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Friday, November 22, 2013

Why my First grader has Long Fingernails today

I'm not going to pretend I know everything about children and the attachment process, but I do know we have reached another milestone- and it would probably go unnoticed by most if I didn't mention it. But to me, it's a big thing. It's a very big thing.

Today is Cam's 7th birthday. When John took him to school this morning, he took with him a batch of homemade football themed cupcakes and a supply of juice boxes for his classmates. Tomorrow we will celebrate at the park (if the weather cooperates) and enjoy some football, pizza, and one of Aunt Mimi's famous cakes. Seven is an important year for children, I know this from my 14+ years in children's ministry. Seven is a year developmentally when children begin to understand the differences between fantasy and reality. Many children will make a decision to be baptized at the age of seven, or will choose to join the church or make a profession of faith. I say this based upon years of watching this phenomenon take place. First and second graders were always my favorite age group because they were independent enough to take care of many things for themselves, and yet still vulnerable and tenderhearted enough to participate in fun activities, enjoy a good story, and believe in magic. Seven is really a wonderful age. So tonight, in honor of Cam's seventh birthday, John is going to build a bonfire in the backyard (Cam asked for it) and I'm going to do something I've never done for Camden before . . . I'm going to clip his fingernails.

Yep, I know. That's an odd one. But here it is:

Last week I was talking to Camden at bedtime. He was sitting on my lap and holding my hand. If you know much of Cam's history, you know that in itself is a landmark. He came to us with virtually zero ability to trust another person, especially an adult. He was loud, bossy, violent, accusatory, and frequently vulgar. He would rather hit me than hug me, and he often revolted from any form of affection. Slowly, we began the painstakingly long process of unraveling his wounded heart, by far the hardest task I've ever undertaken. Thankfully, my husband is my partner and we are a team committed to our children and their welfare. Our commitment to Camden began the day we brought him home, and although it has been hard, we have worked together to teach him these simple things:
1. You are a child
2. We are the parents
3. Your job is to be a little boy, go to school, make friends, play, and be happy
4. Our job is to take care of you, protect you, feed you and provide for you
5. Relax, you are finally home.

So, as Camden sat on my lap holding my hand last week, I looked at his fingers, entertwined with mine. In astonishment I noticed his nails were longer than mine. His fingernails were long and healthy, the skin around his nail beds was completely intact. In utter amazement I realized, he has stopped biting his nails.

Yes, my nailbiter has let go of one more vice. In the beginning, I would clip Cole's and baby Lizzie's nails, holding their tiny hands in mine, careful not to clip their tender skin. I would ask to see Camden's fingernails and they were always chewed down to the quick, red and sore. "You don't got to cut my nails," he told me once, "I just bite em off." And although I told him it was a nasty habit, he persisted. He chewed his toenails too. It grossed me out, but we were fighting so many battles that I didn't have the energy or time to die on this mountain. At night before bedtime, I would go into his room and he would sit up there on his top bunk, chewing his nails and spitting them out around the room. It was always at bedtime, or any other time his nerves were raw. On the way to court, I could see him in his carseat through my rearview mirror as he bit and chewed the nails, turning his fingers to get another piece in his mouth. In the courthouse waiting room, or when we waited for a transporter to pick the kids up for a court-ordered visit, those nails were being punished.

But apparently, that has all stopped. I don't know when, but I know that the nails are healthy and long now. He is too busy being a little boy that he doesn't have time to worry about who is going to be taking care of him and his brother and sister. He is too busy being protected and loved and cared about to sit up in bed worrying about tomorrow. Hopefully now that he doesn't have to worry about parents getting into fistfights and being arrested for drug dealing, he has time to dream about being a professional football player, or about racing a car, or learning new skateboard tricks. Hopefully now, he can just be a boy.

All of this makes me realize how fortunate I was to live with a mom and dad who both worked hard for the best interests of me and my two sisters, who were committed to each other, and who worked through their difficulties as adults, not allowing those too-heavy burdens to be placed upon my little shoulders. I had time to dream about riding horses, wearing beautiful dresses, and singing on a stage. I had time to laugh, play, dream, pretend, wish, and hope. But I never had time to bite my nails.

So, Happy Birthday Camden Winn. May the rest of your childhood be charming, and may the rest of your life be safe and secure. I love you with all my heart, Mom

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Congress, thanks for the Memories

The past two weeks have unleashed a roller coaster of memories for me, all thanks to Congress. I guess you could say they did one thing right, and that was to make me realize how far our Cole has come.
If you know me, you know I don't pay much attention to politics. I used to vote according to only a few key issues, and also in accordance with how those around me voted or suggested that I should. Only after marrying my husband (who you do not want to debate politically) I started taking a serious look at ALL the issues, and reading about how those issues impact real people. And seriously, guys - does it get anymore real than MY FAMILY?

We are a household of nine, and only two people in this home share the same maternal and paternal DNA. We are a combination of genes, hair colors, eye colors, and personalities. I did not give birth to anyone in this house, and John is only genetically responsible for two of them. We have blood blended from Germany, Ireland, France, Poland, The Philippines, and a Cherokee tribe (and who knows what else.) We are the American Family. We are a family tree patched and fused and fastened together by marriage, divorce, remarriage, birth, guardianship, adoption, loss, and hope. And we are as real as it gets.

When I heard about the government "shutdown", I thought it was a bunch of nonsense that would not effect me. I know, that is an awful attitude to take. But most of the time I think of politicians as helium-filled smiley faces that sit around and nod when they are asked questions and are largely guilty of harassing female co-workers, not taking their jobs seriously, and of worrying about receding hairlines more than about "the common man." I figured that this pissing-contest (which is exactly what it is if you are paying attention) would end eventually and would render as no more than a blip on the radar of my life.

That is until Cole brought home a single document from his school teacher. It explained that due to the government shutdown, our Head Start facility would be forced to close until further notice. John came into the house, waving the flyer like a foreclosure notice, ranting about politicians using less fortunate children as pawns in their political chess match. "Surely they won't close down," I told him in my best June Cleaver voice, "I mean, they can't do that, can they?"

Now let's back up a little bit on the Line family time table. Let's talk about March 27, 2012, the day our lives changed forever. Camden (age 5), Cole (age 2) and Elizabeth (age 16 months) made their grand appearance into our family. If you know anything about foster care and adoption, you will know that all we were given was a bag full of clothing in mostly wrong sizes and a few broken happy meals toys, as well as a few sentences on a court document. On the first day we were told that the kids had been moved eight times and that Camden was strong-willed, Lizzie was a "typical, happy and cuddly toddler" and that Cole was "autistic and nonverbal." Information about our new children came in short, frantic phone calls from lawyers on a deadline or previous workers involved in their case. I did my own detective work and learned a lot. I pieced together the information I needed from prescription bottles, Facebook (talk about over sharing), court papers, and other people who knew my kids.

