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Breaking the ice

December 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

My maternal grandmother, Edna Johansen Wistrom, was the child of Danish immigrants. She didn’t learn to speak English until she went to kindergarten.

She grew up on a farm in northern Iowa, on the cold flat prairie. She had farm chores, and she told me once that she would rush to get her chores done so that she could go back inside to finish whatever book she was reading. A woman after my own heart.

After high school she attended nursing school, met my grandfather in her mid-20s, and got married.

Grandma Edna held strong opinions, could be stubborn, but was very compassionate to those around her who were needy. She and my grandfather hosted a family of refugees from Vietnam in the 70s. By hosted, I mean the family lived with them until they could get on their feet. I now realize what a huge commitment that was. She read voraciously, had a knack for decorating her house with an elegant and sophisticated flair, and traveled to the Holy Lands when she retired.

She was a good grandma. She taught me how to embroider dishtowels. She took me shopping for my birthday. We spent many holidays at her house, which always smelled of coffee.

But there are so many things I don’t know about her.

She was a typical stoic Midwesterner of northern European descent who didn’t talk much about herself. It probably didn’t help that my grandfather was often verbally abusive and demeaning. That had to have affected her over the years….made her feel that she didn’t have a voice.

Shortly before she died, I took a tape recorder to her small apartment to document her life stories. Time was running out, I realized, and I wanted to know more about her before those stories would be lost forever.

By this time, my grandfather had died, and she lived in a retirement village. She remained independent, but the shroud of death was hanging in the air. Friends she knew from around the village, blue-haired women she played cards with or went to church with, would die and she would never speak of them again. She and the other survivors would pragmatically move on. They wouldn’t even attend the funerals. After a while, so many of her cohorts had died that she seemed so alone.

The day I took my tape recorder to her house, I had high hopes. I was finally going to learn all about my grandmother. I imagined an afternoon spent talking about her childhood, learning stories that would fill all of the gaps of my understanding this important woman in my life. It would be an afternoon of connecting with my grandmother, learning more about her and maybe understanding more about myself.

I am a trained journalist – so I know how to ask questions to coax answers out of the most difficult interviewee. But my journalistic skills were no match for my grandmother. She shyly answered my questions, but barely. I would ask questions, and she gave me short, one-sentence answers.

I wanted stories, history, deep understanding. But she was as closed off and hard as the cold flat prairie where she was raised.

When I asked her “What was the most important day of your life?” She answered, “Oh, when my children were born, I suppose.”

But that was it.

At first I was frustrated, exasperated, and a little embarrassed. I realized my afternoon of listening to my grandmother’s stories would actually only take about 15 minutes due to her one-word or one-sentence answers.

I tried asking the questions in different ways, coming at it from different angles. Nothing.

Slowly, it dawned on me that she felt that her story didn’t matter. That she didn’t have anything worth telling. That she didn’t matter.

After awhile, I gave up, turned off the tape recorder, and we ate coffee cake and talked about my cousins and her flower planters on her patio…skating along the icy hard surface of shallow conversation. Grandma was more comfortable there.

My grandmother died a few years later, at age 89.

The tape of our conversation that day is in my desk drawer. I haven’t listened to it since that day.  But sometimes I want to listen to it just to hear her voice again.

Lately, I’ve felt myself frozen too….just skating on the surface. I wrote a book and it was published, and now I wonder if I’ve run out of stories to tell. I sit down to write and can barely eek out one sentence. I feel that my stories don’t matter. That everyone else has more to say. That I’m not good enough. I don’t deserve to have my voice heard.

But then I think of my grandmother. I remember that day, sitting on the floor at her feet, as she sat in a gold, velour chair. I sat by her feet like Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, craving wisdom and grace and love.

That is why I will sit down every morning and write – even if it’s that one sentence that I can barely eek out  –  to find the stories of my family that my grandmother, and my mother, and probably scores of my ancestors believed weren’t worth telling. I will hack at the frozen surface and chop through the ice until I can dip my fingers into the rich, flowing water below.

 

Do not be afraid.

October 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

“A pattern of falling apart precedes every transition to a new level of faith. If one is not prepared to live in that temporary chaos, to hold the necessary anxiety that chaos entails, one never moves to deeper levels of faith or prayer or relationship with God. Notice that almost every theophany (revelation of God) in the Bible begins with the warning not to be afraid. The fear is totally predictable; but if we give in to our fear, we will never be able to move to the next level.” — Richard Rohr

I know I’ve said this before, but the past year has been one of the hardest years of my life. Our foster daughter was almost three when she came to us. Her first foster family gave her a wonderful, solid start in life. But still, there was trauma, and grief, and chaos. D has adjusted well — but this was a huge life change for all of us.

