I used to say I wanted to adopt someday. I envisioned a dark hand in my pale one. And maybe a few more little hands as well. A full colour pallet of little hands. It was a pretty picture that I now realize was sustained mostly by a rosy-coloured romanticism. Adoption and Christianity just seemed to go together. But whether or not adoption and I went together was another thing entirely.
I also used to say that I’d marry young and have a handful of kids. I envisioned a mob of us. Loud. Chaotic. Bursting with messy love. In this case, hope became reality at a whirlwind pace. I met my husband at 19, married him at 20 and had my first child within a year. My next four children came quickly on the heels of the first. And that loud, chaotic love wrapped itself around me like a second skin.
Somewhere along the way I began to learn about being filled and emptied. God would fill my mind and heart with His designs for me, and I would expend myself on them. The association was slow in coming, however. In my immaturity it went down more like this; I would obsess about something and then go after it with wild abandon, heedless of prayer, meditation or counsel. Slowly, I realized He was trying to lead me, and it went far better when I slowed to listen and talk to Him about it.
Simple as it seems, that was the spiritual process by which my husband and I became foster parents. We had five healthy, thriving children, the youngest of whom was three. I couldn’t carry any more children of my own, but the desire remained. Our home was safe and secure, as was our marriage. We were inundated with supports of all kinds. And we began to be all filled up with God’s design. He told us he had more for us to do. More children for us to parent and to love.
It was a series of connected messages on a theme. Our local Christian radio station began Adoption Month and my drive-time was filled with stories of fostering and adoption. Sermons seemed to refer to God’s adoption of us as sons and daughters everywhere I went. Friends of ours began the process of becoming foster parents. And finally, we visited a church where we reconnected with a family that looked a lot like ours. They had five kids of their own, but had launched into foster care a few years earlier. It was in the air. A palpable calling.
The practical unfolding was a high-speed ride that was a pleasure to be a part of. I made a first inquiry online to our local Children’s Aid Society one morning as I sat sipping coffee. That was all it took to rapidly launch us on to a 6-month path to becoming full-fledged foster parents. Everything lined up for us. We had prayed for a foster care worker who would understand our hearts. We got her. We prayed for a new vehicle that would fit a few more little passengers. Within a month a huge white van with a bumper sticker that read “I heart foster parenting” on the back was parked in our driveway.
We flew through every hoop. Even the sticky ones that come up when a Christian family butts up against a secular system. The way was smooth.
Why fostering rather than adoption? I credit my husband with offering up the gem of insight that settled us on this path. He said that through adoption we would be able to help a few kids. But through fostering we’d be able to help many. Foster care comes with a special kind of pain because you can never ever mistakenly think of these kids as your own. They all have mothers and fathers waiting for their return. But, therein is found the other jewel of an opportunity in foster care; it is a ministry of love to the moms and dads who are watching and waiting. You are given a chance to love them right alongside their children.
And so, with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, we waited. And then on June 13th 2012 we got the call. A little girl needed a home. . .
Ten minutes. That was the amount of time I was given to decide if I was ready to change my life. My whole family’s life.
The call came around noon. “We have an Inuit toddler who needs a home. Will you be ready for her in an hour?” This was it. I called my husband and couldn’t reach him at first. I paced up and down the kitchen in prayer. When he finally called, he said only this; “Yes. Let’s say yes. This is why we’re doing this.”
An hour later she arrived. Sleepy and dishevelled, she watched us carefully, clinging to her sippy cup. Our two dogs were an asset as their wet greeting eased her out of her confusion and into giggles. And then she was in my arms, swinging with me on our old wooden swing. Minute by minute swaying her way deep, deep into our hearts.
A year and a half. That is the amount of time we had to braid her long black hair and practice our tongues at the strange new words that were home to her. A year and a half to watch her grow steady on her feet and move steadily into her place as baby of the family. A year and a half of that husky laugh, that smile, those dimples. Of memorizing the shape of her and the way she fit into our arms. A year and a half of marvelling at her ability to embrace every new day, place, and person as though they were an anticipated delight. A year and a half is the amount of time we had to begin to lose sight of losing her.
Until we did. You see, our little girl had a terrific mother. In this system, we have been told, most grow weary and choose vice over motherhood. But there are others who fight, kick, claw their way back to health and to their children. This little girl had a mother like that. It didn’t take long for us to see it, and it made us want to join her fight. The battle of the broken should never be a spectator sport.
It isn’t enough to show an empty-armed mother that you love her child; the one you get to hold in your arms at night instead of her. That heartbroken mother will take in the picture of you in your nice house, with your shiny family. And she will only feel more broken if she watches from a distance as her child is loved by people deemed more stable, more secure, more safe. We knew there had to be a gathering-in. We wanted to honour her for every one of the 18 months that shaped this child before she made it to our door. We asked her to teach us all the things we didn’t know about her daughter. And she did.
As we opened up wide our life, our home and our church to her, this mom opened herself up wide in response. She helped us grow more familiar with her language: “Akuluk means I love you.” It was with her that we first tasted whale meat-- an experience I hope never to repeat, mind you. . . One day, she gifted me with a beautiful hair clip made from seal pelt. She told me that her Aunt had made it to thank me for taking such good care of her little niece.
As she gave, she also allowed herself to receive. She became a familiar face at our church, even though it must have initially been very uncomfortable for her. We invited her to join us for afternoons at my parents’ home where she and my Mom would discuss the finer points of mystery novels. She joined us for many celebrations throughout the time we cared for her daughter, and she did so without reservation. I will never forget the day we gave her a ride home, and as she climbed out of the van she leaned in to kiss our daughter. “I love you,” she said. And I knew she meant it.
A lifetime. That is the amount of time we will remain awed by the gift of having lived this. We are soberly aware that this story is a rare gem in the circles of social care. But it is our gem. A little while ago, our girl came to spend the weekend with us. I watched her run around the house, rediscovering the landscape of her toddlerhood, and I could barely breathe. I looked up to find my husband looking back at me. “This hurts” I mouthed silently across the room. He nodded. Yes, it hurts. But it only took a minute for pain to be covered over by awe at the stunningly vast parameters of love. Look what love does! It gives. It takes. It shares. It loses. And it tenaciously roots and grows through it all.