Monday, September 29, 2008

Revisiting the Question, "Who Is a Victim?

When I arrived at my church office Sunday morning in preparation for a full morning of pastoral responsibility, I happened to check my "in" box. Amongst the typical junk mail drivel was an official looking envelope with a return address of Department of Corrections, State of Minnesota. I knew immediately it was a piece of mail about our son, Mike, who is currently serving a sentence that will be up sometime in October. The piece of mail arrived at my church office because it involved the third degree felony burglary charges Mike acquired in the act of breaking into our church earlier this year.

Enclosed in the envelope were two documents. The first was a factual piece that reports Mike has pled guilty to the charges against him (evidently the five felony counts were dropped to one in exchange for his plea of guilty) and will be arraigned in mid-October. Anyone representing the aggrieved party (the church) was welcome to attend the sentencing. In addition, questions were asked about restitution. How much damage was done, what was not covered by insurance, what kind of restitution did the party suffering loss wish to pursue. Those kind of questions.

The second document is the one that made me pause. It is the Victim Impact Statement. Intended to be completed when a human person has been affected, the document was addressed to the name of our church and then "Educational Wing," with the address. The building in question is not going to be able to respond as a victim in this situation, so I pondered what I should do. I am not simply the pastor of the church in question, but the victimizer is my son. Who, then, is most appropriately the victim?

Is it I ... because the act was certainly motivated out of a personal vendetta against me as the perpetrator's father. Is it the trustees of the church, who are charged with the responsibility of caring for the physical property? Is the members of the congregation whose sense of security has been challenged?

Or, I wonder, is it Mike?

Hear me carefully. What Mike did is wrong. It is a felony kind of wrong. He needs to have legal consequences for his actions and his disregard of a place of worship. I am not saying that Mike is the "victim" of the court system or anything like that. I am not excusing his actions.

But I have to wonder what kind of person Mike would be at the age of nineteen if his birth mother had chosen not to drink during his pregnancy with him. Would he be successfully beginning his second year of college this fall? Would he have embarked upon a journey as an artist or another creative type in accordance with the innate abilities he demonstrates? Would he and I be talking about financial aid and class schedules and social life instead of solitary confinement, attempting to find work and looking for a place to live?

I know that his genetic type can succeed, because his brother is 21-years-old and a college graduation, giving back to the world by teaching a third grade classroom this fall. But Mike is sitting in a jail cell, awaiting yet another sentencing hearing. At some point Mike has to figure out that given his organic brain challenges he needs someone to guide him in life. But the tragedy is that not only does Mike have FASD, not only is he quite intelligent, but he has significant attachment issues that have never allowed him to trust anyone.

Ironically, as Claudia and I were walking today at lunch time I was beginning to talk with her about the Victim Impact Statement when my cell phone rang. I picked it up and saw the incoming number as "blocked." I debated whether to answer and Claudia said I should. Clicking the button to connect me with my caller I heard Mike's voice. "Dad? It's me, Mike."

He went to ask whether we had had any contact with the most recent treatment center he had been in, but I reminded him that since he is a legal adult they can have no contact with us at all. We couldn't even initiate contact on his behalf because we are not legally allowed that access. He was concerned because he believes the treatment center has both his birth certificate and social security card, he needs them to apply for a job, and he doesn't know how to get them back.

Now, really, what is someone who is that scattered as a young adult doing in a jail cell month after month? No one, not even he, contests that he broke the law, and that numerous times. But what good have jail sentences served him? I have never been convinced of the rehabilitative value of jail or prison, and Mike's experience has only confirmed my opinion.

I'm not sure what the answer is since none of the interventions we have tried over the years have managed to effect much change in Mike's life. But surely in a society like ours that still allows pregnant women to drink as they wish there should be some resources available for the ones who are victimized by her morally outrageous behavior.

Pregnant women who drink should be sitting in jail, at least until they have given birth to a relatively healthy child. But, as in many cases in life, the one who is held responsible is the one who has been impaired by a choice he was not able to make years ago in utero. And so we punish the one whose brain has been organically damaged.

I'm not sure anymore who is the victim.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Little Brotherly Affection ... And Some Fatherly Attention

I mentioned earlier this week that Claudia is out of town for several days on work-related business, so things at home are a bit different. She is the law-giver, so things are a bit freer here than often is the case. I am the nurturer, so it is not difficult for me to let some things go. Fortunately, between the two of us our kids benefit from the best of both worlds, structure and freedom.

Usually I am also gone before the kids are getting ready for school. I am either walking or at the office, both of which I prefer to initiate early in the day. Today is my day off, though, so there's a different feeling in the air (which I will soon embrace as I take our dog Gizmo for a walk in the fresh new day). These past few days have allowed me the luxury of awakening our kids (those who don't do it on their own) and having some first-thing-in-the-morning time with them. It has been really quite pleasant. I am reminded of the pleasures that stay-at home parents can experience. (I know there are drawbacks, too, to that role, but the joy of being able to awaken your children and see them off to school with plenty of hugs and kisses is a nurturer's delight).

