Saturday, June 30, 2007

Like I Did Something Right

I cannot count the number of times as a parent (especially as a person who became a parent through adoption) that I feel like I have not been quite adequate for the task. As an adoptive parent it seems like the ante is upped because of the need, whether internal or external, to do a good job in recompense for the early years of neglect or abuse your child has suffered. That context makes the moments that seem like failure feel all the more painful, and those moments that seem like success taste all the more sweet.

Our oldest son has brought me both the most painful and the most sweet moments of my parenting life. I have never really been able to figure out why that is, but for some reason much of my personal sense of parental worth has stemmed from my relationship with him. I wonder if it's because he was the "test case" for me early on, the difficult child who needed a father figure, and so I devoted so much of my time and energy to help form his spiritual and moral base, a gargantuan task when you meet someone only for the first time when he is eleven.

Along this journey of a near-decade I have had moments of deep and abiding pride, as well as times when I have felt an inner sinking feeling, wandering in the quagmire of self-doubt in a lonely land with few others to understand my paternal plight. The past three years have been in many ways the most difficult for me. When Kyle left home after his high school graduation in the fall of 2004 for his first year of college, it nearly killed me. For the previous six years we had nearly daily contact (although a significant amount of that time was spent embroiled in chaos or conflict of some kind), and I always had a good sense of "where" Kyle was -- geographically, emotionally, relationally. As the time came for Kyle to move into the next stage of his life, I tried to prepare myself emotionally for the sense of loss I would experience. I understood mentally and logically the need for him to take those next steps, but my I understood emotionally what a huge risk it would be. A risk for me, not for him.

The risk, succinctly stated, was this: once Kyle had the freedom (he had spent years demanding) of his young adulthood, would that mean a rejection of me as his father? For the first time since he left foster care at the age of eleven, he would be able to choose whether his family in general, and I in particular, were worth maintaining connection with. That we were helping to finance his college education certainly helped the risk factor, but didn't guarantee anything emotionally.

I tried to assuage myself with my own memories of college, perhaps the four best years of my life. I reminded myself that a kid like Kyle could have been in such a worse situation in life than attending a private college. Over and over I told myself that I needed not to hover over his life like "helicopter parents" do, but allow him the space to figure out for himself what mattered. But it has been a very difficult emotional journey for me, and frankly, it turned out to be much harder than even I anticipated.

When someone you love and have invested your life in is no longer as accessible, the anxieites increase. Worries, some substantiated and many unsubstantiated, flood the worry-ridden soul. Questions arise, often with no good answers. I spent many sleepless nights trying to move on beyond my sense of loss, wondering what the outcome might be.

Here it is three years later. And yes, I still miss having Kyle around (he's not here this summer as he decided to remain on campus and work there). I still have moments when I wonder if all the time I invested really mattered. Occasionally I still worry. But then I have moments like last night.

Yesterday after returning home from our camping experience, I headed to the metro area to pick him up for the weekend. (Long story involved here, but he asked to come home, so I offered to give him a ride). Soon after he hopped into the car we were engaged in a warm, enjoyable conversation. I listened as he told me about his summer job, the few groceries he had left (hint, hint, Dad), and what he's been doing with his friends.

By the time we stopped for dinner we were talking about his future. Kyle's major is elementary education, and while I think he will make a fine teacher, he is not so convinced. In particular, he is concerned that teaching will not provide him the income he really wants in life. So I said, "You know, Kyle, you really should consider telling other people the story of your life."

"Yeah, right, like anyone cares about that?"

"Well, in the right circles people would love to hear what you have to say, especially about how you spent a few years in foster care, were adopted at the age of eleven, and now you are successfully getting ready to complete your final year of college."

"Like who, Dad?"

"I mean like adoptive parents who are parenting challenging older children. They need to hear that it matters and that kids like you can have a successful life because of parents who don't give up and push their kids to do something good with their lives."

"You mean talk about foster care and stuff I don't even remember anymore?"

"Well, yes. And actually, if you don't remember being in foster care that's probably a good sign, because it means that since that time you've had a normal enough life to move on."

"Or it could mean that I've just repressed it."

"Yeah, Kyle, that's probably true, too. You know it wouldn't hurt you to begin working through some of that emotional stuff of your early years of life. You know hot women find emotionally aware and sensitive men very attractive."

[Large, face-filling smile and guffaw] ... "Well, I'd rather be gay."

"Are you sure you're not? That would be OK, too, you know."

"Yeah, right Dad. I think I know that I'm not gay."

"But really, Kyle, you need to think about telling others your story. It could be a really good thing for you and for other people."

"I'll think about it."

This is a just a snippet of our conversation, but I arrived home feeling like I did something right. That Kyle at the age of 20 and I, his father only nine of those years, could talk openly about subjects that matter, seems like a mark of success.

I told Kyle that it might be at some point we might add to our family again. "I told Mom after Ricardo that was it, but then I started telling her, 'You find me another Kyle, and I might consider it.'"

"Right. You want another kid who's going to be a pain in the butt for the first four years he lives with you."

"Uh, Kyle, I think it's a little more than four years. How old are you now?"

[Smiling]: "Well, if he comes at the age of eleven, he's not going to ever take my place. I'll have to show him who's in charge."

"No one is ever going to take your place, Kyle. You will always be the oldest, and no one can ever displace you."

"I'm not threatened by that, Dad."

Smiling to myself, I said, "That's good. You don't have to feel threatened," but I thought, "I'm not so sure I believe that, son. But it's OK. I'm glad you feel a little threatened, not because you will ever lose your place in my heart, but because you love me enough to wonder."

Sometimes I feel like I did something right.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Notes to Self: Camping With Young Teens

Well, we moved up our Fletcher Family Friday Fun day by twenty-four hours this week to accommodate a camping reservation I made a few weeks ago at Myre - Big Island State Park. Four of my children were able to accompany me (actually they are our four youngest kids): Dominyk (11), Tony (12), Sadies (12) and Ricardo (13). Nestled amongst the fully leaved greenery of summertime was our camper cabin (two bunk beds, one table, electricity), which became our home for a little more than 18 hours.

Over the past hours I have made some mental notes to myself about the experience:

• Never underestimate the attraction to kids of nature. We spent some very nice times hiking the trails, visiting a marsh, sighting wildlife (deer, raccoon, rabbits, squirrels, birds).

• Never overestimate the attention span of children who have an ADHD (attentin-deficit hyperactivity disorder) diagnosis. Although I never heard "I'm bored," which frankly surprised me very much, we were not able to hike as long as I wished. After awhile all tree-shaded pathways look the same to kids, even if you are hiking on a big island in the midst of a large lake.

• Always remember that cooking with an open fire takes five times as long as anything in the home. We did all right once we got the fire going (which took an immensely long time), and enjoyed hot dogs, s'mores, and fruit pies made with pie irons. For breakfast we had omelets (again with the pie iron) and some leftover items for the day before.

• Always remember that fire has an attractional quality like nothing else. Had we done no more than created a fire for our eighteen hours there, the kids would have been satisfied. Dominyk posed as the State of Liberty, and the others participated in the ever-fun game of seeing who could closest to burning a sibling. (For those of you who are safety fanatics, their fire actions were nearly always attended by their father who did his best to teach good rules about fire safety).

• Never underestimate the power of scary stories to add a dimension of excitement to the experience. After it was dark last night we lighted two small battery-operated lanterns and I read scary stories from a book I had checked out from the library. The stories were the basic scary stories we have all heard as kids, and I was franklky surprised that they had such an impact on my kids who are usually so media-ized that something as mundane as reading is seen as lackluster. In the shadows of the quiet night our scary stories were a bonding time.

• Remember that when three-fourth's of the children you camp with are boys there will be countless discussions about, references to, and guffaws about genitalia and their uses, actual or future. I probably need to elaborate no further on this subject, so I won't.

• Remember that your kids won't be early or pre-teens forever. Enjoy these moments because they are fleeting.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

You Are Not My Father, Redux

For more than a decade now I have had the opportunity to hear from the mouth of an angry child these words, "You are not my father!" Sometimes the statement is more nuanced, as in: "You are not my *real* father, you know," or "We are not even related. We have absolutely nothing in common." Of our ten children, perhap only half have used this straw-man attack in a fit of rage. But last night the percentage changed from 5/10 to 6/10.

Our second youngest son -- our twelve-year-old who actually was the first to arrive in our family nearly eleven years ago -- had been brewing a screamfest for some time, and for him some time can mean actually three or four minutes in the way other people count time. We had a friend and her three kids over for dinner, and while I was preparing to feed the thirteen of us, I could sense the emotional level increasing by the second. Within a breath's exhalation Anthony came stomping up the stairs hurling profanities and screaming a blood-curdling yelp. After continual emotional harrassment (from Anthony to our friend's twelve-year-old son), our friend's son bit Tony on the arm. Shrieking with exaggerated pain and fury, Anthony threw himself into the kitchen threatening to "****'ing kill that #$%*!" In an effort to calm his frenetic emotion I calmly reminded him that "We don't kill people when we're mad at at them, and we don't threaten them. It's not OK to do that."

