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Monday, March 28, 2016

Our Sacred Sunday

As hard as it is to believe, it has been FOUR years since we first met our kids. And every year on March 27, we make a family trek to Cracker Barrel restaurant (or, “Old Country Store”) to celebrate our togetherness on “Gotcha Day.” This year something extra special happened on our special day, and that is the fact that our day coincided with Easter - Resurrection Sunday. Now, before I continue let me stop right here and say that I don’t mean to say that Gotcha Day in any way overshadows what we celebrate on Easter, but if you will indulge me, I want to share about the connection between these two celebrations for me, and hopefully also for my kids. 

John typically reads to the boys at night while I read to “double Z” as we have been referring to her lately. Lizzie requires a lot of attention at bedtime, in order to prevent an all-night makeup party with Barbies, a total redecorating of her room, or perhaps something far more menacing (we never know what she will come up with.) So after I say goodnight to the boys and spend a few minutes with them, I spend a long time trying to get Double Z to finally fall asleep. But since it was Holy Week, I found an old illustrated Children’s Bible Story book by Frances Henderson and Shari Lewis and decided to embark on task of nightly reading the stories of Jesus’ last week on earth. 

Camden and Cole were full of questions, some very good and others completely ridiculous. They erupted into giggles when Judas “kissed” Jesus on the cheek to identify him to the authorities, and grew angry when Peter pretended not to know Jesus, Cole shouting angrily, “He’s a lying meanie head!” On Thursday, Lizzie scrambled from her bed to join us for the dramatic reading of the crucifixion, mentioning “they put NEEDLES in his hands!” several times, growing more animated each time she mentioned it, pounding into her own palm with the opposite fist. 

It is, of course, a story that is dramatic in every way. That last week of Christ’s life was filled with cheering, jeering, celebration, abandonment, rejection, love, despair, gore, and everything a good story should include. The boys looked forward to our readings, and the illustrations. Cole pointed out that one of the Roman soldiers was on the small size and that Jesus ought to be able to “kick his butt.” Seeing the stories through my sons’ eyes was wonderful, remembering as a child myself that I didn’t understand why God didn’t bring the hammer down on those accusers and Pharisees. I tried my best to explain to the boys that Jesus chose to die for us, and that it was part of God’s plan, in order that we might live under a New Covenant and be able to experience Heaven. I may have spent a little more time on the crucifixion story, trying to really pound out the point that we ought not behave like heathens. But then Sunday morning during the children’s sermon in worship, I was pleased when my kids answered all the questions really well, and I knew they had been paying close attention to all the details. 

So, back to the Gotcha Day part of this story- and how it relates to Easter. Friday night as we were talking about the disciples who loved Jesus, and how heartbroken they were when Jesus died, I was struck with an odd memory from four years before. The memory that struck me was the memory of that time between our approval to adopt and the placement of my children - that long period of waiting in between.  While in reality, the time between our final approval and the kids’ arrival was actually just a matter of months, it seemed like the longest wait of my life. I thought about how, in a different time, and in a different way, Jesus’ disciples and closest friends (and mother!) spent three long, anxious days of agony. Those days must have stretched out and felt like weeks and months. After the horror of seeing Jesus arrested and crucified, I imagine those closest to Jesus lie awake at night, reliving the terror, and longing for the ache to end. 

When I was “waiting” for my kids, I spent hours obsessively searching adoption photo listings online, reaching out to caseworkers from other cities and states, hoping God had not forgotten the longing of my heart and the deep, deep raw ache that followed me around for those months. It seemed like the longest season of my life. And then that day - that glorious day - March 27, 2012, as I was living in the season of waiting, and I was working, functioning, and staying busy, that phone call came . . . and everything changed.

No, the disciples didn’t get a phone call about Jesus’ resurrection. It was word of mouth in those days. It was good old-fashioned awestruck running and finding each other, breathless shouting, “Jesus is alive! He’s no longer in the grave!” Can’t you hear them? Words tumbling out, overflowing with emotion, choking back the sobs of relief and joy, the followers of Christ gathering in clusters and repeating the good news over and over. It’s not quite the same- but that first day our family and closest friends spread the news for us, “The wait is over! John and Melissa found their kids!” and what followed was a scramble and flurry of excitement as our closest friends gathered in our home and brought baby gifts, food, yes, even a dishwasher! All the while, we raced to the Cracker Barrel in Cartersville, Georgia, to receive our kids. Even that drive was the longest of my life! I felt like every traffic light turned red as we rushed headlong to pick up our babies! one of my favorite moments from our first night together was my stepchildren anxiously waiting for their new siblings at home. When we finally came in the front door of the house, Georgia (then, 16 years old) was standing at the top of the steps jumping up and down with excitement, hands outstretched to receive Lizzie, and crying tears of joy with me. 

I can say it over and over again to infertile couples and hopeful adoptive moms and dads and it never loses its meaning: The kids are worth the wait! As I told them yesterday on our Easter/Gotcha Day, I would do it all over again to find you! You fill my heart to overflowing! You were worth the wait and all the loneliness! Just like Jesus’ Resurrection was worth the suffering and the wait. New Life is a beautiful, glorious, sacred thing. Never lose hope that it will all be worth it in the end! 

Hebrews 12:2Good News Translation (GNT)
Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God's throne.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Some Battles

I may or may not have mentioned that I started a new job in April. Yes, I loved (still love) Rainbow and it was VERY hard to leave. I will always be thankful for the opportunity to work in the best group home and for the very best and sweetest Director of a group home in the entire state (in my humble opinion). I also may have failed to mention in the busy-ness of my life that this was actually my dream job. How many people can say they took their dream job? Yes, God has been so good to me. Again. So let me get right to the point: I took a position with Court Appointed Special Advocates. Sound familiar? Yes, I was a CASA volunteer from about 2007-2011. I had three cases in family court. During the training and for the time that I was a CASA, I loved every minute of it. I loved getting knee-deep in the dirt of a CPS investigation. I didn’t love the heartache of learning about abuse, but I loved being part of making important recommendations for a child during a time of crisis in his life. Becoming a CASA is probably part of the reason I became a foster parent and eventually adopted my children. I can’t really say enough about how much I love the CASA program, where ordinary people become trained, screened, sworn officers of the court and speak up for abused and neglected children. 

