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.