Voices of Adoption, Part Two

In honor of National Adoption Month, I’ve asked a few adoptive parents to share a reflection, something they’d like their communities to see, to know, about their journey in caring for foster and adopted children.  A note from the author of this post:  Sarah asked me to write for National Adoption Month. The topic turned out to be so painful that I am late.

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Photo by Thiago Matos on Pexels.com

We have three adopted kids and three kids the old-fashioned way. They are ten years apart. The oldest is 30 years old; the youngest is 20.

My wife and I have vastly different experiences of adoption because we are vastly different people. I will speak only for myself.

At the outset, I considered adoption as some mixture of obeying God (James 1:27) and using the considerable advantages of my life to help someone who is alone in a very cruel world.

And then there was arrogance. When the adoption process began I was in my 40s. I was a tank commander in my 20s, a bicycle racer riding 8,000 miles a year and sure I could be the inspiring kind of dad that would make a difference in the life of a troubled boy.

We planned to adopt boys simply because my wife could handle anything and I thought I would be better with boys. We already had three girls, so it could also have been balance.

At that point in my life I still believed parents had an influence nearly equal to heredity. Say, 50/50 Nature/Nurture. I now believe it’s 90/10. So much of who a child is and what children grow to be is set at birth. Ambition, manual skill, IQ, perseverance, and competitiveness are no more changeable than eye color, height, skin color, or natural hair color.

In the 20 years since we brought our youngest son home, my view of life, the universe and everything in has changed. He had stroke in the birth canal. The doctors said it was just bad luck. We had no idea the extent of the damage or what that would mean. He is blind in his right eye and everything on his right side has nerve-related problems. He has ADHD, dyslexia, learning disabilities and problems that grow from those.

Ten years later we adopted another son. He was 11 at the time. A year older than the first son. Second son was taken from a mother arrested for dealing crack and he was exposed to crack in utero. He had a different set of problems, but the same learning disabilities. Neither boy could or will ever be able to do the single-digit multiplication table.

We attempted and failed to adopt three other boys. One was with us until he went into a rage and threw knives.

Someone could read this and accuse me of focusing on the negative. I admit that. But the process of dealing with the ups and downs of the troubled children we adopted reminded me deeply of my own childhood with a bi-polar mother. Her rages were awful, but equally terrifying to my own little child self was when she was very happy. Nothing predicted a big explosion in mom’s psyche better than the slow burning fuse of happiness.

When the older son got into trouble in high school, I was waiting for the next problem and finally doing my best to keep him out of jail.

When people ask me about adopting, I never recommend it. I imagined I could be a good adoptive father, but I was run over by the wrenching difficulties. And I see neither unicorns nor rainbows in the future. Both boys are troubled in their own ways and I have little hope they can be anything like self-sufficient, independent adults.

CrushedMess at Christmas

We held each other’s hands in the quiet of the house; the Christmas-charged children had finally settled down; it was like the moment after a parade, when the workers come out to sweep up the confetti.

We had just prayed, and we had warbled a broken “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.  Tears slipped down my cheeks, and there was some constancy to that, like perhaps my eyes would never stop pouring forth.  “This has been the worst, the hardest Christmas I’ve ever had”, he said, rubbing his hand over his face, the way he does when he’s stressed and sad.  I nodded.

We’ve invested in rental properties, and a tenant kept falling farther and farther behind on rent, running into one disaster after another with his addictions, and resultant loss of jobs.  We rented to him, fresh out of jail, his girlfriend expecting their baby any moment. For a few months it looked like maybe this small family could make life work.  The baby loved her mama, her drug-addicted mama, and it hurts my soul to speak of this.  He called us from prison, we bailed him out.  We did not have money for this, but we knew he needed to be able to work or they’d lose their daughter.  Please, can there be some redemption?

The baby was taken into foster care.  Sweet baby, how you will bear this?  I am glad she is safe and cared for, and I am heartbroken too, for she loved her mama, her mama who also loved drugs.  We served them eviction papers and gave them time to relocate their things.  They broke back into the house and sublet space to other people, not giving us any rent.  We called the prison when our calls to them weren’t answered, and discovered they were both back in jail.  Unpaid rent was up to $5,000 now.  School taxes were due.  We had to clear out the house and get it ready for another renter.

