Friday, July 27, 2007

Playing Favorites

Once again I am in a quandary. Claudia received a text message this morning from one our kids at home that Mike is no longer in jail. "How do you know that?" she asked. "Because he knocked on my window in the night and asked me to let him in," was the response. Fortunately, Mike listened to our nineteen-year-old's response that he could not stay in our house. I feel some responsibility for the occurrence, since I mailed Mike a letter before we went (assuming he would continue to be in jail for some time) telling him that I wouldn't be able to visit him in jail this weekend because Claudia and I would be out of town. So, I am torn. I felt I did the right thing by wriitng to him while he was in jail, but I'm irritated that I did. Perhaps if I had not written he wouldn't have shown up in the middle of the night knocking on his sibling's window when he knew we were out of town. But who knows? He could have done the same thing with us sleeping in our own beds, too. When you've got a kid with FASD, you just never know.

Every time Mike is out it makes me wonder what we should do. From the beginning part of our reason in adopting older kids was so that they would have some kind of safety net after they turned eighteen and became legally "adults." Our older two sons have been able to handle that beautifully, following our family guidelines and as a result reaping the benefits of support from parents after their eighteenth birthdays. They have not stolen from us, they have not broken the law, they have not terrorized their siblings, they have not threatened to kill us, they have not kicked holes in doors, punched their way through closets or used a baseball bat to destroy windows while threatening to "fucking kill" us.

But what do you do when you've got an "adult" child who is on the streets, who begs to come home, but based on years of history you know it will be the same thing all over. It will be one or two days of relative calm and appreciation for a place to sleep, food to eat and safe people to talk with, and then he will be gone one, two or more days without any word whatsoever until he shows up in the middle of the night to ransack our home or collapse exhausted from running and drugging into the nearest couch in our home he can find.

It pains me. Because there are not any good alternatives. We cannot allow Mike to live at home because his behaviors and even his presence push our other kids way over the edge. How fair is it to other family members, younger than he, whose lives are currently in a calm, steady place? Is it moral for us to allow his negative influences to permeate our home and saboutage our younger, vulnerable children? But then again, how moral is it for us to deny him access to our home? If we are, in fact, his "forever family," how can we shut the door in his face?

It is in an intractable situation, and it makes me feel like I'm playing favorites. It makes me fee like I am unwilling to take any more risks with Mike, and that he is on his own with little parental involvement or help.

But my wife reminds me in her ever-so-logical way that it's not just about Mike and his mom and his dad any more. If it were just Mike and his parents, we could more easily work something out for him. But it isn't about just Mike, it is about our other children who deserve the right to a childhood and adolescence relatively free from the turmoil his using, law-breaking presence brings into our lives.

The most moral thing we can do is protect them from further victimization. The next most moral thing we can do is to continue to offer to help Mike navigate the complicated world of adult social services, but he has to be willing to be a part of that process, and to this point he has refused, denying that he has any diagnosis of FASD and that he needs to assistance from the state or county.

I guess it really isn't about playing favorites, but the emotional quandary it creates for me is troubling. I claim to be cynical (and with many avenues of life I guess I am), but when it comes to my kids I am not nearly as cynical as perhaps I should be. I continue to hold out hope for Mike, and he will always be my son, but he cannot live with us. And while it feels wrong, I know it is what we must do.

The Value of an Accurate Diagnosis

As you may know, Claudia and I are presently in Tampa, FL, where we are attending the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) annual conference. It's invigorating to be with others who understand what it means to work with children who have challenges, and there is a whole array of acronyms frequenting the airspace. It is not difficult to overhear other adoptive parents and professionals discussing the details of a young person's life, including the letters identifying a diagnostic conclusion. There are some who dislike speaking about diagnosis and a child in the same breath, for they fear it labels and negatively impacts the child in question, and certainly depending upon how the information is utilized that can be the case. But there is also value to an accurate diagnosis. I was reminded of that this morning as I took some time for self-care and departed the hotel lobby at 9:45 to walk to the transportation center to catch one of the street trolleys that convey passengers over several stops in the immediate Tampa areas. I purchased my $4 unlimited pass in the hotel lobby and was set to ride.

Upon reading the schedule at the terminal, however, I discovered that the first trolley did not depart until 11:00 AM, and it was 9:45 AM. So I had to decide what I wanted to do. I could return to the conference and arrive late for a session (nope), I could return to the room and do some online work while I waited (possibly), or I could sit and wait for the first trolley to come in 75 minutes (not likely). I pondered my dilemma for a few minutes, frustrated because I had a limited window of time with which to work (I had promised to meet Claudia at noon for lunch). Then I decided there was no reason I could not walk to my destination, Ybor City (the end point of the trolley line).

Understand that a few months ago, or a year ago when we were at the NACAC Conference in Long Beach, I would have not entertained that notion. While I didn't mind walking even a year ago, the distance and the humidity would have dissuaded me and pushed me back into the comfortable, air-conditioned hotel. But several months ago I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, so I know that every step I take helps me prolong my health and in an ultimate sense my life. For the past few months I have been diligently checking glucose levels, becoming almost obsessed with my numeric targets and quickly coming to realize that exercise makes a huge difference in that outcome.

So, at 9:50 AM with nearly 3 miles ahead of me, I set out for my destination. It is humid and hot even at that time in the morning here in Tampa, but I trudged forward and actually enjoyed savoring my footsteps. I was able to see and experience Tampa in a way that riding the trolley would have robbed me. I felt the warm heavy air upon my face, the occasional, merciful whisps of breeze to cool me, and met nearly no one on my walk. It was a quiet, pleasant quest into solitude, ending in Ybor City some thirty minutes later. Had I not been diagnosed with diabetes several months ago, and had I not started walking as a result, and had I not as a result been feeling well enough to embark upon such a task, I would have consigned myself for a limited opportunity.

I can't speak for children or youth who have been diagnosed with an emotional or behavioral difficulty, but I suspect that an accurate diagnosis, well interpreted and cared for, might provide some level of relief for both parent and child. To know that there is something amiss that can be helped with medication or with therapy or with other accommodations certainly has to be better than to wander in the land of not knowing, simply avoiding or hoping for a positive outcome with few tools to work with.

My diagnosis was no surprise to me, although it was still shocking to realize that if I did not begin to change my lifestyle my life would be shortened and unquestionably diminished before that time. It was a relief to finally know why I was so irritable, why I was so tired, why I was so depressed, and why I never felt that well. And now that I am on the road to better health I feel better, I am not tired, I am not depressed, and I am not worried about why I was feeling the way I did. To know my pancreas is burning out is not exactly what I wanted to hear, but now I have steps toward which I can move, knowing that I can do something to restore a level of health.

That's the value of an accurate diagnosis. May all of our children and youth and those who care with and for them be so fortunate.

Maybe It's a Midlife Thing

Maybe it’s a midlife thing, because it never bothered me ten years ago, but now that I’m in my forties I find myself comparing my life to others in my age bracket. It surprises me because I have never been a person easily swayed by peer pressure, but here I am a full-grown adult asking questions I never thought I would ask.

When I am in my own compact world, where things are more predictable, neat and tidy I am less inclined to engage in the mental debates, but out of my element I become more enticed. I am a walker, so when I’m visiting another community, as Claudia and I are doing for the past few days through tomorrow, I begin the mental meanderings.

Tonight we had a most unusual Saturday night. Because of my pastoral responsibilities on Sunday mornings, it is usual for us to be close to home on a Saturday night. Often we have friends over for dinner and such, but usually by 8:30 or so we have done our socializing and everyone is one their way home. This Saturday night, however, since I am not preaching tomorrow morning, the time is less structured and more relaxed, which is a gift. But it is also a little disorienting.

We had the opportunity to eat dinner with other professionals from the adoption conference we are attending, and then enjoyed some post-dinner conversation. It was an enjoyable time. After returning to the hotel Claudia hunkered down with email, and I decided to take a whole-hearted walk, more than a casual stroll, less than a jog, it has produced very good results in dropping my blood sugar levels, which for a diabetic is always a plus.

Observing the way other people spend their Saturday nights reminds me of how different my life is from theirs. Granted, the area in which I walked is probably the wealthiest area in Tampa, so it is not representative of all residents, but it is a different experience than walking in even the most affluent areas of our university town population less than 55,000. One of the first ways I notice is with the type of vehicle being driven around the area. Shiny, expensive, cars and limousines shuttle well-coiffeured, expensively dressed people from luxury hotels to prime dining spots. A block or so away from the hotel in which we are staying (which is not the top of the luxury line but getting there) are condominiums “starting in the mid-200’s,” a full $100,000 more than we paid for our home we purchased a year ago. In this area homes with a square-footage 1,000 less than ours are priced two and three times the value of our home, on lots 25% as large as ours. Niche restaurants tout entrees at $30 and $40 more than we would pay in the nicer establishments in our home town.

And so I begin to wonder, to question myself as I compare my life to that of my peers. I am well-educated (an earned master’s and doctoral coursework completed), well placed in my profession (in a marvelous congregation open to change and growing), and respected in the community. But I do not own a shiny new vehicle of any kind. Of our three vehicles, one is a ten-year-old van that is battered beyond recognition but which provides very cheap transportation, a seven-year-old car that has 185,000 miles on it and which needs to last another three or four years, and a two-year-old van which is nice enough but certainly nothing special. The home we live in is fifty years old and shows its age, while I am not personally skilled enough nor wealthy enough to initiate some of the changes it really needs. We eat at home regularly and occasionally when we do go out to eat we seek the most reasonable eating experience we can find.

