Monday, November 12, 2007

A Legacy Relived

I remember the first time I discovered that my paternal grandparents brought thirteen children into the world (eleven of whom survived past infancy). I had begun what has now become a lifelong fascination with genealogy when I was about twelve years old, and I was visiting with my grandmother about her children. I guess I always knew that side of the family was large, because at Christmas Eve gatherings at my grandmother's home there were many, many adults and hordes of children my age (and older). But it was not until I began to carefully record their names, birth dates and places, and spouse's names that I realized the breadth of the family.

I was blessed with two very wonderful grandmothers, both of whom I knew very well, because they were both within ten miles of the home in which I grew up. As I reflect upon those days, I recognize now, too late to do anything about it, that I should have spent more time with them while I had the chance. It wasn't as if I hadn't been urged in that direction. My mother frequently reminded me that they wouldn't be alive forever, and that I needed to visit them more often than I did. Even in the midst of my own youthful selfishness, I am glad to have known both of them as well as I did.

My father's mother was a patient, kind, soft-spoken woman who would say nothing to impugn another, especially not her children. And based upon my knowledge of her children, it wasn't as if she couldn't have said a lot, because she had more than enough data to work with. I will always remember her response to my mother's inquiries. My mother spent a good portion of time with her mother-in-law (although she was never referred to in that way) and wasn't afraid to address issues that grandma probably thought about but didn't say. My grandmother's response was always, "Oh, Mary," with a twinkling in her blue eyes and a smile that betrayed her hidden feelings.

My dear grandmother was giving birth to children from the years 1922 through 1948. One of the family pictures is a World War II era family photo in which the oldest son is in his navy uniform, home on leave, with my father, the youngest child at the time in my grandmother's lap.

Growing up with only a sister seven years younger than I, my experiences of a large family were limited to Christmas Eve or mid-summer gatherings. I could never have imagined what it would be like to live in one house with that many other people. But now I do. Since Mike has resurfaced in our lives, we have nine children home with us on a regular basis. Soon, when Salinda returns home it will be ten. And when John and Kyle are with us for Thanksgiving, it will be fourteen of us all together.

And you know what? I absolutely love it. I would never have thought this even five years ago, but I am so happy to be the parent of twelve children, especially when everyone is relatively stable at the moment. Even when they are not all so stable, however, there is real joy in knowing that I don't have to reach far to find a child who is, in fact, doing very well. It helps to balance the stress to have some other "kid options" when one or more are really being whacked out.

I know that large families are not for everyone, and I understand the bias that exists in society against large families, but I also understand from firsthand experience the deep joy that comes from creating community within family. Most of our kids are not independent or old enough to recognize it yet, but we are creating a community, a diverse one at that, through the gift of adoption. And for the critics out there, you might be amazed at how much affirmation and love a family community of our size creates and maintains amongst ourselves. There are opportunities for emotional protection (if one child is being a real jerk to his or her mom or dad, they can escape without the scrutiny that might ensue in a smaller family unit). Love is not segmented or limited or divided in a family like ours. It is continually being reformed and reborn in ways that are often beyond the control of any one of us (and isn't that part of the dynamic of any happy, healthy, functioning family?) Nor, I should point, is love squandered. I hope our children grow up to understand more about their world, its diversity and the need to interact diplomatically with others as a result of having numerous siblings, many of whom have not originated from the same genetic cells.

I may one day have to change my opinions when our children marry and bring their own children to our home. Or, I may simply have to remember in those moments that I am reliving the legacy my own grandmother began eighty-five years ago. I only hope I can do it with the grace, equity and strength I experienced in her life.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Not Holding My Breath Any Longer

It has been six days since Mike has resurfaced in our life, and I have been waiting to see what will eventuate. It wasn't that many hours ago that I blogged about Mike being respectful and doing what he is supposed to do, but tonight's episode leads me to change my tune. I am no longer holding my breath because it has been used to rebuke him in no uncertain terms.

We have been planning for several days to take the family to see "The Martian Child," a recently released movie with adoption themes. Tonight was the night. We loaded up our three vehicles with our kids plus a friend's teenager from the community we previously lived in. Dominyk, Mike and Ricardo were in my vehicle, Mike quietly seething in the back for some reason (I think it was because we told him he couldn't take Ricardo's clothes and wear them, even if Ricardo said "yes"). We arrived at the theater, Dominyk and I walking together and Mike and Ricardo moving at a fast forward pace.

