Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ten Years and One Harassment Order Later

A few minutes I entered Claudia's office with paperwork in hand. "Ten years ago today," she reminded me. A decade ago today she and I were in Washington state, preparing to meet for the first time our two newest sons, Kyle (then age 12, now 21) and Michael (then 8, now 18). We had read the paperwork, we had spoken with them on the phone, we had listened to what their case worker and CASA worker had to say. We knew we weren't "ready" (how is anyone truly "ready" when for the very first time you bring into your home kids who have already lived for years and years without you), but fortunately we didn't recognize just how naive we were.

I can't speak for Claudia, but I still labored until the illusion that what kids caught in foster care most needed was "love" and a positive, nurturing home environment. Surely, I thought, kids who have experienced early years of abuse or neglect would automatically recognize "something better" when they saw it. They would, I conjectured, jump on the good ship of future hopes and intentions in order to sail into a golden opportunity.

I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Older kids who have spent time in foster care and abusive or neglectful homes before are not looking for love or for a sense of permanency, at least not how "ordinary" people envision it. Frankly, they are rarely able to know what is in their best interests (at least our two were not), so adults make decisions for them. I soon discovered that what they need is very different from what they may want ... they may want freedom, luxury, money, possessions. What they need is consistency, structure, boundaries, the kind of love that at first looks like discipline and order. I have learned that kids coming from tough backgrounds see "love" as opportunities to manipulate and use, not as ways to live. Eventually, many of them, perhaps most of them, learn what "love" is, but at first it is only an entry point to gain what they think they want.

I have learned, parenting both Kyle and Michael, that some kids get it sooner than others. Kyle figured out pretty quickly that if he did what we asked he often got what he wanted. It wasn't about whether he agreed with it or liked it or even though it was the right choice (and each time he would tell us exactly what he thought was the better parenting decision; ours were never the appropriates ones). He was a perfect case of behavior modification. It worked for him and made our lives a bit easier, even though we had to listen to his continual banter about our imperfections. Happily, now at the age of 21, he understands more about life, and has a mutually respectful relationship with his parents. I am glad that I stuck with him through good and bad times; the reward of his successful and respectful attitude is "payment" enough after these ten years.

But I have also learned that when a kid doesn't know what is in his best interest, a parent can try to do what he or she will to no avail. Our Mike is a case in point. After all this time, and with all of our effort, he is on a path of self-destruction that will not be deterred. It has reached the point where it is not only he that is at risk, but the health and safety of our family. And so, it is for that reason that in minutes I will be driving to our county court house to file a harassment petition which will provide us a legal basis for keeping him away from our children and our home. Notice I say a "legal basis," because I am not naive enough to believe that a piece of paper will prevent someone from doing what they intend to do. We have detailed numerous accounts of harassment as defined by Minnesota statute, I will file the request for the order today, and we will wait for our next encounter with our errant son. We are not requesting a complete cut-off from MIke, but are requesting that his only contact with us be through written communication via the U. S. mail system. At least that way he cannot say that he completely prevented him from being in contact with us (which we don't want anyway). All we want is for appropriate communication that does not threaten or trouble our other children. We still love our son, but once again, as we have for more than ten years, we need to erect some boundaries for that relationship.

So, here I sit, ten years and one harassment order later. Who would have thought after a decade we would be at this point?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Me, Too, Dominyk

It is Christmas Eve in the pastor's house. I have spent the morning preparing food in the kitchen. Five pans of various kinds of sweet rolls (all from scratch): peanut butter rolls, caramel pecan rolls, soft cinnamon rolls. I make lunch for the kids at home, we eat, I clean up the lunch dishes and the kitchen. I wash the kitchen floor. By this time it is nearly 1:30, so I take some time to rest before the most important evening of my vocational year, a night when we have two services and can expect between 400 and 500 people to worship together. It is a night I anticipate with both a bit of dread as well as expectation. I always have a modicum of dread because I recognize how spiritually important these moments are, especially for those who are infrequent worshipers, or those who have returned "home" to be with parents or grandparents. For those who worship with us nearly every week it is not so important that I always be at my preacherly best, but on Christmas Eve everyone wants to be proud of their pastor. They expect, graciously of course, a second-to-none worship experience, a superbly crafted and delivered message and the opportunity to share with guests the importance of their faith community. God always helps me in those moments, but I always have some anticipatory dread that my humanity will overpower my desire to be a vessel of God's goodness.

It is, however, a time I always anticipate with joy because it is a moment to witness the joy of generations, parents and grandparents, infants, toddlers, elementary-aged kids, teenagers and young adults, all gathering together for a festive, celebratory evening together. I love to scan the crowd and mentally put the pieces together, I love the end of the service when I stand at the door to briefly greet and meet the people. It's always a challenge to remember names, but I work hard at doing so, and last night I was able to greet by first name at least 85% of the people who worshiped with us. It's truly a delightful experience.

But until those moments come, I am surly, a bit cranky and easily irritated. The combination of my pre-service jitters coupled with my children's out of the control giddiness is never a good combination. So on Christmas Eve afternoon as I attempt to rest before our first service at 5:00 PM our most energetic and flustered child bounds in the room and asks if he can spend some time with me. I gruffly respond "Yeah, but this is a quiet room right now. You can be here, but you can't talk to me." With widened eyes he looks at me and says, "OK, dad." He busies himself with wrapping gifts, none of which are new, all of which he has owned and used. He is eleven, medicated for his several diagnoses, and not always in sync with the rest of his world. As much as he tries he cannot respect the "this is a quiet room" pronouncement, and so he babbles happily about his task. "Look, dad, I'm wrapping up my baseball cards." I grunt in reply. "Oh, and I'm going to wrap this, too," he says, his joy unfettered by my mute reluctance to speak.

I am emotionally caught. I think it is wonderful to see that Dominyk is so generous, but I also know how his siblings will respond to his well-intentioned second-hand gifts. Most of his siblings will be gracious and quietly return the "gifts" to his room at some point, but others will smirk, feign disappointment or express words of derision.

"Dominyk," I implore, "do you really think your siblings want your used baseball cards? They might not be very receptive you know." I am trying to protect his feelings from the words that will come his way on the morrow as his siblings unwrap their battered, well-taped presents.

He looks up at me, in the midst of tape, scissors, gift wrap and scraps floating about, and with a Christmas-inspired frenzy in his eyes, says to me, "Dad, I just want to give."

A moment of silence ensues. I consider his generous spirit, his desire to share with others all that he has. With the energy he has imported into my bedroom, I recognize that I will not be taking the nap I had hoped. I will be tired, but God will help me do my best to share with those gathered the joy and depth of Christmas Eve. I ponder Dominyk's words once again. "I just want to give." And I quietly concur. "Me, too, Dominyk. Me too."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Diminutive Dogwalker

I am pretty clear about what I love in this life. My first love is for the One who created me and sustains me daily in this journey of life. My second love is for my family members, including those of distant memory who nurtured me and cared for me in my early years of life, as well as for my companion in this juncture of life, my wife. Those who will follow me, my children, each occupy a special place in my heart that will never be dislodged, although perhaps momentarily jarred at times. My third love is the deep joy I find in living out a vocational calling that allows me continual growth and the opportunity to do what I am best gifted to do. After these first three priorities, it's all kind of up for grabs. Except for my dog, Gizmo. He would have to be near the top of what comes after my first three priorities.