Some of my peers are already retiring, having invested the money they earned in the 1990s wisely. Some of them have a second home, or a place that is a “getaway” location, while we are only into our first year of living in a home that is ours.

But the biggest difference is that we have children, and as I look around this affluent neighborhood on this Saturday night, I realize the shocking absence of children. As I walk I see the occasional child or two with parents, but generally it is well-heeled adults entertaining themselves with other adults.

And so I wonder how much of my life I have chosen to relinquish because Claudia and I have decided to parent ten children. What kind of vehicle might I be driving if we had only the average 2.5 (or whatever it is now) children in American homes? Or what kind of second home might we be able to afford for mini-getaways? Where could we be eating, how could we be entertaining ourselves, what would like be like with a more controlled, “normal” life.

Of course, it doesn’t help my internal revelry when the children (not all of them, but some) in my home ask why we don’t have a jet ski, or a boat, or a dirt bike, or a snowmobile, or a large-screen television, or a summer cabin, or a camper, or a newer car or a better van. My typical reply is, “Those aren’t things we really need,” although sometimes I make a stronger statement by saying, “Well, we’ve chosen to raise children, and they are more important to us than material possessions.”

And it’s true. Our values are different than those around us, which makes for unusual and challenging times frequently. While it is true that our family will never ride in a limousine or own a Mercedes, and while we will not have the opportunity to retreat for most of the summer in a cabin or cottage miles away on a restive lake, we are investing in something far more different, far more valuable, and far less certain. It would be easier to have material possessions to “show” for our efforts, but we are investing in children. And that’s a value that simply does not compute very well in the world in which I live.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What Good Does a Conference Do?

Claudia and I arrived yesterday in Tampa for the North American Council on Adoptable Children's annual conference. This year's gathering (venue changes from year to year, although it's the same time of year) has about 900 adoption professionals, including parents, social workers, child welfare advocates and others who are involved in the adoption world. It is always a fulfilling and interesting experience to hear from others with a similar passion and life's work, but this year's conference in Tampa is already benefiting me personally.

Over the years I have participated in a number of different conferences, many of them church-related and many of them valuable, but many of them only one time. Those that have not made the "repeat again" agenda are those that have taken a lot of time, money and effort on my part without offering enough benefit. The NACAC Conference, however, is one that Claudia and I have always made a priority to attend, especially because it's about the only one we attend together.

Already this morning (the conference opened just this morning) I have learned several helpful things that will assist me in my journey as an adoptive parent, even though I have been on this pathway for what seems to be like a long time already (I know eleven years isn't much to some people, but for me it is fully one-quarter of my life, nearly one-half of my adult life).

This morning keynote speaker, Dr. Jaiya John, is an effective communicator and has much to say. He was adopted by a young caucasian family as an infant (his ancestry is African-American and Native American), grew up in the desert of New Mexico in a predominantly Latino community, and is an exceptional resource in helping adoptive parents understand their ever-changing roles. One of the points he made profoundly well is this: Any adoption is cross-cultural. Typically we think of "cross-cultural" adoption as involving racial or ethnic dissimilarities in a family unit. His focus, however, is to help parents realize that any adoption involves transitioning a child with his or her own genetic, environmental and innate characteristics into a family unit that is, by definition, new.

He also made the point in a number of ways that what we currently have in our country is not a "child welfare" system, but a "help parents get the child they want" system, when it comes to adoption. Too infrequently do we listen to the voice and experience of the child, instead moving in a consumeristic (my words, not his) direction that seeks to "place" a child in a family in the same way marketers might try to "place" a new product on the family dinner table. The system has become more about parents getting what they think they want as opposed to children receiving what they need.

I also attended a workshop on FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorders) which affirmed what we have tried to do with our own son with this diagnosis. The workshop speaker is a social worker, birth parent to 3 and adoptive parent to 8, from Maine whose experience in raising her FASD children is so like our experience with Mike that it made me feel just a little better. She talked about her son's brushes with the law, including jail time, his inability to understand cause and effect, the difficulty in moving past literal thinking and speech, the social challenges and emotional delays ... I felt like she was telling our story all over again. I left feeling better knowing that we couldn't have done anything more or different with Mike to this point in his life (she offered no new ideas that would have helped us in the past years), but still grieved knowing that so many children and families have to deal in this way with the fallout of women who choose to drink while they are pregnant.

Part of my self-care plan while here in Tampa is spend some time enjoying the city, so in a few minutes I will be walking in the humid day to see what I can see. Incidentally, the weather in Florida is more pleasant this week than back home in Minnesota. I've never anticipated escaping Minnesota for a more temperate week in Florida during July, but I guess that's also one of the good things a conference can do!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

When a Large Family Makes You Defensive

I stood poised to enter the security detection device at the aiport a few moments ago, following my wife who had the one sheet of paper with both of our home-printed boarding passes. The young man beckoned, "Come ahead, Bart." It's always a little surprising to me when someone calls me by my first name, especially a stranger, and especially with name as unusual as mine. As I moved forward, he smiled in a twisted sort of way and said, "So, you decided to leave the rest of the family at home, huh?"

In a scant second my brain registered a moment of irritation as I scanned his face. His face was unknown to me. His badge, "Adam 6156" did nothing to jog my memory, either, and I thought in the chaotic way one does when confronted with too many psychological stimuli at the same time, "How in the world does he know my family?" Then, a nano-second later, I thought, "Because it's an orange security threat level [extreme danger], maybe it's some kind of a trick question." I responded demurely, "Yeah, we left them all at home."

"Yeah, Marge and Lisa and Homer?" His eyes sparkled with his self-identified wry humor.

"Actually, they're busy working on the movie I think," I replied, trying to step for even a moment into his revelry. I only wanted to get through the security process quickly, retrieve my laptop, place it in my briefcase, and slap my shoes on my feet so I could keep moving. He continued his momentary revelry and this summarily dismissed me.

I couldn't help but think how much my life has changed in the past eleven years. There was a time not that long ago when a question about my family, and leaving them behind, would have sparked nothing more than a grunt on my part. I might have even been clued in enough to recognize as he called me by my first name that he was up to playing some word games with me. But, alas, adoption has made me a bit defensive.

I have to smile at myself sometimes. My wife says it's good not to take myself too seriously. So I guess I still have some things to learn.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Action and Reflection

I have become, over the years, a morning person, but this morning started early even for me. Typically I like to be in the office by about 7:00 AM, but this morning I am here almost an hour earlier than usual. I was awakened earlier this morning with our youngest son Dominyk's plaintive cry that he had a bad dream about spiders (he has a dread fear of any kind of creeping, crawling things, which is quite ironic considering how fully he embraces the dirt and grime of nature in other ways). After he settled himself in our bedroom recliner and fell back asleep, I awakened after a nightmare of my own. It was a strange, convoluted collage involving my sleeping in a deserted cabin in the middle of nowhere, only to be awakened by police surveillance helicopters which landed nearby and then stormed an occupied mobile home. I watched as one of the police officers was shot by the suspect, and then witnessed the suspect being subdued with gunfire as well. During the whole dream, of course, I was vividly watching all the events (kind of like the "omniscient author" description I learned about back in eighth grade literature class) without being personally engaged in them. It was an unusually strange dream for me, and by then it was close enough to my usual awakening time that I decided to simply start my day. As I was getting dressed Claudia mumbled to me that she had just had a dream in which we had adopted five more children, a sibling group. So, the early morning hours for the Fletcher family (or at least a portion thereof) has been oddly chaotic, and we are not even awake yet!

In the quietness of the morning I began to think a bit more about what I had preached about Sunday. The Gospel text was the account of Jesus' visit to the home of Martha and Mary. While Martha works feverishly to prepare the meal and surroundings for her guest, Mary sits with Jesus to hear him speak about less material matters. Martha is unhappy, and summons Jesus to rescue her by reprimanding Mary and telling her to get busy. Instead Jesus corrects Martha, saying that Mary is doing the "better" thing. I developed in my sermon the concept of action and reflection, talking about those of us who are by nature "do-ers" and those of us who are "be-ers."

So this morning as I thought about the days gone by and the days to come in moments of reflection, I realize how much life can change as a result of a "simple" action. I cannot imagine how different my life would be today had I not joined in agreeing with my wife that adoption was not only philosophically and ethically a noble proposition, but that in order for adoption to make sense we needed to take action. Early on I tried to convince her and myself that perhaps we were not the best candidates to bring into our home children whose histories were scarred and whose futures were questionable. During the training process (and our pre-adoptive training process was quite excellent) I wondered whether we would really be able to do what was necessary to care for "other people's children." I didn't know whether I had the emotional capacity or strength of character that would be required. And I didn't. At that time.

But the thing about personal growth (I would probably speak here about "spiritual development") is that until you take some action, you never know. And even then you never really know. You simply take one step after another, learning as you go, doing your best, changing when you must and remaining steady when you cannot. The adoption journey, especially with older children, is fraught with risk and challenge every day, but it is also replete with joy and blessing.

I grew up as a fairly sheltered child. There were few other children my age in the rural area where I grew up, so I became accustomed to adults long before peers. In the homogeneous community in which I lived I did not meet an African-American person until I was in third grade, when a family moved from the Chicago area to begin a dentistry practice. I never met an Hispanic-American until I was in college. But, interestingly enough, during my grade school years in a small, northern Minnesota community, I met all kinds of kids with special needs, although I didn't recognize it at that time. There were kids whose parents were neglectful, and who bounced around from foster home to foster home. There were many kids who parents drank far too much, so there was never enough money for the basics of life. There were more than our share of teenage pregnancies, underage consumption and illicit drug use.