Wilson (our youngest) has been taking Claudia's spot in the bed at night. He is a quiet sleeper, and I scarcely know he is there. In the morning he is a charming presence, his capacious smile filling up his burnished tan face, lighting up his crescent-shaped dark eyes. He smiles a toothless grin (he's going to the orthodontist soon to see about his dental challenges) and slowly ebbs into the morning.

As Wilson is stretching into awareness our older son Ricardo (14) comes into the bedroom to ask a question, and seeing Wilson stretching beneath the blankets, takes up a temporary residence there himself. Ricardo, who is quite reserved by personality, enjoys periodic moments of affection. I say periodic because he is not a clingy, touch-feely kind of kid, but if affection is initiated (as I often do with him) it is received in a healthy way. (I continue to be surprised that of all of our kids, with the possible exception of most recent two, it is our sons who grew up in a Guatemalan orphanage whose attachment issues are the most limited. Our kids who grew up in US foster care have fared the worst).

One of the things I value about our family is that (as far as we know) physical boundaries have never been broached, and unlike so many adoptive parents of older kids, we have not had to worry about sexual acting out or other inappropriate displays of physical affection. It is freeing to be able to share physical affection without the fear of sparking some past negative history.

So, this morning, after directives on my part, we begin the three-stage process of transporting kids to school. Our older kids are not quite ready, so I take Wilson and Dominyk to their elementary school first. We chat merrily on the way about weekend plans. Wilson will be staying at a friend's house tonight, and he is excitedly planning his time. Dominyk's plans are what they usually are -- time with his PCA after school and then home. We joke and banter, with paternal correction occasionally interrupting Dominyk's inappropriate word choices. Both Dominyk and Wilson ask, "So, you're going to be home after school today, right Dad?" (The past two days I have been unable to be there immediately after school because of prior commitments). "Yes," is my simple response. "Thank God," says Dominyk, and he bursts into a hallelujah-type response atypical of our stolid United Methodist ways. "Hallelujah, praise Jesus," he continues. It is over the top, as is Dominyk's personality, but I am heartened to think that my after-school presence is that valuable.

Arriving at the school I tell them with exaggerated expression how much I will miss them while they are there. Dominyk teases Wilson for a moment about how dad "loves you," and, as a parting rejoinder for Dominyk as he steps out of the car I say just loudly enough for him to think others hear: "Oh, Dominyk, I love you, too," as I make big smoochy noises with my lips. Dominyk's eyes dart furtively about the playground hoping his sixth-grade acquaintances have not heard; he sighs with relief as he sees no one looking or listening. Wilson says little as he exits the car, his diminuitive figure deftly trotting toward the school.

I return home to pick up the older kids. Our son Jimmy (16) collapses into the front seat. Our four seventh and eighth graders -- Tony (13), Leon (13), Mercedes (13) and Ricardo (14) -- are able to squeeze into the back seat of our 2000 Avalon, and this morning do so without mutual provocation. They have arrayed themselves in the best homecoming apparel they can find since tonight is their school's homecoming football game. Tony's blond hair has become black (the school colors are black and yellow), Leon's black hair has become a sparkly yellowish, Mercedes' tan skin sparkles with some kind of makeup and Ricardo's jet-black hair has been gelled to perfection.

As we near the parking of the Junior High School, I am again questioned. "You'll be home after school, right, Dad?" "Umm, yes," is my response, expecting some form of contemptuous junior high disdain. "Good," is their unified response. "It matters that much to you?" I ask the group, especially the junior high kids in the back seat. "Well, yeah," is their sophisticated affirmation.

What a nice morning it has been. So few of our mornings are this way that to have two in a row like this is a sheer blessing from God.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

When the School Does a Good Thing

Most adoptive parents (or parents of special needs kids) have horror stories about their interactions with "normal" institutions like churches, schools and social services. Even those who are trained for the task of working with special needs issues are sometimes obtuse when it comes to the child in question. Or, it may not be the individual professional in question but the policy of the institution he or she represents.

The good news is that sometimes these institutions do a good thing on behalf of a challenged/challenging child.

A few minutes ago I received a telephone call in my office. It's never a good thing when my office administrative assistant says, "Pastor Bart, you have a call from a teacher at Franklin School." I mean, I know they're not calling to affirm my fatherhood, nor are they inquiring about ways the church can make positive connections with the school or something. They are calling because an incident has occurred that requires parental notification.

After identifying herself, the individual said, "Dominyk was in school today with a pocketknife."

I can't say that I am surprised, because he often leaves things in his pockets that he forgets about. I do at least half of the laundry in our home, so I have railed at him many a time for the rocks, plastic animals, knives, pens, pencils, erasers, gum, YMCA cards, and assorted other trinkets that find their way into the laundry.

She went on to say, "And, as you know, we have a zero tolerance policy for items like this."

"Right," I grimaced, awaiting the next bad news. Like, "You need to come and pick him up," or "he is going to be suspended for three days," or whatever.