I say "my" dog because if he were human I would be his attachment figure. He often follows me through the house, sleeping beside my chair when I read or watch television, immediately aware when I sit up to move to a different location. When I am in the kitchen cooking or cleaning he is constantly beneath my feet, and although an irritant in those moments, is decidedly my best friend (for he stays there even if I mistakenly step on him or sweep him away with a brush of my feet).

My wife contends that a dog is "just an animal," but I have observed her interactions with Gizmo, and it appears to me that she sees something quite enamoring with his personality as well. My children, of course, consider Gizmo a member of the family, and they are attached to him in varying degrees.

I suppose one of the reasons I value Gizmo is because he is always ready to accompany me on a walk. He is so eager that when we use the word "walk" he immediately moves toward the closet where his leash is and excitedly jumps near the door until we depart. Before we had a dog my kids would often walk with me, but as they have grown older they are more reluctant to accompany dad on his walking ventures. My wife is fond of contrasting my hulking form to Gizmo's petite, Papillon build. "It just looks so funny to see a big old man walking such a dainty dog," is how she puts it, when she is trying to be her most considerate. Usually she just smiles at the oddity of it all.

So, as I was preparing to walk last night in the cold dark Minnesota night, it was a delight to hear the voice of our smallest, youngest child say to me, "Can I come, too, dad?"

Wilson, our eight-year-old (nine next week) quickly bundled up in his winter clothing (I'll have to post a picture of him at some point so you can see just what I'm talking about) and with just his dark sparkling eyes and small nose poking out of his hat and collar asked to lead Gizmo. I was happy to let him have the honor, not sure how it would go. Gizmo likes to pull with all his force (and that's not much, mind you with a ten-pound dog) at the end of his 20-foot lead and likes to be within sight of me at all times.

WIlson took the leash, Gizmo trotted off, and I walked by Wilson. They made a delightful pair to watch. Gizmo would run up to a snow bank to sniff and investigate followed by Wilson's short legs running to the destination. I would reach that point and Wilson would begin to watch, gently tugging at Gizmo's leash. It was a ritual repeated often and with virtual silence.

One of the things I most value about walking is the opportunity for solitude, and I have to say that with most of my other kids it is a continual barrage of words during a walk. Wilson, however, is so taken with the responsibility of leading the dog that he has little time to chat and little interest in doing so. And, I surmised, it would make my wife happy to see a small dog being walked by a small person. It just seems a little more appropriate, I guess.

What a delight it was to watch our diminutive dog walker last night, to enjoy the crisp beauty of the evening and to know that I have a walking companion whose quiet presence brings me home feeling renewed instead of worn.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Things You Learn on the Way to the Mall at Christmastime

I agreed to take our sons Tony (12) and Napoleon (12) to the mall after lunch today. I had a gift certificate to a cooking store (a nice gift given to me by our church staff), Tony needed to get wrestling shoes, and Leon was shopping for Ricardo's birthday, which we would celebrate tonight. Within a mile of the mall I knew it would be difficult. Traffic was backed up and moving slowly. As we edged our way closer and closer to the mall which is an economic center for the surrounding fifty miles, we began to pursue a parking spot. We drove all the way around to the back of the mall first, in an ill-fated attempt to find a space, any space. There were absolutely no spaces. Not one, and with each lane surveilled by anywhere from two to six vehicles searching for a spot, I knew our efforts would only frustrate me further. We roared around to the front of the mall, where I was about ready to give up and drive home when we spotted about five spots in close proximity to one another. They were at the very furthest stretch away from the mall entrance, but we zoomed into a spot and got out to begin the trek toward the mall. It was filled with holiday shoppers, most of whom looked at harried as I felt in my first steps into this capitol of capitalism.

Tony and Leon went to the sports store to look for their items with strict instructions from me not to leave the store, but to wait for me, where I would find them after completing my two tasks (both of which took me to the opposite end of the mall). In what must have been forty-five minutes later I slogged into the sporting goods store with three bags in my hands. Dragging near the floor I felt like some reincarnation of Neanderthal man.

Fortunately, however, both sons were where they were supposed to be, and each had already found what they needed. I didn't need to help find shoes, so we made our way to check out and pay for our goods. I agreed to purchase each of them a drink, so they settled for Coke products and we walked back to our car in the single digit temperatures.

Driving away from the mall we were discussing someone's drink preferences. Tony was jabbering on and on about Coke when Leon, in the back seat, said, "Are you talking about Coke or cocaine?" "Coke," both Tony and I chimed in at the same time, whereupon ensued a discussion about how to ingest the illegal substance.

Believing that forthrightness is always the best policy with children, especially when they are old enough to understand the topic at hand, I informed them that cocaine actually comes in several forms and is ingested in different ways. My knowledge of illegal drugs is only secondhand, but I believe myself to be a fairly well informed adult and parent. I mentioned to them that cocaine is most often found in a powder form which is snorted, but sometimes it is also in a hard substance, like a rock, which is called "crack."

It was at this point that Tony and Leon began discussing the subject in greater detail, and I just listened. From the time we knew about Leon and Wilson we were aware that the foundational issue that prevented them from living with birth parents was the incessant drug use. Birth dad is currently in prison for selling illegal drugs and birth mom has spent time in prison for the same kind of violations. While I have been aware of the details, I have not been clear as to how much either Napoleon or Wilson have known about it, but after the discussion in the car I now know. It went something like this.

"So, what's it called when it's put in that glass bong and stuff?" Napoleon asked.

Tony answered, but his response did not suffice.

"No, not that. [He went on for several more descriptive sentences, which I will not bother to type here]. I think my [birth] mom called it 'ice.'"

From the way he described the object and the compositions of the substance itself, it was obvious to me that this is a kid who has not only heard about drug use, but has seen more than any child his age should have seen and even discussed it with his birth mom.

I'm not sure exactly what I think about that. Well, that's not entirely true. I know what I think about it. I think it's vile, reprehensible, profoundly sad that any kid (especially one is now 12 and has been in foster care for at least two years) would have that much firsthand knowledge. It is sobering (no pun intended) to hear the way he recounted this awareness, because it was neither rejection of illegal drug use nor was it opposition to the use of such substances. It was the dispassionate, factual recounting of something that had been such a regular part of life that leaves me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. It is never my job to judge the lives of birth parents (and we have a consistent policy in our family of using respectful language when talking about birth parents), but the early lives of the children I now call mine have been so different from my own that it's more than a little disconcerting.

My only hope is that having seen the "other side" my kids will decide that what they experience in our family is more life-giving and offers more hope than the dead-end living they witnessed earlier in life. We can show them the way, but they will have to choose their path.

It's funny the things you learn on the way to the mall at Christmastime.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Three Piles of Black Hair and the Whisper of God

Last night after dinner I had the routine task of taking three of our boys for a haircut. We arrived at the establishment in question, gave them our phone number (by which they keep track of customers' records) and asked the stylist in question to add another name ("Leon") to our ever-growing list of family members. Since we had a twenty minute wait we drove across the parking lot to the nearest grocery store to pick up a couple of items and returned for the haircuts.