So I wasn't exactly immune from the difficulties of society. But it's one thing to witness from a distance those challenges, and it's another to embrace them by adopting a child or children who have known only dysfunction and transition. To bring a child from a chaotic environment into one that is stable and secure is a rather daunting task.

But we have done it, and we are doing it. We learn something new each day, but I can't imagine our life's journey any other way!

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Value of Boy Scouts

For years now our son Tony has wanted to be a Scout. In the community where we previously lived Scouting was not strong, so we deferred his desire for several years. Arriving in North Mankato a year ago to a church who sponsors a dynamic, very strong scouting program meant we could wait no longer. Troop 29 is recognized for its excellence -- numerous adult leaders, regularly scheduled and well executed meetings, a full-fledged troop that each year recognizes the achievements of Eagle Scouts (the highest rank attainable in Boy Scouts of America). I never had the opportunity to be a scout when I was a kid, but I always thought it would have been a great experience, so I have been happy to have Tony so involved. Yesterday he departed for his first week-long Boy Scout Camp adventure, so at 6:45 AM I was present bright and early to see him off.

"Involved" with scouting is really a multi-faceted word, for it means not only being present, but often having a parent present and active, as well as "complicated." There are many details that need to be cared for if you are a scout or the parent of one. I have blogged previously about why it is that kids on the margins are often not involved in such a program, although what it offers are significant.

While I have only been a scouting parent for the past seven months or so, there are some immediate values I can identify:

* High expectations -- the boys are held to responsibility, mutual respect and accomplishment.
* Healthy adult role models -- the men and women who provide leadership to scouts are people of exemplary stature. While they are a diverse group (thankfully), they share some common core values and above all want the boys to enjoy the scouting experience.
* Positive peer interactions -- it is especially heartwarming to see the ways the older boys interact with the younger. While each personality is different, there is a common value that younger kids need to be treated with gentle consistency, appropriate direction and kindness.
* Attunement to nature -- I am one of those who believe that in our culture our kids are too removed from nature (one author has called this a "nature deficit disorder," see Richard Louv, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder"). Scouting provides the means to bring kids into connection with nature and teach respect for all of creation.
* Reclamation of "Lost" Basic Human Values -- when I hear the scouts chant in unsion that a scout is "trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent" I am reminded how important, and how rapidly becoming lost, are those values to a civilized, healthy culture.

I am proud to have a son who is a Boy Scout, even though the details are sometimes overwhelming, especially for a parent with no personal scouting background. And I am hopeful that Tony's week at camp will be return him home to us in a better state of being than when he left.

More Than I Could Have Asked For

Our twenty-year-old son was home for the weekend. This fall he will begin his college senior year, and he has decided to stay in the metropolitan area for the summer, working an on-campus summer job, so we see him less frequently than we have in summers past. While he was home last summer it was a generally miserable experience for him and for us. We had just moved to a new community where he knew no one, working a job (for us, actually) that he didn't particularly like, so his moods ranged from very crabby to only slightly crabby for the three months he was home. As much as I love Kyle and enjoy having him around, I wondered whether he might make a better guest than resident. I guess there is some truth to that, because his visit this weekend was actually quite pleasant.

I had a meeting in the metro area on Friday night, so I was able to pick him up (Kyle does not have a car) after my meeting and we drove home together, enjoying a spirited conversation we both enjoyed. By the time we got home Friday night it was too late to do much, so Kyle rented a couple of DVDs and we didn't see him until Saturday morning, when he worked a few hours for us PCA'ing one of his brothers. Early Saturday morning before anyone else was awake Tony (our twelve-year-old) and I decided to treat the family to donuts for breakfast (nutritional concerns aside), and as we were picking up our breakfast items noticed that the new Harry Potter book, released at midnight the night before was on sale at our grocery store. On the way home the night before Kyle uttered with regret, "Dang. And I won't be home [his place] tonight to get my Harry Potter book, but I asked a friend to pick it up for me." Weeks ago Kyle had purchased in advance his copy of the book in a metro bookstore in order to assure himself of getting a copy right away, and here in our smaller town grocery store sat two full boxes of the book on sale. So, Tony and I decided to purchase the book for the family, but really we purchased it so Kyle would have a chance to begin reading what he had been waiting months for.

Arriving home, Tony tip-toed into Kyle's room and put the book near Kyle's head, which awakened him. Tony delivered his dad-inspired, canned line, "Dad and I thought you might want to start reading Harry Potter while you're home," and within minutes Kyle appeared in his semi-groggy morning state to declaim with an ironic smile on his face, "Now how am I supposed to work when all I want to do is read?" I assured him that he would find plenty of time to read the 700+-page tome between work and said, "A better response might be, 'Thanks for thinking of me, dad.'" The sparkle in his eye and the smile were sufficient, which is a good thing, but there were no particular words of thanks extended. Througout the day I would see Kyle reading a chapter here and there amidst his PCA tasks. It warmed my heart to know how inexpensive and easy it was to help my twenty-year-old son enjoy his weekend home.

On Sunday morning all of us who were home enjoyed worship together (well, I say together, but that's a relative term because I am typically one of those leading worship, not sitting with my family), along with many other wonderful people, including a number of guests. It was really an enjoyably refreshing morning, and I revel in the ways God is working in the life of our congregation. We are gradually seeing more diversity (ethnic as well as age) and there is an excited "buzz" that emanates forth from our times of worship. I am as vocationally happy as I have ever been, thrilled with the continuing progress we are together making.

Sunday after lunch (which turned out to be a pleasant affair, as well, as ten us ate Mongolian Grill together) I was interviewed for an FASD documentary, and then returned home. Earlier in the day our interviewer offered to return Kyle to the metro area since he was headed that way anyway, so I let Kyle make the decision. Kyle, who is an introvert and not all that interested in discussing his past or the disorder-specific traits of his birth brother (Mike, who is currently in jail awaiting trial), decided he would prefer his dad provide the ride home. I could tell in our decision-making process about who would take him home that Kyle was trying his best to be selfless, asking me several times what I would prefer. I simply said, "You know that I enjoy visiting with you, Kyle, so I'd be happy to take you home, but if all you're going to do is read the book then it might as well be anyone." "Well, I couldn't exactly read the book if [the other person] took me back, could I?" I appreciated his desire to save me the hassle of driving three hours, but enjoyed knowing his preference.

As we got into the car to leave for his house, he muttered apologetically, "Well, it would have been kind of awkward to ride back with [the other person]. I don't really know him or anything." I said in jest, "That's fine, Kyle. I'm glad that you prefer me over a total stranger." He shot me a look that wondered whether or not I was being light-hearted or irritated, but I smiled and said, "I'm glad to spend some time with you. Let's go."

He did his best to engage me in conversation during our first ten of the ninety mile trip, but I could tell he really would rather be reading, so I began to respond in less flourished sentences until Kyle finally said, "Well, since you're going to be the strong silent type, I think I'll read a while." I said as kindly as I could, "Sounds fine, Kyle, I've been talking most of the day already [referring to the Sunday morning church, visiting, lunch, interview sequence of events], so do what you need to do." Again he looked at me inquisitively and said, "What do you mean by that?" "Nothing at all," I said, knowing that in past years when I've used that phrase it has usually been delivered with caustic sarcasm as in, "I can't belive you're so selfish to want to read/watch your movie/not talk when I'm giving up hours to drive you someplace." But this time it was not meant with sarcasm; I simply wanted my son to enjoy his time with me, even if that meant his attention being focused on a book he was enjoying rather than a conversation with me. After a couple more interrogatories (in which he attempted to ferret our my true meaning) he seemed satisfied with my responses and engaged Harry Potter one more time.

Occasionally he would say, "I just need to finish this chapter, and then I'll talk to you," to which I would say, "That's fine, Kyle. Take your time." Turned out there were many chapters that needed to be finished, so we had limited conversation. As we approached the metro area he put the book down and we talked about where to eat dinner.

After dinner we drove back to his house. WIthin a few blocks of his departure I said, "Well, Kyle, it's been really nice having you home this weekend." "Thanks, Dad, it was nice being home, too. Thanks for dinner and thanks for buying the book." "You're welcome. I hope you'll remember that I do some nice things for you the next time you think I'm a real ass." "When's the last time I thought you were an ass, Dad?" "I'm sure it's been more recently than you think, Kyle."

And then, with a smile on his face and a glint in his eyes, he was opening the door, retrieving his stuff from the back seat and on his way back "home." "See you soon, Kyle. I love." "Love you, too, Dad."

It was a weekend that was more than I could have asked for. I'm sure glad we adopted that boy.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Perspicacious Picnic

This weekend we have had the opportunity to meet a Los Angeles native who is in the production and film business. His "real" job involves writing for a gaming network on cable television, but his intended avocation is to film and produce documentaries. His current project involves FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder), and his connection to us is having read first of all Claudia's, and then Claudia's friends' blogs. He has been in email contact with Claudia for a number of months and then arranged to be in Minnesota for a few days, meeting with professionals who deal with FASD as well as parents (professionals in another sense, I would say) who live with the diagnosis. He is a bright, engaging, articulate guy who will, I am sure, do a great job on the upcoming documentary. This morning he will be in worship at our church, join us for lunch and then interview me this afternoon.

