You sit across from me with a nervous smile. “We are thinking about foster care or adoption, what do you think?”
You will be changed. You will lose control. You are going to stumble more times than you soar, and the bruises from the falls will not go away. It’s going to hurt you, break you and press you to your limits; emotionally and physically. People will think you’re crazy and you will lose friends, you will lose family, and you will make choices that don’t make sense to others. You will cry.
What you are about to do, is step headlong into grief; a grief that you will swallow whole and find lodged in your center. You will find within yourself a strength you never knew you held, and the price in finding this strength will be extracted from your weaknesses.
I want to say those things, but I also want to say this…
There’s a reason you will adopt more than once. It’s addicting. You will realize that there is no material wealth that can ever supplant the feeling of helping a child be healed by family. You will find it an absolute privilege to walk in their pain, and slowly over time watch them rise and fly. You will realize that none of this is about you, you’ve just been given the gift of a front-row seat.
I am asked often about taking the leap into foster care or adoption. I never truly know how to answer, because I want to be honest, I want to be transparent. I want people to understand that who I am today has been shaped and twisted through some of the hardest and most traumatic circumstances one could imagine. I want to be honest, but I also want children to have a family. So instead of giving advice on whether you should do foster care or adoption. I decided to write about a moment that I realized that I had a choice to make. The moment that I realized that I could not remain a witness on the sideline, but must step into the muck and mess. Or I needed to walk away.
This is about a night in a rural hospital and if I’m honest, at the time I did not realize the course I had just set my feet upon. I didn’t understand that following Christ will always mean more than one thing. Beauty and ashes, sorrow and sweetness, grief and hope; the very costly mix of following Christ. I also didn’t know that all of this would hurt so damn much.
It was Fall; an appropriate season to hold the night that I lost control and spun to the ground. I was standing in an overcrowded ICU unit watching them code the baby who had just been napping in my home, 4 hours earlier. The sweet girl who I had been willing to live for months and had spent many sleepless nights and exhausting days caring for.
Their hands seemed too large as they compressed her chest and I watched it rise and fall to the rhythm of their bagging. The cacophony of noise from shouted orders filled the crammed, tiny room, and I shrank in the corner. The sharp scent of antiseptic and harsh overhead glare highlighted a scene playing out in slow motion in my mind.
“Beat”, I begged her heart.
“Live”, I willed her soul.
“Please, not today”, I begged God.
And suddenly there was a pulse and it seemed that the entire room exhaled its bated breath. Time swept across the space as they readjusted leads, lines and wires. The doctor crossed the room and asked me to sit. I sat and realized that my hands were shaking, so I clasped them together and clamped them between my knees.
“She will probably not live through the night.” And I blinked hard and stared. “I need you to see that she is too sick, I’m sorry.” I don’t remember a word after that, his mouth moved, but I didn’t register his words.
He stood and when he walked from the room he carried my hope on his heels.
I sat and I couldn’t wrap my mind around this. She couldn’t die. I was not going to let her die. I signed up to be a foster mom, and this did not include watching a child die; a child I had bought hair bows and shoes for. A child that had a crib set up in my bedroom and a space set in my heart. So I stood and I followed him to the ICU desk.
“I want her sent to another hospital”, I stated.
I remember his look of pity and he began to explain about her specialized oxygen needs and the fragility of her body. I crossed my arms and I remember repeating my earlier request.
Then he bluntly stated, “she will not live the flight and it would be your choice to place her on a helicopter”.
“You will have to sign a paper stating you are going against my recommendations.” he said with fatigue lining his face.
Here, here is that moment I crossed the line. I looked across the unit through the glass door that held my foster daughter. I could make out her tiny fist through the glass, and I made a choice.
“I’ll sign”, I said. And I signed that paper with my back straight and my hand steady, while inside fear and grief were lodged in my gut. I had just stepped off a ledge and this fall could have huge implications.
I walked back into her room and I collapsed sobbing into a chair. What had I just done! I had signed a paper that legally I could not sign. But more than anything, I couldn’t handle the depths of grief I was wading in. I could not handle watching this baby that I loved die right in front of me.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says.” ― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I had just crossed a line and would never return to the place I once lived. The place that I could save a foster child, the place that said love can fix everything. I realized that what I’d now witnessed, held, touched and lifted had become too weighty and trans-formative for such calculating logic to fix. I found myself grappling with God and questioning this sorrow and pain. And I questioned my faith, as I looked to God and asked why I’ve seen these things, what is the point. Because I was afraid.
I sat in that chair trying to swallow down the grief and fear that enveloped me. I heard the quiet swish of the door as her nurse walked in. She knelt in front of my chair and grasped my trembling hands.
“Look at me”, she ordered. I lifted my head and her face was set in steely resolve. “You made the right choice and I’m going to help you.” She then told me to drive the three hours to the larger hospital and she would get my foster daughter onto the helicopter alive. As she let go of my fingers and walked from the room, I realized this nurse had just returned hope to my trembling hand.
I later learned that she coded five more times before they could get her transported. The nurse called my cell phone after she was loaded and said, “She is going to make it, keep fighting for her.”
I don’t remember the three hour drive to the hospital. I rushed to the pediatric cardiac ICU and stood outside the unit pressing the intercom button outside the automatic doors.
“May I help you” asked a tinny speaker voice. And I blurted that my daughter was en-route and I needed to speak to the charge nurse. They brought me into a parent waiting room and I must have looked crazy. I’d been awake over 24 hours and I was a wreck. I looked the charge nurse in the eye and said, “Tell me you will save her. Tell me that I chose the right hospital.” And I held out my hand that was still gripping hope. She grasped my hand and told me that my daughter was not the sickest baby on their unit. That this was exactly where she needed to be and that their staff was trained specifically for babies like her. And she closed my fingers around the hope I was still holding and walked back onto the unit.
The helicopter was met by a team of nurses and physicians who quickly stabilized her. I learned that she had coded twice en-route. Two days later, my foster daughter was extubated (breathing tube removed) and sitting up in the ICU crib. Two weeks later, we brought her back home to get her ready for open-heart surgery. The cardiac team had found the hidden cause behind her issues and they were considered “repairable”.
My foster daughter made it. And she made it after many more harrowing days and nights of close calls and ICU codes. She made it a year in my home. A year that we sat hours upon hours in hospital rooms, ate countless meals from cafeteria trays, and loved her as our own.
And then it turned Fall again, and there came a day that we walked to our car without her. Reunification with family is always the goal of foster care, and our hearts were shattered. Grief sat centered in my gut, and I found it hard to breathe.
Four years later, I received a photo on my phone. A little girl sitting in a desk at school.
You sit across from me asking about foster care and adoption, I smile and say, “Her name was Annie. She changed me. She made me lose control. She stretched me to my limits; both emotionally and physically. She was beauty and ashes, sorrow and sweetness, grief and hope. And I’d choose to do it all over again.”