A position with CASA in my community became available in 2011 and I applied for the job. I had a great interview, and I was completely hopeful the job would be mine. I was heartsick when the then-Director called to tell me she had chosen another candidate. Six months later, I took a job at Rainbow, left my fourteen year ministry gig, and jumped into a new position of grant writing and fundraising and discovered I was actually pretty good at it. And almost four years later, when I was completely content and satisfied with my position at Rainbow, God reopened that door that I thought was shut for good, and He graced me with a position that I secretly envied and admired from a distance. Sometimes I can’t believe how blessed I really am.

The first few weeks were hard. I cannot emphasize just how hard. On the third day, I came home and wept and made myself sick over the details of a child abuse case that I uncovered in the files of our circuit. I wasn’t sure I could do it. For a few weeks I just walked around in a daze, mentally and emotionally exhausted, overwhelmed with new information, and completely unsure of myself. I saw things happening in “the system” and mistakes being made in children’s lives. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But then a wise friend told me, “You don’t have to fight every battle. Some battles are not yours to take on.” 

And with that warm piece of advice, I want to write about battles. The very best battle story of all time (for me) is not David and Goliath, or any popular underdog stories or war tales. The very best battle story that I know is the story about my sister and the school bus bully. Camden loves this story, so here I will share it with you:

When I was an early adolescent, I was what you might call a “target” for bullies. Maybe it was the frizzy over-permed hair or the pink-rimmed extra-thick glasses or the buck teeth. Maybe it was the extra weight or the fact that I wore frumpy clothes to cover up my figure. Maybe, probably, it was all those things. In addition to being picked on in school, sixth grade was torture for me on the school bus. There was an eighth grader, Josh, with a carrot-top of red hair and a face full of freckles. He wasn’t especially popular or “cool”, but he had an over-the-top personality and was loud and gregarious. At the age of twelve, I would board the school bus amidst his taunting, laughing, and pointing in my direction. He pretended to be in an earthquake when I walked by, he accused me of causing the bus to go over the “weight limit”, and he poked fun at my clothes. Day after day I endured this taunting, all the while praying my mom would withdraw me from school and home-school me. 

Eventually I started “missing the bus” on purpose. I dragged in the mornings and in the afternoons I would accidentally be in the restroom when my bus number was called. My poor mom drove back and forth from our house to transport me, never fully understanding why. I remember the outfit I was wearing the day I faked cramps so she would come and get me. My grades fell, and I slumped forward into depression. One day when I got off the bus, I fell apart. The taunting had been especially bad that afternoon and it felt like the entire school bus full of kids were laughing at me. I hated myself, and I cried loudly to my mom in the den, never knowing my older sister was just a few yards away, listening to my every word and sniffle. 

Something you should understand about my older sister is this: she was cool. I was most certainly a nerd, but she was part of the “in-crowd.” Emily was a few years older than me, and we generally had an adversarial relationship. We were almost always terrible to each other over stupid things like hair dryers and privileges. But on that day, my sister fought a battle for me.

Mom probably tried to distract me with some nerdy activity like cross-stitch or “Latch Hook” for crying out loud. I was a sucker for those arts and crafts projects. She listened to my sad story of pre-teen bullying, and as the afternoon passed, we didn’t notice Emily had slipped out the front door. 

The second part of this story is basically hearsay because the eyewitnesses were all ages twelve to fifteen and their account may have been less than accurate, but I tend to believe this was pretty close to what happened. Emily traveled to the adjacent neighborhood where Josh and his posse hung out on their bikes. She walked up to Josh on his bike, shoved him off his bike and onto the dirt while holding on to a handful of that bright red hair. * Some witnesses say that she actually had a handful of the hair when he hit the ground (and I secretly liked that part of the story.) According to the witnesses, Emily then grabbed Josh’s freckled face in her hand, scraped her long glitter-polished nails across his cheek and squeezed his lips together while standing on his chest with one foot. She may or may not have kicked dirt in his face. I like to think she did. The bystanders said everyone stood by helpless in shock. She then told him “don’t you ever make fun of my sister again” and tossed him helplessly into the dirt. 

When Emily came back to the house, Mom and I were probably halfway through our 1500-piece puzzle of ducks on the pond. Emily stood proudly in the kitchen and triumphantly announced, “Josh won’t mess with you again.” Mom straightened up and her voice became very quiet, “Emily Hope . . . what did you do?”  Emily’s friend who had returned from the battlefield along with her, recounted the events that had unfolded without our ever knowing. Mom was slightly horrified but maybe secretly proud of my sister. “Emily,” she said, “You know we don’t condone fighting.” Emily’s friend spoke up, “It wasn’t really a fight.” Mom crossed her arms as if to indicate her lack of support for violence. “Just wait until your dad comes home.” 
Now if you know my dad, you know he is not one to back down from a fight, but he also expected us girls to behave. For the rest of the afternoon, I tried to convey my appreciation to my sister, knowing she might get punished for attacking someone. We waited for the axe to fall.

Dad came home, Becky came out of the woods or pile of grass or wherever she was playing and probably studying bugs or leaves, and we all sat down to our family dinner. As the food was passed, Emily and I made awkward faces at each other, knowing mom was going to tell him. We asked the blessing over the food and mom spoke up: “Otis,” she said, “Emily has something to tell you.”

Dad set down his fork and raised his eyebrows. Emily reluctantly spilled her guts: “Dad, I got tired of hearing Melissa cry about that stupid Josh kid and how he always picks on her . . .” Dad shook his head, prodding her for the rest of the story. “So, after school today I went over to Summerville and I . . . well, I found him , , , and I beat him up in front of his friends.”

We all froze. Time stood still. 

