I just finished the most
important project of my life.
Ok, so I’m not that old. But I can safely say the title of this post is true. That’s no hyperbole either. I’ve never been one to puff myself up more than I thought I deserved. This project isn’t a book, it’s no graphic novel, it’s not the comic shop, it’s none of those things. In fact this project you will never ever see.
About a year ago a little girl came to live with Lauren and me. As a former foster child I always promised myself I would take in a child in need before I created one. There are so many kids out there who just need a taste of a normal life and might never get the chance if someone doesn’t step forward and volunteer.
Well, last fall she came to us. She had been through a lot, but haven’t they all? It was four days before her 8th birthday. Lauren and I were terrified. Who is this kid? What will she be like? Will we know how to handle her? You can imagine that going from zero kids to an 8 year old overnight is quite an adjustment. I think the first few days she was with us I barely slept. I checked on her constantly while she slept; she woke us up with nightmares and questions. We tried to get her to watch television to keep her busy, but the new world she was in wouldn’t let her relax long enough to get lost in a television show.
We found out right away that there was no reason to worry because the little girl who came to live with us was the most amazing 8 year old I have ever met. And apologies go out to every other 8 year old who has ever crossed my path, but she was. Everyone said it. Every social worker, every therapist, everyone told us she was different. She was, and still is, a very smart and empathetic kid. Aware of your feelings, bright, positive, smart, she is all these things. I can honestly say she never had a dad in her life and I have never been one. The relationship was new to both of us. But she and I were as close as two people could be.
I traveled out of town a few times that year for several days at a time to do comic conventions. I called her when I was gone and let her know I was ok. She made a welcome home banner for me when I traveled to Denver Comic con. There was a time we thought we were going to adopt this kid. We thought she would be our daughter. And we always treated her like that because we never wanted her to feel different. She was scared about a lot of things and worried about the future.
At bed time was when we talked the most. We read comic books and Roald Dahl books. She told me she was scared—that she loved me and Lauren but missed her mom and brother terribly. I thought for a minute and said to her, “You have to think of it like a mall. (She loves going to the mall.) At the front of that mall your mom had to let go of your hand, but I picked it up. Lauren and I are going to walk with you all the way through that mall and we won’t let you go. On the other side, if your mom is waiting for you, then we’ll let go when she takes your hand. But until then we won’t let go. I promise. You’re safe here.”
She was so strong. She didn’t want people to see her cry, but she cried a little that night and every once in a while when things got tough. We had court dates and visits. We had visits that got cancelled and court dates that got moved. I said, “don’t worry about that stuff, you just be a kid. At the end of this you’ll either end up with Lauren and me who love you very much and we’ll bring your brother here too, or you’ll end up back home with your Mom and you’ll be even better than before because of all the stuff your mom is learning.”
She never stopped loving her birth mom even when she started calling Lauren and me “Mom and Dad.” And we never wanted her to stop loving her. We always supported their relationship and never missed appointments or phone calls. We always spoke highly of her mom and let her know she was doing whatever it took to get her little girl and boy back. Her brother was at a different home for reasons beyond our control.
So toward the end of that year it became clear that this little amazing ball of awesomeness wasn’t going to be staying with us much longer. We were told that everything was in place to have her and her brother return home. And then we were told a little while later that it was all going to happen a month sooner than we thought.
And so it happened. We packed up all of the things she had accumulated over the last year. Her new bike, her comic books, her army of stuffed animals she lined up on her bed every morning. We filled the car with it and met her mom at a local park. We were strong and showed her how happy we were for her and her mom. We told her how proud we were for her bravery and how good she had been in school during this hard year. We told her we would try to stay in touch. We couldn’t promise we would because once she was home we had no say over that. No control. We no longer decided. I spent a year knowing what she wore to school every single day and what she ate at every meal. And now I couldn’t even promise I would see her again.
Way back in the spring when I went to the Denver Comic Convention, it was the longest she and I had been apart since she came to us. It was about 10 days. When I saw her the day I came home, she was in a park with her mom. She spent some time hiding from me behind the swings as if she didn’t know how to handle the situation. Then she slowly walked toward me and then ran the last several feet throwing her arms around my waist. She cried and wouldn’t let go. At that time, in that moment, I was the most important person in the world to her, and that made me feel like the most important person in the world. When she let go, she told me to never leave again for that long. I said “don’t worry, I probably wouldn’t.”
The day in the park when I last saw her, we put all her things in her mom’s car then put her in the passenger seat. We all said goodbye, but we worked hard to make it seem normal for her. Then I closed her car door and saw her looking at me with a confused look. She didn’t understand when she would see me again or what I would be to her now. I had to turn away. I walked fast back to my car and Lauren walked also. I couldn’t look back and wave because I had already begun crying. I couldn’t stop once I started. We just got in the car and left. I didn’t want her to see me like that because she needed to be completely happy about going home and enjoy that reunion.
And so far, that has been the last time I saw her. She was going home, her family was being put back together. For her, her mom, and her brother, the system worked. They were going to be together again. For us, we were alone and our house seemed a thousand times more empty than when she first showed up.
There was a positive energy I can’t describe while she was here, and then it was gone. She would tell me not to stay up too late drawing. She would watch the Munsters and Batman ’66 with me. We would draw together, read together. She and Lauren would have girl time and get their nails done. Her jokes would make me laugh at least once a day everyday. I could have written this post when she left, but I wasn’t done yet. There was too much unknown. Too many question marks.
And then today, after I sent several emails requesting visits, I finally received a phone call. I wanted to respect their space and let them be a family again, so I never called unannounced. I just waited for contact from their side after I sent an email. I was in my new comic shop when the call came. I was in some kind of fantasy world I’d dreamt of since I was a child and I had to walk out the back door and stand by some trees at the back of the parking lot and get reminded of this last year that I was fighting hard to not think about. I got to speak to that little girl. Still my heart is confused as to why she’s not here with us, and why we’re not a family. But I heard her voice and it sounded so beautiful and so happy. She is happy; she’s home; her family is complete again. I couldn’t let her know I was feeling anything but happiness for her. I couldn’t let her know how confused I was. All she ever wanted was to be back home again and now she was. The sadness, the pain, the loss. I couldn’t tell her about any of that. I just told her how the dogs were doing. She told me about a boy at her new school that she had a crush on. And I said, “well I hope he’s a good boy!” And she said, “I’m not sure.” That kid cracks me up.
I finally said goodbye. I remembered when she had phone visits with her mom and she refused to hang up first. She always waited in silence, staring at the phone until her mom hung up. I said goodbye, and then I heard her still there making a comment every few seconds. She would never hang up. So I finally had to press that little red button. I got off the phone and, while none of these emotions are over, the pain is not gone and who knows what the future will bring. At least I know Lauren and I got her to the other side of that mall and she is safely in her mom’s hands again.
Foster care is not for everyone. Maybe it’s not for you. Maybe it’s not something you can handle; maybe it will hurt too much to get that close to someone and then to lose them. I can tell you first hand, it hurts like no feeling I’ve ever had. Foster care is not for everyone. Of course, it’s for the kids. It’s to show them what a good life is. It’s to teach them good habits that they can then take home and share with the rest of the family. It’s to show them that no matter how tough things get and no matter how alone they feel, that we live in a world where a stranger will say, “You can stay with me and I won’t let go of you again until you’re safe.”
I don’t know what’s next for any of us, and for now, I’m going to try not and worry about it.