Monday, April 21, 2008

A Tale of Two Sisters

We have two daughters. They are sisters by birth, separated in age by just about two years. They have many physical similarities. They are both very beautiful. They were born with luxuriantly thick, wavy (sometimes frantically curly) black hair which surrounds warm, tan skin and velvety dark brown eyes.

But in personality they are very distinct from one another. Our fifteen-year-old daughter is reserved, moody, aloof, boundaried. So much like her father (me) I sometimes marvel that I contributed nothing biologically to her origins. Our thirteen-year-old daughter, on the other hand, is outgoing, cheerful, bubbly, open. She in so many ways has the personality traits of her mother (my wife).

When they arrived at the ages of six and four, I thought the younger daughter would be the challenging daughter. I anticipated that she would be the one to push boundaries, question authority and act in consistently defiant ways. And don't misunderstand, she does, at times, exhibit some of those attitudes. But when the fire has burned to coals, she is remorseful, apologetic and ready to reconnect and move on. To this point she has become the easier daughter to understand and manage.

Last night our younger daughter and I had dinner together. Sunday evening is traditionally "each person for him/herself" in our home in regards to food (we usually have a large lunch together on Sundays), and occasionally I will take one of the kids out to talk and have a meal together. We had a lovely meal together (the food was average family dining fare) with good conversation. She is an excellent conversationalist, loves to talk, but has also learned to listen to others and is aware of their needs and concerns. We covered a gamut of topics ... what it's like to go to college, how she wants to be a reporter, what is appropriate sexuality (in our family's book it is wait until marriage), and on and on. By the time we arrived home I felt the satisfaction of a parent who has had numerous healthy, helpful interactions with a young teenage daughter.

We returned home and I was sitting at my desk in our bedroom, processing email, when I heard muffled sniffling behind me. Turning around I discovered the source of the emotional breakdown. Our fifteen-year-old daughter was wrapped in a blanket, her eyes puffy and red from crying, her voice husky with emotion as she asked if she could go to a friend's house to stay overnight. There were several strikes against her request. It was nearly 9:00 PM, and typically we don't accommodate last-minute requests, especially on school nights, and she had spent most of the past weekend with the friend in question. I told her why I was inclined to say "no." She left the room, and then returned to sit on the bed.

Once again I took my fingers off the keyboard, turned around and asked in most gentle, loving father, seminary-trained therapeutic voice, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I just want to go to ____'s house."

"Well, I've already explained why that's a bad idea. You are obviously emotionally upset, and I think it's better for someone so upset to be close to familiar surroundings and get rest. Why don't you call her?"

"It's not the same."

"Yeah, I guess you're right about."

Long, long pause. As in multiple minutes.

"So, would you like to talk to me about what's going on?

"No. I don't know who I can trust."

Another long pause.

"Do you think your mom or dad might be a place to start?'

"Not yet. I'm not ready to do that."


The minutes tick by as she sits on the bed, shrouded in a blanket, silently sniffling, and as I sit quietly in my chair. We share the silence together. Is it healing? Is it therapeutic? I can never really tell. But I have few words to say, and she has even less.

"What can I do to help?" I query. My question is met with weighty, though not icy, silence. Then she speaks.

"There's nothing you can do. Only time will tell."

"Only time will tell what?" I ask empathically.

"Only time will tell what the outcome of this will be."

And the statement hangs in the room, dripping with intrigue.

"You know," I remind her of what we have said multiple times, "all of our children have disappointed us at some time or another. You would not be the first, not would you be the last. If we talked about this you might feel a lot better."

"I'm not ready to do that yet."

"I understand that. But this big secret you are carrying with you is overwhelming you. Isn't it time to do something about it? I mean, the power of a secret is the hold it has over you. Until you get it out it will hold you captive. It will always be there in the back of your mind."

She looks up at me, nods her head in agreement, and stolidly maintains "I can't talk about it."

And so I, the father that always thought she would be the easy one to raise, the father who has always held out hope that she would have the internal strength to make good choices even when others around her do not, I say: "Well, you know that we love you and nothing you have done will ever change that. When you are ready to talk to me or to mom we will be ready to listen and to help."

