On Friday we’ll mark a full year with Kid 4. It will be a melancholy anniversary, as she is already well past her second anniversary in foster care, we’re her fourth foster home, and despite my best efforts to convince the court to let us take her when we move to Texas, she’ll be leaving us for another family in the next few weeks.
She’s doing well. Her speech and developmental delays have almost disappeared. She is vivacious and beautiful, clever and helpful, kind and thoughtful. Yes, her tantrums can reach Category 5 very quickly, and when she feels she’s not getting enough attention she will just start throwing things or clearing shelves to see what happens. Each night she asks for a bottle of water she does not drink. Each night she grips tightly to a lamb and a frog as she falls asleep. Each night she demands I sing the ABCs and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Children of the Heavenly Father,” in that order. She is stubborn and funny and wild and I love her. We all do.
My wife joked some months ago that the child and I had formed a “trauma bond” over months and months of illnesses and sleepless nights. In the spring she started asking, when I picked her up from daycare, “Daddy take me doctor?” I’ve taken her to 28 medical appointments in the twelve months she’s been with us, with at least one more big test and maybe an office visit before we say goodbye. The sleepless nights took a toll, too. Her health has been better of late, for which I give thanks and knock all the wood I can find. But I can’t deny that it’s been hard to accommodate it all. She takes up a disproportionate share of our parental energy, and while this has brought out some of the best in our bio kids, it’s also caused complications for them that I regret.
If I’d been given advance knowledge of how this would go–all the medical stuff, the sick nights, the background hum of destruction–when we were asked to take her, I honestly don’t know what I would have said. So it’s a mercy that I didn’t know, because as hard as it’s been, I don’t regret it. She is barnacled to me for everything from bedtime to bathroom trips to doing kitchen chores. I can’t pretend that I don’t sometimes resent this, especially now as I am trying to make my peace with her departure from our home. “Please don’t need me like this,” I mean to say when I just get frustrated.
As Kierkegaard put it, more or less, we live our lives forward but understand them looking back. I can make the last year into a story, even a modestly redemptive one, in which all our cares and sacrifices have been spiritually and emotionally and practically justified in the flourishing life of this child who is still almost completely innocent of her predicament. And if I had to do it all over again, I would only try harder. But either way it lands us here, looking forward not just to a difficult parting but to agonizing uncertainty. Part of me will always suspect that I failed her, even if my failure wasn’t the largest or most consequential. The dysfunctions in which she is entangled, personal and systemic, defy belief. You have to be something of a knight-errant, perhaps with a light grasp on reality, to hang on to a child through all of it. That’s what I wanted to be, to the point of offering to fly her home twice a month to keep visits going, at our own expense, but not to the point of refusing a new pastoral call in a new city in the first place. “Let me bear every burden,” one thinks, “let me lash myself to this child to be cast where life will,” but even the slightest attempt to set the terms can render the commitment null and void. I made the judge say No, which she did. By this means I sought to discharge my duty to this child and save my own soul. “‘Return home in twelve months,'” here in month 27, and the gavel bangs, and everyone is off to the next disaster.
But it’s not fair to her, any of it, and if there’s a story of consequence here it’s hers, not mine. Thanks to some pushing over the spring and summer (itself enabled by a state licensing worker who was shocked at the agency’s treatment of us), we were able to greatly improve her chance of going to a strong, committed, patient family for however long her pointless and stupid court process continues. She will have a chance to be loved and cared for. Her curls will keep proliferating. She will keep demanding to pull the car over to pet every passing dog. Her sentences will branch out into paragraphs and stories, as the fragmentary world she has just started to name and navigate will aggregate into a whole. Her potential to love and shape the world instead of becoming a problem for someone else to manage will have the chance to remain intact. She’ll look for us for a while and we won’t come, but someone else will have the chance to put themselves in that gap, just as we did a year ago. Hand to hand she travels, with prayers that no one will stumble or falter.
Love is infinite commitment in a finite world. This child deserves love as much as any other, and maybe needs it more. In her own capacity to laugh, embrace, share, look out for others she has more than requited whatever we’ve given her, and whatever we’ve lost in sleep, productivity, and peace of mind. And we’ll always pray that there are people in her life willing to be repaid so richly.