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Before I became a foster parent I didn't give much thought to saying goodbye to the foster children I would love and care for. Although it is the obvious, inevitable result of being a foster parent, it wasn't something I focused on. Unless you are able to adopt from foster care, which many foster parents in Wisconsin do, you will experience "saying goodbye". There is no preparing for it, although our foster agency tried. We talked about it during foster care training classes, but I couldn't have ever been prepared for the gut-wrenching bag of emotions. If only I had known, it would all be temporary. Very temporary!
Before I get into details, let me be clear that I did survive and so will you. I promise. The first hole in your heart will heal as will all the others. You will discover that your heart is big for a beautiful reason, and it might not be the reason you think. It took one boy to teach me what the reason was for me.
I truly believe that I am a better woman, wife, mom, daughter, and friend because of the experience of loving and letting go. Being vulnerable to the heartache of letting go of kids you love takes strength, resilience, and courage. It is through these vulnerabilities that we as foster parents are able to love our foster kids with no agenda, expecting nothing in return.
I guess I just accepted it as fact. The saying goodbye part that is. I knew the difficult day would come eventually with our first placement and the emotional roller coaster leading up to that day was difficult. Perhaps as foster parents, we bury ourselves in the loving, healing, and growth taking place. Maybe, we focus on the journey one day at a time to protect ourselves from the inevitable or maybe it is just instinctive to push it to the side until it happens. But it is going to happen.
I had never lost a loved one or family member. I had several miscarriages but had not yet said a final goodbye to someone I truly loved. In hindsight, maybe my inexperience or naivety protected me from anticipating saying goodbye. The agency notified us, he would leave at the end of the month. I decided to offer mom and baby extra visits during the time remaining. I began to meet with her 2-3 times a week. Just the three of us, or sometimes my kids would come along, we met in public parks and fast-food restaurants, to help facilitate a smooth transition back home. I wanted her to know her son and I wanted him to know her too.
Court dates were set and our caseworker kept us informed of timelines. I will admit, my thoughts weren't always pleasant. It wasn't fair! The system was broken! He should not be going home! STOP, WAIT... Like so many things in life, the situation isn't always what you think AND you will never win a battle of love with negative thoughts like those.
Friends and family, even strangers told me:
"You will be okay."
"Look how much you helped him."
"You'll get another foster child to help." (yep, that one).
Until the day it happened to me and my family I could never have imagined the heartbreak. What was to come would be even more unimaginable.
Family members were approved to care for him and he would soon live with family and his mom, with supervision while with her son. The supervised living situation would last for at least 6 months until a judge determined it safe he be returned to mom permanently. Not knowing the family, we were nervous about the transition back home. Would he be afraid, confused, and would he wonder where we went?
His bags were packed, he was wearing an orange shirt (his best color), and we took dozens of "last photos". Tears, hugs, and kisses were plentiful. Nearly a year had passed since he arrived. He came to us after a hospital stay. At just 5 months old, he had survived shaken baby syndrome. It was months before the Neurosurgeon would place him in the 15th percentile of shaken babies with a specific hematoma that survives without brain damage. He was a miracle.
I drove with him in the backseat, one last car ride together, the caseworker leading the way in her car ahead of me. I was sick to my stomach. The 30-minute drive felt like hours. My eyes welled with tears as I tried to keep my emotions together as best I could, knowing that this indeed was a happy, joyous day for him, his mother, and their entire family.
I remember walking up the steps of the split-level home, holding him tightly I wondered; Will they hate me? Will they ask me to leave immediately? The smell of home cooking was thick in the air. Relatives were seated around the room, watching with curiosity, and friendly hellos were exchanged. I understood not one word spoken that day but I clearly remember feeling the anticipation, nervousness, and pure joy and excitement that filled the house. Their baby boy was HOME.
My throat tightened and a hole immediately formed in my heart. I tried to imagine what her heart was feeling. She had been separated from her son for 2/3 of his life. His injuries would be proven in court to be a terrible accident but the guilt she wore was palpable. I wanted desperately for her to feel the love I had for her son. I wanted each of them to believe that we loved him in her absence because that is why we chose to become foster parents. We gave him all we could so he could prosper later in her loving care.
After nearly two hours in the home that day, I left alone. I expressed myself as best as I could, through the translation of the caseworker, that we loved him without agenda. I wished her the best life and hugged her goodbye. Our journey had ended. I kissed him on the top of the head as he stood at the coffee table, I could not breathe.
As I made my way down the stairs to the front door, I glanced to my right and was at eye level with him. Holding his little juice cup he looked at me as if to say:
It's okay mommy, you can go now.
I closed the door and held my breath as I walked to the car. Once inside I let out the cry I had been holding all day. I looked up through the windshield to see him in the window, hands on the glass. His mom was at his side encouraging him to wave.
The next several days were very difficult. Sadness filled my heart and sudden bouts of tears would come unexpectedly. In my mind, I knew he was where he belonged, with his family, but my heart would need some time. There was a void in the house and I wasn't sure I could ever put my family through that heartache again. AND THEN...
It was his uncle asking if we would like to visit the baby. Elated for the opportunity, we scheduled a date. We had no idea that cold Saturday afternoon, that the year-long journey we thought had ended was to be resurrected. The trajectory of a new journey would be fierce and more life-changing than the previous one. The visit would be the first of dozens of family gatherings and celebrations during which we would laugh our way through language barriers and cultural differences. Trust was earned, love grew, and our families expanded.
Much has happened over the last 14 years that shall remain our personal story and journey. Those who know my family well and have been witness to our journey say it is a movie script in the making. We shrug and say it's just how it was meant to be. We were put together for reasons much bigger than we will ever understand.
Our lives continue to be enriched by this amazing young man, his devoted, loving mother, and their entire extended family. My husband remains a loyal father figure, I am trusted and loved as Grandma (a young one), and my children are regarded as his older siblings. We love him like our own and cannot imagine life without him. He excels in school and is a very respectful young man with the enormous promise of a very bright future.
By now you may be wondering about that heartache. Had things not turned out as they did, would we have fostered again? Would I put my family through it? ABSOLUTELY.
We went on to foster nearly 20 children over a 7+ year period. Our hearts were broken a few more times but more importantly, we helped many kids heal and grow. We experienced joyous occasions with adoptive parents, celebrated birth parents reunification, and watched our own children blossom through all the experiences.
About the holes in the heart I spoke of earlier, well, I truly believe those holes were meant to hold all the wonderful memories each child gave us.
This author wishes to be anonymous and CCR is grateful that we can share her story.