By the time we got to the theater (which is in the mall) Mike and Ricardo were nowhere to be seen, so we waited and scouted for a couple of brief minutes before purchasing our tickets and going to movie. We know that Mike is impulsive, but Ricardo is not, and when he chooses to do something is doing it with full consciousness.

The movie ended. We departed to the lobby. No Mike. No Ricardo. I looked around the mall. No sight of them. Based on experience my irritation and concern level began to rise. I am no longer concerned for Mike -- after all he has lived "on his own" for many months now -- but I am concerned for our other children being pulled down by Mike's influence.

Since we could not find them, we departed to eat dinner together (fast food for the group was $60 ... groan). As we ordered our food I received a call on my cell from Mike. "Hey, dad, where are you guys?" I launched into a mini-tirade asking where they had been, where they were presently located. "I went to [sporting goods store] to buy some shoes. And then we went to a movie." "What movie, Mike?" He told me the title. "Was it an R movie, Mike?" "Ummm. I don't know. Yeah, I guess so. Probably." "Mike, Ricardo is 13. He can't see R-rated movies. What are you thinking?!"

After excoriating him a little longer, I agreed to pick them up at the mall after we were done eating.

I pulled up to the mall. They got in the car. It was quiet. Unlike my typical self, I launched into a verbal tirade, first directed at Mike and then at Ricardo.

"Ricardo, do you want Mike to be able to stay in our house or do you want me to kick his sorry [butt] out tonight?!"

Silence. "Me comprendes?" I asked in cursory Spanish, for effect if nothing else. "Yes."

"Well ... do you want Mike to be able to live in our house?"

"Yes."

"Then don't follow him around like a puppy. Don't let him talk you into anything. Don't do it!"

Turning my attention to Mike, who was becoming defensive and only a bit verbally combative, I said, "Mike, you begin to get abusive with me, and I call the cops, lodge a complaint and you're gone." He quieted immediately, a mark of maturity that he has not shown in years past.

(To my own credit, I must say that I am a very patient man, and very seldom speak in such direct and anger-ridden words. I have always tried to treat my children with respect and care, but there are times that call for drastic measures).

And by then my parental wrath was unleashed. "Mike, you listen to me and you listen to me good. Mom and I love you, but we are not going to let you take any more of our children down your negative path. A few years ago it was John. Last summer it was Salinda. It's not going to be Ricardo. You are not going to have one more of my children to pull down with you. Do you understand me?"

He said nothing, nodding silently.

"I have busted my [butt] to see to it that you can sleep in our home for the last few days. I have had to convince Mom that this is a good idea, she and I have had to convince the [state from which our newest boys have come] and [our adoption agency] that there will not be any kind of threat with you staying in our home. And then you go do something like this? I'm not going to have it."

"So, do you want me to just leave and stay with friends or something?" he asked, not disrespectfully.

"No, Mike, this is not a kick-out speech. This is a wake up and get your life together speech. You are inches away from two years in prison, and I don't want that for you. I want you to be in a safe environment where you can make good choices and get your life together. But it cannot be at the cost of your younger siblings. I will not let it happen one more time."

He said nothing, so I asked, "Do you understand what I am saying?"

"Yes. Can I ask one thing?"

"Not yet. Let me conclude what I have to say and then you can ask. What this means, Mike, is that I do not want you going into other people's rooms, I do not want to be visiting with them alone, I want you to stay away from them! Focus on what you need to do, and leave the others alone. OK. That's all. Now what did you want to ask?"

"So, did you buy Ricardo's ticket to the movie or did I?"

A question only someone who has organic brain damage could ask at a moment such as this. If it were not so ludicrous it would be funny. In fact, I had to smile just a moment to myself, but once again it proves how necessary parents are in Mike's life, even at the age of 18. If he cannot figure out that asking a question like that after his father has lambasted him with ferocity, there are many other things in life he cannot figure out, either. (And, parenthetically, how the Social Security Administration and state agencies cannot recognize FASD as the kind of disability that impairs thinking as much as or more than psychotic or suicidal ideations is beyond me).

"Well, Mike, it appears that you did. The tickets I bought tonight were for the movie 'Martian Child.'"

"Oh."

