Relationships are always in flux. Even our relationship with those who are dead are not exactly static because even though the deceased no longer walk the earth with us, we maintain a continuing connection (even if only within ourselves) with those who have formed our lives. The family drama is dynamic because the cast of characters continually changes costume, grows in self-awareness and morphs into new being. It may (or may not) be true that the family unit is the most basic of civilization, but this is not because it is the most static component of human living.
In the nearly ten years that Claudia and I have been married our family life has changed on a near-daily basis. In the early years it was watching our youngest children rapidly acquire language or independent skills. And now in these more mature years of our family life the transformation continues.
The last eighteen months have been particularly challenging ones for us as a family. I cannot speak for the other members of our family, but I'm not sure I've ever endured a more excruciating period of time in my life. It was two years ago, while living with a high school senior, that I began to realize how fleeting time is. I anticipated, but even at that not quite accurately, how difficult that transition would be for me. I was not, however, anticipating that around that same time we would be losing from the family three sons, not only our oldest son.
Letting go of our oldest son was (and is) difficult, but the pain was salved because of its normalcy. Someone who has completed high school and is moving on to college is normal. While it is difficult to parent that transition, it is an appropriate, and necessary move toward a new relationship. None of the other options at that point are very appealing -- a post-high school child who has the capacity for higher education and opts for a minimum-wage job or perpetual lounging around the home with little responsibilty is no pleasure.
But losing our other two sons at the ages of fourteen and fifteen was much more difficult. It was neither an appropriate nor a necessary transition. I suspect they envisioned their choices leading them down a road of freedom and independence, but it only resulted in more restrictive environments for each of them and months away from their family's love and commitment.
Last year at this time we met them in separate locations to celebrate Christmas. Our then-fourteen-year-old son met us at a Perkin's for 90 minutes to celebrate his Christmas. It was a bittersweet affair. Knowing that his future was uncertain and that our contact with him would be limited, it was a spiritless Christmas exchange. We celebrated Christmas with our then-fifteen-year-old son in a juvenile detention center for about sixty minutes. He could have virtually nothing, so we opted for a new pair of shoes (of his choosing) and a few assorted practical items. Christmas at Kids' Peace was even less enjoyable than Christmas at Perkins. Christmas is intended to be celebrated in family settings, not public restaurants or institutional settings.
The past year has been filled with emotional crevices. But this Christmas has been blessedly different.
A week ago our college sophomore son joined us at home following a tough, but academically successful, semester. He has been such a pleasure to be with this Christmas season, a stark contrast to our previous seven Christmas seasons with him. During the same week Kyle returned home we learned that our now-fifteen-year-old son John will be returning home permanently nearly two months earlier than expected. To watch John share this news with our church family two weeks ago ("I'm going to be home at the end of December for good. I'm the second person in all the years of McCrossan Boy's Ranch to complete the program in less than six months") rocked my soul. And two days ago we drove four hours to celebrate Christmas with Mike, our now-sixteen-year-old, in a new institutional setting. We arrived early Sunday evening (we left home on Christmas Day after our two worship service morning) and met with him in a living area at his group home. He opened the presents we brought for him and seemed very pleased. Until he opened the last envelope.
In that brief note we told Mike that we believed it was time for him to come home and that in a few minutes he would be packing his stuff, joining us at the Holiday Inn and then returning to our home. We were nervous about his response, because we have learned that Mike often saboutages good things.
With a surprised grin on his face, his response was one I could not have asked him to improve: "I wouldn't have had to have all the presents. Coming would have been enough."
It has been a very trying eighteen months. We have been separated from three of our children -- one for appropriate, positive reasons, and two for other reasons. It looks as though much of the difficulty of these months is now overshadowed by the possibility of something much better. And while we are not naive (fostering and adopting for nearly ten years has made us quite realistic) about the days ahead, we are certain of one thing, at least for this Christmas season.
We are together again. Just like it should be.