And then dad leaned back in his chair. I swear you could hear a pin drop. Dad reached down toward his side and I panicked thinking Emily was much too old to be spanked with a belt! Oh no! I thought, she is about to be martyred for me! 

But instead . . . while we all watched in fear, Dad slipped his hand into his front pocket and pulled out his wallet. He took a ten dollar bill from inside, set it on the table, and slid it over to Emily, bartender-style. 

Laughter erupted. Sweet, relieved laughter of the three of us girls. Mom looked like she might faint. “Otis!” She cried, trying to cover up her laughter, “We can’t have our girls beating up boys!” Dad smiled a faint, thin smile and winked at Emily. “She did what I wanted to do about a hundred times. But I would have gotten arrested. Nice job, Emily.” 

And from that day forward, Josh never said an unkind thing to me again. He was, in fact, very nice to me for the rest of our time on the same bus. Word of Emily’s “conversation” with him traveled beyond just our bus route. My “cool” sister had beaten up a boy, for me!  I was worth fighting for! 

I will carry this battle story with me for the rest of my life. It helps me remember that some battles are better fought by other people. For whatever reason, it may not be our battle to fight. We might need someone else to do the fighting for us. Some of our battles are God’s. In fact, over and over in the scriptures, we read that battles are approached in three different ways:
  1. Some battles are ours to fight 
  2. Some battles are better fought by others on our behalf
  3. Some battles are only to be fought by God (II Chronicles 20:17) 

I feel very thankful to be in a position to fight for children every day. I feel incredibly blessed to be in this position, at this time in my life. But I am also thankful that these battles are not flesh and blood battles as they may seem on the surface. These battles are being fought by God and His will is being accomplished. All I have to do it trust that He will show me when to speak, when to stand up and fight, when to stay home and do a jigsaw puzzle and let someone else fight for me, and when to let Him take care of it completely. The battle is the Lord’s. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Strength from Suffering

Again, it’s been awhile. And something horrible and tragic happened a week ago, and that is what brings me here tonight to write. When something big happens, I know I am going to write about it, but I put it off because I don’t want the pain to feel fresh again, and inevitably it will in the writing process. I feel the raw feelings in my fingers while they are typing and sometimes knowing I have a story to share just brings tears to my eyes. 
So let me start by saying that we, as a family, are on the mend. In a family, it seems like something is always broken and in need of mending. But I think that being broken is a sign of being vulnerable, and being vulnerable is a sign of being able to love. So in every situation, I want to try and look for the love that streams into those painful moments, like a flower that grows in a crack on the cement. Just by virtue of the fact that we can hurt means we are open to being hurt. And our family has been hurt in the past seven days.
On Friday the 29th, I got a call from our neighbors that the dogs were out again. By “dogs” I mean our two pound rescues, Otis and Susie. We had been a 3-dog family again for over a year since we adopted Millie, our second Rottweiler. I wasn’t sure I could have another Rottie after losing Porky, but she has been wonderful, and just as stubborn and faithful as her predecessor. Unlike Millie, Otis and Susie had a wild streak that caused them to always look for a way out of the house. Two years ago, Odie (as we had started calling him) got out the front door of the house and killed our cat. Thank God Cody was here because it was a vicious and horrible death for the fourteen year old cat who was just minding her own business. I was sickened by it and wasn’t sure how to continue caring for a dog that had killed another family pet. But weeks went by, and I read many articles about this behavior and I accepted it for what it was: a dog being a dog. Since that time, Odie and Susie have found a multitude of ways to get out of our house. They learned how to open windows with their teeth. They learned how to unlock windows with their teeth. And they learned how to get out of the six-foot tall backyard fence. John was constantly using pallets and landscaping timbers to cover holes the dogs had dug, but they always found another way out. Generally, if the dogs ran off, they were gone for an hour and always returned. What they did on their excursions, we may never know. Friday morning I had not put the dogs in their crate because the older boys were home and I figured they would keep an eye on them. Sadly, I was mistaken. 
Shortly after our wonderful neighbor, Gin, called to say the dogs were out, an officer from Animal Control called. He was young-sounding, and polite, but he called to tell me that our dogs, our “pitbulls” as he described them, had attacked and likely killed a very small dog in our neighborhood. From the description, I was sure that the dogs had gotten ahold of one of the many tiny dogs belonging to one of our retired neighbors. We have neighbors with Pomeranians, Poodles, and other small breeds. I became sick immediately at this news, and my eyes filled with tears while I saw at my desk at work. 
I asked the officer what needed to be done and he replied that we should keep the dogs indoors. I told him that we typically kept them in a crate indoors because they were able to get out of the house, and that my teenage stepsons were home. He replied that the boys had come outside and taken Odie and Susie back into the house. He told me that several neighbors had seen the attack, and the smaller dog had “dragged” itself away from my dogs when a neighbor yelled for them to stop. At the time, he was still searching for the tiny dog, and for its owner. 
John and I talked briefly, but we didn’t know what to do. We told the Animal control officer to let us know when/if the little dog was found, and I told him we would take care of the veterinary bills. I called Samuel and told him not to let the dogs out of his sight. The day stretched on. 
When I got home, I still had not heard anything else, so I walked across the street to talk to Gin, and ask her what I should do. While Gin and I were talking, another neighbor called, very upset, after finding the little injured dog under her camper. She knew the dog needed immediate attention but didn’t have the means to take care of it, and didn’t know who it belonged to. Gin took me on her golf cart around the neighborhood where several people were unhappy with me, because of this terrible attack. After a series of conversations, we located the lady who had possession of the little dog. Nobody seemed to know who he belonged to, but his injuries were very bad. I really fell apart that night, thinking about how this little dog had suffered all day. I was horrified and couldn’t even bring myself to look at the poor thing, all wrapped up in a towel in a storage container. Sobbing, I called John and told him to bring the car and to leave the kids with Mitchell, that I would be there in five minutes to take over. John then took the little dog to the 24-hour emergency vet, where it was determined that it must be euthanized. There was nothing that could be done, although for a few minutes I imagined finding a home for this supposed stray and helping him recuperate from his injuries. But, nothing could be done. John paid the vet bill and brought the little dog home, and buried him under a tree in our backyard. In the meantime, I was online talking to every animal behaviorist, vet, rescue group, and expert I could find. I asked everyone for help and suggestions, but one by one, each option was eliminated. I knew that if I simply re-homed the dogs, I would still be responsible if they continued to be aggressive. John and I talked in whispered voices in our room after the kids were in bed. We knew what we had to do, but we had to get through the night, regardless. Then we heard the saddest little cry coming from the baby monitor in the boys’ room.
(Okay, yes, we have a baby monitor in our 6 & 8 year old sons’ bedroom. We have to listen to them at all times. It is part of the life we live as parents of children adopted from foster care. But that’s just a sidebar.)
At first I thought the crying might be Lizzie, and it was just coming in loud and clear in her brothers’ bedroom. It’s not that unusual for her to wake up and start crying when she has wet her pull-up or needs Mommy or Daddy. But the closer I walked toward the kids’ rooms, the more I realized it was Camden. And he was curled into a ball on his bed, hugging his knees and sobbing. I noticed the curtains were opened to the backyard. Sliding into his bed beside him, I wrapped my arms around him and asked, “Buddy, did you look in the backyard when Daddy came back from the vet?” He shook his head with giant tears rolling down his face. “Mommy!” He cried, “I saw Daddy burying that little puppy, and I just feel so sad for that little puppy!” Soon I was crying too, the events of the entire day laid out before me. 
The next morning, we explained to the kids in the only way we knew how, that the dogs were sick and probably needed to go to Heaven. We knew what had to be done, but it didn’t make it any easier. Gin was kind enough to watch the kids so John and I could take them together. I felt like a murderer, and I tried to remember all the reasons why we had to do this. Our dogs had become dangerous, they had snapped at the kids a few times before. They had attacked and killed another dog. Although the little dog was a stray, we were responsible for this horrible scene that had taken place - and responsible to the neighbors who had seen it happen (including one very young boy who was outside with his grandmother). 
I still can’t believe we did it. 
We took our pets to the vet, (our pets we rescued who trusted us) and had them put to sleep. I clung to their necks and told them I loved them, that I would always love them, and that I was glad we had these past few years together. 
John was braver than I was. I couldn’t stay in the room while the procedure was done. I said my goodbye and went outside to sit in the car, and he stayed until the bitter end. While people came and went, walking their own pets in and out of the animal clinic, I bawled and howled in the car and screamed and cried and asked God why all the suffering. An awful lot of suffering had taken place in the past 24-hours. A kind technician that we have known for years came out to let me know things we going very smoothly and it would be over soon. I sobbed and asked him if we were doing the right thing. He assured me that it was our only option. What if someone’s child had been attacked? What if our dogs had killed a person instead of a stray dog? Gently, he told me that viciousness is like mental illness, and it rarely if ever goes away on its own. I begged the technician to keep Otis and Susie together as long as possible, and he assured me that he would. Soon John came outside and all I could ask him was if it was peaceful for them.