The caseworker was mostly right. Camden was strong-willed in a Napoleon-kind-of-way, Lizzie was everything  they said she was (still is) and Cole was . . . odd. Cole was certainly non-verbal, but he did communicate his wishes very well. He screamed, grunted, made animal noises, clawed at us, kicked us, bit us, urinated on walls, smeared feces, and threw tantrums that would send Super Nanny packing. He ran into traffic on roads, climbed on the roof of our cars, and hid a screwdriver under his mattress and used it to try and dig a tunnel in his bedroom wall at night. Seriously, it was covered up with a poster like Shawshank Redemption and everything.

Cole was also very sick and very small. He came to us about 5 weeks before his third birthday. He was a gray-white color and his eyes rarely focused on anything. He weighed 26 pounds (Lizzie was 23) and he had (According to the paperwork) had diarrhea since January. His mouth was full of cavities and he was covered up in scabs and staph infections on his arms. Most of the time, Cole would sit and rock from side to side, sometimes humming "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." I was so busy with all of them that I barely had the time to think of how pitiful he was. At the pediatrician's office, I broke down and cried. It was so overwhelming.

The next few months were spent stabilizing Cole and his siblings. We put potty training on hold and diapered Cole like a small baby. We rocked him and sang to him, played with him and talked to him. We called the Babies Can't Wait staff (who were awesome). We went to the pediatric gastroenterologist who put Cole on a special diet. We went to Emory children's hospital to see a neurologist. An MRI found a small amount of scar tissue on Cole's brain. Babies Can't Wait referred Cole to the speech therapist at Head Start. I didn't even know what Head Start was. Patiently, our BCW worker explained that Head Start was an early intervention program. She explained how the selection process worked, that children from low-income or disadvantaged families or children with special needs could receive FREE education, supportive services, meals, and other resources through participating in Head Start. It was an overload of information, but at this point all I heard was "Free." I knew we had a long road ahead of us, and as Cole's new mommy, I intended to see that he was able to receive every service he was eligible for. "Early Intervention" sounds pretty trite when you are talking about three year olds, until you meet a child like Cole. By August, we had been notified of Cole's eligibility (he was accepted without reservation) and he eagerly anticipated going to "school" like his older siblings. In August, Cole's chronic diarrhea stopped and he was using words and the occasional sentence.

On the first day of school, Cole stood in the doorway of my bedroom and smiled broadly. "Mommy, Look!" He exclaimed, and when I looked at him, he belted out the Alphabet in one clear message. We continue to be amazed at Cole's progress, but I will admit that remembering where he started, it is sometimes unbelievable. So when the acts of Congress threatened to shut down this school, where Cole is just one of hundreds of children in need of services to help them reach their potential, I was literally heartbroken. A few days later, it was more than a threat. Our center was closing down until further notice. I knelt down beside Cole on the day his teachers sent home his nap time blanket and a painting he had done. "Cole, your school has to close for awhile," I told him, "But you will go to daycare with Lizzie." "What about my friends?" He asked, "What about Lilly and Pedro and Jack?" Feeling guilty, I realized those parents couldn't afford daycare. We barely could. I had seen those single moms or struggling couples, their cars barely running, their uniforms from the nearby chicken plants. What hope did their children have without early intervention?

The happy ending to this story is that yesterday, our Head Start received some good news. A private donor made it possible for our kids to return this morning, and hopefully soon the helium-heads in Washington will decide to quit fooling around with time-tested and critical community initiatives. So for now, Cole is back to his routine, back to watching Dori the Beta Fish in a bowl by the sink, and back to putting his striped nap blanket in the cubby with his name. He is back to matching and counting and sorting and dancing and singing and playing with Lilly, Pedro and Jack.

But I am changed. Recalling the past eighteen months, the victories we have had and the challenges we have faced has filled me with a gratitude I sometimes forget in the daily blur of baths, homework, sensible dinners, and phrases like "don't put your fingers in the dog's butt."

Cole's not the only one who has changed dramatically. And we are all better for it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Coming Clean

Tonight as I was scarfing down my dinner, I looked at the walls around the kitchen table, streaked with white mystery stains, airborne crumbs and sticky fingerprints. I took a deep breath and a bite of my dinner. I reminded myself that one day when my children are grown, I will live in a clean and controlled environment again. For now, the sticky stains are a small price to pay for being a mom and living with my amazing and adorable kids.  Like all moms (I’m sure) I feel like cleaning is an endless cycle. I bleach the bathroom floor and the next day it looks dirty and disgusting again. I wash the bed linens and someone pees their bed the same night. I sweep dog hair into my trusty long-handled dustpan just as the dogs roll and romp on the sofa, hair flying freely through the air. Some days the entertainment center is so dusty I can write myself reminder memos with my finger.
And even though I know this is just a season in my life, sometimes I snap and go into a cleaning frenzy, scraping, wiping, removing all the cushions from the sofa and complaining loudly to anyone who will listen.
And so it is with my spiritual life too. I sometimes let the mess pile up for so long that the clutter and filth of my sin just becomes a regular part of my day. I step around it, I ignore it, put off dealing with it, and “save it for a rainy day.” And what happens when I do this?
I snap.
Saturday, I snapped.
Ugh, I hate to remember it – but it needs to be told. Like the sweet and warm-hearted stories of our family, there are also other stories less enchanting, less charming, but just as honest and real as those ooey-gooey ones.
I think I’ve been saying whatever I want, blurting out my opinions, letting off a little steam, and becoming far too tolerant of my deepest flaws. I’ve become comfortable being unkind, judgmental, territorial, demanding, pushy and even . . . obnoxious. Ouch . . . that hurt.
Gather around, ye saints of God – it’s confession time.
Okay, here it is: I’ve got this terrible habit of comparing myself to others. I also tend to put myself on a pedestal in some areas, and become overly critical of those who can’t seem to “get it together” or those (like the birth moms of my children) who have failed in awful, ugly, public ways.
And that is, my friends, so, so ugly. And I am so, so ashamed to admit it. I think that my own insecurities stemming from my personality and the battle with infertility have given me some kind of superiority complex where I overcompensate for my perceived weaknesses by puffing myself up in other areas.  (If this sounds like freshman Psychology ramblings, I do apologize.) But the truth hurts. In my mind, I had become comfortable with talking about the failures of these women, even making light of it, insulting them whenever possible, or just being passive aggressive (in the case of the one I deal with occasionally.)
And Saturday I blew it. I let a little “difference of opinions” get the best of me. Not only did I scream into the cell phone “We are not in a partnership!” I also screamed the words: “YOU ARE NOT A GOOD MOTHER!”
In front of my kids.
Did I mention I did this in front of my kids?
No, it was not my finest hour. I slammed down the phone after my big fat baby-fit and saw seven pairs of eyes staring at me in horror. Their eyes mirrored mine and my sister Becky’s the afternoon we found mom’s sexy lingerie drawer while playing dress-up. The look in their eyes said: “Our mom does that?”
I immediately grabbed my car keys and purse and ran out the door after giving John the “look.” He knows that look means I am about to blow my top so he needs to take over. Not that he wasn’t already doing everything else- cooking dinner, supervising chores - while I was engaging in a pointless tug-of-war and making a giant jerk of myself.
I drove around for about thirty minutes to get myself “grounded.” Some scream, some cry, some drink, some smoke a joint, some pray, some squeeze a squishy rubber ball. I drive. So I drove into town, my heart hammering in my chest, knowing that I had made this mess and I had to clean it up. This is the truth:
I may not think she’s a “good mother” but it is not my place to say, er . . . shout that. I really messed up.
So I came back over the mountain and prepared my speech. I came into the house where John was serving chicken, pasta and green beans and the atmosphere was strangely quiet. I apologized to all the kids for losing my temper. I apologized for being critical and cruel, and for my words. John offered me dinner but I couldn’t eat. Instead I came into my bedroom, picked up the discarded cell phone and sent a truly humble apology as a text. No excuses – just “I was wrong. I am sorry.”
My apology was accepted.
And then I had to come clean with God.
One of my favorite parts of our church service on Sunday is the “call to confession” and “prayer of confession.” I didn’t grow up in a church that practiced this as a specific, corporate part of the service. But I admit, it’s my favorite part. I like that we have a specific, identified time in the service to pause and reflect and to really search our hearts. And it doesn’t take a lot of searching when you know you acted like a big fat jerk not even eighteen hours before the church service.
I had already confessed to my kids, to the person I offended, and yes, to God on Saturday. But Sunday I accepted God’s grace and forgiveness and decided to move on. And just like that feeling when you have worked all day to clean your dirty house – it feels so good.
It feels so good to come clean.
So, in closing, let me say that if I have offended you, led you astray, or used my words to hurt you, please forgive me. God is dealing with me about this!
Some day I’m gonna get this house in order!