I know what comes next. At least I thought I knew, because I have been well practiced with Tony for years now. This time, however, it was, "Shut the **** up. You are not even my father. My real father is so much better than you are. You don't even know how to help me."

While I was surprised at the words of his outburst, I have to say that by this point in my life that series of phrases does little to enflame me. There was a time when I would feel personally attacked and deeply wounded, but I've heard it so long and in so many different ways from so many different mouths over the years that it really doesn't even faze me anymore. I've learned to see it as a developmental stage, actually. I've observed that by the time a kid is eleven or twelve if s/he doesn't have some moments of wishing his/her parents were not truly theirs, there must be something wrong with the kid. I'm sure I'm not alone in remembering my own early adolescence and wonderingly dreaming that perhaps, just perhaps, my parents were not my *real* parents.

I suppose children who are adopted feel that this is one of the "cards" they can "play" that will really affect a parent. But for me it's been there, done that, so many times that it doesn't even bother me anymore.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Another Step on the Road to Self-Discovery

It may be that I am unusual in this regard, but I am on a continual quest for self-discovery. When I was a younger adult I recognized that to be a natural process for the time in life, but I never realized I would be asking some of the same questions again in my 40's. (Knowing what I do know about the early midlife journey, however, I understand it to be fairly typical). As an adoptive parent, I have to ask myself many times why it is that I do what I do.

I don't mean in terms of parenting approach or parental role. I'm pretty clear on why I do what I do in those realms. I mean why in the world I would have become an adoptive parent in the first place. Statistically the world is filled with children who need parents, so why don't more people step up and bring into their lives children with whom they have no genetic connection?

While it can never be my place to judge others' motives, it does seem that those who adopt have a different picture of the world and their role in it than do people who never give the children of the world more thought than the passing surge of guilt when, as they flip those multiple cable television channels, they happen upon the poverty-stricken face of an unnamed child in a world far, far away.

Why are there people who choose to adopt?

I have wondered myself over the past decade why this has become such a central part of my life's purpose and mission. Part of it stems from the relationship I share with my wife, with whom this is a shared passion. It has been her initiative, not mine, that has created the family life that we now share together. Were it not for her passionate ability to get things done, I would probably still be "considering" what it might mean to adopt a child in need of parents. I might never have done anything about my inner urges had she not been a part of my life. So there is that.

But even then, there are plenty of couples out there for whom adoption is one's passion, while the other finds him- or herself a mute party to a radically changing lifestyle. Some of these non-allied couples make it together, while others do not. While I have no statistics to support my observation, I have seen any number of formerly happily-enough married couples find their relationship deteriorating as a result of adoption decisions.

The adoptive parenting journey for me, however, has been the most significant and enriching adventure I have ever had the pleasure of enduring. I say it that way intentionally, but there really is no good word or words to describe both the glorious delight as well as the deep despair of parenting children you have not "known" from the very beginning. I have learned more about myself over the past decade through this experience than anything else I have done (and I've had the opportunity in my vocation to participate in numerous leadership and personal exploration discoveries).

Even as I say that, though, I still wonder why I do this and why I see it as such a significant life's endeavor, even after all we've endured over the years. I was reminded as to why that is while I was talking with my mother by telephone yesterday. My mother is one of the most unique women I have ever known. She defies most female stereotypes, so I early learned that women were not inferior to men. (My wife sometimes jokingly, but more truthfully than she knows, refers to me as our home's resident "feminist," for I am much more egalitarian than she). From her early years of life my mother could work beside men in physical labor and best most them in their efforts.

Beyond her strong work ethic and common sense values, however, my mother is also a compassionate and giving person. You might not know that should you ever meet her face to face, for she is a straight-talker of blue-collar origins who believes truth is more important than social niceties. An intelligent woman, she is not easily taken advantage of or deceived. While I did not always appreciate that as a child growing up in her home, I have come to respect it and to see its value in my own life. It is one of the reasons I strive to be authentic and honest in who I am. But I digress.

As she and I were talking yesterday, I asked her about an awful tragedy which occurred less than a mile from her rural, northern Minnesota home. A neighbor had been shot to death in his front yard (in front of his family) by his son-in-law a few days earlier. Evidently the neighbor's daughter had recently returned home to escape her husband, and her husband chose a horrific, violent confrontation. While this is not a surprising outcome in situations contending with domestic violence, it is a shocker for the rural Minnesota community from which I come. We progressed in the conversation, and I asked her what she had been doing.

"Well, we're just finishing up baling the hay." Of course. It's late June, time for the first cutting of hay. Now that I am removed from rural life, I rarely think of the agri-season so close to those whose work is primarily outdoors. "[The murdered neighbor's] cows need some hay, so we're getting ready to take it down there."

One sentence from my mother's mouth flooded me with a moment of self-discovery. A descriptive sentence, not intended to draw attention to herself or to her compassionate action, just a sentence of fact, but a phrase that reminded me that one of the reasons I do what I do is because that is what I learned from the one who gave me birth and who nurtured my life's core values.

You see, adoption is really less about the parent's fulfillment or sense of self, and so much more about what is right for children. Along the way, certainly, there are moments where parents feel tremendous joy and satisfaction, but even when that is not present, it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do because children matter. Children matter whether they emanate as the "fruit of our loins" (as the Hebrew Scriptures say) or whether they come into lives through less traditional means. It is because children matter, and because I have with God's help the emotional, spiritual and physical resources to make a difference that I should.

I have my mother to thank for this core value, and I hope one day my children will have me to thank for theirs.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Entwined But Not Joined

One of the things I have still not been able to really figure out after eleven years of adoptive parenting is the depth and scope of attachment-disordered children. My struggle comes not from the academic side, for I have read numerous tomes, ranging from general public, fifth-grade reading level approaches to mellifluously scripted volumes resulting from the research of recognized professionals in the field. I know mentally the reasons why children who grow up with early neglect or abuse find it so hard to make lasting, appropriate connections with committed parents. I even understand -- I think -- some of the emotional process that creates such a relational deficit.

But I struggle with attachment issues because it makes me feel so inadequate. Of our ten children, eight of them exhibit what I would call healthy, appropriate attachment. There are moments when I am reminded that perhaps they have not progressed as far as I think they have, but generally they trust us to be their parents, they appropriately express love, disappointment, and anger. I am confident they will make it in the world because they are emotionally and relationally learning and equipped for the task.

Two of our sons, however, have always perplexed me in this regard. One of these two sons (they are birth brothers) has an official diagnosis of RAD (reactive attachment disorder), while the other son has no official diagnosis. Of these two brothers, I have pumped into the most open brother years of my time, energy and love. I have brokered intentional conversations hours into the night when necessary, confronted when behaviors were inappropriate, advised, nurtured, patiently endured almost ten years of investment.

There have been moments when I have felt the effort has been worthwhile and successful. He is able to function well amongst adults and his peers, which was not the case when he first came to live with us. He is able to perform socially in a cursory fashion as long as no one tries to get too close to his inner personhood. He is able to maintain the external responsibilities of a relationship and occasionally pick up social cues. So, I hope that I have had some impact in those areas of his life.

But I sometimes still wonder whether I have been duped, the naive pawn of one who mastered emotional manipulation in his quest for early childhood survival. It could well be that I have been a clueless instrument in his quest to control his understanding of the world, receiving the benefits of my relationship with him over the course of the years. And now, while he is still in a place in life where he needs our financial and other support, he maintains a connection. But I wonder, too many times for it to be healthy, whether it will all come to a screeching halt when there is no need for us any longer.

My wife lovingly reminds me on a regular basis that it simply too early to tell, and that the investment I have made has been worthwhile and necessary, even if it has only brought our son to the point he is at this time in his life. Even if it's only that and nothing more, it has mattered. But I'm never really sure.

I'm never really sure because he offers so little emotionally unless it is coerced and forced, and what kind of reward is emotional connection that is demanded? It is a fruitless endeavor. If he is not provoked he offers little or nothing, and if he is provoked it is an intense and firey response implying that he has been cowed into relationship. It frustrates me because it seems so much a game, and a game that only the one who appears to care the least will win. So, whether he is the master manipulator or simply an emotionally out-of-sync young adult, he is always the winner because he demands the most while offering the least.

In my quest to understand this strangely circuitous relationship I am always listening for apt ways that I might ponder it in a new way. On Friday night in a most unusual way I brought home with me from "Pirates of the Caribbean, 3" a quote that makes a lot of sense to me.

In the scene Elizabeth (one of the female pirates) is speaking with John (one of the British officers who is on the verge of death). Evidently (I have not followed the Pirates of the Caribbeans saga very closely) they have had moments of connection in the recent past, but it has never moved to a place of deeper trust or commitment. In his closing words to her he says, "Elizabeth, our destinies have been entwined, but our lives not joined."

As I pulled the pen out of my shirt pocket to scribble the phrase in the darkened movie theater, I thought how well this describes parents dealing with children whose attachments are reactive or otherwise disturbed. The strings of our lives are entwined together in a web of sorts, but it is one that dissipates, like the spider's web in the early morning dawn at the slightest pressure. When and if our lives will be joined in an authentic relationship that is characterized by trust, disclosure and mutual concern has yet to be seen.