Last night our family friend Kari (who also works with MOFAS, Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) organized a picnic in the park with families and their children who live with FASD. Our four families enjoyed the time together, but I was acutely aware that one of the best subjects for the documentary was unable to be with us, our son Mike. If you are a regular reader, you know that Mike turned eighteen this past March and has successfully accumulated a number of legal charges against himself and now sits in our county law enforcement center awaiting trial. I couldn't help but wonder last night what the picnic might have been like five years ago, shortly after Mike received the FASD diagnosis. At thirteen we had already parented Mike for four years, unaware that his issues were deeper than the RAD (reactive attachment disorder), ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) that we were aware of when he came into our family. We had worked diligently during those first four years with Mike to behavior modify, consequence and "love and logic" him into compliance. Every attempt failed. We wondered why, because we knew Mike had a solid IQ. We questioned our parenting abilities and approach. We wondered if perhaps we were too strict, or too rigid or too callous (all accusations Mike lobbed against us repeatedly). It was a bit of a relief, actually, to discover Mike's issues were related to a deeper condition resulting from the organic brain trauma of pre-natal exposure to alcohol.

But with that relief came a whole new array of challenges as Mike began to run from home for days on end, involve himself with peers and families of questionable ethics and morality, and become involved in antisocial activity that we knew would lead to more significant criminal involvement. We did not give up then, though. We did our best to provide consistent boundaries, consequenced behavior as immediately as possible, and continued to show as much love and support as we could muster. It was difficult to maintain a positive attitude and kind spirit in the presence of such unbridled hostility, confusion and blame, however. And so we were not always successful in being "non-anxious presences." But we tried, we did not give up.

Even when it became necessary for Mike to have more intensive services not afforded by his insurance (services beyond weekly therapy), and when the county in which we lived deemed it necessary to bring a CHIPS ("child in need of protection or services") petition against us, we placed ourselves into the unenviable position of suspicion (typically a CHIPS petition is initiated against parents who are neglectful or abusive as a means of placing a child out of the home) in hopes that Mike might gain some benefit from residential treatment. For months, even years, we traversed the swampy quagmire of this insulting, irritating legal process. But we did it for Mike because we didn't want to look back and say we hadn't exhausted every option possible.

And today I look back. Mike is now legally an adult (although this is really a ludicrous legality), so his behavior is legally no one's fault but his own. The choices he has made have now caught up with him; he will be haunted by them all of his life. And so will we. I will wonder, although not with as much self-condemnation as in the past, what we might have done differently. I will ask God what we can do now to help Mike (I'm afraid I already know the answer though ... "not much"). I will write Mike letters addressed to whatever correctional facility in which he will find himself incarcerated. I will never forget him nor leave him behind, although his diagnosis has caused us to be left behind.

These were all the thoughts running through my mind yesterday as we gathered with others whose children have similar diagnoses. The children we saw last night (all of whom we have met before) remind me of what an uncertain future they and their parents have in the years ahead. They are younger than Mike, but one day they too will see the adult face of FASD. I have come to learn that if a child with FASD can at least trust his or her caregiver (which Mike is unable to do as a result of his RAD and ODD) s/he has a good chance. Things will not be all that rosy, necessarily, but at least the child has a better chance with an adult who can function as his/her external brain.

Even with those advantages it will be a difficult and uncertain journey. The telltale signs of the FASD challenge are very present in our children when we get together with other families so affected: the impulsivity, anger control issues, lack of boundaries, overweaning trust of strangers, mental confusion, distorted perception and understanding.

To parent a child with FASD is a lifelong adventure that does not cease at the age of legal adulthood, I was reminded yesterday. As in all of life there are no guarantees and their are not certainties. The only guarantee and the only certainty is that we parents will continue to be resilient and mutually supportive, doing our best to provide a foundation of care that on the best of days appears a bit shaky. It was, for me, a perspicacious picnic.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In Praise of Technology

The past twenty-four hours reminds me of how much the adoption journey has changed for me over the past eleven years. While I had email eleven years ago and before that (thanks to my wife who is an early adapter when it comes to technological change), there were no blogs and the connections via email were vague and typically not personal nor helpful. Few of us in those nascent days would email details that were personal or involved, preferring telephone or face-to-face contact.

And while I see the all-too-apparent problems that come with technological advance, in at least this arena I am full of praise. Each day through the medium of blogging I can reflect upon my life and experience, sharing as little or as much as I prefer, and others can log in to check things out whenever they wish, whether it's early morning or late night. I don't have to worry about well-meaning friends calling me at a time when it's inconvenient, nor do those who wish to express their concern of prayerful support need to wonder when the best time to do that is. Blogging creates a new sense of space and community that is helpful. I wouldn't want all of my connections with people -- and especially not my primary connections -- to be via blogging or email or the internet, but for purposes of supportiveness it serves us well.

Eleven years ago had our son been missing for any period of time (and we did, in fact, have a foster son at about that time period who had a habit of running as well), our only resort would have been to call law enforcement directly or to begin calling people in the community. Instead, I simply blogged my concerns, and within less than a day's time a blog reader was able to point me in the right direction.

Not only that, but I know that there are people across the world, literally (check the site meter), who are reading and joining our familiy in the journey of adoption. Some will leave comments from time to time, but others will mostly read and move on, which is all right, too.

I'm hopeful that this blogging space provides the opportunity for other adoptive parents of difficult children to find a sense of community and commonality, knowing that they are not alone in the challenges they face. That's a noble goal, and a sincere one, but I am especially grateful for the sense of support I feel via this medium.

Who would have thought eleven years ago that a blogging site would provide a more direct, efficient and helpful mode of support than traditional face-to-face, in real time, support groups? In a real-time support group there is the hassle of clearing the schedule to get there when everyone else does ... the frustration of listening through everyone else's concerns (especially if you happen to be an introvert like I am) without the opportunity to really share your own heart.

I could go on and on, but today I am in praise of technology and the sense of support and community I experience through it!

Our Red-Headed Black Sheep

Last night I blogged about our errant, missing son. I likened him to Mary's little lamb, lost and wandering about, following whomever he can find. I indicated that we had not heard from him in several weeks and continued to be worried about his whereabouts and safety. A few minutes ago, thanks to a blog reader, we know where our red-headed black sheep is. He is back, and has been since June 21, in our county law enforcement center (read that "jail"), with a set of new charges against him. Added to his previous "nuisance" charges (like underage consumption and possession of drug paraphernalia), and his earlier receiving of stolen property is now a third-degree burglary charge.

While I am relieved to know that he is in a safe place where he will not endanger anyone else, and where he will be supervised regularly, with a place to sleep, clothes to wear and food to eat, I am of course saddened. And angered. I am saddened because Mike has been unwilling or unable for years now to trust caring adults enough to find some semblance of order and happiness to his life. And I am angered that he sits in jail now largely due to choices made while he was in utero in the supposed safe place of his birth mother's womb.

While I do not know Mike's birth mother, nor the circumstances of history that led her to be a chronic user of chemicals (leading to the termination of parental rights of all four of her children), it makes me angry beyond words to know how she blighted his young life before he ever had much of a chance. If the prenatal poisoning was not enough to harm the child who would become our son, the environments she provided for her four children added little hope -- living on the streets, dropping of the kids with relatives for days at a time without any word, living out of a car, selling the children's bikes for drugs, living with whomever she was able to find who would support her addictions.

And I am angry with a society that has done so little to intercede on the behalf of victims of neglect and abuse. I can only conjecture that she herself grew up in an equally grim situation, and her early life experiences are only being perpetuated in at least this one birth son of hers. How could Mike's life have been different if someone in the 1960s or 1970s had removed his birth mom from the negative home environment she, too, experienced? Could my son be doing what most eighteen-year-old kids are doing ... working a job in the summer before their first year of college? Instead he sits in a jail cell, a chronologically eighteen-year-old who is developmentally twelve, surrounded by nearly one hundred other "adult" offenders.

And, of course, I am perpetually angry with a culture that exalts and promotes a lifestyle that somehow isn't complete without showers of alcohol and other chemicals. I grieve that I live in a culture where the only way to celebrate life is supposedly to lift a bottle together, where the idea of relaxation is to watch a sports event with friends while chugging back life-altering chemicals.

I am a bit angry today. But I am not angry with our red-headed black sheep. His choices were taken away long before he ever knew he had any.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Where, Oh Where Can He Be?

My blog title is too flippant for the subject at hand, but it conveys some of the ambiguity -- moments of concern and moments of relief -- in my dilemma. Our eighteen-year-old son Mike, with whom we have had so many challenges over the past ten years, has not been in contact with us for over a month now. Which isn't that unusual actually, based on history, because there was a time period a year or so ago when he was in county care that he wasn't in contact with us for about three months, at his request, and did everything he could to push us to the point of relinquishing our parental rights, which we would not do.

What is unusual this time is that no one else has seen Mike around either, and usually we have heard from someone in the community (or one of Mike's siblings has heard from friends) about his location. Since my last telephone conversation with him a couple of days after Father's Day, in which he begged and pleaded to come home, we have not heard from him. In the past we have been able to see evidence of his presence online to at least let us know that he was alive, but we don't even have that in hand now.

It worries me because Mike has FASD and a range of other emotional challenges that make him very vulnerable. He presents well, and his IQ is high, so upon first glance or conversation most people wouldn't have any idea that he is so challenged. But he is.

After our last conversation I took the initiative to check online to see what his current legal charges were, and discovered at that time that he had two new charges from another county shortly before his last call to us. The terms of his release from jail on the earlier five (or was it six, I forget now?) charges included the need to stay drug and alcohol free and law-abiding. I wonder, since he knew he violated the terms of that agreement, if he has decided to move on geographically with his life.