As she burrows into her self-constructed hiding place physically and emotionally, she looks down, averts eye contact and assumes the quiet posture of the tormented. Together we sit in the silence of the moment, until some seven minutes later she breaks the silence.

"Are we done talking?"

"I don't know, you tell me," I say in my calmest, most pastoral voice I can muster.

"I guess so, then," she utters in resignation as she lifts her sullen body from the bed, enfolds herself in the blanket and wordlessly exits the room, her dignity intact but her soul crushed from the secret she harbors.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Vow of Stability

My wife and I are categorized as "stable." For the purposes of a foster care license twelve years ago we were assessed as being a "stable" family unit. We had housing, we had food, we had employment, we had a healthy enough relationship. Within a period of time we were judged to be "stable" for adoption home study purposes. Those interviewing us, reviewing our references and looking into our histories determined that we would be suitable candidates to adopt children. In my vocation, as well in my wife's vocation, we have been stable. She has been involved in the adoption world as a professional for eight years, and I have been a pastor in my current denomination for more than fifteen years.

We are stable, but sometimes I get so bored with stability. Knowing that each day is going to be pretty much the same really drives me crazy sometimes, and I am luckier than most because I have the kind of vocation in which I have a great deal of personal discretion and flexibility with how I choose to use my time. I am not bound to certain hours (except, of course, for Sunday, which is a different matter) every week, so I try to be grateful for that gift. But the numbing regularity of being a parent sometimes makes me listless. I know, for example, that every day after school our second youngest son will come bolting through the door, seconds before his PCA (personal care attendant), begging for money so that he can buy pop. And I know that Claudia or I will have to begin the process of reminding him that he did not earn (or has spent) his allowance for the week, and therefore he doesn't "have any money." He will ask repeatedly, he will scream that we do not love him, that we do not care about him, and then he will stomp up the stairs the his bedroom, often uttering a string of obscenities that crescendo with the slamming of his bedroom door as the sobbing in his room commences. He will cry, he will scream, he will pound the floor with his feet. And I know, without doubt, that this will occur nearly every day in nearly the same pattern it always does.

And sure, I try to remind myself that he has been diagnosed with several disabilities that explain his behavior. I will do my best to distance myself from his emotion-laden assaults. I will, in a word, seek to be and to provide a stable response to his outbursts. And I will do this nearly every day, until I hit one of those challenging days where, instead of being stable, I will respond in kind. I will angrily stomp my feet on the stairs as I go to his bedroom to confront his behavior, where I will break with stability and raise my raise or attempt to use impassioned logic or some other ill-devised attempt to stop his daily barrage of rage.

And then, in the midst of my own momentary "instability," I will begin to feel a little guilty. I will remind myself that I chose to adopt a child whom I knew would be challenging. I will hear his teacher's words in my ears: "Can you imagine where Dominyk would be without your family?" I will look into his tear-stained, rage-reddened eyes and cheeks, and remember the first months he lived with us, and how we had to find therapeutic ways for him to bond with us, since he arrived as an unattached infant. I will take a few deep breaths, sit down on his bed and say, "Dominyk, it's time to calm down, now. You don't have any money to buy pop today, but you still need to get control of yourself and move on to something else."

Stability returns. And once again I will steel myself for another predictable day of emotional torrent, wishing instead of "stability" so-called for some moments of joyous interruption, some interchanges that lift the heart rather than dismay it. I forget the value of stability in my quest for something new, something intellectually arresting, something emotionally captivating.

As I was considering again today how much I disparage "stability," I found these words from Benedict of Nursia (ca. 500 AD), in which he speaks of the "vow of stability." Although I am not even close to being a monk, I find his words about the interior aspect of this vow helpful.

"Stability asks us to live in the present moment and to accept and respond in love to whomever and whatever God has given to us. Stability is not just saying, 'Oh well. I can't do anything about this so I might as well accept it.' Stability is actually wanting the situation we are in because we know that we can find God in it regardless of how difficult it might be."

