When Skies are Gray

Spring didn’t make a very friendly entrance this year. Day after relentless day of pounding rain and gray skies. The legion of ants, making their annual trek from the maple, across the driveway, up the walls of our house into the kitchen. Temperatures that stubbornly include a “4” in the 10’s place.

And the final clincher – the spring-like buds growing in our hearts without a single encumbrance throughout the winter suddenly froze over last week with an abrupt change in Baby Boy’s case.

We still have him, and he continues to flourish and bloom. But now, a future that seemed admittedly hazy to begin with, forks out in several paths, some of which cause my gut to clench.

Right along with the foster parenting upheaval the first week of spring, biological parenting also weathered some icy blasts, reminding me of my frailty as a mom and my lack of control over the destinies and choices of my children.

This parenting business is such a journey of faith. We toil in the ground, tending the soil and the seedlings, delivering this seemingly smart lesson and that supposedly rich experience. We pull weeds and add nutrients. We make mistakes. Although there are myriad books and scriptural applications, there are no absolute promises that one’s child will take root, grow, and flourish in the way you hope.

parking lot

In foster parenting, one hardly dares to hope. I mean, who has hope for a little seedling that is pulled from its plot of origin, replanted in someone else’s garden, only to be transplanted hither and yon, at the whim of the “gardening authorities”?

But hope, one must. It is, after all, a pillar of what remains when all else fades: Faith, Hope, and Love. Faith brought us to this place, in this garden, with these little plants. Love, which sustains and stitches us all together. And hope like the promise of sunshine when skies are gray.

I hope because of our God, whose glory it is always to have mercy. This line from a book of prayers, repeated itself 21 times across the week, multiplied in my thoughts across the days, and melted icicles of doubt the first week of spring.

A track from a pretty little album I sometimes play when I’m home with Baby Boy came on this week: “You are my Sunshine”. Is there a single parent who hasn’t sung this in a rocking chair with a child? The melancholy last line of the chorus, whimsically leaving my lips without a thought with my older kids, chokes me up now.

Onward we walk into the ever lengthening light of spring, remembering that the light we carry from the hand of our merciful God will guide us through the storm. And while we walk forward, we enjoy our little sunshine, whose smile makes us happy, even when skies are gray.

baby boy

Stitches

In my family, if there is one thing that goes with a new baby, it’s a quilt. We have stacks of homemade quilts in closets, and sure enough, when Baby Boy arrived in October, more were added to their number.

With each of her nine great-grandchildren, my grandmother eagerly awaited the news from the gender-revealing ultrasound so she could commence quilt-making. Our foster care licensing period was troublesome to her. We had many a conversation in which I assured her that I had no way of knowing the age, gender, or even expected arrival date of our first foster care placement. Perhaps a block-pattern blanket in colorful fabrics for the twin bed would be nice?

quilt

Quilt made by Barbara Pruitt

The last three months with Baby Boy have been peppered with big “firsts”, like bright patches on a quilt: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, smiles, snow. But mostly, our days have been stitched together with unseen, unremarkable moments that make up a life, a family.

snow

Days stretch out one after another, with hundreds of acts, mundane and intimate. Hours staring into his eyes, touching his skin, speaking strong and silly words into his ears. More minutes face to face, skin to skin, and voice to voice with this little guy than time spent on anything or anyone else combined. This is what babies require and these are the stitches that bind him to us, but more importantly, make him human and whole, capable of stitching on to other, future loves.

It’s a mystery, the way the ordinariness of repetitive caretaking tasks, performed with love and without expectation, add up to important neural connections and human flourishing.

It’s another mystery how God calls us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice for others, and this is a spiritual act of worship to Him.

I’m less in my head and more on my knees (as in, changing diapers, not prayer), with weight in my arms and snot on my shoulder these days. I don’t have time for deep thoughts or grand adventures. I have had those seasons and I will have them again. But for now, it’s a liturgy of the ordinary (slowly savoring a book by this title – thanks, Heidi!). Baby Boy was knit together in his mother’s womb by the hand of God, and for some reason we get to shelter and nourish this soul with flesh.

img_1352-hand

Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

It’s 9:45pm. The two big kids are sleeping over at their grandparents. Four months ago this would have equaled a quiet, blissful evening of no picky eaters or sibling squabbles, and a lazy morning with long cups of coffee and conversation on the couch. Fewer dishes, longer sentences.

img_1120-eej

Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

Instead two of our baby-holders are gone and we will spend the night coaxing sleep out of a coughing, congested infant. In the morning, when Baby Boy just can’t be coaxed any longer, one of us will pour coffee into two double-walled stainless steel thermoses, while the other pours milk into a hungry mouth.

