Search This Blog

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.