I'm not sure I'm ready to say yet that "I love stability," because I often feel like I am missing so many other things in life because of the choices I have made. But perhaps God can help me simply want the situation I am in because through my current circumstances I can discover more spiritual depth than I could ever find were I to live the life of a spiritual dilettante, going here and there, never really committing, never really settling, always in a perpetual state of change. Perhaps I have more freedom to grow in the midst of a vow of stability than I ever would find if my life were a series of acts characterized by reckless abandonment.

Lord, help me want the situation in which I find myself, so that through such stability I might find in you my quest for something new.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Color-Blindedness in a Multi-Ethnic Family

I have blogged previously how being a parent of children from multiple ethnic backgrounds has made me more "color blind" than I ever thought I might be. Most days I don't even give much thought to the reality that there are more people of color living in my home than there are majority culture types.

There are those who assert that it is racist to even claim "color blindedness," and I agree with that concept in principle if, in fact, it means another way for a white-privileged person to deny equity to someone from another ethnic background. So, as the caucasian parent of children from various ethnic backgrounds, I try to walk an honest walk. I treat my children without regard to their origins, but at the same time try to affirm the richness of their cultural identities. My goal is to create a household in which value is placed upon human personhood, not some external, while at the same time nurturing a respect and identity for each of my children. This can be challenging, but it is a priority.

I was reminded today that perhaps we have been somewhat successful in instilling this value in our children. Claudia and I were on the way back to our house with Wilson (age 9) and Dominyk (age 11), who had just finished their school conferences.

Me: I think I'm going to get my hair cut after this. I'll take Dominyk, too. Is that OK with you, Dom?
Dom: Sure
Mom: Wilson, do you think you should get your hair cut, too?
Me: Nah, I don't think Wilson needs his hair cut yet.
Wilson: No, I want my hair like it is. That's the way Asians like their hair.
Dom: You're Asian?!
WIlson: Umm, yeah.

So, today Dominyk learned that his younger brother is Asian.

How about that for color-blindness?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

To Rise Above the Trauma

A few minutes ago I exchanged an email with an individual Claudia and I have known for years now who is an adoptive parent and who is an adoption professional. We were "chatting" about the trauma that enters the lives of those who work with challenging children, family systems and government agencies. I think this is a topic that needs much more exploration, so I will say a few things here that I have observed.

I have said any number of times that as an adoptive parent of (mostly) older children, I expected my children to be traumatized. Having read their files before they ever entered my home, I knew that they were conduct disordered, or anxiety-ridden, or attention deficit disordered, or drug exposed. I knew that one of our sons had been found in a box in a corner as an infant, in filthy conditions, with cigarette burns on his body. I knew that another of our sons had languished in a series of foreign orphanages (both state run and private) because the original adoption plan had been botched. We knew the birth parents of our two youngest sons, so as they grow up and exhibit some of the personality traits of their birth origins, we may be chagrined but not surprised.

And, to be sure, their behaviors are challenging. There are many times when I ask myself, "What have I done? What have I gotten myself into?" But, in the end, whether I find momentary solace or occasional lament, I remind myself, "This is what God asked you to do. You agreed. So, trust God and believe that you will find the strength you need." And this works.

What has been most difficult for me, though, is the trauma of being abused by the very ones who I naively thought would be supportive. In particular, it is the disappointments and lack of supports we have received from bureaucratic types that are most overwhelming. It's a sad irony, really. County and state agencies advertise the need for foster and adoptive parents to step up and provide care for neglected or abused children. In this "procurement" (and I use that word intentionally, because in retrospect it feels like we were commodities to be "procured") stage accolades are plenteous. "You are doing such a nice job with this foster care placement. S/he is getting better grades than s/he has ever before." "You would be the perfect match for this child/these children." "What a loving home you have." You know the lingo as well as I do.

Affirmation and commendation are warmly received by any parents who provide foster or adoptive services. But why is it that once the child/children are legally adopted and a "real" part of the family, the sense of affirmation fades? It is as though the tide dramatically changes. One who has been a prized foster parent is suddenly scrutinized because "the family setting" may not be "appropriate for [child in question]." What? Excuse me? We were good enough to be stellar foster parents, but suddenly, when we have made a more permanent, lifetime commitment to this child, we are the cause of his behavior?

Why is it that services seem available for a "child in care" that no longer exist for one who is "adopted"? And why are parents of adopted children held to a higher level of effectiveness than those who are foster parents? I mean, isn't an exceptional foster parent nearly as good when s/he decides to adopt?

