I Eat Cake Alone

Yesterday I turned 38. It was supposed to occur without much fanfare. I’m looking forward to celebrating my 40th in a significant manner. But 38 didn’t seem to warrant much notice. I went to a meeting to figure out some next steps as a foster parent. The girls and I went out for lunch with my mom.

While eating a light dinner, my friend called asking if her foster child could come over. It’s a common call. The teen with FAS often finds life challenging. Usually she’s able to calm down when removed from the situation and brought to my house.

Last night that didn’t happen. The girl was especially angry about being with us. Everything in her wanted to make me feel the pain she was carrying.

“You’re fat,” she yelled at me several times. With no response from me, she decided to hurl a greater insult. “You eat cake alone! I know you do!” she spit the words as if this were the most vile accusation imaginable.

I wanted to laugh. “Yes,” I replied in all seriousness, “I do eat cake alone.”

“I know you do!” she repeated. “I know you eat cake alone!” There was a triumphant smirk on her Chocolate cake and coffeeface as though she’d caught me in something disreputable.

Having been in my home on a regular basis for 6 1/2 years this was the most damning charge she could bring against me.

I must confess, I eat a great deal of cake and – whenever possible – do so alone. It’s my reward after a long hard day. And most days are both long and hard. But I show up and most of the time do my very best. I think that deserves a continual celebration involving cake.

Things with our visitor unraveled further. The words she’d meant to wound me with, only made me laugh.

“It’s your birthday,” Raine cried as we sat in the dinning room while the teen threw books and toys around upstairs, “and she’s wrecking it.”

Eventually, when our visitor came downstairs and began throwing chairs and anything else she could get her hands on, I called 911. This was my first emergency call in 38 years. Standing in the doorway to the kitchen with Raine and Athena behind me, I felt there was no other option. The teen backed away from us a little. I could hardly spell my last name to the 911 operator. My hands were shaking and I was crying.

A fellow blogger criticized me because of my post about saying no to a child who needed a home. Her words played through my mind as my daughters and I ran to the car in pouring rain to wait for the police – no coats, no shoes – “some people just opt for the easy life”. This is not easy! I shouted at the unknown stranger who passed this judgment. As I told the woman in my response, which she had not approved, to say I’ve chosen an easy life is laughable.

I chose this. I decided to become a foster parent who specializes in caring for older, special needs children. Because of that police cruisers are parked in front of my house on my birthday when all I wanted to do was put the kids to bed and enjoy another piece of cake on my own. Easy is not the right word.

Nor does it sum up the decision I made to not let the teen back in my home again. The officers calmed her down. She took her medication and went to bed. In the morning she remained incredibly hostile towards me but did head off to her school down the street. I closed the door, having resolved she will never be with us again.

In the end her foster parents have had to make the same decision. As this girl tells her life story, no doubt there will be outrage when people discover after 6 1/2 years her foster parents and I, sort of her foster aunt, “gave up” on her. That’s how it will look to the casual reader of this child’s life.

As I sit alone tonight, eating cake, I am assured that’s not how my Heavenly Father sees it. He understands the full picture, something a single blog or solitary fact can’t capture.

There’s No Winner Here

Friday evening 14yr old Emma* arrived on my doorstep. My friend, her foster mom of 5 1/2 yrs, brought her when things went from bad to worse at their home.

Having fetal alcohol syndrome and some intellectual delays, life is hard for Emma. Often her emotions spin out of control. Bringing her to me is a common occurrence. Usually she calms right down. I keep her overnight and her foster family has time to recover from the upset.

This time that didn’t work. When her foster mom left, Emma kept right on with the outburst she’d begun a few hours ago at home. She stomped the floors and slapped the walls. I tried to settle her in Raine’s room (normally there’s a spare room devoted to Emma, but we also had a visiting 2yr old boy who was occupying that room.) No doubt putting her in another bedroom fueled the fire raging inside of her. But there wasn’t any other choice. I’d already set up a crib for the physically delayed toddler. With Emma carrying on I couldn’t change everything around.

Refusing to go to the room assigned to her, Emma opted to sit in the living room while I put the other kids to bed. It took me a few minutes to realize the silence downstairs meant she was gone. By the time I untangled myself from the three little ones and got out the front door, Emma was no where to be seen.

I called her foster mom, who had a pretty good idea where she’d gone. Piling the very tired children into the car, we headed over to a nearby church. A friend of Emma’s had brought her to the youth group there a few times.

Thankfully there Emma was, outside the church because the doors were locked. She refused to get in the car. I pretended to drive away. Startled, she changed her mind and got in. Her attitude remained. During the drive home she repeatedly swore at me and spewed all kinds of hatred. “Because I don’t want to be at your house!” Emma explained. It’s not like I wanted her there either – at least not in that state.

When I told her not to swear at me. Emma responded, “I will. And there’s nothing you can do about it.” True. There’s nothing I can do. It’s a frustrating sense of powerlessness. This child is not mine. Nothing I say matters to her.

