Sunday, November 12, 2006

Whose Children Are They?

I am in Nashville, TN, for a few days on church-related business. For the first time in many months I had the opportunity to worship with others in the pews, rather than in leading others from the front of the sanctuary. This morning's preacher did an excellent job in remding me why I got into the messiness of adopting children in the first place. Her Scripture text was from the Hebrew prophet Micah, specifically his recounting of God's admonition:

[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Specifically I was struck with her explanation of "kindness," which in the English-speaking word connotes something tepid. In Hebrew "kindness" is chesed which denotes a relationship characterized by strength and unwavering commitment. The preacher took great pains to let us know that Micah's words are more than fulfilling some kind of legal or juridical expectation. The "requirement" of the Lord is based in and upon relationship.

Humming the final hymn as I walked from the church toward my hotel, I decided to eat lunch at Jack In the Box, a chain unfamiliar to those of us in the midwestern part of the States. As I ordered my meal I couldn't help but notice that I was the minority member in the store. My friendly order-taker was Hispanic, the order-fulfillers in the back were African-American, and my brief scan of those sitting down already revealed I was the one pale face in the midst of many whose skin tones were tanner than mine. While I do not consider myself very skin-tone conscious (after all our family has a diversity of skin tones, too), I was struck by what it is like to be "different" in a setting not my own.

As I sat down to eat my Ciabatta bacon cheeseburger, I noticed three children, all of whom appeared to be under the age of ten sitting a few tables away from me. I couldn't help but contrast in my mind what I saw. They were of African-American heritage; I am white. There were three of them; there is one of me. They were wearing winter coats; I was in my long-sleeve shirt. They were dressed in clean but well-worn clothes; I was dressed in post-Sunday worship attire. I was humming a hymn in my head; they were not humming anything. In fact, they sat quietly, circled around a single large refillable pop container, school work to the side of the pop. It appeared to me that they were sharing their drink with one another. There was no food. They had not been to a worship service in which they were admonished to love God, seek justice, do kindness and walk humbly with creation. In the oldest child's eyes I could detect a look of resignation. The two younger siblings were not yet old enough to recognize their situation in life, so they were more animated and energetic. But the oldest child's eyes haunt me even as I type these words.

And so, between munching on my burger and fries, I stole glances in their direction. What, I wondered, is God asking me to do? Am I to assume that they have not eaten any lunch today, or did I simply miss that part of their meal? Do I assume they did not attend worship or Sunday School, do not have a community of faith in which to receive spiritual care, emotional support and physical assistance? Whose children are they?

I toyed with the idea of offering to buy them lunch, but something held me back. I wondered if I should simply give them a twenty and tell them to buy themselves something with it, but I debated. Whose children are they?

And then I saw the person I assume to be their father. He was sitting in a different part of the restaurant, so I didn't make the immediate association. Now that I was aware of an adult figure with the chidlren, I could see that his glances and directives were quickly interpreted by the children. The glowering oldest child reluctantly complied while the two siblings mindlessly flitted from one table to another.

I knew that there was little I would be able to do. There were too many strikes against me ... a white stranger obviously not from Nashville would not be well received by the domineering father whose dignity I felt I must respect.

It was an odd few moments for me, though, wrestling with what I had heard preached moments before and wondering how to respond to what I witnessed. I'm not sure I made the right decision. At what point and when does one person's compassion become interpreted as something else by another's sense of personal dignity? What is the most appropriate way to respond?

I was perplexed, too, by the internal conflict I feel within knowing that as a white person in our culture I am privileged in ways I do not even recognize and surely do not deserve. I've learned not to see it so much these days, but it wasn't that long ago when our family would be together in public places that I would get "that" look as onlookers tried to do determine "whose children are they?" in our family unit. It troubles me to know that in the lives of my children of color they will always have to do more, know more and act better simply to know the privileges my white children are conferred because of their genetic heritage.

I'm still not sure I did the right thing. (Editorial note: as I was typing the last sentence I erroneously and perhaps tellingly first typed "white" instead of "right"). I'm not sure because I know whose children they are ... these children, like countless others across our nation and globe ... may not spring from our loins or bear our surname or our physical traits ... but they are all our children. In God's world there are no "our children" and "their children," there are only "God's children."

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Hardest Thing in the World

As I type these words I feel more than a little disjointed. It feels odd for me to blog something I haven't even had an opportunity to talk with my spouse about yet (but as will become clear in a moment, there's a very good reason for that). It is 3:30 AM, and I have been awake for more than hour, roused from sleep by my ten-year-old son who came bursting into my bedroom to let me know, "Police are here. They want to talk with you." For reasons too complicated to explain here, he was sleeping within earshod of the door-pounding, doorbell-rining police officer, so he heralded the news before wearily tumbling into his mother's side of the bed.

Claudia is out of town on a business-related trip (which also includes a trip with our favorite thirteen-year-old daughter to the orthodontist in a town near the one we recently moved from ... long story, but for those of you have "orthodontic relationships" you know how the billing and process require a multi-year commitment that cannot be changed even if you move 150 miles away). I had an unsettling week already with our seventeen-year-old son who continues to ride the edges of unlawful activity. On Thursday night he verbally assaulted me, threatened me and smashed his fist through the broom closet door in our kitchen. He was incensed because we would not buy him a new coat (he lost his other coat in one of his recent run-the-town jaunts) or a new hoodie (he has several, but wants another), not are we giving him rides to aid and abet his behavior. Our agreement with him is that until he spends two weeks following the guidelines of our family (which are as foundational as checking in at meal time if he doesn't plan to be here and to be home by 9 PM unless he has made other appropriate arrangements), we will not be providing him with his wants, especially when our family rules-abiding children are receiving nothing out of the ordinary for their fairly appropriate behavior.

So, back to the story. It was 2:20 AM as I dragged myself to the door to meet one of our community's peace officers. He apologized for the intrusion and told me that a neighboring police department officer had been attempting to reach me by telephone unsuccessfully, so he was delivering the message to call. I wandered into our darkened kitchen to dial the seven digits which would provide me the details of Mike's arrest du jour.

The officer asked me to come to the police station for the interview because of Mike's juvenile status, but I politely refused, indicating I was not comfortable leaving my sleeping children alone in our home when their mother was out of town. The officer said he would, with my permission, mirandaize him, take his statement and followup with paperwork detailing the details of the charges against him. Our son, who is not licensed to drive, evidently stole a vehicle with two of his thirteen-year-old buddies, I learned from the police officer. Mike was driving with the headlights off in a wasted effort to avoid detection. I told the officer I would be unable to come to the police station to bring Mike home, and that as far as I was concerned juvenile detention was an appropriate option. Unfortunately, the JDC in our area has only one open bed, and they prefer to keep that open for more violent offenses, such as assault (as I heard those words my mind couldn't help but revert back to Thursday night's drama, but I said nothing).

So at 3:30 I opened the door to receive Mike and the police officer. Mike, of course, had no words to say to me (nor did I attempt any with him), and the officer dispassionately told me about next steps. The paperwork will be processed, but first they have to find the owner of the car in question to determine that, in fact, it was stolen, yadda, yadda, yadda.

For years now we have attempted intervention in Mike's life. Early on it was therapy that resolved none of his issues. After that we enlisted what we thought to be the support of our county's social service agaency, only to discover that we would be the ones blamed for Mike's behavior. This eventuated in a report, no less than five months ago, in which the court was informed that Mike should never live in our home again because of our cold, distant parenting style (a style, which if in fact an accurate reflection of us, might make any number of our other children feel relieved, but alas it is not now, nor has it ever been, so). Mike has been in residential treatment placements, shelter care placements, a sheriff's program (kind of an independent living skills model), a group home, foster care and most recently a Department of Corrections facility. It was from that DOC facility that he came home in mid-September. At that time Claudia and I decided that we needed to let Mike come home (after al, we are his parents, and we claimed him as ours years ago), and that we would expect him to follow our family's guidelines, but that we would be unable to keep him out of situations he himself chooses. He will be eighteen in four months and considered in the eyes of the law an "adult." We will never deny him a home, we will always have expectations for his behavior, and we will never reject him.

But right now I am wondering how it might all turn out. I am not feeling that positive about Mike's future, and I wonder to what extent legally, ethically, morally, spiritually we parents are responsible for what may very well ensue. Parenting this one, very special needs child has made me a much more compassionate, understanding, patient person. No longer do I spend much time judging or analyzing others' parenting successes or failures. I realize the folly of such kernels of "truth" as: "Well, have you met his/her parents?" "All he needs is a little more love." "Have you tried consequences?" "Aren't you going to do anything about his/her behavior?" "You mean to tell me you *let* him/her do that?" "I'd never let my child do that in a million years."

There are no guarantees, there are no easy answers, and a sense of success often is elusive. I realize, having learned and continuing to learn the hard way, that parenting is the hardest thing in the world.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Not My Mike, But One Day You Could Be

If you have read a fair share of my blog entries you know that I am a pastor. As a pastor I have the opportunity in multiple ways every day to interact with a wide variety of people. It's one of things I most enjoy about my vocational life, because no two days are ever the same. Over the years I have learned that God provides me with unique opportunities to intersect with others' lives, if I am willing to be open to these unplanned moments. And invariably, it seems that when I am meeting with someone who lives at the margins of society I am at that moment preoccupied with my concerns.

