Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dear Daughter's Birth Mom


Dear Daughter's Birth Mom,

I've been thinking about you many times in the past few days. You and I have never spoken to one another, never seen one another in the flesh. I have seen a couple of pictures of you when "our" kids (the three you gave birth to some 19, 17 and 15 years ago) were in your care, but that's the extent of our connection.

Well, not exactly. It seems like I know you because I know the children you brought into this world. We have had some very good times, and we have had some very trying times together. It is always an unusual experience to become a parent to children when they are 8, 6, and 4, knowing that they have deep memories of their first years of life with birth parents and other caretakers. LIke most adoptive parents, my wife and I have heard our share of "you're not my real parents anyway." We have had physical altercations, threats, the involvement of law enforcement and many other challenges over the past decade.

But I need to tell you that there have been moments of joy and celebration as well. "Our" children are so very beautiful; we are grateful for the genes that have provided us glistening, wavy, thick black hair and broad smiles from mouths full of white teeth. We are so very blessed with their warmth of personality, their sensitivities to others, their fierce loyalty to one another. Thank you for giving them the gift of life.

Speaking of the gift of life, I need to tell you that "we" are grandparents tonight! "Our" oldest daughter has given birth to a beautiful daughter, four days after her seventeenth birthday. She is a lovely, bright moment in our lives, entering the world at 6 pounds, 6 ounces and 16 inches in length. She has her mother's puffy tan cheeks (you remember those same cheeks seventeen years ago now, don't you?) and a petite nose. Ringlets of soft, wavy black hair crown her glorious little face.

You can be proud of your birth daughter. She was exceedingly careful during her pregnancy to eat nutritiously, to take the appropriate vitamins and to receive good prenatal care. The past couple of months have been difficult for her because of the way baby was situated in utero. "Our" daughter experienced pain the equivalent of kidney stones for weeks and bravely soldiered on, often refusing to take additional sedatives because she wanted to be sure her baby was born in good health.

You should also know that "our" daughter and granddaughter are surrounded by people who will love her on both sides of her family. "Our" granddaughter's father is young, too, at nineteen, but he is responsible and loves "our" daughter and his daughter.

It's an awkward thing, really. I have known the children you gave birth to longer now than you did. I do not know the circumstances surrounding your departure from their lives, but I have to assume that deep within you have loved them, too, all these years, even though your role as primary caretaker ended more than a decade ago.

Really, though, all I wanted to say is "thank you" for creating their lives. Claudia and I are proud to be their parents. And I just wanted you to know that "we" are grandparents.

I thought you should know.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Parenthood: A Drama Not Of One's Own Making

This time of year is always fairly dramatic in our family. With twelve kids -- and now the addition of two "significant" others in the lives of a couple of our older kids -- and the final hours of expectation for a first grandchild, this is a strangely unusual year for us. Add to those nuances the reality that two of our children celebrate birthdays this week as well ... and the fact that a major winter storm is headed our way in the next three days ... and it's quite a drama in our home.

We experienced an additional drama tonight. Our two wrestlers, Ricardo and Leon, both won their respective matches tonight (it marks Ricardo's 12th win with a single loss this year) to the roaring cheer of their fans. It was a marvelous evening, and sentimental old fool that I am (now that my status as grandparent is imminent I can be an "old" fool) I found it hard to hold back tears of joy as I watched my sons wrestle themselves to victory.

I couldn't help but think about how their lives would be different if they were not our sons. Ricardo joined our family directly from a Guatemalan orphanage at the age of ten, and Leon joined our family two years from foster care at the age of twelve. They are now sixteen and fourteen and almost always blessings to my heart. They are respectful, low maintenance and warm and engaging young men. Until Leon moved into our home he had not ever had the chance to be part of competitive sports or much of anything, actually. For whatever reasons his foster parents did not allow participation in those kinds of activities. And Ricardo by this age would have been "set free" from his orphanage to live on the streets of Guatemala City.

But tonight there is excitement in the air, multiple dramas. And none of them my own making. Perhaps that's one of the benefits of being a parent of older children. When children are younger the parent assumes the role of entertainer and enforcer. While I loved the stages when a couple of children were toddlers, I remember how physically exhausting those years were. The constant supervision, perpetual direction and need for direct care become overwhelming.

These days, though, I can kind of sit back and experience drama -- most of it good, but not always -- as an observer, not as a director. My wrestling sons work hard all week, I encourage them at home and affirm their discipline, and then I get to enjoy the drama of watching them do what they do best. My daughter will be bringing a new life into the world, and I will not have to do anything about that process but enjoy the outcome of the experience. We will celebrate Christmas together -- with whichever of our children can be here for that time -- and I can happily enjoy our time together. My role in that experience is less direct than ever -- I simply help buy a few gifts, pay those bills, and take responsibility for the holiday meals and niceties. Not such a bad deal.

I am grateful that once again I have sense of peace within my soul. It's only day two of enjoying that newfound contentment once again, but I think I'm going to like this!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The First Day

It has been months since I blogged, and even more months before the last time I blogged. I have thought about it nearly every day, but have unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) simply pushed the thought from my mind. I have experienced the fall (and the summer before that) in deeply negative ways, and I didn't want to subject the blogosphere to my excursions into the land of negativity and despair.

But here it is, the first day of Winter, the longest night of the year. I have always found the season of Fall a bittersweet mixture of delight and despair. I delight in the beauty of nature's hues bespeckling the leaves of trees with the final explosions of autumnal reverie. I enjoy the crispness to the air, a contrast to the murky humidity of late summer. I look forward to the beginning of a new school year as it provides a sense of normality into our family's life once again.

But as the days become shorter and the nights longer, I find myself experiencing despair. Difficult conversations that I can normally push myself through become harder to bear during the chilling months of fall. Conflicted relationships pierce my soul in a deeper fashion. Responsibilities that are ordinarily easily fulfilled become arduous, unfulfilling tasks. As the light of each day gradually slips into the darkness of winter I can feel my soul becoming more intent on self-preservation, less trusting, less settled.

It would be one thing to experience this if the only thing I needed to do each day is to clock in at a job where I made the same widgets every day in the same factory where I had worked for twenty years of my life. My shift would come to a conclusion as I hear the "thrunk" of the metallic device stamping my time card, and I could walk away, leaving the stresses of work behind.

My experience might also be different if my responsibilities as husband and father were more typical. After an eight-hour day of work I would return home to my statistically average 2.2 children. We would do what a typical family does (whatever that might be). I would not have to listen to the every night tantrum of a thirteen-year-old whose diagnoses create consistent noise, cursing and a very low threshold for any kind of frustration. I would have a desk in my bedroom where the scissors I purchased last week would be right where I placed them (yeah, I know, that's what happens in "typical" families, too). I could go on, but you get the picture.

But I do not have that kind of life. I have made decisions vocationally and parentally that preclude this fantasy from occurring. Usually I can balance the frustrations and irritations with the blessings and the benefits of my lifestyle. But not so well during the cold of fall and winter.

I was reminded again of that reality as I prepared to preach yesterday. I knew what the Scripture text would be (I had, after all, selected it) and I knew what the focus of the service would be (again, my choices), but my heart was far from what I needed to preach. My task was to preach on peace, and my heart was in a land far, far from that place of abundant faith experience. I spent most of Saturday embittered and angry about my Sunday morning task, because I hate to preach about something that seems so far away for me personally. It feels like dishonesty, and if nothing else I am a fairly honest person.

My sense of peace had been stolen by life events. I am irritated with an oldest son who does not have even the courtesy to call between major holidays, but can always be counted on to extend his hand when it's something he needs. I am annoyed to have another "adult" son who spends more time behind bars than in the clear light of freedom, always believing he will outsmart the authorities, but who always gets caught. I am impatient with another "adult" son whose only real requirement for living in our home rent-free is that he attend school, yet he cannot seem to get himself up to do that much. I am continually in a morass of ambiguity knowing that I have a sixteen-year-old daughter who will soon give birth to our first grandchild. I could go on and on, but I will not.

I have felt trapped, annoyed, irritated, without much hope. And so I spent a fretful Saturday night with little restful sleep, awakening Sunday morning to fulfill my responsibilities, but unhappily so. And so I preached about peace, even though my own spirit was rocked with anxiety and self-doubt. I preached from the Lukan account of the delivery of Jesus. Luke says surprisingly little at the point. Basically we hear that Mary and Joseph leave their home environs for the bustling, capitol city, where they bed down in an animal's dwelling. And then "while they were there" Mary gives birth to her son. I found myself drawn to that phrase "while the were there." The more I preached the more I realized that my primary audience yesterday was myself.

Mary and Joseph accept their setting for what it is, and they do what they need to do for that moment in time. We don't hear from Luke whether they had any other preferences or desires; we simply know that "while they were there" they allowed to take place what was going to take place. They recognized their inability to change their immediate circumstances, and they simply did what they needed to do. What stood out to me yesterday is the sense of peace the scene invokes. The surroundings are simple, the parents humble, their child one of many born in Jerusalem that day. But the difference for people of Christian faith is that is the first day that God's light dawns upon God's people in such a visible, tangible way.

