There’s a sad face on the large family calendar on my dining room wall. A sad face on the night that I typed these messages to my husband….
“I wrote that last night. That’s not what’s in my heart right now…now I just feel dark.”
“I didn’t know they would make it hurt like this.”
“I feel like dying.”
It was the day that we received a phone call, on a sunny afternoon as I rode shot gun down HWY 24 towards the middle school pickup line, all dressed up and lots of places to be. The three children in our care were away for an extended visitation and we expected them back before the court date. But as we turned into the middle lane in front of the school that afternoon, pines and cars and lives began to blur all around me while I listened to my husband’s end of the conversation. I knew what he was being told.
They weren’t coming back. The kids, they wouldn’t be coming back…to my home, my hugs, my dinner table, my love, my imperfect everything. Just like that. Just like that. They were gone. Anger and tears in all those public places that evening.
I hadn’t said that kind of goodbye, I hadn’t explained anything to them, I hadn’t told them I’d always be right where I am and love them just like I do. My heart wasn’t prepared for what was done that day.
It wasn’t a literal death I felt. But that of a heart ripped out, a soul forever changed. Again. And worse this time.
Court was coming up. I knew, I certainly knew, that things would likely change after that court date. But I thought…I assumed…court orders were adhered to. I thought, I assumed…I had one more night, at least. I thought, assumed, had faith and trust that they’d tell me what everyone else had discussed and already knew. They didn’t.
It wasn’t only these children that caused my pain, or this situation. I hurt for a future I’d envisioned for so very long, for partnerships I’d worked hard for and felt strongly about, for a system I’d trusted. For all the foster moms who’d given their whole heart…only to be tossed aside when they were no longer needed.
That afternoon I felt how the world had so often made me feel, from the time I was a young girl. When my performance was done, they were done. I wasn’t wanted anymore. And on that day, what I’d done, it seemed like it hadn’t been enough after all…
One week following that phone call, we left the courthouse with finality and I just wanted to be in a beautiful place, in a spot where the sun was shining and I could soak it all up. I wanted to celebrate instead of grieve. I wanted to feel something good. I wanted to be done with the sad.
We sat on the waterfront at a favorite downtown restaurant, a place that has stood since the 1930s and where I had one of my first jobs. Familiar faces, people who knew me to be good, who’s respect I had earned. A favorite meal, fishing boats coming in for the day, a brilliant blue sky.
I couldn’t go back to that empty house by myself that day, not yet, so I’d asked my husband to put off work for a little longer and lunch with me.
As we sat there, we made a list of all the things we could do now, now that we only had three children again….
…trade in the mom van…
…have lunch dates in the middle of the day…
Basically, do us again. The extravagant and the simple.
I wanted to celebrate that day and in the days to come, and grieve no more. Life, without my whole heart consent, had just changed again, and there was nothing I could do but
squint my eyes hard for the silver lining, love so much I could feel the ache in my chest and return to an us I hadn’t seen in awhile.
And a me. Because who was I now, anyway, without the six? I never went anywhere without, “are they all yours?” to which I would stumble over an answer that I maybe never quite figured out. I wasn’t invited to family weddings because I had too many kids. Strangers thanked me for what I was doing, on the street, in the hair salon, to which I was shocked and surprised. Six billion people would probably do it better, but I’m what they’ve got. And I like to think all the aunts out there would give it their best effort as well. But that identity had been a hard one.
That was probably the day that I started planning a section hike on the Appalachian Trail. It wouldn’t have been possible before.
Now I’d do it, even if I had to do it alone.
When the kids first left, the abrupt shock of the silence in my home (with my own now away at school during the day) was a bit traumatic. One day they were there, with all their needs and their noise and their snuggles…and then they weren’t.
I was left alone in a house that was empty. The empty, it was twofold. We could get back to the core family, the originals. I could get back to my home, all that had been neglected. To patience and time and lovies that wouldn’t be interrupted. But then, the empty came and overwhelmed me. I couldn’t bear it, couldn’t let my thoughts be free in that silence, couldn’t let my mind go to all the places it had gone a thousand times before…
“How can they…?”