Because he has no permanent address but ours and no reliable people connections in the community, it makes me wonder. If something were really wrong, who would know, and who would even take the time to contact someone who could help him? If he were abducted, injured, held hostage or otherwise incapacitated, who would know or care?

This is a dilemma that no parent -- adoptive or otherwise -- wants to bear. The fact is that Mike cannot live in our home because of his behavioral choices and his refusal to abide by our family guidelines. We have offered to help him work with the county social services agency to get him some assistance, but he has refused. We have offered what we can, short of having him terrorize us in our own home, but he has been nonresponsive.

And now he is incognito. And I worry. Because even though he is a mixed up, organically challenged, legally encumbered "adult" in the eyes of society, he is still my son. And, like Mary's lamb of children's nursery rhyme lore, he is prone to wander and follow whomever appears to provide direction, wherever that might be.

All we can do now is wait. And pray. It will have to be enough, even though it seems a paltry resolution to an imposing, chronic difficulty.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

There's a Reason Why Kids on the Margins Aren't Involved in Most Community Organizations

All of my adult life has been spent, in one way or another, with children and youth. I began working in the local church context after my freshman year of college as a summer intern, and I have maintained my connection in various ways with these age groups for nearly a quarter century now. While my energy has been mostly invested in church-related youth work, I have also dabbled in other venues that serve youth. The consistent cry I have heard from leaders across the board has been something like this: "We feel we're doing a great job with the youth already here, but we are really not doing much to reach the kids who are at the margins."

"At the margins" could mean any number of things, from an abusive, neglectful, or apathetic family environment, to the young person who is (or is becoming) chemically addicted, sexually active or academically challenged. But it always means, for whatever reason, and to whatever degree, that this young person is "unreachable."

I was reminded last night of one of the reasons why some of these "at the margins" kids are unreachable. Our second-to-the-youngest son is in his first year as a Boy Scout, a troop which is sponsored by the church I pastor, and a troop which is exceptional. (In previous pastoral appointments Boy Scouts has been an anemic group, whether in vitality or in terms of adult leadership, but Troop 29 is quite excellent). The Troop has oodles of adults who provide leadership, a healthy core of boys who provide leadership, parents who are supportive, and a growing base of support. Like any quest for excellence, however, this all comes with a cost.

When Tony joined scouts earlier this year the mantra to parents from the leaders was, "It's not just the boy who joins Boy Scouts; it's the family who joins." There is an expectation of parental involvement (whether in defined leadership roles within the troop on a regular basis, or in short-term ways like helping with fundraisers) which is high. It is really not optional for a Boy Scout to be active without parental support, especially if your child is less focused or less motivated than a "typical" Boy Scout might be. In our situation, for example, Tony's ADD prevents him from often getting the correct information home after a meeting, or from remembering when he is supposed to dress in his uniform and when not to, what the deadlines are for a particular camp registration, and so on. It means countless attempts on the part of the Scout leaders to connect with us as parents in order to iron out details.

And scouting is, if nothing else, a detail-oriented experience. There are particular places where patches belong on the official scout shirt, there are numerous items to remember to bring to each meeting, a week-long camping experience requires clothing, "gear," personal items and numerous optional items. (Try explaining the difference between "required" and "optional" items to a kid whose attention span is 3.5 seconds, and you'll understand the parental frustration of the experience).

Parental support is a cornerstone of a successful scouting experience, even if only on the financial end. After last night's pre-camping meeting, we spent well over $100 just to get the required items he will need. There is probably another $50 - $75 that will be invested in the next couple of days as we check items off our final list. This is in addition to the $160 registration fee and any spending money he will use while there. Fortunately our son lives in a family with two parents earning middle-class salaries, so the monetary investment is not crushing for us.

For our son Tony Scouting will be a good experience. He has two parents who are as supportive as they can be, who are financially able to support what he is doing, and who are committed to keeping him involved (we have a "no quit" rule in our family for kids who are involved in activities).

For the typical kid at the margins, though, this is often not the case. Either the money is not there, or the time commitment, or even something as basic as transportation to get the kid to regular meetings does not exist. Many kids on the margins live in families where the parent is barely able to keep the details of his or her life together, not to mention the details required for an experience like scouting.

I am glad to say that the Troop Tony is a part of consists of wonderfully committed adults who have been as helpful to me (if not moreso) than to my son. They are courteous in reminding me of missed deadlines, helpful in letting me know what expectations exist, and supportive of Tony's involvement. Our son will have a good experience because he has committed parents, excellent troop leadership and a positive peer group to be with. I wish it were so for the many kids on the margins, but I'm afraid there are too many systemic barriers (invisible to the rest of us) that prevent that kind of involvement. And it's really too bad, because they are the ones who could really benefit from something like Scouting.

Monday, July 16, 2007

On the Way to a Mission

If you've been reading my blog over the past few weeks, you know that I have been fulfilling one of my personal interests by spending my day off (Friday) by taking any of my kids who are willing to come with me and traveling to area scenic or historic sites. Our Fletcher Family Friday Fun Days have been a good investment of my time and energy, although they are fraught with the typical squabbles and irritations all families face when engaged in travel. I now understand why my mother was reluctant to go any kind of distance with both my sister and I together, since I was a constant irritant and instigator of emotionally difficult moments. While my understanding of spiritual life does not include karma, if I were such a believer it would be clearly displayed for me on a regular basis, especially with our second-to-the-youngest son who is so much like I was at 12 you would think we had a genetic relationship. And no, I cannot believe that environment has made him so like myself, but I wonder sometimes. But I digress.

This past Friday we left home an hour earlier than usual on our trek to Montevideo, Minnesota (which is a solid 2.5 hours from our home), in search of the Lac qui Parle Mission, one of the earliest outposts in territorial Minnesota (dating back to the 1820s), serving as a fur trading post and as a mission for Christians to bring their faith to the native peoples. Having lived in the western part of Minnesota for seven years (and now for a year in another part of Minnesota with more population), I had forgotten how quiet and "empty" are those spaces. In our journey we could travel for a number of miles before meeing another vehicle or seeing any human presence, so by the time we arrived at our destination, we were all a bit underwhelmed.

We drove into the gravel parking lot which was rapidly becoming encroached with the surrounding grasses. While the grass had been mowed, the quiet, "empty" feeling of the prairies enveloped us as we stepped out of our van. Ricardo, our family introvert and the one least likely in any given situation to say much of anything immeidately asked, "What are we doing, Dad?" "We're on the way to see the Lac qui Parle Mission, Ric," I responded with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. "But, dad, where is it?" he questioned in his charming Guatemalan-American accent. "Ummm. It's up there on the hill," I informed our small group as I gestured toward a replica building a few hundred yards in the distance. "That's it?" the chorus of young voices responded. "Yep, I guess that's the Mission up there. Let's get walking," I instructed our group.

So we trudged up the trail to the Mission, all of us feeling a bit deflated after the hours together in the van to see something so historically important and so visually miniscule. Our tour of the interior took less than five minutes, although it did include an opportunity for Sadie to try her hand at "preaching" and Dominyk an opportunity to "play" the organ. I quickly scanned the glass displays which spoke of the early years of the mission, the important work the missionaries did in helping to translate the Scriptures into native Dakota language, and the ways the Mission served as an outpost nearly two hundred years ago.

Looking back now on the day we spent traveling to visit a quiescent historical site, I wonder if it was a good investment of our time and energy (not to mention the gas money), but I recognize again how difficult it is for any of us to feel as enthused about another's mission as they themselves do. The early fur traders and Christian missionaries had a distinct sense of purpose in mind when they formed their small community in what is now western Minnesota. Based on the accounts I have read, they had a passion for their work, and they found fulfillment in their mission. Now, nearly two centuries later, with their mission having been completed, it is simply a place of historical recognition and remembrance, a quiet location on a prairie hill overlooking a river.

It helps me understand a little better those who do not share the same sense of mission that Claudia and I have concerning adoption. Because we are so intimately involved in the adoption experience and the adoptive world, I sometimes forget that there are others around us who do not "get" it. While they are respectful, ask appropriate questions, and often provide the support they can muster, their mission is not necessarily ours. It doesn't mean that they are impervious to what we do, nor do they think it unnecessary or unimportant; they simply are not in the same place as we are. And while I would hate to draw this comparison too far (I do not, for example, think the mission of adoption is some historic relic that can only be appreciated from a distance), it does help me to understand why those of us passionately involved in adoption work do not always receive the enthusiastic support we think we deserve. And it helps me to to think of ways to be more supportive to the mission of others that might not necessarily share my particular passions.

While our trip to Lac qui Parle Mission was not one of our summer's most exciting trips, it has given me the opportunity to think about mission in general, and that makes it worth the time and the money we invested.

Never Had to Worry About Disappointment

Over the past decade plus I have learned that being a parent means often enduring something in order for your child/ren to be happy that otherwise you would not do. Like enduring a kids' movie that has little redeeming value other than entertainment. Yesterday afternoon I took our two youngest boys to Ratatouille, the new Disney release about a rat who becomes a chef. Matinees and my attention span really do not mix very well, and I usually end up having a rather expensive nap during that time period. It is, though, an opportunity for some nice rest in a dark, cool place on a hot summer afternoon, so perhaps the $5.75 price tag is worth it, although I'm still mentally debating that.

Yesterday's movie was for me a sleeper. In fact as we were leaving the parking lot, one of my boys said, "Dad, what did you think of the movie?" "Well, I got to spend a few minutes napping," was my curt reply, to which he said, "Yeah, it really did move kind of slow. On and on, talking, talking, talking, with no real point." Rather incisive for a twelve-year-old with ADD.