The lack of services to good parents and good families who desire to do the right thing in our world need to be enhanced. I don't think any adoptive parent feels they should be treated as "spectacular examples of humanity" for their desire to do something that is foundationally so moral. What adoptive parents want is support so that their children can achieve to their level of ability (and perhaps, even beyond, a bit). It means that when an adoptive parent's child becomes involved in the legal system the parents should not expect to be blamed. It means that when an adoptive parent's teenage, multiple-diagnosed child, seeks employment there are some support services provided to assist.

It means that adoptive parents are given the opportunity to rise above the trauma they have invited into their homes. And this can only happen when those outside of the home value the role of an adoptive parent and provide resources, services and affirmation for the work we do. It is challenging enough for adoptive parents to do the work we do without having to be retraumatized by a social services system (and I am speaking here in broad terms, in systemic terms) that is antiquated, broken and underfunded.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

There Are "Normal" Days, Too

Sometimes I feel a little guilty about the blog posts I write, because by and large I blog those events that are traumatic or disappointing or frustrating. I suppose part of my intent is to share these incidents honestly so that other parents of challenging children will not feel so alone. The world of parents navigating a child's mental illness or socially inappropriate behaviors of norm-breaking experiences is so very different from that of "normal" families that I feel compelled to focus, perhaps too often, on the difficulties.

But, the truth of the matter is, there are "normal" days, too. Like today, for example.

Claudia needed to be out of the house by 6:45 this morning, and the kids had a "late start" (school two hours later than normal) so I stayed home and got them on their way to school. Our usual pattern is that Claudia gets up quite early to go to the "Y," shortly before I awaken and get ready for the day. By the time she returns I can be on my way to the office, arriving as early as 6:30 or 7:00. Those precious minutes before activity begins to bustle in the areas surrounding mine at the church serve me so well. I have become a morning person over the past decade or so, although I'm not completely sure why that is. I then spend the remainder of the morning through mid-afternoon at the office, returning home for the after-school rush and remaining home through dinner time (usually I am the cook, or at least the coordinator of the meals). Then, following dinner I either retreat to my bedroom to relax, or head out to a church meeting, or some other family-related activity.

This morning, then, was a luxury of sorts. I arrived home late last night from a church meeting, so I didn't feel too bad about taking the morning off. In the quiet of the home in those first hours I was able to get myself ready and then moved toward fulfilling several children's prior evening's request for pancakes and sausage for breakfast. As I began to cook the sausage in the quiet of the morning I reflected to myself that this was the way I spent many of my mornings in my previous church appointment. I often cooked breakfast and saw the kids off to school before I went to the office. Since moving to his church two years ago, though, my pattern has changed. I realized this morning how much I have missed the "dad makes breakfast before we go to school" life that we used to have.

I had the luxury of awakening, stage by stage, our children, managing to serve them hot pancakes in the process. (When you have a large family the process of making pancakes so that they are hot and edible can be a daunting one. There's only so much room on the griddle at a time). Today everyone was able to have hot pancakes in the size and quantity that they requested, with minimal at-table disturbance (there are always one or two kids who find sibling torment a delightful enterprise).

With time to spare the breakfast deed was accomplished, and I began the process of transporting six kids to three different schools spread across our community. Even our oldest daughter, for whom mornings are not always tolerable, was pleasant. By the time I finished dropping everyone to their respective schools nearly an hour had elapsed, and as I walked through the door I took a moment to pet our faithful dog, Gizmo, and luxuriated in the opportunity to have nearly two hours of blissful silence before departing to come to the office.

See, there are normal days, even for parents of troubled kids. And that really helps balance the many other days which are often as close to hell as one can imagine.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Places I Will Never Go

I am an adoptive parent, and my life is very different from those who parent "typical" children. To adopt, especially older children who have identified "special needs," is a process of grief. It is not only that, because there are many moments of joy and the feeling of satisfaction knowing that you are contributing to the well being of a child who might otherwise be quite "lost." But it is an experience of loss.