I sat watching as three of our most interesting kids proceeded to get their hair cut. Jimmy/Ben is now 16, has lived with us since he was nearly ten. His English, after all these years, is pretty good but at times his enunciation is rather indistinct, and it is difficult for those who do not know him to understand him sometimes. Ricardo is now 14, has gone from being a sixth grader a month ago to a seventh grader and then a varsity wrestler in that same period of time. Ricardo is very bright, understands both Spanish and English (although he refuses to speak Spanish any longer and barely speaks much English, since he is an introvert), but is difficult for strangers to understand because of his decidedly South American accent. Leon is one of our newest sons, 12 years old, and of Asian ancestry. He is bright and perfectionistic, but also difficult to understand because he speaks quietly and with a Texas drawl and regional speech patterns.

So, among the three stylists, two other family groups and myself, all of whom are caucasian, I felt I was at least doing my social justice duty in providing a little more diversity to the hair cutting business. I watched and listened as I observed each of the boys getting their hair cut. Jimmy/Ben stumbled through his hair request, his hapless stylist trying to understand how he wanted his "big" (he is still trying to figure out the difference between "big" and "long," and says that his hair is "big" if it is long) hair to be cut. Ricardo didn't know how to say what he wanted, so he ended up with far less hair than he wanted (in the past two years he has reveled in the shaggy look, although his wrestling coach told him this week he needed to get his hair cut, so we finally had some leverage). And Leon was completely unsatisfied with his haircut, attempting vigorously but unsuccessfully, to receive a better "edge" to his cut.

During this enterprise I overheard the voice of a man getting his hair cut. Evidently the stylist was talking with him about his six-year-old son, who was also getting his hair cut. "Yeah," he said, "all you can do is provide them the direction, and they each will choose their own path."

I was struck by the simplicity and profundity of the statement. It quite accurately summarizes the internal struggle I have had as a parent for years. The difficulty of parenthood is that you can pour yourself into the life of your child or children, but there are no guarantees. You can provide the structure, the morality, the ethics, the philosophy of life ... but in the end that's all you can do. Your child or children will choose his or her own path.

Quietly I had to say, "Thank you, God." My eavesdropping ears had received the whisper of God, words that summarize what I have known (and probably even said in my own way many times), but words that I needed to hear again. As I considered the words, I couldn't help but glance at the floor as the stylists began to sweep up the remains of their work. Amidst the light brown and blond hues on the floor (evidence of our nearly monocultural experience in Minnesota) were three piles of jet black hair, clipped from the heads of my sons.

And I experienced the peace that comes from knowing that I have done and am doing the right thing in being an adoptive parent. Not only am I giving children the opportunity to learn a good way of life, but I have the opportunity of helping our community to understand that the world is a bigger place than our 50,000-population college town. And, perhaps even more personally, I am daily having my spiritual life challenged, refined and affirmed in the most unique of ways.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

More On Why It's Hard

Upon arriving home last night Claudia and I were greeted by children who had missed us and were happy to welcome us back. It's always a nice feeling, albeit overwhelming, to return home tired and cranky after hours of travel to the choruses of voices excited by our return.

Within an hour of our return Mike was calling. Choosing not to answer (we're never sure whether he will be calling to be verbally abusive or to make a simple request), we heard his grunted response to our answering machine: "Mom. I'm coming home to get an outfit to wear."

He arrived a few minutes later, announcing as he walked through the door, "I'm here to get something to wear." Tromping to the closet near our bedroom where he has been keeping his clothes he went to work finding what he was looking for. I let him dig for a few minutes and then asked, "Are you taking your snowboarding stuff with you?" (In the past when he has left it with us he returns to blame us that someone has "messed" with it). "Yeah." "That's good," I said, explaining that he could probably keep it safer than we could (not sure of the veracity of statement, but at least it keeps us from being blamed if something should go wrong."

In the midst of his grabbing clothes Claudia asked him to take everything with him, because we do not want him returning to the home willy nilly and unexpectedly in the future. He complied with her request. And then he looked up from his task, furtively glancing in my direction to inquire: "So, do you guys want me to call you and stuff or just stay away?"

They were words uttered without animosity, a simple request from a ten-year-old kid in an eighteen-year-old body, wondering how to maintain a connection of sorts with a family who is unable to trust him enough to live in their home.

"Of course, Mike. We want to hear from you. We love you, you're our son. Please tell us how things are going for you."

"Oh, OK."

"So, where are you going to stay?"

"Don't know. I have a place to keep my stuff but I'm not sure if I can stay there or not."


And that was about it. He packed up his clothes, grabbed his snowboard and boots and slipped into the darkness of the December evening. And that's why it's so hard.

More On Why It's Been Worth It

Last night Claudia and I returned from our mini-junket in New Orleans, meeting our college-age son Kyle at the airport (he had been using our car for the days we had been out of town). We were tired, having been in process since 5 AM (it was now 4 PM) and heading toward his house when he said, "So what are you guys doing next?"

I knew very well what the question meant, as did Claudia, but we chose to respond factually. "Well, seeing that we've been up for hours and traveling on planes and now facing another couple of hours travel time home in the midst of rush hour traffic, we're planning to say goodbye to you and head home."

"Oh. I was thinking maybe we could have some dinner first. It's too bad I don't have the number for that Chinese place we like to so well, Dad."

"You mean the House of Wong?" I asked, salivating at the thought. It has been my favorite Chinese place in the Twin Cities for more than twenty years now, stemming back to the time when I was my son's age.

We bantered back and forth for a few minutes, initially settling on some drive-through option that Kyle could take home with him and allow us to head home, but ultimately deciding we would all eat together somewhere we could sit down. After all, we don't see him very often and the rush hour traffic would be at its peak while we ate together.

The three of us ate together the foods we like so well. I ordered, as I have for at least fifteen of the last twenty years, combination #2 which includes chicken subgum chow mein, fried rice, chicken fingers and a choice of barbecue pork of egg roll (I always choose the barbecue pork). Munching merrily along, we came to the point where I asked for take-home boxes. Eyeing my remaining chicken fingers and barbecue pork cunningly, Kyle implored, So, Dad, can I have those leftovers?"

"Are you kidding me? I love my leftovers."

"Yeah, but I could eat those for lunch tomorrow."

"And you don't think I would like to eat them for lunch?"

Glumly he shrugged his shoulders. We had established earlier in the car that his kitchen cupboard contains roughly the following items: 2 boxes of macaroni and cheese, a few eggs, bacon, bread, 3 cans of soup and perhaps a hot dog. Because he will be coming home on break in a few days, it is his goal to make these foodstuffs last for the next several days.

We began to pack up our leftovers, as I began to consider how far Kyle has progressed in the past few years. In his last couple of years in high school he evidenced all the typical attitudes that plague most students in that age group: entitlement, disdain, selfishness. Four years ago there was no way he would ask for my leftovers; he wouldn't even touch his own leftovers, knowing that the next meal would come from his parents' funds, typically prepared by the hands of his loving father. I never intended to keep my Chinese leftovers in the first place, but thought I would take the opportunity to make him think, if only for a few seconds.

"Kyle, I would be very happy for you to take home my barbecue pork and chicken fingers. Here they are," I said, pushing them across the table to him.