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Miracle of Becoming a Family

Chances are, when you were growing up you imagined your future, and possibly your future family. It is highly likely that (especially if you are a woman) you imagined your future children, planned what their names would be, or had elaborate fantasies about your future home and what it would be like to have your own little family. I am just like you. I had those imaginary fantasies too, I had the dreams and the plans and the spiral notebooks full of names for the future daughters and sons. At least in the culture where I grew up, this was fairly common. Growing up, I played it close to the vest, meaning I didn't share my little fantasies very often. But I still had them. I always wanted to be a mother, but truthfully I could never picture myself with a pregnant belly, or holding a newborn. I could picture myself parenting children, driving them to practices, recitals, and school, but I couldn't seem to conjure an image in my mind of a newborn baby that belonged to me. It all makes sense now. It makes sense why in 2000, a little golden-haired girl with scabby knees knocked on my front door in need of a mother. It makes sense why even on my "days off" from working with children, I was often taking a sibling group out to lunch or to a park, even creating rooms in my little house for children to live when they needed a warm, safe bed. It makes sense now, since I've been full-time step-mom to three growing kids for the past five years since I married my sweet John. It makes sense now that my three babies- Camden, Cole, and Lizzie came into my home and heart. Becoming a family was hard work. In fact, it was harder than anything I have ever gone through. And now I realize something very interesting about adoption. Like bringing a new child into your family through birth, adoption is also a breathtaking, beautiful, amazing, humbling, fulfilling experience that forever changes you. No, I haven't been given the opportunity to give birth to a child, to hear him cry and see him take his first breath. For God's plans to be fulfilled in my life, that experience was not given to me. In fact, I cannot even imagine what it would be like to give birth to a child. But the experience that was given to me, not unlike how people describe giving birth, is something that I cannot explain to anyone who has never been through it. I could not do justice to this experience if I tried to use my own sloppy, inept words to describe it. This imperfect experience has been perfect - like artwork made by a small child it has been beautiful, messy, funny, unusual, and amazing all at the same time.

My three little ones came to me on March 27, 2012. Here are a few highlights of that day:
 John, Cody, myself and a college volunteer were working on the thrift sale for Rainbow home. We finished and went to eat a late lunch at a Mexican restaurant. The agency called, I felt dizzy on the phone as I stepped out onto the front porch to tune out the Mariachi music blaring from inside. The adoption worker described three little children, I started to cry. I asked "how soon can I pick them up?" the case worker said "as soon as you can get here." I will NEVER forget that moment.  We were riding in "Big Bessie" our fifteen passenger van. In the seat, I could see Cody and our college volunteer wiping the tears from their eyes as I cried on the phone with our agency. John was driving and I was pointing "go to Jamie's!" knowing we had to get supplies, and Fast!
We drove to Jamie and Chris' house and I jumped out of the van to hug my best friend. I told her my wonderful news and we ran into her house to get a baby crib, high chair, and gates. We shoved everything into the van and rushed home. Georgia met me at the top of the stairs in tears and we hugged and screamed. We were finally getting our kids! While John and I drove to pick up our children together, Jamie and Chris, Cody and Georgia cleaned our house, moved and assembled a baby crib, put clean sheets on beds, and got our home ready for little ones. John and I drove and drove and drove. It seemed like the longest drive of my life. We talked with the children's county caseworker while driving. We agreed to meet at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. More driving. More driving, and me calling everyone I know who had prayed for us: My parents, my sisters, my pastors, my friends.
We finally got to the Cracker Barrel and drove around to the back. Through the windows I could see them: two dark haired little boys with big brown eyes and a blonde-haired little baby girl, all in car seats, all looking around- waiting for us. I was out of the car and next to their window in seconds. The case worker pulled the little girl out of the car seat. She looked around, confused but happy to be out of the car. The worker placed our little girl in my arms. She held onto my shoulder and smiled at me. My boys jumped out of the car and ran around the parking lot, happy to be free from their car seats. I was in love.

After seventeen months of paperwork, hearings, visits by multiple case workers, moving furniture, potty training debacles, therapy and medical appointments, we were finally in court to finalize our adoption on June 25, 2013. Here are a few highlights of that day:
The attorney's office called at the last minute to tell us that our hearing was postponed from 9 am to 1:30 pm. Irritated, I had no other choice but to accept that my plans for the "perfect adoption day" were not going to happen. My original plan was to feed the kids, go to court and get them adopted, then go out to lunch and swimming to celebrate. Since that didn't happen, I tried to figure out ways to fill the empty space. We went to the park and fed the ducks, we went to Wal-Mart and picked out ice cream and toppings to have for a treat after dinner. We grabbed a pizza to have for lunch and went home to try and take an early nap. The kids refused to nap and cried, screamed and fought me for two hours. Defeated, I let them skip their naps and play for a little while longer. Afterwards, I dressed them stinky and sweaty in their perfectly crisp and clean adoption outfits (made by Nana). They were cranky from not having naps, and nervous about going to court (there was never a good experience at court before.) Just before we entered the courtroom, the attorney's office called to say our attorney would be thirty minutes late. Frustrated and nearly emotional, we pressed on, praying that the adoption would not be postponed for this reason. When we arrived, my parents and some friends were waiting in the parking lot. My stomach was in knots. Our friends cheered us on and my mom snapped some pictures. We went through the metal detector and to the elevator. We rode up to the second floor and walked to superior court. We found our courtroom and walked inside. There on the benches we saw two more rows of friends and church family. The kids were so cute when they saw their audience and realized all the support was for them.