One of those moments occurred ten minutes ago. I had opened and was reading my most recent financial statement from our denominational pension plan, feeling pleased with the way my retirement plan investments have been performing over the past three months and feeling good to know that in twenty-five years or so when I retire there will be some security awaiting us.

In my momentary revelry I was interrupted by the intercom button to hear our administrative assistant announce, "Bart, there's someone to see you." I opened my door and Mike introduced himself. I asked him the customary, "How are you doing today?" and heard, "Well, not so bad seeing that I spent the night in my truck." It's always difficult to know how to respond appropriately and compassionately to such a response, so I simply said, "Come on in."

He explained to me that he had been at Salvation Army for the past several days (perhaps weeks) and that they had done all they could to assist him. Specifically he has a leaking tire that continues to go flat, which inhibits his ability to do any job search. (Our community does have some public transportation, but it operates nothing like the regularity of large metropolitan areas). Knowing that we have little in our benevolence fund, I offered Mike a couple of other options. He called one organization who couldn't provide any help, and I called another with little success.

And in the process, at the back of my mind, I heard once again God's inquiring voice. It went something like this ... "So, Bart, you're sitting here in your comfortable church office where it is warm and you have all the technology (and more) you need to do your work. You're scanning the financial results of your pension plan, which has built by the sacrifical giving of Christian people over the years of your ministry service. You're feeling good about your future because you see financial security in retirement. And you're not willing to do anything to help Mike fix his tire?"

It might have been the name that particularly attracted my attention this time, for Mike, as you may know, is the name of our seventeen-year-old son who has been diagnosed with an array of challenging issues and whose future looks a bit uncertain at this point in life. And so, in those brief moments of reflection and recognition, I had to say to myself, "What about when it's your Mike who is in a church office somewhere asking some pastor for assistance? What do you want that person to do for your Mike?"

The answer, of course, is obvious. I want my son Mike to be treated with dignity and compassion if and when the circumstances of his life force him to ask some hopefully friendly stranger for assistance.

And so I did what I should have done in the beginning. I said, "Mike, let's get your truck to a place where they can fix your tire, and I'll find a way to take care of it for you." So I called one of the tire stores, made arrangements for Mike's arrival and agreed to pay for the repair.

On his way out of my office door, his smile and three words were more than adequate, "Thanks. Bless you." No, Mike, bless you. You are not my Mike, but one day you could be.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

After Seventy Years We Have Still Not Done Enough

Yesterday two of my sons, Rand (18) and Anthony "Tony" (11), and I visited the Minnesota Orphanage Museum in Owatonna. Officially chartered in 1885 as the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children, over 10,000 walked through its doors until the mid-1940's when it was closed. Less than 5% of those children were ever adopted. Many of the children spent their entire "youth" in this institution until "aging out" at the age of eighteen. Over the years, especially in the early years, some of the children were subjected to "indenture contracts" which made them little more servants in a family. The contract stipulated that at the end of their indenture the family was responsible for providing them something like $200 and 2 sets of clothing. During the time they lived with the family they were to work, attend school at least four months of twelve, and were provided with food and board. It shocks me to think that as recently as seventy years ago this is the way "wards of the state" subsisted.

The visit to the Orphanage Museum was, in part, to fulfill academic requirements for both of these boys who are in a charter school, but largely it was for us to think together about what life might have been like for them had they been born seventy years earlier in our state. Rand, in particular, who is bi-racial, would have not fared very well. Those who lived at the State School as recently as the 1930s recall the difficulties for children whose heritage was non-white or of mixed heritage. (Check the museum website above for a number of written recollections that confirm what I write here).

As we arrived I said to my sons, "You realize that if you had been born seventy years ago you might very well have lived here?" Fortunately, they didn't seem too concerned by that thought. I say fortunately, because they have adapted well to living in our family (Tony, after all was only 20 months when he came to live with us, and Rand, while 11 when he arrived, has done well with what we have offered him), and they feel such security that they don't need to wonder what "it might have been like."

I, however, having navigated the child protective services systems over the past decade or more, was not quite as unplussed. The museum is not large (three corridors in what was once the main building) and the campus has been converted into other uses (the City of Owatonna and others use many of the buildings formerly occupied by the State School), but there is yet an unsettled sense about the campus.

I am, admittedly, a strongly intuitive person, so my experience yesterday was a deeply unsettling one for me. The displays are factual and well balanced with detail. Both positive and negative are dutifully recorded in the historic documentation, but it's not the documentation that creates angst within my soul.

It is the sense of years and years of unsettled life and crushed emotional capacity that haunt me as I consider my hour on the campus. In the picture to the left is a memorial only recently dedicated in honor and memory of the thousands of children who passed through the doors of the campus over the years. Many of the children entered the Orphanage as part of a sibling group, and many were separated from their siblings, even while living on the same campus. The intention was not necessarily to institutionalize the children, but many of the children stayed there for their complete childhood.

Perhaps most troubling to me, however, is the orphan's cemetery, located in the southwest corner of the campus. Here lie nearly 200 children, average age of four, whose families were unable or unwilling to claim their lifeless bodies through the years. Early on the state erected a small marble stone to mark the site of each child's interment, but within a short period of time there were only concrete, numbered markers for the others. How horrifying that these children, who were unable to experience early love and nurture in their young lives, were not even accorded the dignity of a name upon their death. Blessedly, several have stepped forward in the past few years to provide a simple, dignified cross with name and birth and death dates for those who lie in this secluded corner of the campus. As we walked through the cemetery my 11-year-old son said, "Dad, if it looks like I'm crying, it's just because I have something in my eye." I looked at him through tears of my own and simply said, "I understand."

And so I reflect upon how different the picture in 2006 is than it would have been in 1936. In 2006 an adoptive parent with two sons walks through a campus, thinking of the more than 10,000 "wards of the state" who called this "home." In 1936 the grounds were filled with nearly 500 children, a very few who would have been adopted, a fair number of whom would have been "placed out" in one arrangement or another, and a large number who would know no other mother than the "matron" of his or her cottage, no other father than the administrators of the school, no other home than the institutional walls, bedding and clothing that comprised life in the State School. In 2006 my children and I can be visitors, walking back to our own car when we finish and drive home to a comfortable house with people who love one another, to a relatively "ordinary" life.

Like 1936, however, there are thousands of children who continue to linger in foster care, an institutional placement of yet another kind. While in seventy years we as a society have progressed in our thinking about children's issues, we have still not come far enough. When 120,000 a year call the impermanency of foster care "home," we have not done enough.

Monday, October 16, 2006

It's Not the Behavior We Love

Life with our seventeen-year-old son diagnosed with FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) is always a bit perplexing. I should have known from the beginning that our lives would be forever different with his presence in our family. The early signs should have alerted me: the scattered thoughts (attributed by professionals at that time to ADD or ADHD), the impulsivity, the lack of trust and attachment, the destructiveness, the lack of a sense of cause-and-effect and consequence. In those early years I attributed his dysfunctioning to early years of trauma and neglect, and I believed ardently that in time his behaviors would change, that he would feel comfortable in our family eventually, and that our consistent, patient, disciplined work of parenting would have some effect.

That was nearly nine years ago. And Mike's behaviors have not changed. He is still impulsive, distractable, scattered, lacking in trust and attachment and lacking a sense of cause-and-effect and consequence. Along the way I have had to decide whether to love the child or to love his behavior. This has been a most difficult task, because we parents have been socialized to believe that "good parents" create "good kids." When kids do not behave in socially appropriate ways or when they choose paths their parents have not traveled nor desire for them to travel, the tendency is for us to ask: "Where are the parents?"

And, to be sure, there are many situations in which ineffective or non-functioning parents bear the the blame of their offspring's miscreant ways. It's not only birth parents who can be held so responsible; there are plenty of adoptive parents who are ineffective, too, so my words are not a blanket indictment against birth parents.

But there are a couple of things I have learned and continue to learn in my experience with a child who has FASD. I have learned, first of all, that no amount of consequence-based, love and logic, tough love parenting will alter Mike's behavior. He suffers an organic brain damage that disallows him from understanding that modus operandi. In the same way that I would not blame a child born without sight for her inability to read a written text, I cannot blame my son for the damage that occurred while he was being formed in his birthmother's womb, a supposed place of safety and security.

I have learned, secondly, that regardless of his disability, I cannot make Mike's choices for him. I can encourage him, I can point out what the right choice is and why, I can do my best to protect him from himself, but ultimately the choices he makes are his choices. When he was nine years old and found a way to poison his elementary school's air conditioning system with pepper spray he obtained at local convenience store (I have never figured out why a convenience store would sell pepper spray to a nine-year-old, but that's another topic), I felt responsible. When he destroyed any mechanical item he could his hands on until he was twelve years old, I believed I should have been able to keep him away from others' valuables. When he stole my class ring, my great-grandfather's ring and assorted cash over the years from our locked bedroom, I accepted the losses as part of the stakes of parenting a high-risk child. When he began to disappear for days at a time when he was fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, I believed we needed to intervene. Hence the numerous trips to the county sheriff's office, the uncounted trips to the juvenile delinquency center, the hapless machinations of attempting to work with county social services to obtain help for him.