There is great sadness in all of it.  My husband has been so stressed and saddened by it all that he hardly sleeps at night.  He shakes with stress, and he apologizes for not being able to provide for us all, for the lack of rent income, plus the mortgage, and impending taxes have put us firmly in the red.  That’s a sobering thing for a family of eight in the middle stage of life.

“We are vulnerable…one car breakdown, an appliance failing, a medical need…”  We let the silence extend.  I put a load in the washer, dropped to the cold tile floor, and wept.  A crushed mess at Christmas.

That is the load on our backs, weighing heavy.  Now let me speak of the beautiful.

A high school friend gifted us two bins full of Legos, many of them Star Wars sets.  These became the Christmas gift for our two older sons, who were overcome with wonder and joy.  They’ve been joyfully playing with them constantly ever since.

A friend here passed along her kids train track set and wooden castle set; my two middle sons received them with joy for their Christmas gift.  The baby was pleased with his thrifted wooden toys, and my daughter quite happy with the clearance bin goods we got for her.

Our families gave beautiful gifts to us; there was merriment as the children opened things they’ve dearly wished for.  We were gifted a Christmas tree, because our family helped unload a flatbed full of them at a friend’s business.

On Christmas day a package arrived for me.  A book I’ve wanted for three years!!  A friend somehow found out and ordered it.  I held it to my chest and smiled.

We made cookies with the help of the neighborhood kids, whose own stories are difficult and pain-filled, and I gave up the rolling pin and cutters and let them have at it, mess and all.

…………………………………….

We held hands in the quiet.

“Do you know what makes me so happy though?” my husband asked.  “Our kids.  They are so cute and funny and I love watching their faces as they open gifts; just that expression of joy and surprise.”  I nodded.

So much pain, so much stress, so much uncertainty, but oh so much beauty, so much joy, so much life.IMG_2861

I Didn’t Know THAT Was Going To Happen

I was a pretty proficient funeral director as a child.  The small mammals of our house were always laid to rest with soft tissues lining their checkbook box caskets.  I wept over them, sang my dirges, and laid flowers over their backyard graves.  I’d visit their plots, I’d agonize over them being in the cold, dark earth, all alone.

All of my love had nowhere to go, no furry heart to land on.  There was Murphy the Gerbil, Lougee the Mouse, and Blueberry the Hamster, plus a neighborhood bird with a broken wing.  If love could cure, they’d have lived forever.

I’ve read a new book, “Piggy In Heaven” by Melinda Johnson which gently and joyfully tells of a beloved guinea pig’s first day in Heaven.  He rolls in the grass, munches, and hops about, sans cage, and his new pig friends gradually reveal where he is and why.  When they’ve ever so tenderly explained to him that he died he responds, “I didn’t know that was going to happen!”  Isn’t that just the bewilderment that children experience when their pet dies?  How I wish I’d had this book as a grieving child!  It would have revealed to me that God too loves his creatures; that I was not alone in my love, nor my grief; that the end of earthly life means a beginning of eternal life.

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What is perhaps most beautiful to me personally is the reminder that love is never wasted.  We do not need to hold back our fullest and deepest love in order that we might be less vulnerable to eventual losses.  We can live full-heartedly, and hope in God’s wonderful mercy that the ones we love might just be waiting for us on the other side.

So, if the little ones in your life are mourning the loss of a pet, consider this beautiful, hope-filled book, and if you’re crafty I’ve included a pattern I made with the help of my dear friend Kristina Wenger (Plush-Maker Extraordinaire!) for making a stuffed Piggy to go with it!

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Materials needed:

  1. minky fabric, 1/4 yard in the color you like (you can make several piggies with this!)
  2. a small bit of felt, I chose light brown
  3. pink embroidery thread or a stuffed animal nose or button
  4. black beads or stuffed animal eyes on posts
  5. fiberfill
  6. needle and heavyweight thread
  7. Piggy Pattern printed (say that five times fast!)