Each feeding, silly face beckoning a smile, massage, pick up, put down, pacifier plug, and diaper change is our sometimes-joyful, sometimes-exhausted offering, helping stitch together the one thing every human infant requires more than food itself: attachment.

john

Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

We are the temporary substitute for the natural attachment that has been broken in his case. Entering into this brokenness is messy. But as Ann Voskamp writes in her new book, “the only way to care for the disadvantaged is to disadvantage yourself, which is guaranteed to turn out to your advantage” (p. 200).

Baby Boy adds colorful patches to our life, making us more beautiful than we were before. The abrupt shattering of my mostly-controlled, comfortable routine with the sudden appearance of diapers, bottles, crying, and sleeplessness reveals my own brokenness. My idols of comfort and control. My impatience with others, selfishness, and pride. The ordinary tasks of relentless baby caring make me weak, and I remember my need for the One who is strong, whose steadfast, never-failing love covers my failings. He patches the torn mess of my efforts with strong threads, forgiving and reminding me to forgive.

je

Quilt made by Carolyn Nichols

A snuffling baby boy cries out, wakening from a too-short nap, and John picks him up, rocking him back to sleep. We don’t know how many more days or months we have with Baby Boy, but today, we will sew down another line, maybe less crooked than the one before. He may never know it was us who pieced and stitched together the first strips of his quilt in a symmetrical, Dryden-ish pattern, but that’s ok. His unique fabric is forever sewn onto ours – a flurry of color and chaos, transforming ordinary into art.

christmas

 

 

 

November’s Gifts

The leaves changed and fell and I hardly noticed. The most virulent, obnoxious election ever flooded the airwaves and feeds, and as of the second week of October, it all seemed very inconsequential, like so much noise. Perhaps that latter ignorance was a gift.

I remember this closing in, the wide world suddenly becoming very small – the size of a rocking chair. Activities narrowing to only a few that matter.

feeding

When my two kids were born, I was leaning close to 30. I’m now just a couple skips from 40 and I have 10 years of mothering experience in my pocket. Ten years of nights that show a clear upward slope of sleeping hours for mama and child. This gives me perspective and hope, because right now, with a 7-week baby in our home, sleep is the topic my brain can’t stop thinking about (dreaming about?).

front-pack

The fact that sleep is my biggest challenge right now is a gift. In the world of foster care, that’s a pretty mild complaint.

The election came and went. I was up anyway and watched the inconceivable become reality. The explosion in our little world tempered my response to the political upheaval. Big and small kindnesses of relatives and friends for our family-of-five inspired me and reminded me of the bigger, more important impact of millions of kindnesses over who is in office.

levi

We suddenly became part of a beautiful community I only barely knew before – foster parents. A circumstance of our case led me to a gracious, wise, seasoned foster mom who has wrapped me under her wing and has spent hours with me on the phone (texting and real conversations) and meets me in person. She encourages, gives helpful advice, lets me question and process, and provides incalculable perspective.

We ran into (ok, walked by) Ellie’s new basketball coach and his family at the annual Thanksgiving Run for the Hungry in our town. Guess who welcomed in children and adopted through foster care for years? Yep. Them.

Other gifts stack up like so many packages, each one unwrapped with gratitude. We landed a compassionate, competent primary care provider, a fantastic foster family immediately responded to my plea for respite care while we are out of town right before Christmas, and our baby boy started daycare without a hitch. My SLP friend Nicole covered my absence from work, making possible the unexpected gift of staying home with baby boy for his first six weeks.

Just as if I had actually given birth, many dear ones sent meals, clothes, baby gear, messages, gifts, and encouraging words and prayers.

gg

For months we prayed, along with our closest family and friends, that our first foster placement would be the right fit for our family and we would be the right family for that child. I wasn’t picturing a newborn, but he was our first call and it seemed right.