So I, like countless other parents of attachment-disordered children, wait, wondering when, if ever, the multitudes of relational strings might one day be joined together in a deeper weave of trust and relationship.

In Love

I am experiencing something new in my life that I haven't experienced in a long time. I am developing a new love, and I am more surprised than I have ever been before. Like most people I have had certain loves all my life long. Since the time I can remember, for example, I have loved to read. I am a hopeless bibliophile, as both my office and our home will attest. I love the entire reading experience, from the scent of newly printed books, to the tactile sensation of a slippery new paperback glossing my hands to the tight spine of a hardcover awaiting its initial opening. I love the feel of sitting in a quiet corner of the home to begin reading a new mystery or historical inquiry. Reading is one of my first and longest loves.

And, of course, I have a long-time gastonomic love. I enjoy the process of grocery shopping, farmer's markets, wholesale food stores, organic food stores, mail order specialty food products ... and the array of publications developed for the gastronome, from Saveur to Gourmet to Taste of Country. It's a strange realm, really, because it is largely populated by the female gender (although not exclusively), but I enjoy choosing food selections, preparing them and feeding the people I love. Cooking is not a task for me but an avocation.

I have to add that I love my dog. Since the time I was a young child I have almost always had a canine companion. There was "Goldie," a non-anxious golden retriever (and it's a good thing, too, based on what I have heard of my early childhood behavior). And my grandparents' dog Trixie, a very patient german shepherd. And Sparky, my poodle-cross dog when I was a teenager. Then I took a leave of absence from pet ownership when I was single and didn't have the time for a pet. But a few years ago Gizmo entered our lives (at Claudia's invitation, actually, surprisingly), and I have enjoyed having a dog again. We walk together nearly daily, I get up at least once a night to let him outside (not my most enjoyable task, but one I am willing to pay for the warm joy he brings to my life the other hours of the day). Gizmo's ardent desire to be by my side (almost) always makes me feel happier.

But there's a new love, and I'm almost embarrassed to mention it, because it is so out of character for me. I am developing a love for the game of soccer. And no, lest you be surprised at my confession prematurely, it isn't because I have some self-deceiving desire to be a player. I have become an observer of an excellent soccer player, and that has turned the tide in my non-sporting life.

I have never enjoyed playing, watching, reading about or doing much involving sports. I am sure there are deep-seated childhood traumas associated with this adult-like disdain for organized sports, but there it is. I have always dislike sports.

Until the past few weeks. As I watch our son Ricardo play soccer, I find myself transfixed, addicted, not able to get quite enough. Yesterday we left home early (6:15 AM) in order to be present for his 8:00 AM game start in the metro area, and I actually looked forward to the prospect. The first game was a father's delight, when after less than five minutes in the game Tico (that's my authentic Guatemalan nickname for Ricardo) kicked in the first score. His finesse, his sports grace, his team orientation, his footwork ... it makes me love something I never thought would love. Sports.

I realized yesterday how my new love has affected me when, in a weak moment, I found msyelf thinking, "Maybe we should re-think our family rule about Sunday morning worship taking precedence over Sunday morning sports events." Blasphemy! "My soul quickly corrected the reprobation of my newly emerging obsession ... you're the pastor, after all. You can't just let your own kids skip church for a sporting event." And to think I even debated it a little further shows the level of my fall. "Yeah, but what about the team you're letting down. Think of how proud those parents could be of their sons if you would only let your son play on Sunday. What if the team loses because Ricardo is sitting in church instead of playing soccer?"

Shaking my head from this spiritual assault, I listened as my wife quickly reminded me that we have a family rule for a reason, and even my new-found passion is not sufficient to change our way of life.

I am in love. And I am surprised.

Now what time is that soccer game this afternoon?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Good to Be Alive

I confess that too often the parenting task for me is just that: a task. Dealing with daily bickering, navigating the emotional vicissitudes of adolescents, refereeing the numerous verbal squabbles and physical altercations ... these and the other tasks of responsible parenting are draining. It is easy for me to wonder what my life might have been like had I remained single or married and childless. My memory of those times is selective, for I remember the freedom, the solitude, the necessity of worrying about primarily one person, myself. I say my memory is selective, however, because I do not first remember the loneliness, the sense that I was missing out on the most powerful moments of life, devoid of creating any lasting sense of legacy. So, when my mind is lulled back to those halcion days of yesteryear, I have to remind myself that life is better now than it was then. It is better qualitatively, it is better emotionally, it is better in almost every way.

Today's Fletcher Family Friday Fun day was less than memorable. Three of the kids opted out of the experience, and the remaining four children (who live at home) and I traveled ninety miles to visit a small zoo and park. It was a rainy, overcast day, so our hiking plans didn't eventuate, but we enjoyed observing the animals native to Minnesota habitat. I found the snakes far too accessible (I have a dread fear of snakes, for some reason) for my liking, but I enjoyed the otters, the black bear, and the wild turkeys in particular. The zoo is a rather traditional one and although the grounds are well taken care of and the animals appear quite healthy, they exhibit the pacing that is typical of the encaged animal. Their appearance saddened me. I am no PETA member and don't have a particular bent against zoological enterprises, but I was saddened because I recognize in their behavior a tendency of my own, especially when I am feeling "captured" by my family choices and responsibilities. There are times in my life when I emotionally "pace," looking for a way out of the boundaries that I have created for myself. There are moments when I must seem to be less than satisfied with my surroundings and environment, when I frantically look beyond the "cage" of my life, looking for greener grass.

Fast forward to dinner time tonight. My wife is back in town after a few days away from the family on business, so we are all getting adjusted to being together again. What that means is an extra amount of tension in our family interactions as all of us assume more familiar roles. In our family the mom is the primary disciplinarian and rule-keeper, so we adjust to her attentiveness in that area of life. I'm sure the kids feel a bit more cagey and edgey knowing that their mother will catch the things that their dad didn't all week long, so the level of tension rises naturally.

We finished our dinner time together just as the phone rang. I never the answer the phone at home because it typically is for someone in the family, or it is someone offering a great home refinancing rate for the umpteenth time, or it is someone I really don't want to talk to at all. Tonight's call was from a parishioner's son, sharing with me an update about his mom's health condition. In consideration of confidentiality, I won't say anything more about the specifics, but suffice it to say that the news was not good. She had received news of a setback in her condition, which really necessitated a pastoral visit.

Today is my day off, but I left immediately for a hospital visit. We had a productive conversation, and forty minutes later as I was leaving the hospital for my car, I realized how good it is to be alive. Even when my children are utter pains, doing all they can to annoy and harrass one another, and by consequence their parents. It is good to be able to walk to my car, independently in the warmth of a late summer afternoon to drive to my home, where I know I will find at least one kid who wants to see their dad. It is good to know that in a few minutes my fifteen-year-old son will use some of his hard-earned savings to take his dad out to a movie to celebrate my birthday. He even has offered to buy the snacks!

It's good to be alive. And tonight I am feeling just how good it is to be married to a passionately committed woman, to have a houseful of kids who generally love me and to know that life is worth living.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Why I Could Do This All Over Again

There have been times in the past ten years when I have thought to myself (especially early on in our adoptive experience), "I could do this again." And, as the record will show, Claudia and I have done this again ... ten times again, to be precise. There are many reasons. The explanationn from a social justice standpoint is simply that there are children in the world who need parents who can love them and give them a chance. The common sense take on it is that since we already are experienced in adopting older children, and are learning (always learning, I might add) how to work with their challenges and anxieties, why be done? The chronological issue is straightfoward, too: while we are not young (in our early, soon-to-be-middle, forties) anymore, we are not yet making an appointment to be equipped with dual wheelchairs. The practical matter is that we are able to do this, in spite of the emotional and financial challenges it might bring our way, this is really a much more satisfying way to invest our time and money than in a new recreational vehicle of some kind or in a piece of property that we might visit eight times in the course of a year.

Now that does not mean that there are not times I hear another voice beckoning me. "You've done more than enough for the world; it's time to take care of yourself." "You've not been exactly perfect parents with the ten children you have, won't it mean a loss of energy or time for those who are already there if you add to your family?" "With each child you are adding more responsibility for the future." "Do you really want to go to your child's graduation with a cane?" "What will the neighbors think of even more child invading their bastion of peace and goodwill?" "What will the congregation think?" (although this is less of a question these days since we have the opportunity to be in our own home versus a church-provided parsonage).

But then there are mornings like today's when I wonder what God is saying. As I mentioned earlier, my wife is out of town on business this week, so I'm taking some time off, working at home and "kind of vacationing." So, last night as everyone was heading off for bed, our youngest son Dominyk asked to sleep in his mom's spot. He nestled in before I was ready to sleep, so that by the time I was ready for bed I had to push his fleshy little arm to his side of the bed, where it stayed for, well, five minutes. During the night it was a continual tug-of-war to see who would get enough blankets. He won. Time and time again. Twice during the night he fell out of our bed onto the floor with a sudden thump and groan, only to straggle back again. After his second episode his flailing left arm smacked me in the face. So, by the time 5:15 rolled around this morning (at least forty-five minutes earlier than I am accustomed to awakening), I got up to start my day.