You will notice that our family pictures from adoption day are not so perfect. Cole is missing from many of the ones in court because he was throwing a tantrum. One of the things I have learned and come to accept is that the "perfect family photo" like "the perfect family" is a myth. I joke with my friends that you will never see a picture of my entire crew sitting on the beach with our backs to a glorious sunset, all of us dressed in white, the boys in chinos and white polo shirts, and the girls and I wearing white sundresses. It just ain't gonna happen, my friends. Our family photos usually feature someone behaving oddly, someone dressed completely sloppy, someone angry refusing to look at the camera, and the rest just eager to get it over with. And Adoption day was no less "imperfect". And yet, imperfect is the new "perfect" for me these days. I have stopped trying to compare my journeys to others. I have stopped trying to understand why some of us experience becoming a family through a series of heartbreaking, gut-wrenching scenes of aching and longing and others coast right on through. As I get a little older and a little wiser, I realize those couples who seem to coast right on through and have their "perfect families" are not so perfect after all. They have their own secrets, their own challenges, their own failures. Even those in the white sundresses and chinos may have to deal with a crippling depression, learning-disabled child, or any number of life struggles. Truthfully, no one really has the easy path. I sometimes fought God in my journey to become a mother. I was convinced that my way was better, but now I see how wrong I was.

Sometimes before bedtime when the kids are hanging all over me, demanding my attention and affection, my eyes cloud over with tears. They are mine- my sons and my daughter. Camden with his silver-filled teeth (he had bottle rot when he came into foster care) and his sometimes-smart-mouth. Cole with his eczema, constant rocking and crazy stories that make no sense. Little Lizzie with her attitude, habit of sticking fingers into her diaper, and shrieks that stand your hair on end. I take it all in, every funny thing they say, every moment that takes my breath away. I could not live without them, and I would not want any other scenario. I know now that even if I could control everything that has happened, I would not change a thing. It was all worth it. Camden, Cole and Lizzie are worth it.

This blog post is dedicated to A.H. and H.H. with K & C

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In my Father's House

Tonight I was got an unexpected (but always welcome) call from my Amanda Kate. It is always good to see her name on my cell phone when it is ringing, and to hear her say "Hey Mama!" in that same cheerful and easy way she has. It got me started thinking about her, and all the wonderful times we had together. I actually had her on my mind a couple of weeks ago, after going to "Muffins with Mom" with Big C in his Kindergarten classroom. I remembered that long-legged little girl with the leopard-print hoodie who invited me to be her "mom" on such a special day, so many sequential years in elementary school. There is a framed photo of her behind my desk at work, and often people will ask me "who is this beautiful girl?" And sometimes I say "my first foster-child", other times I say "my oldest adopted daughter," and other times "my god-daughter." Truthfully, we never knew what to tell people when they asked. But I was drawn to her, as I have been with all my children. When people ask me, "How many kids do you have?" I never know what to say. I honestly feel like all of my "temporary kids", my two babies in Heaven, my step-children, and of course my three little ones who will officially be mine on June 25 in Superior Court, are "my children." But there are so many others who came into my life for brief or extended seasons, and who are now and forever part of my heart and will always have a special place in my home.

Maybe my journey to motherhood actually began in the fourth grade, as strange as that sounds. We mature, educated ten year-olds in Mrs. Evans classroom were recruited to serve as "book buddies" for a group of Kindergarteners. This would be my first experience of really, actually being "in charge" of a younger child, aside from my sister and cousins who I basically bossed around but were so close to my own age that it didn't really count. I remember the feeling of excitement that I would be matched with a beautiful, happy child who longed to learn how to read. I remember writing down words in the loose-leaf paper section of my Trapper-Keeper with the neon heart graphic on the front. Those were the words I would teach my little prodigy, and when she rose to the head of the Kindergarten Class, everyone would know that I was the best "book buddy" at Benefield Elementary School. And so the day to meet our "buddies" came, and I was as giddy as could be when I was introduced to a golden-haired little angel named "Farah", which was undoubtedly a popular name for girls in those days. My friend Kelly and I were actually put together to help Farah, because there was one too many students in our class, unless you count Richard, who was always in trouble and not allowed to be a "book buddy." But I was a teacher's pet, a good girl, so I wouldn't complain about being teamed up with Kelly, who couldn't spell to save her life, because at least I had the cutest little Kindergartener in the whole class. For two straight weeks, I tutored Farah and most likely Kelly at the same time. I brought in little fruit-shaped erasers for incentive, and loved the smile on my buddy's little face when she saw me in her classroom during reading time. The third week of "book buddies" was a time in my childhood that I will never forget. We came into the Kindergarten room with our books and prepared to meet with our buddies. The Kindergarten teacher took an unfamiliar, dirty-looking boy to my teacher, Mrs. Evans, who then lead the little stinker toward me, Kelly and Farah. "Melissa," Mrs. Evans said, knowing full well I would never deny her anything she asked of me, "This is Scotty. He is new to our school and needs a book buddy. How about if I let you be his book buddy, and Kelly can keep working with Farah?" I was horrified. But I would never say "no" to Mrs. Evans. Dutifully, I followed Mrs. Evans and "Scotty" to a corner where he scratched his ear with a crayon and stuck out his tongue at me throughout our lessons. Weeks passed where I would watch Kelly and Farah across the classroom, Kelly stumbling through Beatrix Potter while Farrah played with her pretty hair bows. At first it seemed so unfair, me clearly being the more suitable tutor for a smart girl like Farrah. I think I may have even tried to persuade Kelly to trade book buddies with me. It is unlikely any other fourth grader would have traded buddies to be matched up with Scotty. He was loud, whiny, stinky, and had no interest in reading. But weeks passed, and soon I discovered something. Scotty was funny. He made funny jokes about the books we read together, he used funny voices to read dialogue for characters, and he made funny faces that had me rolling with laughter. We started high-fiving and making our own little inside jokes. I began to love my little underdog, in the way that only a mother can love her little stinker. And when the school year was over, I gave Scotty a whole pack of fruity erasers. I knew that I would miss him.

It seems like many, many years have passed and my house is full (and has always been full) of kids like Scotty. They didn't have the advantages of a Farah, the perfect clothes and home, the nutritious lunches in high-fashion lunchboxes, or even the basics like good manners and reading skills. They came to me ragged and sloppy, and they still keep on coming.