"But," she continued, "Dominyk is the one who brought it to our attention. As soon as he realized he had it in his pocket, he came and told us right away. He forgot it was in there. So, we are going to handle this directly with you. Since Dominyk did the right thing we are going to honor that."

"That's very kind of you," I responded. "We appreciate that."

And so, I will need to come to the teacher's room one day soon and pick up the pocketknife directly. There will be no further sanctions for him (or us) because he did the right thing.

And, fortunately, so did the school.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Where Do Polar Bears Like to Vacation?

Brrrr. Muda.

Claudia is out of town on work-related business for a few days, so it's just dad and the nine (at home) kids. Since Mom's side of the bed has been temporarily vacated there are at least a couple of our kids who vie for the space. Our two youngest, ages 12 and 9, beg to share the bed with me. Our twelve-year-old is simply too restless and animated during the night, so I can't let him sleep next to me. The last time we tried that he kicked me, punched me, pushed me, cursed at me in his sleep, and then fell out of the bed. It was a typical night for him, but a disturbing one for me. He has been consigned to his own bed, which I assure him is "more comfortable because" he's "accustomed to sleeping there."

Wilson has completed his homework in the bedroom (he doesn't want to lose the coveted place on the right hand side of the bed) and now he is finishing his evening by reading jokes (the typical third grade ones) to Dominyk and me.

Wilson: Where do polar bears like to vacation?
Answer: Brrr. Muda.

Wilson: What do you get when you cross a guppy with a monkey?
Answer: A shrimp-panzee.

And the jokes go on and on, for pages. Occasionally we will chuckle. Most of the time Wilson will read the joke ahead of us, offering his editorial helps. "Ya'll are gonna have a hard time with this one," he says, his Texas twang not quite ameliorated by nearly a year of living in the upper MIdwest.

Wilson: What kind of doctors make fish look beautiful?
Answer: Plastic sturgeons.

Wilson: What's an eel's favorite card game?
Answer: Glow fish.

We are having a very nice time, chortling together over the cleverness (and corniness) of what we read and hear. It is a pleasant evening. The innocence of a nine-year-old's emerging personhood is a delight to behold.

Sometimes it's as if God looked at Claudia and me, after raising the first ten of our kids (with varying degrees of difficulty), and said, "Here are your last two kids. You've worked so hard in the past twelve years you deserve a blessing."

And so they are.

How To Improve an Adolescent's Literacy

Our church has a focused, 30-minute worship service at 5:30 PM on Wednesday evenings, just before our 6 o'clock community meal and just before confirmation groups and musical groups begin their work at 6:30. Tonight as I exit the sanctuary to head toward the community meal (we call it "Wednesday Night Supper"), my thirteen-year-old, eighth grade son, Tony, grabs me by the arm.

His blue eyes sparkling, his freckled face flush with enthusiasm and his scratchy pubescent voice join together as he says, "Hey, dad!"

"Um, yes, Tony," I say a bit distracted by the busyness of the evening, knowing intuitively that any conversation with Tony will be circuitous and at least three times as long as it needs to be.

"Hey, Dad, you have to read this."

I look down as he proffers me a hardback book from his school media center. I am surprised. It is a book four times as long as he typically reads, it is clearly a work of fiction and it is in the detective/mystery genre. The author is James Patterson, with whom I am vaguely familar. I enjoy a good mystery and have listened to (and read in the old-fashioned way) many a good read on my iPhone, including Jonathan Kellerman and Faye Kellerman, among my favorites.

Before I can say anything further he has thrust the book into my hands, a well-creased chapter bookmarked with the generic kelly green bookmark provided all eighth graders by their English teacher so they can record the dates of their reading and how many pages they have finished.

His chubby finger points excitedly to the text where he wants me to begin my perusal.

Jamilla greeted me at the door, lips first, a delicious kiss that warmed me from head to toe. I didn't get to see much of her wraparound baby-blue blouse and black pencil skirt until we pulled apart. ... She sure didn't look like a homicide cop today.

I look up from the text and his eyes meet mine. I say, "Hmmm."

Tony, with urgency in his voice, says, "Keep reading. Keep reading."

And so I do, dutiful father that I am, smiling inwardly at my young adolescent's son first literary experience with a genre designed to smolder (albeit slightly) one's sensuality. I read the three ensuing, lurid pages as he waits for my response. Fortunately I am an open-minded sort of person who has learned over the years to sequester what might be my anxiety, having learned that an anxious parent only creates a more focused (usually in the negative sense) child. I have also, over the years, read material much more revealing than this relatively tame passage, so I am not overly concerned.

It is, I suppose, ironic that I as a spiritual leader of a congregation find myself steps outside of the sanctuary in the lobby area reading fiction that has scintillated my son's prurient interest. I am not a legalistic Christian, and I choose not to overreact. Instead I say, "Wow. What do you think of that?"

"I don't know," he says, his mirth unrestrained.

"Kind of exciting?" I query.

He shrugs his shoulders.

