The slow goodbye

I spend a lot of time in the meeting rooms at the DHS office. The walls are peppered with posters meant to lend hope, guidance, caution or wisdom to the highly diverse audiences that use the rooms. I have to admit, I wander off focus a lot during trainings and find myself staring at the posters, thinking about their messages and who they are targeting. Last night at the foster parent support group I looked over at one I’d not noticed before. “Attachment is not convenient,” it said.

The statement triggered a twist of reactions within me.

Our time with our foster baby “Oscar” was coming to a close. Our attempt to adopt him had failed and after a year as our baby and a member of our family he would be moving on to another home.

Our family vacation had fallen right on the heels of the adoption committee decision. We talked about canceling the trip, wondering if our emotional state would be productive for the trip. We decided we wanted to go and take him. We believed that the quality time as a family would be good for everyone as we prepared to say goodbye.

This trip was a big collection of delightful ‘firsts’ for him. For us, as his parents, it was a confusing and bittersweet collection of ‘lasts’.

In the midst of fun vacation activities a sad shadow would often pass over us. Oscar would be belly laughing and splashing his hands as we zoomed him through the water, and Kaety and I would meet each other’s eyes—we each knew this would be the last time we’d be in the pool together. We broke our eye contact with each other before we took the next set of thoughts together. When would it be the last time we would hear him laugh? It was agreed between us, without even talking about it, to stay in the moment and feel the grief as it came. We didn’t need to borrow the grief of tomorrow. There would be plenty of time for that.

Kaety and I have struggled to make emotional sense of this transition. We realized that we aren’t wired up as people/animals to let go of children.

Years ago I lost a dear friend to a lingering cancer death. I found myself making parallels between the bizarre situation of losing our baby and that death. During the grim march through terminal illness you start having thoughts like, “This will be the last time we are able to take a walk together,” “This will be the last time we will talk,” and eventually, towards the twilight… the last kiss and the last goodbye.

But our baby is not dying. He is leaving because of policy. My mind, even thought I do not agree, can understand policy and law, but my heart does not.

In the last month people have cautiously and callously asked us, “You chose to foster, you must have known this would happen. Aren’t you used to losing children?”

Questions like this require a lot of patience. How do you explain a child that is a “good fit?” How do you explain that they all hurt… and that eliminating the factor of hurt is never the point? How do you explain that not feeling make us monsters? How do you explain the resilience of the heart, or the big picture of need and giving, or the plain fact that we are made to love no matter the consequences? How do you explain that the privilege of loving is the greatest gift to one’s soul?

Kaety and I are often asked to speak about fostering at civic groups. The sentiment always comes up, “I could never foster, I could not bear to give them up.” We have a pretty good response developed to this statement.

“We’ve all seen that news story of the naked little three-year old running down the middle of a busy freeway at night? Right?”

“I’ve been watching you all while we’ve been eating and chatting, and I know in my heart, without a single reservation, that if any of you came across that scene you would slam on your brakes, fling yourself out into traffic to get that child. You would not for a moment think of your own safety – your mind would only be filled with reaching that child and bringing her to safety. And if you got clipped by an on-coming car and you broke your leg, would you have regretted saving that child? No. You would consider it a small price to pay.

“Fostering is that exact scene in slow motion. We get the child to safety. That safety is always inside our hearts. Yes, they need food, shelter, and care… but they mostly need love. Love leads to attachment. Attachment is the foundation for life-long emotional health. We’ve seen children come back from the most horrific abuses to their bodies and minds, but we rarely see children come back who’ve not had any attachment.”

Choosing to be foster parents means we put our hearts in harm’s way to save a child. Most of fosters Kaety and I take in are short term. We love them and give them what they need to thrive but we know they will be with us for only a day, a week, or a month. But a year or more? That changes things. No, we are never prepared to break the most fundamental thing: the bond of parent to child.

What will we do as we transition to him leaving? What will we do afterwards? We will cry, we will snuggle him for the time we have left, we will celebrate who he is and the joy he brought to our family, and we will have faith that every bit of love and reflection we gifted his spirit will bloom in his life to guide his journey to finding himself.

We will take a break for a while to heal, and to support the kids in the loss of their baby brother. Will we open our hearts again? Of course we will.

As the poster says, attachment is not convenient – nor is it causal.

Nor should it be.

He will never leave our hearts…

Kaety waved urgently to me from the doorway. We were in the middle of a meeting in a Best Western conference room with about 40 of our colleagues. She mouthed “Deborah is calling – she has news”. We hurried down the hall to a secluded alcove and huddled around the phone to learn that we had lost our baby.

I don’t really remember the phone call ending. We wrapped ourselves up in each other and sobbed our hearts out into each other.

We’ve  been fostering ‘Oscar’ since he was 17 days old. When his case plan changed from ‘return to parent’ to ‘adoption’ he had been with us over a year – he was our baby and we were his parents, so we applied to adopt him.