But Mike is now nearly eighteen. In five months he will be, in the eyes of the society, an "adult." The choices he makes and the consequences he receives will be solely his. He will certainly blame us, as he does now. In his mind iIt has always been our fault that he steals (we don't give him enough money), that he runs (we don't give a damn about him), that he spends his time with a group of people not in his best interest (we are prejudiced against his friends). I have learned after nine years that there is only so much blame any one or two parents can rightfully assume, even in the best of situations.

And finally, I continue to learn that it's not Mike's behavior I love. It is Mike I love. He can choose for himself (however inadequate his capability to do so) what he wants to do. He can decide to ridicule us, blame us, reject us, poison his siblings with words of derision about us, and ultimately leave us.

But there is one thing he cannot do. He cannot make me not love him or care about him. The years ahead will be even more difficult than the years past as he attempts to establish some independence in his life. The challenge will be enhanced because he has little attachment or connection to us emotionally. His dubious choices will likely get him into further legal trouble. His behaviors will catch up to him in ways that will always surprise him. He will be angry and destructive. And he will blame us.

But it's not his behavior we love. It is Mike we love.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Myth of Security

I confess that one of the hardest parts of my journey as an adoptive parent is the lack of security involved in it all. Perhaps it's only an illusion, but I think parents who have the opportunity to raise a child from birth may feel more secure in their role. In a normal, relatively healthy family a sense of attachment develops between baby and parents that is so normal and undistinguished it remains unrecognized. In birth families there is a general sense of awareness regarding the child's life ... one or both parents remembers the day of the chid's birth, the child's first footsteps, the acquisition of language. In birth families the child and parents grow together in a relatively seamless fashion as day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute the relationship naturally grows, develops and emerges. This means that by the time of adolescence -- while adolescence is a painful transition for all children and those who love them -- a parent has some sense of security in enduring or encouraging the necessary steps a child takes toward self-differentiation and independence.

Certainly, even in the healthiest of birth families, there is no ultimate security. Bad things happen even in the best of situations. The child may contract a dread disease which becomes fatal and a parent recognizes the fragility of life. Or a child raised by even the most moral, committed parents can choose to throw away his or her future with the cliche parental "dreads" -- chemical use and dependency, a too-early pregnancy, or petty criminal activity. So, I understand, of course, that no family is guaranteed security when it comes to their children.

The challenge for me, though, is that even the most rudimentary expectations concerning security may not exist for adoptive parents, especially adoptive parents of older children. We do not have the power that memories of the "first days" hold ... we do not have pictures of the first step, we do not remember the first words, we cannot hold on to a strong history of healthy attachment. We do not have the benefit of a clear picture of emotional, physical or mental health histories and how these might inform the nature of our child. In the midst of the adolescent and young adult crises common to all children and parents, adoptive parents do not have the luxury of reflecting upon better days -- often there are few or no "better days" to which to go.

It creates a real sense of insecurity and anxiety to never really know how much, if any, difference your work as a parent has made in your child's life. And while I suppose that is a concern common to all parents, I think it is more acutely felt in the life of the adoptive parent.

The truth of the matter is that life is fleeting and that security is tenuous for any of us, whether parent or no parent, whether adoptive parent or birth parent, whether child or senior citizen. Ultimately, we do not have the final say, and we learn to trust in Someone beyond ourselves if we are to survive.

I am struck by the power of these words by Helen Keller (whose history of mal-attachment deserves a serious look by any adoptive parent):

Security is mostly superstitious.
It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either daring adventure, or nothing.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Oh, Yeah, That's Right ...

I have, admittedly, a very full life, which for an introvert is something of a conundrum. We who value our interiority and find solace in moments of personless peacefulness often become resentful when life is too full. My life over the past few months in moving to a new church assignment, initiating change and managing the discontinuity within my life, my family's life and the congregation's life can be overwhelming. The challenges of adoptive parenting, in addition, present a unique slant on my modes of existence.

And tonight I am tired. I have been tired all day. It was after 2:00 AM this morning that I was finally able to sleep, and I was up again by 6:10 AM to start my day with the kids before school. Wednesday's are killer days for me with church activities and teaching three separate confirmation classes from 6:30 - 9:00 PM. Tonight's seventh and eighth grade classes were more unruly than usual, with incessant chatter and socializing that threatened to get the best of me. I persevered through the seventh graders, but the eighth graders were able to leave twenty minutes early because I had exhausted my efforts, and I wanted them to be able to leave church with a relatively positive feeling. Tonight's ninth graders (the final confirmation class of the evening) were surprisingly cooperative, although predictably chatty, but we were able to accomplsih what I set ot to do, and they were done about five minutes early.

They rushed off into the autumn air while I stayed behind the check that all the lights are out and that the windows are shut. Walking through the darkened corners of the hallways leading to my office, I asked myself, "What's this all about? Does this really even matter that much?" And I was making the mental conclusion that there's good reason why many pastors endure confirmands for one year or less, attempt to entertain them and then move on.

In my mental reverie I did not immediately notice the ninth grader cavorting up the stairs leading to my office. The student caught my attention, "Hey can I say something to you?" Momentarily taken aback (after all, the ninth graders had been saying stuff for most of the past hour in my presence, both to me and to others), I responded, "Sure." "I've got something I really, really need to talk about, and I haven't told anyone else." "OK," I said, not needing to encourage further words. "I just found out today that my friend has been using drugs, and I've just got to get it off my chest." I aksed the individual what the friend was planning to do about his situation. "I think he wants to quit, go into rehab or something." "That takes a lot of courage and support," I offered. "Yeah." "And so," I said, "what are you going to do about it?" "What do you mean?"

"What I mean is this: how are you going to be able to help your friend?"

"Well, I'll stick with him and be supportive and stuff."

"And you're strong enough not to do what he's doing?"

"Yeah. I've been offered a lot of times before, and it's dumb. I'm not going to do it."

"Well, he's going to need some good friends in his life if he is going to change."


I told my heart-broken confirmand (whom I've known now less than a month), "I'll pray for him and for you, that together you'll be able to get beyond this."


As he bounded out the shadowed church doors to rejoin friends, I remembered why it is that I do this, why I have committed years of my life to serving others in God's name and, in particular, why I have devoted so much of my time and attention to youth over the years.

"Oh, yeah, that's right," I say to myself at this end of this long day. "That's why I do this."

Nature or Nurture?

It is a hot October night in Minnesota. Yes, you read that correctly. It is not typically hot in October in Minnesota, but today it was nearly 90 degrees and as the sun faded into the horizon and as the clouds billowed above cooler temperatures have been invading, but not rapidly enough. My kids tonight all complained about how hot it is, and how they can't sleep and how they can't wait for winter (mark those words for a few weeks from now). It is too hot, and my mind is too alert for me to sleep. My wife often chides me for being able to sleep no matter what and often says as I am drifting off to sleep, "Good night, I love you. hope you sleep well, why I lie here awake." Tonight Claudia is out of town, but I am as insomniacal as she, so I write.

It has been a very strange day in our family. Everything seems akilter. The weather is odd. Our kids seem disoriented from the warmth and the change in routine (when mom is not home things do not go the same way they do as when she is home. You can guess who is the enforcer and who is not). I had a challenging IM "conversation," interspersed with three intense cell phone conversations, with our third-year college son. It all began with his terse IM to me:

Terroryzer: dad facebook is for college kids
BAFletcher: pardon?
Terroryzer: why do u have facebook
BAFletcher: I do not have facebook.
Terroryzer: oh
Terroryzer: well there is somebody with you name adding people
BAFletcher: why do you think i have facebook?
Terroryzer: its pretty funny
BAFletcher: what do you mean?
Terroryzer: somebody has a picture of you and is adding friends on facebook
BAFletcher: and facebook is not only for college students. i know adults who have it.
BAFletcher: And who do you suppose that might be?
Terroryzer: i have no idea

This was the conversation at about 5:00 PM our time. I didn't think too much of it, but curiosity got the best of me, so I hopped on my web browser and discovered that non-students are now able to be on Facebook (at its origin, I believe, it was simply for college students, but the scope has since broadened). I signed myself up for a legitimate Facebook page and looked "myself" up. It was, indeed, a picture of me along with details about our family and my vocation that were too detailed to make me very comfortable.

So a little later I IM'd our son to let him know that I now have a Facebook page and that I wanted to be his "friend." I knew, frankly, that such a request would send him reeling because we have believed for sometime that the persona he wishes us to know and the persona he wishes others to know are two very different identities. While I won't go into all the gory details, we agreed with Kyle three years ago that we would help him finance his education at a private college if it met our criteria, which were fairly specific with regard to spirituality and Christian lifestyle. And I should add, in our own defense, that the University Kyle attends is not in any sense fundamentalist or unwieldlingly conservative. But I digress.