By 6:15 I was awakening our newest working son so that he could get ready for summer school. His younger brother (who shares a room with him) woke up during that time long enough to embrace me warmly and fall back asleep. By 6:40 I was again back in the room to re-awaken both boys. This time it took, and they were up and getting ready with no further prodding from Dad.

At 7:00 it was time to awaken two of our other kids going to summer school, Tony (12) and Mercedes (12). Mercedes was already awake, doing whatever it is that 12-year-old girls do in front the mirror for countless minutes at a time. Tony was actually easy to awaken this morning, and he plunged into the shower with no additional verbal force on my part. Within twenty minutes they were pleasantly, calmly making cinnamon toast for breakfast. There was, surprisingly, no argumentation, no irritation, no behavior modification necessary this morning. (This doesn't happen very often, so I stood back in surprise and simply directed "traffic" and offered reminders). After breakfast Tony, who is the most non-compliant child I have ever met, responded favorably to my request that he brush his teeth.

Both were ready with time to spare, so I spent a few minutes scratching Tony's peeling (formerly sunburned) back and telling him how happy he made me this morning. He looked at me suspiciously (he's most accustomed to receiving rebuke than praise due to his behaviors), so I said, "Let's see if you can name the reasons why I am happy with you today?" His blue eyes twinkling, he said, (1) I got up without arguing, (2) I got dressed and you didn't remind me, (3) I brushed my teeth. I said, "You are absolutely right. I am so proud of you!" We had a few more nice moments before he walked off contentedly with his sister for the school bus.

In the meantime Dominyk (11) was up, dressed himself (doesn't happen every day, either) and had breakfast without prompting. We had enough time for him to sit with me, so I rubbed his back (he's always complaining that it hurts since he's gained so much weight as a result of his recent medication regimen) and we talked about his trip yesterday to the Children's Museum. Our fifteen minutes together was so relaxing we both nearly fell asleep again.

By this time Ricardo was up and ready for his "home school" summer school, which involves learning sight words, spelling and math. He is such a cooperative and complaint student that it is a joy to work with him. His reading sight words time improved today for the first time in three days, so he had a big smile to crown his achievement.

Our oldest son Rand, who is providing transportation for "our grandchildren" (you'll need to read my wife's blog to really understand that) got himself up and left without my asking him to. (Doesn't happen every day either).

It's been the start of a really nice morning. And it makes me think I could do this all over again.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Remembering Why I Adopted In the First Place

I recognize that I have spent too much time in this blog addressing difficult, negative situations, without offering a bit of balance. I do feel it is important for those who choose to adopt older children to recognize how challenging the task will be, so I suppose I err on the side of realism when it comes to disclosing events in my life. But I would not be a very accurate reporter of my life's experiences or my soul's condition were I not to take some time to reflect upon why I adopted in the first place.

This week my wife is out of state helping other older children find homes, so I have been working from home and taking some vacation time. I typically take only about three weeks a year in "official" vacation (I am entitled to six weeks a year), and use the remaining three weeks in more casual ways, including this week. So, we said goodye to our family matriarch early on Tuesday morning, and I have spent the past two days being solo parent. Fortunatley for me, it is not a huge readjustment in my life, because I am the primary cook in our home (also the primary grocery shopper), do a fair amount of the household work and am quite comfortable in the nurturing and (usually) disciplining of children. So, we are glad Mom has the chance to be away from the rest of us, and we are doing just fine, thank you very much.

This evening's parenting responsibility was to attend (and bring the snacks for) our son Ricardo's soccer game. His team of thirteen-year-old's is really quite impressive, and he, in particular, has some real skill. I am hardly a sports guy, so I don't know this for a fact, but I can tell by watching his moves on the field and comparing him with other players that he has quite a soccer future ahead of him.

Ricardo and Benjamin (who we call "Jimmy" since that was his Spanish name before he lived with us, "Yimy") are our two sons from Guatemala. Generally they are delightful kids who grew up in one of the best orphanages in the country, and were tenderly nurtured and cared for from a young age. They grew up with a strong sense of attachment and had some of the same caretakers all the nine years of their lives they spent in this orphanage. I marvel at how emotionally healthy Ric and Jimmy have been, almost from the beginning. When we brought them out of their native country they both shed tears at the thought of leaving those they knew and loved, but once they were able to make the break, they understood that their new parents would care for them and love them as if we had given birth to them.

This is such a stark contrast to the attachment issues that a number of our other children arrived with (and still have, to some degree or another). Our oldest son may never really trust "adults" in his life, although he has made tremendous progress in the years past. His birth brother Mike, whom you have read about here frequently of late, has little or no attachment to us whatsoever. After nearly a decade of life with us as his parents we are really little more to him than caretakers. His early years were so chaotic and disruptive that we couldn't expect too much more, even though it grieves us when we see how difficult his life is and will become.

Ric and Jimmy, though, are heart-warming, delightful guys. Jimmy is a born extravert who knows no strangers. (While this could be unhealthy in some respects, he does seem to understand appropriate boundaries with those he doesn't very well, so it hasn't been a cause for alarm to us, as in possible abuse situations). He loves to talk, he loves to laugh and he is so relational it makes me wince sometimes, being the introvert that I am. His heart, though, is kind and gentle, and his face often filled with mirth. Now that adolescence has begun to visit Jimmy he's a little more caustic, a bit more irritating and often obnoxious, but I think he will come through that in a few years.

Ricardo is the introvert I am. He is quiet, stoic and deeply centered on things that matter to him. And I am one of the things that matters to him, so that's delightful to me. When he traveled to Guatemala to meet Jimmy those years ago, Ricardo was the first child who came bounding up to me and plopped on my lap. I could tell right away that he was a child that I would one day see again and, sure enough, in a couple of years we were able to adopt him, too. So, from the very beginning he and I had a heart-warming connection. Even now at 13 he will quietly hug me and kiss me on the cheek. There is nothing I love more than see him in a stoic moment when his features are as blank as his native Mayan kin, and then watch as he hears something funny or sees something to make him laugh. His face lights up (I've heard about that before, but I don't think I truly appreciated what "face lighting up" meant until I met Ric) as his eyes sparkle with glee and his broad, white-toothed smile fills the room with warmth and life.

That I have the opportunity to be his father is indeed a blessing, because it has been so very easy. Perhaps it has been too easy, but I rarely wrestle internally about my relationship with him, and I never wonder whether or not he will knife me in the night (I have had that worry with other of our children, actually) or one day walk away and turn his emotions off toward me. The cold, calculating ways of the unattached child are not Ric's ways, and our relationship is so natural and pleasant that I don't even have to think a second time about it. It's an easy relationship, if that makes sense, and so many of the relationships I have with other of our children are not what I would call "easy." They are important, of course, and valuable, and I do not give up on any of my kids, but they are not "easy."

Tonight I had the opportunity to watch Ric play soccer. His team defeated the opponents 7-0, the second of which was Ric's goal. He is a dynamo on the field, and it is a joy to watch him, even for this sports-moron that I am. On the way to his game tonight the three of us (Jimmy, Ric and I) were chatting, and Jimmy was telling us about his new, first part-time job. He finished his second day today, so he was telling us how tired he was, and he just wasn't sure he could work on Friday, too. I explained that the world is filled with people -- most people, in fact -- who work on Friday's, so he needed to get used to that thought.

"I work, too," Ricardo said, his eyes sparkling with delight. "You do?" I asked. "Yes. On the field. My job is to score!"

And indeed he did. His first "score" happened five years in the South American continent's poorest country when he ran to my lap an snuggled in, and his latest score happened in my presence on the soccer field.

Only God knows what kind of life we have been able to save Jimmy and Ric from -- those who know the country say that the odds are not good for orphans of their age, and that they may well have been consigned to one of two short-lived street occupations: prostitution or theft.

But tonight they are sleeping soundly in their own beds, thinking about their "jobs" -- for one his first foray into the working world, and for the other the work of playing soccer. And isn't that about the extent of "worries" there should be for a fifteen- and thirteen-year-old boy?

I am remembering why I adopted in the first. And it makes my heart glad.

