Journey for Pure Life

That we may be overwhelmed by the wonder and beauty of it all.

Category: Kinship Care

The pain love truth that is reunification

AT 3 (2)

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.

AT 11

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.

AT 10

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…


AT 13

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….


…Puerto Rico…

…trade in the mom van…

…have lunch dates in the middle of the day…

Basically, do us again. The extravagant and the simple.

AT 2

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.

AT 5

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…

“What if…?”

“How can they…?”

“This isn’t…”

“What will…”

“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.

AT 6

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.

AT 14

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.

Because post-court can be hard hard hard.

I was asked the other day, before the court day that changed everything just enough again…just enough to change my normal, to make hard harder…if I would consider leading a yoga-type class for local foster parents. A time to exhale alongside one another, those walking that similar roller coaster, that often heavy path, sometimes with little respite for ourselves in the midst of a growing number of needs, behavioral problems, family issues, etc.

Because this foster parenting/kinship caring thing we’re doing, it just might be one of the hardest things of all.

Deep Creek 17

A few days after that, and a few days after the court date, I had some conversation or another with my husband about the tough stuff of this life and as I reflected on the counseling sessions prescribed to many involved in the case, I made the half-joking remark that I don’t need therapy.

“I don’t need therapy. I know how to…self-therap.”

(It completely sounds like a legitimate verb to me.)

(And by my making that statement, I meant that if I didn’t  know how to do such a thing, I’d be in big trouble.)

And just now, while pulling weeds in my horridly overgrown garden, letting my mind talk and talk and talk as it does in the silence, I thought about the past 48 hours. The quiet of only three children since that risky court decision. The quiet and time and freedom but also…the grief and the loss. And I thought, perhaps there should  be a support for foster parents, especially after these moments. Because while every feeling, compassionate person wants to see a child with its parent, the truth is that when you have raised that child (or three) everyday for one year and two days, it’s still a loss when the care comes to an end.  And even when it moves toward a possible end. When that child wants to be with someone else.

Dock 3

As much as all that I am wants to see families whole and unified and together, it’s still a loss to the caregiver, the “mama” who isn’t at all and shouldn’t have been but did find herself there and so…what is temporary and shifting and unknown and hard suddenly feels a lot like loss. And grief.

We can’t take those very real, perhaps intense, feelings away from the foster parents  and the family members who’ve given their whole hearts, changed up their lives, loved to that hurt point.

There is recommended therapy for the drug user and the abuser. For the child in limbo.

Ma (my grandma/hero/best friend) wasn’t offered therapy after her husband died unexpectedly at 28-years-old and their almost-adopted baby girl was subsequently removed from her home, back in 1969. My, how deep the grief must have been.

There is no therapy for the aunt/grandma/foster mom who sang a child to sleep for 365 days, who made one meal for eight, cleaned it all up to begin prep on the next meal, who rubbed backs for weeks while children cried themselves to sleep after the people they were given failed to live and fight for them, who taught them to ride bikes and skateboards and how to swim and that they are safer and greater than their fears.

That the whole world is for them to enjoy. To move confidently in.

There is no therapy for the moment you know they could lose all that. When they ask you to give a child away to great risk and everyone knows it.

But thank goodness, somehow, some God way, us foster parents/kinship caregivers…some sympathetic God taught us how to…self-therap.

Taught us to trust even when we don’t feel.

That good can still conquer.

That it wasn’t in vain.

That they will remember.

That the fight was the most worthy one.

That His children, those wee ones, they’re always worth the need for some self-theraping. Always.

“Trust me.” –God

Magic Upon the Rocks

Deep Creek, North Carolina.

It is THE quintessential experience of childhood and family camping.

Deep Creek 10

But when she first mentioned it, I was surprised my friend Lindsey would want to go again. She said she’d been several times over the past few years.

And when we first pulled up and I saw how close the tent pads were (me, who likes a good deal of quiet and space…if quiet and space is possible with six children), I was a little hesitant that this was the place for me (and all these loud children).

Deep Creek 1

After a day at Deep Creek the magic was obvious.

Most everyone I spoke to had begun visiting the creek in childhood…and they just never stopped. Years and years after that initial visit, they come, still, children and grandchildren in tow. They make friends-for-the-week with those at the nearby tent pad. They share their nieces, nephews and grandchildren, who run through the campground with our own to play manhunt through the darkening night sky….catch fireflies while trying not to squish them….take tube runs down the creek, olders helping the littles….and then they all run back for more, giant tubes slung across backs, coldest water in western North Carolina not so cold anymore…again and again and again. And then, all tired out, they share quiet moments by the fire making bracelets and s’mores. Camp friends that will always have a spot in their memories, moments they won’t soon forget, if ever.

Deep Creek 7

Deep Creek is located in western North Carolina’s Swain County, just inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park via Bryson City. The community of Deep Creek is just a couple of miles outside the city. The creek itself is a tributary of the Tuckasegee River, which flows right through Bryson’s downtown area. Deep Creek runs north and practically all the way to Clingmans Dome at the Tennessee/North Carolina border. A Civil War battle was once fought on its banks, and included more Native Americans than most western NC battles of the war. Today, the creek is one of the most family-friendly spots in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s known for its fishing, hiking, picnicking, camping, waterfalls and, of course, tubing.

