Chicago Diarist: The Faces That You Meet

Our foster child needed a test at a downtown hospital Thursday morning–one long in the scheduling for various reasons. Determined to make the best use I could of this significant and time-consuming task, I got up extra early, gathered the things I would need, and even paid some extra attention to my clothes. I had the thought of going to work after it was all done (not that anyone especially cares how I dress at my office most of the time), but perhaps more than that I wanted to look as though I was going to work later. I wanted to project an image, not just of “person who has a place to be, so please be prompt and professional” but “person who can be a fierce and effective advocate for this child if need be.” Even writing this out I feel a bit ridiculous. I’ve only had good interactions with her many, many medical professionals, and no power in heaven or earth seems to alter waiting times.

Still, “look the part, be the part,” as Prop Joe said. There I was, an hour early in my new dress shoes and business-casual ensemble, wanting to present every bit of the serious and patient foster dad from the suburbs I wish to be. I am always mindful of the stigma that can attach to foster children and foster parenting, and I would do nothing to legitimate that stigma. This child’s excessive exuberance or vocal exertion will be, to me, merely the rough poetry of childhood; my own role will be sober and affectionate, savoring nothing of mercenary or needy motives.

So I smile and admonish humorously, with no hint that I even expect to be heard, as she walks along the kiosks experimenting with each signature machine and credit card keypad. Tammy at the check-in desk is amused. Everyone is. The child is adorable; her rambunctiousness, encountered in a momentary interaction, touches staff and fellow patients alike with mild delight. During the long wait, some chairs get rearranged and some furniture is rather ill-used. Eventually she says “I’m a dog” and crawls around on all fours, incongruously meowing. I will not allow myself to be flustered or irritated by any of it. In the room for the test she will pull out, wear, and then discard pair after pair of latex gloves.

The test itself goes swimmingly. While the practitioner goes to write up the summary, we are deposited in a consultation room. There, with no more gloves to grab and nothing but a baby scale, a computer, and a sharps disposal to interact with, she starts to press harder–going down the hall, or trying to get back into the testing room for more gloves. Corral her, bring her back, reset, repeat.

A recent New Yorker profile of University of Chicago English professor Lauren Berlant describes her work in “affect theory,” whose pioneers “saw our world as shaped not simply by narratives and arguments but also by nonlinguistic effects—by mood, by atmosphere, by feelings”:

Everyone has heartstrings. Over time, she wrote, we had grown addicted to having them pulled, rather than focussing on what the pulling could accomplish by way of political change. We’d replaced tangible action with affective experience. “What does it mean for the theory and practice of social transformation,” she asked in a 1999 essay, “when feeling good becomes evidence of justice’s triumph?” Somewhere along the way, doing good had come to seem irrelevant—or maybe just felt impossible.

To create or sustain, in myself or others, this mood is what, I realized, I was trying to do. Narrative didn’t even come into it. This was a vignette–for me, for Tammy, for the benignant hospital staff. Is that what we’re doing?

We dream of swimming toward a beautiful horizon, but in truth, Berlant evocatively observed, we are constantly “dogpaddling around a space whose contours remain obscure.”

I don’t know about beautiful horizons, but one wishes to be and to feel human in these moments, and to appear human to others, some of whom may even be edified in some tiny way. But smaller ambitions don’t make the whole exercise in self-cultivation and self-presentation less absurd and ridiculous.

In any event, the façade starts cracking back there in the consultation room. We are off and moving soon enough–out to the street and to the donut shop, just a good indulgent dad taking his girl for a donut after a medical appointment. The child’s habit of asking for a donut with sprinkles and proceeding to try to eat only the sprinkles is well enough established by now that I have no excuse for being surprised. My wife brought the rest of the kids downtown (it’s spring break and it’s fitting that one take the kids downtown during spring break). We’ll meet up at Maggie Daley Park. I had texts from the child’s caseworker asking for a visit that day, and another from work. One of the curious things about foster parenting is that people can demand information that, once given, they appear to instantly forget or at least never to take account of.

On the street, the child insists that every delivery van is a bus and wants to ride it. Eventually I yield to the logic and wait for the #157 bus. It will leave a rather long walk at the end, but it’s worth it to get this bus business out of her system. This is, in fact, incorrect. As restrained as her enthusiasm for the actual bus is when we’re on it, as soon as we alight at Millennium Park she is in howls of despair, interspersed with eager indications of new buses coming into view. Buses that we might conceivably, that moment, ride.

It is in the nature of two-year-olds to repeat this process over and over, with whatever their minds happen to fix on for a given moment. The swing. Being carried. Then walking. The vignettes are getting darker, the affect less hearty and serene. Eventually we are in the Art Institute, where we have bought lunch at the cafeteria just as the seating overflows and there is no place for us to sit but out in the hall on a bench. A cordon is quickly thrown up and a line formed to restrict new diners to the outflow of the old. By now the façade is cracked for good, as we haggle with our own louche and miserable children over pizza and milk, diapers and misdeeds before a slow-moving crowd of museum guests. It is a minute-by-minute denuding.

Finally we are on our way home, through one last blocks-long gauntlet of commanding, cajoling, and carrying, and another too-short bus ride. Even in the car, the wails for the bus continue:

Kid 4, wailing: “BUS! BUS! RIDEY BUS!”
Kid 3: “[Kid 4] wants to ride the bus”
Me: “I want her to ride the bus too”

The curtain dropped, the story ended, the affect dissipated for good or ill, I thought about how lonely this experience of foster parenting has been compared to our earlier placements. I’ve written a lot about foster care and I’ve always been a big advocate. Nothing has changed that. I would not trade these months for anything. But this has been a challenge.

And it occurs to me, as this child goes through the swift cycle of disappointment, tears, and instant affection, that she has no choice but to love me while I can feel and act as detached as I please. Whether I am cruelly denying her the bus or indulgently offering her a donut, whether I am edifying the faithful Ms. Tammy at the desk or horrifying the patrons of the Art Institute cafeteria, she needs me hour by hour, day by day. It’s a clean slate after every disappointment, because she needs hope. She has no alternative to the drama of each day’s reruns, to the edification of each day’s vignette. I, on the other hand, can argue with myself, I can store up frustrations, I can make myself see reason: this will all be over, probably sooner than you’ll feel good about; this is not right, not normal, not worth the trouble. I can get the referral and just put it away and never pick up the phone. I can leave the costume in the closet and live my life.

That’s the freedom I guess we’re supposed to have, or at least to cultivate. And it’s real, it’s there, it lurks even in the clothing choices that say “I have more in my life than this waiting room.” There are plenty of people in that building who do not. They are there because the stakes are unlimited and there is nothing to perform. I can walk out the door and down the street into a warm spring day, to the donut shop, at my ease. With no particular place to go, and no particular reason for anyone to wonder why. The only audience is her, and she wants encore after encore, however badly the show has gone.

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