“Who will they…”
“Why did they…why did they…why?”
Couldn’t do it, sit in that quiet with a mind that’s always turned on, not for that first week. And so, in my grief, while I packed up little belongings, took down a crib I couldn’t continue to look at fresh each morning and each night before I closed my eyes, ripped wallpaper down that I’d been wanting to for years…I did something else…
Spiritual or deep or philosophical or meaningful it wasn’t. But it’s what I did.
I binge-watched Friends in the background of all that grief and packing.
That’s right. All. Day. Long. My “friends” would see me through, with their witty banter and familiar voices. Rachel, Chandler, Phoebe, Ross, Joey, Monica. And they did see me through. Almost to the final season.
And after that week, when I’d retreated from most people and activities, after my tears and anger had presented in the initial shocking moments, after all the wallpaper was down and the 4T and 5T and size 8 clothes were packed up, after the Batman figures and books and Little People were placed carefully into boxes, God gifted me this one afternoon when I didn’t need Friends anymore. Out on my green lawn under another sky of blue, He gave me peace.
And after that, He gifted me with a friend to share the AT trek with.
Fifteen painful miles Amy and I hiked, with about 30 pounds on our backs, along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Starting at Carvers Gap in North Carolina’s Mitchell County, we hiked Jane Bald, Round Bald, Yellow Gap Mountain, Little Hump and Big Hump Mountain, before ending up on Highway 19 in Watauga County. About six miles in we camped with other backpackers at Overmountain Shelter, sharing fireside laughs and stories. We hung our hammocks in the trees and lay for hours, aching, under a bright harvest moon, Roaring Creek Valley below us, the high-pitched howling of coyotes making its way to us a few times through the cold night air. Sleep we did little of.
Somehow, despite the intense pains all over my body and the lack of sleep, I felt energized and amazing in a way I hadn’t in a long, long time. The deepest crevices of my soul knew that even though things were unpleasant, things were right.
We talked for hours and hours and hours, Amy and I. On the ride up and back, on the trail, a distraction from everything that hurt so much worse than we’d anticipated.
I told her about the kids and what had happened. But only once and then we didn’t talk about it again.
I realized on that trail without it needing to be said…There are no perfect journeys. We all have a cross to bear, a healing to seek, a pain to endure.
Her toes, my knees. Her childhood, my present. Hiker Joe’s shortened route, because the agony overwhelmed . Our altered end point, because we couldn’t bear to walk the same enchanting wretchedness twice.
Love, it’s the most painful journey of all, I think. When it’s done right and done for real. When it’s the hard days. When it’s letting go when you’re asked to. When it’s imperfect and holding on tight anyway. When it’s messing it up real good and having the courage to try again. When it’s foster care. When it’s loving yourself and those with big mama hearts enough to speak out. When it’s losing yourself for a season to fill up the spaces where a child was empty. When it’s doing what love asks of you, no matter what that is. And I think, that it’s in that hurting kind of love where you’ll find your most exquisite self.
Three days ago a woman cried to me. She’d never been a mom. She longed to be a mom, even a temporary mom. Her hearts whispers to her of the children in need, of the safe haven she could be….but for the fear, and the fear of the pain, she hesitates. This is all I know…
Things will be hard. And we may will be mistreated, forgotten about, left behind.
We can’t control it all, even some of the big things.
We can choose wisely when given the choice. We can let go and love through the hurt when we aren’t.
We can keep moving toward what’s good.
We can surround ourselves with those a bit ahead on the spiritual/life trail. They’ll hold us up when we’re weak, and some of the time, they won’t even realize they’re doing it.
Amy taught me, and the trail taught me those few days, that we press in hard, move forward, and we count it all joy that we can and we will. We laugh, make lovely whatever small space we’re given, let others in, sleep under the stars.
We stay the course, we love like we know how, how people need us to, even when it hurts like the dickens, even when it’s the most unfair, even when it all feels wrong. Because, the essence of what is real love asks us to. To suffer with those who suffer.
I’d do it again. A thousand times over.