We entered into it willingly, and happily. But still. There’s no way to prepare for being a parent, dealing with the foster system, figuring out daycare, building a relationship with D’s biological family, being sick all winter from all of the viruses D picked up in daycare. Nothing could have prepared us.

Recently, when I described the past year to my spiritual director, he told me matter-of-factly, “Oh yes, you’ve been in liminal time.”

My spiritual director explained. Liminal is from the Latin word limen which means “threshold.” It is the disorientation that occurs during a transition. It’s the “beginning of a state or action, outset, opening.”

This surprised me. You see, I though liminal time was what I experienced before D came into our lives. All of that waiting — that “in between” time when we wondered if we would ever become parents, when we were in limbo.

I thought once D entered into our lives, the waiting was over. We had arrived. We finally could feel like a family and get on with our lives. But no….now I realize that the upheaval had just started.

I was relieved when my spiritual director explained this to me.

The first year of our new lives with our foster daughter has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life. But it has also been the most transformative.

I think of all of this when I read the story about Davion Navar Henry Only.

Davion is an older foster child who has been hoping for a permanent family for a long time. Last week there was an article in the Tampa Bay Times that told his story — and how he stood up in front of a local Baptist church and asked someone, anyone, to adopt him.

How many other children, like Davion, are waiting to find a permanent home and family? To be loved unconditionally? I think I read somewhere that there are 101,000 children in foster care who are waiting. Just waiting. And hoping.

The thing is, that people are scared. They are scared of stepping through the Threshold and dealing with the chaos an adopted child might bring into their lives. Especially an older child from foster care who might bring his or her baggage through the Threshold with them. They are scared to adopt a child who may be experiencing emotional trauma. They are afraid they won’t be able to handle it. They are afraid of adopting a child who may have behavioral issues, or has a difficult time attaching, or a child who will disrupt their lives. And they are afraid of “the system” which many consider to be broken.

FOR YEARS, THESE WERE MY FEELINGS, TOO.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was afraid of the foster care system. Afraid of baggage. Afraid of dealing with biological parents. But we got over our fear, we stepped through the Threshold into liminal time of upheaval, chaos, but also transformation, deep joy, and happiness.

We are now on the path to adopt our 3-year-old foster daughter, whom has lived with us for over a year. I feel the chaos settling a bit. We have found our groove, we have mourned our losses, D has adjusted well.

My response to parents who may be considering adopting from foster care: DO NOT BE AFRAID. Walk through the Threshold and see what’s in store. If you don’t take that step, you may never find out how strong and courageous you are, and how fulfilling it can be to see a child transformed by love.

For all of the Davion’s of the world — Do not be afraid.

 

 

Last Wednesday, I cried in court. I didn’t just cry in court. I was so overcome with emotion that my body convulsed in sobs and no words would come out of my mouth.

I cried so hard I couldn’t answer the question the assistant state’s attorney asked me.

 

“Why do you want to adopt her?’

 

I stood there in front of everyone:

The judge with black hair that flowed like lava over her shoulders.

The public defender who was a young eager lawyer with a too-large suit.

The guardian ad litem who has kind eyes and has advocated for D for years.

The court reporter who looked over at me with sympathetic eyes.

The bailiff who I could barely see over the dark wood panel.

D’s grandma, who work sparkly star earrings.

 

In front of all of them, I lost it because of one that one question.

And as soon as I heard it, I felt a tidal wave rise from somewhere inside my soul. It was filled with years of emotions that had piled up like a brick wall.

Why do we want to adopt her? This is what I wanted to say:

 

Because we have been waiting 7 years for a child.

Because we thought we would never become parents.

Because I thought God didn’t love me enough to let me become a mother.

Because I have wanted to adopt a child since I was a teenager.

Because we have been disappointed time and time again after we thought a child would come into our lives….and then didn’t.

Because I thought I didn’t deserve this.

Because we felt an emptiness in our lives that only a child could fill.

Because she needed a loving safe home.

Because she calls me “mommy.”

Because she is the happiest child I’ve ever known.

Because she laughs at our jokes.

Because this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I can’t imagine life without her.

Because for some reason we have not only fallen in love with her but also with her grandma and cousins and half-sister.

Because this seems like a divine moment.

 

But I didn’t say all of that. The public defender with the too-large suit got up to get me a tissue.

They all looked at me and waited for my answer. I tried to answer a few times, but started crying again. I couldn’t catch my breath. I dabbed my eyes with the tissue.

“We…want to adopt her because we love her,” I finally said. “We have waited a long time for a child to come into our lives. We’re attached to her, and she’s attached to us. She brings us much joy. We can’t imagine our lives without her.”

I wiped my eyes again.

“No further questions, your honor,” the assistant’s state’s attorney said.

 

 

 

 

 

Where is my home?

July 18, 2013 — 1 Comment

“But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water…..”

― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

I haven’t lived in Iowa for over 20 years, but I have always considered it home. My family roots run deep there, laid down by Scottish farmers and sunk deep into the dark fertile soil through the decades by their ancestors in a small town called Adelphi, which is no longer a town but a smattering of houses. My father still owns the 80 acres of land where my Scottish ancestors first settled in 1864.

I now live in Chicago, but when I visit my family in Iowa, I cross the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa on Interstate 80 and I sigh and drink in the scenery along the stretch of highway that takes me toward Des Moines. The neatly trimmed ditches and the red-tailed hawks sitting on the fence posts next to the road, the deep green corn fields, the silky white clouds against the blue sky  – these details wrap around me like my mother’s arms, and I remember all of the hundreds of times I’ve made this trip, the rhythmic thumping of the tires hitting the seams in the highway ticking off the miles until I reached home.

There is one stretch of rural highway within a half-mile of the “old home place” where you will find a row of houses set a few acres apart each. These houses hold my childhood memories. On one corner is the house where my great aunt and uncle lived – my grandfather’s brother – one of the five “Beattie Boys,” who were hardscrabble Scottish farmers and at one time owned and farmed much of the land in the area.

Then up the hill is the brick bungalow where my grandfather, the second to youngest of the Beattie Boys, lived when I was growing up – a widower after my grandmother died of cancer a few months before I was born. When I was young he often sat in a rusted out metal lawn chair in front of his house, smoking a cigarette, and looking out over the valley below.

Next to that house is a white four-square farmhouse where I lived until I was 12. My grandfather was born in this house, and later the family used it as a bunkhouse for the farmhands. Then, when my parents married, my grandparents gave it to them and it was turned from a bunkhouse into our family home.

At 12, my parents built a new house next to that one – where I brooded through my teenage years. Later, after I had grown and moved to Chicago, my parents built another house down the road a half-mile or so. Their retirement home, and a place where they wanted us to bring their grandchildren for visits. It’s in that house where my mother died at age 63.

After that, my dad moved into town.

All of these houses have now been sold and no longer remain in the family. One day the final 80 acres where my ancestors settled will probably be sold as well.

I drove down this strip of road a few weeks ago when I was visiting my father. D was asleep in her car seat in the back. I meandered through the country roads as I waited for her to wake up.

I could barely see the old white farmhouse behind the trees that had grown to full maturity since I lived there. That house used to sit up on the hill unobstructed by trees, leaving a clear view across the Des Moines River valley that stretches for miles. I always felt it was a proud looking house, perched on a hill, like a queen on her throne.

But now the huge thick oak trees obscure the view. I could only catch glimpses of the farmhouse, and my grandfather’s house, and the newer house my folks built. I actually drove by a few times, hoping to get a better glimpse of my past. I was hoping no one would notice and think something suspicious was going on.

I was looking for something. Security? Memories? Comfort?

I’ve often dreamed of going back there to live. To buy back either the white farmhouse or my grandfather’s bungalow – which has an awesome slant-ceilinged attic that would make a perfect writing studio.

But this time I went back to visit, the trees obscuring the view were like a fortress that was growing around these memories to shut me out – telling me that too much time has passed. “Move on, there’s nothing to see here,” the trees said.

**********

David and I talk about moving back to Iowa. We always talk.

“Do you think we could live here?” I ask him.

“You’d get bored,” he replies.

“No, I think it would be an easier life.”

“Maybe. But we’d miss our friends. And Lake Michigan.”

“But we’d be closer to family.”

“True…..”

I don’t know if it will ever happen. I long for peace, and quiet, and simplicity, and the community I remember from childhood. But even if I moved home now, it wouldn’t be the same. I’m not sure if I would find what I’m looking for.

Home isn’t as much a place, I think, as a period of time. Memories. Scenes in my head that only exist as that. A time before we all moved away. A time before my mother died, when all of my siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles lived within one square mile. When neighbors or relatives showed up at our house, open the front door without knocking, and yelled, “Anybody home?” When we’d sit around the table and talk and laugh and eat pie. When my dad would take us for a drive down the road on hot evenings to visit his cousin and get a bottle of pop. When we’d play with our myriad of cousins on the big front lawn and have picnics on blankets and watch fireworks in the park on the Fourth of July.

We are the first generation to leave that land, to become unmoored from that place and family and community, and a part of me feels like we are betrayers. Or pioneers. I’m not sure which.

********

Shortly after D came to us, when she was two and a half, she was eating pasta the table when out of the blue, she put down her fork, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “Where is my home?’

I looked at her, and then pointed to her bedroom and her bed with all of her toys, and said, “Your home is here. You are home.”

“Oh,” she said simple, and went back to eating. For months I could tell that she was trying to compute it all in her head – who were her parents? Where did she belong? Why did she have to leave her last home?”