I was, however, able to take one line from the movie that perhaps made it worth the ticket price. It is a scene where Remy the rat is talking with someone about not meeting another's expectations. "I've never had to worry about disappointment before," he said, "because no one has ever had big enough expectations of me for that to happen." (This is probably a paraphrase, for those of you who are citation purists).

I found that sentence meaningful because it says a lot to me about the task of adoptive parenting, which often involves placing upon a child higher expectations than s/he has ever had before in life. Children who spend their early years in dysfunctional families affected by abuse or chronic neglect typically do not have to worry about (appropriately) high expectations from the adults in their lives. It may be that their adult caretaker is consistently drunk, high or absent. Or it could mean that the child/ren him/herself has had to be the most "healthy" person in the family, which leads to parentification (expectations unnaturally high). Whatever the individual factors, most kids growing up in these kinds of situations do not have the luxury of adult caretakers who have expectations of success.

And if there are little or no expectations for success, there is no possibility of disappointment, which makes it "easy" for both the adult caretaker and for the child in question. By "easy" I do not mean happy, nor do I mean healthy. I simply mean that it's a lot easier to just ebb through a day, just barely surviving, than it is to establish goals or markers for success along the way. While I understand and am somewhat sympathetic to the reality that chemical addictions and emotional or psychological diagnoses can create such a living environment, I believe it is rarely in a child's best interest to subsist in this way.

Recently our oldest son and I were having a conversation in which he disclosed to me that there are time when I am "intimidating," to use his words. Since the time he arrived in our family at the age of eleven (he is now twenty), he and I have had a fairly close relationship, so I was a bit put off by his assessment. "What do you mean I'm 'intimidating'?" I defensively questioned. "I don't know, I just don't like to make you mad." I paused for a minute and said, "Oh, so are you saying it is hard for you when you think you've disappointed me?" "Yeah, that's it," he said.

And then I began to understand a bit more what he means by "intimidating." He means that because I have over the years placed high expectations upon him and encouraged him to do more than he thinks he can (I'm sure there are times when he interprets that as bullying), it is very difficult when he falls short of that expectation. I used the opportunity to remind him that my love and commitment to him will never waver (there were times early in our relationship that this was a primary issue, but it has since resolved itself), but that surely he must prefer a parent that has high expectations rather than one who expects virtually nothing. His basic response to my explanation was the look all parents are accustomed to receive in such a moment coupled with the monosyllabic, "Duh, dad. It just makes it harder, that's all."

Indeed it is does, my son.

When I survey the contours of our oldest son's life I have to take a moment to thank God. He entered our family's life as a sullen, angry, critical, vengeful, manipulative, untrusting, emotionally closed child. And today he is preparing to finish his fourth and final year at a fine private university, interested in maintaining a relationship with his family, concerned about making his parents proud of his work and day by day more emotionally open and healthy. He arrived having been rejected by his birth mother, one foster family (who told him they would adopt him and then never could do it because of his behaviors), and a second foster family (who simply endured him until he would be adopted). He was the parent at an early age to his three younger brothers, was in kindergarten at the age of four (getting himself up each morning with an alarm clock, according to the paperwork we read), and had little understanding of what it meant to be a kid.

Kyle is by his own account not a perfect person (nor am I), but the progress he has made is really remarkable. He has parents who have high expectations for his behavior, his lifestyle and his future, and while he has had to learn what it means to disappoint people who believe so highly in him, it will one day make more sense to him. The only thing worse than occasionally disappointing someone who has high expectations is to consistently "succeed" at virtually nothing.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Half Human

Today during summer school Dominyk's class was discussing ethnic origins. According to his PCA, who accompanies to school each morning, one of the adults indicated his Norwegian roots, to which Dominyk replied, "I'm half German and half human."

His humorous retort reminds me of the school project we have had to contend with every year it seems. In one particular grade level (I can never remember which grade it is) there is a unit that deals with children's ethnic origins. The kids are required to complete a rudimentary family tree and then indicate, as part of the project, from what country their ancestors come.

Don't get me wrong. I think family history is important. In fact, I've been on my own genealogical quest since I was a young teenager and still spend a few hours a month researching my own family's roots. It's an enjoyable pursuit for me, and it only serves to bolster my self-understanding and fulfill the historic curiosity that is part of my personal nature.

For families formed through adoption, however, the experience can range from the traumatic to the lackluster. At the extreme edge is the anxiety it can create, especially for a child adopted as an older child, who still has memories of a birth family that was unwilling or unable to parent him or her. It may bring up their own unresolved questions about who they "really" are. In some cases, especially where little is known about an adoptee's family of origin, it may have little impact at all.

I have to believe, though, that in familes that have been formed cross-racially through adoption (as ours is), the questions about origins are a bit perplexing for the child involved. For our part, we have asked each child how they want to complete their family tree chart. Do they want to record their "legal" ancestors (as in mine and Claudia's genealogy) or do they want to record what little is known about their birth ancestors?

In each case our children have chosen to record their "legal" ancestors, which is fine until the question of ethnicity shows up. For our caucasian kids it really isn't much of an issue, because in this hodgepodge of whiteness that we stereotypically think of as North America who would ever know is someone claims German or Swedish or British ancestry? But when your child is physically distinct from you (whether that be eye color, skin tone or hair color), it is a bit more problematic. How do my children with Hispanic origins "justify" their ancestry as being largely Germanic and British (Claudia's and my roots) without looking foolish?

It is a cunundrum, to be sure, and there are no easy answers.

I wonder sometimes if we just need to adopt Dominyk's sagacious words: "I'm half [whatever you choose to identify yourself as] and half human." While not exactly accurate in terms of genetic descent, it certainly normalizes the situation and reminds all of us that when it's all said and done the most common connection we all have is the human one.

Diminishment of Life

There was a time, earlier in my days, when I had a fairly casual attitude toward life. I was younger, more carefree, less acquainted with the tragedies of life than I now am. So I don't blame those whose views are different from mine. I have come to understand that all humans are on a path of continual discovery, and we don't all discover the same things, nor do we discover it at the same time.

But I recoil inwardly when I witness the diminishment of life.

When I hear a group of "ordinary" kids taunt a behaviorally or emotionally disordered child, as I witnessed from a distance last week at church camp, of all places ("Hey, [name], why don't you just climb up on that swing, fall off and die"), life for all of us becomes somehow less sacred.

When I read that abortion rates in Minnesota rose by 16% in 2006, I am troubled. (And I am not what you would call a classic, "right to lifer," for I support safe and legal abortions in certain circumstances).

When there have been (as of July 11, 2007) 3,894 coalition troops killed in Iraq (and countless Iraqi civilians) I inwardly weep at the cost to their families, friend, communities and our society in general.

When I have had opportunity to read the case files of the children who became ours through adoption my emotions wavered between pity, compassion and anger, as I read of generational neglect, abuse and criminality. Early years in such emotionally hostile territory is bound to have significant effects in a person's later years. It simply is not a level playing field for all children.

When I read the accounts of last night's execution in South Dakota (the first in that state in 60 years) I am torn. While I do not claim to have all the details in the case, I do understand that he was responsible for a grisly, torturous murder. Such antisocial and antihuman behavior can never be condoned, but I sense a diminishment of the sacredness of all life when governmental authority acts in a similarly murderous fashion. Perhaps execution is justified in a legal, and maybe even an ethical sense, but I question how moral it really is. If, in fact, the accused in this case preferred death to a lifetime in prison (which I understand was his claim), does this not mean that a more "fitting" punishment is, in fact, lifetime incarceration, with a daily opportunity to be "punished" (if that is the goal) for his misdeeds? Does not state "murder" only "relieve" the accused? I have yet to be convinced that such execution either comforts the family who lost a loved one or sates the sense of outrage most of feel when someone has committed an atrocious act against another human. Murder is perhaps the most egregious diminishment of human life, so I wonder how state-enacted execution does little more than further cheapen human life.

What provokes me the most, I suspect, is that I can too easily see any one of my ten children involved in any of the scenarios above. My children are subjected on a regular basis to diminishment because of their behavioral or emotional deficits. Last night I was asking Dominyk if he liked himself. "Pretty much, most of the time," was his response. I followed up by asking, "Do you think other people like you, too?" "Yeah, I guess so. At least they don't bother me as much here as they did in my last school." While I am happy to hear his report, reality tells me that he will have many challenging days ahead because he isn't like everyone else in this world. I only pray that his generous, sensitive heart is not permanently damaged in the years ahead by the brash, obnoxious ways of his peers and the culture we all inhabit.

And, of course, I am humbled to think that any one of my ten children would have been a perfect candidate for his or her mother's "right to choose." In fact, due to the poverty, drug and alocohol abuse, and other environmental factors existing in their birth homes, my children's birth mothers would certainly have been offered that option had they sought "professional counseling." But, thanks be to God, they did not make that choice, and these children whose lives I now inhabit have the opportunity to move beyond their origins.

Any of my children, especially my eight boys, would be excellent candidates for the military. They are bright enough (but not too smart), they are physically fit (in most cases), and they are used to at least some structure in their lives. Most, but not all of them, would be the kind of soldiers eagerly recruited for service to their country. And any one of them could be returned home to us in a body bag.

And, based upon their early childhood traumas, any of my children could act in socially inappropriate and even highly illegal ways. The young man executed last night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was himself an abused child who spent time in foster care, and then was returned to an abusive home setting. Hear me clearly: early childhood abuse or neglect does not justify murderous behavior. But hear me equally as clearly: children who languish in foster care, or children who are returned to abusive or neglectful home situations by the same state bureaucracy who may one day execute them are doomed from the beginning!