For those who have infertility issues or who are single parents seeking to form a family through adoption, the process is a reminder of somehow being "different" than "most" other people. For older children experiencing adoption, there is often a sense of loss and wonderment, fantasies about the "right adoptive family" or the "nearly perfect birth family" from whom they were summarily wrenched, for no apparent reason. There is the sense of loss that comes from always being "different," a stereotype often unwittingly reinforced by relatives or friends who don't quite understand. Those are the kinds of losses that therapists and authors and speakers often identify. They are to be expected by nearly all adoptive families at some point or another.

But there are other losses, too. Subtle losses that are often kept deep within the heart of an adoptive parent for fear that he or she will be misunderstood, or characterized as selfish, or judged by those who prefer to regard adoptive parents as veritable heroes at all times and place, because it easier to praise what you don't understand than to get close enough to embrace the "realness" of it.

I have been reminded in the past couple of days of the places I will never go as an adoptive parent.

On Friday night while waiting in the Nashville airport for my flight to board, I happened to notice a rapidly walking father and son. It was a delightful sight, actually. Here's the image: African-American dad and son. Dad, in his late 30's, is dressed professionally in a navy blue business suit striding intently toward a yet-to-be-discovered airport gate. Son, about nine years of age, dressed in the same navy blue business suit, carrying his dad's brief case, a half-stride behind his father, equally paced and intent on their destination. They are picture-perfect likenesses of one another, separated by only twenty or so years. My children and I bear no physical resemblances (for which I am sure they are grateful!) My children will never dress like I dress, nor will we walk at a similar pace with a similar level of intensity toward a similar goal. It is a place we will never go.

This morning after worship I was delayed by a few minutes in order to talk with a parishioner. It was one of those vocation-related things that I could not delay nor hurry any faster than it could be. I spent the pastoral time with the individual in question, prayed with him and realized it had taken more than thirty extra minutes. I knew that I would have at least two children awaiting my return, but I did not realize four of them were waiting to ride from church with me. Nearly everyone (and I'm hoping it was everyone, but I'm not sure) had already left the church, but as I departed the sanctuary and moved toward the narthex to head toward my office, I encountered our eleven-year-old son. His sweaty hair and askew shirt framed an angry, reddened face. "Where in the h--- have you been?!" he inquired of me.

Unhappy that he was using inappropriate language in "church" space I reminded him that it was not OK to talk that way, whereupon he lambasted me at the top of his voice with relentless fury. "I've been g--damn, motherf------ waiting forever for you. I want to go home!" In a terse voice of my own I commanded him to come with me to my office so that we leave the church and go home. His angry tirade followed us, as I tried to explain that my job as a pastor is to respond to people's needs, even if it occasionally meant that I (or he) might be inconvenienced, reminding him that he could have left thirty minutes earlier with his mother. His irritation was unquelled as we finally left the church and headed to our car. As we walked to the car I realized that yet in the church (though in a different part of the building) was one of our congregation's finest families preparing with one of their sons for his Boy Scout Eagle Court of Honor celebration this afternoon. The contrast was striking to me, as I realized another place I will never go.

I had been invited to attend this afternoon's Court of Honor, so I asked one of our thirteen-year-old sons (who happens to be presently a Boy Scout) to come with. He declined. I explained, "Well, you are a Boy Scout, and it's appropriate that you attend another scout's most important honor. You really should be going, you know." "Yeah, well, I'm not sure I know where my uniform is, and I'm supposed to wear that, I think. Do I really have to go? Will you be mad at me if I don't go?" Realizing that forcing him to attend would do nothing but make my experience an unhappy one, and that his careless approach to the whole matter would probably only embarrass the other scouts in the troop, I simply dropped the issue.

It was a wonderful celebration this afternoon. The Scout in question is a superb example of responsibility, and reflects in so many ways the best of what Scouting has to offer. His parents have been dedicated to his success, he has been a willing respondent, and the church was filled with proud relatives and friends. Toward the end of the ceremony (which was hosted by his older brother, himself an Eagle Scout) his father and mother were called to the front, where they received recognition for having devoted themselves to their son's success over the years. It was a delight to experience their pride and joy as together they celebrated a great achievement.

