I remember the day clearly. It was a Thursday. We were late in getting up and out the door. Usually, I would have been in a tailspin for that reason, but I wasn't then because I knew what was coming. It sounds ominous - maybe more ominous than it is.
We went out for donuts. My husband, me and the three littles we loved and stressed over and cared for and nursed back to health for two years. They really didn't know what was happening. We had talked about it some, of course, but it's hard to explain what the change means to three littles who can't quite understand concepts of time and space.
We splurged on extra sugar for the donuts. And then we watched as their faces got messy. We wiped down their chins and their hands for the last time, and we drove them to daycare. We had decided, along with their biological mom, that we would keep the day as normal as possible. They would go to the daycare they had attended for two years, and she would pick them up from there and then take them to her house. This had happened before. It wouldn't be a shock to the system.
The hardest part of the day was leaving the daycare knowing we would not be back, knowing we would no longer be the people they called if the littles were sick. Walking through the main office and back to our cars, I watched the drawn faces and the quivering lips of the people who had known, loved, and taught the littles for two years. They didn't quite understand why this was happening, and as overwhelmed and unsure as we were, we didn't know how to explain.
Additionally, in so many ways, it wasn't our story to tell. It still isn't. Our story involves two years of love and laughter and struggle and uncertainty. Our story does not involve the choices the state made or the biological parents made. It's taken me 14 months to understand and accept that.
the stifflingI left for Colorado on a planned trip quickly after we said goodbye. But before I left, I sent an email to the littles worker and his supervisor as well as our foster care certifier and supervisor. I wrote incredibly difficult words with tears streaming down my face. I let them know that we were "done" and that the littles could not come back to our house after the weekend. I did this to control how the loss happened. I did this so that we could prepare for our next move. I did this so that the littles biological mother would have closure and certainty that her children were home. I did this because, until I sent that email, there was no certainty on when trial reunification would happen. I did this because, until I sent that email, there was every intention that the littles would come back and live in our home until I left to move to Oregon.
This was such a lonely time for me and for my husband. We both deal with grief so differently, and I wasn't able to be there for him in the way he needed me to be. And he wasn't quite ready to move forward and jump feet first into a new life and new reality, one that was absent of three littles who called me "mom" and called him "dad."
Over the past 14 months, we've discovered a new life. There are moments we miss them - so many moments, and there are moments where we realize our life likely would not look as it does now if they were still here. This isn't to say we minimize the impact they had in our life or minimize our ability to do things with them, but realistically, so much of what we have now would not be possible or feasible if we had three small children to care for.
When they first left, I hoped for text messages from their biological mother. Those were a reminder that we still mattered and that the littles were okay. They allowed me to breathe. I also searched Facebook for pictures and any sort of update - just wanting to know they were okay and healthy and happy. Then there were times when I received calls from pharmacies in Oklahoma letting me know that their prescriptions were ready to pick up. Those calls broke my heart. I had so hoped that maybe, just maybe, their parents had been right. Maybe they wouldn't get sick once they returned home and lived in a house without dogs. But they did get sick, and I often knew.
I reached out to their biological mother and to the caseworker asking that my number be taken off as the number to call or text about a prescription. And it was - I think.
Walking through this ambiguous grief has been just as difficult for those who love us. Maybe it has been even more difficult. How do you comfort someone who lost something that was never really theirs to keep? Foster care is always intended to be temporary. The hope is always for children to be able to return home safely. It doesn't always happen that way, of course, but that is the intention. Intention or not, saying goodbye isn't easy. And truly, if you pursue foster care the way you are supposed to, your heart will break when you say goodbye.
Love isn't fleeting. Love is messy and changes you and hurts when it leaves. And as much as I wasn't a perfect foster parent, as much as I think of all the things I did wrong, I know that I loved those three as well as I could and as hard as I could and with as much strength as I could.
the letting goIt took me several months to come out of a fog. While I pushed forward and ignored any thoughts of the littles, I couldn't fully make the leap. Work went well - as well as it can when you are a social worker. I found friends. I started to make a new life. My husband joined me two months after I moved, and we started the process of figuring out who we were individually and as a couple now that we were no longer parents.
The journey since our ambiguous loss has been a hard one. I can only truly speak to what it has been like for me. I can only truly speak to what I have learned and how I have changed. And I can say that I still have so long to go but that, for the first time in years, I am okay with that.
When we were fostering, I felt as though I were drowning. In August 2015, just two months before we said goodbye and 22 months after we first said hello, I was able to put to words the sensation of drowning.
I equate foster care with drowning. Any sort of life and help you get... You cling to. And sometimes you get greedy with wanting more because you are fighting for your life. When you are fighting for your life, you can't be bothered to think about much beyond surviving.
This has been reverberating through my head. As we have journeyed through foster care, lifesavers have been cast at us and hands have stretched out, but we haven't always recognized it or been able to reach back out because of the current and seaweed pulling us back into the ocean.
I don't think the sensation of drowning ever goes away - even once there seems to be stability.
There is also always the sense of possible loss looming. How do you prepare to grieve or actually walk through the stages of grief when you signed up for this knowing goodbye was likely? It's not cut and dry. It's just another way to drown.
But Jesus walked on water. He reached his hand out to Peter when Peter sank from disbelief. He does the same for those who foster. He's calmed the waters some for me and has taken the anger away, replacing it with sadness. Anger is easier... I can use it as a shield. But sadness gets to the root of my heart and allows me to feel.
I feel the constriction of lungs and the seaweed gripping my ankles as I fight against the current and stormy seas of foster care. But I also feel Jesus reaching out and holding me steady (once I stop fighting him) and teaching me how to float and how to swim again.
Foster care changes you. The change will stick, and you'll never be the same. That's what happens when you come face-to-face with darkness and light, when you catapult out of the safety of the boat and into the torrents of humanity.
(originally posted on Facebook.)
the moving forwardI've been working on that for the past 14 months. It's a slow process - this changing and morphing into the person you want to be while forgiving yourself and others for past hurts. It's a process that's not quite done, a process that will continue for the rest of my life, a process that I have to constantly recommit to.
My life now is one in which I am learning to slow down. I am working to pry my fingers away from this sense of perfection. I am reminding myself of how important it is to struggle and that making mistakes is just as important as finding success. I am finding that I am better able to find God in the mess and the muck than I am in the perception that everyone else's life is perfect and mine can't quite measure up.
For the past year, I've stepped away from writing. I've dabbled some in posting musings on Instagram and in writing a few pages to my novel, but mostly, I have focused on other things. Rather than rushing, I have allowed myself to marinate in the beauty of life in the Pacific Northwest and in the importance of just living life in the moment versus feeling as though every bit has to be chronicled for the world to see. There's no longer this need to show everyone just how well or not well I am doing. Instead, there's perspective and growth.
As I look forward to 2017, I do so with open hands. 2016 came and I grabbed a hold of it, determined to make it fit what I thought I needed in order to get over the loss I experienced in 2015. 2017 is a reminder that sometimes the worst things in life bring the most beauty. Grief is stiffling, but the life that comes after the loss is often filled with more air and light than you ever could have imagined.