 

To make, trace out the pattern pieces on minky fabric, or any other furry material that delights you, being aware that the fluffier it is, the harder it will be make the eyes and nose findable!  Make sure you flip the body pattern piece when you cut the second one so that you have the fur right side out on both sides.

I recommend cutting out the furry parts outside as you will indeed be covered in foof, and the pieces can be shook out to disperse the fluff out of doors rather than on your floors.  Also, you will now look like you’ve taken up another job at a pet grooming shop.IMG_8157

Cut out the ears from felt and pinch together and hand stitch to make a curved shape.

Clip open the ear slot and either machine or hand stitch the ear in place.  If using stuffed animal eyes, insert them now too.  If using beads as eyes you’ll attach them later.

Using a 1/4″ seam allowance, sew one side to the tummy panel (right sides facing) beginning and ending at the dots A and B on the pattern.  Sew the opposite side to the tummy panel as well.  Sew shut the back, leaving a 1.5″ gap for turning it right side out.  Double check all seams to make sure there are no holes.

It may be tricky to work the presser foot around the eye posts, so hand sewing that area may be necessary

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Turn right  side out and if using a post nose, snip a tiny hole at the front and insert and secure from inside the piggy.

IMG_8177Stuff with desired fiber fill, hand stitch the hole shut.  For beaded eyes use heavy thread, doubled, and a long needle.  Position the needle and pull the thread through the face to the other side making sure the eyes will be even.  Add a bead and plunge back through, adding the other bead, and go back and forth until the eyes are quite secure.  Pull the thread slightly so that the eyes sink inward, forming the face shape  guinea pig style.  Double knot and snip threads close to the surface.  The same looping-pull is done if you used eye posts to give it a nice shape.  If you didn’t add a nose yet, use embroidery thread to add a pink triangle nose.

 

Have the eyes disappeared on you?  Time for fur-scaping!  Using sharp, small scissors trim away the surrounding fluff so that the eyes stand a chance of peering out at the world.

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You are done!  Snuggle at will.

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Small

I’m small, and my voice doesn’t carry very far. I don’t have answers; it’s like staring at a giant tangle of strings and being asked which one to tug on to begin to unknot the mess. It really doesn’t help that we tend to dive in and grab the “right” string and yank on it, tightening the tangles and frustrating our neighbors. We argue and the knots get tighter as we pull. Impasse.

I can only do small things. I look deeply into my kids’ eyes and search for brokenness; I ask questions; is there a kid who doesn’t get included? Is there someone who struggles to connect with others? How are you; no…how are you really? Kid, where is this anger springing from? Talk to me. I want to hear you.

Love. Hugs. Kisses. Tears and prayers. Long, slow, revelatory conversations.

The big ones…the politicians and the lobbyists and the organizations having a war of words; their work is large and beyond my understanding. No one can untangle knots while shouting and jerking the strings. I can’t tell them anything; I’m small, and my voice doesn’t carry very far.

But I will pray, and it isn’t a small thing; not a trite thing. Not a half-hearted thing, not an opiate, not a crutch, not an “out”. It is the Made saying to the Maker, we are undone; help! Our children are bleeding out under their desks and pain is written on our turned-away faces. Our hands are sliced by pulling strings and we can’t see through our tears and our voices are hoarse from shouting.

“The children are dying!”, my shout rings out and the string-pullers look at their bloodied palms and at the tightened wad of chaos quivering in the middle of them. “But the right to bear…” “But video games….” “But mental health”…”But background checks…”, whispered, chanting, building into shouting, and I back away.

“Love well today; be kind to those who need a friend”, I say as my kids head off to school. My prayers trail after them. I am small, and my voice carries to God’s ears.

 

*I wrote this in February, after a school shooting.  Which one was it?  That is a painful question to ask.  Lord, have mercy.shortstory9

Gathering Pain

It is to be expected that a home with five children, a parakeet, a hamster, and a turtle would be a lively place, full of noise both genial and raucous.  And it was, it was all that and also the children were full of expectancy, for what it would be hard to assign a name; it was as if they were ready to be ready for something.  So it follows that they were in my face and hovering about, and inconveniently my heart and soul were quiet and withdrawn.