But it is a place I will never go. We can barely get our scouting son to the weekly Monday night meeting. It is a perpetual struggle for him to find his uniform, to participate meaningfully in the fundraisers, to keep up with what everyone else is doing to earn the current badge, to ascertain whether or not he has signed up for the next campout or activity, to know whether he has done what he is supposed to do. As I glanced at the other parents and other scouts with their well-deserved patches emblazoned upon forest green sashes, I was reminded that as a parent of a special needs scout, his achievement level will be non-existent in comparison to his peers.

The Scoutmaster (who is one of the finest Scouting leaders I have ever met) shared a few statistics with the group. Of 100 scouts, thirty will drop out within a year or two of their entering the program. Of those thirty, less than 8 (I can't remember the exact statistic, sorry) will ever achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. Of those thirty who remain, less than one will ever appear before a juvenile court judge. Scouting does great things for so many kids ... but it is most likely a place I will never go with my son.

In my own sardonic way I chuckled to myself. I have a son right now who is on the brink of being one of the thirty who will not progress in Scouting (and not because his parents do not encourage him, and on many nights "force" him to keep his commitment). I am the parent of a child (who was not a scout) who is currently in jail, and spent many times in his adolescence appearing before a juvenile court judge.

The places I will go as an adoptive parent of older, special needs kids is very different from the places other parents may go with their children. I will not have pinned to my lapel an Eagle Scout father award. I will not stride through an airport with a younger, look-alike shadow accompanying my journey. Instead, I will attend parent-teacher conferences in which I am reminded that my son "really needs to focus more on the material." I will spend most Monday nights arguing about why he should go to his Troop meeting. I will send letters addressed to "County Law Enforcement Center." I will sit in a courtroom and hear, "The State of Minnesota vs. ----- Fletcher." I will continue to ask another of my sons, "So did you apply at Burger King today?"

The places I will never go.

And, oh, those I will.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Postcard

Our nineteen-year-old son is in big trouble. He has been for some time, but I'm not sure he has always realized it. He has been in big trouble from the time he started running away from home six or more years ago. We talked with him. We begged him. We pleaded with him. We offered him options and solutions and opportunities. But he couldn't stay home. As recently as this past November we once again brought him back into our home, hoping that we might be able to work with him to re-form his life. The allure of the other side was simply too great for him, and within a short period of time he was back to familiar ways. Absenting himself for days at a time. Using chemicals of various types. Cavorting with questionable people. Stealing our possessions from our home. Terrorizing (though not intentionally on his part) our other children. The last I saw of Mike was in December when we asked him to leave our home, and he refused, resulting in a call to law enforcement who (unknown to us) had a warrant for his arrest.

His last words before leaving in handcuffs on that late Saturday night in December were, "You'll be sorry you did this." We knew we had to limit our contact with him, if for no better reason (and this one was certainly the most convincing of several) than that his siblings suffered in many ways when he was near. When the obscene and threatening calls began, we knew we had to do something that would be more legally constraining, so we requested (and were granted after a $300 filing fee) a harassment order. We specified that Mike could contact us via U.S. mail, but by no other means.

It has been all quiet on the Mike front for the past three months. Regularly we checked our county's online jail custody site to see where Mike might be. If we found his picture online we at least knew he had a place to sleep and meals to eat. If we saw that he was not listed we worried. For him. And for us.

Then there was the break-in at our church, which has resulted in four felony counts against him. My initial consternation and anger quickly faded into a deeps sense of grief and loss. Our church has been wonderfully supportive to us during this process, but it has been another in a long stream of emotional nightmares for us. Every day, on numerous occasions I have thought about our son. Nearly every night on my way home from the church office I have taken a route that goes directly by the county law enforcement center where Mike has been jailed. And every time I look at the second floor's frosted glass windows and say, sometimes aloud, "How are you, Mike" or "I love you, Mike."

And as I have prayed every day on numerous occasions for my delinquent son, my anger has been quelled, slipping into a sense of grief and, dare I say it, compassion for Mike. I don't know how I can be a follower of Jesus and not feel some compassion for a nineteen-year-old so desperately confused and organically brain-damaged. My compassion does not condone his actions, nor do I think he should be spared from the consequences of his behavior.