Monday, June 18, 2007

When There Are No Good Options

Me: Hello?
Mike: Dad?
Me: Yeah, Mike, this is Dad.
Mike: Can I come home?
Me: Mike, we've been through this so many times. You can't be in our home because it disturbs everyone else way too much.
Mike: Oh, Happy Father's Day, a little late.
Me: Thanks. It's nice of you to remember.
Mike: Dad, I really want to come home.
Me: I know you do, Mike, but that just isn't a possibility right now.
Mike: Why?
Me: Because Mike you have not been willing to follow our rules, you steal our stuff, you smoke weed in our basement, you bring strange friends to home in the middle of the night and scare your siblings.
Mike: But I've changed.
Me: How do you mean?
Mike: Like I'm not using?
Me: For how long now?
Mike: I don't know. Probably a month or so.
Me: Well, I believe it's been at least a couple of weeks because that was the time you were in jail.
Mike: Well, I really need some place to stay.
Me: Where have you been staying for the last three days?
Mike: With friends.
Me: And you can't stay there a little longer?
Mike: No.
Me: Why?
Mike: Because she's going to JDC [juvenile delinquency center] tomorrow.
Me: Oh. I'm sorry to hear that.
Mike: So can I come home?
Me: Why are you talking so softly?
Mike: Because I'm tired.
Me: Why are you so tired?
Mike: Because I've been walking around all night and day. I don't have anyplace to stay.
Me: You sound like you're high ... are you sure it's only because you're tired?
Mike: Yeah. I'm really tired. Can you help me?
Me: Mike, Mom and I have tried to help you for years. We did everything possible for you, and you refused to cooperate with everything we offered or suggested. There's just too much water under the bridge.
Mike: What do you mean?
Me: I mean that it's just too upsetting to everyone else in our home, and it isn't fair to them. They have had to deal with this stuff for years and years now, and now that you're eighteen it's a little different.
Mike: So you adopted me to desert me?
Me: Mike, I am not deserting you, but there are only so many options I have left. I would be happy to give you a ride to Salvation Army to see if they have a place for you tonight.
Mike: So I can't come home?
Me: No, Mike, you can't come home.
Mike: Oh, OK. I'll call you again later.

This is not the entirey of our fifteen-minute conversation tonight, but it summarizes the content pretty well. It is one of the most difficult parenting positions I have ever had to take. To deny a home to someone you love seems cruel and heartless, and it is certainly not in my nature to respond in this fashion. I have to steel myself and remain clear for the sake of the other children in my family for whom I have a responsibility. We have all dealt with the difficult times Mike has had during his years before adulthood, but they should not have to be subjected to his further chaos at this point in their lives.

In an ideal world Mike would have responded over the past nine years to the hundreds of interventions and attempts we have made to help get him on the right path. In a perfect setting Mike would be able to come back to our home, stay true to what he says, remain chemical- and crime-free and begin a new life. In a better situation, we would have someone or somewhere else for Mike to stay where we could help him but not have our other children subjected to his criminality and chaotic lifestyle.

But we do not live in a perfect world. It is a world with complex moral dilemmas competing at numerous levels. There is often no clear "right" or "wrong" answer. It is a world in which more than one person is affected by the choices we make, and it is gut-wrenchingly difficult to determine whose best interests outweight anothers.

Claudia and I have had to make the very hard decision that at this point our remaining children at home, most of whom are minors, deserve to have a home in which they can live with less stress and worry. We have to decide to do what is in their best interests, even though it means that one of our children, now legally an adult, cannot receive what he thinks he needs.

When there are no good options I can only pray that God will do for Mike what we cannot do. But it still doesn't feel very good.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Who Would Have Thought

One of the gurus of the older child adoption movement, and a person I respect a great deal and whose company I enjoy even more, recently wrote me an email he titled "life is so very interesting." As I reflect upon the first half of this Father's Day, I have to concur.

I've learned over the years not to get my expectations too high when it comes to our children. Before they were ours, they were someone else's, and in most cases had more than one caretaker earlier in life. Those early kinds of disruptions completely change a young child's perception of life and the world, and many times mother's and father's days are difficult for them because it brings up all kinds of unconscious or subconscious feelings about parenthood and their connections to parents in life. And since I have no children by birth I cannot compare what it would be like to father children from the womb. I guess that puts both them and I on a similar footing. We just try to make it one day at a time, and I love them as much as (perhaps more than) I could love a child springing from my loins. I say more because if I were dealing with my own genetic material, I'm not sure I could be so patient watching my own frailties and insecurities repeated for another generation. I think I do better with the mystery piece of the adoptive life, so in that sense it's quite nice.

This morning in worship, however, I received a surprise, the beginning of which took place several months ago. Back in the winter months (either just before or just after Christmas; I can't remember for sure) a young mother and her two daughters began to visit our church. As I do with any newcomer, I took a few seconds at the end of the service to introduce myself, ask a few pertinent questions and provide a warm welcome. Some visitors continue to return, and some visitors move on. As a pastor you never really know which it's going to be, so I've learned to leave some things to God in that process.

This young family continued to worship with us. On one Sunday morning in particular I received a brief note during the service (which is typical in the way we do things), in which she asked us to pray for and her family because they had some obstacles to overcome. After the service, I invited her to visit with me for a few minutes to see how we might be able to help. I discovered that they had a couple of very specific needs: beds and a kitchen table and chairs. Now, I hasten to add, it is not always this way with folks who indicate a need. I've been a pastor long enough now to recognize when I'm being scammed or when the requested item or items are simply beyong the purview of what a faith community can realistically do. But beds and table and chairs seemed pretty do-able. I connected with our congregation's Outreach Team, and within days we were able to provide the beds, table and chairs.

In the weeks to follow Claudia began to visit with her as well, and we have gotten to know her, her story and her children quite well. Because Claudia has already blogged about her, the details I relate are not confidential. While an infant she was placed in her first foster home in the Chicago area, and for the remaining years of her young life she lived in a wide range of situations from foster parents to adult friends to a series of group homes. By the time she was fifteen she was a mother for the first time. In time she and her three young chidlren moved to Minneapolis in hopes of getting a better opportunity in life. In Minneapolis she acquired new friends and a support system, and then realized that she and her kids might do better in a smaller city, which is when she made the move to our fine city of about 55,000. She has a job but no transportation, so she relies on public transportation (which in our relatively small city is not that regular or reliable) to get to work.

The past few months we have seen her and the kids regularly in worship, and in the past few weeks we have begun to feel kind of life her parents (although the chronology wouldn't work out quite correctly, emotionally it seems to fit pretty well). I have felt good knowing that she wants her kids to have a better chance at life than she has had, and that we might have some small part in that.

This morning in worship, however, I was surprised. Realize that I am not normally surprised in worship, because that's my turf, and I'm the one who initiates surprises, if there are going to surprises. I am not typically the receipient. As I heard the surprise announced, I glanced in the congregation and was surprised to see Kim walking toward the lectern. In three minutes she delivered a profound, meaningful and very touching tribute to me.

Who would have thought that would be my Father's Day surprise? To hear how much our family's presence has meant in her life over the past few months and to hear how much respect she has for us and our desire to help the children of our world is meaningful beyond words. We hope that our connections with Kim and her three children will be useful and productive. Already they have blessed our lives (I mean, it's great when someone else's kids address your wife as "Ma'am," and express apprecation for simple acts of kindness), and we trust that we will be able to help them in the years ahead, too. Claudia and I are blessed to have a new "branch" in our family tree, and the congregation will benefit from our relationship as well.

Who would have thought that a simple, "Welcome to Belgrade Avenue United Methodist Church. We're glad you are here," would result in such a touching Father's Day tribute?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ah, Innocence of Youth

One of the ways Claudia and I hope to raise socially conscious, sensitive children is to teach them to respect all types of people and all manners of work. Claudia and both come from humble backgrounds where people understood the value of work. On my side of the family, I was the first grandchild (as nearly as I can figure) on both sides of the family to achieve a Bachelor's degree, perhaps the only one to obtain a Master's level education, and I'm fairly certain the only one who has completed doctoral coursework. While Claudia and I are grateful that we were taught in our respective homes about the value of higher education and encouraged to obtain it, we understand what it is to emerge from families in which money was never abundant and the integrity of work was respected. So, we want our children to grow up with similar values of respect for all people.

This morning I had the opportunity to convey those values once again. I am no mechanic, even for the simplest of things, so on a regular basis we go to one of a couple national chain oil change services. This morning as we pulled into the bay and were greeted by a nice enough young man, I explained what was happening. Even if I am mechanically inept, I at least know the process of an oil change (thank my college education for that, I guess). With each step I explained why I was doing what I was doing, and why the mechanics were doing what they were doing.

With me were Tony (age 12) and Ben (aka "Jimmy," age 15), when this conversation emerged.

Tony: So, dad, does each person who works here have to have an engineering degree?
Dad: No. In fact, they probably do not have any degree at all.
Tony: Really? (awestruck by the realization that some jobs do not require that level of educational achievement).
Dad: Nope. In jobs like this you receive on-the-job training so you know what you're doing and then you just work.
Tony: Cool. How much do you think they get paid an hour?
Dad: Oh, I suppose between $8 and $10 an hour.
Tony: Sweet. I'm going to work here!

I smiled inwardly at the innocence of youth. For 12-year-old Tony $8 an hour sounds like a treasure trove. And to be able to have a job like this where you get to wear a uniform, help people and operate machines of various kinds couldn't be that bad.

Earlier in my parenting experience I would probably have regaled one of my children's questioning about a blue collar job like this by saying, "But you realize that with a college education you could have a better life?" Or "Well, you don't have to settle for a job like this, you could go to college and really do something with your life." Or, "This wouldn't be that great of a place to work at." Or, "Well, you realize that I make $X an hour, because I went to college."