As predicted, my request to become his "friend" created an emotional frenzy I have not been partner to with him in some time. He insisted that there was nothing on his Facebook page that would cause us to trust him less and that for us to question his trustworthiness was tantamount to permanent parental rejection. Or, rather, I think it went something like this, after I indicated that since he already has 248 "friends" who are able to see his profile on a regular basis, I would be unable to send a $1500 tuition payment if he was unable to "befriend" me on Facebook:

Terroryzer: and you will be breaking a contract and lossing a son
BAFletcher: if you have nothing to worry about you have nothing to worry about.
Terroryzer: your choice
BAFletcher: No, Kyle, you will make the choice.
Terroryzer: and I am 100% serious right npow
BAFletcher: You are overreacting to this.
BAFletcher: there must be some very embarrassing stuff on there if it's that big of a deal to you.
Terroryzer: no theres really not
Terroryzer: its just you invade to much of my privacy
BAFletcher: then why would you lose $1475 and your father over it?
Terroryzer: i get no privacy with you
Terroryzer: i would lose you as a dad
Terroryzer: because you give me no privacy
BAFletcher: you said we would lose a son.
Terroryzer: i am intitled to some
BAFletcher: Idon'twantto lose a son.
Terroryzer: thats what I mean
BAFletcher: Privacy is in the midst of 5 or 5 people. Not 248

And so we continued our delightful dialogue for a number of minutes. I won't bore you with needless details, but I wanted Kyle to understand the nature of trust, how it is formed, developed and supported in relationships. The fact is, I'm not that interested in Kyle's Facebook page. I am, however, interested in his response to my request to be his "friend."

BAFletcher: I don't want to be messed with ... I want honesty.
Terroryzer: i want to be trusted
Terroryzer: guess we both have wants
BAFletcher: I've been trusting you a long time ... and now you are making me believe I might have been wrong.
Terroryzer: no u dont
Terroryzer: u say that but u really dont
BAFletcher: So you shouldb e able to trust me enough to invite me to be your friend.
Terroryzer: u go behind my back and use your sources to see if what I say is true
Terroryzer: u really dont believe me straight up
BAFletcher: You're the one that IM'd me about this.
BAFletcher: I didn't initiate this. Your friend [B] did. Talk to him about misusuing trust.

The conversation continued -- Lord, did it continue -- but the conclusion is that I am now a friend of Kyle's on Facebook. And I probably won't even bother to look at his profile and wall all that much, but I want him to have some sense of accountability, to know that even at nineteen years of age his parents are concerned with his continuing moral development and that what he purports to be true on Facebook needs to be the same story he tells us. He is caught in that time of identity development where he is not sure who he is and is doing his best to play at least two fields, so I struggle with that. I would rather, I think, that he be one or the other -- positive or negative -- and be honest with me about it than to lead me to believe something that may or may not be true.

And, as usual, his mother has pegged the issue quite well. Her contention, and I agree, is that this really is a spiritual issue. He is trying to figure out how to integrate in his life what his parents (who have only been his parents from the age of 11 to the present, a mere eight years) have sought to build into his life and what those around him are inviting him to believe. It is a decision that he will need to make for himself, but his parents will continue to press him.

Which brings me to the point of this blog, albeit in a circuitous fashion. Today I attended a very interesting lecture at Gustavus Adolphus College's annual Nobel Conference. Today's speaker, J. Michael Bishop, 1989 Nobel laureate in physiology/medicine, gave a remarkably relevant lecture on the human genome project. While much of the biological depth is lost on me (I'm much more of a Humanities-oriented individual myself), what he had to say about nurture versus nature captivated me.

He predicts that one of the outcomes of the human genome project (in which every genetic code will eventually be mapped and identified) is that we will finally have an answer to the age-old nature versus nurture theory. He was unwilling to say what the outcome might be, but he was clear that genetic research leads him to believe that the reason any of us do what we do is not related simply to genes, nor is it primarily attributable to environment. It is, rather, a deeply complicated, complex weave (my words, not his) of both that result in how we become in our lives. The hope for me in his comments is this. In the past few years I have migrated rather dramatically in my own mind to the "nature" side of the equation. After years and years of careful, intentional, deliberate and committed work with my children, the frustration level reached the point for me that I figuratively raised my hands in exasperation and said, "It's genetic, and there's very little I can do about it." While I have continued to love my children, I began to slip into a helpless mode of beieving very little of what I've tried to do has mattered, especially in the lives of my older children (who have been with us the least time).

Bishop's talk today, helps me to believe that there is yet power in environment. Genes hold strong sway in all of our lives, but environment makes more a difference than we may ever fully understand. If I understood him correctly, Bishop also put forth the idea that genetic impulses and interactions are not static (that is, unchanging) but that they are dynamic (changes occur within the genes and further influence other systems in the body). This is hopeful to me, and it renews my desire to believe that genes may not hold all the answers to the eventual outcomes of my children's lives.

So, Kyle, although you will likely never read this -- but hey, maybe I could post it or its web address on your facewall now? -- be assured of at least this one thing. Until the day I die -- and maybe not even after that -- I will do all I can to be a father that influences, urges and reminds you that you are a much better person than you may want others to think you are. And while you will make the choices you feel you need to make in your life, your father will never abandon you -- even when you threaten, cajole and insist on it.

Nature or nurture -- birth parents or adoptive -- your years at home with us or your relative independence today and in the future -- yes, my son. All of the above.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Not Always Mine ...

As I type these words I am sitting at a picnic table in Minneopa State Park. It is a tranquil autumn day, and it is only I and our household pet, Gizmo occupying space on this precious, fleetingly marvelous October morning. The hardwood trees, and they are mostly hardwoods in this part of the world, are festooning the glories of creation with hues subued – languishing yellows, diminishing oranges, autumnal browns – and with hues majestic – piercing reds and tantalizing scarlets. Here we sit beneath the luxuriant umbrella of cream-streaked blueness called sky and, as Iisten, I hear the periodic pattering of leaves dropping from their long-past-summer haunts. As I reach to take a drink from my orange Nalgene water bottle, I see two ladybugs, their appearance in Minnesota’s early October morning as much as a surprise to me as their near-match with the color of the bottle.

Today I am grateful for the flexibility my schedule allows. To be sure there are many ways in which my life as a pastor are clinched by the expectations of others – the need, for example, to be present and prepared for a funeral or a wedding – and the responsibilities of the vocation – nearly every Sunday I know exactly where I will be for the entire morning and sometimes the early afternoon. There are moments when the regimentation of my vocational life frustrates me and boxes me in, but on days like this, when I can bring my “work” with me and glory in the gifts of creation, I feel blessed. My “work” today is both specific and non-specific. It is specific in that I have working on worship plans to take our community of faith through November. It always feels like an accomplishment to have selected the texts from which I will preach, the hymns which we will sing, and at least a tentative sense of flow for months ahead. In a non-specific way it is an opportunity for me to escape the tyrrany of the telephone, the cell phone, email and instant messenger. In the minutes that flow by I have the luxury of feeling less anxiety and tension surrounding my vocational life.

And it’s not just my vocational world that finds healing in these moments of stepping into the homeopathic merits of nature. I reflect upon my life as a parent, and my work as an adoptive parent. You notice that I separate the two, at least at this moment, because it is sometimes easier for me to relish my parental role if I can identify the commonalities all parents face. All parents, whether adoptive or not, deal with the challenges that the adolescence of their child/ren brings ... peer pressure, increasing independence, defiance, a growing sense of self-awareness, questions about life’s meaning, purpose and direction. And really, while those parts of parenting have their own unique stresses, it is a common “dilemma” (if you will) of all parents, anywhere, at any time. It is not “work” in the same that the adjectival layer “adoptive” can create.

Perhaps I am unusual in this regard, but my role as “adoptive” parent is work for me. The mental reminder that my children do not share my genetic heritage (for which I am, ambiguously and alternately, paradoxically, grateful and resentful) adds a layer of questioning I might not otherwise exhibit. So, when our seventeen-year-old son leaves on a Friday night and doesn’t show up until early Sunday morning (with no indication during that time where he has been), I have to wonder whether it’s a simple parenting dilemma, complicated by his FASD diagnosis, or whether it is more than that. Or when our twelve-year-old daughter, who is Hispanic by birth and African-American by fascination, reports that her junior high dance was “too white and too childish with kids’ music,” I wonder about the complexities of my possible responses. I could defend the need for a school to provide appropriate music, or I could remind her that in the community in which we live her high school is one of the most diverse for miles around. Or I can simply say and mean it, “You’re right. The DJ in your school last year is about the best there is around.” When helping others to understand our ten-year-old’s profane outbursts is it enough to be informative (“We want you to understand that one of his issues is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and sometimes it’s hard for him to stop saying what he knows he shouldn’t”) or does it need to be augmented (“We have reason to believe that he may have some brain dysfunction as related to what we think to be his birth mother’s chemical use and his birth father’s developmental delays”). To be an adoptive parent is work. To be honest, authentic and yet ethical and respctful regarding our children’s birth origins involves a series of tough calls.

I do my best to rely upon the side (if there is a “side” in such discourse) that respects birth heritage and birth parents (honestly without diminishment or disparagement) and honors years to which I was neither partner nor witness. If I love my children, who happen to be adopted, I need to find a way to love those who brought him or her into this world. I need not love their dysfunctional lifestyles, nor their abusive or neglectful patterns, nor their disregard or resentment that “someone else” is raising “their” child/ren. But I can learn to love them and respect them for who they are ... the biological progenitors of those whom I call “sons” and “daughters.”