It's kind of like the winter solstice, when the nights gradually become shorter as the days become longer. Light returns, new possibility emerges and we find peace within ourselves. Not in our outward circumstances or situations (of our own or others' making), but within ourselves. And that is God's gift to us. A sense of peace that is unshakeable because it comes from beyond ourselves, but paradoxically, from within ourselves.

I'm not sure if anyone else heard God speak through yesterday's sermon, but I did. And I trust that a newfound sense of peace will embrace my beleaguered spirit once again.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Water, in Jesus' Name

It has been a long day. Wednesday during the school year is my busiest day of the week, with the day filled from first thing in the morning until well past early evening. Today, for example, I was up early enough to get myself ready before the kids assail our two bathrooms getting ready for school. Claudia is out of town on a fairly extensive series of training and speaking events, so I do my part in transporting kids to school and then I'm in the office by 7:30 AM. I meet with one of our new staff members to begin work on his ninety-day ministry plan, transition in five minutes to our regular staff meeting, followed by a brief lunch and a second early afternoon meeting.

It is now mid-afternoon, and I am receiving texts from three of our children with specific requests they have in mind. At 3:00 our son Mike (20), who is living semi-independenty stops by the office to talk about how we can assist him financially in purchasing a winter coat. After our discussion I transport him to a friend's car across town and come home to take care of tasks that have accumulated throughout the intervening hours. I take three of our kids to a store so they can buy what they need and return home to provide some emotional stability for our second youngest son, Dominyk (13), who is more agitated than usual tonight. By 5:30 we are heading to church for Wednesday evening dinner, followed by music practices and confirmation (a class which I instruct). By 8:00 it's time to exit church and head for the local grocery store to purchase items for tomorrow's Clergy Day Apart, a gathering of area United Methodist clergy once a month, hosted at our church. I have three of my kids with me, and I enjoy spending purposeful time with them. We arrive home, I check in with those who have been home already for some time and enter my bedroom, where I sit at my desk to check late-arriving emails and await my wife's arrival online so we can chat for a few minutes before bed.

She appears, we exchange pleasantries and synopses of our days, and then she asks if I've heard anything from our newest "son." This "son" appeared at our house sometime about a year ago, a friend of our three ninth grade boys. It wasn't long before he was staying regularly on weekends, and then nearly every night. Finally he just stopped going home and made our home his. We told him he was welcome to stay here, but that he would have family responsibilities like anyone else, that it had to be OK with his mother, and that he had to keep in regular contact with her. We want to be supportive of him, but not disruptive of his family origins. It has really been an interesting series of months, and Claudia and I have noticed no negative difference in our family as a result of his presence. He is one of ours.

Recently he contracted a cough (which has been spreading throughout our family and elsewhere) and became quite ill. He asked to go to his step-dad's house (where his mother and a couple of half-siblings live), and I transported him there on Monday night. I realized then that he must be quite sick to ask to return home. In the meantime he has seen a doctor and received a prescription.

When I asked our kids on Tuesday if they had heard from him, they said, "He went to the doctor, but they don't have any insurance, and his mom doesn't have money to buy the medication." I must confess I was rather uncharitable in that moment, probably saying more than I should have, something to the effect of, "Well, if his mom's husband has enough money to drink a six-pack every night, there should be enough money to buy a sick kid medication." I didn't belabor the point, though, and didn't want to demonize his family in front of my kids, so I said nothing more.

So, Claudia asks me, "Have you heard how XXXXX is doing?" I said, "No." The last we had heard is that basically he was still very sick, but had no medication to take. Contrary to my reclusive character, I picked up my iPhone and texted him, asking him if he was still sick and if he had his prescription filled.

At first I received no text back, so I continued with my online conversation with Claudia. Ten minutes later an apology appeared, "Sorry I was sleeping." So I asked him again ... and in a series of text messages discovered that nothing had changed. He was still very sick but did not have the money for the prescription. I determined from him where the prescription had been electronically delivered, and asked him to be ready in ten minutes.

I'll have to admit that I was not necessarily thinking to myself, "This is what I need to do because I am a Christian." I was thinking rather ignoble thoughts about his legal caretakers, and wondering how it is that he had become one of my children over the course of the past four or five months. This is one of my kids, I thought to myself, and there is no way in hell I am going to let him suffer through an excruciating cough, fever and symptoms of H1N1 without doing something about it.

And then I was startled by his next text: "But can you get a water first? That would be great." What? I paused. I glanced at the text frame on my iPhone. What was the source of that request? It was almost as though the gospel text affirmed my intention to do the right thing. A "cup of water, offered in Jesus' name." I assured him I would buy him some water when we picked up his meds.

At 10:30 PM I was pulling into the mobile home park where his family lives, where he sat on the steps awaiting my arrival in the dark. As he ambled over to the car I could hear his wracking cough, and as he opened the door and sat down I inquired, "Como estas?" (he is Hispanic and bilingual). "About the same" was his linguistically tortured response. Our drive to Walgreen's was a quiet one. My son Ricardo (16) was with us (I thought XXXX would be more comfortable with one of his friends along with me), and we drove in contented silence.

As we entered the store I asked mijo ("my son" in Spanish) if he had picked up a prescription before. I could tell by the look on his face that he had probably never done this before, so I led him through the process. I greeted the pharmacist who glanced at my middle-aged, graying-around-the-temples caucasian form and the two young Hispanic men with me. I indicated as discreetly as I could that I would be paying for the prescription, and confirmed that there was no insurance. The pharmacist instructed XXXX as to the dosages and frequency of administration. As promised, we walked to the open cooler and I asked XXXXX to pick out several drinks to take with him. In addition we purchased some ibuprofen and cough drops.

In the car I went through dosage instructions once again, handed him the two pills he would need to take right away, and reminded him that he needed to take one per day afterwards. He nodded his understanding. Minutes later we were back at his step-father's mobile home, and as he opened the door to leave I reminded him that I would text him tomorrow to check in with him, and that we wanted him well again because we missed him at our home. His muted "thanks" were acknowledged, as he stepped back into the shadows of a cool, late September night, going "home" again, but not really.

By the time I returned home XXXX had texted again to tell me he had taken his medications, and wanting to make sure he knew when to take the next dosage. I confirmed the directions and told him to get well soon.

You know, it's a strange world we live in when a $70 prescription, three bottled waters, two bags of cough drops and one bottle of ibuprofen offered in Jesus' name late on a fall night cures more than flu-like symptoms. And I'm not talking about "mijo." I'm talking about myself.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Necessarily Inconvenienced ... the Life of a Parent

Claudia and I are preparing to take a week's vacation by traveling with friends who share our last name but not our direct genealogy this week. We will travel from our home in south-central Minnesota to Columbus, Ohio, where we will present workshops at the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) annual conference. We have attended many of these conferences in the past decade and have found them to be places of support, education and connection. It has become one of our regular routines of summer, and we like it.

Coordinating travel is always a challenge. With the number of children we have, there a multitude of logistical issues to resolve. Where will our kids stay? Which kids can be home together and live in harmony? Which PCA (personal care attendant) will be able to "overnight it" to provide adult supervision? What will they eat ... planning the menus, purchasing the groceries, providing money for milk and basics later in the week. What about laundry? Where are socks for everyone? Is there enough laundry detergent, softener, dishwasher concentrate, dishwashing liquid, cleaning supplies for the week?

It is a tiresome, tedious process which Claudia and I divided between ourselves. This time, however, there have been several of complications that have inconvenienced out always stressful planning process. I have had a couple of professional responsibilities to care for that have crept over into my vacation time this week. Inconvenient, but necessary and care for. We have the extra frustration of replacing a passenger window in our car before we can actually depart on our trip. The window, of course, was broken by a careless thirteen-year-old on Friday night and, of course, the specific glass cannot be shipped to our community until tomorrow morning by 8:00. (We hoped to leave by 9:00, but that may be delayed now). I have been waiting a week or so to have the oil changed in our car so that we could begin our 1600 mile trip with fresh oil. That will have to be squeezed in after the window has been replaced tomorrow morning. I would like the car completely washed and vacuumed before leaving, too, so the stress is compounded.

That is all inconvenient. But the biggest inconvenience of the day is that our son John was released after 88 days in a county jail two hours from our home. The timing was not great, but we had few options. We couldn't see him being released onto the streets, and we were unable to find anyone willing to house him until our return in a few days. (We can't really blame anyone ... who would be open to welcoming someone who has been jailed for legal "criminal sexual conduct" (and no, he has not been assessed as a predator or as a risk to society; it is simply the age-old statutory rape issue with a male who is eighteen and a girlfriend nearly sixteen years of age).

So at 6:00 AM I drove out of our driveway with three of my children (I told the family that anyone who wanted to come could, but they needed to up and ready to leave at 6:00 AM without my getting them up) to pick up our son. We arrived thirty minutes before the scheduled court hearing, but it was late. Ninety minutes after its scheduled time to begin, the hearing commenced.

John was brought into the courtroom in his jail "blues," handcuffed and shackled, with an armed deputy standing immediately behind his chair for the duration of the hearing. Security has been strengthened in this particular court room after an incident sometime ago in which an inmate threw a sandal at the judge.