One of our more recent "additions" is a girl I will call "Annie" - an adorable, bubbly little eight year-old girl who came to us through one of Georgia's babysitting jobs. She isn't here often, but when she is, she just fits right in, playing with all the other kids, entertaining Lizzie, and accompanying us on family trips. Without any planning or ceremony, she began to feel like "one of us." Georgia brought her to church, and she blossomed. She sang her heart out, participated in church dramas, hugged the pastors, and chased my little ones around in the fellowship hall. One Sunday, I took over as the Sunday School Teacher in the children's classroom. The Lectionary for the week used the scripture from John 14 where Jesus tells His disciples "In my Father's House there are many, many rooms . . . I go there to prepare a place for you." While preparing my lesson, I remembered the old song by Rich Mullins and decided to play it for the kids. I played the songs and they loved it, begging me to play it over and over. We listened to it maybe five or six times while we all drew pictures of our "dream house" on construction paper I had cut out into shapes of simple A-frame houses. I had placed markers, stickers, fun foam and other supplies on the table. I told the kids they could decorate the house however they wanted - and I told them that Jesus promised us a home in Heaven - a Perfect Home. At the time, it didn't strike me as odd that I was teaching a room full of children from imperfect homes about a perfect home - kids who had faced divorce, loss, addictions, domestic violence, eviction, and all sorts of dysfunction - inside their homes. It didn't occur to me as we drew elaborate staircases, windows, archways, fountains, and other beautiful architecture on the paper houses. I took a long sheet of butcher paper and spread it out across the wall in the hallway, writing the words from John 14. I told the kids to put their "houses" on the mural of Heaven. We added them one at a time, along with people figures, animals, stars, hearts, clouds, angels, music notes, rainbows, and other happy designs. After hanging up several houses, I noticed Annie had not given me hers. I went back into the room and found her diligently working on her "perfect home," with staircases, and lots of rooms. Georgia sat nearby watching over Annie's shoulder. "Wow!" I exclaimed, "you are really putting a lot of time into your Perfect Home!" Georgia cupped her hand around her mouth and drew me close to her to whisper, "she's drawing our house." My breath caught in my throat when I realized what this little girl had seen in our home. Our crazy, loud, messy, unorganized, cluttered, dog-hair-covered, sticky food-encrusted, crowded house full of people was her perfect home.

This world is just never going to be perfect. There are so many hurting kids, like a little girl in Big C's class who never had her mom or dad show up for anything this entire school year - not Muffins with Mom, Donuts with Dad, or any of the field trips or special events. At the Kindergarten Graduation Ceremony last week I didn't cry because my six year old is going to first grade, I cried because this little girl was laying on the rug sobbing when no one showed up for her. She was the only one without a parent or grandparent there to congratulate her. God knows if I could have gotten down on the rug with her, and gathered her into my arms I would have told her "You are wonderful and valuable, and loved. You might not have a happy home in this world, but you have a perfect home waiting for you in Heaven." And isn't that what we all want? We all want a happy, warm, safe place where we can all go and be "home."

My kids and I now sing this song at bedtime every night: 

"In my Father's house there are many, many rooms
In my Father's house there are many, many rooms
And I'm going up there now to prepare a place for you
That where I am, there you may also be

If I go prepare a place for you, I will come back again
If I go prepare a place for you, I will come back again
And you know I am the Way, the Truth, the Life, keep my command
That where I am, there you may also be

That where I am, there you may also be
Up where the truth, the truth will set you free
In the world you will have trouble, but I leave you my peace
That where I am, there you may also be

Remember you did not choose me, no I have chosen you
Remember you did not choose me, no I have chosen you
The world will show you hatred, the Spirit show you truth
That where I am, there you may also be

And I've come down from the Father, it's time for me to go back up
Oh, I've come down from the Father, it's time for me to go back up
One command I leave you: Love as I have loved
That where I am, there you may also be

That where I am, there you may also be
Up where the truth, the truth will set you free
In the world you will have trouble, but I leave you my peace
That where I am, there you may also be

That where I am, there you may also be
Up where the truth, the truth will set you free
In the world you will have trouble, but I'm leaving you my peace
That where I am, there you may also be"

Monday, April 1, 2013

Dear Mr. and Mrs. M . . .

Dear Mr. and Mrs. M,

The first time I ever learned your names was last Wednesday night as I went through the life books that we were given at our adoption signing last Wednesday morning. Quite significantly, Wednesday was also the one year anniversary of the date I first laid eyes on the three little ones who would forever steal my heart and change my life.
I have known about you since the very beginning - we heard your story when the kids came into our house. We heard about how the children were first given to you, in anticipation of a possible adoption. The facts were few but startling- you, like us, had been "hoping" for the placement of a sibling group to adopt. Like us, you were childless (though I have wonderful step and god-children) and you, like us, were willing to accept a legal-risk placement. Unlike us, you were scared away by the initial behavior of C, C, and little Miss E. You returned my babies to the DFACS office only 12 hours after they were placed in your home.
I know that you will very likely never read this letter, and its fine that way. But there are a few things I want to say, and since this blog will indulge me tonight then the time is just right for me.
It makes me very sad that my children were placed in nine foster homes between the time they were removed from an abusive natural family and finally brought to me. It literally breaks my heart to think about those moves - some after as few as three nights. Their few and scrappy belongings tossed into garbage bags and labeled with sharpies, piled into their caseworker's car as they were driven from one home to the next.
After their first night in our home, Big C asked me "how long are we gonna stay with you?"  When I told him, "I hope we can keep you forever," he replied, "but why would anyone want to keep us forever?"
Our caseworker told us little C was "autistic and noverbal." That did not scare us, and neither did the fact that he had been sick with diarrhea for over three months and had unexplained headaches. By the way, he is neither autistic or nonverbal. He has an amazing vocabulary and he loves to talk, laugh, tells jokes, and sing.
Part of me wants to thank you, because if you had kept these three beautiful children, they would have never found their way into my arms. Another other part of me wants to ask you how? How could you spend just a few hours with a five, two, and one year old and decide you wanted nothing more to do with them? How could you walk into the frantic and chaotic world of foster-adoptive placement and expect perfect angels to be delivered into your home? How could you be so unrealistic? 
And another part of me, the part of me that is C, C, and E's Mommy just wants to tell you a little bit about the blessing that you decided to forfeit. Big C is absolutely charming, funny, intelligent, spirited, competitive, and handsome. He is a natural athlete and he literally blows me away when he walks onto the basketball court or the soccer field. He is a hard and fast runner, a strong swimmer, a brave bike-rider, a natural and very gifted athlete. He has a few close friends whom he adores, and he is now almost finished with kindergarten, reading, writing, and growing every day. You missed the night he lost his first tooth, his excitement over our new backyard playground, and his kindergarten field trips. You were probably afraid of his language, the profanity, the screaming and tantrums. It was probably too much for you to assume the care of a child so angry. And so you chose not to know this child, but God had better plans for him, and for us.
Little C is the most breathtaking, adorable little boy you could ever meet. Yes, he was as pale as a sheet of paper when he was brought into our home, with a raw and red bottom, unable to be potty trained because of months of stress-related sickness. He was thin - down to 26 pounds, cried constantly, and never spoke.  But let me tell you this little ray of sunshine has blossomed into a sparkly, endearing, precocious little boy who one day decided to talk about the Incredible Hulk, and never looked back. He loves church, writes his name, can count to thirteen, goes to preschool every day with a giant superman backpack and runs across the room just to say "I love you, Mommy!" Little C grins in every picture taken and plays well with other children, especially girls. When he smiles, my heart just melts. He is such a gift to us.
And finally, little E - the most enthusiastic creature God ever made. She is like a cheerleader and a cherub all rolled into one sturdy little package with a sprinkle of attitude. She bosses our dogs around, kisses all her fourteen baby dolls goodnight every evening, and loves to sing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "If You're Happy and You Know it." Truly, she is happy and she knows it. Our little Princess claps and shouts "Yay!" every time you enter the room, tie her shoes, finish watching a cartoon, finish reading a book or when the car arrives to its destination. She is literally the happiest little one you would have ever had the joy of knowing. From her car seat, she often says "Mommy, dance!" because to her, life is a song and we ought to always be dancing to the music.
The last thing I want to say to you is about taking chances. And maybe this isn't just for you- but its to all the people out there who want to make the world a brighter place. Or, even to the people who "think" they want to make a difference. This is what I need to say - you will NEVER know what you have missed out on when you take the easy way out. When you decide that your comfortable, predictable life is all you want, and you turn your back on someone who could drastically alter your future because you were worried they might drastically alter your furniture.
Yes, our window has been broken. My husband's car has been carved into with a rock. In the fall, I had a huge black eye. Our home has very nearly been set ablaze. Our toilets have backed up mysteriously, and our walls are covered in crayon, marker, ketchup, chocolate pudding, and all manner of things. Under the seat of my car is a Sippy cup, happy meal toy, candy wrappers, cheetos, a plastic dinosaur, schoolwork, and accumulations of something I can only refer to as "unknown substance #47." My kitchen table is forever warped by Easter Egg dye and the banging of silverware. My dogs are traumatized. My new sofa looks like it landed here off the set of Sanford and Sons. But let me assure you, I wouldn't have it any other way. It is unspeakably worth it. 
At the end the night, I get to hear these words: "Good night, Mommy. I love you."