As my children grow older day by day I realize the significance of my attitude toward their “first” parents. Whether I articulate those feelings or not, my deepest perceptions are bound to appear ... it might be in my approach to discipline, to my own unrecognized racial or socioeconomic biases, to my hope or lack thereof in regard to their own futures.

It’s kind of like the trees that surround me on this warm fall day as they vividly display for me the passing of time. What I see with my eyes today are the trunks, the branches, the leaves. The leaves, especially, remind me of transition as they fall to the ground where they will become mulch to nourish the earth. In a few weeks the trees will be bare and weather the winds, snows and cold temperatures of an upper midwestern winter. But beneath what I can see there are roots. The roots hold the structure of the tree in place, they provide nutrition and stability. Without roots these trees will have no green leaves to spring forth in April. But with roots there is promise of a future.

It’s like that with my children, too. What I experience with my senses most frequently are the words I hear from them, the ways they interpret life, the successes and failures they acquire as they grow and develop. There are moments when I see the full, healthy glow of success in their lives, and moments when I painfully witness the “shedding” of a previous way. And beneath it all are their roots – those which are genetic and those which have been grafted in by adoptive parents. It is not a single root system – it is neither “birth” nor “adoptive” roots – but a complex, intricate combination of both, by now so woven together with life experience and forgotten moments that they can never be separated. Nor should they be.

In moments like these I am reminded to thank the Creator, for I love these complex, multilayered, resilient children, who have not aways been mine, but who have always been God’s.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Dear Mike's Birth Mom

Dear Mike's Birth Mom ... Over the past eight years I have mentally "written" you many letters about your two birth sons whom we have been raising for nearly nine years. There have been moments when I have "written" to tell you about their successes, like Kyle's graduation from high school and Mike's athletic abilities. There have been many times when I have asked myself what you might be thinking these days as you remember "our" (for they surely are yours as much as my wife's and my) sons ... and I have wanted to know what they looked like when they were infants. Did they have lots of hair or little hair? When did they take their first steps? What were their first words?

And, I must confess, there have been many times when I have wondered about your own circumstances. In my less gracious mental moments I have wondered, "Why did you drink and drug when Mike's young life was growing in your womb?" Was it because you did not realize soon enough you were pregnant? Or were chemicals controlling your life more than your sense of reason? Or was life so difficult that you had only this predictable means of escape? Mike's birth mom, there have been times when my frustration and anger with you have caused me to lose sleep. Why were you unable to provide the early care and nurture your little boys needed in the early years of their life?

But tonight, Mike's birth mom, I need to tell you that I sat with "our" red-headed son in the emergency room of our local hospital. When I picked him up tonight from his skateboarding afternoon with "new friends," I could tell immediatley something was wrong. "Our" son's speech was slurred, his gait was unpredictable and unsteady, and he was more confused than usual. His pupils were dilated, his mouth dry and his affect drowsy. I asked him if something was wrong and his terse answer was, "No, I'm just tired." I knew from the moment I picked him up to bring him home that something was amiss. And so I prodded further. I said, "Mike, you are not acting like yourself. I know that something is wrong. You need to tell me." He was reluctant to say much, so I began to ask specifically: "Mike, have you been drinking alcohol?" (I knew the answer would be "no" because I could smell nothing on his breath). "Mike, have you been smoking weed?" (I was pretty sure the answer there was "no," too,' because I couldn't smell any marijuana scent). "Mike, have you put anything in your body tonight?" Finally he said, "Coricidin. My friends dared me to take some, and so I did." My immediate follow-up was, "How many did you take, Mike?" "I don't know. I can't remember."

I told him that we would need to go to the Emergency Room to ensure his safety. He was belligerent about that thought. I insisted that we needed to go there, and I was able to persuade him into the car. I have to tell you, Mike's birth mom, that I saw a vulnerable side of "our" son that I have never seen before. He was very concerned that he would be able to come home after our visit to the ER, and periodically, repeatedly asked, "Are you and mom mad at me?" I assured him of our love, and told him that he would be coming back home with us when his hospital visit or stay would be over. He said, more than than once, "I didn't mean to do it. I didn't know this would happen. I'm really sorry."

And you know what, Mike's birth mom, for the first time in a long time I believed him. I believed him because I saw the depth of fear in his eyes, the primordial sense of anxiety that formed his psyche long before my wife and I met him. I saw not a seventeen-and-a-half-year old adolescent male, but I saw a child reaching out for comfort and assurance, concerned that somehow his latest impetuous move would remove him from his family and deteriorate any sense of confidence we have recently expressed in him.

And as I sat there, hour after hour, visiting with him between confused exchanges and momentary lucidity, I began to realize how vulnerable you must have been in your life, those many years ago. How confused, how helpless, how hopeless you must have felt trying to raise four boys in the midst of domestic tensions, economic deprivation and chemical dependency. I feel less of a need to blame you for Mike's disability, because I wonder if you might have been similarly impaired in your life.

Living with "our" son Mike will always be an enterprise requiring day-to-day faith. We walked many, many emotional miles with him in the course of his life with us, and I acknowledge that we will walk many more in the years to come. There was a time when I resented you and what I perceived to be the damage you created for "our" son. But tonight it is not resentment but compassion I feel. I do not pity you, nor do I excuse the choices you made that so significantly have impacted "our" sons. But I do feel compassion because tonight I believe I have experienced some of the pain you must have felt ten and more years ago as you did the best you could with what you had to raise four very challenging boys. I feel compassion because for the past nine years my wife and I have done the very best with what we have to love and to nurture "our" son Mike. And even then it has not been (and will not be) enough to ensure he makes wise choices in his own best interest.

And so it is not parental competence that I rely upon tonight. It is not a "successful adoptive placement" that rings out in these early morning hours. It is compassion and love. Because I love "our" son my heart fills with compassion for him ... and for you. I believe -- as hard as it is for me to understand -- that when Mike says he really didn't know what he was doing tonight, this is as honest as he can be. Exacting consequences upon Mike have been unsuccessful. Getting angry and expressing disapproval have only further scarred his already deep emotional scar tissue. So, Mike's birth mom, tonight I will rely upon love and compassion ... for him and for you.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Nothing At All

Tonight I am in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, awaiting a meeting involving others from across the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. I have been involved in such leadership for the past five years, so I have driven many miles to fulfill my responsibilities in that time. Until our move this past June my drive was 240 miles one way, so driving time was the equivalent of one work day. Now my drive time is 1-1/2 hours one way, so until I get used to the diminished transit time I always feel a little surprised when I hit the southern suburbs of the metro area in such a short period of time. While I do miss the wide, expansive prairie lands of my former sojourn, I am soothed by the fewer miles to travel.

This has been a day of surprises in other ways as well. Knowing that I would be here for my meeting tomorrow, I contacted our oldest son a few days ago to see if he would like to get together. I promised Mike (our seventeen-year-old and birth brother to Kyle, our nineteen-year-old college junior) that he could make the trip with me. He hasn't seen Kyle since Christmas, and I thought it would be a good way to encourage Mike's continuing progress. Our trip to the Cities was uneventful. Mike was feeling sick, so he was quiet most of the way. I had wondered how the trip might go, and given Mike's propensity for argumentation, I worried a bit. Surprise number one: it was a pleasant, non-descript trip.

We arrived at Kyle's apartment, picked him up and headed off the eat dinner together. Again, I was wondering how things might unfold as Kyle and Mike talked together for the first time in nine months. Their relational style is often acrimonious and provocative, so I waited to see. Surprise number two: the conversation was appropriate, tinged with their historical relational patterns, but tolerable.

Mike and I decided to let Kyle decide which movie we would see after dinner. He announced to us that we would be seeing Grid Iron Gang, which sounded like a football movie to me. Those who know me can attest that I am one of the world's worst sports fans, so I didn't know what to expect. Surprise number three: the movie turned out to be quite good, and while football was the pretext, it was really a movie about redemption.

While I won't spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it yet, I especially was touched by two profoudn moments. The first occurs in the opening frames where this text (or something like it) appears: "Each year 120,000 youth find themselves in juvenile detention facilities across the country. Of those released each year, 75% will find themselves back in custody or dead [within a specified period of time I no longer remember]." The voice-over then says (and I paraphrase): "For some sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, a poor choice such as a speeding ticket or showing up drunk at prom or breaking curfew results in the loss of driving privileges or grounding. For other youths the result of a poor choice results in incarceration." Surprise number four: I am sitting in a theater next to my near-model nineteen-year-old son and his recently-released-from-a-Department-of-Correction-Facility seventeen-year-old birth brother, about to view together with them a movie very close to Mike's recent experience.

The theme of redemption is a multi-layered one in this film. The incarcerated youth who through the efforts of their "coach" find new life, the "coach" himself who finds an opportunity to forgive, and the system itself find opportunities for redemption. Surprise number five: I enjoyed a football movie ... although, as I said, it really wasn't as much about football as about the salvaging of precious, though misguided, young adolescent male lives.

The second scene I found so moving involves the coach's mother, whom we observe through the film as she leaves behind her life due to a terminal illness. In one of their final conversations, the coach hears these words from his mother: "You are my greatest achievement in life. I have raised a good man." I am still struck by the powerful simplicity of her words. Surprise number six: My greatest achievement in life will be raising good men and women. There are so many things I wish to accomplish in my life. Perhaps that need is all the more aching these days as my 42-year-old consciousness reaches the mid-point of its life. But perhaps if the final words slipping from aged, parched lips on that day long in the future could be: "You [my children] are my greatest achievement. I have raised good men and women" I will find fulfillment.