"Thanks, Dad." I couldn't help but notice the charming dimple in his cheek, no longer enmeshed in the boyish roundness of ten years ago, but now surrounded by the dark-haired stubble of a young man nearing his final semester of college. Dressed in his "teacher's clothes" (he had come directly from his student teaching site to pick us up at the airport) he provided a striking example of a handsome young man who is every adoptive parent's dream of accomplishment.

Throughout our conversation the three of us traded good-hearted verbal jabs, his eyes twinkling with the joys of attachment that were nonexistent ten years ago. I couldn't help but contrast mentally the scene of ten years ago with last night's. Ten years when we met Kyle in his foster home he had just turned eleven. He was sullen, his face darkened by years of disappointment and loneliness. On the day of our first meeting he had been sick and was dressed in grey corduroys and a non-descript shirt. His eyes met ours for only cursory seconds, his whole being shrouded in a combination of withdrawn abjection. He seethed inner anger, distrust and opposition. I wondered in those first moments what I had gotten myself into. But I remember thinking, "I'm going to change that boy's life, and he is never going to be the same again."

In the years that have passed I have endured his abusive ramblings. I have consistently applied boundaries and guidelines to our relationship and for his benefit. I have been told how distrustful I am, how other parents allow their kids much more freedom, how all I have wanted to do was hold him back.

But when I talk with Kyle now I rarely hear those retorts. He has come to understand the benefit of having parents who love him and who have stood with him for a decade. We will soon reach the "tipping point" where he will have been our son longer than anyone else's. Seems funny that at 21 he has still spent less time with us than his previous caretakers. He doesn't say much about it, so I have to ferret out his feelings from non-emotive utterances.

For example, on our way to Kyle's home after dinner, Claudia was regaling us of some family frustration. To relieve some of the tension I jokingly said "Well, I think we should just cut our losses and run. Stop trying." Kyle's response was immediate and clear. "Well, Dad, that's what everyone of my foster parents did." And that's about all he said. But what he really meant with those ten words is this: "While everyone else in my early life stopped caring about me and gave up, you didn't. You took me into your lives when I was eleven years old and put up with all my crap. And look at me now. I'm going to graduate college, I'm going to be a teacher. I'm a success. [And it wouldn't have happened without you]."

Now, in my father's heart, I would like to have heard Kyle say just a little bit more (as in the fantasy sentence above), but I know there are several factors mitigating against such disclosure: he is a male, he is twenty-one, and what few emotions he expresses are not conducive to such deep feelings.

Claudia has convinced me that Kyle feels he doesn't need to be more emotionally verbose, because it is his philosophy that we share a bond that doesn't need wordiness, that deep beneath everything he is our son and we are his parents. The sparkle in his eye when he jests, the sound of his voice when he challenges (a much different kind of challenge than it was ten years ago), his centered, at-peace disposition are evidences enough that we have saved at least one child from the devastations of aging out of foster care with no one to care.

It has been so worth it. Because it is not just Kyle who has experienced the transformation that results in a human, humane person who may give more to the world than take from it. I, too, will never be the same again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Reflections On a Decade as an Adoptive Parent

It was ten years ago this month that Claudia and I departed our small, west-central Minnesota community to meet our first older children. We left behind (in good care, of course) our then foster sons Anthony (then 2) and Dominyk (then 1) to meet Kyle (then 11) and Mike (then 8). We were naive, we were young, we had no idea what we would be getting ourselves into.

But we knew a couple of things: (1) that these two boys needed a permanent family, (2) that we would never "return" them, and (3) they would be our children forever, come hell or high water.

Short story: it has not been an easy decade. Kyle entered our lives as an angry, manipulative, parentified, bossy, noncompliant, oppositional child. Mike was scattered, more compliant, destructive and, did I say, scattered?

As you probably know, at this point in time Kyle is finishing his second-to-last semester of college (he will grade in May with a degree in Education). And Mike is currently sitting in the county jail (the second time in four days), having not (yet) completed high school and having a questionable future.

Over the years Claudia and I have been asked, "Has it been worth it?"

Ahhh. How to answer that question. Has it been worth it in terms of financial investment, time given and property defaced, stolen or missing? No. Adoption is never a good financial plan.

Has it been worth it in terms of the emotional distress and weariness? No. Adopting older children seldom accords one an immediate sense of well-being or contentment.

Has it been worth it in terms of outcome? Yes and no. Yes, it has been satisfying to see Kyle rise above the challenges of his first years with us to become a calm, centered, goal-oriented young adult who lives morally and with a conscience. No, it has not felt so good in considering how Mike's years have gone. There are always moments when I second-guess myself and the effort that has been poured into his life to this point. Did it make any real difference? Would his outcome have been the same had he never been adopted by us or never been adopted at all? We do not know. But adopting older children never comes with a guarantee. And, of course, parenting any child never comes with a guarantee.

So, has it been worth it?

Yes. It has been worth it because we have offered two boys the opportunity to have a life. They have both had choices to make along the way, but at least they have had choices. Had they never been adopted, or had they remained in a neglectful and dysfunctional birth family they wouldn't even have had a choice. At least we've offered them a choice.

And it has been worth it because these boys know that have parents who are not going to abandon them, or reject them or leave them behind. Ever. We have stuck with them through good and bad times, and we they will always know we are there. They may not be happy with us (I'm sure Mike continues to blame us for his current location), they may not choose to talk to us or to live life the way we have lived life, but at least they know where to find us. And they know that we will love them forever, no matter what.

It has been worth it knowing that we have one son who will soon be a college graduate, and another who may one day have that opportunity if the can get his life together enough to make it happen. And even if he does not, he will be loved as much as his achieving brother.

In the years that have followed we have added other children to our and their lives. We have done this so often in the last ten years it feels like the "right" and "normal" thing to have done. We don't spend too much time wondering "what might have been" or "what it could have been like." And that's a good thing. Because all we can really know is what has happened to this point. And to this point it feels pretty good to know that we have done a good thing in the world, and that we are providing the opportunity for a few of the children of our world to one day give back.

When the end comes I will not be able to say I made my first million by the time I was 40, or that I pastored the largest United Methodist Church in Minnesota by the time I was 50, or that we were able to purchase the nicest home in the community. I'll only be able to say that I have been the father of many children, some of whom I hope will surround my deathbed when that day comes. They will be my "million dollars," "my largest church," "my nicest home."

And that will be all that really has mattered.

New Orleans Cemetery History Tour

Yesterday afternoon I took a walking tour that began in the French Quarter of New Orleans and then proceeded to the oldest cemetery in the city, with burials dating back to the 1700s. I learned that New Orleans and New York City at one time vied for the number one population in what would become the United States. The original inhabitants of New Orleans were explorers and then the misfits from continental Europe ... prisoners, debtors, women of ill repute and the like (think the origins of Australia and you are close to the first settlers of New Orleans).

One of the most fascinating parts of the cemetery tour was learning that in New Orleans a cemetery never "reaches capacity." There are regularly interments yet, more than three hundreds years later, in the diocesan cemetery we visited. Everyone is buried above ground, since the city is at or below sea level. Once a body is interred in the tomb it must remain there undisturbed for one year and one day. After that time arrangements can be made for another body to be placed there. The remains of the previous inhabitant are simply swept together, placed in a bag and moved to the back of the site. Some families have ten or fifteen generations of folks buried in the very same crypt space, which is rather eerie when you think about it.

