Thursday, February 22, 2007

What Is Wrong With Me?

Tonight is not the first time I have asked myself that question. Although observers tell me I display a calm, cool affect most of the time, it is not because my internal being feels all that in control or free of anxiety. But I'm asking that question one more time tonight because once again I am choosing to hope that our soon-to-be-eighteen-year-old son (who is currently in a chemical dependency program) could change his ways.

And when I say I'm choosing to hope you need to know that this comes from a place not of my own making; it is surely from a deep, spiritual place that only the Creator offers. Because, from all outward appearances there is little in which to place hope. As Claudia and I pointed out to the counselors we met with today in Mike's program, his behaviors pre-date any chemical usage on his part. The challenging behaviors Mike displays today are the same that have been a part of his life since the day we met him over nine years ago. The difference is that as he has grown chronologically he has grown in his sophistication level.

At the root of his issues is his FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) diagnosis, which he received only at the age of 13. This, coupled with other diagnoses (including Reactive Attachment Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder) paints a pretty bleak picture.

Our conversation with Mike today was basically one-sided. It was one of those "intervention" conversations in which those who have been "hurt" by the addict's behavior tell him or her how it has affected themselves and their family. The challenge, of course, for someone like our son is that an intervention strategy relies upon the premise that the addict cares about those in question. I'm not sure how impactful an intervention is for someone who attachment is disordered, limited, or non-existent.

But, we went through the motions. We expressed to Mike our concerns for his well-being, our frustrations for the lies, the thievery, the manipulation of his siblings, the drug use, the disappearing for days at a time, the breaking and entering, the disrespecting of our family's boundaries. We went through the litany one more time. And, true to his designated role, Mike listened in silence to what we had to say. He was instructed not to respond to our words. His peers in the group supported what we had to say and reminded Mike that he has parents who love him and who care about him. They reinforced that he needs to really consider that we are his best option for any kind of future success.

Enough data, as you can see, for even the most positive person to nurse cynicism. Sadly, I am not the most positive person in the world, so nurturing cynicism is second nature to me.

But tonight I have decided once again that I will be hopeful on Mike's behalf. I wrote him a letter (handwritten, which is really a sacrifice for one who is so keyboard- and computer-oriented as myself), in which I offered Mike once again my love and support. And then I went on to say: "I'm coming to realize that there might not be a lot Mom and I can do for you except to continue to love you and let you know that we're not going to abandon you. Now you, of course, may decide to leave us behind -- which I hope you don't do -- but you will always be our son." I then go on to remind him that he is days away from the age of majority and that we hope his early adult years will be more positive than his late teen years have been.

"But, Mike, in order for that to happen you're going to need some adult or adults whom you will allow to guide you. You cannot do this alone -- none of us can; even the smartest people in the world need others to guide and support us. I've wished, hoped and prayed for nine years that Mom and I or even one of us could be that person for you. For whatever reasons this doesn't seem to have worked. Instead of seeing us as a resource to help you, you have convinced yourself that somehow we are not trustworthy or on your side. Please know this: I will never give up on you, even if you never trust me or believe I can be a guide for you. I will not reject you or leave you behind, but I cannot choose what you will do."

I go on to tell our son that it doesn't have to be his parents he decides to look to for guidance, but that it needs to be someone, and that he needs to choose, for his own sake, whom he will allow into his life for guidance and support.

And so, as I consider my time with Mike today and the words that I have written to him, I have to ask: what is wrong with me? The writing is on the wall ... his early years of life were traumatic, abusive and neglectful ... his diagnoses are significant ... his placement history and his rapidly growing legal entanglements will dog him for years ... he expresses no connection to us whatsoever. There are no external signs of hopefulness.

But, alas, it is for Christian people the season of Lent, a time of spiritual investigation, questing and self-denial. I will take to heart the words that I spoke to numerous individuals last night as I imposed ashes upon their foreheads: "Repent, and believe the gospel." Lord, help me leave behind cynicism and allow room for your hope to grow.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Preceded By a Romance

Last night I saw Sweet Land, an unpresupposing film capturing the World War I era of rural, agricultural Minnesota. As a native Minnesotan I can attest to the authenticity of the film, from the characterizations of the actors to the connections of land and family. It is worth seeing, however, even if you have no interest in such geo-emotional depth.

I was struck by the opening phrases at the beginning of the film. In the darkened theater I was unable to write the phrases down verbatim, and I have since spent fruitless minutes trying to acquire the exact quotation via the internet, so let me proffer my best paraphrase. [And if you can comment for me with the exact quotation, I would be grateful].

"Let us hope that in this world we all have the benefit of knowing that our existence has been preceded by a romance."

With these opening words the viewer is enveloped in a family legacy. A grandson, now grizzled with the telltale signs of midlife (balding, gray hair and beard surrounding the wrinkle-cornered eyes), is laboring to know what to do following his grandmother's death. There is the opportunity for him to sell the land, with his benefit being two million dollars. And so, in the minutes to follow, the viewer travels through time to survey the history of the land and its inhabitants,Olaf and Inge. It is only as we experience their lives together that viewers begin to understand the words I have paraphrased above.