And someday I will probably have a talk like that with him. But for today I want him to realize that the dignity of work, even in a job that pays very little compared to other jobs in society, is enough. I want him to know that the guys servicing our car are as valuable to society as the dentist whose practice is in the next block. I want him to realize that it's OK to aspire to an $8-an-hour a job when you're twelve."

Innocence, yes. But from my previous difficult experiences with his older brothers at the age of twelve, I think maybe a little innocence is OK with me.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Fletcher Family Friday Fun [Frustration] Day

As I mentioned a week ago, I have decided to use some of my days off this summer (which for me are Fridays) to devote to my children. I've decided to call these days Fletcher Family Friday Fun Days, but I'm afraid I spoke a little too soon concerning today. It has been an experiment in frustration and futility that makes me wonder if I really want to continue this newfound tradition.

I am an early-riser, so I relish awakening before other family members to get a solitary start on my day. This morning I was up by 6:00 AM, and by 7:00 was ready to get the last-minute grill items we would need for today's picnic lunch at historic Fort Ridgely. As youngest son Dominyk and I were driving out of the driveway we discovered our front passenger tire flat. Knowing how a change in scheduled plans upsets our family's day, I shuddered for more than one reason. I am no mechanic and fortunately we have a AAA membership, so my devoted wife called AAA for us, and they were here to replace the damaged tire with the spare within minutes. In the meantime Dominyk and I went to the store to purchase our necessary items, and by the time of our return the spare made the van ready to roll. I sent our second oldest son in the van to the tire dealership to repair the tire and put the spare back. Our second youngest son, Tony, was emotionally distraught because of today's diagnosis that he has strep throat and could not accompany us. By the time the six of us rolled out of the driveway we were only thirty minutes later than our scheduled departure time, so I felt pretty good about that.

Currently our home air condiitoning is not working for this, the first hot week of summer. Each day the highs have been nearly 90 degrees with high humidity, so its miserable being home (for more than one reason occasionally, but right now it's our interior temperature of 88 degrees). Our trip to the Fort was uneventful and pleasant, but the blistering heat coupled with intense moisture in the air made our time there less fulfilling than we had all hoped.

While we were viewing the outdoor parts of the fort it appeared we were alone, and in minutes I heard the bellowing voice of our oldest son, "Dad, Dominyk's peeing on the old fort walls." Sure enough, Dominyk decided he needed to relieve himself (little did he realize that the largest building near him did have several Minnesota Historical Society employees inside, but thankfully all the shades were pulled because of the heat). As I reprimanded him his attention wandered, and as he came bounding up to me he said, "Whoops, Dad, I peed all over my shirt." Sure enough, his raggedy (anyway) shirt was now wet from the navel down. I issued my disgust and moved on, hoping it would dry quickly in the summer heat without an abundance of odor.

Our visit to the interpretitve center was interesting, and a couple of the kids got to dress in period costumes to see what it would have been like to live in the Fort at what was then the western borders of the burgeoning USA. We learned the reasons for the Sioux Uprising of 1862 and talked about ways native peoples have not always been treated very well by those in power. At least we accomplished some social justice learning today.

After visiting the interpretive center and surrounding area, we traveled to the picnic area to fire up the grill. Unfortunately the lighter we brought to start the charcoal did not work well, and after numerous attempts to produce a flame I threw it into the trash in a fit of rage and frustration. Fortunately the children accompanying me have learned over the years when to give their father space, and this was one of those times. They were several picnic tables away, watching their overly hot, irritated, hungry father as he stomped way to the van, calling over his shoulder, "You stay here. I'll go buy a new lighter." The closest (small) town is nine miles away, so as I drove there I blasted the air conditioning and enjoyed my momentary solitude.

After pumping gas and entering the convenience store to purchase my lighter, I received a cell call from our oldest son telling me that the charcoal was actually now lit, and that they were able to get the lighter to work enough for the task. By the time I returned the hot dogs were well on their way to completion, and the food had been carefully set out by our fastidious daughter and her compatriots.

One of our sons, whom I won't name but identify by adoption history -- our first international adoptee who is now 15 -- continued his perpetual verbal drivel with his slightly accented English, "Rand, you know you have stretch marks? You know where those come from? They come because you are fat." And "Dominyk, you can't drink all the strawberry milk" (this from the person who had already had two full glasses himself). And "Sadie, you are very ugly. Your teeth are so crooked you look like a clown." Even his fellow adoptee from Guatemala, Ricardo, was not immune from harasshment, "Ricky, you don't even speak that good English. Just shut up."

So, my Fletcher Family Friday Fun Day rapidly evaporated into a day characterized by another "F" work ... frustration. The oppressive heat, the incessant nitpicking behaviors of one child in particular, the peculiar irritants of the day, did nothing ot improve my mood.

So, after surveying the historic cemetery (for Minnesota history it dates back fairly early ... to the 1860s), I suggested we simply pack up and return home. Typically we would spend the afternoon hiking or exploring other areas of the park, and with full interest and cooperation of my chidren, but today no one argued. We piled into the van, cranked the air conditioning, popped a movie into the DVD player, and headed home.

What a great beginning to our eleventh wedding anniversary! I'm hopeful that Claudia and I will have a much more enjoyable time together tonight than I was able to provide for my children today.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

It All Depends On Your Perspective

Since my last conversation with Mike (the accusation-fest thirty minutes on my birthday), I have been contemplating appropriate next steps. While we are not interested in receiving collect phone calls from Mike, nor are we in a position to bail him out, we are still his parents. I decided that the first step would be to check the official record to see what he has been charged with. At our county courthouse (perhaps it's this way across the country as well) is a computer terminal where the public can access the information.

My query with his name produced five "hits," including some nuisance charges (fire in a park, misdemeanor damage to property), as well as some more serious charges (underage consumption of alcohol, for which he has been fined $274), as well as the two most serious charges: driving after revocation of license (the truth is that Mike has never been licensed) and receiving stolen property (a felony charge, which according to statute can result in up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine).

I wasn't exactly surprised with this information, but decided to contact his public defender to see how aware the attorney is about Mike's mental health diagnoses. His return call to me this afternoon was enlightening. It appears that he has been able to convince the prosecuting attorney to release Mike ... this afternoon.

As the attorney shared the news with me, I could feel my stomach knotting. I said, "Well, you understand that because of his chemical use, history of theft and the ways he terrorizes our family, he cannot live in our house." My words were met with professional silence. I continued, "If Mike needs a mailing address for court documents [something the attorney asked about earlier in the conversation], we are OK with that, but Mike will need to check in with us, without coming to our house, in order to find out about those." More silence. "You realize that Mike has no where to go if he's released?"

"Well, it looks like he's going to be getting out this afternoon" was his response. "Let me know if there's anything else I should know."

"Like hell," I thought to myself. And I won't be the first person to let you know. It will be law enforcement who will either bring him in on new charges or because he has failed to appear at his upcoming hearings.

In a few minutes Mike will once again feel victorious and relieved to exit lock-up. His attorney feels he has done what his client has requested. The county will have one less inmate's per diem to be concerned with.

But Mike will exit with little or no money, no clothing other than what he was wearing when he was arrested, no identified place to live, and more unanswered questions about what happens next.

For Mike, his attorney and the county system it seems like a good thing. But to his parents who have known him the longest and loved him the most, it sounds like an opportunity for even more problems. But I guess it all depends on your perspective.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Finally, a Good Looking Man

Yeah, I know, it's a strange blog post title, but read the rest of the blog before you make any preconceived judgments.

I wonder sometimes how it's all going to turn out. When our ten kids have reached the age of independence or semi-independence, how much energy and vitality for life will I have left? It's one of those strange deals in life ... where something so very foundational and valuable -- parenting -- is also one of the most personally draining and challenging processes.

It reminds me of a parishioner in a previous parish. Lillian was ninety-nine years old when I met her for the first time and one hundred four years old when I buried her five years later. She was a most interesting person. Until her dying day she was concerned that her clothing styles reflected "what the young girls are wearing now," and often in her final months she would say, "Whatever you do, don't live as long as I have. It's too long." One of the things I found most interesting is the competitive spirit she and some of her elderly friends shared. On one occasion I overheard a small gaggle of older women conjecturing as to why Lillian had lived longer than anyone they knew. Amongst the ruminations, I heard one shrill voice declare, "Well, you know, of course, that she never had any children. That's what ages most of us!"

I smiled to myself at the time and have thought about those sentiments many times since. What might be the connection between raising (any) children and health? And, in particular, what might be the connection between raising difficult, challenging, special needs children and eventual life outcome? I guess if we're going to die anyway, and that seems pretty certain, we might as well die having done something significant with our lives, but I wonder sometimes how many years special needs kids shave off the life span of their parents.

But, I digress. My point is that I have had the sheer pleasure of meeting many older people who age with such generosity and grace that it makes me less anxious about that prospect for myself. Whether or not my children will be the death of me, or whether the eventual years after their adulthood will give me a sense of gratitude remains to be seen, but I can still choose to live with some joy and some vivacity.