John's public defender is a champion of his clients, intelligent, articulate and passionate. Since this was not my first time in a court room with one of my children, I am pretty familiar with the protocol and not at all anxious. I have developed a rather hardened shell after all these years of receiving in some cases as much blame from the legal system as my children who have defied my and society's mandates. So, I never really expect much in the courtroom anymore and am prepared to take my legal tongue-lashing for parenting children who are not law abiding.

Today, however, was different. The attorney took time in his eloquent communication to acknowledge the work that Claudia and I have done in "taking in challenging kids and adopting them," as he put it. He commended me publicly for investing time in challenged kids and, in particular, for our willingness to bring John back into our family's life, even after serious legal charges have been levied. I was touched by his sincerity and warmed by his words of affirmation.

The judge was equally as impressive. He spoke in even and courteous -- but direct -- sentences that made it clear to John what would happen if he violates the terms of his probation. In brief fashion, should probation be violated, John will be required to register for life as a sex offender, serve up to fifteen years of probation and perhaps as long of prison sentence. This was not a surprise.

But the judge's next words were. "John, I have read your files, and I can see that you have spent most of your teenage years in legal trouble. I'm assuming that has been difficult for you, but not nearly as difficult as it has been for your parents over these years. You have had many opportunities to make good choices and have not. People have tried in your life, but you have consistently chosen to disregard them. You have the opportunity now, as an adult, to get your life together." He went on to present clearly and fairly what John needs to do.

Again, I was touched to have received even a brief moment of acknowledgment that raising John and children like him has been very, very difficult. Today was an inconvenience, but in the past eight years of John's involvement with the social services and legal systems, Claudia's and my lives have been very difficult. In that time we have learned so much about what we can control and what we cannot control. We are much more at peace with ourselves and our children today, knowing that there is really only so much a parent can do for a kid hell-bent on self-destruction.

Through it all, though, we have learned that unconditional commitment to a child (or young adult, in this case) may be the only thing that ultimately a parent can offer. All the rest is necessary inconvenience.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Attachment Is a Nice Thing

Over the years of raising attachment-disordered children (our oldest four children, in particular) I have forgotten just how nice attachment can be between a parent and a child. And, I suppose, how natural attachment is for many parents who raise children with that innate capacity not having been destroyed by early years of neglect or abuse.

Today I took three of our kids, Mercedes (13), Leon (14) and Ricardo (15) to our church parking lot, where they met a group of teenagers and parents who are on their way to Kansas City. There they will be engaged in mission work together for about a week's time. Over the years I have taken many of our children to such settings, and I have learned to be careful not to excessively embarrass them. Our older children seem to have had the more significant attachment issues, and I learned in those early years of parenting to keep my distance in public situations. I always made sure to bid them goodbye and pat them on the shoulder or whatever, and almost always with no reciprocal response and never at their initiation. I became accustomed to this unusual way of saying "goodbye," always hoping that my consistent efforts to express affection would pay off one day. To date they really haven't. With our older, attachment-disordered children it is still painfully awkward to express or receive emotion. I have pretty much given up on that after all these years.

So, this morning before we left the house I made a point of hugging each of the three kids going on the missions trip, telling them that I was happy they were doing something good and that we would miss them in their absence. I wanted to make sure I had a moment for connection if things at the church became too busy or awkward for that to occur. We loaded into the car and set off for the parking lot.

Arriving there they unloaded their luggage and gathered with other youth and parents. I had to make a quick trip to the ATM for cash for my young missionaries and joined them a few minutes later. I joined the casually gathering circle of humanity when I felt a warm body cuddling up to mine. Expecting it to be our daughter Mercedes (who is quite affectionate at home and in public) I glanced down, having to make a second glance. It was our newest son, Leon, clearly desiring to be close to me in the moments before his departure. I stretched my around his shoulders and hugged him close (but not too close, since I didn't want to embarrass him). His body eased into my side, as natural as sunshine in the morning. He was content to stand as close to me as he could, my arm around his shoulders squeezing his tanned neck as an act of parental affection. He didn't move until he had to, when our youth pastor invited the youth participating to move to one side of the circle and the rest of us to the other. And even then he was reluctant; it was obvious that he preferred to stand close to me in those waning moments than with his peers.

I couldn't believe it. I have a kid -- a fourteen-year-old boy, at that -- who is attached and who loves his dad (he loves his mother, too, probably a little more than me). It was a very fulfilling emotional moment. I have waited years and years for one of my kids to initiate any indicator of healthy attachment, and reality arrived early this morning on a humid, rain-spattered morning in a church parking lot.

It's strange how adoptive parents learn to value the things that many "ordinary" families take for granted. Like a child-initiated hug in a church parking lot filled with peers and parents. Attachment. It's a very nice thing.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Breakfast With the Kids' Friend

Claudia and I have always had as a goal for our family something we might call permeable boundaries. Permeable boundaries is a concept that attempts the best of two worlds: clear boundary expectations with a sense of inclusive hospitality. What I mean is that we have some clear family guidelines about what we expect from people who live in our home, but we want our family to be an "open" system, not a "closed" system. Many families with clear expectations, it seems, become mini-fortresses unto themselves, where those who are "in" are "in" and those who are "out" are "out."

Claudia grew up in a family where her brothers' and her friends were always welcome in the family home. She tells me that on more than one occasion her parents "took in" friends of her brothers who were unable, for whatever reason, to live with their families of origin for a period of time. It was simply the way her parents practiced their faith. They were (and are) hospitable people, generous in giving of themselves and whatever they have.

I was also raised in a family where inclusion was a strong value. Although we never had anyone live with us for any length of time, my mother from my earliest days instilled in me a concern for those who were different (due to physical or mental handicaps), forgotten (foster children in the community) or outcasts. She herself was raised in a family with interesting dynamics; her mother was always clear that there were no "step"-whatevers in our family. There were only children and (as they grew up) people who were to be treated with dignity and respect.

It is no surprise, then, that our home has continued to follow in these noble directions. Even during some of our most challenging times three years ago we did our best to be hospitable to friends of our kids. I have served food at our table on more than one occasion to our son Mike and his friends in moments when it was obvious they were inebriated or high. Frankly those moments tested my Christian conviction, because the behaviors I cite violate our family guidelines, and I was not all that interested in being kind to older teenagers living in ways that rejected our values. I decided, with gritted teeth, that my Christian witness would be stronger in providing compassionate hospitality than in asserting a moral code ... at least in those moments.

In any case, we have always considered it a privilege that many of our kids like to invite their friends to our home. Usually that has been for a short period of time -- an overnight or a weekend -- but this summer that invitation has extended to what appears to be an entire summer kind of thing. Our fourteen-year-old boys (we have three of them) have a shared friend who is a really nice kid. He is respectful, appropriate and cooperative.

Just before school was letting out in May, Leon asked if this friend could "move in for the summer." Claudia and I thought the request might be a bit exaggerated for emphasis, but we had no problem in saying, almost immediately, "Sure, as long as it's OK with his parent(s)." The request, it turns out, was quite literal, with no exaggeration. When it became apparent to us that he would be staying with us the summer, Claudia sat him down to explain our expectations. He would need to comply with our family's behavioral guidelines. He would need to assume a household chore. He would need to keep in contact with his mother on a regular basis. Their friend has been here nearly every night and day since that time, and it has worked out beautifully.

Last night as we watched Leon's late baseball game (it started at 8:00 PM and wasn't over until past 10:00 PM), I glanced past Claudia to see him sitting in one of our family's chairs, as bonded to us (or moreso) than our own children. Fortunately for him in this very white community he has "siblings" who belong to us who look nothing like us, so it's as natural as can be for him to assume a family connection with us.

I was up earlier than anyone else today, and I decided I would make pancakes for breakfast. On my day off (which Friday is) I usually make something that I eat right away and then serve others as they awaken (until about 10 AM, which is our family cut-off time for breakfast). It was quiet in the house, I had just sat down to eat my pancakes and sausage, when out of the corner of my eye I saw our kids' friend walking quietly up the stairs. Not wanting to shatter his or my solitude, I waved good morning to him. A few minutes later he appeared in the kitchen, and I asked him if he'd like me to make him some pancakes.

"Please," he said, a response, that from my kids or their friends, will motivate me to do a lot. A few minutes later we were sitting down at the table together eating quietly, as he prepared for his morning at summer school. In those moments words aren't really necessary. It makes me feel good to know that we are providing this young man with some stability and connection during the summer. I hope it teaches him something about the lived values of a Christian family. And I hope it teaches my kids something of Jesus' ethic of inclusion and hospitality.

Years ago I might have felt a bit awkward eating breakfast with my kids' friend without my children being there, but these days I simply count it a blessing and thank God for helping us create the kind of family that has permeable boundaries.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Cynic's Surprise

I have alluded to the reality that I have a tendency to be a bit cynical about things at times. Years of working with humans in both my professional and personal life remind me daily of just how fragile and ordinary life can be. While I find every individual's story interesting, and often provocative, I have seen and experienced too much the apathy and pain of others to have more than a jaded view of things. As an adoptive parent of older children, experience has taught me to expect the worst so that I can appreciate the surprise of something going well. (And, in case you're wondering ... no, it is not my practice to express to my children that I expect the worst in them ... I communicate expectations of the best, but prepare myself internally for the worst).

