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.