My cousin’s son was stillborn yesterday.  Born too early, and yet he was born, and his tiny hands lay inside his parents’ wedding rings in the black and white photograph.  We all mourn him, and the pain is sharp and singular.  The pit of my stomach has an empathetic ache, for it mourned my own loss, my own Gabriel(a), and every child loss finds an echo there.  My eyes are quick to sting with familiar grief, and really, I had to go for a walk and let the ache ache.

The twilight hour and the storm-thrashed town were fitting.  Violent winds and rains had come through in a brief fury, and everything was clean but tossed, scoured but disordered.  I found my way through the back alleys, partly because my husband thought that going out wearing my apron was a tad ridiculous, and I wondered if I indeed looked odd:  black skirt and top, long linen apron, gray ruffled shabby jacket from a thrift bin, flip flops.  But I couldn’t leave the apron; it has excellent pondering pockets for hands that don’t know where to put themselves, and I had pondering to do.

I came upon the public burial grounds, used from the 1850’s until 1902.  I stooped and read the fading words; I read of Benjamin, nine months old.  I read of Mary who led a long life, ninety-two years.  One headstone was being slowly engulfed by a tree trunk; in a few years it will have grown completely inside of it, the marker of death swallowed into living wood.  Pines grew up and around and between the broken headstones and I imagined the bones mingled and embraced by the reaching roots.

I thought too of black-clad huddled groups of mourners; how they stood at each of these graves and said goodbye to fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, friends.  My eyes returned to Benjamin’s grave, and I felt for his parents who so lovingly buried him, with such a large and distinguished gravestone.  How they honored his life.

As I stood in the damp cemetery, among the dead and the trees jutting up like long bones among them, I felt that this pain wasn’t alone.  It was gathered together with my own loss and the losses of others I never knew.  Even the melancholy green light of a damp day’s end bore it’s part.  Stepping on one nail with all your weight is sharply painful, stepping on five is painful, but the weight is distributed a bit more mercifully.  Step on a hundred and the pain is dulled.  One would rather there be no pain at all, of course, but anything is better than that one nail biting fiercely.

I slipped my hands into my apron pockets and reluctantly left the darkening cemetery, praying as I walked, for it is the best way to gather all the pain; placing it into the hands of the Father, resting in His peace which transcends our understanding.

 

 

Funerals Teach Us How To Live

My son has a hard time sitting still, but there he was, barely moving, his eyes fixated on the screen at the front where a slideshow was playing of photos of his great uncle, from toddler, to young man, to grinning groom in a 70’s wedding tux, to father, to grandfather, to middle age, to the skinny, yet joyful, man he knew, a man who fought pancreatic cancer for many years, astonishing his doctors.

There is something to hearing it; how the deceased is remembered, what stood out about them and the way they lived their lives, what made them dear and irreplaceable.

I heard many good words today; I saw men wiping away tears, I saw a good man remembered and mourned.

I was glad to remember him, and glad too that my children and I could hear the accounting of him by others who knew him in other spheres of life.  I am glad we heard what makes an impression on folks around us, and what clearly doesn’t.  There was nothing about his looks or his clothes or his car; nothing about his net worth.  We heard how he loved others, how he enjoyed the people around him, how in the midst of suffering he served, how he trusted God, and how he never complained, no matter how bad it got.

These aren’t words for the wind.

They are meant to be caught, and chewed, and swallowed; they’re meant to become part of us and how we live our days, so that, by God’s mercy, our own funerals may one day serve to point toward the good and holy way for the ones we leave behind.

“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

-Psalm 90:12

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The Goth At The Pep Assembly

It was all RAH-RAH and pom-poms and school colors and loudness.  A high school pep assembly.  Looking through the lens of time it’s easy to wonder what the point of it all really was.  Something to the effect of stating:  We are this school!  We are a-w-e-s-o-m-e!  Other schools (shouted shrilly) are less awesome and we’ll eat them for breakfast!  Accompanied, as it was, by the almost-provocative routines of the cheerleaders and the more conservative twirls of the color guard and the strident blasts of trumpets and trombones, it was like a circus of self-aggrandizement.  And I always pitied the goths.