We went to get our kids who were eating all of Gin’s candy and terrorizing her two poodles. Lizzie asked if Otis and Susie were coming home, and we told her that no, they were not. We explained that they had gone to Heaven with a lot of other dogs, and that although we would miss them, they were better off. And we came home to a slightly quieter home. We loved on Millie, the lone pet in our house, and we loved on each other. 

In the past week, I also saw something scrawled on a dry-erase board at the gym and I latched onto it. The sentence read: “Suffering leads to Strength.” And although I know this was intended to encourage all the weight-lifters and beefcakes who are trying to build bigger muscles, it really spoke to me. I had been pondering the whole issue of suffering all week. I hated that the little dog had suffered all day from a viscous attack. I hated that we had to suffer through the whole ordeal and through losing our pets and making what seemed like a horrible decision. I hated that my children were suffering the loss of their pets and on some level, the loss of some of their innocence. Suffering was at the forefront of my mind but I realized, yes, suffering does lead to strength. Suffering through a failed first marriage, infertility, pregnancy loss, and other challenging situations have yes, made me stronger. 
And our family will be perhaps just a little stronger through this suffering. 

Rest in Peace, Otis, Susie, and “Little Cutie” (named by Camden). 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The New Normal

Last night I apparently slept with my jaw clenched, something I haven’t done since college. And yes, I’m back in college after seventeen years and the irony doesn't escape me. This morning I had plans to take Samuel to get a haircut and to pick up his “girlfriend” (the first one EVER) and take her to lunch and to photograph them together. I had also promised Lizzie a fun activity would take place today since she is basically the only one of the little kids who isn’t in a serious load of trouble right now. But when I woke up I had this nagging headache on the left side of my head. I thought maybe it was a sinus infection but later when I was eating an organic Aussie Bite (I highly recommend these by the way) - like an oatmeal cookie but good for you - and I realized the soreness was coming from the left side of my jaw. I opened and closed my jaw (duh, I was eating) and the pain was pretty severe. I’m not a jaw-clencher (blame it on the Algebra) but for whatever reason I guess I clenched my jaw last night as I slept. 

Since moms don’t cancel their Saturday plans with their children for just anything, and poor, socially awkward Samuel wouldn’t have taken it well, I took some advil, drank a little coffee and got on with my day. We got the haircut, we ran a few miscellaneous errands in town, picked up the girlfriend, ate at chic-fil-a, and took loads of photos at the reservoir. *Samuel is determined to give her a meaningful Valentine’s Day gift, so we needed some good shots of the two of them. And after the first part of the day, I went home and picked up the little ones and a neighbor/buddy and went to the city park for a couple of hours. All during this typically busy Saturday I have been trying to make my jaw stop hurting. I have massaged my face, made chewing gestures, sucked on ice, etc. to no avail. In the car, I surrendered to the pain and clenched my jaw. The crazy thing? Clenching my jaw made the pain feel tolerable, almost normal. Gritting my teeth and forcing my face into the same grimace I apparently slept with was the only way to get a little relief. Of course, after I opened my mouth again, the pain was back. 