Back at my place, Emma settled herself in the front garden – refusing to come inside. At a loss, I called her foster mom. Normally I’m quite capable of managing Emma or any other child in my care. But this time it was all completely beyond me. Some stern words from her foster mom got Emma inside the house.

Then the real battle began. I put the other children back to bed. Emma stomped her feet in the hallway and punched the wall with a violence that made my pictures shake.

When I was done with the little ones, she got up in my face screaming about how much she hated me. This went on for over an hour. In the midst of it, I did get her into the room she would be using that night. Emma kicked the door so ferociously I was sure she’d put holes in it. But it remained in tack as did the walls she poured her anger out on.

Normally I just walk away, but with this being completely unlike Emma’s normal behaviour at my house, I kept close. Fear for the other kids mounted as she her anger increased. At this point she’d been raging for nearly 5hrs (mostly at her own home), breaking briefly for her walk to the church. It was late. I was worried and tired. I needed the noise and the violence to stop. But it didn’t. Emma kept going strong – coming out of the room and again aggressively confronting me.

My patience wore out. I couldn’t endure being bullied in my own home by a 14yr old. My voice was no longer kind nor were my words. Eventually Emma retreated to the bedroom.

She’s on a fair bit of medication which is supposed to save her from these moments. Perhaps the pills aren’t working, but I still wanted to get her nightly does in. That didn’t happen. Emma was wielding every bit of power she had.

While on the phone with the emergency after hours worker, Emma kicked my door in. I’d gone into my bedroom and locked the door. Her screaming and kicking was making it hard to hear the woman on the phone. Having access to my room, the girl just stood in the hallway shouting and punching the walls.

My door frame is broken. My nerves are shot. And now Emma’s saying that I attacked her which of course I did not.She, however, did slapped me during my initial retreat to my room. This is warranted in Emma’s mind. She’s completely beside herself with rage and panic all rolled into one big, ugly mess.

This is the result of a life in foster care. Arriving at the age of 2, Emma’s moved countless times. My friend is trying to keep going. It’s been 5 1/2 yrs. That’s miraculous for a child with FAS. The long term goal is holding out until Emma turns 18. But things are unraveling quickly. Not long ago, the teen ran away and called the police saying she felt unsafe in her foster home.

She’s safe. It’s those around Emma who aren’t safe. Her accusations could land my friend in jail. At the very least, it may lead to Emma and the two other foster children in the home being removed. The two sisters – 14 & 10yrs – have been with my friend nearly 4yrs and are doing well. The plan is for them to remain until 18. Emma’s antics could put them all in jeopardy.

I’ve told my friend it’s time to let go – especially after this weekend. Emma awoke Saturday with an incredible sense of triumph. She’d gotten away with leaving my house, speaking to me in a deplorable manner, slapping me, breaking my door, and refusing to take her pills. As far as she can see she’s won.

What Emma doesn’t realize is how much she’s loosing. For 5 1/2yrs she’s been part of our family – I’ve been like an aunt to her and her foster mom has been the same to my kids. Emma’s foster family, while not perfect, have cared for her with generosity and grace. They’ve welcomed her back after many such outbursts. But she doesn’t want to be there. Eventually Emma’s behaviour will get the result she’s seeking. She’ll be moved into a group home until she ages out of foster care.

It’s a tragedy. I am heart broken. At the same time, I’m encouraging my friend to make that move. My prayer is for Emma’s complete healing – that the Lord will restore her mind and heal the wounds tormenting her. I know that’s possible. I want that for Emma. How long can we wait for the miracle before we have to make choices based on the reality of here and now? It’s becoming impossible to have Emma around.

*name changed

Living with Limits

I work for a private fostering agency providing care for special/high needs children. Usually by the time kids enter our agency they’re older and quite damaged. My greatest frustration is that most of their “special needs” are preventable conditions. A great number have diminished mental capacity from being exposed to alcohol while in the womb. This is usually coupled with extreme neglect, trauma, abuse in their early years. Add to that moving around in and out of a broken Children’s Aid system and the end result is anything but pretty.

In five years, I’ve gotten used to a lot of things but the term “acquired brain injury” still makes me cringe. (Meaning someone did something serious enough to cause a permanent brain injury.) Often the kids themselves are cognitive enough to resent the state they’re in. Mostly they try to hold it together, navigating a world beyond their understanding. As a caregiver there are times the limitations trip me up and I fall short. Like the other day when Sabrina* was putting the canopy on our gazebo. She had it all turned around – the long end of the canopy going along the short end of the frame. My clear, simple explanation of the problem when she asked for help left her completely confused. At a loss, I walked away. Twenty minutes later Sabrina joyously informed me that she figured out the problem – the canopy was on the wrong way. “I told you that,” was my response after congratulating her. “Well, I didn’t know what you were talking about.” This is the daily grind we’re accustomed to.