Finally, three weeks ago, I listened the voice within me and did what I needed to do. I used the only vehicle of communication remaining (due to the harassment order), and I wrote Mike a letter, a few days before his birthday.

Dear Mike,

Writing this letter feels a little awkward because it has been so long since we talked, and so much has happened since you were forced to leave our home in December. When mom and I chose to obtain the harassment order against you, we purposely left open contact by US Mail, because we do not want to sever our relationship with you. We feel that we have to protect our home, our property and your siblings, though, from your physical presence or telephone contact due to the choices you have been making in your life. I just want to make clear that in writing this letter I am not breaking the harassment order, nor would you if you choose to contact us in writing. We have never wanted to push you away from us, although we are at a place where we feel it is important for there to be some distance. This may not make much sense to you, or it may. Either way, we feel it is something we have to do for the present time.

I understand that you may not wish to write to us (or may be prevented from doing so for any number of reasons), but I will seek to keep connection with you by writing. We love you, Mike, and we always will. To love someone doesn’t always mean they can be as involved in your life as you would hope. We find ourselves in such a situation with you right now.

I could go on and on in this letter about the specific ways your choices have pushed us to obtain a harassment order and all the rest, but I’m not going to do subject you to all that. I believe you are an intelligent person and know very well what I’m talking about.

We forgive you, Mike, for the difficult situations you have created for us. You may not even be asking for forgiveness, but you need to know that in our hearts we have forgiven you. We recognize that the laws of the state of Minnesota will exact considerable consequence to you for your actions. And that is as it should be. We really, really hope that you will figure out a way to get a grip on your life and begin moving in a better direction.

You are too smart, too talented, and too loved for us to want anything different for you. You have managed to get yourself into some very deep waters right now. My heart aches for you. I think of you many times every day. I pray for you all the time. And I feel helpless to be able to do much for you. I have not been a perfect parent, and over the years I have tried my very best to get you the resources you have needed. It seems like most of those efforts haven’t gotten you very far, and I am sorry about that. As I look back I do not know what I could have done differently, and while it’s too late now to do anything about that, it still makes me sad.

I have loved you from the day I met you at Laurel’s house, sitting at the table with the other kids, as you ate blueberry pancakes. It may sound cheap and without merit for me to continue saying that, and I hope someday you may understand what I mean.

I suspect you are not happy to find yourself in the situation you do, and you need to know that it makes me unhappy, too. Of course, I have the freedom to do what I want to to do, come and go as I please, make the decisions I need to make. And you don’t. There are reasons for that of course, but it still makes me sad to know how difficult things are for you right now.

In two days you will be nineteen years old. In the eyes of the law you have been an adult for a year now. But you will always be my son. I miss you, Mike. I pray that God will help, and I pray that you will find answers for a better way of life. We pray for you as a family every night as we prepare to eat dinner together. You will never be forgotten, and we hope one days things will have changed enough that you can be more closely connected to us once again.


And I have waited. I thought of sending him a self-addressed stamp envelope for a reply, but I didn't know if it was permitted, and I wanted any response on his part to require something of him. I have waited before writing again. Just to see.

Today I received his response on a postcard:

Hey, sorry it took so long for me to write back, but I had to wait to get this postcard because I don't have any envelopes. Anyways, thanks for the letter.
I've messed up a lot. I guess being in jail has helped now to clear my mind. It's been so clouded with so much crap.
I've done so many things that I have completely screwed up my thought process. I feel slower and it really agitates me. I messed up and I'm really sorry for all the trouble I've caused to you and the family.
I deserve what is happening to me. I just don't feel right mentally anymore. It hurts. I'll be going to trial on the 15th for the car thing. But I have 4 more felonies I'm facing in N-- County.
I got like 15 years I'm facing. So I'm just gonna get comfortable with this lifestyle.
I love you all though and really do think about it every day. Love, Mike.

In the ancient words of Christian tradition: Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

This nineteen-year-old is my son, not of my loins, but of my heart. I can't describe how it tears at my heart to hear someone so young, so confused and so troubled resign himself to a future (perhaps years) of incarceration. I am an emotional kayaker, bobbing to and fro in the multiple white caps of anxiety, fear, disappointment and dread. I think it is possible that my feelings about Mike's situation are more intense and concerned than are his own.