There is little else that is so foundational to the "good life" as children who have been redeemed from histories of neglect, abuse and hopelessness. In the midst of day-to-day living with ten children I forget this truism that a very wise woman repeats to me as a mantra: "We don't parent for joy now. We parent because it's the right thing to do; the joy will come later."

As we left the theater and traveled back to Kyle's apartment (where Mike will spend the night with his older brother whom he has loved and respected from the beginning) I was tempted to say a lot. I wanted to tell Mike that I was as proud of him for completing his Thistledew program as the coach in the movie had been proud of his "boys" for bonding together as a team. I wanted to remind Kyle of just how much Mike idolizes him and how the night they have together could be an opportunity to reinforce good values. I wanted them to realize how fortunate all humans, and especially they, have to experience "redemption."

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that post-movie moralizing is irritating and counterproductive for late-adolescent males. There are moments that a father and two sons spend together that are better left unanlyzed and unprocessed, so that the raw material of the evening can be subliminally digested without parental intrusion. And so, the final and number seven surprise: sometimes it's better to simply say nothing at all.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Five Days and Holding

I wish I knew the secret of helping post-institutionalized youth find success on "the outside." That's the general concern I have, but really my issue is much more focused: how to assist our seventeen-year-old son to find success after two years of involvement in the social services and Department of Corrections systems. I am trying to practice the recovery community's foundational premise "one day at a time," but as each day wears on I find myself becoming a little more anxious. It has been five days now that Mike's behavior and choices have been above average to excellent. He is focused, content and settled.

Yesterday while at my grandmother's funeral Mike was sitting next to me and on his own reached out to touch my shoulder. This seems like a small, forgettable, thing to "ordinary" parents, I suppose, but to parents of an attachment-disordered child it is really rather significant. I looked at him and said, "Mike, I'm really glad you're back home. I've missed you," to which he responded with his most charming smile, "I'm glad to be home too."

My fear, I suppose, is that these first five days' success will soon crumble into decline. My fears, unfortunately, have good reason to exist, based upon our times together with Mike. The pattern has typically been a pleasant return to home, an initial successful period of time, followed by a progressively deteriorating series of choices on his part, leading to utter collapse. My heart tells me that this time could be different.

Mike is, after all, seventeen-and-a-half years of age, and even though he functions more like a fifteen-year-old at this point, even fifteen is a better place to be than twelve or thirteen developmentally. Then there is the reality that he has finally completed a program successfully and this, certainly, adds to his feeling of success. And he expresses dread and revulsion for the experiences he had while in the county's care ... his position is that social workers don't really care, that foster care wasn't at all helpful for him and that group home living is sucky. We haven't tried to challenge his assertions (not that we think all social workers are uncaring or that foster homes are a farce or that group homes serve no purpose) because we have been hoping for years now that Mike will figure out that having parents who love him and a home to live in are better options than any of the others that he has tried over the years. He speaks of the need to finish high school, get a job and go to college so that he can have a successful life. He articulates in his written work that he needs to trust his parents because "they have successful lives." For the first time in years we have no official social services or Department of Corrections involved in our family's life as a result of Mike. We now live in a new community where Mike can make a new start if he so chooses. There are many reasons to believe that he may well be on his way to a new kind of life. But still I wonder.

I hope, I pray, that as each day of success adds up a new foundation is being created in Mike's life. Today I am exercising more faith than I've ever pushed forth to remain positive, kind and consistent in my approach with Mike. It is all I can do not to succumb to my anxieties and simply let go as so many parents do at this point in their child's life. Even the best of parents with the most health relationships find hanging on too tightly to a seventeen-year-old a misguided quest. I struggle with knowing whether to think of Mike as nearly an adult or to think of him as developmentally about fifteen. I know all too well how this has gone in the past, and I so want to avoid that.

My personal strategy at this point is to remain as unemotional with Mike as possible, to be clear with expectations but not shrill or attacking. I have done well so far with gentle reminders and he has responded appropriately, but I wonder how far my patience will go. So far, at five days and holding, my patientce hasn't begun to be stretched, but that time may come, and I dread it.

So, while I am internally anxious and doing my best to remain positive, the tyrrany of the past haunts me. I believe that this is what many parents experience, and I wonder if it might be enough simply to rejoice, minute by minute, day by day, in observing what most families take for granted: healthy communication, clear expectations expressed and followed, freedom with boundaries and trust developed through interruption and reconciliation. Is it enough to rejoice that Mike has acted "normal" for the past five days?

I suspect it is. And so today I rejoice that God is giving us yet another chance to believe Mike's future may be more optimistic than his track record leads us to believe. Maybe it's simply necessity to believe this way. I don't know. I think I will simply call it faith and ask God to help me, one day at a time, to believe in the impossible.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

That's What My Grandmother Taught Me

Today we buried my 87-year-old grandmother. My mother and her two (surviving sisters), their husbands, my seven cousins with our combined twenty-one children, and countless relatives and family friends gathered in the church that has become, over the years, our family's "chapel" as we bade grandma farewell. It was an emotionally dense day, and I am tired tonight. While I did not officiate at the service (thankfully the three sisters chose another pastor to do the honors), I was asked to eulogize her. Here is a synopsis of what I said:

Thank you for gathering here with our family to mourn our loss. I was her first grandchild, born on her 45th birthday. You may not know know it, by my grandmother was born on her grandmother's birthday as well. So June 9th has become a memorable day for five generations in our family. As the oldest grandchild, I probably spent more time with grandma than anyone else in my early years; she was "daycare" for me. Some of my fondest memories as a child are learning from grandma's ways. She taught me to make homemade donuts the old-fashioned way ... from the dough, to the rising and the cutting and the cooking in deep fat. And she taught me how to pull taffy, a lost art on post-World War II generations. In fact, I spent so much time with grandma in the kitchen that my grandfather occasionally called me "sis." He resented, I think, my desire to cook versus trudging with him through the woods to hunt or cut down trees.

I had the opportunity to witness their very unique relationship. My grandfather was a Republican; my grandmother a Democrat. My grandfather was a chauvinist; my grandmother was a feminist. My grandfather's mother was a prim, proper woman from Illinois; my grandmother unsophisticated and plain. On the several trips I took to Illinois with them to visit my grandfather's family, I still remember the looks they exchanged with one another as my grandfather silently reminded my grandmother that his mother's pie would always be better than hers. In those years I spent a lot of time with grandma (and some with grandpa, although less because he worked out of town during the week, and we would see him only on weekends). I'm sure my cousins and sister resented at times the unique corner on the market I had, but I know without a doubt that I was not the only grandchild in my grandmother's mind. She often spoke about her other grandchildren, especially those who were miles away and who she saw only on occasional weekends or for longer periods of time during the summer. My grandmother taught me, without my ever realizing it, some important values. I suspect they stem from her own inauspicious origins.

Grandma was born June 9, 1919, and within a few days her father died suddenly and unexpectedly, her mother left with three small children and meager resources. During the early years of her life grandma lived with uncles and other relatives, who would "take in" the family for a period of time. She never said much about those years or her memories of them, but I believe they formed two of her most important traits, values that continually inform my life.

The first thing my grandmother taught me about was matriarchy. She was a matriarch, and we are a matriarchal family. The women are strong decision-makers, and the men either listen or they leave. Certainly this had a great deal to do with her early experiences in life, and there was no room in the family for deprecation due to gender. The girls, especially, were seen as valuable and as having a future. Her three daughters all completed high school and were encouraged to continue to further their lives. One of my most vivid memories in the 1980s is the time period during which my aunt Margaret (the oldest of grandma's girls) was struck with a brain aneurysm. We had learned the news via telephone, my grandmother called to talk to my mother who wasn't there at the time, and I answered the phone. In grim tones grandma told me that "things don't look good." Within a short time we headed to the Twin Cities with grandma. It was then that I discovered the deep pain that comes when a parent buries her child. I continue to maintain in my ministry that one of the greatest unfairnesses of life is when a parent must bury a child. It's not meant to be that way. In all those moments my grandmother, the matriarch, was strong and vital, although it is only in retrospect as one now in my 40s that I see just how deep her life was.

I've always been a bit troubled, frankly, by the lack of regard for institutional religion in my family. I grew up in Sunday School and learned the values of formal religion, but it wasn't a value for most in my family. I have come to discover in the past few years that my grandmother's grandfather was something of a critic of formal religion. He didn't have much time for it, and earned himself the reputation of being the village atheist. I have come to understand in my life that God's grace works in unusual ways, and that God is not limited to formal systems of religious faith. Although grandma spoke little of faith in institutional terms, the values she lived spoke deeply to an internal stream that could only be watered by a loving God, whether clearly recognized by her or not.