Last night Claudia and I were together in two church-related meetings. The first took place with nearly all of our teenaged kids, while the second was just the two of us plus a couple of other adults. Both meetings were really positive and encouraging, which makes me smile internally. During the second meeting I received a call on my iPhone from one of our older sons asking, "Is it OK if we go to the park?" Having learned from many years of parenting experience, you will understand that my next question was: "Sure. Who is 'we'?" He said, "Ummm. Just about all of us, and he named each of the boys in our family, plus one of our kids' friends who is pretty much living with us this summer." "OK," I said.

After the meeting, on the way home together, I said to Claudia, "Oh, yeah. That call was from Jimmy. He asked if they could all go to the park."

"Hmmm," Claudia replied. "I got a call from the girls [our fourteen-year-old daughter and her friend] that they wanted to go to the park, too. I think we should just swing by the park before we go home to see what's happening."

We have had a good summer so far with the kids who live in our home. They are getting along well together, can be trusted for periods of time with no parents in immediate line of supervision, and generally are earning a great deal of trust with their good behavior. Inwardly I began to cringe, wondering if we had reached a new negative turning point and hoping that I would not regret my decision to tell them they could go to the park together.

In years past, especially three years ago after having moved to our "new" community and with several of the older children living in our home at that time, any of their forays into the community were met with some new challenge. Negative peer influences, physical assaults, alcohol and drug experimentation ... we were never sure what would happen, but we always knew something negative would happen.

As we rounded to corner to the park, I was subconsciously chafing within. Just how disillusioned and disappointed would I be this time?

Before I could make out the figures in the distance (it was dusk and my middle-aged eyes aren't what they used to be), Claudia said in approbation. "Well, will you look at that? Our family is playing baseball together!"

With the exception of our sixteen-year-old daughter (who is home for a few days from her boyfriend's family's house), all of our children were at the baseball field. There were enough boys to fill the outfield and bases, as well as allowing a pitcher and a batter. In the stands were the two girls in what appeared to be a cheerleader-like stance. They were not arguing, taunting or otherwise disturbing one another. They were, I kid you not, playing baseball together. What could be more all-American and "normal" than that? And who else in our community has the personnel resources under roof to accomplish such a feat without even calling friends?

I returned home with a glow in my heart, my cynicism for the moment melting in a pool of emotional warmth. A few minutes later they returned home as the summer darkness was closing in. Seeing fourteen-year-old Leon, I said, "Hey, it looked like you guys were having a lot of fun. You even had a couple of cheerleaders out there."

He glanced at me impassively and without missing a beat responded, "Well, I think they were doing my texting than cheerleading out there."

So maybe I'm not the only cynic in our family, but every once in a while everyone, even those of us predisposed to negativity, enjoy a surprise.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Irony Which Informs My Faith



Claudia and I returned from our Philadelphia trip today. We had a delightful few days together doing what we most enjoy ... I love to investigate new places and historical sites, and Claudia likes to, well, work. So I spent most of yesterday exploring Philadelphia in the rain (I was gone about ten hours all told) while Claudia worked diligently in the room. Both of us feel we succeeded, so we returned home satisfied.

We were thrilled to learn that our kids who had been semi-independent (we have good neighbors across the street who serve as support, plus Dominyk's PCAs) for these days did well in our absence. Almost all of the laundry was done, the kitchen and living rooms had been cleaned and the emotional barometer was as steady as a blue-skied summer day.

After greeting our kids I began to skim through the accumulated mail for the week. In the midst of magazines, bills and solicitations was a letter from our son. As I surveyed the envelope with its county adult detention address, the irony which I have contemplated many times struck me once again. Our son's name is (I'll make this non-searchable, so read around the "*"s) J*ohn W*esley F*letcher, a name that has important connections in our family of Christian faith, the Methodist movement. It was John Wesley (1703-1791), an Anglican priest, who was instrumental in a revival of religion that swept across Great Britain and into the early United States of America. John Fletcher (1729-1785) was a contemporary of Wesley's and considered to be the theologian of the movement. It was rumored that John Fletcher was Wesley's intended heir apparent, but due to Fletcher's early death and Wesley's extended life this never materialized.

In any case, you might see why our son's name is significant in the family of a United Methodist pastor. When he was baptized at the age of ten we explained to him the historical heritage his name carried. His full name is J*ohn W*esley R*odriguez F*letcher (we included his birth surname), and we and he have always been proud to see the Methodist and Hispanic connections in his identity.

To see the names of two of Methodism's founding fathers handwritten above the institutional stamp of a county jail is an irony which forms my faith. And no, it is not the irony you might think -- a United Methodist pastor with a son whose name represents powerful figures in Christian history sitting in a county jail for charges that could result in his having to register as an offender for years to come.

No, the irony for me is that one of the groups of people John Wesley was most concerned about was those in prison. Much of his time and the time of his "preachers" was invested in visiting those who were incarcerated. In fact, for those of us who are ordained Elders in the United Methodist Church, it is a question asked of us prior to ordination: "Will you visit those in jail?"

It is oddly comforting for me to recognize this irony -- that my son J*ohn W*esley F*letcher is situated in a location his historical namesakes would have been quite familiar with -- and to believe that one day my JWF will discover the spiritual power that transformed those who have come before him.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Visit to Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary

I am on vacation this week in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States of America. I have accompanied my wife on one of her speaking engagements, and while she works I experience the city of foot. This has been my fullest day this week, just in time for our return tomorrow to Minnesota. I am happy to report that I have walked more than 18,000 steps today, most of them from our hotel to Independence Hall and back. Once there I hailed one of the tour buses, disembarking at what is now a visitor's site, the Eastern State Penitentiary. This penitentiary was first opened in 1829 and saw its last prisoners leave in 1971. The tour is self-guided with the assistance of an easy-to-use listening device. I spent nearly two hours in the experience, moving at a fairly steady pace; I could have spent at least another hour there, exploring empty cell blocks and listening to further presentations with more attention to detail. It was really quite fascinating.

In the past few years I have become much more interested with the history of penology as a parent of a couple adult "kids" who have found their way behind bars as a result of breaking the law. I must say that the adoption journey has provided many opportunities for me to think about situations that earlier in my life rarely crossed my mind. Sure, I had thought philosophically about the criminal justice system as a college student, debated about it during my years in seminary, even initiated a visit to a prison years ago with two of our foster children in attempt to "scare them straight." I am not sure what ever became of the two foster kids, but I was always hopeful that I wouldn't be the parent of kids behind bars. Unfortunately, that has not proven to be the case, and I have had to come face-to-face with more than philosophical meanderings about criminal justice.


ESP came about due to the prison reform concerns of leading Philadelphians like Benjamin Franklin and (Episcopal) Bishop William White. They and others formed what was then called The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (it first met in May 1787). My visit to ESP reminded me that in many cases the purpose of incarceration was not punishment for crimes committed; it was created as an opportunity for the "criminal" to become "penitent" (note that this is the root of the word "penitentiary"). While not all facilities were built with this purpose in mind, ESP was in the early 1800s. Even the language used to describe the experience connected with religious imagery. Ask a priest or other person familiar with the ways of the monastic, and he will be clear that even today in such a setting an individual monastic's room is called a "cell." In the cell was an opportunity for solitude, confession and amendment of life.

At ESP in the early days prisoners were "hooded" before entering the facility, until they were securely locked in their cell. This was to protect their identity from being observed by others, as well as protecting the identity of those already incarcerated. Once in the cell they had the bare minimums -- a bed, a bench and a cast iron toilet. Interestingly, ESP has indoor plumbing in place before the White House in Washington, DC! Once a day for an hour's time the inmate was allowed to step into the fresh air immediately behind his cell. Each cell had an individual area for outside exercise; no contact was permitted between prisoners. In the early years, an individual could serve the length of his sentence and not have contact with any other prisoner during that time period.

I found this picture too interesting to pass up. It is a picture from the "early days" with an inmate in his cell. He has a writing desk, a bed and on the wall above the door to his exercise area in back is a cross (the picture does not show that clearly) in the center, with two pictures on either side. Immediately above the door is this text:

I believe in God my Father
And in Jesus Christ my Saviour
And in the Holy Spirit, who comforts me and leads me into all truth


Compared with today's context, it seems a glaringly sectarian approach to reform. A clear statement of the traditional Christian understanding of a trinitarian God would never find state approval in today's culture. It would seem, in fairness, that it wasn't a universal at ESP, either, as there was a synagogue and a rabbincal leader for inmates of Jewish faith. However, the role of religious faith was, for those who created this penitentiary, paramount. To reform one's life meant, by default, the need to connect with God.

There don't seem to be any good records as to the success rate of ESP. It is not known whether ESP's approach to reforming a criminal's life was more fruitful than those penitentiaries where punishment was more the norm. I have to wonder, though, how much benefit might be derived from the appropriate exploration of spirituality by those currently incarcerated. (I'm not advocating that state or federal penitentiaries be places where faith is forced upon anyone, but why wouldn't society benefit from the opportunity to offer to a "captive" audience the opportunity to "reform" based upon a new or renewed relationship with the Divine?)