And I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not. But I simply cannot walk away and give up. I can never be "done" with Mike, even though the situation tears me apart and so deeply grieves me. Although this is not what I "signed up for" ten years ago when I agreed to be his father, I did choose to be his parent forever. Right now that's the only thing I can offer, and one of the few things he can know for certain.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Multicultural Road

Usually I don't think about it too much. In fact, sometimes I kind of forget that our family has diverse cultural heritage. When a parent loves a child you see beyond the features that the rest of society immediately identifies. So, when we gather at our dinner table in the evening, I am seldom aware that we who are caucasian are in the minority. I look across the table, and I see my children. I don't see my "Guatemalan" children or my "Hmong" children or my "Mexican-American" children or my "biracial" son. I simply see them.

I was reminded the other day, however, how much my cultural awareness has changed over the years. I was raised in a monocultural community in north central Minnesota. My exposure to diversity as a child was limited to Fourth of July celebrations in the small town when, on a regular basis, the local Chamber of Commerce would invite Native Americans (we called them "Indians") to the community to "perform" a pow-wow. Looking back, I realize what a racist action that was ... inviting Native Americans to "perform" to an "audience" on the street something that has significant cultural value for the Native American community. Invariably by the time night fell the money the group had been paid was spent in the local bars, only giving more "credibility" to those in the community who only knew "drunken Indians."

And then in third grade the first African-American family moved to our community. I still remember the raised eyebrows, the suspicion and the subtle comments that accompanied their arrival. The father was a professional, a dentist, so perhaps that aided in their settling in the community, but I wonder how much courage it would take to do that sort of thing. To move from a major metropolitan area characterized by diversity to a small, north-central Minnesota community which had absolutely no diversity.

But, I was mentioning the other day. My mother and her sister came to visit us, something we all look forward to. When Grandma Mary and Aunt Marlys are in our home the emotional level is increased, and it's always good to have them visit. My mother, who in some ways is very open to new people, described her surprise in meeting our oldest daughter's boyfriend. He had brought her to our home, so my mother sauntered out to the driveway to meet him. Relating the experience to me, my mother recounted with mock horror, "You didn't tell me he was _____ " (and filled in what she thought to be his ethnic heritage." "Well, Mom," I said, that's because he's not _____; he's biracial."

The conversation caught me off guard, not because my mother is a racist (she is not), but because I so seldom think about those kind of distinctions any more. There are, of course, moments when I do, but generally I'm in a different place in my life, which is really quite remarkable considering the first eighteen years of my life, lived in cultural obscurity.

Today I am in Nashville on church-related work, so I am enjoying the (relative) warmth of the morning. (It was 40 degrees this morning, which makes the natives shiver, but feels like spring to me). The grass is green, there are leaves on trees, and it is such a nice respite from the long, snowy winter we have had back home. I walked up the street this morning to a Jack In the Box, where I ate breakfast. If you are unfamiliar with Jack In the Box, it is a regional fast-food kind of restaurant, with interesting food offerings. They serve the typical hamburger/cheeseburger/chicken strip kinds of meals, but also serve egg rolls and other kind of unusual food items.

What stood out to me this morning, however, was the level of service I received. I'm used to receiving monosyllabic grunts from those behind the register in most fast food places, so the friendly greeting I received his morning was a nice surprise. After confirming my order, the young man behind the counter politely asked me to sit down, and that he would bring my food to me.

I sat down and observed what was happening around me. Three of the four people working behind the counter were African-American. Of the three cars pulling through the drive through while I waited, two of them were driven by non-whites. One elderly white woman was eating in the restaurant. The music was rhythm and blues. It was an unapologetically cultural experience, although no one there would have "showcased" it as such. To me that's the beauty of multicultural experiences. At some point in learning about diversity we get beyond the external features and see the simple, authentic expression of a way of life different from our own.

So, as I sat munching my breakfast ciabatta, I heard the crooning music of Luther Van Dross and Lou Rawls (look, I didn't say it was contemporary R&B) and enjoyed seeing a cultural landscape much different than what I will see back home in a few days. It is the start to a good day.