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.