So many people refuse to answer the door to the unknown. So many people count the cost and decide its not worth it. So many people give up on broken people and forget that God and the love of a family can put them back together again.
Three little ones - broken by lies, substance abuse, physical abuse, exposure to domestic violence, moved in and out of other people's homes, with other people's kids, pets, rules. Nine different beds in ten months. What did you expect from them?

Finally, let me assure you that you will have another opportunity. Maybe not through foster care, because it is my understanding that the agency who placed the children with you before they became mine has decided not to use you anymore. But rest assured that you will have another opportunity to open your heart. For your sake, I hope you can look past the angry eyes staring at you through skepticism. I hope you can look past the bruises and marks of abuse, and through the grimaced teeth that may even open up and spew a few choice words your way. I hope that beneath all that aggression and fear you can see the tender and vulnerable heart of a child who needs unconditional love and hope.
I even wish that for you.
My life has forever been changed by your choice. I feel overwhelmed when I think about how just a few hours and unrealistic expectations changed the destination of these babies and brought them to me. I am so thankful to God that He gave to me the greatest joy of life through being a mommy to C, C, and E. I do wish the same happiness for you, but believe me when I say it doesn't come for free. 

One year later . . . we are part of a miracle, but sometimes miracles are hard work.

All the Best,

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Melissa is gonna be alright!

If you know me, or you have followed this blog for more than a few months then you know about my struggle with infertility, PCOS, fallopian tube failure, two ectopic pregnancies, and five female surgeries. What you may not know (or maybe you did?) is that although I have always been an outspoken advocate of adoption, and have always encouraged people to build their families through adoption, I was not always sure it was for me. I loved the idea of adoption, but I wanted to adopt in addition to having my own children . . . or so I thought.
The truth is, I never pictured myself with a newborn. I never pictured myself giving birth. Even as a young girl, then as a young lady, even when my older sister started having kids and a few years later when my friends started having babies, I just couldn't fix an image in my mind of myself with a newborn baby. I don't remember if I have ever admitted this or not. And yet, somehow, in spite of the fact that I never carried a baby for very long or in the right place, and despite the fact that I never experienced labor or a baby shower, I have never had a shortage of children in my life. I have, in fact, parented 29 children for a period of a month or longer, some for many years, and all have stayed in my heart forever.
The past year has been life changing. After years of loving and parenting other people's children and giving them back, John and I decided to open ourselves up once more but only to adoption of a "legally free" sibling group. We thought we had it all figured out and took our classes, got our license, medical exams, chased down documents on everything from our dogs to our septic tank, and began the agonizing chapter of "fostering to adopt." A phone call on March 27, 2012 changed our lives. In a brief, nearly hysterical phone conversation with the head of the foster-adopt unit at our agency, we learned that a sibling group ages 5, 2 and 1 were waiting for us.
I had really come to a point in my life where I grieved the loss of all things baby-related: car seats, onesies, and even diapers! So it was quite the irony to suddenly have three children in car seats, two in diapers, and three who very badly needed our constant attention.
We fell in love quickly but it was such a hectic time for us. I can't even remember the first few weeks because I was so exhausted. Rather than falling asleep from grief, I was collapsing from exhaustion, jerking awake to the sound of a little one crying out from her crib. I stopped counting the days between my cycles, and I stopped buying pregnancy tests every time I felt the slightest bit "off." And in the midst of all this chaos and joy, my younger sister announced her pregnancy. I can honestly say that I was happy for her. And I wasn't just happy for her, I was happy for me. I was happy for me not only because I had my babies, but because I was truly happy. I had my babies, and now she would have hers. My younger sister, who has faced her own heartache in different ways in life, was now happily married and expecting her first child. It was so different than when I saw strangers in the mall and envied their pregnancy. It was different from even seeing some of my friends having babies with ease and no planning. I was truly happy for my baby sister, knowing she would not have to deal with the pain of infertility and the frustration of feeling your body has let you down in the most basic way.
But still, I wondered how I would feel when her baby came.
Months went by and we continued to bond with our little ones, to teach them to trust us, to help them work through their fears and insecurities. And all the while, God was working on my fears and insecurities.
December came, and so did my beautiful little nephew, Isaiah. I surprised myself by wanting to drive up and see him when he was just a few days old. I took my grandmother and we made a day of it. And when I held him, he was just breathtaking. I felt little tears spring into my eyes - but not sad, angry tears. They weren't tears of jealousy or envy, they were tears of joy at his perfect little face and soft skin, tears of gratitude in knowing that God has spared my precious sister the pain of infertility. Tears of knowing that God works all things out for the good of those who love Him.
It's February and we have been told that by the end of the month, we will change from the children's foster parents to their "adoptive" parents. A date will be put on the calendar in superior court, and we will plan a party. It's really not all that different from having a baby. There is the anticipation, the joy, and the celebration of a new start. And while we were in the throes of finishing paperwork and signing forms, I noticed my body was feeling a little different. I noticed sensitivity in places that made me wonder: Am I pregnant? 
Immediately, I considered that since it happened twice before, it certainly is inside the realm of possible. But I worried that if I was in fact pregnant, it would be another loss, another tubal pregnancy. I put it out of my mind for a week, and then yesterday I was so tired, so exhausted that I had to leave work early and come home to sleep. I slept for three hours and told John about my fears. We talked about it, but I didn't obsess about it. Life is just so different now.
Today I went to work and got my period. My apologies to any guys who are reading this- I know you probably don't like to hear about these things, but you know that is the "clue" that I was reading my body's signals all wrong. But this time, unlike the eighty-nine times before, I didn't collapse in the bathroom floor in a heap of sobs and cry out to God to end my suffering. I didn't storm out of the bathroom angrily, or mutter any cuss words to the tampons. I just completed the restroom task and went back to work. I cut up with my coworkers, talked with some of our residents, worked on a grant proposal, answered some phone calls, and finished up our quarterly newsletter. And I realized the most wonderful fantastic thing has happened in my life- God has mended my broken heart! God has used my three little ones to mend my broken heart. God has really taken hold of me and I am gonna be alright!
I won't be tied to the yoke of jealousy and resentment all my life. I really will be okay. In fact, we will all be okay. Our wacky, cracked-up and put-back-together-again family is gonna be alright.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

