I opened my email one morning last summer and, within eight minutes, was on the phone with my best friend.
“Why am I crying?” I asked her in between telling her the details of what I had just read.
“Because you loved him. And because you never stopped.”
David walked into our lives 14 years ago and promptly out nearly nine months later.
It was a chilly November night when he and his scant belongings, housed in a plastic garbage bag, walked through the front door of our house. David was small, two years old, already world-weary and not nearly as nervous as one would expect. He put his Diet Coke on our dining room table and proceeded to ascertain his surroundings. Light switches caught his attention first. On then off, then a flicker, then a steady rhythm. I followed him as one would a tour guide, fascinated to see what he would do next, worried that I wouldn’t know what to do next.
We trained to be foster parents and thought we knew what we were doing, what we were getting ourselves into. We didn’t. Probably nobody does when they first sign on.
An Old Soul
The call had come just that afternoon. I called my husband and filled him in. It was real now, and I could sense his nervousness.
After a call to my superintendent to secure three weeks off from my teaching position, I left work and went home. We had some supplies. Generous friends and family had filled our basement with toys, clothes, and equipment for any child who might come our way. But I didn’t start setting things up. I had three hours before the child’s arrival and four before my husband’s. So I sat and thought, then walked around and thought some more.
The light waned early, and, right on time, there was a knock on the door. From the moment David entered, he mesmerized me. It might have been his story, compelling as it was, but, looking back, I think it was him—the energy he exuded, the old soul that he was.
I heard the social worker’s words, heard her ask me if we smoked. He had asthma. When I said we didn’t, she seemed relieved but handed me an arsenal of medical equipment just in case. I held it in ineptitude and terror as she made her way out the door.
And for an hour it was the two of us. Just us. I wanted to wrap his tiny self in my arms and tell him he was safe, but I knew better, knew he had to make his way to me. Instead I talked to him, a running monologue of labeling everything he looked at and touched: kitchen table, chair, door, light switch. He wasn’t talking. Not yet. That would come later, and with a vengeance.
My husband came home and joined me in wonder—this person, here. We were responsible for his well-being, for trying to fill in what might be missing, for meeting him where he was and honoring that. As his foster parents, we knew this was temporary but hoped, as foster parents do, that the love and security we could offer him for however long we were together would stay with him. A hope, a wish, maybe even a mantra: He won’t be with you forever, but what you give to him has the potential to last a lifetime.
It is a comfort, a motivator. And foster parents need both because this is supposed to be temporary.
Until it isn’t.
Until a social worker sits in your kitchen less than three weeks into his time with you and asks if you want to adopt him. As simple—and not simple—as that.
“Do you want to adopt him?”
Him. This boy who, minutes into his arrival, owned our hearts, was our sole focus. Did we want to adopt him?
There was only one answer. And at that point everything changed—maybe not in our hearts, because we were already in love, but in word and deed. We told the world, and maybe that was a mistake. Maybe it wasn’t. Who can ever be sure? But we told anyone who would listen and waited patiently by the phone for the next update, the next set of instructions.
Our First Goodbye
And then, the instructions we never saw coming: Reunification. The first and ultimate goal in any foster placement, but one that had been reconfigured when the word “adoption” was uttered.
We packed David’s accumulation of belongings, and said our goodbyes on the stairs. We hugged him and kissed him and held him as though the power of our love would somehow change this moment of excruciating parting and loss. It didn’t. He looked at us and, far wiser and infinitely stronger than we were, said, “I have to go.” The social worker carried him down the stairs and buckled him in to the car that was waiting for him, where he sat looking straight ahead. His small hand waved goodbye, and our hearts were torn asunder.
My husband and I sat back on our stairs for a long time, then eventually got up. It was an April morning, beautiful by New England standards, and we walked through our city. The salty air of Narragansett Bay endeavored to dry our tears and clear our heads. I looked at him and said, “That was the worst. We got through the worst of it, and we’re walking. From this point forward, we start healing.”
Naïve, perhaps, but hopeful, and the most optimistic utterance I could muster. Days went by and the raw wounds, while far from healed, were at least moving in that direction.
Then, another call, 11 days later.
The reunification the social workers had planned might have been premature. It wasn’t working.
“Well, do you want him back?”
The drive seemed interminable, but I don’t remember a thing—just pulling up to where he was and seeing him run to us, our hearts once again on the outsides of our bodies. He got into our car as if it were just another day, and a social worker said, “A lot of the stuff you sent with him is missing. But you have the most important thing—him.” I smiled, thinking for a moment of her job and what she must see, what she must feel, and what she must close herself off from feeling.
As we got ready to depart, the social worker who first used the word “adopt” many months before came up to us and used it again, this time with a determination in her voice that rivaled only her frustration. She wanted to make sure we were still willing. We were nothing but.
And on we went. Take two. We allowed ourselves to bask in what we were sure—this time—was a sure thing. The weather warmed, the school year concluded…and the phone rang again. Another reunification plan.
“You Will Always Have a Place”
We packed David up and planned his third birthday party. People came in joy and celebration. We held his plan, our pain, in this time. It was his day, and we wanted it to be one of happiness. We didn’t want people coming to his party knowing this would be the last time they would see him.
And, just like the feeling you get when you watch a film or read a book for the second time, we packed and piled his belongings, said goodbye on the stairs. We hugged him and kissed him and told him we loved him, but this time, I whispered in his ear my wish for him: That he would be loved, that he would be allowed to realize his potential, and that, if his journey brought him back to us, he would always know he had a place. I kissed his wet cheek, now a repository for both our tears, and watched him walk out the door.
My husband and I looked at each other again and started again. We poured our love into traveling the world, adopting three beautiful boys, and healing our hearts.
And nearly 14 years later, I received an e-mail from a then 16-year-old boy: “This a long shot, but….”
The best love stories usually are.
Since this essay was written, David, who’s now 17, moved in with Hines, her husband, and their three younger sons. They became his legal guardians and are looking forward to the future together.