would go to the BIG home… Not yet.

In the days that followed his passing, I began a letter to my dad and scrapped it over a dozen times. I couldn’t think through my pain or see through my tears. Putting aside my own grief, I had to be the rock that my mom needed me to be. I wasn’t yet ready to deal with my own. Now almost five years later I think a letter to heaven is well overdue…

A letter to my dad in heaven

Dear Daddy,

 We are quickly approaching the day we lost your battle here on Earth. It has been almost five years since that day… How did that happen? Where did the time go? How have we survived that long without your quirky smiles or grumbly bear personality?

 The first few weeks people were so kind with their thoughts and actions. When the unfairness of it got to us there was family that knew what to say or to just offer a hug when words seemed senseless.

 Even five years later I play out those last few months… How excited you were over the last minute gift I found for you that Christmas, the home-cooking we “snuck” in to you, and all the good moments we had together… Mom telling me you felt like you had your little girl back and how after she told me that I made sure to dress up on the days I knew I would be visiting with you.

 Then those horrible tornadoes came through our area. The facility you were in had limited power. You were so concerned for others. You were even worried over my health. Those last two weeks I was not the best version of me. What you said and what I heard were two different things. My concern for my own health and work had me so tied up that I couldn’t think outside of myself. I was concerned that my conditioned worsened and that it might even be cancerous this time… For that I am so truly sorry daddy.

What I am glad for is that our last day together was a good one. We had received good news on your progress and that we had a date when you would come home from the facility. The plans we made for all the day trips we would take once you were out made us all happy. You knew I was looking forward to leaving my job and being home with you and mom. You were so very excited about it all. We would figure everything out one step at a time as a family. You were also excited over a project you’re working on so you kicked us out saying we will get enough time to be in each other’s pockets soon enough… We said our “goodbyes” and “I love you”… for the last time… If we had only known…

 Those are words I use often about you Daddy.

 You kept so many secrets from us but I guess that had become second nature to you. Between the generation mindset you had grown up in and the government security clearance you had as a radio operator in the Navy, keeping secrets was what you did. You weren’t used to the “share all your thoughts and feelings” generation that I was a part of.

 So when you requested that I purchase more snacks for your approved of “stash” and I asked (out of habit) how your snacks disappeared so quickly that week, you didn’t need to shut me out or let me assume the worst, that you had been sneaking extra snacks and over indulging, because you were raised not to shout your good deeds from the mountains… But Daddy if you’d only told me you were sharing your snacks with those less fortunate at the facility… to brighten their days during such a miserable time… If I had only known…

 There were so many things like this that I found out after you had gone. It made my heart so heavy that I had only really started to know all of your “layers” far too late. Like how compassionate and optimistic you really were, because I had only seen what years of untreated PTSD and the loss of so many friends in Vietnam had done to your spirit.

 Mom says my ever replenishing optimism came from you. That you always told her “sweetie we will find a way” and that “together we are stronger than when we are apart”. I now know that we weren’t so much oil and water as much as we were magnets, so much alike that we constantly pushed each other way.

 Even though I hear myself say “I wish you’d given me the chance to love you more while you were here”, I am ever grateful that you showed me how to clean spark plugs, use tools properly, make chili, bake and decorate a cake, cultivate a love of photography create arts and crafts, help me develop a science project that evolved over years and took me to the state level, develop a love of obscure things, science fiction, and so much more…

 I may not be able to pass on your DNA but I can pass on your love and through that love I will see you in everything.

Often I think on the conversation we had following your coma. You said “everything will change in 2012” At the time I thought you meant something bad and foreboding but now I wonder if you knew a baby that would change our lives would be born in 2012 and you thought it would biologically be Rent-a-Dad’s and mine… You just didn’t know it would be our first foster child. Children do change everything especially our perspective.

 Some days I cry because you aren’t here to know these children in our lives but somehow I think you’ve been able to meet each one of them before they were ever born and guide them our way and that you have known how much we have needed those children in our lives. How do I know this? JoBe talks to your photos on the bookcase all the time. He even comes to pull me away from chores so I will talk to the photos as well. Stinkerbell has started doing the same thing. Your photos aren’t the only ones they can reach on that bookshelf but your photos are the only ones that they talk to.

 I talk to your photos all the time too Daddy. I still hear your voice in my head…

 “I love you Daddy”

 “I love you too Nic-Nic”

 Always Daddy, Always

 

Living with Loss

Sadly losing a loved one is not something anyone can bounce back from easily. We all heal in our own time and at our own speed. Never let anyone tell you that you have grieved long enough. If the feeling of grief is just too much to handle on your own (and it can be so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) there are many programs through local organizations and churches. There are also some national programs. Here are three websites dedicated to the discussion of grief and breaking down the myths and stigmas concerning the process:

 

Mental Health America: Coping with Loss: Bereavement and Grief

“The loss of a loved one is life’s most stressful event and can cause a major emotional crisis. After the death of someone you love, you experience bereavement, which literally means “to be deprived by death.”

 

Psych Central: The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief

     “In our bereavement, we spend different lengths of time working through each step and express each stage with different levels of intensity. The five stages do not necessarily occur in any specific order. We often move between stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of death. Many of us are not afforded the luxury of time required to achieve this final stage of grief.

The death of your loved one might inspire you to evaluate your own feelings of mortality. Throughout each stage, a common thread of hope emerges: As long as there is life, there is hope. As long as there is hope, there is life.”

 

Help Guide: Coping with grief and loss

     “Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss. The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold”

“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.