After that, every chance I got I told her that she was home.  That she belonged with us. That we were her family.

But even as I reassured her, I was wondering the same thing. Where is my home?

We live in a small condo on the north side of Chicago. We have lived in our current condo for 8 years – a speck of time compared to the 150 years my family lived on the same land in Iowa. When I first moved to Chicago, I never thought I would stay. I thought I would eventually go back to Iowa. But I have lived here for 20 years. In that amount of time, roots are bound to grow, even if it’s through the cracks in the concrete city sidewalks.

As David and D and I drive back to Chicago after a long weekend in Iowa, we hear the thumping of the tires on the seams in the road that tick off the miles until we get back to the city. And with each passing mile the thoughts of moving back to my childhood home grow dimmer.

Maybe the trees in front of my childhood home weren’t saying “Move on, there nothing to see here.” Maybe they were really saying, “Move on. You have grown beyond this place. It’s up to you to build a new home. Put down roots elsewhere, and you will thrive.”

I think of this as I take D to the beach, and to the farmer’s market, and drive the city streets and put her to bed at night. We are sinking into it. Into this place, but also into these memories and community and our combined histories. Where is our home? It is here. Right now. With each other.

 

 

 

 

When we were contemplating an Ethiopian adoption, and then a possible adoption through foster care of an African American child, I kept hearing about hair.

“Hair is a big deal,” everyone kept telling me. “You have to learn how to do her hair!”

I kept thinking, “Really? Why is black hair such a big deal? And even if it is a big deal, it can’t be that hard, right? I’m up to the challenge!

After a year of getting scolded from D’s caseworkers about D’s hair, spending hundreds of dollars on “products” that detangle, relax, soften, protect, and condition her curls, spending more money on headbands, beads, braids, and barrettes, learning how to do afro puffs, two-strand twists, and box braids, and enduring the shaming looks from the black mothers at daycare who bring their daughters to school with perfectly neat rows of braids and beads, or fluffy beautiful afros, now I know. HAIR IS A BIG DEAL!

Who knew? To my African American sisters everywhere: NOW I UNDERSTAND.

I am very aware of the politics of black hair, and that discussion definitely plays a role in the decisions I make about D’s hair.

But what I really want to talk about today is how hard it is. Every day, day in, day out, to tame those curls into submission. And it’s not an option to just “let them go” and be natural.

For the most part, Caucasians some other ethnicities with straight hair can get up in the morning, comb through their hair, and be off to work or school. If you see someone with a really cool natural black hair style, like an afro or twist outs – their hair probably didn’t look like that when they woke up. Even natural-looking styles take hard work.

Every morning, getting D ready for school is a production. I spray, condition, detangle, relax, and try to comb her curls out so they are not flat to her head. The whole time, she’s complaining: Mommy! You sprayed detangler in my yogurt! Or Mommy, it hurts! Don’t touch my head!

If I didn’t do anything and just sent her to school with bed head – her curls would be dry, flat, and eventually her hair would break off. So going without a leave-on conditioner for even one day is not an option.

It’s even more complicated by the fact that she hates anything in her hair, and her scalp is very sensitive. One Saturday we spent three hours having her hair professionally braided, complete with cute beads at the end of each braid, (braiding helps to protect fragile black curls, and also stretches the curls out so it adds some length), we got in the car and the first thing D said was, “Mommy, I don’t like my beads.” And then she proceeded to pull on them, and the braids (her scalp was also itching). After a day of her complaining and pulling, I took out the braids.

Headbands only stay on for the first hour of the day. She’s lost so many at school that Kindercare could probably start a side business selling them.

Over the course of the year, I’ve resorted to washing her hair once a week (any more and it gets too dry), putting in a few two-strand twists in the front, or afro puffs all over, and calling it a day. I still condition, detangle, and comb it out.

But I feel like I’m failing miserably. I don’t want her to absorb my insecurity about her hair. I don’t want to ignore the issue, either, but finding this balance is difficult.

On her birthday, D got a birthday card from a well-meaning friend. It had the picture of a princess on the cover – and the princess had long, flowing blonde hair.

“I want hair just like this princess,” D told me the next day, as she reached up to show me the birthday card.

I sighed. “Your hair is pretty just the way it is,” I told her. “And there some princesses have brown curls just like yours.”

“Really?” she asked me.

“Really.” I said.

I want her to know that she’s beautiful, and that her hair is beautiful. I want to teach her that she don’t have to conform to anyone else’s idea of beauty – that she is so much better than that. I want her to know that she is strong, and smart and beautiful, and good.