On my way home from the theater with our second-oldest son, I thought about what I had seen and what I had read in the film's first frames. How many of my children, I wonder, have the benefit of knowing that their existence was, as the film puts it, preceded by a romance? As I mentally ticked off the names and origins of my ten children, I am dubious. Of our ten children, two were orphaned in Guatemala as babies, one born to a woman of the evening and the other to a poor, unmarried young woman who desired a better life for her son. Of our remaining eight children, all lived with birth mothers at the time they were removed from their homes; none lived with birth fathers, although several lived with "father" figures, most of whom were abusive, neglectful, or worse. As I figure it, none of my ten children have the luxury of understanding that their existence in this world was predicated by little more than casual acquiantance or passionate exchange.

And perhaps that is why I have, from the beginning of this adoption odyssey more than a decade ago, sensed deeply within such a strong need to provide something different for these children whom I now call "mine." Although I had nothing to do with their conception, birth or early months or years, I do have something to say about their future. And, the fact is, that even before I knew them so as to love them, there was a Creator who did. That a loving God affirms all of creation and particularly the young progenitors of human life is central to Christian faith. It would be appropriate to say, based on my understanding of this One I call God, that there was a romance of sorts between God and my children even in those early weeks and months of life. That God was loving them and seeking them in spite of the exigencies of life they could not control, denotes a romance even deeper than a human one.

I understand again, of course, that part of my task as a parent of children born not from my loins but from my heart, is to follow them with the kind of romance that they may not have been blessed with in the beginning. To affirm their existence, their value, their potential, their blessedness with my love and affection is not the greatest thing I can do for them. It is the only thing.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Wherever You Might Be

Twelve years ago today my second-youngest, first-arriving son was born in a smalltown county seat hospital. I was not there. His mother was not there. His birth mother, however, was very present. Anthony was born on her seventeenth birthday. Except for the first twenty months of his life, Anthony has been a part of our lives. We have watched him grow, acquire speech (and my, he has been successful in acquiring speech, as anyone who knows him can attest) and experience progressively more independence in his life. But we have heard little and known little about his birth mother.

We knew her at the tender age of eighteen, going on nineteen, when she struggled to choose between her own emerging young adulthood and her son's destiny. Her life, like her mother's before her, had been day upon day of want, distress and perplexity. Our experiences with her were limited, and we experienced her as brash, oppositional and fiercely independent. Life as she had experienced it produced a tough, stubborn, resilient young woman. She was not an evil person, not a vile person, not an unloving (albeit too young) mother. She was, simply, eighteen going on nineteen, and not well-equipped by environmental background, genetic inheritance or current circumstance to care for a young child. She was, by all measures, a child herself.

And so I understood when, after a few weeks, she simply stopped coming to visit her toddler son. I understood, but not really. I understood what it was like to be nineteen years ago, with the desire to be carefree, drinking in the lustiness of independence and cavorting in the newness of each day. But I did not understand how a mother could simply move on in life without her child.

In the course of time we met her mother, our son's birth grandmother, and began to understand pragmatically what we had learned in our academic pursuits about generational poverty and chemical addiction. Our son's birth grandmother expressed concern about her daughter and her grandson, but by her own admission did not have what it took to raise either of them. She told us how challenging Anthony's birth mother had been to care for, her staccatoed words and sunken eyes undergirding the helplessness of her life situation. And so I understood better why Anthony's birth mother decided he would be better off with us. I understood, but not really. Each day as I watched her curly-haired, blue-eyed, dimpled darling grow more and more attached to us, I felt dread in the pit of my stomach wondering when she might return to "reclaim her prize," for that is how she seemed to understand the gift of her son.

My dread would soon be replaced with joyous anticipation as the days ticked by toward the opportunity for us to adopt Anthony. The legal necessities ensued ... court hearings ... findings of neglect and abandonment ... the "termination of parental rights" ... the petition to adopt ... the adoption finalization. The recognition that this young gift plopped into our lives through the foster care system was now our responsibility and joy brings tears to my eyes and delight in my heart. (On most days; on some days it's simply tears that come to my eyes, but that's another blog for another day).

We have heard from Anthony's birth mom one time in the past ten years. About two years ago she and her sister called to alert us to her mother's death. Although we have never discovered the cause of her death or her age, we suspect it was related to lifelong chemical use and that she died far too young. Our estimate is that she was probably no more than five years older than we, which would have put her death in her mid-forties. We, of course, broke the difficult news to Anthony at that time that his Grandma "E" had died, and he broke into primal, angry, pained sobs. At the time I thought the response strange since his contact with Grandma "E" had been sporadic and limited. In a limited way I understand now that his pain at that moment was for more than his birth grandmother's demise. It was his sole connection with his birth history.