It seems to me that the United States of America -- with more people incarcerated than any other country in the world -- might rethink some of our criminal justice processes. Perhaps it is time to form a new Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. It is nearly two hundred years since this positive model was initiated. What might it look like today?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Treasured Day

Once again I am up early this morning. It is not even 5:30 AM, and I have already been at my home desk wading through the treasures of yesterday, my birthday. Yesterday was a strange day, actually. I had a couple of pressing church-related responsibilities that kept me distracted and unfocused on the presenting event, beginning my forty-fifth year of life. The day itself was rather full, and the evening was no exception.

Two of our sons, Wilson (10) and Leon (14) had their first baseball games of the season, Claudia and I both had evening meetings, and there was no time to cook or prepare for any kind of celebration. Beginning at about 4:30 yesterday afternoon life in our home shifted into high gear as the component parts of our family began moving in different directions. Our fourteen-year-old daughter Mercedes needed to get to her job at McDonald's. Leon had to get to his game site by the appointed time. Wilson's game was close enough to our home that he could walk to the field. Ricardo had soccer practice. Dominyk was not yet home from his PCA (personal care attendant) time. Claudia and I wanted to share a little time together before heading our evening meetings. I wanted to catch at least some of one of the boys' first baseball games.

Amongst the drop-off's Claudia and I found about an hour to have dinner together, while our oldest at-home son, Rand (20), facilitated further schedule issues and coordinated the feeding of available family members. I dropped Claudia off at her meeting site after our shared meal and zipped off to watch the first forty-five minutes of Wilson's game.

If you read this blog regularly you understand that I am no sports fan. I have never been a sports fan, from the earliest days of my life. But I am a big fan of my kids, so year after year I have found myself sitting in uncomfortable portable chairs or on hot (in the summer) and cold (in the winter) metal bleachers watching everything from football, to Tae Kwon Do, to wrestling, to basketball, to soccer (a fan of which I have become over the past couple of years, by the way), to hockey and myriad other athletic pursuits of my children.

I do not always understand the lingo of each particular sport, nor do I fully grasp all the intricacies of the rules. (My wife, on the other hand, does understand most of those details, so I often turn to her for explanation. Yeah, I know. Kind of gender atypical, but hey, it works for us).

Last night as I sat watching my third grader play his first baseball game of the season I was blessed with a few moments of gracious solitude. I sat in my chair, not that uncomfortable, although I was a bit chilly (the past week or so in Minnesota has been unseasonably cool, with highs barely reaching 60 degrees most days). I observed these young boys and their coaches, grateful to have the opportunity to be the parent of a younger kid again. As time ticked by I began to wonder if I would actually get to see Wilson bat before I had to leave. Just before I needed to depart Wilson's turn came, and I watched with pride as he picked up the bat, eventually hit the ball and made it to first base. His 62-pound body with spindly legs can run, and his brace-toothed smile always brightens his face. As I passed by him on the way to the car I congratulated him. He smiled and waved as I said goodbye.

I must admit I was a little preoccupied and brooding as I drove into the church parking lot. The tightness of schedules necessitated a significant meeting on the night of my birthday, and I would rather have been watching my sons' baseball games. But responsibility calls, and I did my best to explain the situation to both Wilson and Leon. Wilson's earlier response to Claudia (when she explained the difficulty of our schedules for the night) had been, "Well, it's going to be hard for me to win this baseball game if no one is there to watch me." Fortunately both of the boys were gracious in understanding that last night was a difficult one, but that we would be at most of their games in the near future.

The focus of my meeting at church concerns the broader vision and future of our life together as a congregation. The content is not without controversy, but what was shared received largely positive feedback. By the time I walked to my office before coming home it was well past 9:00 PM. After making an important telephone call and sending a few quick emails I walked through the darkened corridors of the church facility to my car in the parking lot. I breathed a sigh of relief, thanking God for the opportunity to serve in a church with bright possibilities and huge opportunities for the future.

Pulling into our driveway a few minutes later, our house appeared darkened except for two windows. Expecting to be enveloped by the silence of sleeping bodies, I was surprised that a few people were still awake, awaiting my arrival. Our oldest son and our dog Gizmo were out the door before I got to the house. Stepping into our entryway our daughter Mercedes greeted me with a warm smile and a huge hug. She asked how my meeting had gone and I responded positively. Skipping down the stairs I looked into our darkened family room, where I had heard voices and said, "Hi," not certain who was actually there. Our sons Ben (17) and Ricardo (15) and one of the boys' friends (15) greeted me in return. Looking for the baseball players, I found Leon in the garage looking for a lost item in the van.

"So, how did your game go, Leon?" I asked.

"I won it," was his response. (I think it's always interesting when a kid playing in a team sport responds in the singular to a winning game than in the plural, but that's another story altogether).

"That's great! What was the score?"

"2-1."

"I'm proud of you, Leon."

Before I could issue another congratulatory word, he said, "Yeah. I won it for you, Dad."

I was momentarily stunned by the words. I cannot recall, in raising our older kids, many of whom have been involved in sports or other activities over the years, ever hearing one my kids tell me that. The warmth that radiated from his face, the delight in his eyes to know he has parents who care about what he is doing, the sheer joy in being part of a family that will never leave him ... in that split-second the emotions and the benefits of older-child adoption flooded me with gratitude. I thanked Leon for his words, apologized for not being there for the game and told him how much I loved him.

Stepping back inside the house I began to look for Wilson. He had just stepped out of the shower, wrapped in a large towel, his jet-black hair glistening with water, his eyes sparkling with excitement.

"So, Wilson, how did your game turn out?"

"We won."

I congratulated him and then listened as he reeled off several sentences of baseball jargon that I tried to follow. I gathered from his rapid-fire report that his work on the team had been important, that he enabled several home runs to take place and that he had the honor of taking home the game ball. (Or something like that).

"Oh, Wilson. I'm so proud of you. That's exceptional!" I responded.

And then he, like his older birth brother minutes earlier, touched my heart with a treasured word. "I put something in your 'treasure box' for you on your desk. It's a picture." Earlier in the day Wilson had been a Cub Scout day camp event and he had painted for me a green, glitter-covered wooden treasure box. I walked the few steps into our bedroom to see on my desk a 3 x 5 inch picture of WIlson in his baseball uniform, prominently displayed in the opened green, glitter-covered treasure box.



Smiling with joy a bit of a tear crept from my eye. "You know what?" I rhetorically queried Claudia, sitting nearby. "I think the kids we currently have home now are going to make up for all the pain and difficulty of our early years with our older kids. These kids are going to help me leave behind a lot of my disillusionment and cynicism."

Turning forty-five wasn't that bad. It was a day of mixed emotions and responsibilities, to be sure, but I feel like a very fortunate man to have had such a treasured day.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

45 to the Third Degree

One hundred fifty-eight years ago today my grandmother's grandmother Sarah Harriet (Day) Hughes was born. Ninety years ago today my grandmother Irene Harriet Strause (Libby) was born. Forty-five years ago today I was born. In several months I will become a grandfather at the age of forty-five, at the same age as my grandmother before me.

The last birthday my grandmother and I shared together while she was living was three years ago. Her health had been fading for several years, but the summer and fall of 2006 marked her final days with us. In earlier years of my life June 9 was a marker of the relationship my grandmother and I shared. Some years it included a shared birthday celebration, almost always a visit (we lived less than ten miles apart as I grew up) and always a continuing reminder of how fortunate I was to be the first grandchild born to my maternal grandparents.

Beginning in 2007, though, this day has become a more pensive, bittersweet day for me. With my grandmother's death I am more cognizant of the cycle of birth, life and death. I am reminded of those blessed intersections in life that help to give us identity. For some reason 45 seems to be one of those symbolic markers. My grandmother was precisely my age today when she became a grandmother, and I will be (although not precisely) 45 as well.

There is something about watching a new generation emerge that roots a middle-aged person. During these middle years of life we have to acknowledge that our physical, temporal lives will not always exist. There will come the time when our physical corpus will be planted into the ground; we will leave behind a legacy, but it will live in the memories of others, not in our physical presence with those whom we love. Middle age is another of those golden opportunities for second chances.

I have struggled over the past decade plus to understand myself as a parent. I always believed I would be a good parent, and I had a fairly clear understanding in my mind of what that would look like. In my life as an adoptive parent I believed, let's be honest, that I would do my part to save the children of the world. I naively believed that children who had experienced early neglect or poverty or dislocation would find solace in the home my wife and I would seek to build upon a foundation of unconditional commitment and self-sacrificing love. My dream was that this solace would heal the wounds and provide a glowing future for the children I would call mine.

Now nearly thirteen years into the adoptive parenting journey I realize that my fantasies must meet the honest practicality of middle aged awareness. I must admit that in my zeal I overstepped my boundaries; I can no more save a child than a midwife can give birth to her patient's impending infant. As an adoptive midwife I can offer support, instruction, encouragement, the perspective of years lived. But I cannot make my child's decisions for him or her. It is as fruitless to try to change their hardwired tendencies or their moral freedom to choose as it would be to change the color of their eyes.

It is a complicated tangle being a parent. Having the highest of goals and offering the best of opportunities guarantees nothing in terms of outcome. And perhaps the reality is that the outcome is not ours to control anyway. It's kind of like turning 45. Who wants to acknowledge that about half of our years have already been lived? We cannot control that; we can only live it.

