The night before we leave him, nothing goes as planned. My one-year-old foster baby isn’t quite a baby anymore, and he’s started to assert his opinions. He wiggles out of my arms when I try to pull him from the sunshine and into the house. He throws sweet potato on the floor at dinner and lunges for the metal railing when I take him upstairs for a bath. He’s skipped a nap, and his frustrated tears come easily when isn’t able to decide what will happen next. I hold my own tears in until right after we drop him off at his parents’ apartment the next day. But, I’m no less scared of all of the ways our life together is changing. Suddenly, we’re both being led down a path we’re sure we didn’t pick.
What is happening to all of us is necessary. In many ways, it is right and it is fair. But to my heart, today, it is a threat, an opening into a dark wood at night. After more than a year together as a foster family, we must now pull up the threads that have wound themselves in and around our lives, like the tender roots of sapling, the foundation of our unique family tree. Our little boy’s parents have done everything asked of them by his county social worker, so that they might be the ones to raise him, to see him through his tears and his growing pains, to take part in his everyday joys. In our place, they will be the ones to see him pick buttercups out of the grass on a summer day, to feel his chubby fingers in their own hands, to hear him babble through his favorite stories at bedtime.
What is asked of us now is to become people who are no longer his parents. We amble into the darkness with no knowledge of who we will be on the other side of the woods. And as we go, we are alert to every step that hastens the slow undoing of a relationship that began sprouting the day he was placed into my arms.
At the drop off, we watch him be carried away in his father’s arms. I wave limply, knowing he doesn’t understand that he will spend his very first night away from us since he left the hospital at four days old. I don’t cry until my husband and I are locked back into the car, just the two of us. I feel our path becoming narrower, the night shutting out the day’s light. And then, gratitude in the darkness, that my husband walks beside me even to places we would rather not go.
At home, I begin to pick up toys off the living room floor. The sun has set now, and I let tears fall all over colorful plastic shapes and miniature dump trucks. I imagine looking in on myself through our living room window, knelt over on the rug, surrounded by toys that will soon be gone. I see grief that others’ turn away from, a burden few would choose to take up for a friend. And what I wouldn’t give to somehow be oblivious to this process, like someone going into a deep, anesthetic sleep as an arm or a leg is removed. Watching a good and precious part of oneself be torn away bit-by-bit feels beyond the human threshold of pain. But, I know I must be wide awake to see my little boy through the emotional wilderness, though I may startle at every rustle in the leaves.
Within an hour, friends arrive with dinner, wine, and a homemade chocolate cake. In the tradition of so many cultures and religions, these loved ones act on what they know – that grief hungers for companionship, for fullness of belly and heart, for distraction, and for commiseration. One friend stations herself in the kitchen and starts up a hollandaise sauce. We snack on crackers and uncork the wine. We talk about our jobs, families, vacations –real and imagined. We talk about our son. They honor our loss and the heavy emotional work that we are mired in. They listen and they make us feel good and brave. I feel we are a pack now. We can be as strong as the woods are threatening.
We eat eggs benedict and ham, sausage and hashed potatoes. Breakfast feels a fitting meal to mark the beginning of this new phase. We will need food for the difficult trek and our friends and family to walk beside us as we draw farther and farther away from the boy that holds our hopes and joys in his little palms. And yet, I know we will falter along the way, regardless of who is willing to help carry our sorrow down this unworn trail.
This part of our story seems like the wrong ending to a good beginning, like a dead end among the trees, the way back untraceable. Along the way, we lose memories, time, nights sleeping under the same roof, mornings that are the realm only of families, too-early wake-ups softened by hugs from wobbly toddler in fleece pajamas. As we lose this lifetime together, hour by hour, I know that I must think of what we can give each other to make the days full of knowing, full of a deep and lasting inner love – a lantern for the rest of the journey.
In his coming years, I hope to give him an understanding of this separation, which I take unwillingly and yet, with acceptance and surrender. I may not be the mother who reads to him at night, who buys his sneakers, or who takes him to the barber. I may not be the mother that calls him home for dinner or listens to his jokes at night, who tells him, it’s time for bed now. But as we step forward unassured, I will be remade into who I can be in his future life – a stronger, kinder woman than I am now. Refined by the trial, I will try to love his family as my own. And I will love him through it all, as the mother who stayed awake and watched him sleep on his first night at home, as the mother who will clear these unruly woods, so that his path can be made smooth.
Cristi Donoso Best is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and foster mother, who believes that every child in foster care deserves the constant, unconditional love of parent. You can find her more of her writing at cristidonoso.com.