So, this morning he and I had breakfast together before school. It is a frigid, 15-degrees-below-zero kind of Minnesota morning, so the coffee shop in which we ate was sparsely populated. We had our pick of seats, enjoyed our food together, before I drove him to his school. Oblivious to my thoughts, I watched as he ate his ham-and-cheese-and-green-pepper omelet, remembering his origins, reflecting upon the past ten years, thanking God for his twelve years of life.

I looked at his curly blond hair, still wet and partially frozen from the early morning cold. I glimpsed his sparkling, bright blue eyes as they furtively darted around the room, taking in all the features. I observed his sleek, nimble fingers as they sliced eggs and created an "omelet sandwich" with his toast. I drank in the smiles in conversation, the dimpled cheeks moving with the chewing of his food, the petite, freckled nose.

I saw the physical features (and emotional exigencies as well) of his birth mother, the tender emotions of his birth father, the nervous energy of his birthgrandmother. There before me as we shared together breakfast on his twelfth birthday I was reminded of his past.

But, God love him, I also saw myself in him this morning. I saw his preoccupation with trivialities, his confounded desire to do the appropriate thing, his sensitivity to those around him. In a moment of clouded uncertainty, I saw the past and the present. And, I trust, I will continue to see the future in his life as I work to overlook his inherited challenges, discipline his acquired difficulties, and shape his yet-to-be potential. I am profoundly grateful today that his birthmother chose to give him birth, and that we are working hard to give him life.

Happy birthday, Anthony. Happy birthday, Anthony's birth mom. Wherever you might be.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Therapeutic Option for Traumatized Kids?

Last week I participated in a two-day retreat setting with several other clergypersons. We are a new group together, and part of our modality involves the presence of a spiritual director who guides our group process and is available for individual work. Among the spiritual disciples she introduced to the group is a practice popularized by the Ignatians (a Roman Catholic order) called the examen. The examen is a spiritual practice of reflection and gratitude, typically offered at the end of a day. There are several standard questions asked which are intended to prompt and review of the day's events and an intentional effort to identify God's presence throughout the day past.

What struck my attention, more particularly than the practice (which I have been aware of for some time and on occasion practice myself) itself is a children's book the spiritual director brought with her called Sleeping With Bread. I scanned the book, but I did not have time to read it cover to cover. (I have since ordered a copy and expect to read it soon).

In his preface (or perhaps the introduction, I forget which) the author explains his title. During World War II when many children were separated from their parents (either orphaned or temporarily for their own safety) they experienced, understandably, a great deal of anxiety. Often it was difficult for children to sleep wondering if/when they would see their parents again or whether they would even have food to eat. What those working with the children discovered is that if they sent the kis to bed with a portion of bread, they found security, and were much more likely to rest well and awaken refreshed the following morning, knowing that they would had been and would be cared for.

I was intrigued with the concept, because any of us who have parented traumatized (or otherwise anxiety-fraught children) know how very difficult the bedtime process can be. Even if a children with a history of trauma eventually falls asleep, the process by which this occurs can stress even the most courageous and patient parent.

So, two nights ago I decided to try to merits of the examen with our youngest son. He has recently had a medication change which has made his night time process more difficult for him and for us. Before the medication change he would announce to his when he was tired (usually before 8:30 PM) and find his way to bed, falling asleep within minutes. Recently, however, he has become more restless, unfocused and difficult. After we had sent him to bed for the umpteenth time, I decided to step inside his room and visit with him. I snuggled up to him, and asked him what was the best part of his day. He was able to readily identify it and tell me about it. After a few minutes I said, "Dom, what was the worst part of your day?" To that he also had a response, and we talked about that. Then I said, "Isn't it great to know that God is always with us, every day, in whatever happens, good or bad?" He turned his head toward me, opened his eyes with a look that said, "Where did that come from?" and responded with a long "Yeeah." (As in, "Right, dad, sometimes you bring your work home with you a little too often").

I said, "So, Dominyk, do you ever think about God during the day?" "Well, not really too much, Dad." I realized perhaps I had pushed the benefits of the examen hard enough for one night with our ten-year-old and said, "Well, that's OK. As you get older you might do that more often."

His response, in classical Dominyk fashion, was "OK, Dad." Suffusing a yawn, he said, "Good night, Dad." "Good night, Dominyk. I love you." "Love you, too."

And that was it. He rolled over, closed his eyes and mouth, and was asleep within seconds.

While it's too soon to tell whether his relaxation mode into sleep was from my simple presence with him, the coincidental timing (he was getting physically tired by this time of night, too), or due to the spiritual practice of the examen, I think there is some merit to this practice with children who experience anxiety at bedtime.

The opportunity to think about the day past -- its good and bad parts -- to let that go, remember that a loving God cares for us and loves us through the night ... perhaps the Ignatians are on to something (and have been now for some seven hundred years).