Which brings me to the point at hand, and the title of today's blog. In our community clergy rotate worship responsibilities at areas nursing homes. Today it was my date at Oak Terrace, an assisted living facility. In a facility like this there are older folks who function very indepedently as well as those who are less independent, so one never knows what to expect.

After the worship service, I always stop by each person's chair or wheelchair to greet them and individually shake their hands. Midway through the process, I happened upon an elderly woman with some sparkle in her eyes. As she took my hand in hers she whispered conspiratorily, "Now don't you tell anyone this, but finally we have a good looking man in this place. You're good looking!" Her batting eyelashes met my eyes as I said, "Thank you. We'll keep this our little secret."

So, if after raising special needs children for the duration of my life, I can reach my mid-80's and still recognize an attractive person and have the courage to say so, I guess I will be doing all right!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Chemically Unbalanced Brain

Over the years I have tried to maintain a stance of patient understanding when it comes to the children who have become part of our life through the gift of adoption. Early on, especially, with their social histories fresh in mind, it was easier for me to understand their aggressive, antisocial, negative, nonconnecting behaviors. When, for example, our oldest son (now 20, arrived at 11) would threaten us verbally or refuse to comply with parental guidelines, it was fairly easy for me to get past it. "One day," I would reason with myself, "he will understand this if I just put in the parental time he requires." The report now after nearly ten years is that, yes, there are many evidences of maturity, respect and success. He will be a senior in a private college this fall, his grades are above average to excellent and he has chosen (with some parental prodding, I must confess) to lead a tidy moral life.

His birth brother, who is now eighteen, and who now sits in our county's law enforcement center awaiting trial, is in a much different place in his life. I do not believe it is fair to make comparisons between children, but there are some stark contrasts between the ways Kyle's life and Mike's life are turning out at this stage. They both share the same gene pool, very similar early childhood experiences, and the painful fracture that was termination of parental rights when they were ten and seven years of age.

But the biggest difference is that Kyle has a healthy, normally functioning brain. Kyle has been developmentally on target in most every way since his adoption, a textbook case for each stage of adolescent and young adult development. Although he still has emotional "work" (as the experts call it) to do as a result of his early life's experiences, Kyle has been able to find the advantages of an adoptive family and find success. He is not a perfect child, but neither as we perfect parents. With Kyle and Claudia and I we just do the best we can, apologize when necessary and continue navigating the changing terrain of parent-young adult relationships.

Mike, on the other hand, has a decided disadvantage. His brain is not organically like everyone else's brain. He wears the facial features of FASD, although he has a high IQ, which means that most people see right past his invisible disability. People expect him to be able to understand, process, and think like everyone else. Therapists have urged Mike to make responsible decisions. Social workers have reinforced the need to think about consequences. Probation officers have told him "if you do the crime, you'll do the time." But it doesn't work that way for Mike. He has a chemically unbalanced brain that makes him an unlikely candidate for responsible behavior. And now that he's legally an adult, he is held to be as responsible as the next person who is 18.

But it really isn't fair, and it really isn't just. It would be like saying to an indvidual born without sight injured in a car-pedestrian encounter, "You should have known better than to walk out in front of that line of traffic. Cars drive on streets. Don't you know that? Didn't you realize you could be hit by being in the wrong place at the wrong time?" But we don't treat people with visual impairment in that callous manner. Nor should we treat those with invisible disabiliies in that way.

The rub, of course, is that in society we still need to have laws that protect the general public. In no way do I condone the antisocial, illegal activities is accused of committing. In no way should he be held less responsible for actions that society deems illegal. But, it does seem to me that we need to have better ways of dealing with individuals whose thinking processes are askew than jail or prison time. The sad truth is that there are few resources available. And I am convinced based upon my interactions with others who have been in trouble with the law, that it isn't only our son whose FASD haunts his ability to make appropriate decisions. The face of FASD is very present in your local jail or state prison. Take a look.

What I'm wanting to get at in this blog, though, is that I'm beginning to understand, although only partially, what it is like to suffer from a chemically unbalanced brain. A couple of months ago I was diagnosed with diabetes (type 2, adult onset). For a long time I had felt tired, emotionally stressed and physically drained. I thought it was due to our recent (11 months ago) move to a new community, new ministry position and assorted familiy issues. But my doctor confirmed that much of my physical and mental sense of unease was due to my inactive pancreas. Two months ago my glucose level was identified as 263 (which is significantly higher than healthy or productive readings should be). My average goal now is to maintain a level of 140, nearly half of the previous number.

As I lower my carbohydrate intake, increase my exercise and take an oral medication to help this process, I have seen my numbers drop often to 140 or lower. While the diagnosis itself was difficult and stressful to process, I can testify to just how much better I feel and how much more mentally alert and balanced I feel. The sense of disequilibrium and weariness is nearly gone now, and I feel like a new person. I have new energy, a new sense of balance and feeling of security.

My unbalanced brain was caused by an abundance of carboydrates, too little exercise, and too little naturally produced insulin. Today I feel like a new man. But for our son, Mike, the opportunity to discover this new freedom will not be accessible through a change in lifestyle or even in medication. The constitution of his brain has placed him in a different place, and while there are some things that can help him, I really doubt that jail time is the answer.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Five Years and Ninety Days

Sometimes the coincidences of life are ironic and sad. Today is my 43rd birthday, and it happens to be the first day one of us could visit Mike, who has been sitting in our county law enforcement center since Wednesday of this week. When I talked to Mike on Wednesday he implored me to rescue him. If only we could (a) bail him out, (b) let him come home or (c) tell the court that he was coming home and then let him live with a friend ... he would be able to prove to the judge that he could make something of himself and avoid prolonged jail time.

I told Mike that in the course of his nine years as our son (he arrived when he was nearly nine years old) we have constantly, over and over, found ways to "rescue" him, even though they have not been what Mike has wanted. Mike has never wanted, of course, to live in a residential treatment center, nor has he wantedto be anywhere he is at the moment, including home for the better part of those years. We have done everything we could do to help him make decisions in his own best interest, but we have never been able to do so successfully. Nor, it appears, has he.

So, at 7:00 PM tonight I left our home, where we had been celebrating my birthday with two sets of family friends, to await my 7:30 visit with our son. I have been in the jail twice before ... once with Mike several months after one of his juvenile run-in's with the law so that he could photographed and fingerprinted for FBI purposes, and a second time when I attempted to lead a very unwilling group of inmates in worship. So, the territory was not exactly new to me, but the role was. I was not transporting an errant teenager to be fingerprinted and photographed, I was not a pastoral professional leading worship; I was a parent visiting an adult child in trouble with the law, a parent who is unwilling to bail him out or let him live in our home.

It was a rather pathetic environment, actually. A total of nine of us clustered around four monitors to speak with our "straight inmates" (those who are serving "straight" time are not in, for example, a "work release" program or other variation). To my extreme left was a young father of three little girls, all under six; he was in his late twenties. To my immediate left were an older couple, senior citizens by my estimation, and to my right a boisterious pair of sisters visiting a third sister.

I could see Mike before I sat down at the monitor to pick up the phone. He was nervously awaiting our conversation, as evidenced in his pacing and lip-biting. We sat down to talk. His two blackened eyes from a physical interaction about a week previous are healing but still discolored. His flame orange hair is disheveled and uncombed, a glaring contrast to the bright orange of his prison issue clothing. We pick up the receivers, and I hear, "So, what's new?" "Not too much," I reply, "we're just celebrating my birthday at home tonight." "Oh, it's your birthday?" "Yes, Mike, it's my birthday." Awkward silence.

"So how are you?" I grimace inwardly as I ask the colloquial question of the hour. "Not so good" is his response. "Yeah, I can see that," I offer.

And then, for the remaining time of our allotted thirty minutes per week, I hear a barrage of verbiage I have heard again and again over the years. "So how come you and mom won't accept any collect phone calls from me?" ["We've told you, Mike, we've spent all the money we intend to spend on you, and your calls are verbally abusive"]. "How come you aren't man enough to make up your mind instead of listening to Mom? You know she's the one who is telling you to do this." "How come you won't just pay the $250 so that I can get out of here and prove to everyone that I can do better than this?" "Why did you even bother to adopt kids anyway, if this is the way you are going to treat them?" "Why don't you start practicing that shit that preach all the time ... about that guy who left home and took all his father's stuff and then came back and was accepted all over again?" "I must not matter at all to you now that I'm eighteen." "Should I just start calling you 'Bart' now since you're not going to be a parent and help me?" "You know the charge against me means that I will be spending five years and ninety days in jail, and you could hep me, but you aren't willing. Thanks a lot."

And so, I listen, I respond factually ("Mike, we have let you come back time and time again, but you are not able or willing to follow our rules." "Mike, it's not all about you. We have other family members who are negatively effected when you are in our house"). And I hear again, and again, just how bad we have been as parents, how people like us should never have adopted children, and how everyone is out to get him. He has done nothing to deserve his current location in jail, and everyone lies about him to get him in trouble. It is our fault that we has been arrested for "receiving stolen property" because if we had just let him live at home he wouldn't have had to do that.