Which is surprising. My friend Annie once half-jokingly introduced me to someone at church as a mom who only started enjoying motherhood when my children learned to read. I shrugged, agreeing with her analysis.

tkd

So we fit our family around this tiny bundle who upends everything as babies do. It’s hard, smelly, tiring, and emotionally weird. But I’ve also pulled out a nice stack of old favorite board books, we’re smiling and laughing more, and widening our little circle of family.

tummy-time

He is a gift.

For as many days as we have him, we are altogether his, love pouring in to all of us in ever increasing measure.

ee

First Week

It all began much like the other two. A professional placed a 7-pound human being into my outstretched arms, fully trusting I was up to the challenge.

My heart burst into a million pieces, and in ways I don’t comprehend, a rush of warmth spread through my body.

All the prayers, classes, pages of documents, inspections and preparation of our home and hearts culminated in this moment.

Within a couple hours, Grandparents, Aunt, and Uncle were over with food and diapers. And after eight years of rest, John and I initiated Night One of zero REM sleep.

jimmary

Feeding, changing, rocking, gazing into one another’s eyes, attachment, sleep deprivation – it is all very familiar. But. Instead of postpartum hormonal weeping, it is a different kind of emotional maelstrom.

img_2681

It’s inexplicably loving this baby like he is my flesh, knowing he is most definitely not my flesh, and not even mine. It’s knowing he needs to be loved and held and nourished like a son, but understanding he is another woman’s son who would be holding and nourishing him if she could. It’s grieving for her and him, truly wanting their brokenness to mend and reunite, yet all the while greedily inhaling his sweet scent and kissing his smooth skin. It’s splitting the night shift with John (because bottles), big sister and brother snuggles (already anticipating their grief), and writing in a first-year calendar (that may never be complete).

I’m starting to understand. Foster care is a gift and a knife.

 

 

Summer Road Trip and Fall Beginnings

A few years ago, when both of our kids had reached the golden age of Elementary School (i.e., they could read and wait long periods between bathroom breaks), we started talking about taking a road trip together. Skills required for being in school and pleasantly riding in a car for long, sustained periods have remarkable correlations, in my experience.

road-tripping

Summers came and went quickly, all filled with wonderful things, but no road trips. Then, this year.

2016 brought some changes for us. In March, we decided to start the licensing process for becoming foster parents. That same month, John got a new job as an instructor at a community college, which included a three-and-a-half month summer break. Ellie, a 4th grader, got a parting gift from the Obama administration: a free pass to all National Parks and Monuments for her entire family. These things and the opportunities and future constraints they would bring finally forced our hand. It was the perfect summer for a road trip.

John, lover of maps and geological wonders, master of efficiency, and careful analyst of worst case scenarios, took the lead for almost every aspect of our trip. I downloaded audiobooks to my library apps and packed food, clothing, and toiletries. He did EVERYTHING else.

From Washougal, our route took us through Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, back to Utah, Nevada, California, up 101 along the Oregon Coast, over the bridge into Washington, and back to Washougal.

We only made two reservations, both in the first week. We camped in our new-to-us tent trailer about two-thirds of the nights. We had a long list of places to see, but wanted to be flexible with timing. Google and Priceline were our dearest companions.

tent-trailertent-trailer-popped-up

Here is a photo summary of the highlights:

Dinosaur National Monument, UT

I didn’t know this place existed until my uncle and aunt suggested it was a not-to-miss sight along our route. I’m so glad they persuaded us! Who knew there is a wall of actual dinosaur bones preserved in place for anyone in America to gawk at!

dinosaurdinosaur-wall

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO

John loved the geology of this beautiful park.

black-canyonblack-canyon-ellie

100s in the Hills, Silverton, CO

John’s dad, brother, and nephew joined us for the three days of the annual 100s in the Hills Landcruiser gathering in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The scenery here is breathtaking. The event was interesting. I loved every part of it except for the Landcruiser bits.

100s-landcruisers100s-colorado-trails

100s-engineer-pass

Two best-bud brothers who share nearly identical professions, trucks, and tent trailers.

