A Cry So Big It Must Part the Clouds
The little one’s cries rise up like a smoke signal, a strobe light, an SOS balloon blotting out the sky. They expand to fill the whole space. Her panic pumps them full of energy till the house is ringing with her full-throated, wide-mouthed, tongue-quivering wail. They vault me from my bed or chair or away from the stove or from deep inside the washing machine reaching for that damp baby sock plastered to the smooth metal drum. She cries high and urgent and louder by the second. Now.
Now, she cries eight, nine, a hundred times a day. At first, she did not cry at all. She came to us, a foster child, at 20 months old, grossly obese and nearly silent. A lifetime spent in a crib with one sugar bottle after another. Literally, a lifetime.
When we tentatively waded into visits with extended birth family about six months after she came to us the thing everyone kept saying was, “She talks! We didn’t think she’d ever talk!”
I hid my quick flash of anger at their acknowledged, complicit neglect by turning to straighten her ponytail or check her diaper. I mothered her, blatantly, in front of them.
Under my care this girl lost seven pounds and grew three inches in one year. She is the only child I’ve ever known to go backwards in clothing sizes (at age one and a half she wore size six clothing, the size my older sons wore in 1st grade, the clothing straining across her middle and the sleeves and pantlegs rolled up four, five times). Then she went down to a size five. Just recently her stretchy yoga pants began slipping off and it dawned on me that I needed to dig back into the clothing stash and find size four items for her. For the first time in her life, almost three years old now, she will wear pants that don’t need the legs rolled up.
This silent, obese girl who could only haul her hulking body a few steps before crashing weakly to the floor is now running, climbing, yelling, chattering, wailing to get my attention all day long. It is, as if, as the weight peeled off it lightened her to speak her mind. As if, back then, her weight took up all the space in the room but now that she is free of it her voice can (must?) take up all the air in the room.
We still have work to do. I need, for my sanity, the day to come when she does not wail a panicked “MAMA!” twenty, fifty, a thousand times a day. But there are positive signs. Her vocabulary is expanding, outpacing her fears. She consumes books as she once consumed bottles, leafing through the pages and retelling herself the story I just read to her. I find library books all over the house. One must be careful when climbing the stairs not to step on one and go slaloming down the carpeted steps on its plastic-protector cover. In the night, when I roll over, there is the thump-thump of books raining down over the side, slipping loose from where she stashed them in my bedding, the place she believes books like to sleep, tucked in with me each night.
The older girl cries a long, sad dirge failing, from lack of conviction, near the end. She stands, arms folded limply across her belly, chin tucked to chest, and cries through her nose. It is less a cry than a nasally deflation. Her cry is like the shriveled, mushy cucumber forgotten at the back of the crisper. My lip curls in distaste and I want to pick it up gingerly with two fingers and rush it to the compost bin and squash the lid down without looking too closely at it.
She cries, convinced, that she is the victim. I believe this self-imposed victim status is less a result of her background and more about her personality. There is a long, long line of victims in her family tree, passing down their genetic predisposition to suffering along with their pointy chins and narrow fingers.
I do not rush to rescue her when she cries like that. Rescue is the last thing she needs. Instead, I make her think. I coach and frame and model the problem-solving I need her to learn. I stand square in front of her, and present a face utterly devoid of interest in her crying and say, “Okay, so what are you going to do about that?”
It’s working. She is proud of herself when she figures out what to do. The nasally deflation cry is happening less often and she’s begun crying real cries when she’s truly hurt or angry or feeling any of the authentic emotions she’s begun displaying now that life is no longer one big drama after another. In her defense, it must’ve been hard to know what was real when Jerry Springer was not only blaring on the TV but also playing out in real life around her.
Once, at the indoor mall’s kiddie playground she accidentally stepped on a little boy her same size. The boy was hurt and went, crying, to his mother. I instructed her to approach them and say sorry. Saying sorry is a well-practiced skill she performs all day long in our home, a house of five children forever bouncing off one another. She started to walk confidently over to the boy but then, because her grandmother was with us that day, in fact I’d chosen this neutral site for grandmother’s visit, she stopped. She collapsed. It was like watching bone turn to mush.
Grandmother rushed in to scoop up the mush and soon granddaughter and grandmother’s mingled wails and moans of comfort were a ridiculous cacophony so loud that the echo-y mall interior was ringing with it.
I made myself count to ten, then twenty, but just as I decided to count on to fifty something came over me and I reached over and, lip curling with distaste, inserted two fingers into their co-mingling victimhood and grasped her arm and pulled her free to stand her, to insist with one look and one squeeze, that she stand upright before me and announced, “Enough!”
I said, “All done!” and she nodded and wiped away her tears.
I said, “Go say you’re sorry,” and she took a deep breath and re-inflated herself, miraculously recovered from the limp and mushy cucumber to become the whole and healthy girl I knew she could be and walked over and said sorry and then ran off happily to play.
I saw, out of the corner of my eye, grandmother’s stunned face pivoted to me but I could not even acknowledge her. There’s only so many vegetables I have the energy to pluck back out of the compost bin and plunge into ice water to reconstitute.
In the parking lot the girl did not cling to grandma at the good-bye as she has sometimes in the past. She chose to hold myhand this time, swinging it exuberantly back and forth as she skipped beside me, chattering nonstop, full of life and laughter.
My youngest son is not a foster child but he is the same age as our foster daughters and is immersed in their lives. He is four and they’ve lived here a fourth of his lifetime. He cries rarely but angrily when he does. His cry starts as a shriek of injustice and ends as a growl and ‘hmph’ accompanied by jerky shrugs of his shoulders and swings of his elbows. It is being hemmed in that makes him angriest and he pushes back to make room for his toys, for his body, for his thoughts, for his time with his mother.
Because the rules are different for biological children than foster children he is allowed to sleep in our bed. He shows up, sometimes, in the middle of the night, scaling his dad’s bulk like a familiar mountainside to wiggle and wedge himself between us. I wake to his soft baby arms and chubby hands around my neck, his breath warming my hair. We’ve become much more accommodating to these midnight arrivals for this son than we were for his two older brothers. We understand that he needs, we need, these quiet, sleepy times of connection.
I wonder, after the adoption is finalized, if we will invite the girls to also partake of this privilege only our son knows about just now. Maybe it is best to keep some things special, reserved, sacred, to honor his grief over losing something he once had but has now been exchanged for this new life we all lead. Besides, just as I want the girls to choose defiance over victimhood, so I want my sweet boy, who reacts with anger sometimes, to remember that his parents see and acknowledge with open arms, all the rest of his emotions, too.
And perhaps also, as a mother to two big sons, my first and second children, who now tower above me in height if not experience, I know all too well how soon big boys stop crying and running to their mother when big feelings overflow and need a safe home.
If crying is a child’s first communication, and speech is the next level of communication, then writing is, perhaps, the final stage. I write and write and write. I write in the individual journal I keep for each child as well as my own. I write my sad and angry blog posts and my humorous social media posts, choosing what to say to each audience. I write here and there, displaying my words for someone, anyone, in the world to read. Just as my youngest daughter sends up an SOS cry so big it must part the clouds as it floats into the atmosphere, so I send my words out across the ether to spread out and take up their space.
It’s a very human need, this cry for others to see our pain, isn’t it?
Sara Mesa Wright lives with her husband and five children in central Michigan. She writes about the dark reality of foster care and adoption because she’s been called a ‘saint’, and her children ‘lucky’, one time too many. She writes and blogs under a pseudonym to protect the privacy of her children at fosterfurther.blogspot.com.