An older woman in line at McDonalds the other day looked at D and then at me. “I really like her hair,” the woman said. We were visiting my family in the middle of Iowa, where there’s not much diversity. So I wasn’t sure if she was just commenting because she wasn’t used to seeing African American hair, or if she genuinely liked Ds hair. But I didn’t care. I took the compliment and ran with it.

“Thank you,” I said. And then I turned to D and said, “Did you hear that? She thinks your hair is beautiful.” D just looked at me and smiled, and then she walked over and hugged the old woman.

 

 

 

 

About a year ago, David and I said “yes” to accepting the placement of a foster daughter who was two and a half at the time.

I’m embarrassed to say that “yes” didn’t come easily. It took me a week of agonizing soul-searching to call up the agency and tell them we would accept the placement.

I was blind-sided by my reaction.  Becoming parents to an adopted (in this case, a foster-to-adopt) child had been a dream for years.  By the time we got the call, David and I had endured hours of adoption and foster-parenting classes, filled out truckloads of paperwork, and had a handful of hopeful matches that never materialized and left us reeling. And we waited, and waited, and waited…to the point that we were exhausted and thought that maybe it was time to let the dream die. In fact, in my head I started constructing scenarios of what our lives would look like as a childless couple.

But then, the call came from our foster-care agency. A child was available for placement — a child who would be free for adoption in the near future. Did we want to accept this placement?

All of the sudden, parenthood was suddenly within my grasp, and instead of jumping for joy, I got a pit in my stomach and started hyperventilating. Is this really what I wanted?

Dreams are safe when they are abstract and “out there” – something to work toward. But when dreams are lassoed from abstraction and pulled down to reality, they become, well, real.

Welcoming a toddler into our home would drastically change our lives. David and I had both been single for a long time, and then a married couple with no children for 7 years. Adding a toddler to the mix would be a drastic change. Life as we knew it would be over.

Selfishly, I was convinced that I’d have no more time for myself. No time to write. No time to workout. No time to read. We’d have less time and money to travel.

MY LIFE WOULD BE OVER!

Of course, I had contemplated all of these things as we were making the decision to become foster parents (and possibly adopt), but now all of the things I would have to give up in order to become a parent loomed over me like an executioners ax.

We were supposed to give the agency an answer within a few days.

I didn’t sleep. I felt sick to my stomach. My two sisters drove up to Chicago from Ohio to help me think through the decision (they are both adoptive parents). David tried to calm my fears.

But I was in turmoil. Why was I having such a hard time saying “yes”?

Partly, it was because of my stunted decision-making abilities. I was born indecisive. I have to think through every aspect of every angle of every scenario. It’s agonizing. Sometimes so much time passes that the decision is made for me. Or a door is closed. And I feel relieved and regretful at the same time.

So it was the fact that I actually had to make a decision that was paralyzing me. But I had gotten used to hearing “no.: For too long, many of my dreams had been put on hold and I got used to feeling like the victim — the one who’s dreams never come true. There’s a certain kind of comfort in that. It’s safe. It’s familiar. Getting a “no,” and even being the one to say “no” to the choices in front of you, means you never really have to change or grow or acknowledge that you deserve to have your dreams fulfilled.

By saying “yes,” I would be forced to:

  • Leave something else behind. For David and me, that meant leaving our somewhat spontaneous, carefree, childless lives behind.
  • Risk the unknown. Would we really like parenthood? What if we weren’t good at it? What would happen if we never attached to the child, or she to us?
  • Acknowledge that God loved me after all, and I’d have to stop blaming him/her for my unhappiness.
  • Leave the comfort of my existing life, to enter into something that may be much more difficult, that would stretch and deepen me—which could be painful.

Saying yes is a risk. It’s dangerous.

When I was talking to my friend about the decision – she asked me, “What would it be like to say “yes?” And she went on to tell me that she and her husband had made an agreement to not let fear be the basis of any of their decisions.

I realized that my fear of the unknown, of what I would have to leave behind, and my fear of stepping out of my comfort zone was guiding my decision.

Finally, with shaking hands and a pounding heart, I called up the agency, and said yes.

And guess what? This has been one of the most challenging years of my life.

The fulfillment of this dream has been amazing, difficult, gut-wrenching, eye-opening, exhausting, frustrating. We’ve had times when we have wondered what in the world we have done (although those times have become fewer and farther between as the year has progressed).

This year has stretched me beyond what I thought was possible. Shown me deep dark parts of myself I never knew existed. It has deepened my faith and has forced me to go “further up and further in” – quoting C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle.

Richard Rohr writes, “Never underestimate the absolute importance – and the difficulty – of starting each encounter with a primal “yes!” Isn’t this what we consistently see in great people and those who make a difference? To start each encounter with “no” is largely what it means to be unconscious or unaware. You eventually become so defended that you cannot love or see well, and so defensive that you cannot change.”