And so it goes. But at least I'm not holding my breath any longer.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Four Days and Holding My Breath

It has now been four days since Mike re-emerged in our lives, and I have been holding my breath to see how long it’s going to last this time. Our ten-year history with him has left me more resilient that I ever thought I might become in my life, inured to possible disappointment and galvanized for the pain when the fall comes. I can see myself now as a realistic optimist, which is a much better place than I would have been even a year ago, when I was dismal on most any topic related to this son of ours.

I believe I have made peace with the idea that Mike is now legally and in other ways responsible for his decisions. Much of the peace comes from the fact that no longer will Claudia and I be held legally responsible for his actions. We will never again face a CHIPS (“child in need of protection or services”) petition on his behalf. We will never again have to listen to well-intentioned but naive social workers intimating that somehow it was the emotional climate in our home that made Mike do what he did. These days the decisions Mike makes are solely his, with all the consequences applying thereto.

What this means for me is that I can focus on supporting him, offering him assistance as appropriate, encouraging him to make the right choices, and then allow him to choose what he will do. There is a real sense of serenity in that.

I am hopeful that our other children will recognize that the choices Mike has made have hurt him. I am less inclined to believe that they will follow in his footsteps these days (they are now mostly old enough to see the folly of that), and if they do I guess at least we have already had the experience of walking that path, so there will be few surprises.

Today I awakened at 4:45 AM to get ready for the day, woke up Mike at 5:00, and then we left for an job interview he had at 5:30. I was in the office by 6:00 AM, and heard back from Mike within 45 minutes. He does not qualify to work there (he wasn’t sure what the qualifiers were, but evidently some of it depends on income levels, and I think the questions may have confused him). He asked to return back to my office with me, where he fastidiously completed six job applications. We made the copies his probation officer requested, dropped the copies of with her, and then I dropped him off at school. At 2:45 I picked him up from school, we took his completed job applications to the various locations, and by 3:30 were back home. On the way home we picked up another job application.

Mike has been appropriate, respectful, and pleasant. If this Mike were always the one to show up in our lives, it would be a lot easier to work with him. I am hopeful that his desire to stay out of prison will be leverage enough for him to adopt the kind of lifestyle we have always offered him, one free of chemicals, criminality and despair. But, like his sister Salinda, all we can do is offer the environment and be a source of strength. He, too, will need to choose what he will do with this last, final opportunity to remain prison free.

Monday, November 05, 2007

When Vocation and Family Life Intersect

I am one of the fortunate people in this world. I am able to do what so many people yearn to do but cannot. I am able to live out the dual passions of my life, helping people connect with God and working with and on behalf of the children of the world. It is so much more personal these days than it ever was before. Fifteen years ago I was single, concerned about the children of the world, advocating as I could, but dismally unfulfilled by the gaps between my vocational life and the real world around me. There was only so much I could do then, but my personal quest to be engaged in socially just actions burned as hot then as it does now. What happens to children in our society matters. It always has, but these days it is much more personal, because the children of society have become my children.

Yesterday I spent the morning and early afternoon with parents being trained to work within the structures of our state's Department of Human Services to help others understand what it is like to parent children with emotional or mental challenges. After departing that meeting I stopped to see our fifteen-year-old daughter who is currently on day number ten of a thirty day evaluation program to assess her emotional and mental stability.

There was a time when she and I had meaningful conversations. When she was eleven and twelve she and her sister would sometimes accompany me to church-related overnight meetings, and it was a personal pleasure to introduce my beautiful, intelligent, full-of-potential daughters to friends and colleages engaged in ministry across the state. But then we moved to a new community. She was thirteen at the time of our move, and our new city has been disastrous for her. Claudia and I conjectured that the move would be diffcult, but we had no idea just how difficult it would be. Her attitude, demeanor and way of life have morphed into a creature none of us, including herself, recognizes. It has been frightening and guilt-producing. We moved because of my vocational life, and perhaps if we had stayed where we were a little longer things would have been better. Over the past eighteen months I have languished myself with those painful questions as I watched my daughter slipping away from us.

We have had little to say to each other as the gulf has widened progressively week after week, month after month. The past two months in particular have been excruciatingly wrenching ones, involving illegal activity on her part, her introduction to the criminal justice system and continuing feelings of parental malfeasance on my part. I have ached with indecision, wrought to the core by a pervasive sense of helplessness. I am fortunate to have a spouse who has taken the primary responsibility for our daughter during these days. I simply could not do it, especially after the difficulties two of our older sons have visited upon us during the past five years.