I am reminded today that the only years I knew my grandmother were the second forty-five of her life. And that gives me hope, that in the next half of my life perhaps the next generation of my children will do even better than the first.

I can live with that. And so can they.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

It's Not Always Bad ...

For those who read my blog on a regular basis, you might tend to think that all of life is challenging and fraught with emotional peril. There are certainly those moments, and much of what I thought being a father would be like has been challenged in the past few years, but it's not always bad.

At all.

This morning I had such a delightful experience with our third grade son, Wilson. It is the last week of school before summer break, so school schedules are more fluid, kids are experiencing the joy of anticipated freedom and teachers have that look of relief in their eyes. In Wilson's classroom this morning it was Donuts with Dad. Later this week it's Muffins with Mom. Weeks ago Wilson made sure to invite me. It was apparent (pun intended) that he really wanted me to be there.

So, as planned, I waited at the school office until the right time, when Wilson was to meet me. A few minutes after my arrival Wilson and his friend Tim (who has been at our home before) greeted me. Wilson and Tim are an interesting contrast in personalities. Wilson is quiet and reflective, and often I have to strain to hear his words. Tim is outgoing and gregarious, and no one has to listen intently to hear what he has to say. Walking toward me Wilson smiled as Tim boomed out, "Hey, dad!"

I exchanged greetings with them, told them I was excited to be going to Donuts with Dad, and then heard Tim say, "Hey, dad. It's OK if I call you that, isn't it? I'll just tell people I'm adopted by you." We had discussed this before when Tim had stayed the night with Wilson several weeks ago, and I have no problem with kids calling me "Dad" (whether they "belong" to me legally or not). I said, "Sure. Let's go to your classroom."

The third grade classroom was bustling with activity as I found an adult-size chair and sat next to Wilson's desk. Wilson trotted off to select a donut for the two of us, and in the meantime I noticed Tim bobbing in and among others. For whatever reason Tim was without a parent this morning, so I waved him over to Wilson's desk and said, "Join us." He smiled and brought his chair and his written work over.

The three of us had a great time, all thirty minutes of it. WIlson read to me from some of his prepared work, and then Tim read a story as well. We ate donuts together, I asked the questions that all parents of third-graders need to ask, and then it was time to leave.

What a great way to begin my day. With my son Wilson snuggled next to me, occasionally patting my hand, enjoying the opportunity to share these minutes with his dad. And with my other "son" Tim as he told me about his written story and pointed to items he had crafted during the school year. One rather large white male father-type, one rather small Asian child-type and one larger African-American child type. None of us resembling one another physically, but bound together by the need for this forty-five-year-old to be a father and these two ten-year-olds to have one.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Where Am I, Again?

This has been a day marked by contrasts. I began the day early at Peachtree Tree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, during my second day at the Festival of Homiletics, where I heard more outstanding words from the likes of Barbara Brown Taylor and Thomas Long, both exemplars of the art of preaching. Our sessions were over mid-afternoon, so I returned to my hotel in what seems to be a pretty nice part of Atlanta, near Buckhead. I spent the remainder of the afternoon reading and thinking about what I've been hearing over the past couple of days.

So, with those lofty thoughts in my head, inspired by marvelous homileticians, I set off to find a place to eat dinner. Although this is a continuing education week for me, I do not ask the church to pay for my meal costs, although I suppose technically it would be appropriate for me to charge them back against my continuing education budget. Instead, I simply apply them toward income tax deductions, as our CPA directs. The freeing thing is that I can choose where I want to eat without little thought about the scrutiny of others.

But, anyway, I decided to have a steak tonight, so I set off for the Longhorn, evidently a chain in this part of the country, or at least in Atlanta where there are numerous locations. Upon arriving I was greeted by a young woman who told me the wait would be about ten minutes, so I sat down, extracting my iPhone from my pocket to scan through email and make good use of my time. In the few minutes that ensued I heard the southern drawl of an elderly man as he was leaving, thanking the young woman at the greeter's stand for the "free meal." She responded professionally. Once he was out the door and on his way, though, I heard her disclosing to her co-workers, in an amused, and not-so-quiet voice: "You'll never believe what he said when he came in here." Her co-workers encouraged her to say more, so she continued, "When I told him that the wait was going to be ten minutes, he looked at me and said, 'I don't speak Spanish.'" Together they chortled about the blatant racism, and caught in the act of eavesdropping, I had to glance up to remember the physical features of the young woman. It certainly wasn't a Hispanic accent of any type; her words to me had been good, Georgia sweetness. Sure enough, her tan skin, dark hair and diminutive height could reflect a Latina background, but I chuckled to myself. Having five Hispanic children of "my own" has inured me to the external judgments of the lilly white.

It was minutes later that I was escorted to my table, made my meal selection and awaited the arrival of my entree. As I munched contentedly on my caesar salad and fresh-made loaf of bread, I became aware of a group of four young (well, younger than I am, but that's not that young any more) men immediately behind me. The conversation went something like this:

Waitress: Good evening, what I can I get you to drink? [The men each ordered their favorite alcoholic beverage, after which she requested ID from the youngest of the men. He dickered with her for a few minutes, but finally produced the ID that indicated he was "legal"]. A few minutes later she came back to be barraged with questions about a table of women across the room:

One guy to waitress: Hey, what about those ladies over there ... are they drinking anything?
Waitress: Hmm. I'm not sure. [Looking more closely] ... it doesn't look like it.
Another guy to waitress: Well, they should be.
Waitress: They should be?
First guy again: Yeah, they should be.

As the waitress departed to take the food orders to the kitchen the four drinking buddies continued to share crudities, about life in general, women in particular and wives with too much specificity. With the country music droning in the background and the slurred Southern drawls from the table behind me, I had to ask myself: "Where am I, again?" I was in an upper-class suburb of Atlanta (part of my test to determine economic levels is to look at cars being driven, as well as how many people are out and about walking around ... in this case a lot of nice cars and no one to be seen on the sidewalks for miles), and I felt like I could have been in Redneck Village, USA. Not, mind you, that I have any particular problem with hard-living people.

I've come from a long line of hard-living people, but it's not how I want to live my life. And, as I ruminated on those thoughts, I began to realize that my deeper issue has to do with the sense of displacement I feel within my own family. Consciously I was preoccupied with what was going on around me, but subconsciously I struggle with the paths our older children have taken in their lives. (It's too soon to say what will happen with our younger ones).

Each of our children were adopted from hard-living situations, involving out-of-wedlock births, drugs, alcohol, neglect and/or abuse. And the current direction (with one exception) of all our children over the age of sixteen involves at least one, if not more, of these factors of their origins. It is confusing and disorienting to me. My values, and the values I had hoped to instill within my family, have not changed, but I am challenged to know why I have lived the way I live when I do not see it reflected in the next generation. It makes me feel foolish, unsophisticated and naive.

Where am I, again?

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Blessing from Archbishop Desmond Tutu

After Ricardo's soccer game last night I stayed in a metro area hotel room, anticipating my early flight to Atlanta this morning. I am using a week of continuing education to participate in this year's Festival of Homiletics (a preaching conference). I have been in Atlanta a couple of times before this week, and I have come to enjoy the city. It is richly diverse, nestled in the bosom of the deep south, a fascinating mix of success and disappointment. In the summer residents refer to it as "Hot-lanta," but the forecast for this week actually shows it to be cooler here than back home in Minnesota.

Arriving uneventfully in Atlanta this morning, I picked up a rental car and drove to my hotel. There were, of course, hotels closer to the conference location, but when it comes to hotel rooms I am notoriously cost-conscious. I no longer stay in cut-rate hotel chains (I've traveled enough now that I just can't do that any longer), but with the power of the internet I can usually find myself a good room at a good price. This time I was able to find a great Doubletree Hotel, but it is several miles from the conference site. I figure the $75 a night difference is worth driving five miles or so and justifies the rental car.

Every time I get into a rental car, though, I am reminded anew of what a set up for disaster it is. The traveler is probably a bit disoriented after a crowded flight, followed by (in this case) a packed shuttle to the rental car area. Once there the driver-to-be is summarily disgorged from the shuttle to pick up his or her rental vehicle, most likely a vehicle nothing like the one back home. After stowing luggage, properly organizing the rental contract information, adjusting mirrors, moving the seat and steering wheel, turning on the air conditioning (or heat, as the case may be) and the radio, the driver is ready for the next step in the process: immediate immersion into some of the city's busiest traffic. Balancing the need to drive safely, merge correctly into the flow of traffic, scan directions to one's destination and adjusting to a new car -- all within five minutes -- is a daunting task. I've gotten used to it over the years, but it still makes me feel some trepidation. Fortunately I made it safely to my hotel, checked in and was able to take a short nap before this evening's opening festivities.

Two of my favorite clergy-type people in the world were scheduled for tonight: Barbara Brown Taylor (an episcopal priest who "walked away" from the Church to become a professor) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I have read and followed their lives for a number of years now, so to hear them in person was a real treat.

Taylor spoke eloquently of why it is that the South is so renowned for its particular version of Christian faith. She masterfully tied together the social and spiritual histories of the South in a profound way. Her conclusion, and my summary will sound much more perfunctory than her elegant words, is that the Bible is for "losers," by which she means those who have come through challenging difficult times. Those who have encountered loss find much in the Scriptures to help interpret our world. Her appeal was that people of Christian faith might remember that "suffering is less a problem to be solved than it is a mystery to be endured." In particular, she asked people of faith to consider how we find ourselves in the Scriptures and how that affects our interpretation of what we see there.