One of the most important values my grandmother exemplified was inclusion. In her eyes there were no "step"-children or -grandchildren in our family; there were only children for whom she would be a grandmother. There were none in or out ... we were all in, regardless of our origins or complicated histories. Her early years, I think, formed in her a deep sense to welcome and to include others. I think this is largely why it was been possible for Claudia and me to adopt ten children. As a family we are caucasian, Hispanic and bi-racial. But these identifiers never were a topic of conversation with grandma or those who talked with her. In her eyes we were simply the parents of ten special children, all of whom she knew by name (although she saw rather infrequently) and cared for by need. As recently as the week before her death she was asking about Mike, who she knew had been in a Department of Corrections work program, wondering how he was doing. Instilled in me before I had reason to know or to ask, I am the beneficiary of a legacy of inclusion, a legacy I intend to continue through the lives of my children.

As I think about it, whether she should be blamed or thanked, it is probably my grandmother's influence that pushed me in the direction of being a United Methodist pastor. Although raised in The Wesleyan Church (a more conservative version of Mehtodism) and ordained in that tradition, thirteen years ago I began the journey toward United Methodism. Just today I realized the connecting link in all of that was probably my grandmother. When grandma did choose to go to church (and it wasn't that frequently), she would pick me up from Sunday School at The Wesleyan Church and shuttle me across town to the United Methodist Church. I don't remember much about it, but I do remember that the Methodists were a little fancier than the Wesleyans. The Methodists had colors ("paraments" I later learned they were called) on the altar and the services were a bit more structured. Now, all these years later, I wonder at the ways these early forays into a different worship community engaged my young mind, resulting in my current vocational lifestyle.

In my grandmother's eighty-seven years she lived in two townships in the same county. She was born in Crow Wing County, and she died in Crow Wing County, less than seven miles from the place in which she was born. There are not many who will remember my grandmother outside of our small community, but we who knew and loved her have been forever formed with strong values that reflect her vitality, her strength and her love.

My grandmother taught me many things, but the two values I prize most are my deep appreciation for strong females and my passionate quest to include others in my life and in the community of faith. Thank you, grandma, for the seeds you have planted in my life. They are not dead; they are alive!

Today we buried my grandmother. Her earthly remains were planted in the ground. But the seeds of her life continue to grow. She is not dead; she is alive!

That's what my grandmother taught me.

Monday, September 18, 2006

When Twenty-Five Years Comes Rushing Back

Twenty-five years ago I was beginning my senior year of high school, and tonight (due to my grandmother's death) I am back in my old hometown. Because there are limited sleeping spaces at my relatives' homes, three of my sons and I are staying tonight in a motel located in a town next to the one from which I graduated high school in 1982. My high school years were not the most glorious of my life (my four years of college take that award), so I've done my very best for two-and-a-half decades to avoid my high school town. So, as I made reservations on Saturday for our overnight stay tonight, I wondered to myself if I could continue to live in obscurity and hoped silently that I would not run into anyone I knew lo those many years ago.

We arrived at the motel in question (a national chain, not a "mom and pop" operation) and entered the doors. As I walked up to the desk I caught the eye of the woman behind the counter and thought to myself, "Those eyes look familiar." She finished helping the person before us and then asked in a matter-of-fact-tone, "Do you have a reservation?" After my affirmative response she asked my last name, which I dutifully reported. "First name?" My answered response provoked a knowing look as she said, "I thought I recognized your name. Do you know who I am?"

Now, let me just say this much. I have always prided myself on knowing peoples' names. In my vocation remembering the names of people is an expectation, and I do a fairly good job, if I do say so myself. (If I were to step into one of the churches I served ten or fifteen years ago, I am confident I could immediately bring to my tongue the names of 90% of those there).

But I have always hated the question, "Do you know who I am?" And I am sure that I will hate the question even more one day when I am elderly, bedragled and memory-challenged. I never ask an elderly person I am visiting, "Do you know who I am?" I always try to identify myself immediately to avoid playing the name game.

So, on the spur of the moment, traversing twenty-five years in my mind as quickly as I could, I had to say, "Tell me more about yourself." She said, "Well, you knew my sister pretty well in high school." And immediately I remembered. The eyes should have immediately given me the information I needed, for she and her sister share the same ocular traits.

"You're Julie's sister," I replied. And then we took two or three minutes to catch up on details and lives. Her sister Julie and I were great friends when I was a senior; we even went to prom together after she insisted that the Senior Class President really needed to go to his senior prom. Although our relationship was not a romantic one, she was a very special friend and in many ways, I suppose, my first "significant other." By the time I settled into my freshman year, though, I received the prototypical letter ffrom the old hometown telling me about a new person she had found in her life. While it was not a surprise to me, I can remember even today the pain the comes from not being the one chosen, of becoming the one "freed."

Suddenly twenty-five years of my personal history came rushing back as I have reflected upon where life has taken me. It's ironic, really, how life has turned out, because Julie -- an ever-faithful Catholic -- has a "normal" family including three children, while I -- a fairly faithful Christian of the non-Catholic type -- has the more traditional large family. I find that amusing.

But what I have been reflecting on even more specifically is the whole idea of not being chosen. In the adoption world we sometimes use the language "free for adoption" to identify children whose parental rights have been terminated. I wonder if the emotional pain I felt twenty-five years (and still remember, although it does not preoccupy or plague me) after having been "freed" is akin to the pain a child feels knowing that his/her birth parent(s) is unable or unwilling to maintain a presence in his/her life.

Even after twenty-five years I remember. And I suspect I will remember in another twenty-five years. And in another, until that day when my ability to remember stalls. And I suspect my children remember, too. And will continue to remember the pain of "being freed" and having litttle or no say in the matter.

My solace is knowing that I have been chosen by a spouse who is dedicated, loving and committed. Somehow knowing that I have been so selected is more than enough to help me overcome my earlier painful emotions. And I hope that one day having been chosen will become a solace to my children, who though not of my creation have been of my own choosing.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Change Is In the Air

Yesterday we brought our seventeen-year-old son Mike home. "To bring a child home" is a phrase that adoption afficionados are familiar with. Typically it refers to the culmination of the adoption journey when "everything else" is done. "Everything else" includes the home study process (which, depending upon the agency in question, could be a cumbersome, length, irritating process), the selection process (which can take an unduly amount of time as potential parents/families are matched with child/children), the initial meeting(s) and consultations with social workers and others. Finally, when the process is over the adoptive parent(s) bring(s) "the child home." As we use the phrase in regard to Mike, however, it means we are bringing Mike home one more time, another chapter in a long saga of life which promises many forthcoming lines, paragraphs and chapters. In fifty or more years the final work will be quite something.

But, anyway, yesterday Mike graduated from Camp Thistledew, a program of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. He was one of seven young men ranging in age from 13 to 17 (Mike was the oldest in his group) whom we listened to yesterday as they gave their "graduation speech" and told us what they were "leaving behind" and what they were "taking with them" as they departed. Mike left behind "blaming others" and took with him "accepting responsibility." It was a happy day for the seven who completed the three-month program; change was in the air. The image you see on this blog is a picture of Mike as we left Thistledew (he's actually waving goodbye, not flashing a profane gesture).

As if paralleling in nature what was occurring behaviorally and emotionally, northern Minnesota is aflame the irridescent autumnal hues. In the mixed-wood forests of this part of the state the coniferous greens provide a lush backdrop for the glories of God's creation. Resplendent maples with their fiery red glow, quaking aspens glowing yellow and substantial oaks adorned in rich pumpkin surrounded us on our travels home yesterday. A warm afternoon (temperatures in the 80s), atypical of mid-September in this part of the world, made our seven-hour ride home a relatively pleasant one.

Within about two hours Mike began to challenge our values, our parenting approach and what he anticipated to be the strictures of freedom in our home. I said virtually nothing, acceding to the Claudia the conflict-ridden conversation. She maintained an impressive self-differentiated stance as Mike momentarily stepped back into time, picking up that which he had "left behind." Within an hour or so, his anxieties seemingly assuaged, we settled in for a positive return home.

Like parents the world round, we cannot predict the future. If our predictions are based upon history our outlook must be abysmal as we batten down and await the inevitable pain of one more series of failures. If however, we can maintain our stability in the midst of rage, blame and accusation we (Claudia and I) will make it. Our other children will probably make it. And Mike may make it. My optimism is tempered with reality, and I am learning more than ever the value of the Serenity Prayer.

My preferred future would be to see our situation as the seasons that surround us. I would prefer to see the next months as ones of continual, colorful opportunity for change. Even as the leaves of the trees change from the monotonous summer greens to a rich, variegated natural box of Crayons, I hope for a fall with variety climaxed by the quiet, enduring sameness of November. I crave those days of early winter where little changes, where each person goes about their daily responsibilities without trauma and surprise. Even in the quietude of winter there are moments of glorious contentment ... when the snow flies, the wind blows and schools and workplace close early, as commuters slog home through the elements, as family members stay home with no place to go. I see, and only through the eyes of faith, a day of stability for Mike, a day like like mid-April when the warm spring breezes coax into life the leaves of trees and sprigs of grass, a day when growth and maturity are as natural and as pleasant as the cycles of nature.