But yesterday I visited with our daughter in her evaluation program location. I wasn't sure what to expect. It has been so long since we have had any meaningful conversation that I was afraid. I was afraid to sit together in a room with nothing to say, the awkward silence bearing mute testimony to the sense of parental failure I have felt.

But there was little silence. The hour we spent together was filled with conversation that I didn't have to coerce, prod or manipulate. I relied in part upon the vocational skills I have learned over the years as a pastor, encouraging honesty by asking direct questions, offering little judgment in return, opening myself to whatever the Holy One would bring to pass. I must confess this is not my typical parental modality (I try to be a parent when I'm home, not a pastor), but perhaps it should be, based upon the health of yesterday's interaction.

She told me about how much she disliked her current placement, how the "wacko girls" there were "worse than *T* and *D* (her younger brothers she has always found, and rightfully so, obnoxious). She finds the staff cold, disinterested and crabby. "They never come to work with a smile on their face, Dad." So, in the midst of her verbal barrage (unlike her introverted self), I said, "Well, what are your options going to be at the end of the thirty days?"

"I guess to come home or to go into foster care." She went on to explain her feelings. While she didn't say it, I discern that her biggest concern with coming home is falling back into step with her former group of friends who have pulled her so dramaically away from everything she values. The only reason foster care sounds appealing is because she might have the chance to really start over.

"Well, Sal, you know that Mom and I love you. We don't want this kind of life for you, and I believe knowing you as I do that you are strong enough to decide which direction you are going to head. You are at a place in your life where there are two paths. You can choose the path to destruction, or you can choose the path that will give you the life you really want." (Neither she nor I recognized at the moment the biblical source of that statement).

She nodded her head. "Yeah. The friends I have been hanging out with only care about drinking and sex." She went on to describe several situations in which she had found herself scared for her personal safety. After describing the pathetic lives she had been witnessing ... the drunken arguments, the promiscuous behaviors, the threatening episodes, I said, gently but as clearly as I could. "You know, Salinda, that's the kind of life your birth mom had. It's the reason you and your brother and sister couldn't live with her. Is that the kind of life you want to repeat?"

Her large brown eyes wincing in grief, she said, "No. Not at all."

"Think about five years from now, Sal. In five years what will your current friends be doing?"

"They'll still be living in dumpy mobile homes, getting drunk and high and getting pregnant."

I waited for her to continue thinking, and then I said, "In five years what will you be doing?"

"Going to college, getting an education, having a life."

"Exactly right. But you have to make that choice now, you have to choose that path before you're too far down the other one and it's too hard to turn back."

"I know, Dad." No hostility, no sarcasm, no exasperation. Humble, honest recognition of her plight and opportunity.

"These have been hard months, I know. I feel bad that we had to move at a time that has been so difficult for you, because I know you had things pretty good in [the town we used to live in]. You had good friends, you were in a school close to our home, we knew lots of people in town. But, really, even if we had stayed some of the people you knew there might have very well done some of the things your current friends are doing. People sometimes change, even in small towns where you know everybody."

I was expecting her to argue the point. Instead she said, "Dad, I'm not sure I would want to live [there] any more, anyway. When we were there (this is the town where she and her friend ran to several weeks ago before they were picked up by law enforcement) I couldn't believe how small it is. There's nothing to do there." While I was not happy that she felt negatively about our previous community, I was grateful that in her mind, at least, it is not an idyll to pursue in the future.

Using my best vocational skills and a few parental ones, I reminded her that she has the opportunity to do many things in her life, but that she is at the age where she will have to make those choices. We, her parents, can longer choose for her what she will do or what she will become. We will support her, and encourage her and remind her of who she is, but we cannot choose how she will live.

The hour had passed quickly. There was no animosity, no antagonism, no rancor.

She understands the stakes are high. She knows that her Mom and Dad love her and believe she can reclaim her forgotten self. The future looks good. But the choice is hers.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Like It Was Ten Years Ago

Our wayward eighteen-year-old son showed up at our door tonight, asking if he could talk to us. Claudia prefers that I do the conversations with Mike since I am more patient and less confrontational. I had literally been in the door five minutes from having been gone all weekend (between church-related meetings out of town and a couple of other things I have been home three of the last fifteen days), but I invited Mike in to our bedroom so we could talk in a relatively quiet space. I asked if he preferred to sit on the bed or on the chair to talk; he chose the bed.