So why am I telling you this trivial story? This is why:

I work every day with kids who were removed from their families because of abuse or neglect. Not only do I work with them, but I live with them, and I am generally surrounded by a little community of foster and adoptive families. I have studied a lot about trauma, grief, and loss. My kids have been through it. And the girls at the children’s home where I work- they know it well. And it’s really hard - okay it’s super hard - for me to understand why most of them (almost all of them) would go back to their dysfunctional, crazy, abusive or neglectful families in a heartbeat.

My friends are fostering two little girls who were removed from their home after the domestic violence in the home got so bad that gunfire broke out in the night, while they slept. The girls witnessed horrific abuse, lived in a tiny house crowded with tons of people, and moved from one city to the next without forming any friendships or relationships outside of their home. And the oldest one begs to go home! She insults her beautiful, sweet foster mom! She tells her she is unattractive (she’s not!), that she is not a good mother, that she hates her. This little girl is always on the attack, ready to defend her absent mother and incarcerated father. She longs for the pain to go away, but the pain is all she knows. She can’t get any relief, even in a peaceful happy home where she gets to just play and be a kid. She doesn’t know how to be normal. 

At work we have girls who have been sexually abused by fathers or stepfathers and their mothers CHOOSE to stay with the abusers and allow their daughters to languish in the system. Most of these girls if offered the chance to go home will tell you “It’s okay, I will just stay away from Ricky . . . Dad . . . Uncle Joe . . .” and some will say: “I never should have told anyone about what he did to me. Then I wouldn’t be stuck here in this group home.” In other words, these girls are saying, “I would rather live with the pain than have to accept this new normal.” Like my sore jaw, it's easier to go back to the place where the pain began and live with it, than to work through the pain so that it does away. 

We’ve been going through it here for three years. When people come over without advance notice, I feel like I have to apologize for my house, my kids, the language, the drama, the fights, the constant anger. My kids were little when they were removed from a house full of neglect, drugs, violence, dependency upon the government, and codependency with one another. My kids don’t remember much at all (thank God) but they know they were removed. For three years, they have had to relearn how to be children. They have had to learn how to be loved, made to feel safe, and made to feel a part of a family. Going back to the dysfunction would have offered a little instant relief, because it was “normal” for them. Instead they ( and we) have had to do the hard work of creating a new normal. 

Last Fall we went camping in Kentucky the weekend before school started. It was our last trip together before Georgia started college, and it was in Kentucky for a specific reason. We went to spend some time with John’s “other” son, Evan, a cherub-faced, ruddy-looking little boy just a few months younger than Camden, who lives with his mom in Ohio. What makes Evan especially unique is the fact that we only learned about his existence a few months before our adoption was final! Say what you want about our marriage, but we just roll with the punches. And in defense of John, let me say that he told me there was a possibility of another child long before we got serious. He was always honest with me, so nobody needs to freak out or anything. But when we found out about Evan, we were at a very critical juncture in the adoption process. It was . . . a shock. Suddenly, everything changed and there was someone else to think about. And even though Evan’s mom very kindly said “you don’t have to get involved if you don’t want to,” we both knew there was no way we could not get involved with Evan. In my heart, I knew that I could never deny a child from knowing and having a relationship with a man who is as good a daddy as John is.
So we met Evan a week after our adoption was final. We met him in Ohio at a city park where we all had a picnic and introduced him to his new brood of siblings from Cody to Georgia to Mitchell to Samuel to Camden to Lizzie and to Cole. And this was our new normal in 2013. Fast forward one year and we were able to take him camping with us for a couple of nights in August 2014. The proverbial “only child” got to hang out with his crazy new family at a beautiful state park in Kentucky. Can you imagine what he thought of us?

We had a really nice trip.  Our campsite was located right beside the bath house, general store, and everything else that you need when you camp with this many kids. Georgia and Lizzie and I went to take showers on the last day and emerged from the bath house together. We all had towels wrapped around our hair, and we lugged our bags of bath stuff across the parking lot. Across the way, John and all his sons were gathered around the picnic table under the canopy from our little pop-up camper. They were all looking at something together, probably a dead bug or something else gross that boys like.
“Awwwww!” Georgia exclaimed with a little gasp, “From way over here, our family almost looks normal . . .”

I started to get defensive and tell her that “we are normal,” but then I remembered that old saying that normal is just a setting on the dryer. This is our normal now, even though at times it hurt like Hell. At times, going back to the original discomfort would have been easier. But I am so, so glad that we have all found a new normal, no matter what it looks like from the outside. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Christmas of the Blue Sweatpants

Today is Mitchell Line’s 16th birthday. I am officially not ready for this. It is customary in our family to let the kids decide what to have for dinner on their birthdays, and true to form, Mitchell has chosen an especially unique selection for our menu tonight. Keep in mind, nothing (well, almost nothing) is off limits. Mitchell could have chosen steak, shrimp, or any restaurant that works for a crowd as large as our family, but instead he chose this: Frito Pie (with John’s homemade chili), Buttermilk Cornbread, and Bacon. For dessert there will be no decorated cake with frosting and candles, and not even a bakery cheesecake as we have had in the past. This year, it’s just leftover pumpkin pie from Thanksgiving, and were under strict instructions NOT to put a candle anywhere near that . . .  birthday pie.
And this is really what he wants. Just like the other day when I asked him what he wanted for his birthday and he replied, “Mason jars and animal fat . . .” and just before I burst into laughter, he added, “and some really good string.”
He just wouldn’t be Mitchell if he wasn’t working on a plan. Right now, it’s the end of the world, which he insists is coming sooner than we all anticipated. There is somewhere behind our house a deep, underground bunker with supplies and canned food. He has a “bug out” bag under the futon in his bedroom, complete with assorted tools, survival guides, various weapons, and God only knows what else. I really do love Mitchell. Ours is not a love that came instantly, but that grew over time. Now at sixteen, considerably taller than me, and with a voice almost as deep as his dad’s, I consider Mitchell to be among my favorite people in the world. He is funny, thoughtful, insightful, and interesting in the way most people would look right past. But our relationship wasn’t always so easy. And so in honor of this milestone birthday, I want to travel back eight years and tell the story of our first Christmas together – and a moment in time that is forever etched in my memory. And so I give you . . . The Christmas of the Blue Sweatpants.