The crowning moment of the night, however, was to hear from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His physical appearance is increasingly more frail, but his joyous enthusiasm is fresh and contagious. He spoke of the ways apartheid imprisoned his country (the Republic of South Africa) for so many decades, but joyously recounted the freedom that is now part of their lives. He thanked those in the United States and other western countries for standing in support of the anti-apartheid leaders years ago. He spoke about how far racial relations in the United States have progressed in the past fifty years. Since we are in Atlanta, he made reference to the ways in which this part of the country separated and discriminated against people of color, but how it is that things are different now. I admire his ability to let go of possible resentments and bitterness in order to acknowledge positive change.

The heart of his message was that God has created all of humanity in God's image. His recurring words were, "Be who you are!" To be created and to live in God's image means that to treat any other human in any degrading or discriminatory fashion is "blasphemy. It is to spit in God's face!" His final words, in recognizing the significance of electing our country's first non-white president, were to remind his listeners that Americans have changed our cultural landscape as well. We, like those in South Africa, are seeing changes within the social landscape. With a smile on his face and joy in his voice, his final words to us were, "Aren't you glad you don't have to say you're Canadians anymore?!" While I'm sure not every appreciated his political stance, I hope they recognized what I understood him to say: that the election of an African-American president does more to identify our country as making racial progress than mere words. And those who might have felt disappointment or shame in the past regarding our country's checkered racial history might be able to respond with more pride than before.

In closing the service Archbishop Tutu offered the words of St. Francis of Assisi which begin, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Concluding those familiar words, he offered a blessing in his native tongue. It was quite an inspiring evening, and I am now left with a question I need to answer for myself. If I am created in God's image, who does that make me, and how do I find ways to be authentically who I am?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Triple Crown Day of Parenting

It's been some time since I have blogged. At least two months, in fact. I figure that my cynicism regarding parenting is probably not what those in the blogosphere want to read about, but at the same time I'm sure there are parents out there who feel like I do, so at the very least I can reflect the thoughts of others. As challenging as a cynic is, a lonely cynic is probably even more destructive. So, for what it is, here is an update.

Yesterday started fairly well for me. Friday is my usual day of the week "off," by which I mean I do not come even close to my church office or pastoral responsibilities (unless, of course, there happens to be a funeral or some other difficult to schedule event). I have a sense of freedom on Friday's and seek to enjoy it with all my might. By mid-morning, however, my aspirations had already been shattered by a scream fest involving my wife and our oldest daughter, who was demanding transportation to a distant community so that she could visit her boyfriend. This interaction has a long history filled with many complicating factors, and I will not go down that road. It's just too fraught with complexity, and it is simply what it is. (Please, no moralizing comments from blog readers at this point. We are years beyond that).

Anyway, with wife and oldest daughter on their way out of town, I set out to complete some of my personal day-off tasks. Within an hour or so I received word from my wife that there was news she needed to share. Before I go there, let me just share this irony of life. A week ago I was in a week-long training, in which one of the ice breakers was for each participant to share two pieces of information -- one true and one false -- about one's life.

The two I selected (one true, one false) were: (1) my mother is a logger and (2) I am a grandfather. Little did I know that within a week's time I would discover that both statements would be true, and I'm not talking about the "my mother is a logger." I've known that for more than forty years now.

So, suffused with the knowledge that our sixteen-year-old daughter is growing a new life within herself, I arrived back home to hear from the oldest son we have living with us, "Dad, the sheriff was here today." I said, "Oh?" "Yeah," he responded, "he wanted to know if we knew were Mike [our twenty-year old son who has already been in jail numerous times and served a stint in prison for felony convictions] is. I told him we hadn't seen him for a long time, but the cop asked if he could look through our house to make sure he wasn't here." This son has been diagnosed years ago with an expressive language disorder, so sometimes it's bit frustrating to talk with him, especially in situations involving crisis, because his ability to organize and express his thoughts is quite disjoined. "So," I said with my irritation than necessary, "what was the cop doing here?" "Um, he just said that if we see Mike we need to tell him that if he is seen on [our local high school] their property again he's going to be arrested."

Nice. Sixteen-year-old daughter with child. Twenty-year-old son on the verge of arrest ... again.

In what seemed like minutes later, although it was actually a couple of hours, I received the third piece of news. Claudia received a call from aforementioned daughter who had talked with our eighteen-year-old son's girlfriend. Our eighteen-year-old son recently decided that he would leave the group home he had been living in (a place that covered his room, board and transportation free of charge under a state program) so that he could take up residence with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend and her mother.

And yes, in case you are wondering, we did beg, plead and explain to our son that if he was sexually involved with a girl of that age that he could be charged with statutory rape under Minnesota statute.

And yes, he is currently in a county jail in Minnesota on two charges of criminal sexual conduct. The first charge carries with it a prison sentence of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $30,000. The second charge carries with it a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of up to $20,000. And yes, according to the statute (which I read online, but admittedly only as a lay person, and not as an attorney) consent does not constitute legal permission. Our son is a very serious situation. And, as it has been every time for the past seven years, he has chosen his own way and not ours.

So there it is ... serious situations facing 25% of our children. On days like these I wonder why I signed up to be an adoptive parent. They could have been making these same choices as children who aged out of the foster care system without the supposed advantage of having committed, loving parents.

I am disillusioned and despairing tonight. If only there were an award of some sort for parents with the most bad news in one day. There isn't, of course, but for today I think my cynical muse will just call it the Triple Crown Day of Parenting.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Continuing to Learn Self-Differentiation

I have written many times in this blog about the value of self-differentiation for the adoptive parent. (I suspect the same principles hold true for parents of any type, but adoptive parenting is what I am most familiar with). By self-differentiation, I mean the ability to know oneself in any given situation, to be supportive of another person while not necessarily appreciating their particular behavior. It is the goal of self-differentiation to maintain an appropriate distance without creating an emotional cut-off.

I had the opportunity again yesterday to self-differentiate.

Returning home from a meeting in the metropolitan area (about ninety miles from our community) I received a call on my iPhone from our son Mike, about whose most recent exploits I blogged yesterday.

"Hey, dad."

"Hi, Mike."

"How are you doing?"

"Pretty good. I've been in the Cities today, and I'm on my way home now."

"Oh. Sorry I didn't call you yesterday."

"Yeah, I was wondering what happened. Where were you?" I knew full well where had been, because I had checked our county's online jail roster and saw his face peering back at me.

"Um. Where was I?"

"Yeah, where were you?"

"Umm. I was out of town."

"Oh, yeah? Where was that?"

"You mean what town?"

"Yeah, I guess that's what I mean."

He names a neighboring community about 40 minutes away.

"Oh."

"So, are you still willing to do my laundry for me?" (I have told Mike in the recent past that I would be willing to help him get his clothes washed, even though he cannot be in our home or near our property).

"I can, but it'll have to be another day. I am headed back home now, but I have a meeting at church tonight."

"OK. Well, I'm doing good."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. I'm working hard on getting my apprentice hours in so I can be a tattooist."

"Good for you, Mike."

"Yeah, so anyway, I guess I'll call tomorrow."

"OK, Mike."

"Um, so," with exaggerated excitement, "have a great day!"

"Yeah, you, too, Mike."

I decided that I would wait to see if Mike might disclose to me his complete whereabouts for the weekend. It is, of course, possible that he was in a neighboring community at some point on the day in question, but I know for a fact that as of early evening Saturday night Mike was in our county jail on new charges. He must have been released sometime on Monday (probably after an initial court appearance).

Because he served his ninety days in prison, my understanding is that he was free and clear. But, he is stepping back into his old, familiar pattern once again ... a misdemeanor here, a minor infraction there, and eventually serious, felony-level acts. My hope is that he will curb his enthusiasm for crossing legal boundaries and not repeat his previous scenarios, but I know from experience that the best predictor is future behavior is past behavior.

There was a time when the actions of my children made me anxious with worry. While I continue to love my children, as I always have, a new depth has emerged in my life where I can love them without feeling a sense of helpless perplexity. I have (and will continue to) done my best to nurture, instruct, discipline and guide by example. I can do little more than that, nor should I.

Ah, the joys of self-differentiation!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ten Days

On Saturday I received a telephone call from our son Mike telling me he "really needed to get some clothes washed." Evidently the place where he had been staying doesn't offer him that luxury, so I explained my tight schedule and asked him to call back on Sunday, yesterday, after lunch so that we could arrange something.

Yesterday passed without a word from Mike, and considering the busyness of our day, it was a blessing of sorts. I still thought it odd (when Mike has something he needs he is fairly persistent until that need is fulfilled). Claudia had several events to attend to throughout the course of the day, and I had a hospital visit I needed to make after that, so it was about 9:00 PM before I was home, and by that time I was too tired to think about Mike's lack of communication.

This morning, though, I decided to check where I always check if I haven't heard from him in a timely fashion. I have in my favorite bookmarks a section I call "Minnesota Criminal Justice." There are several sites there that almost always fill in details for me about our crime-ridden, third oldest son. I opened our county's jail custody website, clicked through the alphabetical list until I arrived at the "F" designation and, sure enough, there was Mike's mug shot glowering back at me.