"Let's see. You're on page number 28. I wonder what it's going to be like by the time you read page 80?"

Quick contemplation on his part, a pensive look on his face and his quivering response, "I don't know."

"Guess you'll have to find out, huh? You better keep reading, Tony!"

And with that he tugs the book from my hands, trots off to our Wednesday Night Supper and gleefully anticipates an improved literacy.

Or something like that.

The Interesting Diversity of Cross Cultural Adoptive Parenting

I am not the best candidate to parent children who do not share my cultural history. It's not because I feel my history is somehow superior to that of others, and I don't necessarily think that those of us who have grown up in what has been a traditional North American majority culture are somehow more fortunate or successful or whatever. I don't disdain the cultural practices of beliefs of others; in fact, I find them intriguing and personally horizon-expanding.

I'm not the best candidate because historically my cultural milieu has been so narrow. I grew up in rural Minnesota seven miles from the nearest town of 600 people. I didn't meet an African-American until I was in third grade when a family into our community from Chicago, a city that could have been a world away as far as our community was concerned. I didn't meet anyone of Hispanic origins until I was in college! And while I had seen (from a distance) Asian-Americans (though typically it was an Asian child who had been adopted by "nice" white people), I had no connection with anyone different from myself. In my extended family, which is really quite large (my paternal grandmother gave birth to thirteen children over the course of 25 years) the most diversity we had was when an uncle divorced and married a woman from another part of the state. She brought her children into the marriage, and we all knew they were different (although for the life of me right now I wouldn't be able to say how).

So, then, it is always interesting when my monocultural roots catch me off guard. After all these years it shouldn't happen that way, but sometimes it does. I like to think that because I am the adoptive parent of children from several different ethnic and cultural backgrounds I am prepared for most anything, yet there are moments when I am surprised. Like last night, when I was having a conversation with Wilson, our nine-year-old son whose origins are Asian (his birth grandparents emigrated to the US around the Vietnam era, when they were refugees from Laos). Here's how the conversation went:

Wilson: [Watching TV, having seen something about insects] "Dad, back in Texas we used to have grasshoppers this big [he shows me with his fingers the measurements, about 2 inches in length and 1 inch in height]."
Me: "Yeah? That's big, not like here in Minnesota."
Wilson: "Yep."
Me: [In jest] "So, do you like eating them?"
Wilson: [A pause to think]. "Nah. It's been a while. We used to eat them when we lived with our grandma and grandpa. They're pretty good with salt."
Me: [A big chagrined for the cultural faux pax on my part] "Interesting. Ummm, I don't think you'll be eating too many of them here."

Wilson just smiles, and I slink away in a cloud of self-imposed culturally insensitive regret. So, yeah, I really need to exercise better judgment before speaking, unless I am prepared for surprises.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Me and Jesus

Our family is one tinged with Christian faith. I am reluctant to say that we are a "Christian family" because I'm not sure that is very accurate. I'm not even all that sure what a "Christian family" is anymore. I say "anymore," because there was a time, harking back to my single days more than twelve years ago, when I had a pretty clear picture of what that meant. It meant that the parents were faithfully engaged with their walk of faith, utilizing "teaching moments" to instill the warmth of Christian meaning in their eager children's lives. It meant at least once a day eating together as a family, praying together at the meal, and sharing a devotional thought (including a Scripture passage) before dessert. It meant people in the neighborhood recognizing something distinct about said "Christian family."

Now don't get me wrong. We have, in many ways and at many times, done all of the things I've just described, except maybe for the neighbors recognizing something different part. (Over the years in different communities and with different neighbors they have noticed something different all right, but it hasn't necessarily been our distinctive faith lives). And on a regular basis we still do our best to impart our values to our kids, but like most parents for whom faith is central, it is often a dispiriting process. Philosophically, I have observed two extremes, both of which I have wanted to avoid.

The one extreme is the "Christian family" so faithfully committed that children growing up have little choice but to rebel against the strictures and hypocrisies so often afoot. I have met so many parents over the years who have done their best to "lead our kids to Christ" but in the process have pushed so hard that they have lost two relationships ... their parental relationship and their spiritual relationship with their children. This is the extreme I was most familiar with in my earlier Christian days when I was centered in more conservative communities of Christian faith.

The second extreme is the church-going family who feels their responsibility is to live a moral life, but to let their children choose completely for themselves whether they will adopt this pattern of life or not. In the mainline Christian circles I now inhabit it's the "well, I'll bring my kids to Sunday School when they're young and to confirmation until they confirm their faith, but after that it's their choice." Now you tell me, how many 15-year-olds will decide on their own that they want to be faithful participants in a church or further engage their spiritual lives if this is completely their option. I mean, most good parents don't let their kids choose after ninth grade whether to go to school or not (even if it is legal, and even if they have a job). The extreme version of this laisse faire approach is little more than spiritual child neglect, in my opinion.