The grave of Marie LaVeau is the most famous one in the cemetery we visited. Her history is rather obscure, but her reputation as a Voodoo queen is large. No one really knows how she acquired the fame she has (she has become much more famous in death than she ever was in life), but our tour guide hinted that her fame was grown as steadily as has tourism for New Orleans (tourism is the city's number one industry). Tradition says that when you come to Marie LaVeau's tomb, you stand before it, mark three Xs on the tomb, turn around three times while making a wish and knock on the vault ... and the wait for your wish to be realized. It's an interesting legend, and there are plenty of Xs scribbled on the tomb, plus many gifts that have been dropped there.

I neglected to mention earlier that the tour departed from an interesting voodoo shop. The small shop is filled with all kinds of animistic objects from various countries making promises ... ranging from virility to health to attraction. There are tarot cards, blessed chicken's feet and all kinds of trinkets. I didn't stay in the store long, and I didn't bother to identify myself as a clergyperson, either. (Not that anyone was asking).

The second important grave in the cemetery is currently unmarked. It belongs to Homer Plessy, whose case Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) established the specious doctrine in the post-Civil War era of "separate but equal." It was Plessy who pressed the issue that his constitutional rights were infringed because he was denied the opportunity to sit where he wished on the New Orleans street car that he had entered. Within the past year the faceplate of his tomb crumbled (it is currently in safekeeping, I understand), but it has not been replaced. Sad testimony to the life of someone whose legal case initiated what would become in the following seventy years the Civil Rights movement and legislation of our country.

The French Quarter is a fascinating place, most of which was not permanently damaged by the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (there was standing water for a period of time, but not for nearly as long as other areas in New Orleans). It is filled with reminders that New Orleans is party town USA. As Claudia and I were heading to the airport this morning on the shuttle (it picked us up at 5:00 AM) we passed a couple of bars in the Quarter where beer was still flowing freely and scantily clad women were clinging to more expensively dressed men. Needless to say, when Claudia and I ate lunch yesterday at 11:00 AM and dinner at 5:00 PM we received excellent service and great food because we were the only ones in the restaurants in question.

I type these reflections as I sit in the DFW Airport awaiting our flight to Minneapolis. It has been an enjoyable three days. Once I am home I will add to this blog entry several of the pictures I shot yesterday on my tour.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Life In the Big Easy

Claudia and I are in New Orleans, where we are speaking in workshop for the Child Welfare League of America's Conference. Our workshop title is "Transitioning Kids From Residential Living to a Home Setting." Claudia will later today link the presentation from her blog at for those who are interested in seeing (part of) what we had to say.

This afternoon I am going to forego workshop sessions to take a Cemetery and Voodoo History Tour. I'm sure I'll have plenty to blog about that upon my return. Recently on Speaking of Faith Krista Tippett offered "Living Voodoo," an interesting program on the topic. Before listening to Tippett's program most of my awareness of voodoo had come from ridiculously scripted movies or books, but her interview with an expert in the field and additional reflections sparked an interest on my part. I'm sure today's tour will be largely showmanship (as most "touristy" things are), but I hope to ferret out some useful details about the experience as well. In our part of the world (the upper midwest) such approaches to spirituality as viewed as aberrations at best, myth at worst and, for the most part, routinely ignored. The tour departs at Rev. Zombie's Voodoo Shop. Hmmm. Should be some interesting fodder for blog readers coming up.

At the moment I sit in our room on the 26th floor of the Marriott New Orleans, located on historic Canal Street. Our room looks over much of the city and a huge bend in the Mississippi River. What a contrast the Mississippi River in Louisiana is compared to its nascent beginnings in Lake Itasca, northern Minnesota. It is a beautifully sunny day, with temperatures predicted to rise to near 80 degrees today (a far cry from the 5 degrees on Sunday when we left home). The river is busyh with boat and barge traffic, and here (in the area immediately next to the French Quarter) there are few signs of the devastation that rocked New Orleans just two years ago. On our way in by shuttle on Sunday night, however, and from the plane's windows as I looked over the city I could see huge areas completely devoid of light, reminding me that much of this area has yet to be restored. It is eery to look down from the night sky to see the patchwork of lights and no lights next to one another.

In areas not too distant from our current location there was between six and twenty feet of water standing for weeks in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yesterday we heard Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu speak with passion about the devastation and restoration of the area. We have been thanked by many Louisiana natives simply for being here to suffuse the economy with tourist cash. Typically I find the notion of healthy economy as personal security and social sanctity a difficult pill to swallow, being here helps me understand a little better the interplay between means and contentment. Louisiana (and New Orleans in particular) yet remains a community in dispersion, with estimated hundreds of thousands not intending to return "home." It feels a bit odd, then, to be staying in such luxurious accommodations knowing of the devastation that has afflicted the ordinary people around us, but perhaps our contribution to the economy will help in some way.

I am struck by the affection so many have for New Orleans. Yesterday we heard Sharmaine Neville sing (she is a local artist of considerable reputation and sister to Aaron Neville). She related to the listeners how she had spent time in foster care in this state and of her many foster homes there were only two that were kind and loving to her. She spoke without acrimony, but as a way of encouraging those of us involved in child welfare issues to take heart and remember why we do what we do. She sang a couple of songs for us, including a mambo that included Senator Landrieu and others forming a dance line of sorts on the front stage. It was really quite festive. She spoke highly of her city and encouraged us to come see her at Snug Harbor, where she regularly performs.

Last night Claudia and I ate dinner with three of her professional contacts (who would better be classified as friends). I had a great muffaletta sandwich (ham, salami and an olive spread on a toasted bun), and we enjoyed the rocking festivities of Bourbon Street. At the close of our meal the waiter in question made a deliberate point of thanking us for "visiting Nahlins." As we walked back to the hotel it was only 8:00 PM, and things were just getting started in this big old party city. I was harmlessly accosted on the street by a young man saying, "I like your shoes. I'll be you I knew you got 'dem shoes." I had earlier read about not "falling prey to the shoe scheme," so while I wasn't sure what it was all about, I simply said, "Thanks" and walked on. We did a google search and discovered that it's an old-time, usually good-natured hoax, perpetuated on Bourbon Street. A tourist is identified, a local says "I'll bet I know where you got dem shoes," and once a wager has been levied he says, "You got dem shoes on Bourbon Street!" After which, of course, the losing better is expected to pay. I see it as innocent fun; others see it as intrusive and obnoxious.

More from Rev. Zombie's Voodoo Shop to come ...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Bedroom Arrest

I've always wanted to write a salacious headline like that, but my vocational life as a pastor really hasn't allowed me that opportunity over the past twenty years. Tonight, however, my life as an adoptive parent presents me this bittersweet moment in the blogosphere.

Our son Mike and our friend Mike B arrived home from a long day of snowboarding about ninety minutes ago. Upon his arrival home our son Mike was reminded that he could not stay in our home, as I had warned him last night. He stormed around for a few minutes, snarling profanities at Claudia as he threw his stuff into a laundry basket. Our other kids were in bed, the house was relatively quiet, and then the revenge of Mike ensued. He marched toward the bathroom to shower, whereupon Claudia told him that he needed to be packing and getting ready to leave, not taking a shower. His verbal assaults were coupled with noncompliance as he proceeded to do as he wished.