Last weekend my friend’s 13yr old foster child was with me. Since the last time Natalie* visited – about three weeks ago – she’s fallen in love with India. A streetwise little spitfire her passions have been dominated, thus far, by pop stars. In the three years I’ve known her, Natalie has never expressed such sincere affection for anything or anyone. Eating dinner in a Greek restaurant, she wishes to hear some Indian music. At home I put on an animated film from India that comes up in my search of Netflix. Watching her watch it my heart breaks. I’m mourning who she could have been. Without the limitations inflicted upon her by alcohol and abuse who could she have been? If things were different, would India have played a key role in Natalie’s life?

I know God is able to bring redemption to any situation. I’m still believing for these kids to be healed mentally, physically, and emotionally. In the meantime I’m grieving the loss of what God really planned for them. This pain and frustration certainly wasn’t His intention. Most of the time my thoughts fail to extend beyond, “How can I get through this day without anyone breaking down?” I don’t think about what God really wanted when He created these kids. Today I’m painfully aware of the deposit of divine design. How do I help my kids bypass their limitations in order to unearth what God’s deposited? How can I connect Natalie to India so she can catch even a portion of God’s plan for her?

*name changed

Thinking is Hard

“What if I bang my head with this pan?” Sabrina* asks while putting away the dishes.

Since I’ve just admonished her to think for her herself, I remain silent.

My 3yr old is not. “No, Sabrina. No!” she shouts.

“I’m tired,” the 17yr old moans, as she has been for the past 1/2hr. “Hitting myself with the flying pan might wake me up.”

Today Sabrina, my foster child with fetal alcohol syndrome and a significantly low IQ, toured the college she’ll be attending. She and the other visiting foster children completed a World Race type game to familiarize themselves with the campus. Being fairly fit, I doubt she’s tired from the extensive walking. It’s all the thinking. Sabrina shrinks back from thinking for herself. It’s become exaggerated since younger children joined our family. While I’m figuring things out for them, I might as well do it for her seems to be the approach she’s taking.

For her the question is absolutely sincere, “What will happen to me if I bang my head with this frying pan?”

This is when I cringe at all the teachers and communicators who say, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Spend a day at my house and you’ll change your tune. There are stupid questions. “Will hitting myself with a frying pan wake me up?” is one.

There are stupid statements. One weekend Sabrina became completely fixated on doing her nails in the basement while watching tv. In nearly 5yr of living with me the rule has always been: nails are done in the bathroom only. Something switched in her brain after doing her nails while watching tv at a friend’s house. She could not switch back. I wasn’t going to back down, especially when I found out she spilled nail polish all over the friend’s rug while doing her nails and watching tv. Multitasking isn’t Sabrina’s strong suit. Even with me pointing out the mishap elsewhere, she couldn’t fathom doing her nails in the bathroom. I put an end to the stalemate by tossing all her nail polish in the garbage.

“This is all you’ve ever wanted – to throw out my nail polish. You’ve been waiting for a chance since I moved here!” Sabrina shouted at me.

“Really? Since you came here nearly 5yrs ago I’ve been looking for a reason to throw out your nail polish?” Sometimes when I repeat it back she can see the absurdity. Not this time.

“Yes, this is what you always wanted – to have a foster kid so you can throw out her nail polish.”

I love Sabrina dearly. She’s my first foster child. I’ve seen her blossom into an amazing young woman. Along the way she’s taught me some important lessons. Hopefully she can say the same of me. My goal was to prepare her for life. Most days she’s high functioning. Unfortunately, I’ve become less so. Waves of exhaustion hit me throughout the day. Often I end up just lying down on the couch for a minute or two while the children whirl around me. The casual observer would chalk it up to the two little ones, 3 &5, who are certainly suffering from ADHD. But it’s more than that. Thinking really is hard. It’s downright exhausting. Before it was just Sabrina and I. Now I have 5 people to think for, plan for, and speak for all day long! There’s me, 17yr old Sabrina, 11yr old Megan*, 5yr old Sloan*, and 3yr old Elise*. I have to anticipate reactions, intervene, explain, interpret for the kids as they interact with each other and the world at large. With the younger two it’s the age. For Sabrina and Megan it’s their limitations. Long before the end of the day, I’m exhausted. Maybe banging my head with a frying pan would help. Sabrina diligently prays to Jesus to heal her. I have faith for that! Imagine not being weighed down by her birth mother’s short comings. After 17 long years of trying to navigate the world with a brain hindered by exposure to alcohol, it would be a true miracle for Sabrina. I want that for her. I know my God’s capable. I’m believing! While we wait for that, the effort it takes to break down every situation is beyond me. I still help to navigate necessary concepts like the importance of flossing (both her parents have lost their teeth due to poor hygiene) or that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. Today I let her request for the meaning of mentor slide among other things because thinking, explaining, and navigating for 5 is really hard. So if you invite me out with the question, “Where do you want to go?” don’t be surprised by my confusion. Thinking is really hard.

*name changed for obvious reasons