But I struggle with how to best interpret faith in my family. I struggle with this, and I am a pastor, trained in the traditions of faith, regularly involved in opportunities to form my own spirit, fairly disciplined about developing my own interior life. It has been so very difficult over the years to become less an instructor and more of an observant guide in my children's faith lives. I have come to realize that faith that is dictated is no faith at all, it is simply acquiescing to a more powerful person's desire. This approach could well be akin to spiritual child abuse. I have no desire to so inflict faith upon my children. I want to impart it, not inflict it.

And what that means is that often I have to let them make their own choices (not without my input, however) and constantly remind them by my actions and attitudes that they are precious children of God, growing in their lives (spiritually and otherwise) as they learn from experience.

This morning at our house has been an odd one. Several of our usually more compliant children have been slow to move and get ready for school. Our crabby teenage daughters (13 and 15) have been more civil than usual. In fact our older daughter who has been so challenging over the past three years was listening to Stellar Kart's "Me and Jesus" this morning in her room. This is not her typical listening fare. In fact, as I passed by her bedroom, I had to stop to make sure I was hearing correctly. I was. This is what I heard:

When there's nowhere else to turn
All your bridges have been burned
Feels like you've hit rock bottom
Don't give up it's not the end
Open up your heart again
When you feel like no one
Understands where you are

Someone loves you even when you don't think so don't you know you got
Me and Jesus by your side through the fight you will never be alone on your own you got me and Jesus

After all that we've been through
Be now you know I've doubted too
But everytime my head was in my
Hands you said to me
Hold on to what we got
This is worth any cost so
Make the most of life
That's borrowed
Love like there's no tomorrow

As she trotted off to school this morning I heard her happy (?!) voice saying, "Good bye, Dad." She hasn't offered me a farewell in weeks, so it was a little shocking.

I have to admit that even after thirty years of faithfully following God and intently developing my spiritual life, I am daily befuddled by the mysterious ways of the Almighty. How I, or any parent for that matter, ever is able to impart spiritual faith to his children is beyond me. It is such a dense and complicated web, but it must somehow start with each of us. My children cannot, by osmosis, acquire my faith life. I cannot, by force, make them accept what I have come to understand as truth. But together maybe "me and Jesus" can get something done when it's all been said and done.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Another Tale of Two Brothers

For nearly twelve years I have pondered the lives of our sons Kyle (now 21) and Mike (now 19), who joined our family early on at the ages of 11 and 8, respectively. Kyle entered our home full of rage and noncompliance, diagnosed with Conduct Disorder. (At the time we didn't understand our diagnoses very well and thought that CD was less serious than Oppositional Defiant Disorder; it didn't take us long to realize our misunderstanding. CD is ODD to an extreme level). Mike, Kyle's birth brother, joined us with numerous diagnoses, the most challenging of which (FASD) was not officially diagnosed until he was thirteen.

Those who met both boys in the early years predicted that Kyle would be our most challenging child, and that Mike would surely come around. They were only partially right. Kyle was very challenging, and Mike only became progressively less reachable. Today Kyle is a college graduate, teaching a third grade class. His biggest difficulties have been resolved, and he will undoubtedly be OK. Mike may never get there.

Ironically I received communication from both boys today, an email from Kyle (from his classroom) and a letter from Mike (in his jail cell).

Kyle's subject line was "quick word." I opened the email to find this message: "is the base word of 'repeat' really 'peat'? that makes no sense at all. Kyle"

I had to chuckle, because it so represents Kyle's personality. He is pretty much a take-charge, use as few words as possible, let's get it done kind of person. He had a question and so he asked me. There were no pleasantries, no other information, no niceties.

My response was equally as direct, though perhaps more prosaic: "Dear Mr. Fletcher: The origins of 'repeat' come from the Latin repeto which means literally "to do again." The Latin verb "to do" is "peto" ... so yes, the base word would be "peat" but only as it means something in Latin, not from English. Your Language-Savvy Father."

He makes me smile. Although I would love to hear more from him on a regular basis, I am satisfied with even a simple email like this that reminds me he thinks his Dad still has some value in his life, even if it is as language resource.

Mike's letter arrived this afternoon from a nearby County Jail. "Hey, Pops, how's it goin? Well I'm still in lockdown. I've spent 27 days in lockdown at this jail so there really isn't any point in coming to try and visit at all. They like to play their mind games with me."

I read Mike's first several sentences and smile, as I do with the brief email from his birth brother, but for different reasons. I smile with sad recognition that little has changed for Mike, who has been in treatment centers since the time he was fourteen, in legal custody since he was eighteen. Every time it is the fault of the institution. It is bad staff, or unfair guards or impossible rules. Mike seems impervious to change. I try to remind myself that Mike's FASD diagnosis accounts for much of his challenges, and I cannot help but think how his life might be different if his birth mother had chosen not to drink. For whatever reason his older brother was not so affected, but Mike was. To see two boys with the same genes and having had the same adoptive parents for the same length of time move in such different directions in life saddens me.