Following his shower he came back to the closet where his clothes have been for the past three weeks (which is located just outside Claudia's and my bedroom door). I had the bedroom door open, waiting in my bedroom for his verbal confrontation. In a way that only an eighteen-year-old with a brain dysfunction can, he browbeat me for several minutes about why the whole situation was our fault, and how could we f***ing throw him out in the middle of the night on the coldest day of the year. I reminded him that I had warned him last night, and he couldn't even be courteous enough at that time to stay home to eat dinner with us, nor did he avail himself of the opportunity to find a place to stay. "How the f*** was I supposed to find a place to stay in one night?" "Well, Mike, of the last seven nights you spent at least three of them away from home, so I would think you have at least a place to stay for tonight. You have friends calling you multiple times a day, showing up at our back door and asking for you." "Those aren't my friends. They're [another brother in the home]'s fag friends, not mine."

"Well, Mike, you need to leave our home."


"Because you don't comply with our rules, you steal from us and your siblings, you disrespect us and you won't do what you need to do."

"Oh, and that's f***ing reason to kick me out of my own home?"

"Yes. And you're eighteen. And it's our home. I don't want to call the police, but I will if you continue to be verbally abusive to me."

"How am I being verbally abusive to you? You try to get the cops here and tell them I'm harassing you. That's not harassment and you know it."

"I don't need to establish any harassment, Mike. You have multiple criminal charges against you, you have knowingly violated probation, and if we call law enforcement they will remove you."

Mike refused to move from my bed, assailing me with all of the reasons that it is our fault that he is in the situation that he is. We were the ones who locked him up for four years of his life for doing nothing more than wanting to visit a friend. He fails to remember the weeks and months during that time when he was gone for days at a time, until finally the county social services agency became involved and established, more than we, that Mike was a danger to himself. But we've known for some time that he would find a way to blame us, and blame he did.

"You'll so f***ing regret it if you call the cops. It will be your fault if I go to jail or to prison, not mine."

His mood became more agitated, and I knew he would not leave our home without something more than a verbal altercation. I was not about to back down to his threats and intimidation. As I stepped out of the bedroom I called to Claudia, "You're going to have to call the cops. Mike refuses to leave, and he's being verbally abusive and threatening." I remained a few feet outside of our bedroom door to observe Mike in case he decided to become physically assaultive or destructive. He remained, a caged animal, glowering at me from a distance reminding me that in his world I was the one to blame for all of his ills. In the moments to follow I said simply, "Mike, if you want to leave before the cops arrive, this is the time. I would advise you to go to a friend's for the night and avoid what is about to happen."

"Well I've got no place to go. And besides they'd just classify me as running away and arrest me anyway."

"If you leave before they arrive we will simply tell them that you chose to leave peacefully."

Mike refused to move, and within minutes the police officer was present. Moving into our bedroom she asked Mike to identify himself and then said, "Michael, we have an A & D ("arrest and detain") for you, so I'm going to need to handcuff you." She proceeded to tell Mike that whether we had called tonight or not that his next interaction with any law enforcement agent would have resulted in his being picked up. He asked why, and she made it clear that it was for probation violations. As it turns out, he was wanted even before we called tonight.

Of course, in his mind, he will be in jail tonight because of his neglectful and abusive (those are his words) parents, not because of anything he has done. So here I sit in my bedroom, previously a place of sanctuary and safety, that has been defiled by abusive words from the lips of a criminal we call our own, and further intruded upon by law enforcement. I never thought I would have a cop in my bedroom. And I'm not sure what I think about that as I prepare to get into bed with my very strong, very committed, very patient wife.

A bedroom arrest. Now that should get some blog hits!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Why I'm Not Feeling So Bad

In the past I've really struggled with asking our son Mike to leave our home. I have felt like a bad parent, like I was failing him, that if we just tried one more time it would work out better. But I'm not feeling so bad this morning, and here's why. Yesterday Mike did not return home after school, which is when I wanted to talk with him about his need to leave. By the time he arrived home it was nearly dinner time, and I was involved in cleaning up and preparing dinner for our guests who would be arriving soon. Mike came tromping into the house and within minutes was preparing his snowboarding gear, for what I thought to be his snowboarding venture the next morning with our friend MB who had flown in from California specifically for that event.

I decided to break the news to him. "Mike you can't live here anymore. You're going to need to pack your stuff and find a nother place to live." "Why?" "Because you won't follow our family rules, you never tell us where you are, you steal our stuff, your creepy friends come to the back door at all hours looking for you. This just isn't working out." "Well, what's the biggest thing I need to do in order to stay?" "It's too late, Mike. I have told you all along what you need to do, and you just won't comply with it. You need to have your stuff packed and ready to be gone tomorrow night after you're done snowboarding with Mike B." "Well, what if I get your iPod back for you. Will that change things?" "Mike, I've given you seven days to return the iPod, and I still don't see it. If I get it back it will take care of the police issue, but that's all." "Well, you're always blaming me when stuff turns up missing." "You're right, Mike, which is why you really need to live somewhere else. That way we can't blame you anymore." We had a few more brief snippets of conversation.

In the midst of all I was doing Mike announces, "Dad, I'm going snowboarding." "Right now?" I ask. "Yeah," a look of bewilderment on his face. "Well, Mike, you realize that Mike B is arriving in just a few minutes, right?" "And, so ... " is his response. "So, it would be appropriate for you to stick around and eat dinner with us since he flew all the way from California to see you and to take you snowboarding all day tomorrow." He gave no response, but I could tell from his demeanor he had no intention of eating with us or greeting his benefactor. Within minutes he had disappeared into the cold Minnesota night, so that by the time Mike B. and our other guests had arrived our Mike was no where to be found.

The fifteen or so (I always lose track) of the rest of us enjoyed our dinner together. We were chatting at at the table some time later when our Mike, his face reddened from the bitterly cold evening, trotted into the kitchen fully dressed in snowboarding apparel, marched to the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of milk. There were a few abbreviated interchanges, and within fifteen minutes our guests were moving toward to door to leave for the night. Our guest Mike (from California) looked for our Mike, but he had already disappeared back into the night. We were all a little confused to have seen him for a few minutes and then for him to have vanished again. "Welcome to our life," was all Claudia could tell our friend Mike B.

We were sound asleep at 12:30 this morning when our Mike knocked on our bedroom door and announced, "I'm going to a friend's house tonight, but I'll be here at 8 in the morning to go snowboarding with Mike." Claudia groggily responded to his interruption, and it was quiet until we awakened a few hours later. It is now 8:35 and our Mike telephone just a few minutes ago let us know that he would be coming to our house to meet Mike B. for the snowboarding adventure.

I guess I shouldn't feel too bad. It's one thing for an eighteen-year-old to disregard his parent and their rules, but when this same kid treats with disrespect someone who has flown across the country basically to see him, I realize that I'm in pretty good company. And when, in the past seven days, Mike has spent less than half of those sleeping in our home, I guess he's got plenty of friends who can give him a place to stay more permanently.

I'm not feeling so bad this morning about what has to happen today. I'm not excited about the process, but we've been through this transition so many times before I know I'm going to be just fine. And, surprisingly, so will Mike.

