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.