It saddens me because I love both equally, differently but equally. I want to believe that each have the same opportunities to succeed, but I know they do not. I want to believe that if I could do for Mike what I was seemingly able to do for Kyle there would be a similar outcome. But they are different, brothers conceived in and born from the same womb, but affected so differently because of what happened in utero during those precious first nine months of life.

Mike's letter continues. He tells us that he needs a place to live where there is no drinking or drugging if he's ever going to get out on parole. He asks us if we can help him with that. He requests a family picture, mentions the daughter of a neighbor he remembers and says, "Could you let her know [that] I'm in here and maybe she could be my pen pal?" Thinking of his future Mike tells me that he will get his GED when he gets out, and wonders if "I would get something for it," appending "don't think I'm being materialistic."

Oh, Mike. We've been down these roads so many times before. We've repeatedly allowed you to move into our home, only to have you steal your siblings' video games and your parents' video camera and iPods. We worked to find a place for you to live a year ago and within three days your drug friends were hanging out there, and you had to move. And no, Mike, we don't think our neighbors would want you to solicit their daughter to be your prison pen-pal.

It's so tragic. It's like receiving the Christmas list of a ten-year-old, a child nearing adolescence who hopes (but doubts) that there is a Santa Claus, but wanting to make sure asks Santa for a gift, just in case. Developmentally, Mike is probably about 14 or 15 now sitting in a jail cell designed for those twice or three times his age. But the law only recognizes chronological age, taking no account for brains that were damaged due to no fault of their own.

And so Mike concludes by telling me what he is able to do. "Well, I weight about 170 now. I've been doing my push-ups and sit-ups and I'm up to 1500 push-ups and 700 sit-ups a day. ... Hope to hear from you soon."

Two boys. From the same womb, yet different, one that was safe and one that was awash in alcohol. From the same adoptive home of nearly twelve years. And two such different paths. WIth one thing in common.

Their father's continuing, though frustrated, commitment and love.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Life Is Hard and Cruel ...

and I have learned that in this world some things are impossible." With these words the love-struck, but unrequited, lieutenant in the classic film Babette's Feastbids the beautiful young woman farewell. She is one of two daughters, both of legendary beauty, who are held captive by her father's ascetic religious views. In this pious family the daughters are held so closely in parental grasp that the man in question knows his future is impossibly bleak.

I must confess that on occasion as a parent I echo the lieutenant's sentiments. There are moments when I feel like I should back out or away, but my commitment has already been made. Like any other sane person in the world there are times when the pressures of being a parental role model of morality and hope are nearly too much.

I must imagine that it is frustrating to most parents when the values they consider fundamental and foundational are ignored or repudiated by their children. I shouldn't be surprised that my children should be any different than others, but there are times, even after all these years, when I think to myself, "Good grief. Why can't this kid see how much better her life is because she lives with us?" I reflect upon what I know of their early years of abuse or neglect and wonder why it seems so difficult for them to own the values of our family.

Our values are sound, and I think, reasonable and positive ones. We are connected with our kids, we follow their progress in school, we show up at their sports or other events, we spent time with them on the weekends. We do our best to know where they are, who are they are with and what they are doing. We have also learned that we cannot control what they choose to do, and that's what is so hard.

I don't feel the need to control them, but it pains me to see accumulated choices leading some of them in directions that could eventually become irreparable. There are always consequences to our choices, and sometimes those consequences haunt us forever. My concern is lost, of course, on those who refuse to hear or for whatever reasons are in a place where they have to find out for themselves.

And I understand that, really I do. I know all about adolescent development and the need for exploration and self-differentiation and all the rest. But the difference between the theories I have learned over the years and my children is that, well, these are mychildren. These are not some random adolescents out in the world; they belong to me. I have claimed them.

But they are not mine. They never have been. From the beginning they were God's, and until the end they will remain God's children. The challenging thing is that for at least some period of their life they have me as one of their parents. I cannot simply shirk responsibility and say, "Well, these kids belong to God, and I'm sure they'll find their way." There are moments when parents need to be deeply involved in their children's lives, and times when they need to stand a distance. The challenge is knowing when is the right time for which, especially when you parent children who have attachment or other emotional issues.

As I was pondering the Lieutenant's words, and realizing once again that I do not have the option of simply moving away forever and starting over in some fantasy place a world away, I was interrupted by our youngest son. I say "interrupted," but that has more force than I mean, because his presence is always such a blessing.

I stopped typing to hear him ask, "Hey, Dad, guess what the neighbors are having for dinner?"

"I don't know, Wilson, what?"

"Fish," he said with his eyes lighting up. (Wilson is a consummate lover of fish and other types of seafood).

"How do you know that?"

"I watched him skinning them," was his response.

"Well, that's pretty telling, isn't it?"

"Mm. Hmmm. So, what are we having for dinner, dad?"


"Oh. Even better."