So I did it. I said yes, and my whole world changed. And I’m hoping I have the courage to do it again. Because I want to be one of those people who love and see well, and who make a difference.

 

My husband and I are foster parents to a 3-year-old who we hope to adopt later this year. “D” is well-adjusted, smart, funny, talented, and delightful.

Adding to our family through foster care wasn’t our first choice. For years, David and I thought we would adopt a child from Ethiopia. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. It was too expensive, and there was too much red tape, and we ended up exhausted. Finally, we started considering becoming foster parents, and possibly adopting a child through foster care.

But we were hesitant.

Like many people, we were afraid of the foster care “system.” David French, in an article in The National Review online, sums what we, and many others feel about adopting from foster care:

“…I’ve often heard it asked: Why not adopt domestically? Why go overseas? Aren’t there thousands and thousands of unwanted older kids here at home? We looked at domestic adoption first and decided to go overseas for two reasons. First, we didn’t want to stand alongside childless couples in the same very long line for a newborn baby. It didn’t seem right when we already had children. Second, when discussing adopting an older child, you’re often talking about entering a foster-adopt system that is sometimes terrifyingly broken. Simply put, we weren’t prepared for the challenges of the foster-adopt system. God bless those families that are.”

With international adoption becoming more expensive, and more controversial, (international adoptions have declined 60% in the past decade), for many prospective adoptive families, domestic adoption or foster-to-adopt may be their only choices.

Thankfully, David and I got over our fears, and became foster parents. Now that we have been dealing with the “system” for over a year, here’s what I’ve learned:

1. The system isn’t evil. Yes, it may be broken, but there are many good people who work in “the system” who care about the children and want what’s best for them. Many of the case workers are overworked and burned out. I get that. But with a few exceptions, almost every one of the people who I’ve met over the course of the past year and a half have been caring, loving, helpful, knowledgeable, and good at what they do. And the system, when it’s working, works pretty well. Children are placed in loving homes. Foster families are trained extensively. Birth parents are given ample opportunities to get their children back. There are checks and balances to make sure the children are safe, and the children are not returned to homes that are unsafe. Of course there are exceptions. But in many cases, the “system” works pretty well.

2. The system needs good families to step up and foster and/or adopt. Even in situations or areas where the system is broken, shouldn’t that be a reason why good families need to get involved? Another foster family we know stepped in to advocate for a child whose case wasn’t moving fast enough, and everyone involved was suffering. Due to their diligence and advocacy, this child is now in a good, loving home that’s moving toward permanency. What would happen if more courageous families faced their fears of the foster care system, and stepped up to make a difference?

3. Not all foster children who are free for adoption are older. Many people avoid foster care because they don’t want to adopt older (i.e. “damaged”) children. But there are many younger children in the foster care system who quickly become free for adoption. I know of families who fostered tiny infants and were then able to adopt them a few years later (or, in some cases, even more quickly). At least in our area, there are many infants who enter the system, and our case worker told us that 80% of them will never return to their birth families. A very sad statistic. Ideally, these children would return to biological families, but if not, who will be willing to love them?

4. But even older children can be loved into wholeness. One of the things that helped me turn the corner and become excited to adopt from foster care (even an older child) were the inspiring stories of a woman who taught our foster care licensing classes about the older children she had fostered over the years. These were damaged children who she, literally, loved back to wholeness. I sat in class and thought, “I want to be just like her.” My dreams for parenting shifted. Situations that I once thought I could never handle all of the sudden seemed like challenges that I was ready to take on because I saw what God, and the power of love, could do to heal broken children.

5. Being a foster parent can bring unexpected blessing. Now that we are foster parents, I’m facing situations that I, too, at one time thought I could never handle. It has made me a stronger person. I once dreaded having to deal with complicated birth family relationships, which are more common in domestic or foster care adoptions. Once a month we have visits with our daughter’s biological family. It hasn’t been easy, but I now see the beauty in helping her to know her roots, to have relationships with a grandma (both my husband’s and my parents live out of state), and to know her story.

6. I’ve also learned that the “system” has many advantages. At least in Illinois, DCFS pays for daycare, offers services like free counseling for foster children and their foster families, and provides a stipend to foster families – even after the adoption is final, until the child is 18. This frees up some funds in difficult economic times for foster-to-adopt families pay for extra curricular activities, tutoring, or other funds to help save for the child’s education.

7. Children are children, and no matter where they are from, they need our love. Whether they are from a different country or in our backyard, children need loving families. They need safe homes. I think of all of the children in Ethiopia, or China, or Russia who are languishing in orphanages, waiting for a forever family who may never come because international adoption has become so much more difficult. And I think of the foster children who also need safe loving homes but are moved from foster family to foster family, or live in an institution because adoptive families are too few and far between.  They all need love. Every. Single. One.