But I sit there. I listen. I ask God for strength. And then I hear the warning buzzer telling us that we need to wrap up our conversations. These are the parting words I get to hear:

"So, you're not going to do anything to help me, are you? I guess then I'll just see you in five years and ninety days." As the receiver on his end slams into its holder I see the angry tears falling down his cheeks as he wipes his eyes and steels himself for the days ahead. In a place he does not want to be. With people he does not know. With no sense of responsibility for what he has done.

I have sat there not because I need to see Mike. I took my verbal beating not because I deserve it nor because I am masochistic enough to desire it. I am there not for myself. I am there for Mike, because he needs someone to remind him of who he is. My son. Errant, noncompliant, angry, embittered, organically challenged and emotionally troubled beyond explanation.

But my son nonetheless. As he will be next week at the same time and place. As he will be in a year from now. As he will be five years and ninety days from now. As he will be until the day I die. Whether he understands it or not, I will continue to remind him of who he is, because I'm not sure he remembers anymore. But I know who he is, and I will not let him forget.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Because I Won't Be Alive Forever

Forty-three years ago tomorrow my infantile lungs filled with oxygen for the first time as I emerged into a new world. On that day my mother was a tender eighteen years of age, while her mother was exactly forty-five. Tomorrow is the first time in forty-three years that my grandmother and I will not both be alive to share a birthday separated by forty-five years. It reminds that I won't be alive forever.

According to those who know, the average male in the United States will live about 72 years. If that holds true for me, then I am already halfway there, so it impels me to do today what I think is important. None of us has any guarantee for tomorrow, and there are some things that matter to me.

One of the things that has mattered a great deal to me over the past eleven years has been my children. They grow up so quickly, and I want to leave them with many memories and connections with their father, however long I may live. With our kids now ranging in age from eleven to twenty, I recognize with humility how fleeting are the moments parents and children share together.

So, this morning, the first day of summer vacation for our at-home children, and my standard day off, I initiated a little adventure. On this sun-drenched beautifully mild early summer Minnesota day we traveled 125 miles away to visit the Mystery Cave State Park. What an interesting journey we had. I am choosing to excise from my memory the standard bickering, nit-picking, mutually annoying behaviors of the six children in my vehicle so that I can remember what a glorious day we had together. We spent an hour together some forty feet below the earth's surface in the Mystery Cave, where a very fine guide regaled us with the geologic splendors of subterranean experience. We had the opportunity to see two brown bats affixed to the walls of the cave, numerous stalactites and stalagmites (who knows the difference?!) and a consistent 48 degrees temperature (year-round). The kids enjoyed the time there, and we have spent some time since discussing the fun we had.

We ate a picnic lunch together in the park, then three of us hiked together (they are pictured above), and the other three stayed behind to toss a frisbee. I have decided that I will filter out the positive experiences, leave behind the negative pieces of our time together, and be grateful I have the opportunity to spend nice times with several of my children.

I'm hoping we have the opportunity to do this often during the summer months, because I won't be alive forever.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

When Adoption Is a Joke

I've been mulling this experience over in my mind for the past couple of weeks to see if my initial reaction is overly sensitive or if it is justified. After considerable thought, I think it is justified. Here's the story.

A few weeks ago our second-youngest, sixth grade son Anthony asked if I would be a parent chaperone for their annual trip to the state capitol. Because I love history and generally enjoy the age group, I agreed to accompany the hordes of sixth graders descending upon our fair capital city.

On the way I overheard a conversation between three students and two of their teachers. Our son Tony was within earshod of the conversation, so I also heard his voice as well.

Student: "Yeah, whenever I do something dumb my parents tease me that I was adopted."
Other students: Snickering response
Student: "They say I was born to the Googlemeisters next door and dropped off when I was a baby."
Teacher: "The Googlemeisters?" [laughing]
Student: "It's just a made up name."
Teacher: "Couldn't they have come up with something better than that?!"
Student: "Guess not. It's the dumbest name they could think of."
Anthony: "Well I know that I'm adopted."
Student: [No response ... as in ignoring, not as in shamed]
Teacher: [No response ... ditto]

I was far enough away to hear the conversation, but not close enough to help frame the adoption issue, so I chose to let it go, although internally I was uncomfortable with the level of misunderstanding concerning adoption and the negative connotations of the conversation. Of course I was not nearly as disappointed with the students, who are, after all, naive and in sixth grade. I was considerably disappointed, however, in the teacher who did nothing to frame adoption in a positive fashion and who didn't even acknowledge Tony's commentary about his own life.

I was hoping that was the last interchange for the day about adoption I would need to overhear, but it was not. On the third leg of our day we visited historic Fort Snelling, established in the early 1820s (the first United States Fort west of the Mississippi after the purchase of the Northwest Territory). As we were walking along by some historic, unrestored buildings from the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) days of the 1930s, replete with broken windows, rotting timbers and barred doorways, I happened to over hear the following snippet of conversation:

Student 1: "So, is that the orphanage where you lived after you were born" [in a sniggering tone].
Student 2: "[Laughing] Yep. Even the Googlemeister's would have been better than that."

Since I did not know the students well enough to confront them, and I was not a part of their conversation, once again I chose to say nothing. But I was once again reminded that in our culture there is a great deal of misunderstanding about adoption and those who have been affected by it.

Assumptions are rife that all adopted children have come from poverty-stricken origins, or that they were unwanted to begin with, or that somehow that only "dumb" or misbehaving children are dumped into the adoption world. It saddens me to think that so little progress has been made in our world that adoption would still be viewed as a joke.

The truth of the matter is, of course, that adoption is difficult. It is challenging for both the children involved and the parents. And yes, there are children who have been adopted who are difficult, or who have experienced poverty early in life, or who are neglected or abused by their birth families.

But ... does our culture really believe that adoption is an inferior way of family life? Are there not enough positive adoption stories out there to encourage people to see the joys and blessings of adoption, for both children and their parents?

I look to the day when adoption is no longer a joke, but seen as an exceptional opportunity for everyone to benefit. And by everyone I mean more than the traditional adoption "triad" (birth parent(s), adoptive parent(s) and child/ren). I look forward to the day when sixth grade boys don't see the need to talk about adoption in dismissive or derisive terms because it is seen as so natural and normal that it doesn't provoke such commentary. I look forward to the day when sixth grade teachers can present a positive case for adoption, and remind his/her students that the value of an individual doesn't rest upon their beginnings in life.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Unsurprised Ambivalence

Many of you, I know, are readers of my wife's blog, so you already know what I am about to reflect upon. This morning our eighteen-year-old son awakened in a jail cell in our county's law enforcement center. Not that many yeas ago as a parent I would have been disillusioned, frantic and desparately self-questioning regarding his current geographical location. But the past five years have readied me for this day.

Since the time he was about thirteen this son of ours has been consistently running -- from our home, from foster care placements, from residential treatment settings, from emergency shelter homes, from half-way houses -- and no one has been able to stop him. We have tried for years. Early on we tried the "love and logic" approach that works with adolescents whose brains are well-functioning. It didn't work. We tried "tough love" as he became involved with the child protection arm of county social services. It was unsuccessful. We agreed with the social services workers that he needed to be in residential treatment. His stays there only reinforced his feelings that we never loved him in the first place. We have visited with him, telephoned him, written letters to him, brought him home time and time again to "try one more time." We have appeared in court to "admit" that we had a child in need of services of protection. We have prayed for him, we have pleaded with him, we have "rewarded" him. None of it has worked.

So today I am emotionally in a plae of unsurprised ambivalence. I no longer feel shock when I receive news about Mike's most recent mishaps. I'm not sure if there is anything anymore about him that would surprise me too much. Except that he might express love for or attachment to us when he's not in some kind of troubling situation, but then that would cynical, wouldn't it?

One emotion I do feel rather strongly, however, is anger. I am angry, but not really with Mike. I am angry that his birthmother chose to drink and use chemicals while he was growing in her womb. I am angry that a young man with such creative ability and such intelligence will be forever hampered by choices he did not make. I am angry that Mike is unable to see what is in his own best interest or to recognize those who are his best chance for success. I am angry that we live in an alcohol- and chemical-soaked culture that glorifies the consumption of products which alter, maim and kill thousands of people every year. I am angry that as a society we have not found better ways to assist those with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), and that the only tenable option we really have is prison time. I'm angry that those who cause irreparable damage through consuming poisonous chemical while carrying a child continue to have children with the same defects.

So maybe my stance is not quite unsurprised ambivalence with regard to the bigger issue. But as I think of our son, it is. I have cared too much for too long with too few results to feel anything more or less.

And, in case you wonder, the answer is "yes." Yes, we will continue to be Mike's parents. Yes, we will continue to love him and to be as present for him as we can be. Yes, we will always believe that he has potential as a child of God to make something of his life. We will not let go of him, although our hands these days are more inclined to be folded in prayer than in enfolding his.

I am unsurprised. I am ambivalent. I am the parent of an adult child with FASD.