Maybe life isn't that hard and cruel as I sometimes think!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Adoptive Parenting Payback

Since we welcomed our two newest boys into our family late last October, I have been waiting for the "honeymoon" to wear off.  With nearly every other child or sibling group joining our family we have experienced, at some point or another, an emotional blowout of major proportions.  In one way or another there came a point when attachment issues or other emotional challenges reared their ugly head.  Those flare-ups are emotionally debilitating, causing adoptive parents to question the wisdom of ever assuming that role.

But we simply have not had such an experience with our two newest sons.  They are now thirteen and nine and are surprisingly emotionally healthy.  I attribute their emotional stability to several factors.  

(1) They have an older birth sister who provided diligent care when they were youngsters.  Although their birth mother was unable to provide much care due to her chronic chemical dependency issues, the older sister provided a consistent emotional presence for her younger brothers.  She was, de facto, their primary caretaker.

(2) During those years they had the benefit of an extended family.  Although they were unable to be parented by their birth grandmother for a number of reasons (economic hardship and the cultural challenges associated with first-generation Americans), they were connected with extended family.

(3) When placed in foster care they were maintained in the same home, together, with an older birth brother.  They had consistent contact with their older birth sister, and they had the benefit of being with the same foster parents for a length of time.  There were not numerous disruptions in their lives, so they didn't have to re-learn (or attempt to) trust every few weeks or months.

Both of our sons are affectionate, considerate and are attaching easily with us.  We have dealt with attachment disordered kids for so long that I marvel at how easy it really can be for a child to love a parent.  We have dealt with manipulative behaviors surrounding attachment for so many years that to enjoy two children who genuinely, naturally accept "new" parents is a sincere blessing.  For all those through the years who have questioned our ability to parent or assumed it was our parental inadequacies that resulted in the attachment issues of our adopted children, I am pleased to know that it really has not been about us.  We have offered Wilson and Leon the same welcome and care any of our children have received, and their response has been so natural, so "normal," that I find relief and comfort to parent emotionally healthy children.

Wilson, who will be ten this December, is small enough (in stature) to qualify as a five-year-old, and as our youngest has assumed that role with felicity.  He is not embarrassed to hold my hand in public and enjoys teasing Claudia by refusing to do so with her, although when he is cold at a soccer match he can inhabit her sweatshirt without hesitation.

It feels like God is rewarding us with a little adoptive parenting payback.  In words it might sound something like this:  "Thank you, Bart and Claudia, for taking on the first ten I sent your way.  Parenting is never easy, although it is always rewarding.  And here are two more to remind you that sometimes parenting is not that hard."

Monday, September 01, 2008

When God Fills In the Blanks

After more than twenty years as a clergyperson I have to admit that there are times I am prone to cynicism. I have prayed too many times with people whose lives have been shortened by the ravages of cancer. I have listened to the pain of too many people who have lost a loved one in an unfortunate or unexpected or unexplainable (in existential terms) circumstances. I have seen so many moments of mystery in my vocational journey that there are times when I become distant from God. This is not a distance that would be characterized by faithlessness or deep unresolved doubts, for I believe there is a purpose to the universe and I find that purpose centered in the life and work of Jesus Christ. But all the same, there are times when I wonder what God is really doing.

Over the past two weeks a new sense of God's life has been born in me. I use the word "born" intentionally, because I feel as though I have been in the past two weeks groaning with the pains of late pregnancy. As a male I have never and will never know what that means. As an adoptive father with no children by birth I will never experience pregnancy vicariously while accompanying my wife on that journey. But I have come through a difficult and painful spiritual pregnancy that has reawakened my sense that the mysteries of God sometimes break through with surprising clarity.

If you have followed this blog (or Claudia's) you know that in May we celebrated our oldest son's graduation from college. It was a delightful moment in time, to see the fruition of years of hard work on our part and his. I kept thinking to myself, "If only his social worker from twelve years ago could see him now!" He was diagnosed with conduct disorder when he entered our family nearly twelve years ago, and I think most who knew him at that time felt he was destined for detention as a juvenile and prison as an adult. He was just that angry and just that troubled.

But God allowed us to parent him, and God allowed me to father him. And he and I have maintained a fairly close relationship over the years. I was remarking to him just last night, "You know, it's funny, Kyle, how we share so few interests in common, yet we have been so close over the years." I am not a sports fan, I am not athletic, I do not enjoy competitive games or video interactions ... the kinds of things he enjoys, but for whatever reasons God has allowed us to create and maintain a bond over the years.

So, anyway, as summer has relentlessly slipped away Kyle has worked as a window washer, having had a couple of interviews with schools that resulted in no teaching position. As June turned to July and July to August Kyle was beginning to think he might need to move out of state to get a teaching job or perhaps even enter the military. I knew these were ideas spoken from frustration and not intention, and I would continue to pray for him, but only routinely.

By mid-August things changed for me. I suppose it's something like that when a woman is pregnant; the first months may be routine, but eventually the growing burden intensifies and one's attention is drawn in that direction. It is a joyous sort of burden, really. The hope of new life and opportunity will emerge, but getting to the point of delivery is arduous and taxing, requiring all the energy one can muster. And complex relationships, like pregnancy, cannot simply be walked away from. It is there, it must be experienced, and one can only go through the stresses involved.