Why Parents Raising Difficult Children Are Heroes

You may have already heard the details regarding the Omaha mall shooting, in which a nineteen-year-old male kills eight people before turning the gun on himself. This young man's early life was characterized by disruption and breaks in attachment, and he spent the better part of his teenage years in treatment facilities for his aggressive, oppositional and antisocial activities.

Sound familiar to any of you raising children who have joined your family through adoption?

Certainly not every adopted child faces such significant challenges, nor does every adopted child die in a homicidal/suicidal act of devastation. But it is striking, isn't it, that so many of the traits identified in this article apply to so many of the children so many of us have adopted? To greater or lesser degrees, those of who are parenting difficult children encounter situations that worry us, frustrate us, and produce anxieties that "ordinary" people have no way of understanding.

When we adopt older children we are taking upon ourselves a mysterious opportunity. It may be, and thank God that most often it turns out this way, that we are offering a child the possibility of life he or she would not have had otherwise. It may be as simple as regular meals, living in a stable home environment, having a home that is clean, safe and in a neighborhood that promotes health. It might be attending children's conferences, concerts and nourishing their spiritual lives. It may be the chance to go to college, to live without chemical use or to see what a faithful marriage relationship looks like. Some kids are able to see the advantages of such a life, and they respond accordingly in ways that promote their health, society's well-being and a promising future.

But it doesn't always turn out that way. Some kids, for whatever reason, are unable to respond to their parents' love, affection or direction. They have been injured psychologically in too severe of ways to recover even enough to maintain a modicum of health or future possibility. They continue to need parents who love them, even if they cannot live with them. They need to have connections even if all along the way they rebuff such parental efforts. They need to know "home" always exists. And even then it may not turn out very happily or well.

Fortunately, even the more damaged of the kids we adopted parents call our own will not resort to such violent acts as the mass killing of innocent strangers. Their infractions "against" society may be illegal acts that result in probation or jail time, they may self-saboutage their future success, they may alienate those who love them most. But in the end they do not make all of society "pay" because their early years of neglect or abuse. In those situations it is "only" we adoptive parents who "pay" because of their challenges, and I suppose in the larger sphere of things, that's one of the possibilities we bring upon ourselves when we say "yes" to a challenging child.

But it is also the reason why parents raising difficult children are the real heroes in our society.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Time Is Up

In what has become his typical arrive-after-dinner-whenever-I-want-to appearance, Mike had just finished eating his bowl of ramen and was watching television when I sat down.

Me: So, you know that tomorrow MB [the FASD documentarian and family friend from CA] is coming, right?
Mike: As in tomorrow, like in the morning?
Me: Tomorrow, yes, but in the afternoon, like after school some time.
Mike: Oh, like after school.
Me: Yes, Mike, after school.
Mike: And he's going to go snowboarding with me, right?
Me: I'm not sure, but I think so. You'll have to ask him about that.
Mike: OK.
Me: So, any news on my iPod?
Mike: Nope.
Me: I'll be reporting the theft to the police tomorrow. It's been seven days, and I have reminded you several times that you need to take care of this, so tomorrow is the day.
Mike: Well, you haven't given me much time, you know.
Me: Not much time to recover my iPod? You've had six days, Mike, and I don't have my iPod back yet.
Mike: Well, it takes more than six days to come up with $250. [It has been his goal to buy me a new iPod, evidently].
Me: All I want is my iPod back, Mike.
Mike: [In a dazed glimmer of recognition] What are you gonna tell 'em?
Me: I will be telling them the whole series of events, as I have described them to you recently (i.e., that Mike set up the theft by being out of the house when all but our thirteen-year-old daughter was home].
Mike: So, I'll probably be going to jail again?
Me: I don't know, Mike. That's not my call. I'm just going to report the theft that occurred in our home and the circumstances surrounding it.

A vacuous silence ensued. No apologies. No requests to use the telephone to recover the iPod. No eye contact. Nothing. Just the glimmer of the television in the darkened living room shadowing across his media-transfixed glaze.

Today I will report the theft to the authorities. After school I will tell Mike he has until tomorrow night (after his snowboarding expedition) to find a new place to live, or I will be transporting him to the Salvation Army homeless shelter. And we will close yet another chapter in the life of parents who have adopted a child with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What About the Other Kids?

That's the question asked me a few months ago by one of my friends from college days (some twenty years ago now).

And it's a good and important question, because the truth of the matter is that Claudia and I have twelve children, most of whom are doing remarkably well. One of the deficits of the blogosphere is that postings only allow the reader to catch snippets here and there of a person's or family's life. If I were to read only what I have blogged and make a judgment about my own family or my own self, I would have to conclude that there is an unhealthy preoccupation with dysfunction. Knowing enough about family systems theory to make me aware, there would probably be "experts" out there who would say that such a preoccupation is the reason such dysfunction continues to rear its ugly head.

The truth of the matter is that I don't blog nearly as much about our healthy children as those who are challenging. Part of it is because the intent of my blog is to help parents who are caring for similarly disabled children, and while there are multiple resources for those working with "ordinary" kids, there is little out there for those encountering really, really troubled kids. I guess that's the kind of "niche" I hope my blog serves.

But it certainly doesn't give a sense of balance to the reality of my life as a person or our lives as a family. So, for the sake of balance, let me just highlight a few reasons why I do not regret being the father of twelve children, all of whom joined our hearts through adoption:

• I am almost always able to have a travel companion, whether it's to the local gas station, the Cities for a meeting or an extended trip across the country;
• I witness daily the ways that God draws together a group of people unrelated by genes, early life experience or geographical origins;
• I always have someone in the kitchen to help me cook, someone to accompany me to the grocery store (and help to carry in the groceries), and at least one person each night who is happy with the particular item I have chosen to prepare;
• I do no have to feel guilty when I turn on the television and hear the plights of the world's children because we are doing something about it;
• I will have many, many people at my funeral one day (even if half of my children and their children show up there will be a crowd);
• I don't have to feel guilty about contributing to the world population crisis. Claudia and I have produced no offspring, but we have the privilege of helping twelve already here;
• I am living so close to my life's twin missions (to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to care for the children of the world) that I have little reason to be discouraged or depressed;
• I am able to see everyday the diversity of God's creation if I do something as simple as look into my children's eyes: the round, deep brown recesses of Hispanic heritage, the crescent-shaped brightness of Asian origins, the sparkling blue of Nordic beginnings, the elusive, verdant green pools of Irish ancestry.
• My joys are multiplied by twelve, and my pain is divided by twelve.

What about the other kids? They are doing well, thank you. All of them woke up this morning in a warm, safe home. They dressed their freshly-showered bodies into clean clothes. They were transported to schools where they will learn from teachers who care about them. They will return home today to a snack of some sort, and they will join others to eat food prepared by hands who love them. At moments they will argue, they will scowl, they will act oppositional, but they have a place to belong, a mom and dad who love them, and the best chance they have to reach the full potential with which they were born.

And that, in my book, means we're doing pretty well together.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Chemically-Affected Brain

As long as I have lived with Mike (our eighteen-year-old son with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), and it's been ten years now, I still find it challenging to live with his chemically-affected brain. My emotional response ranges from compassion (it's not really his fault that his birth mother drank while he was in utero), to pity (he's going to end up in serious trouble, and there's nothing we can do about it), to frustration (just figure it out, Mike), to retribution (if that's the way you're going to treat your family, find another place to live), to momentary acceptance (it's just who he is, and we cannot change it).