Adopting from foster care, we missed out on the exciting trip to an exotic location to meet our child. We didn’t get the celebratory airport homecoming. But we ended up with the child we were meant to have. And a child who will know her biological family, and be able to remain in contact with her former foster family, and who has so many people around her who love her. She truly is being raised by “a village.” Even in the early days when she was with us (she was 2 1/2 then), and she was going through grief at all of the losses she had experienced in her short life, I would hold her and say, “There are so many people who love you, D, so many people….”

So if you’re thinking about adoption, and you’re afraid of the foster care system, do not be afraid. For years, David and I tried to pound on the door of international adoption, thinking that was the door we were supposed to walk through. Instead, another door was right in front of us, opened a crack. We just had to find the courage to walk through it. I’m so glad we did.

 

I want some!

February 18, 2013 — 1 Comment

Today, the first Sunday of Lent, was the first time I brought “D” into “big church” for mass. Since July, when we first became her foster parents, we have faithfully dropped her off at the nursery on our way to mass. There, she got to eat Fruit Loops, watch a Cinderella DVD, and play with new and interesting toys.

It seemed like a good idea. David and I liked having at least one hour to ourselves without having to wrangle a squirmy 3-year-old. We could sit and listen to the homily without distraction. Plus, before I had a child, it always bothered me when parents insisted on bringing their little ones into the service. The kids seemed to scream at just the wrong time, disturb those around them, and make me anxious. “Why couldn’t they just take them to the nursery!” I’d whisper angrily into David’s ear….not caring whether the family in front of us with loud children heard us.

But today, with David sick at home, D told me, in a teary voice on the way to church, that she didn’t want to go to the “noosewee.”  “But you’ll get to eat a snack and watch a DVD!” I reminded her to no avail. “I don’t want to go to the noosewee!” She cried from the backseat. I sighed. She’s been very clingy lately, not wanting me to leave her sight, and wanting either David or me to hold her constantly. I think this is a positive sign that she is attaching to us. I considered my options. I could drag her to the nursery screaming, or take a risk and bring her to mass.

I took a risk.

“D, if you go to big church with me you have to promise to be quiet and sit still,” I warned her. “I promise,” her tiny voice said from the back seat. I had no idea how it would go. Would mass be ruined for me, if she ended up being squirmy and loud? Would I be one of those annoying parents who others in the pews would like sideways at and wonder why I hadn’t taken her to the noosewee?

We parked and I carried her into the sanctuary.

We sat up in the balcony, next to a father and his tiny tow-headed toddler. D promptly crawled into my lap and stayed there during the entire mass. She put her head on my shoulder and I rocked back and forth, hoping she would go to sleep. But she didn’t. Instead, she was mesmerized by the singing of the choir, she put a dollar in the offering basket, and shook hands with everyone around us during the sign of the peace.

She charmed the ladies in the row behind us, and later they told me how cute and well-behaved she was. “Thank you,” I said.

During the eucharist, I carried her as I walked up to receive the body and blood of Christ. I accepted the wafer, and put it in my mouth. She looked incredulous as we started walking away. “But I want some!” she told the minister. He smiled and instead made the sign of the cross on her forehead as a blessing. That wasn’t enough for her. “I want some!” I want some!”she kept saying, as we walked to the ministers holding the wine. I sipped from the cup as she kept saying “I want some, I want some!” The minister holding the chalice also blessed her on the forehead, and we kept walking back to the pew. I was half sushing her and half smiling.

Why did I wait so long to bring this beautiful child to mass?

I want some. That’s my cry during this Lenten season too. I want more of Christ. I want more of the peace that I can only find by getting glimpses of God in the nooks and crannies of my way-too-busy life. I want quiet, and perspective, and love. Father Foley in his homily said that maybe Lent isn’t about deprivation, but of taking something we already have and giving it away to those around us. In emptying ourselves, we can give something to those around us so that they can feel God’s love.

I thought of my angry response at David this morning when he said he wasn’t going to church. I knew he didn’t feel well, but I was still perturbed that my plans for the day had been ruined. I wanted us to all go to church together. I wanted to go with David. Going to mass helps us feel more connected to God and each other. It’s like a long cool drink during the dry desert of our busy week. When we don’t go for a long time, we get off-center, lose our perspective, and snap at each other. I had been doing anything but loving him lately.

But a beautiful morning with D, and the words of Father Foley, reminded me that “I want some.” Not only that, but I need some — desperately.

 

“There’s been a ‘pedestrian incident’ — or at least that’s what we’re supposed to say,” the conductor says, as he punches my Metra card. A pedestrian incident.

But we all know. All of us on the 6:00 all-stops Union Pacific North Line train to Kenosha know that someone has jumped in front of a Metra train and his or her body is broken beyond repair.