Is the irony lost on governmental leaders that the bureaucratic nightmare we call social services holds some culpability for what may become the antisocial lives of people like the 25-year-old executed last night?

Diminishment of life in any form grieves me, but it cannot overwhelm me, for then I can offer no alternatives. As frustrating and challenging as it is to parent children with special needs, I will continue to invest my time and energy on the front end, to do all I can do with God's help to give them at least a chance and a choice.

And that's a lot more than they would have had otherwise.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

What a Difference a Year Makes

While I have been a father for only eleven years now, I have acted in "parental" capacities for a much longer period of time. Nearly twenty-five years ago I began to work in congregations as a youth pastor, so even in my early twenty's I found myself in roles that required responsibility and parent-like concern. From the beginning I have loved my work with youth and children, and it continues to remain a significant part of my personal and pastoral journey to this day.

One of the best parts of my pastoral work with children and youth is the opportunity to observe changes and development over the course of weeks, months and years. It is more difficult to see those changes in children when you are their parent because of the constant, every-day-ness of the parental task, so I relish the opportunity to observe other peoples' children finding success, as it reminds me that my children are doing some of the same things. It's just difficult for me to see it as clearly.

Last week I had the opportunity to witness what a difference a year makes in the life of a kid. If you've read recent blogs you know that two of our United Methodist churches took our annual camp experience together last week. One of the young men (now aged 12) I met last year is from the other congregation, so I have not had the opportunity to see him for a year. Last year he was by all accounts the most "needy" camper. (This claim to fame has now been thoroughly challenges with the presence of four of my children this year, however). He has a behavioral diagnosis that requires medication, has experienced some difficult family times and appears at least two or three years younger than his chronological age. Last year he was the only camper not to pass his swimmer's pre-test (administered by the camp staff to ensure a camper is adept enough to swim in the lake), and he expressed anxiety about taking the test again this year. "I'm never going to pass the dumb swimmer's test. I might as well not even bother," he repeated several times. We adults around him continued to encourage him and eventually became more assertive in saying that it was required for him to do, whether he liked it or not.

So, he joined the other campers on the first day, and to his surprise passed. A smile filling his blond-headed face, he reported his good news to any who would listen. More than once. I was proud of him and especially touched to see how much this achievement meant to him.

By the second day he became aware of my early morning walk routine. [I like to walk at least three or four miles a day, and when I have the time I enjoy doing it early in the morning, which I had done on our first day at camp]. The night before he asked if he could join me on my walk, to which I replied, "I would be happy for you to walk with me, but it means that you're going to have to be calm tonight when it's lights out and not talk and bother other people. If you can do that, I'll wake you up at 6:30 when I'm ready to go." He agreed to my terms, even volunteering to take an evening shower in order to be ready first thing the following morning.

And, true to his word, he settled in quickly and quietly and slept soundly until my awakening call at 6:30 AM. I waited in the lounge area while he dressed, and we began our walk. Battling the early morning mosquitoes (a staple of Minnesota life) and deer flies, we traipsed through the dew-drenched grassy trail, pausing to hear the plaintive cry of the loons on the nearby lake. Our conversation was relaxed and enjoyable. We were both happy: I had a walk partner and he had two adult ears for his complete attention for nearly 30 minutes. His goal was to be back at the dock by 7:00, because one of our counselors had promised to bring her fishing gear out at 7:15 for any who wanted to try their hand at fishing before our 8:00 breakfast time. Wanting to ensure he had first access to one of the two poles, I assured him we would be back to the dock no later than 7:00 AM. He regaled me with previous fishing exploits, asserting that this morning he would be catching a "northren" (as he pronounced it). The night before those fishing had caught mostly sunfish and a (small) bass, so I was dubious as to whether there would be even a northern in the lake to catch. I tried to moderate his enthusiasm so he wouldn't be disappointed with the anticipated catch of smaller fish, but he continued to talk about the "huge northren" he would be catching that morning. As I've wisely learned over the years, there are sometimes when it's just better to be quiet and listen, so I did, as he prattled on and on with glee.

By 7:00 AM we were back, and he trotted off to the dock to await the fishing gear, while I found a seat on a swing chair that allowed me to see what was happening at the lakeside. I gently rocked myself in the chair while enjoying the coolness of the morning, felt the breezes wafting across my face and looked out over the gentle, undisturbed glassiness of the lake. In a few minutes a few other fishers showed up on the dock, and they cast their lines out as I continued in my reverie of solitude some distance from their activity.

In a few minutes I heard the excited voice of my young camper friend. "I've got one, I've got one. And it's a big one," I heard him shriek. As he pulled in the fish, I ambled down the path to the dock, just in time to see him reel in a big (for him) northern. As I congratulated him he said, "See, I told you I was going to catch a big northren. And I did!"

It was a classic moment of sheer joy. For him it was the joy of achieving what he anticipated, and for me it was the joy of surprise at his blessing, a gift from God to a kid who has faced his share of adversity in life. After he had his picture taken with the big fish (it was, in fact, half his body length, so while no records were set and no professional fisher would have been so happy, for my friend this was a lifetime achievement).

Walking back with him from breakfast an hour or so later, I said, "Wow. You've already had a great morning." "Yeah," he said. "I got to go for a hike with you and then I caught a huge northren." "How did that make you feel?" I asked, not anticipating the ferocity of his next statement.

"Well, Dean Bart, I used to think I was a worthless pile of crap, but now I know better."

"You do? What do you think now?"

"I think that if I don't give up I can do something right."

What a difference a year makes! And that, for me, is why I will continue to spend a few days each year with fourth, fifth and sixth grade kids in a summer church camp.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Pleasure of Cross-cultural Adoption

We are a multicultural, multiracial adoptive family, which has proven an interesting adventure over the years. The community in which we now live (population about 50,000) has plenty of diversity, but in our early years of adoption we lived in communities population 500 and 4,500, where there was less diversity. In fact, in both communities we were probably the most diverse families living there. Early on when my wife would be single-handedly treating our children to a McDonald's meal, she would get some strange looks (as in, "I wonder how many men of how many races you have slept with over the years"). We learned to accept the stares, occasional glares and even-less infrequent questions regarding our family life with some grace and humor.

Now that we live where we do, it is easy to forget that our family -- other than being a large one -- is very unusual, but there are moments when I am reminded of it. Like tonight. Here's how the conversation transpired in our home:

Mom: Ricardo, do you have soccer practice tonight?
Ric: I don't know. The coach is not there, mom.
Mom: Well, it says in my e-mail that there's practice tonight, so you're going to practice.
Ric: I don't think we have practice, mom. I don't want to go.
Mom: Too bad. Get your stuff. You're going to practice.
Ric: [Muttering under his breath, slamming his bedroom door].

I interrupt the dialogue at this juncture to point out that Ricardo, the most recent (three years) addition to our family, is the strongest introvert in our family. There are only a couple of us who so qualify on that account, and Ricardo is classically quiet, reserved and stoic. Because of his Guatemalan origins, I have a better appreciation for what is often the stereotypical understanding of the Mayan culture -- gentle, expressing little emotion and more adept at body language communication than verbal altercations. It is a pleasure to recognize the ways ethnic heritage emerge in one's personality, and I especially enjoy Ricardo's ways. The remainder of the conversation (with me on the way to soccer practice -- which, by the way, was not practice after all) follows:

Dad: You look mad.
Ric: [Silence]. What if there's no soccer practice. Do I have to walk home?
Dad: Have you ever had to walk home?
Ric: No. But I've always had practice before.
Dad: I'll pick you up. I always do. We take care of the kids in our family.
Ric: You do. Not mom.
Dad: Oh, are you mad at mom about making you go to practice?
Ric: She is fat.
Dad: I'm fat. Are you mad at me, too?
Ric: No.

And that was the end of the conversation. Averting eye contact, his brows furrowed with irritation and his lips locked in silent defiance, the remainder of our drive to soccer practice was punctuated only by my occasional humming or whistling. Arriving at the field a few minutes later there was no one in sight. It was a quiet night at the soccer field, but we were early, so we waited until 6:30, the appointed start-time.

Dad: Well, Ric, it looks like there is no soccer practice tonight.
Ric: [Silent stare, with eyes communicating something akin to, "Yeah, just like I said to start with."]
Dad: I guess we'll just go home now, huh?
Ric: Yep.

End of second stage of the conversation. Arriving home a few minutes later:

Bart: Whew ... we've got one angry little Mayan walking through the door.
Claudia: Why?
Bart: Because there was no practice after all, just like he said.
Claudia: Well my e-mail said there was practice.
Bart: I hope you will apologize to him.
Claudia: There's no way I'm going to apologize for making him do what he's supposed to do [as she is looking at the email in question once again]. Oh. Whoops. I guess I was wrong. The email did say that there was no email tonight. Guess I will apologize to him.

I can't imagine how boring our lives would be with two average-looking compliant kids who might look and act like Claudia and me. Instead we are able to enjoy the diversity of our children's ethnic and social backgrounds, especially when they know their own schedules better than we think they do.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Sometimes It's Smart Not to Be Done Early

Last week was a busy one for many of us in our family, especially our kids sixth grade and under. A week ago Sunday we (four of our kids and I) joined a group of twenty-some other kids and adults for a three-day camping adventure, so by the time we arrived home on Tuesday night, participated in the Fourth of July festivities, and then had an unstructured Thursday, it was time for the Fletcher Family Friday Fun Day already. Knowing that we had been busy and that we would be busy again Friday night and Saturday (our community's local celebration), I decided to make our outing close to home to save time and money.