When I married John, Samuel was eight, Mitchell was nine, and Georgia was thirteen. If you think the concept of “Instant Mom” is cute and funny, think again. I was outnumbered, and in Mitchell’s eyes I was like a freak from another planet. We butted heads on everything from table manners to personal hygiene and everything in between. Our favorite topic to fight about was fashion, of which Mitchell had zero interest. His wardrobe consisted of loose sweatpants, very large T-shirts, open jackets, stained socks and the floppiest, lightest-weight sneakers you could find. Cheap? Yes. Easy to Maintain? Yes. Stylish? No. Mitchell was overweight and had no interest in toning up or dressing better to suit his physique. He was genuinely comfortable in dirty clothes, or clothing that looked like it came out of the reject pile at a thrift store. Mitchell’s autism made it hard for him to wear things that rubbed his skin or felt too tight. It was just too constricting for him. A wonderful Saturday for Mitchell was spreading out across the floor with legs in the air, no shoes or socks, watching Scooby Do reruns and passing gas. It was not unusual for him to have a hole in the crotch of his sweatpants and absolutely no concern whatsoever about it. And as the new sheriff in town, I suppose I came in just a little bit too strong. I brought home polo shirts, jeans, and new t-shirts in the correct size. These items were often thrown at me, or put directly into the kitchen trash. Georgia would chuckle and tell me there was no use. Mitchell was Mitchell. There was no amount of coercion or persuasion that could change him. But I tried.

When John and I got engaged, I spent more time worrying about what the boys would wear than what I would wear on my wedding day. I combed the racks of every department store and even offered bribes. Samuel was pretty accommodating. He was willing to wear whatever as long as he could take it off after the wedding. I finally settled on khaki pants and nice matching sweaters for the boys. It was a casual, outdoor wedding, so we made it work. But if not for promising Mitchell the chocolate camera off of the groom’s cake, there would be no such sweater-wearing on my wedding day. That was in October. In December, Mitchell had long-tired of my constant nagging and demanding that he bathe for longer than ten seconds, wear socks for only one day at a time, and refrain from throwing green beans to the dogs during dinner. We had an almost daily battle, and Mitchell would run from me and hide in the laundry room while Samuel would howl like a monkey that we were “fighting.”

Day by day, bit by bit, dirty Lego by dirty Lego, we made our way toward Christmas. And I planned what I believed would be a perfect Christmas card. John and I, together with Amanda, Georgia, Mitchell, and Samuel, would be photographed in our coordinating outfits for a Christmas card that would grace refrigerators all across the country. I bought the girls matching blue sweaters and planned black for myself and red for John. To bring together the entire color scheme, I bought striped polo shirts and matching jeans for the boys. The shirts were black, red, and blue striped. I imagined how great we would all look together. John took one look at those outfits laid across our bed and laughed out loud. “Good luck getting Mitchell to wear that!” he laughed. I remembered the chocolate camera victory and scoffed at his remark. “Just watch,” I told him, “It’s gonna be fine.”

The photo session was to happen on Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house in her scenic backyard with my mom as photographer. I told the boys that the outfits were just for Thanksgiving and they didn’t ever have to wear them again (although it would be great if they did!) Samuel took his new pants and shirt without a fight, and Mitchell uttered only four words: “Not gonna wear it,” and stomped off for another rerun of Scooby.

But, ha ha! I thought, this is only round one. I called Mitchell back to my bedroom, to reason with him, to explain that this was a soft shirt, and these were jeans with elastic! He would have none of it. “Not. Gonna. Wear. It.” He said with a look of defiance, and then a goofy smile. John smirked in the corner.

I did not relent. I did not go quietly into that good night. Thanksgiving fast approaching, I offered Mitchell the customary sweatpants and t-shirt for the entire day, if only he would change into the jeans and polo shirt for the family photo.

“Not. Gonna. Wear. It.”

Round three: “Mitchell, if you wear this outfit, for just five minutes for a family photo, I will take you to the store and let you have a king size Reese’s peanut butter cup!”

“Not. Gonna. Wear. It.”

Round four: “I will give you twenty dollars cash. TWENTY DOLLARS and the Reese’s peanut butter cup.”

“Not. Gonna. Wear. It.”

Round five: “Mitchell, how about a nice new Lego construction set? And twenty dollars cash? And your favorite candy.”

This time, he pushed his pudgy little face as close as possible to mine without touching. “How many times I gotta tell you? I’m not gonna wear it.”

A weaker woman would have backed down at this point. But instead, I told Mitchell that there was no way around it. He could wear whatever he chose for Thanksgiving dinner, but he was changing for the photo. Thanksgiving Day came and we all traveled to Roswell. When it seemed like a good time to take the picture, I rounded up the boys and gave them their outfits. Samuel went upstairs to change without argument, and Mitchell ran from me. He literally ran from me, up the stairs and down the long hallway on the second floor. And I chased him.

He was laughing at first, and so was John who watched from the stairs. He laughed until I caught him, put my arms around his rotund little belly and used my best grown-up bossy voice. “Just put this on for a quick photo and then change back into your sweatpants. This isn't funny anymore.” Mitchell wiggled free and ran back down the hallway, with me in hot pursuit. John caught him at the landing. Clearly, he was ready to get it over with. In his stern, Daddy-is-mad voice, he tossed the jeans and polo shirt to Mitchell and commanded his son to change clothes. Mitchell took the clothes and tore off to the bathroom. I looked at John, so completely satisfied that we had worked together as a team. Downstairs a small crowd was gathering of aunts, uncles and cousins, waiting to see the madness unfold. Amanda, Georgia, Samuel, John and I waited for Mitchell at the bottom of the steps like he was a bride preparing to make a grand entrance. And when he finally emerged, he was wearing the striped polo shirt. Yes, he was wearing the striped polo shirt . . . with his royal blue sweatpants.