Change is in the air. The trees are changing. The days are growing shorter. Mike has successfully completed his program and is back home. He is invested at this moment in making progress. We are settled and happy. And for today this is enough.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

So Much Like Myself

For adoptive parents there is always surprise when a child to whom you have contributed no genetic material resembles yourself. In our family of ten children, the child who is most like me in temperament is really the most unlikely candidate. We do not share the same gender, the same ethnic roots or the same personal level of attraction. Our thirteen-year-old daughter is a beautiful (growing moreso each day) Hispanic young woman about whom we often hear, "She is very beautiful" or similar phrases. Typically Claudia or I smile as we say, "Thank you, we think so, too, even though we can claim no credit for that!"

So, it isn't in those exterior ways that my daughter and I are so much alike. It is in the interior of life, which I witnessed again yesterday. In our new community students and parents have a pre-beginning-of-school conference with their home room teacher. So yesterday morning she and I left twenty minutes early (she and I both prefer to have plenty of time, especially when encountering new situations). She was pensive and her early-morning facial expression shouted, "Don't even try to talk to me." So we rode together the two miles to her school in silence, each of us savoring the sense of peace our absence from a large, active family afforded. We parked our car in the large (by our historic standards) school parking lot, exited the car and entered the building. Her first words of the morning: "I really hate this, you know," with my nodding response, "Yeah, I know, but tomorrow it will be worth." "I suppose," with the precise exhalation -- a combination of annoyance and anxiety -- that only an estrogen-filled thirteen-year-old can muster.

I asked how she would like to structure her morning (just as I prefer it when others ask me the same question), and she told me. We then proceeded through the process -- find the home room and teacher, listen to the information, look through the multi-page folder, complete the requisite forms, visit the locker (which is always too small and requires memorizing a combination, something which causes both of us some anxiety) ... then go from classroom to classroom plotting room-change stratgegy, complaining in the process about the inconsistencies of the building plan ... having the yearbook picture taken and irritated to do so ... a final stop at the locker to leave supplies and complain one last time about its lack of space ("What am I supposed to do when I have to wear a coat to school? It will never fit in here!")

And so we departed the school, our conference and orientation complete, both of us relieved to be done but using no words to say so. The tension relieved, we were able to talk for the two-minute trip home, the exchange of information cordial and helpful, with exchanged words precise and terse without being rude.

And as I waited in the driveway for her departure and our fourteen-year-old son's arrival (he had a later conference), I thought to myself, "She is so much like myself." Perhaps that is why I don't feel the need to try so hard as a parent with her. There are moments when I feel a little guilty, like I should be spending more time with her, or engaging her in more conversation, or giving her more attention, but I am realizing that I don't feel the need to try so hard because I understand her so well that we share an unspoken number of agreements that allow us to be connected in an introverted sort of way. It means that I give her space -- plenty of it, believe you me -- and try not to question her motives. When I ask questions I try not to be intrustive or obnoxious. I have learned that even in silence we can enjoy one another's company. This is not skirting my parental responsibility or abdicating a father's role in my growing daughter's life. It is, however, like navigating the interior of my own psyche, so I must do so with care and intentionality.

In those three minutes following her departure and prior to our fourteen-year-old son's arrival in my vehicle I gave thanks to God for the gift -- the unpredictable, moody, surprisingly resilient gift -- of a teenage daughter so much like myself. Captured by the reverie of those precious seconds of time, my momentary escape was ruptured by the intrusion of our most extroverted family member opening the car door. "Hey, dad," he said in his best English-as-a-second-language manner, "What's up? Ready for the conference at my school?" As the inchoate verbal meanderings ensued, I smiled to myself and began to think about how very different from myself this one is.

But that's a story for another day.

Monday, September 04, 2006

It Won't Be Like This Forever

We are the eve of another school year. It's different this year for all of our children -- and their parents -- because we live in a new community, one that is much larger (our previous community boasted 4,500, while our new community is more like 45,000) and much more complicated (in our previous community of seven years all school-aged kids K-12 were in one building, which was two blocks from our home). Change is in the air.

Autumn always makes me a bit reminiscent. For the most part I enjoyed my educational experiences (all twenty years of them), so September is a welcome respite for me from the giddy, carelessness summer infuses into our everyday existence. And autumn always makes me a bit reminiscent because it was in the autumn ten years ago that I became a father for the first time.

By this time ten years ago we were awaiting our first foster care placement, and after more than one false start we welcomed into our lives twenty-month-old Anthony. It was an early October afternoon when he ambled into our lives. With a clarity I possess for few things past, that day has been embedded into my heart for nearly a decade.

Dressed in a three-piece blue sweatsuit (with, if I recall correctly, a yellow and red car emblazed on the front), Tony crunched his little feet through the multicolored hues cloaking the ground as he climbed the three steps to our home in small-town (population 500) Minnesota. "Well, Anthony," his social worker Diane said, "This is your new home." His bright blue eyes took in the scene around him as he trotted from room to room, surveying the landscape. He came prepared to say two words, "No" (which he has used with great alacrity all these years) and "gock" ("hot dog"). Those first weeks were so glorious. Taking him for walks around the neighborhood, washing his curly blond hair in the bathtub each night, even washing and folding (yes, I did most of the laundry in those days) the little boy clothes stirred my paternal sense of being. In the midst of those formative weeks I remember saying to myself, "It won't be like this forever."

In a few months our fledgling family grew again with the addition of Dominyk at nine months of age. From the beginning it was clear that Dominyk would be nestled much more closely under his (at first) foster mother's wings, while Tony would be the one closely attached to me. We enjoyed our time together with two little boys, but our lives were soon to change rather dramatically. In addition to another foster placement of a sixteen-year-old young man, we would welcome into our lives two older boys, Kyle (then 11) and Mike (then 8).

It seemed natural to be parents to our little boys. The people in our churches (I was serving a two-point charge at that time) enjoyed seeing little children in the parsonage, people in the community found them delightful, and strangers never had to look or question whose children these boys were. On more than one occasion someone would ask if Tony and Dominyk were twins. We would laugh knowingly, sometimes disclosing the information that we were not genetically related, sometimes simply saying, "No, they're not."

Things changed dramatically, however, with the addition of Kyle and Mike. At the time they came to live with us, Kyle was the age that Tony is now, eleven. We had never raised older children, and they both proved to be challenging. Kyle was defiant, conducted disordered, parentified and angry. Mike was a "screamer" who spent hours curled in a fetal ball shrieking at the top of his voice, often while kicking walls, doors or anything in his proximity. It seemed unnatural to be their parents. They, after all, had known other parental caretakers in their lives. The neighbors were less than enthused with their antics. People in our churches didn't take kindly to their urbanized, in-your-face interactions. We could not avoid the glance of strangers who wondered why parents would allow their children to be obnoxious, rude and publicly inappropriate. And I remember saying to myself, "I hope things won't be like this forever."

Kyle and Mike arrived home with us in January 1998 and the hard work began. Those early years were far more difficult than we were prepared to deal with. We were trained by some of the best, brighter than many adoptive parents and motivated by a deep commmitment that stemmed from our spiritual awareness. But their behavior and traumatic pasts created very hard days for all of us. In the midst of some of the worst times, I still had the solace of two little boys who knew me as "Daddy Bart" and were consistently delightful.

It was early summer a few months after their arrival that I took Kyle and Mike to a local state park where they rode their bikes for a while. We then took a hike together. Kyle, always the leader, would stride ahead, look back in disgust at Mike and me and then command us to move faster. Frustrated with our lack of diligence, he eventually fell back to our pace, Mike in the middle and Kyle and I on either side. As we walked along Mike, then nine years old, took my hand in his as we walked, an unusual action on his part because of his attachment issues and especially because his older, idolized brother was next to him. In a matter of seconds the ever-vigilant Kyle noticed Mike holding my hand and indicated clearly (in what fashion I do not recollect) his revulsion, whereupon Mike quickly withdrew his grip from mine and edged closer to his birth brother. I still remember it as an awkward, telling moment in the relationships that would continue to unfold between these two boys and their inclusion in our family. Although I tried to process the interaction logically (mentally reviewing all the clinical reasons these boys did what they did), emotionally I experienced the pain of rejection. I questioned then, as I sometimes do now all these years later, whether my presence in their life would ever mean much more to them than simply another benevolent adult to take advantage of.

When we arrived back home I scooped up one of the little boys in my arms (probably Tony, although I don't remember for certain), nestled his little soft face into mine, breathing in the baby-clean-hair scent and thought "It won't be like this forever."

Today it is eight years later. The location is a similar one. I am walking with an eleven-year-old son in a heavily wooded park in our new community. It is an early autumn evening and dusk is quickly settling. My eleven-year-old son reaches up, grips my hand, and together we walk, smelling the verdant lushness of fall, hearing the boisterous honks of Canadian geese heading south for the winter, exulting in the cool temperatures and early evening sounds. It is just the two of us, and we have been together nearly all of his life. His grip is not anxiously tight, nor is it fleetingly lax. It is the grip of a secure child who understands innately love and attachment; it is as normal and as soothing for him as it was when he was a toddler in my arms. And I remind myself, "It won't be like this forever."

Soon Tony will be too old and too independent to want to hike with me in the woods. He will be busy with his friends, with his plans, and with his interests. We may not walk together on the trails, and if we do we will not be holding hands. And it will be OK because I know that deep in his heart, and deep in mine, we will hold one another's hearts. It won't be like this forever, but tonight I am a contended, happy father, thanking God for the opportunity to hold my eleven-year-old son's hand one last time, but his heart forever.