He had extended family that also wished to adopt him – and it would come down to a DHS adoption committee deciding which home he would go to.

The weeks leading up to the adoption committee meeting were surreal for us. We reserved talking widely about the upcoming date because of the uncertainty of the outcome and the complexity of the process. Rarely are child welfare cases simple and this was no exception. While we prepared our adoption book, and brushed up our home study with our amazing DHS certifier we floating in an unreal place knowing that one outcome could be that we could lose our baby. Even with that reality shadowing us we saw little benefit to thinking or believing anything other than that he would stay with us. We hoped that the agency would value the bonds of love and attachment over the ties of blood.

While we were hopeful, we were not naive. We knew we lived in a world that thinks about children much like property. Even with over 50 years of developmental psychology research telling us exactly what children need – the law only uses that research as guidance. Blood lines, clan ties and property rights are still the prevailing concepts we use to make child welfare decisions. The rights of the parents trump that of child’s.

So in the next few weeks our sweet, funny, curious, smily baby will be taken from our home, and his mommy and his daddy and be introduced to a new home and new a mommy and daddy. Yes, we are angry, confused and sad….and feel terribly powerless.

Oscar has been very attached to Kaety lately – we’d joke, “All mommy, all the time”. Last night we lay in bed with our heads pressed together whispering our thoughts into each others ears. Kaety started, “…it breaks my heart that he will look for me and won’t be able to find me…” but ended in a choking sob. We cried hard together for a long time. When the crying was done we moved to an anger that reached out into the world and demanded change. Our child welfare system needs reform, which starts with everyone examining their own views on what defines family.

We are on vacation for the week of Thanksgiving and we will get to spend the week with him, loving him and saying a thousand small goodbyes before the big goodbye comes in a few weeks. I can’t even imagine that day.

Last night we looked at each other. Even through the blur of tears our love for each other was clear. Kaety laid her head into my chest and said, “We will be alright”. I knew what she meant. She wasn’t talking about packing up our grief and feelings and pretending to be fine. We’d be alright because we’d feel every ounce of the good and the bad while staying deeply connected to each other – too isolated from each other in our grief would violate every value we shared.

When we talk to others about being foster parents the first thing we hear is “I could never do that – the pain would be too great”. Our answer to that statement varies depending on how charitable we are feeling at the time – but is a version of: “I would never hold my pain in balance against the needs of a child.” Today we are standing in that spot – the devastating loss. Neither of us holds a single regret about what we gave our baby, not a single moment of hesitation about opening our hearts up to him. The countless sleepless nights, the fevers, the teeth, the tears, and risk of loving in the face of uncertainty were small prices to pay for the gift of love and personality he brought to us all.

You will never leave our hearts sweet boy. 

A few excerpts from his ‘first year baby book’:

Your first night at our house

We didn’t yet know your whole story the night you came to us. All we knew was that a little baby boy needed a home. I got a phone call from a nice lady at DHS, who told me, “Look out the window, I think they may be there already”. Through the dark and rain I saw Kayla coming to the door with a baby. When she handed you to me I realized that it had been a long time since I had held a baby – I had a moment where I wondered if I remembered how. When I pulled you close to me I remembered that daddy’s never forget how to love. I rocked you and held you tight and told you it would be ok. When mommy got home she snuggled you and then gave you a bath, wrapped you up tight in a blanket and fed you a bottle. I remembered you letting out a big sigh and relaxing into mommy.

You grew so fast and we loved you…

You slept, you ate and you smiled and laughed so much! Mommy kept buying you clothes and you outgrew them so fast – you were so excited to run with the other kids.

Our big fun family full of loudness, laughing and love.

Mommy and I are really in love – when we dance in the kitchen every one of the kids, including you, try to cram themselves into the space between us to get as close to the love as possible. “Blended” is what people call a family like ours – almost all the kids in our family have different last names, have multiple moms and dads, and even different skin colors! One thing we have in common is that we all love each other.

Life at our house…

As you grew, you wanted to be a part of everything! You loved helping daddy unload the dishwasher and sort the Tupperware. Grammy Robin would always bring over lots of bubble toys and we’d all go out on the deck to blow and chase bubbles – you’d screech and laugh every time a bubble would float by you. 

Every weekend we would all go grocery shopping together – all you kids would get a cookie at the bakery and even though you were little you wanted a cookie just like all the big kids.

Most nights mommy and daddy would give you a bath – either in the tub or the sink. You loved to splash and play in the water and laughed and laughed when daddy would ‘sneeze’ the washcloth onto your back. 

Our Garden…

You spent a lot of time in the ‘love garden’ crawling around and helping. The whole family would plant seeds, harvest vegetables, and pick weeds together. We spend a lot of time in the garden together – it was one of our favorite things to do. We called it the ‘love garden’ because it grew and changed just like the love in our house and in our lives – full of abundance, surprises, and beauty. 

Cooking, fishing, mushroom and berry picking are all things we love to do together. We fill our tummies with delicious things we find in the beautiful place we live.