Thursday, December 25, 2014

I could have said no.

I could have said no. I know this.

Ella was asleep in the backseat as I drove her resolutely to her grandmother.

I knew she was going to be gone all weekend.
I was preparing myself for her to be gone forever.
I hoped we might get one more night with her before the final transfer.
And then my phone rang.

He had a baby for me. For Christmas. Two babies, actually. My heart leapt in my chest.

There were a few minutes of discussion, mostly about the logistics. Where, when, how.... but never an "if".

I said yes. Anyone who knows me just went right ahead and added an "of course" to the end of that sentence.

I said yes, and then I said I had to check with Sam. Which I did, just to be clear. I did call Sam.

And then I called them back and said yes again. And then I went to work like it was just an ordinary day.

When I finished my shift I went to pick up the boys. We call them that, these days. "The Boys".
They were waiting for me in a windowless playroom, a paper shopping bag with their belongings sat precariously on top of the play kitchen. There were a few shirts for each boy, a few pairs of shorts for the older one. Some diapers. A small pack of wipes. 2 empty bottles. No shoes or socks. No food. No milk. While I had been shuttling plates full of food out of a hot kitchen, they had been sitting in a series of over-airconditioned rooms, hungry. They hadn't eaten in hours, either one of them. I rubbed at the guacamole smear on my apron guiltily.

The cherub with a head full of ringlets was toddling around the room, picking up each toy he encountered, putting it in his mouth, putting it back down, moving on. Across the room, a tiny wizened face looked up at me from the social worker's arms, mouth puckered, eyes confused and distant.

I went down to my car and retrieved a bottle of ready-made formula from the diaper bag. First things first. Feed the boys. I stood in the public bathroom in the hallway outside the office rinsing and rinsing and rinsing those two empty bottles from their paper shopping bag. Scrubbing them as though I could somehow erase the hours of hunger.

I drove home with two carseats jammed in the backseat of my compact car. I stopped for formula along the way. I had an hour until the Winter Break potluck at school. I was still in my uniform. The Boys were asleep in their carseats. I had a wedding to officiate at sunset.

I didn't think of Ella at all in those first frantic hours. And then, after everyone was bathed and asleep, she was all I could think about. I walked in and out of the nursery, the cherub sleeping in Ella's bed. I had taken out her stuffed pig when he lay down, and handed him a stuffed elephant instead. I couldn't bear to see him cuddling her Petunia Pig.

Now I stood in the doorway holding Petunia, staring at this new baby in her place. I turned, and watched the newborn squirm and then fart, immediately stretching and then settling into the corner of his bassinet with a contented sigh, his mouth slightly agape. I smiled without thinking. Sweet baby boy.

It is a blessing for all of us, I kept telling myself. Ella is with her family. The boys are safe with me. My arms will not ache with emptiness this weekend. There will be no empty crib and carseat to carefully pack away.

Not yet.

I could have said no. Of course I could have.
But I said yes. Of course I said yes.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Unwinding

A huge part of life as a foster child is spent in the car, being driven to various appointments, visits and checkups.

And through it all, you have to leave them with strangers, watch strangers take them and walk away from you. And it is difficult, of course.

You get used to it.

Because it is always in the back of your mind, that someday they will leave in the back seat of a stranger's car... and they won't come back. The door with the county seal on the side of it will close. And they will look at you through the window, and you will wave goodbye, and they will be gone.

It is happening. For real this time. Not like all the other times, when social workers threw out impossible goals and unmeetable timetables. Gathering strength and speed, it is finally something I can see - and feel. It is time for Ella to live with her biological family.

To be sure, it is not the family we started out working with. The family tree has many branches, and a strong and steady one has been found. It is a relief, but it also means that she is leaving - and my heart is tight in my chest, tears welling up just thinking about it. I shouldn't be surprised. It has been 10 months, 10 lovely months as a family of five, but we are really a family of four and it is important to recognize and embrace that truth from time to time.

That time has come.

I knew it was really happening when Ella's grandmother met me, and the first thing she did was wrap her arms around my shoulders and give me a hug. She thanks me, over and over again. They are grateful. And excited. And getting ready for their lives to change completely.

That is what happens when babies arrive. Especially when the baby is a big surprise.
We know a little bit about that, around these parts.

Ella, under my desk at work the week after we brought her home. 
This is what giving two weeks notice looks like.

And as this new little family forms and strengthens and bonds and moves forward, at the same time Ella's connection to our family must loosen until it finally comes undone. It starts slowly: the visits happen at first once a week, and then more often, longer, slowly adding an overnight here and there. A weekend. And while she is with us, I am also very oh-so-carefully you might not even realize it pulling away. I go out at night so that someone else puts her to bed. Other people give her bottles. I start packing her clothes and toys and bedding, and sending them with every visit so that more and more of her things are there every week. Things that smell like me. Things that smell like our home.

I know that it really doesn't matter, but I wonder if she will notice my absence as I slowly fade into the background.
If she can feel the distance I am gently putting between us.

We are staring our first overnight visit square in the face, and I just can't quite imagine waking up and not seeing her wide grin. Every morning for the last 10 months her big brown eyes and gummy smile have greeted me from the bassinet next to my pillow.

And then the crib at the foot of my bed.

And for the past month or so, from the nursery doorway.

Like I said..... the distance between us is growing, slowly and purposefully.

She is toddling around now, cruising along the furniture and even letting go every once in a while.
I am following her example. Letting go for a few quick moments at a time, more and more often, for longer and longer periods of time. And it helps that she is more independent now, and doesn't need me every moment of the day.

She is getting bigger and stronger, and outgrew that infant carseat in no time at all. 
She's not a tiny baby anymore.

She learned to wave goodbye a few weeks ago, carefully waggling her fingers slightly as she holds her hand aloft uncertainly. She stares at her palm as her fingers move, mouth agape, not realizing that she herself is the one wiggling them. I make a mental note to discuss this with her occupational therapist next week. It is one of the last appointments I will attend.
I won't be there for her 1 year checkup.
I won't be there for speech therapy in January.
I won't see her walk or run for the first time.

I am realizing all that I am going to miss, and all that I will no longer be responsible for, and every time it is a tiny shock of awareness. A jolt of reality.

I am carefully freeing the end of the string that binds us, and she is lifting up and away from me, a bright sunshiney yellow balloon of joy and laughter, slipping through my hands with a contagious chortle and loud squawks of excitement.

It's time. I know it is time. But oh, it's hard.