 I groaned. We had lost the war. John steadied me at the elbow and whispered, “We will just put him in the back. No one will see the pants.” We had only been married for a month so I wasn’t in the mood to argue with him. So I smiled, and took a deep breath. Yes, I concluded, it was enough that Mitchell relented on the shirt. What difference does it make?

So we all trekked out to my grandmother’s picturesque back yard and sat down on the stone steps, while my mom tried to get the kids to all look in the same direction while she took the pictures. And you almost can’t tell . . . unless you look really closely. But even when I do, I have to smile at those Christmas sweatpants. I have to smile at the kid who got in trouble in class for humming the Jeopardy theme song during an awkward silence in the teacher’s lecture. I have to smile at the kid who doesn’t understand why I get aggravated at him for cutting his toenails all over the sofa, or hoarding canned food in the woods behind our house . . . or shaving a wooden walking stick on his bed . . . or for carrying a machete through the neighborhood. Oh, Mitchell! What an awesome kid you are. Thanks for keeping me grounded. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


When the little ones first came to us, Camden was the angriest child I had ever met. He had been taken away from the chaos and instability that he thought was normal. He had been made to feel like a little adult – the spokesman for himself and two younger siblings. I imagine he was told all the time that he had to be a big boy and set a good example for the babies. He had witnessed a lot of domestic violence, and he had watched helplessly as the adults who were supposed to take care of him were systematically carted off to jail or prison, one at a time.

Teaching a child that they can trust you is quite an undertaking. Camden wanted very much to hate us. He wanted to fear us. He wanted to scare us away. It was the way he had learned to survive. In order to protect himself, he pushed people away who wanted to love him and take care of him. At five years old and forty-five pounds, Camden was like a raging Napoleon – a short little fellow ordering everyone around, shouting profanity at every turn, shocking us all in our “almost normal” life.  In the car, the two little ones would bob and dance to the music on the radio. Not my Camden. The little ones would squeal over a helicopter or a balloon in the sky. Not my Camden. Even silent Cole would pick a dandelion and bring it to me with pride. Not my Camden. His resolve was stronger than I had ever known for such a little boy.

During his first week with us, Camden screamed from the bed so long and so loudly that our family felt the effects all day long. While my mom was here, she helped me with the eight hundred appointments and the insanity of the daily schedule with three small children (in addition to the three teens that were here first!) During her stay, Camden crawled up into my lap, completely exhausted, and fell asleep against me. It was a small thing, but it was a step in the right direction. The vast, empty chasm in his heart was not bottomless. There was trust. There was hope. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. Mom watched him sleeping and from across the living room she mouthed the words “That’s major,” with a nod in my new son’s direction.

But while awake, Camden swung punches, shouted accusations, screamed out in terror, and demanded to have things his way. He bossed me and John, told us all what to do and where to go, and insisted that his way was gospel. Over and over, we repeated the phrase “You are not in charge. Mommy and Daddy are in charge.” We said it so often that even little baby Lizzie picked it up. At eighteen months she would shake her chubby little finger in the direction of anyone that crossed her path and garble “Ma-eee, Daa-eee in targe!!”

After many months of appointments, assessments, therapy, and specialized services, Camden had an official diagnosis – RAD. If you are not familiar with Reactive Attachment Disorder, let me assure you that this disorder is not getting rave reviews. It is associated with early trauma, often in post-institutionalized children, orphans, or kids who have languished in the foster care system and have not formed appropriate connections with safe and appropriate adults. RAD kids don’t know how to let a grown up meet their needs, because for most of their early years, no one was putting them first.
Camden’s second diagnosis is more familiar to most people- ADHD. And we all know what that means. The combination of these seven letters spells an angry, loud, impulsive, wiggly, squirmy, manipulative, and often dangerous little punk.

Aside from therapy, one of our additional plans for Camden was to put him into a team sports program as quickly as possible. It was basketball season that came around first, and we signed Camden up with our last name (even though the adoption didn't happen for another year) he was five and couldn't read, so we weren't too worried. The first week of practice was a disaster. John came home irritated that Camden wouldn't even go out on the court to play with the other kids. He was still so protective of his little heart, he rarely played with other kids or made friends.

The second week of practice, I explained to Camden that if he didn't want to play, we should donate his spot to another child in our community- maybe one who couldn't afford to play. He decided that no one else was going to have his spot, and he took to the court. I watched from the creaky old wooden bleachers at Park and Rec. as Camden ran down the basketball court, dribbling and shooting and defending the ball. I was speechless- and so were his coaches, who knew a little of his history. Camden became one of the strongest players on his team, and in his free time, showed us that he was capable of playing basically any sport.

In soccer the next Spring and in a second season of Basketball, Camden was nominated “best defensive player.” It was not ironic to me that a child who had always put up a wall around his heart, and who defended himself fiercely, was voted best defensive player. Camden was a star in every game. He wasn't always the top scoring player, but he fought hard to defend his team. I sat on the sidelines, feeling pride like none I’d ever known. After every practice, without fail, the coaches would gush about Camden's athletic abilities, and ask us how long he had been playing!

And another sport- football, became the glue that brought Camden together with his new dad, John. Camden desperately wanted to impress John from the start, and would sit for hours and watch the Steelers play. Imagine that- a little boy with ADHD and RAD, sitting still for hours just to bond with his new daddy. And John used the time to teach Camden about the game – the rules, the different positions, and the calls. Camden soon knew more about football than many people my age. He memorized players names, stats, and soon had inside jokes with John. Once I heard him referring to the Dallas team as the “Cowgirls” with a sly grin and a nod to John, who approved. Through their shared bond, they took to the backyard on a daily basis, passing the football back and forth for hours after school. The time with his new dad was so good for Camden that it almost seemed to be better than therapy or medicine.