We traveled eleven miles north to the Traverse des Sioux historical site, a location that marks an 1851 Treaty between Native Americans and the settling white Americans. This infamous treaty ceded all Dakota land in Minnesota to the white settlers in exchange for terms that were never fulfilled, which ultimately led to a bloody uprising in 1862. We arrived earlier than the scheduled opening time for the museum and spent those minutes walking the trails which told the story of the Treaty site and the community of Traverse des Sioux which emerged shortly thereafter. At its peak it was a community of more than 70 buildings, including a number of saloons, hotels and churches. In less than twenty years it was no more. The timing makes me think of our trip, because sometimes it's smart not to be done early.

At least one of the kids with me was especially cranky, perhaps due to the heat and humidity, but probably due to his natural preference for conflict and a generally irritable disposition. He walked on ahead of us most of the time, a decision on his part for which we were all quietly grateful. Perhaps you can identify the child in question by glancing at the picture above (his facial features should help you make the decision).

On the walk Dominyk spotted several butterflies and moths, including the one that lighted upon his palm for this picture. This picture is one of my favorite; I need to tell you why. Over the years Dominyk has been a most challenging child to me personally. Although he has a sweet disposition and a gentle heart, his excessive energy and hyperactivity have been hard for me to deal with over the past decade. His lack of impulse control has resulted in numerous scratches to cars and vans in that time period, including one occasion early on when he single-handedly at the age of three ripped out all of the gasket (is that what the stuff that helps doors fit snugly is called?) in what is now our "old van." He has caused more property damage to our home and possessions than any other one child. I should hasten to add, though, that it usually has not been done with malice. It has not been intentional and it has not been his passive way of expressing displeasure with a parental decision or direction. (We have a number of other children who have chosen to express their frustrations in those ways, typically with a huge display of threat, verbiage and anger added to the physical destruction). So, in some ways it is hard to blame him for the havoc he was wrought because much of it has been done innocently enough.

When I consider how destructive he has been over the years, and then I view this picture with his outstretched palm gently holding one of creation's most fragile living beings, a moth, I cannot help but sense some reprieve toward him in my heart. To see the joy on his face, captured in this picture, reminds me of the capabilities he has and the ways in which his life may continue to moderate in the years ahead. I have great hope that Dominyk will be able to have a relatively successful life in spite of his early months of neglect and his significant emotional and behavioral disorders.

I wonder where Dominyk would bei n his life if we had decided to "be done" with him years ago. His story is a complex one, littered with legal minutiae along the way, and it would have quiet easy for us to have simply been compliant with the initial custody decision (which returned Dominyk to birth relatives after having lived with us for nearly two years). But we contested the decision (with help from the other side of his birth family), and we have been able to "keep" Dominyk all these years. Like Traverse des Sioux, we could have been done early, but we decided to hang on.

It has been a rocky road all the way, and I know Dominyk's most challenging years may well be ahead, but at times like these I'm glad we were smart enough not to be done early.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Two Peas in a Pod

Our youngest son Dominyk just finished fourth grade, which means that this is the first year that he was able to participate in the camp experience for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders three of the United Methodist Churches in our city cooperatively sponsor. Dominyk enjoys camping, so I knew he would be pleased to participate, but I also know how difficult it is for him to be in the camp context. His diagnoses might explain my anticipated anxieties. He is diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and borderline Asperger's.

His ADHD means that his attention span is not nearly as long as others his age, so he constantly becomes "bored." Routine camp tasks like eating meals together (including the preparation and cleaning of the tables) are challenges, because no one eats as quickly as he, and no one is as unsettled with simply sitting and talking through a meal than he is.

The OCD means that his dislike for bugs of any kind becomes a mantra of tangled anxious words. I can't tell you how many times he chanted "spidey, spidey, spidey. Don't like spiders." I tried to mitigate his concerns by reminding him that when we camp we are entering the spider's territory; it is their world we are entering, so we have to expect them to live there and do our best to avoid them. That seems to work, but only in a repeated fashion. In the least it gets his mind off the subject at hand long enough to focus on the idea that we are entering their world, rather than they trying to attack us.

And the borderline Asperger's means that it is difficult for him to relate with people. Although he is a pleasant, big-hearted person who has no malice or intention of causing problems for others, understanding appropriate social boundaries is a real challenge. Reminding him that when we live in a cabin with others we don't know very well it's not like living at home with people we do know is a continuing task.

All in all his week at camp was a pretty good one for him, largely because he met another kid from the other church who had some of the same issues. For purposes of confidentiality, I will not identify the other camper, but from my experience with special needs children, I would say that he shares at least one or two of Dominyk's diagnoses. And once they found each other they became inseparable friends for the three days we camped together.

It is hard to be the parent of a chid who is socially and emotionally out of sync with other kids his age. To witness the subtle and sometimes blatant expressions of reection by other children is more painful for me to witness, I suspect, than for him to experience, because the up side (if there is an up side) to Dominyk's diagnoses is that he is so tuned in to his own world that what others think doesn't matter much to him. While he understands that he is different from other kids his age, he doesn't spend a lot of time rehearsing the pain of social rejection. He is simply unaware enough of it that it doesn't matter much to him. But I see it, and it hurts me to know how others feel about my son with a generous heart, an inquisitive mind and a sensitive spirit.

But anyway, for the three days we were together in camp Dominyk had a buddy, a friend older than he, but in maturity emotionally and physically a peer. While the other campers were splashing in the water, engaging in pre-adolescent romance (which means, at that age, simply being physically near a person of the other gender) and focusing on what typical kids do, Dominyk and his friend were playing "war" (always interesting in a United Methodist gathering because our typical stance on issues of war and peace place us in the "peace" camp), running off together on some great adventure and engaging in a world shared by only their two young minds.

As the Camp Dean it was my responsibility to organize the yearly Camp Talent Show, so I was a bit put off when Dominyk and his friend came bounding up to me to ask, "Dean Bart, can we be in the talent show?" I responded gently and kindly, "Let's talk about that. What are you thinking you might do?"

"We'd like to do a drama of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus."

My surprise rendered me speechless, evidently for a longer period of time than even I was aware, because the next prodding words I heard were, "Well, what do you think? Can we do that?"

"Yes, you may."

"Well, can you help us get what we need for it?"

More silence on my part. What in the world was I going to be able to do in order to help these two behaviorally challenged boys re-create what by all accounts is the epicenter of the Christian faith experience? "Ummm. I'm sorry I can't help you with that. Because I have to emcee the Talent Show as Camp Dean, you'll have to find some other adults to assist you." The words felt cheap coming from mouth, and I cringed inwardly at my own unwillingness to be party to their plans.

"That's fine. We'll just ask [one of the other counselors] to help us."

"Great. If they say 'no,' let me know, and I'll see what I can do."

That was the last I heard from them. They invited another adult, who willingly assisted them, and they spent hours the following afternoon with cardboard boxes and markers. Their final preparations took place after dinner in anticipation of the Talent Show at 8:00 PM.

Minutes before the talent show they ran up to me, breathless with anticipation. "When does it start? We're not late are we?"

I assured them that they were right on time. Not knowing how things might go, I scheduled them for the middle of the program. A few minutes later as we began the program, I reminded the audience (comprised of the other 4th, 5th and 6th graders who chose not to participate) that our goal was to support one another. Our job was not to critique, to decide who was best or worst or to evaluate. Our job was to enjoy what others had prepared and to support them. My goal, of course, was to prepare them for the performance from the "two peas in a pod." I worried that my son and his friend would be embarrassed or derided or made to feel inferior, and my goal was to ensure they were treated respectfully. I probably pushed the group too hard, but as parents of special needs kids know, you want to do all you can to buffer negative social interactions for your kids, especially when they are trying hard to do their best and it just doesn't measure up to what others are doing.

The first four acts were fine, appropriate expressions of late-elementary children's abilities. The acts were met with appropriate applause and courteous responses, which made me feel better about what was to come. But I was still a bit worried as I introduced the "crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus."

The lights were turned out and as the counselor working with them read words from the Gospel, Dominyk and his friend re-enacted the crucifixion of Jesus. The cardboard figures were crosses, which Dominyk's friend dragged ceremoniously behind him. Standing in front of his cross, his friend prepared his hands as Dominyk drew back his huge hammer (it was actually a metal carpenter's square, and a large one at that) and solemnly drove imaginary spikes into the wrists of the Lord. His friend uttered the final words of Jesus upon the cross, "It is finsihed," as again the lights fell. Seconds later the lights were brought up full and "Mary" began to look for her Lord, who answered her plaintive cries with, "Mary, it is I!" at which point Mary shrieked with joy (our daughter Mercedes was Mary, and she is really quite dramatic), embracing "Jesus," as the audience cheered.

And it was cheering of a sincere kind. It was not dutiful, nor was it canned. It was genuine. And it touched me deeply. Of the ten acts, Dominyk's and his friend's was one of two with remotely a spiritual message, a message these two boys seemed to understand perhaps better than their peers.

Perhaps it is because these two peas in a pod have known what it means to be rejected. Or maybe it was because they are comfortable enough in their own world to trust the Gospel words of hope that many of us fritter away due to social pressure or intellectual doubt or experiential disappointment.

But whatever the reason, on that camp night four days ago, my son and his friend preached a better sermon in three minutes than I will tomorrow in twenty. And in those moments once again God reminded me why I am an adoptive father of children with special needs, for often they are to me, unbeknownst to themselves, the very face of God.