"So what do I have to do to have contact with you guys?" was his opener.

We explored that question at some length as I witnessed one of the most dejected humans I have seen in some time. I reminded him that because of his influence on his younger siblings he could not live in our home, but that we loved him and that we would do whatever we could to support him. Within a few minutes I sat down beside him on the bed so we could have closer psychic space, and I placed my hand on his shoulder. "Mike," I said, "do you remember when you were eight and first came to live with us?" He nodded. "Do you remember how you used to scream and scream and scream, and then I would pick you up and hold you in my arms?" He nodded again. "And how you would push me away nearly every time?" I added, reminding both of us of the reality of those difficult years when his reactive attachment disorder showed up so very clearly. "But I would hold you and force you to stay there because I wanted you to feel secure and know that you were loved."

He was quiet. As was I for a moment.

"So, what are your biggest concerns at this moment, Mike?"

"Well, I really need some place to live. I have been court-ordered to have a job within sixty days and a diploma from high school within ninety days, but it's really hard to do that without a place to live."

"Yeah, you're right about that. So who do you have for resources in your life right now."

"You guys. You are the only ones who can help me."

"But Mike you've been living out of our home for seven months. What about your friends and those you've stayed with during that time."

"Well, I can't be with them because of what they do. If I do one more thing to break the law I'm going to prison for two years. There are no more chances."

A tear had begun to form in my eye, but I kept it at bay, as I said, "Mike that scares the hell out of me. Does it scare you?"

"Yeah."

"No, Mike, I mean does it really, really concern you that you're going to screw up one more time and that's it?"

He nodded his head silently. "Some people have told me to just 'execute my time.'"

Picking up that this was probably some jargon from a group of people I don't usually run with, I had to ask him what that meant. "It means just go to prison and sit my time for two years and get it done instead of being on probation for five years, because it's probably going to happen anyway."

"But don't you want to at least try instead of going directly to prison?"

The silent nod one more time.

"Mike, I will try to do all I can do to help you, but you realize there's a lot of water under the bridge and there aren't as many options as there once were. I'll talk to your probation officer with you if you like, and we'll see if we can figure something out. But you'll have to decide if you want me there; you're eighteen now and that has to be your decision."

We talked strategy for a moment. I pointed out how he needed to work like never before with his probation officer because she would be the "key" to his future freedom or to his imprisonment, and that if he worked hard with her she would do her part. I reminded him that at this point in his life parents could do very little for him, that we could support him, but that as an adult our input was not sought by professionals.

Nearly an hour had passed. Placing a pillow on my lap, I said, "Mike, come here." He moved closer to me, and I reached out to draw him into an embrace, resting his head upon the pillow, cradling his shoulders in my arms, taking his hands into mine. "Do you remember when you were eight, and I would hold you like this? It's not quite the same now because you aren't the skinny little red-headed kid you were then, and now you're not pushing me away. Mike I haved loved you since the day I met you, and you know that Mom and I don't give up on our kids. We don't give them back, we are never finished with them. You know that, don't you?"

His eyes were nearly closed, but he nodded his head.

"What are we going to do now, Mike? What are we going to do?" The silence that engulfed the room was not uncomfortable, but pensive. "You know you have been raised in the Christian faith, and in our faith we believe that God helps us. You remember hearing about your Higher Power from treatment, right? Well, now is the time for you to pick up those connections and to realize that like never before God can help you."

It was a decade ago that Mike and his birth brother Kyle joined our family. For the first five years he lived with us I would regularly hold Mike in my arms as he raged and screamed, assuring him of our love and reminding him that we would never leave him behind. In those years he would bite, scratch, kick, thrash and attempt to move from my grasp. I seldom relinquished him until both of us were exhausted, and he had reached a place of calm.

Tonight, though, he didn't fight, he didn't scream, he didn't thrash. He lay in my arms, hearing my words, wondering I am sure, what it might mean for his immediate future, knowing -- I hope -- that despite everything we are still his parents who will never let go. Like ten years ago. But not really.