Two weeks ago I had a critical conversation with Kyle concerning a nagging, intuitive question. It was a truthful encounter, but one that complicated my "pregnancy" significantly. And so I began to pray, with much more intentionality that I am accustomed to, with sleepless nights, disconsolate spirit and fasting de facto (when one's burden is very heavy there is little desire to eat). I began to pray that God would open up a door for my son and that in the process I would be able to move to a new place in my being.

About a week after our initial conversation I had a second conversation with my son which helped me to clarify some of the murkiness. I heard heartfelt recognition of my paternal role, the foundational value of my existence, the need for me to continue to be the primary role model of his life. While I was heartened by the words, it complicated my "pregnancy" even further, knowing the strength of suasion I held.

But I continued to pray. I prayed that God would open a door for a teaching position in a school that would reflect the kind of things our family values. And I prayed that God might place a spiritually focused, Godly person in Kyle's "way" as a first year teacher.

During the two week period in question Kyle was called in for an interview which proved fruitless. Another candidate was picked over him. I offered him my empathy and my encouragement that I was praying for him and waiting for God to do something. I reminded him that he would make a good teacher and that we were proud of him.

Then, several days ago, Kyle called to report a second interview for a different position at the same school. There were three or four candidates, so he wasn't sure how he would fare. I prayed, as only a "pregnant" man can do, that a "birth" might be imminent. When he called the next day to report his good news, I was as elated and relieved as he.

But there was still that unresolved conversation of two weeks earlier hanging in the emotional air. I knew we had to talk, face-to-face, but I knew time would be an issue. After all, he signed his contract on the Friday before Labor Day to begin teaching a new third grade class (which meant an entire classroom had to be readied for the arrival of students) to begin four days later. We chiseled out a time for us to visit, with much reluctance on his part, to have a conversation he didn't want to have at a time which was anything but convenient. I left late yesterday afternoon to meet him to resolve our situation.

We were scheduled to meet at 8 PM, which meant a very late return home for me, but I knew we had to do it. I left early enough to drive directly to his school. He didn't know I would be coming to his school, so I called from the parking lot, and a few minutes later a harried, stressed teacher-to-be met to let me in the locked doors. I asked how the progress was going on his classroom. "Slow, Dad. Real slow." I offered encouraging remarks and followed him to his classroom.

He and his significant other had been working much of the day putting up posters, bulletin boards and arranging the room. He had not even had a chance to look at teaching plans or curriculum yet. I greeted his companion (she is a final year college student this year) and thanked her for spending so much time helping my son. From the other side of the room another third-grade teacher turned from the bulletin board he was helping Kyle with to greet me. We exchanged names, remarked on the brevity of time Kyle would have to get things in order to teach, and then spoke about Third Grade.

"Well," the other teacher said, "I believe third grade is a critical year. And I think it is really important that a third grade teacher be a role model and an excellent moral guide."

Something in my "pregnant womb" clenched. Deep within were the stirrings of birth, a "child" anxious to greet its world. I could barely believe the next words.

"While I can't preach or prosyletize or anything like that, I show my students by example what it means to be a good person."

I could barely eke out of words of surprise, "Well, I think you will find that Kyle is that kind of person."

He nodded his head and continued to tell me of his teaching exploits over the years. This fall is his thirty-seventh year of teaching third graders. (I chose not to tell him that it was about thirty-seven years ago that I, myself, his new teacher's father, was in third grade). In the conversation he and I shared in the minutes ahead, I learned that he is a deeply spiritual Christian man, although he is very careful about his spirituality in the classroom.

In time Kyle and his friend packed up his materials, the senior teacher (who will be Kyle's mentor, whether formally or informally) departed, and we left. Sharing dinner with Kyle and his friend was delightful, and then Kyle and I rode together to provide closure to the critical conversation which had been looming for two weeks.

The conversation was a good one. We had a heartfelt, authentic sharing, and I released into Kyle's care the burden I had been carrying for him. I shared with Kyle the way God had filled in many of the blanks I had been praying about. As we sat in my darkened car outside of his house, I placed my hand on his shoulder and blessed him. "Kyle, you are so important to me, and you have done so much with your life. You will be an excellent teacher. Mom and I will always love you. I will do my best to be the role model you need me to be, and I will continue to hold a high vision for your life. You're going do just great on Tuesday morning! I love you."

"Thanks, Dad. Love you too."

With that he stepped out of the car, dragging his tired body home to be refreshed by sleep, and I hope, by the confidence and support of his dad. And as I pulled out of his driveway I rejoiced at the result of "my pregnancy," a sense of peace encompassing my previously disconsolate soul. Something new and fresh has been born in my heart. God has filled in the blanks in so many marvelous ways that I cannot help but reclaim the power of Providence (and that's not in Rhode Island).

Who says an adoptive father cannot experience the pain and joy of pregnancy? There has been a new birth, and I can't wait to see how it all turns out.