100s-family-photo100s-in-the-hills

Four Corners – NM, AZ, CO, UT

four-corners-family

Mesa Verde National Park, CO

Another park I didn’t know about but absolutely loved. Cliff homes of the ancestral Puebloans 800 years ago.

mesa-verdemesa-verde-laddermesa-verde-2

Santa Fe, NM

We spent a few days with John’s aunt and uncle in Santa Fe. We soaked in the gorgeous surroundings, Aunt Beverly’s gracious, top-notch hospitality, laundry facilities, and lots of puppy dog snuggles.

santa-fe-bev-and-kids

Petrified Forest National Park, AZ

This was a relatively small national park, but so incredibly cool for our tree and rock-loving family we could hardly stand it.

petrified-ellie-and-jack

petrified-painted-desert

Painted Desert

petrified-petroglyphs

Petroglyphs

petrified-jack-ellie-john

Yes, John’s shirt says “Geology Rocks”

petrified-log

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

We made a short drive-through visit to the Grand Canyon, arriving close to sunset.

grand-canyon-2grand-canyon-sunset

Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT

We camped here for five days at a lovely, cool altitude of 10,000 feet. From here, we explored other national parks in Utah.

cedar-breakscedar-breaks-elliecedar-breaks-panorama

cedar-breaks-ranger-hike

Junior Ranger Hike

Zion National Park, UT

Hiking through the Virgin River in a slot canyon at Zion was a highlight of our trip.

zion-kolobzion-kolob-canyonszion-narrows-hikezion-narrows-hike-3selfie-zion

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Hiking the Hoodoos at Bryce was another unforgettable adventure.

brycebryce-hoodoosbryce-hoodoos-hikeselfie-bryce-familybryce-john-and-ellie

Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA

We started longing for cooler climates and greener vistas, so instead of hitting the other red-tinged national parks in Utah, we adjusted our itinerary and headed west to California. We spent part of a day in Lassen Volcanic National Park, chiefly to hike the “Bumpass Hell” trail, named after a man named Bumpass who fell into a steaming mudpot here.

lassen-bumpass-helllassen-hikelassen-jack-and-john

Redwoods State and National Parks, CA

Wow. Just, wow.

redwoodsredwoods-benchredwoods-ellie-jack-johnredwoods-ellieredwoods-jackredwoods-stream

Animal Sightings

animals-big-horn-sheepanimals-hareanimals-marmotanimals-weasel

Once I was in the northwest corner of California, despite loving the Redwoods and enjoying our few days there, the urge to go home pulled strong. We talked about spending a couple days exploring some beaches along 101 and the Oregon Coast, but my heart said, “Been there, done that. HOME. NOW.” My brain said, “Your house is not ready for Foster Care Home Inspection. You start work next week. Get your people out of this foreign land and return to the familiar passages of Highway 14 and I-205.”

Being a sensible wife and a sacrificial mother, I did not nag my family (too much) into alignment with my personal inclinations, but let them come to their own conclusions as we ventured out of the truck in our California shorts at a beach near Coos Bay to 57 degree afternoon fog and wind.

“Let’s stop for some Salt Water Taffy then drive the rest of the way home,” John said.

Victory! Promises of sugar had worked like a charm throughout our adventures (Gatorade, Slurpees, Oreos, Jolly Ranchers, and ice cream made frequent appearances) and didn’t fail us at the end either.

Taffy was procured at Ainslees in Depoe Bay and we pulled in to our driveway at 11:00pm that night, three days ahead of schedule.

The two weeks that followed were a blur of relentless cleaning, organizing, and safety-checking, squeezing in another quick trip to Mason Lake (annual summer requirement), back to work (crying most of the way there), foster care interviews, and home inspection.

It was a rough re-entry to a good life. Our home is more organized and decluttered than it has ever been and ready for a new little person and the chaos, complications and joy that will bring. Returning to work at York Elementary always fills me with pride and contentment with my capable, caring colleagues, supportive principal, and their single-minded purpose to help all children who walk through those doors to flourish. I reconnected with our tribe of friends and family – a beautiful collection of souls I do not deserve but eagerly grasp for dear life.

Maybe I’m being “optoomuchistic” (a word I immediately entered into my vocabulary upon reading The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place), but I think everything is going to be ok.

This year and this summer put us on a path we had never been, filled us with beauty, and strengthened us for what is ahead. Life will soon become challenging, and oh, so busy, and probably very sad. But see how He loves us. He will be faithful. He will provide. I will accept from His hand the memories of this summer, the good people hemming me in on every side, and the skills and experience He has been sowing into our lives all along.

Alright, Fall. Alright, foster care. Ready, set, go.