I think it's the unpredictability that is most unnerving. For nearly four or five days, when he's really trying, he can keep things together. He can follow the house rules, he can be appropriate to those with whom he is living, he acts relatively respectful. But then, without any warning or provocation, he can disappear for days at a time with no word as to his whereabouts. And then, in the midst of the absence, something must click in his brain that says, "Oh, yeah, I should probably call home and let them know where I am." And so we'll receive a telephone call out of the blue, asking, "Is it OK if I stay at [a friend's] tonight?" And this after he has already been gone for hours or days with no notice at all.

That he makes few connections and has little concept of consequence is difficult for me, because all of my life (as with most other "ordinary" people) I have learned causality, either from intentional teaching on the part of my protector or supervisor, or by simple life lessons. This does not translate for someone with organic brain damage. They do not lean from natural consequences, and they are often resistant to any kind of perceived "intrusion" into their lives. Which means there are few alternatives, except the ultimate in consequence, jail or prison.

Here's how things played out last night in my limited interactions with Mike. I returned home from two meetings and one of our seventh grader's concerts to find Mike sitting in our living room watching television. Our eyes met and we exchanged a banal greeting, "Hi." I moved on to my immediate responsibilities, while he continued to numb his mind with the flash and mumble of television.

A few minutes later I could see that he was on the telephone and then sitting in our kitchen expectantly watching out of the window. "Are you going to be leaving?" I asked. "Uh, yeah." "Will you be coming home later tonight?" (It was already after 9:00 PM, and our family policy is to be home by 10:00 PM unless previously approved). "Not sure. I think so." Glancing in his direction I saw that his left eye displayed the tell-tale signs of blackening. "So what happened to your eye?" "I got hit." "So, how did that happen?" "Not sure." "You're not sure how your eye got hit, Mike?" "Not really." Not sure I wanted to pursue this monosyllabic inquiry much further, I simply said, "Oh. OK."

"Any word about my iPod yet?" I queried. "What do you mean?" he asked. "I mean, do you have my iPod back yet?" "Nah." "Well, I'm going to be going to the police about it very soon to report it stolen and to let them know the circumstances." "Yeah, whatever."

I noticed Mike had a backpack on his back, so I said, "What's in the backpack?" "Nothing." "You've got nothing in the backpack, Mike?" "Nope." "Then why are you wearing it?" "Because I just got it today?" His sister affirmed that the item was empty, so I decided not to pursue the issue any further. Shaking my head to myself at the lack of any kind of communication occuring or information having been exchanged, I left the room.

Minutes later he slipped back into the shadows of the cold December night, not another word uttered.

I was in my bedroom reading when our sixteen-year-old son came tromping up the stairs and through the door, throwing himself on our bed. "Mike's a thief" were his opening remarks. "Pardon?" "Mike is a thief. While I was doing my chore he must have gone into my room and stolen my money that I had hidden?" "Where was it?" I asked. He told me where it had been hidden. "But now it's gone." "Is Mike gone, too?" I wondered. "Yeah, and he's probably spending it with [his friend]."

Life with one who has been chemically affected is always a surprise, almost always a disappointment, nearly always a frustration.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Life With Judas

It's been so long since I've blogged that I had to do the whole "password reset" process because I couldn't remember what password I used here. Although it was only three weeks ago that I last blogged, it seems like months. The added stress of having our eighteen-year-old son back in our lives has been more obvious than I want to admit, I guess.

If you read my wife's blog you know that things have been limping along with Mike back in the home. It has been just a month since the fateful conversation in which he pleaded with me to come back home. He needed to make a change in his life, the people he has lived with and hung out with were only bringing him down, and prison time was imminent if he didn't find a better place to live and reform his life.

Well, he has had a better place to live. But he has not reformed his life. And I live with the guilt of knowing that I am the one who, once again, brought him back into our lives. This whole ordeal would be so much easier if I were not a person of Christian faith. If I were not a follower of the One who says, "Turn the other cheek," "Father, forgive [him] for [he] does not know what [he does]," "Forgive one another," I could make a summary judgment once and for all and be done with the matter, but I have redemption and transformation as core values of my life. I ardently believe (and have witnessed) the changed lives God offers in Jesus Christ.

I can almost hear the psychic prattle of the blogosphere as you read those words. But, please don't even begin to criticize my Christian faith. It was this faith that caused me more than a decade ago to adopt children with special needs. I will admit that I was naive, but who isn't when it comes to such serious challenges? I was idealistic, but who isn't when considering doing what so many will not even consider? I was hopeful, but who enters the adoption process without the belief that he/she/they can do something to benefit kids who have had a rough start in life?

Time and again as Claudia and I have agonized over the "Mike situation," I have asked, "But didn't Jesus himself forgive Judas, even as he was dipping his hand into the same dish to feed himself?" In my early Christian life when I read about the Judas - Jesus relationship I didn't pay it all that much attention. It was a piece of the Last Supper narrative I was very familiar with, but not in any personal sense.

But now, you see, I live with Judas. And, although I follow him as the Lord of my life, I am not Jesus.

I have been betrayed by Mike too many times to count. Hundreds of dollars have been stolen over the decade he has lived with us. My high school class ring and a family ring (it was my great-grandfather's, who died in 1919) have long since disappeared. My reputation was dragged through the mud during his months in juvenile treatment centers as he (successfully, on occasion) convinced therapists and social workers that his adoptive parents were his biggest problem. Two months ago he was instrumental in stealing our car, which after the insurance company totaled it, resulted in a loss in value of more than $3500 to us. And now he has set us up to have a stranger enter our home and steal the one inanimate object that has practical usefulness to me, my iPod.

The issue is not the "stuff." My mental images of the rings are enough if that's all I have. My reputation can be slowly repaired as people see the person I truly am. Cars can be repaired or replaced. My iPod's content is completely backed up on my computer's hard drive and the item can be replaced. The issue is my trust and the safety and welfare of my family. These are more "essential" to life than any object stolen, and once these qualities of life (which I do not consider "luxuries") are not present, trouble is afoot. My wife and children should not have to "wait and see" what Mike might do the next time.

We have believed through all of this that if Mike is committing illegal acts eventually the system will catch up with him, but we are no longer enamored with that prospect. In their desire to prevent another "kid" from ending up in prison the caretakers of the criminal justice system are doing all they can do to keep him from incarceration. In the meantime, however, how many lives will be impacted by his confused, chaotic, selfish thinking?

And, of course, the nagging question in my conscience: in what ways is his living at home contributing to his success or only enabling his criminality? There is no sign of success, there are only signs of criminality, and now it is crouching in the corners of my home, which I cannot allow.

You know, even Jesus chose not to stop Judas. Perhaps he knew that he couldn't change the course of things, perhaps it was a gesture to human free will, perhaps it was simply that Judas could not accept what Jesus offered. Whatever the case, Jesus did what he needed to do, and Judas did what he felt he needed to do. But at least Judas had the good sense and courtesy to leave.

I recognize that this is not one of my more lucid blogs, but perhaps it simply conveys the difficulty of life with a Judas. The situation must change very soon, and it will be, as always, unpleasant.