The site says that he was arrested Saturday night, several hours after talking with me, for misdemeanor business trespass. Since I'm not an expert in Minnesota legal designations, I'm not sure what kind of illegal action that represents. I am assuming, based upon Mike's history, that it must be shoplifting or something akin. (Or perhaps it could be that he was physically present in a store which previously had legally "excluded" him from being there, due to a previous illegal act).

A week ago he was in my car, having returned to our community three days earlier. I was asking him if his intent was to remain crime-free. His response was less than enthusiastic. He knows himself well enough to know that he cannot make any such guarantees. I asked him what compels him to be consistently engaging in criminal acts. "I'm an addict," was his response. I said, "What are you addicted to, Mike?" "Well, it's not like what you think. It's not drugs and it's not alcohol. I'm addicted to excitement. I get bored with things and need to do something that's exciting, and then I find myself breaking the law."

I have pondered his self-analysis a number of times in the past few days. To the outsider it might sound like denial or escapism, but in my experienced opinion, he has accurately described himself. It is the Mike that we have come to know in our years of parenting him. Nearly everything he has done over the years that has resulted in trouble for him (whether the commonplace infractions that all kids experience in a family's home all the way up the line to the "big ticket" legal items like burglary and theft) is tied to excitement factor. The bottomline is that Mike is addicted to excitement. Biologically speaking, I suppose that includes at least adrenaline and cortisol (I am no endocrinologist either). The complex weave of a person's psychological bearing never ceases to surprise me.

For the person who is addicted to pharmaceuticals or to alcohol part of the solution is avoid substances and those who use them. For someone whose addiction is literally "in house," though, I wonder what that means? For now, at least, what it means for Mike is that his ten days of freedom after ninety days in prison have now come to a conclusion. Today, and perhaps for a few more days, our community is safe from our son, and our son's self-identified addiction is controlled, but only behind the bars of a county jail cell.

There has to be a better way, but I don't know what that is.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

When Your (Adult) Child Cannot Come Home

It has been a long time since I have updated my blog. Part of it has been the busyness of my life over the past months, and part of it has been that I haven't wanted to think much about the dynamics of my family's life. And truthfully, these past few months have been pretty lackluster and ordinary. While it is much easier to live when life is ordinary, it doesn't do much for blog interest. The hard part of starting up again with a blog is that it seems so sudden, since there is little context for its reappearance. But it's time for a reappearance, so here goes.

Our twenty-year-old (this week) son was released from prison today, having served his ninety-day sentence for probation violations. Due to the nature of his offense (parole violation) he was in the segment of the prison population that receives no transitional services upon release, which means that he has no place to go.

About a month ago I wrote him a four-page letter describing many of the ways over the past ten years Claudia and I have done our best to help him transition into a sustainable lifestyle. We have been with him in and out of treatment centers, in and out of jail, through county social services agencies, and all the other available resources. I offered him my best three scenarios for his life: a stint in the military, a Christian-based treatment program and Job Corps. I sent him information for him to apply to at least two of these options. I made it as clear as possible that it was not in his best interest to return to the community where we live (Mike had initiated that conversation to begin with, so I did my best to affirm that his decision was a right one).

Several days ago I received a call from Mike's older birth brother (our oldest son). He had agreed to pick Mike up upon his release from prison but was unsure what to do with him after that. I explained to him that his mother and I were out of options, that after ten years of trying we simply know nothing further to do. (This is the same message I had given Mike as well). I encouraged the older brother to do what he thought he could do, but that he needed to be clear in setting his boundaries. He suggested, and I affirmed, that based upon past behavior it would not be a good idea for Mike to know Kyle's residence location, unless he trusted his brother's ability to remain crime-free. I was honest with Kyle, affirmed his desire to do the right thing by his brother, but wanted him to know that his precautionary concerns were justified.

At 5:00 PM today Kyle called to let me know that he was with Mike and that Mike was "deciding where to go." I tried to remain as non-anxious as possible, listened intently and offered some kind words. By 8:00 PM we were arriving home from Lenten services at church, and I received a second call. "Um, Dad. I'm with Mike in [a town sixty miles from us], and the place that Mike thought he could stay isn't going to work out. What do I do now?"

I took a deep breath. My mind floods with all kinds of thoughts. I am reminded that more than a decade ago it was their birth mother who unceremoniously dumped them off at a distant relative's home, where they waited a number of days before the relatives called child protection so that they could be removed to foster care. I feel the pangs of paternal guilt as the questions flood my thoughts, "What could I have done differently to have prevented this?" "Should I offer to pay for Mike to stay in a hotel somewhere for the night?" "Is it fair to Kyle that this is happening to him?"

But I choose my head this time, not my heart. Months ago I have done my best to counsel Mike as to what he should do upon release. In typical fashion, he has disregarded my advice, preferring his own scattered thinking. Kyle freely and willingly entered into this agreement with his birth brother. I did not broker the conversation, nor have I "put this" upon Kyle.

And so I say in response to Kyle's irritated tones, "I don't know what to tell you, Kyle. I gave Mike my best advice a month ago, the same as I told you. Mom and I have tried for ten years; we just don't have any options left."

"So what am I supposed to do? Just dump him off somewhere?"

I pause. I feel for both of my adult sons, one successful, the other struggling. One son has received the gifts of an adoptive family, completed high school, graduated from college, teaching a third grade class. The other son, two years his junior, has been unable (or unwilling, I'm never sure which) to accept the gifts of an adoptive family, rejected all of our attempts at intervention, not yet completed high school, possessing only the clothes on his back and having no money in his pocket.

"I don't know, Kyle. I don't have any good suggestions for you."

"Well, it's late, and I'm sick, and i have to teach my class tomorrow morning."

"I understand that. It's what Mom and I have been dealing with for years, so I can honestly say that I know what you're feeling right now."

"OK, then. Bye."

I am proud of Kyle. He has not blamed me. He has not demanded it is my responsibility to do something. He has not implied (though he would readily accept, I am sure) that I need to rescue him and his brother from this situation.

A few minutes later he calls. "Hey, dad. I guess Mike is going to some random friend's in [the community where we live]. How do I get there?"

I calmly give him directions from his location, providing only geographic data, no invitations. I do not remind Kyle that his brother is not permitted to be in our house or near our home (there is a restraining order). I simply provide him the information he requests. And upon clicking "end call" on my cell phone, I immediately say to my wife, "Claudia, are we doing the right thing?"

She does not hesitate, and I am glad. She reminds me that being "done" means just that, that we can no longer empower the deviant and illegal actions of a son who calls us only when he needs to be rescued. We cannot subject our other children to his jaded attitudes, the questionable friends that come with his territory, the opportunity to be once again victimized by theft or trespass.

"I wonder," I respond, "about recriminations. Do you think he's going to 'pay us back' this time?"

"If he does, we'll just have to have him arrested again. There's nothing more we can do about it."

And that's just about the long and short of it. There's nothing more we can do about it. And that's a hard thing to admit, because I became an adoptive parent to offer a different way of life to kids whose early years had been less than ideal. My goal was to prevent homelessness for kids who would otherwise age out of the system. I wanted to rescue a kid, not live with the concern of retaliation in the form of illegal behavior or intimidation to my other children.

It's hard when your (adult) child cannot come home.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Moment of Joy


I think I owe my blog readers some moments of joy from time to time, especially when so much of my blog has been focused on the serious, or the morose, or the challenging side of parenting special needs children. Imagine my delight a couple of days ago when I opened up the paper lying on our front step (we recently resubscribed to our community's newspaper) and saw front and center on the sports page (a page I rarely read) an article complete with large picture of our son Ricardo. (He's the one on the bottom, in case you didn't figure it out based on the origins of his name).

Midway through the article, which reports on the entire wrestling tournament, is this quote from Jim Rueda, the Free Press Sports editor:

One of the bright spots for East was Ricardo Fletcher, who took on Class AAA's ninth-ranked Alex Thompson at 119 pounds and gave the Scarlet all he could handle. The bout was tied at 2-2 after two periods before Thompson pulled away to an 8-2 victory.


What the article doesn't say -- and the writer couldn't have known -- is just how incredible this really is. In the Fall of 2007 Ricardo began the school year as a sixth grader, an old sixth grader, but one none the less. He has only been in the USA since he was ten (he just recently turned fifteen), so his English skills have been a challenge; hence his grade placement. After two months in sixth grade, though, we were informed that he was "too old" to be in sixth grade and would have to jump up to seventh grade. So in the Fall of 2007 he left sixth grade, became a seventh grader, and within less than a month decided to wrestle. He had not wrestled before, had no training or coaching previously, but did well enough that within a couple of weeks he was wrestling varsity. This year as an eighth grader he has done very well, and this is the second time in the season he has grabbed a sports front page picture and write-up.

With many of the challenges our children have presented us over the years, it is nice occasionally to relax in the joy of seeing one of our kids succeed. And Ricardo is the kind of kid who deserves to succeed. He is bright and respectful and almost always does what he is asked to do in the family without argumentation.

For just a moment I am experiencing joy, and thanking God for it!