So even though I missed the cutoff to sign him up to play 6 and under football, I did not miss it this year. And as he did in soccer and basketball, Camden has continued to amaze me in 7 and under football. He is part of a team, rough-housing with other boys, rolling in the dirt and grass, putting little stickers on his helmet for each tackle and touchdown. And if that wasn't enough, Camden’s team is awesome. They have won every game so far and right now have the best record in the league. They are certainly headed to the playoffs, and I feel like the happiest mom in the world. I am so happy to see the joy in this little boy’s eyes when he asks me if we can stay a few minutes after practice so he can throw the ball a little longer with his teammates. “I love you, Mommy!” he shouts as he runs back to this little gang of seven year-olds. I am so proud of my son. And even when practice is hard, hot, long and he falls down or twists his arm and cries for a few minutes, he soon gets back up, brushes himself off and joins the team.

Tonight after practice, Camden’s coach gave the boys a little final wrap-up and commended them on another win last weekend. He talked about how this team is the only “Undefeated” team in the league. The boys listened intently, still giddy about their new helmet stickers. When practice was over, the snacks passed out, and the Park staff had run all the kids off the field, Camden ran over to my car happily and jumped in the backseat. He patted his helmet and smiled, “That was fun!” he said. As I backed out of the parking lot, I asked “How does it feel to be undefeated?” “It feels good!” he said.

And I realized that being undefeated is about more than sports. My kid has every excuse, every reason in the world to wither away from relationships, to quit trying to trust, to stop trying to make friends. He has every reason in the world to feel defeated- he was abused, neglected, never treated as a priority. He thought that life was always going to beat him down, kick him and leave him on the ground. But my kid will not be defeated. He has gotten up, brushed himself off, and kept fighting. And I believe that one day when he is a healthy, successful young man, I will ask him again, “How does it feel to be undefeated?”

Monday, July 28, 2014

Cold and Wet: The Stories of Queen Elsa and the Prophet Jonah

Lately, our Lizzie is in a phase where she is obsessed with two things- the movie, Frozen, and the Bible story of Jonah. Our standing record on the movie is seventeen views in one week and while we read the story of Jonah nightly, we have to re-read it about four times each night to appease her little appetite for . . . fish?

It’s funny she picked the story of Jonah because it’s one that has great meaning in my life. And if I haven’t had the chance to enlighten you on my opinion of this short but important little Old Testament story, allow me to share: It’s about obedience, yes, but it has a startling little message about codependency as well. And it’s one that reminds me every time I read it (which is about 15-18 times a week right now) that sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is walk away. And oddly enough, when Lizzie is staring into the screen and belting out “Let it Go” along with the totally alienated Queen Elsa on her journey up the North Mountain, I am reminded that the process of letting go will be a lifetime battle, and hopefully one I can share with my children as they grow up.

 Jonah, as you may know, was an Old Testament prophet called by God to visit the frightening and twisted population (Ninevah) of a god-forsaken pagan nation and deliver an ominous warning about their wicked deeds. Fearful, Jonah gets on a boat to go in another direction (Tarshish) as quickly as possible. As Lizzie would say “Jonah say ‘I not go to Nivenah, I go to Tarsis! God can’t see me here!” and so he falls asleep below the deck as a terrible storm begins to terrify the ship’s crew (picture the moment when Anna and Elsa’s parents’ ship is tossed and turned on the sea.) The sailors begin praying to their own gods, begging for mercy and for their lives. Finally, the captain of the ship (who obviously knows that Jonah is a prophet) wakes the disobedient messenger and frantically begs him to ask His God for help. Jonah knows that the storm is his fault, and he tells the sailors to throw him into the sea. He realizes that the entire ship full of people is in terrible danger, because of his own disobedience. After trying unsuccessfully to maneuver the ship, the desperate men finally decide to throw Jonah overboard- especially in light of his confession that he has been disobedient to God.

 Read the rest of the book of Jonah if you are interested in how the story plays out. And I know it’s entirely possible you won’t come to the same conclusion that I did. But I hope this is a message my kids will remember as they grow. There will be people who come into your life – for whatever purpose, and do not make the right choices that will point you to the Lord. And at some point these relationships may become a liability – a toxic relationship that is only causing you to drown. I’ve been in those relationships before, and I have not always been wise about tossing the disobedient one over the side of my proverbial ship. So, I don’t intend this to be a lecture – just a reminder. With some people, you have to “let it go” – it’s not your fault, it’s not your responsibility. You’ve gone as far as you should go with this person. There is no reason for you to suffer anymore because someone is refusing to make the right choices for their lives. Holding on to this person, this relationship, or these circumstances is going to mean that you will go down with them. Instead, God may very well be calling you to haul them up on the side of the boat and give them a giant shove- right down into the deep abyss of their own consequences.

 Believe me when I say it doesn’t escape me that my opportunity to become a mother only took place because someone else was a complete failure at being a mom. That is sad, and it’s something that I will have to discuss with my children over and over again throughout their lives. The termination of parental rights that takes place before a child is available for adoption is a long and painful process. A judge and an entire team of child protection services specialists must decide together that it is in the best interests of the child (or in our case, children) that their parent-child relationship is severed, ended, aborted, terminated. Being a part of that process is hard. But I can hope (and do pray) that as God saw Jonah in his disobedience, still loved him, and sent a giant fish to swallow him (and later return him to the land), God will always care for and provide a way to save those who still call out to Him for help.

 Jonah eventually obeyed God’s call to go to Ninevah. That won’t always happen for everyone we let go. Every single day in my job and in the lives of the other brave foster-adopt families that we know and love, we see how disobedience and selfishness and fear have driven people apart. Every day I meet kids who are torn apart because they can’t bear to let go of a parent who has neglected them, abused them, or turned away and abandoned them. Broken promises are all around us in this life – but there is one thing we can do. We can let go, and let God (thanks, Alcoholics Anonymous) and that is exactly what happened to the ship after the old prophet was thrown overboard. The storm stopped. And yours will too. Just let it go.