For the Bible Tells Me So

Tonight when I was doing the bedtime ritual with Lizzie and Cole, I realized how far we have come in the past ten months. Now, ask me at a different time- like when Camden referred to me as "Woman" in the van on the way to school this morning, and I might break down and say sometimes it feels hopeless. But lately, it feels like we just might be okay. Bedtime was such a nightmare in the beginning - John and I still laugh about it. The first night the kids were "home", we expected it would be hard, but we had no idea - and for awhile it only got worse. Nighttime was horrendous, complete with inner-ear-rupturing screaming like you only hear in horror flicks. In the first two months, it took an average of three hours for Camden to stop screaming at bedtime. His screaming kept everyone else up, and needless to say, nobody got any rest. Neither of the babies had any type of nap schedule, and crankiness was an art form. We tried every trick in the book- reading stories, playing soft music, rocking in a big rocking chair, singing songs, counting sheep, "herbal" home remedies, begging, pleading, attempts at coercion, various night lights, rides in the car, all forms of stuffed animals, and of course, punishment. Nothing seemed to work. But slowly, miraculously, over a very long period of time, we developed a routine. The routine is nice.
After dinner we bathe the children, put them in their pajamas and we watch a little TV together. Most recently this is "Go, Diego, Go" which the kids all love and they especially think it is hilarious that John answers every one of Diego's questions with the wrong answer. They think John really is that stupid and that makes them howl with laughter, except for Lizzie who isn't quite sure why she is laughing, but everyone else is - so why not?
After Diego (or Go Dee Go, as Lizzie calls it) we brush our teeth. After this spectacle of spitting and foaming at the mouth and arguing about doing it without grown-up help, Cole and Lizzie have some play time in their room, where for about twenty minutes that can just cook imaginary food in the play kitchen or dress the baby dolls and feed them with play bottles. I swear my kids have a nicer (play) kitchen than I had in my first house. They certainly have a better toaster. Anyway, this is a nice, quiet time because I watch them play and remember the nights when my heart ached for them and I had no idea where they were.
Tonight of course, followed Camden's weekly therapy session which is turning into Melissa therapy as well. It seems like every week, the light comes on more and more for not just my six year old, but for me, as I realize the enormous task ahead of us, but also as I realize all the baggage my little one has to overcome. It seems like every week, I am a little more aware of all my babies have had to live through. Maybe I shared this on my blog a year ago but we finished our adoption home study at the end of October in 2011. I can honestly say that as soon as we were "approved" to adopt a sibling group, I knew they were "out there" somewhere. I could hardly sleep for thinking of them (imagine the irony/ I couldn't sleep when I should have been storing up sleep!) At night before I drifted off, I would lie awake praying for my babies and for the hands of the person who was caring for them. I prayed that someone was tucking them in, singing to them, praying for them, and loving them and telling them everything was going to be okay. I ached for them and wrote journal entries and blogs about my desperate search and longing for them to be with me.
Part of my little ones' very sad and mixed-up story is that they lived in five foster homes before coming to us. Lizzie went into foster care when she was just four months old. She learned to sit up, crawl, and walk in the home of a caregiver who was later accused of abusing children and the home was closed. In a series of therapy sessions, and over the past ten months, Camden has disclosed more and more about the different homes he lived in, and sadly, the caretaker who had my children when John and I were first "officially approved" was not caring for them appropriately. My babies were broken down, screamed at, pushed into the floor and threatened. Bedtime was a sad time, and a lonely time for them. And that just tears at my heart because all that time I was here longing for them, and I didn't know their names or where they would come from.
So sometimes during the play time just before bed, I have to hold back the tears as I think about how grateful I am to have them here now. I sit in a big pink rocking chair and watch them playing so happily - securely - safely. I delight in them and cherish these moments. Sometimes Cole puts the dollhouse mom into Handy Manny's work truck and hauls her off to "jail". Sometimes he picks up a baby doll and beats her bottom, shouting "you go to bed, bad girl!" and I wonder why he has to remember those things. But most of the time, they are just sweet and happy little ones. Lizzie looks up at her clothes hanging in the closet and says, "My dress! My shirt! My hat! My pants!" and Cole points to the letters in his name and says "There's my name, Mommy!" I am so thankful that they recognize this as their home, these are their toys, we are their parents. I cannot describe the joy that it brings me just to have them call me "Mommy," and to be so happy to see me every morning and again in the afternoon after work/school.
After a short play time, I let Cole turn off the lamp and they crawl into my lap. We sing (in this order every night):
Old MacDonald (had a horse, chicken, cow, pig and sometimes when we are in a crazy mood, dragon)
Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
You are my Sunshine (and you are my Cole-bug)
I see the Moon
Skinamarinkeedinkydink (or however in the heck you spell it)
and finally . . . Jesus Loves Me
And what is really strange is that my three little ones who never attended church or heard about God's love before coming to live here have absolutely SOAKED UP our faith. Cole asks every morning "we go to church today?" and is sad and disappointed when the answer is no. The boys went from shouting out cuss words while we attempted to say a blessing before each family meal to literally arguing over which one of them gets to ask the blessing. Camden says "Thank you God for the food, Amen." and Cole-bug just says "Thank You God, Amen." but it's just the sweetest music to my ears. And although they love Old MacDonald and You are my Sunshine, the room becomes slow and still during "Jesus Loves Me." What follows is generally a conversation about God, Heaven, or Jesus. Once last week, it went like this:
"Mommy, where is Jesus' house?"
"It's in Heaven,"
"Where Porky lives?"
"Yes, Porky lives in Heaven."
"Does Porky watch Jesus?"
"I'm sure Porky loves to watch Jesus."
"I want to go to Heaven and see Porky and Jesus."
"You will one day, buddy."
"Mommy? What is "Tells me So?"
"What do you mean buddy?"
"It says, "Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so. What is tells me so?"
Trying my best to explain to a three year old that the Bible teaches us about God's love through Jesus Christ, I chattered endlessly about the Bible and its simple yet profound truth. And what's even harder to explain is that this song isn't saying "Jesus loves me" because of something I did, or "Jesus loves me" because I'm good, or because I love Him, or because I read my Bible, or because I go to church, or even because I believe in Him and follow Him. The song says Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me So. It's not a feeling, it is a fact. It is as much a fact to say Jesus loves me as it is for me to tell my children how much I longed for them before they ever came to be mine. They can read in my journals or my blog and say "Mommy loved us before we even became hers. Mommy's journal tells me so!" This is a love based on blind faith and on a choice. God's love for me - not based on anything I say or do, is a simple fact repeated over and over again in the Bible. Jesus does love me - this I do know - for the Bible tells me so. He loves me in spite of my many imperfections, in spite of my past, in spite of my wildly ranging emotions, in spite of my struggles with faith. He loves me not because of anything I can do for Him. He just loves me.
And so tonight, in the middle of my nighttime ritual with my precious children, I was stopped cold in my tracks. As if I was three years old again, in blind faith, I reached out and took hold of that promise. A promise I will pass on to my children.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible Tells me so.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

In Loving Memory

Tonight I am going to take a short break from the adoption journey to share with you about an earlier adoption, and hopefully in some small way honor someone who changed my life for the better. In fact, to tell you that this someone simply "changed" my life would be trite, and in no way do I want to minimize the role of this wonderful companion.