How on earth do you survive such a pep fest?  When your muse is wearing black and looking dour and avoiding sunlight and all things cheerful?  When all around your peers are standing up, stomping their feet, waving their arms, hollering themselves hoarse, and there you are, sitting, quiet, wishing for all the world to be in a corner of the library, reading Poe.

I’m not a goth, but I do have an attitude problem.

It struck me during a service at a local evangelical church.  Our burgeoning family filed into a pew, the worship being already in full swing.  The words to the songs were displayed on large flat screens, with nature scenes as backgrounds.  I ground my teeth.

Why do the songs need to look like obnoxious motivational posters?

Oh my word, this song is idiotic.  Worst of all, it’s theologically untrue.  

That woman over there is actually going to punch the air with her fist every time that lyric is repeated.  Yep, there she goes again.

Stop it, stop it.  Sorry, God.  I’m having a hard time worshiping You today, this way.

By this time I usually have sat down with one of the babies, bowed my head, and under my breath, began to pray.  Sometimes one of the ancient songs will fill my heart and I’ll sing that “..for His mercy endureth forever, alleluia”.  All around me people are swaying and singing, hands lifted up in the air, joy in their smiles and cheer all bunched up in the creases ’round their eyes.  And I’m like a goth at a pep assembly; I couldn’t possibly feel more out of place.

It isn’t right to mock or disdain, that I know and I regularly confess with sincere grief.  But there’s more to my reaction than just pride.  I am mourning and I am angry.

I am mourning because I’ve come to know the beauty, warmth, truth, and joy of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but I cannot be a part of it.  I honor my husband’s leading of our family, and have had to lay my desires down.  It is one of the few areas in our married life that push came to shove and he had the final say.  Most of the time we reach an accord naturally.  Not with this.  But though we attend evangelical churches (as we are yet in-process of finding a church home), I have his blessing to continue my studies of Eastern Orthodoxy and occasionally we attend services at St John’s.  Dustin regularly comes home to me listening to ancient chants and hymns or absorbed in a theological work with a pencil at hand.  I partake of the feast by crawling under the table for crumbs.  Some is better than none, I remind myself, when tears flow and the sorrow sticks in my throat.  Some is better than none.

I am angry because so many churches are singing nonsense.  And heresy.  Seriously, who is writing this crap?  It feels like a narcissistic romp through my own emotions with Jesus thrown in.  Music is a powerful medium for informing our beliefs; are we singing our theology?  Are we singing true things?

I have to be fair; not all the songs are bad.  Maybe even Byzantine chants would look cheesy overlaying some picture of a waterfall.

When the final prayer has been said, to the background accompaniment of soft guitar strummings, I keep my head low.  I gather our things and hope no one talks to me.  Because, though I am a believer and a sister in Christ, and though this was all once as familiar to me as sliced bread, I am painfully out of place.  I cannot put on a false and brave smile and speak Christianese with the cheerful strangers around me.  I’ve never been good at pretending, so I’m afraid this would happen:

Good morning!  I haven’t met you yet!  Are you folks from around here?”

“Morning.  Yep.”

These all your kids?  Are you just visiting or….?”

I don’t want to be here.  I don’t like evangelicalism anymore.  I think I’m burnt out on everything that’s happened in the Western church since the Byzantine times.  I’m tired of the autonomy, the lack of authority, the sola scriptura-touting denominational sectarianism. I’m only here because my husband likes this.  I’m a mess.  I’m sorry I’m so rude.  I’m going to go to the car and cry now”.

I don’t want to do that to someone on a Sunday morning.  I am getting to know the patterns in the carpet well.

Trust me, I know, I know my attitude is bent and snarly.  But I’m also in pain.  Deep pain and grief.  Measure me some grace on that account.

And pray, I beg you, that God would give me His peace about where I can be and where I can’t, where I can feast and where I can’t.  And may the crumbs from His table satisfy and nourish me as I seek Him.