The trains stop. Everything stops. The world stops.

+++++++++

When I arrived at the train station at around 5:45, commuters were rushing in from the streets to make their trains. But then, we all stopped cold. “DELAYED”

Delayed. Delayed. Delayed.

I wanted to get home. I sighed.

The lights were blinking above each train schedule on the boards. We milled about, and looked at each other. “What’s going on?” we asked. We were perturbed. Upset.

Earlier, I tried to get on the “L”, but had learned that the Purple line was not running because of a fire. So I walked off the platform at Chicago Avenue, and trudged a mile to Ogilvy Station to take the Metra. Some days, in Chicago, there are no good ways to get home. On days when it’s snowing and all of the public transportation options are stymied because of the snow. Or on very hot days when the trains have to slow down because the tracks are too hot. Or on days when there are Cubs games, and Ravinia concerts and every single L and Metra car is filled to the gills. Or on days like this, when there’s a fire AND something delaying the Metra trains. It’s a terrible feeling…..not being able to get home.

Delayed. Delayed. Delayed.

I didn’t know there had been a pedestrian incident. All I knew was the trains were delayed and I was tired and hungry.

I sighed. I rolled my eyes. I sat down.

I called David. No answer.

I tried again. Maybe he would drive down to the station and pick me up. Still no answer.

I got on my train and just sat there — I would read a book until the train left — no matter how delayed. I had no choice.

But then the conductor said, “There has been a pedestrian incident.” I closed my book as he took my ticket. He had curly hair that hung down from his cap, and he wore chipped, dark blue nail polish. “Well try to leave the station on time,” he said.

I checked the news on my phone. The incident had happened at about 4:30 near the Ravenswood stop.

Why don’t they just say it? Why don’t they just say “suicide?” Someone’s pain had been the cause of our disruption. As we rolled our eyes and checked our phones, and wondered how we would get home, someone’s life had ended, his family would be called, an absence where his presence had once been. Just like that. In one jump.

A broken body lay on the tracks.

I wondered why. A breakup? Financial problems? A job loss?

I looked out the window. Whatever caused this pedestrian to cause an incident, I wish I could have told him that somehow, someway, it would be okay. That all would be well. That nothing is so bad that there isn’t hope for a resurrection.

But I couldn’t. I didn’t.

I wanted to get home. But somebody’s blood was on the tracks. A body has been broken.  I pray for the pedestrian. I pray for his family. I pray to get home.

“This is my body, broken for you,” the priest says during Sunday mass. And I feel the bread on my tongue and cross myself and say “amen, amen.”

As the train rolls through the Ravenswood stop, the conductor blows the whistle, a long, mournful wail.

Love wins.

March 3, 2012 — Leave a comment

This is a picture of the steeple of Holy Name Cathedral, the Archdiocese of Chicago. Years ago, after a particularly painful break-up with a boyfriend, I sat inside this church and wondered if I would ever find the unconditional love I was looking for. I worked right down the street from this church, and during lunch on a particularly bad day, I looked for someplace to sit and think. This was the only place i could find in the busy, city neighborhood.

I walked into the dark, cool sanctuary and sat in the pew. I doubted myself. Didn’t feel loveable. Wondered if I would always be single. But it was more than that. This was a deep realization that maybe another human being would never be able to love me the way I longed for. That parents, siblings, boyfriends, friends, would always let me down in some way.

As I sat crying in that sanctuary, I looked up and saw a wooden carving hanging from the ceiling. The carving is of Jesus on the cross, with arms outstretched. It’s a picture I had seen many times before in various iterations, but this time was different. I realized that this love I was looking for would only be found in the Divine. I felt a profound sense of peace and gratefulness. A deep understanding that I was not alone.

As a Baptist, I was taught that conversion was a one-time experience. But I’ve come to realize that maybe conversion happens several times in our lives. That as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the story, we have various moments when we finally “get” what it’s all about. That day in Holy Name Cathedral, I finally got that God loved me more than I could ever imagine.

It’s ironic that tomorrow I will enter this church as a Candidate for the Rite of Catholic Initiation of Adults in the Catholic church. I am taking this step with trepidation, because there is so much I disagree with about the “Institutional” church. But the Catholic church is broad and wide and includes many people with different views. I’ve decided it is broad enough to include me. And I’m grateful, because I’m so drawn to the liturgy, and the community, and the message of love at Old Saint Pats.

As Rob Bell says, “Love wins.” It’s not the rules, or legalism, or the crazy pronouncements from the church hierarchy. Not the mess we humans have made of all our religious traditions. But love. This profound, crazy, unconditional love. Sometimes I still don’t believe it. I still feel unloveable. I have to be reminded over and over again. On Sunday, I will look up at that carving in Holy Name Cathedral, and be reminded once again that this is what it’s all about.