On January 8, I said goodbye to my very precious dog, Pork Chop, better known as Porky. I was never a "dog person" before she came into my life, In fact, I adopted her the same month that I purchased my very first handgun. I took Porky into my home because she was a guard dog. She was a Rotweiller, but I came to regard her as not my guard dog, but my guardian angel.

As I have shared on this blog before, my first marriage was a mistake and not a happy time. My first "husband" had a severe addiction to cocaine and alcohol. I married him during a short nine month period when he had found Christianity and was mostly sober. In my naivete, I believed that with me by his side, and his new found faith, he had all the tools he needed to stay clean. I was regrettably and unfortunately very wrong. His addiction spiraled very quickly out of control and took me to places I never thought I would go. If you knew me during this time, you probably knew me as the Baptist Children's Ministry Director who could be found stapling a laminated Jesus to a bulletin board outside of children's church with a happy Bible verse printed in large, happy handwriting. You might have seen me teaching young kids from the "Wordless Book" or leading a cheerful song. But that was public Melissa, daytime Melissa. At night and at home I became a gun-toting, paranoid, panic-stricken lunatic who survived on less than three hours of sleep and wandered around the housing projects looking for her husband or stolen jewelry.

In 2004, the ex "husband" was in jail. Again.
Shady characters began showing up at my house, knocking on the door asking for him, demanding money. One night, someone shined a flashlight into my bedroom window. I slept on the sofa, waking with every creak or bump in the night, crying and praying to God to protect me. I was literally living in terror. After weeks of this, I convinced myself that I needed a protector. I needed a loyal dog who would sound the alarm and scare off intruders. A gun was not enough. And so the search began.

After browsing online ads about dog adoption and fruitless hours spent at the animal control shelter, my sister one day sent me a link to an adoption page about Pork Chop. She was (in the photo) very commanding and intimidating. Meeting her in person a few days later, I was frankly terrified. Porky greeted me with a large toothy grin, knocking her sharp pointed teeth against my clenched knuckles and making sure I knew she was serious business. Linda, the "foster mom", handed me the leash and encouraged me to walk around the pet store where we met. I was very nervous, but I took that leash, and together Porky and I wandered the aisles of the store. I noticed right away that people moved away from us, although Porky never growled or barked. Her calm alertness and her confidence was enough to cause strangers to pause. Grown men stepped aside to let us pass, and I loved that about her. We stopped on the book aisle where I picked up "Rotweillers for Dummies" and I later grabbed a food and water dish, a bag of dry food, and some toys and treats. Linda told me that she would hold my check for up to six weeks in case I changed my mind about Porky. I called Linda the next day and told her to cash that check. I had found my guardian.

The first night in my small house, Porky was quiet in her crate. She was well mannered, polite, and followed my every command. On the second night, I decided that it made little sense to keep a guard dog in a cage. I invited her to sleep at the foot of my bed. She looked at me as if I was crazy when I patted the bed and urged her to join me. But she did. And for almost nine years, that is where she slept, at the foot of my bed, facing the doorway, always watching, always protecting me.

Porky saved my life in many ways. She saved my life during the darkest times because she gave me purpose. She gave me someone to come home to at night. Even as I pulled into the driveway, I would see the outline of her square jaw as she was watching through the mini blinds. She stood by the door as I unlocked it, and she made me feel so safe. She also quite literally saved my life, more than once. She warned me one Saturday that someone was in my yard. It turned out to be a very dangerous man who was looking for my ex husband. Although her warning gave me time to get my handgun, it was my Porky who scared off the intruder. Another time, my sweet girl chased off a drug dealer and bit him on the leg, all to spare me hurt and fear. With Porky by my side, I became confident, alert, and able to sleep at night. We began taking walks together in a neighborhood I had once feared. We took regular trips to Fort Yargo and hiked the trails alone, while I talked to her out loud and worked through my emotional wreck of a life. I took her with me on road trips, camping trips, and all my errands. She was truly my guardian angel, and I was her most difficult assignment.

When I finally got the courage to divorce my first husband, I talked constantly to Pork Chop. She stayed at my feet, or beside me on the couch through many long and painful nights. She always seemed to listen, eyes wide open and fixed on me. I could never put into words how much my girl did for me, and how well she knew me. I will forever be grateful that God brought her to me when He did. She gave me back my life, and she helped to make it really fantastic.

My mom told me that Porky stayed with me until she was sure that I was going to be okay. She got to be here in this happy house in Dahlonega with my wonderful, kind and gentle husband, John - the two-legged love of my life. While she stayed by my side through two very difficult and painful ectopic pregnancies, she later got to see me parenting my foster children and she watched over them with the same love and devotion she had always shown to me. She got to live her "golden years" here with John's two dogs (lost in 2011 and 2012) and she later accompanied us to the local animal control shelter to pick out her new dog buddy, Otis (who I am convinced she trained for the past ten months to protect our family.) In these past few years, she would join us in our crowded van full of loud and happy kids, sleeping bags and tents, and protect us fiercely in the woods of a camp out. She has ridden on boats with us on the lake, swam in her very own life jacket in every nook of the river here, and in the lakes at the state parks. She has hiked Brasstown Bald and most of the nearby waterfalls, with unparallelled enthusiasm, always watching every member of our family.

And when it was time to let her go, I honestly didn't know if I could do it. She was very healthy up until the holidays, when her age began to show. I spent a small fortune and ran her back and forth to our vet, giving her IV fluids at home, water from a syringe, and baby food until she began to lose the fight. I watched her fading away, and I wondered how I would survive without her. She stopped eating, refused medication, and eventually stopped walking. I kept her here on this earth for longer than I probably should have. I just couldn't imagine my world without her. She was my very-present help in times of trouble, and my always present companion.

On January 8, I found a vet who agreed to come to the house. I just couldn't put her through the ordeal of carrying her to the car and into the vet hospital. Before they came, Cody helped me move her into my bedroom, so she could spend her last few moments on earth at the end of my bed, on a soft cushion with a quilt spread over her body. The vets were very kind, explaining that her labored breathing was a sign of the inevitable. I spent 45 minutes alone with her, kissing her nose and telling her how much I loved her, how sorry I was to see her go, and how grateful I was for her never ceasing love and devotion to me. In the end of her life, I made a choice to let her stop hurting, knowing my hurt would go on for sometime. And I still cry a little bit every day. I expect to see her waiting on the bathroom rug when I step out of the shower. I expect to see the outline of her furry face watching me pull into the driveway. I expect to see her happy bobbing tail-bob when I come through the front door. I miss her fiercely.

Rest in Peace, my sweet guardian. Thank you for your commitment to me and my family. I can't wait to see you again one day.