Deep Creek 8

But here’s my truth…

I’m smitten, so completely, with the community of Deep Creek and Bryson City. But the creek itself…it kind of terrifies me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had a child laying unconscious before me and then airlifted by helicopter after a traumatic brain injury. Maybe it’s because I’ve been put in my place by little river rapids before.

I recently saw a short video that described the creek as a “lazy river.” And yes, perhaps that’s what everyone else sees. That is the opposite of what I see.

Deep Creek 14

Despite the huge smiles, the pure joy on their faces, when I, adventurous though I typically am, look at Deep Creek and watch my kids carry tubes higher and higher (ie. dangerous-er and dangerous-er) it’s all

rocks rocks rocks


rapids rapids rapids

and my blood pressure is rising and I’m thinking everyone should be wearing helmets for this, especially that one with the now long hair and sweet curls at the end.

And that caution at the bottom of the National Park Service website that clearly states that tubing is not recommended within the park because of water-related injuries…though, clearly, this is what people come here for, due to the numerous tube rental spots available just before the park entrance and the hundreds of tubes coming down the icy waters all day long…that warning is still flashing through my mind like it’s a tv screen with the tornado warning scrolling across the bottom and interrupting your regularly scheduled programming and it’s probably all over my face as I scramble to follow along the trail at the edge of the creek’s now-steep bank and and my eyes are scrambling to find my child and I’m trying to stay calm but inside I’m not at all and so I’m praying, pleading with God to keep them safe.

Deep Creek 9

So there’s me, doing that.

And then there’s my friend, Lindsey. My friend Lindsey who once lived in a tent for a summer while guiding rafting trips on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. My friend Lindsey who has the same last name as me, but who’s lived in Ecuador and whose husband is currently there leading adrenaline junkies over class V rapids and occasionally camping in the jungle. My friend Lindsey who knows three languages, one of them, American Sign Language, chosen for her when her oldest was born without hearing. Lindsey, whose two sons, at ages eight and ten, already know how to roll a kayak in case they are accidentally flipped while in rapids. Lindsey, who grew up looking at a river out her back door every morning, swimming in it most every evening. My friend who often goes without technology and doesn’t seem to mind a bit. Lindsey, who moves to her own beat, rolls with the punches of life with a peace that far surpasses my own, is always content and never, ever not. Mi amiga whose phone was dead for the entire duration of our trip and to whose mom I finally sent a Camp Robles photo just so she knew we were all okay. My friend who, while I’m frustrated with my six when the littlest won’t go to sleep and she’s running crazy all over our tent and I just want her to “go to sleep!” and I’m telling her so and I’ve lost my patience completely, hasn’t at all. Because when I step out of my seven-man tent and pass by Lindsey’s little one I hear that she’s sweetly, patiently, beautifully singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to her three and it’s just about the loveliest thing I’ve ever heard. And the most humbling.

Deep Creek 13

Deep Creek 16

I tried not to think about it, but court was approaching while we were camp-firing and “lazy-rivering” amidst the magic (and terror, but only to me) of Deep Creek. It would be kind of a big deal day for the kids in my kinship care. And for me. I couldn’t control it. Not really at all and not really sure that I would want to.

Deep Creek was there, just at that time, with all its risks and its rockiness and its slippery, steep creek banks, and with its new friends and fun-filled days that no one wanted to end…and with Lindsey and all her calm and her peace and her preparedness and her faith…and I just had to let them go. The kids with their blue tubes, the court outcome.

We prepared, we took it slow and small, learned from our mistakes and how to handle ourselves. But then we went higher, past the waterfall, to the place where the rocks became larger, the risk greater, the fall harder, the waters swifter.

And I let go.

And it was good. Really good.

Deep Creek 15

Deep Creek 11

Deep Creek 12

Now I see, why she wanted to come back here, why they all did…again and again. Because past that place of hesitancy, past that place of the unknown, the fear, the big and the scary, there was something so very special. So worth it.

Children had the time of their lives, but they also looked out for one another. Left no one behind. Helped out a cousin stuck on a rock. Coached a sibling on how to maneuver a rapid.

Built rock pools together. Learned to make doughboys and foil packets. Honed their fire-building skills. Endured the freezing cold waters and the long hikes up the steep hill. Laughed and played all the live-long day. Communicated in a bit of sign language, or as best they could. Slept one last tent night with a bit of rain dripping down on them because their moms thought rain tarps were unnecessary.

Families unified and crafted moments here. I had discovered that I wasn’t the only one bringing along children in kinship care or similar situations. Others knew this was the place…

The place where we see and learn and feel…without any words at all…that there’s a whole wide world just outside the tent flap, and though it may be scary at first, that world’s got so much more for us than what others may have chosen for us, back when we were too young and new to choose any of it for ourselves. And in that world there are people who do things differently, and those people can be good.

And maybe it’s a place where, though we can’t erase what was before and the ugly that continues and we can’t control the outcome, we can give them this, this gift, this summerbecause magic happens in a childhood summer…and maybe, we can dim those bad memories just the slightest. And all those in-between times can be filled with ones oh-so-good. Ones they’ll hold on to forever. And every once in a while they’ll peek in on that memory and remember, the world was on my side after all. Just maybe.

Anger, because love.

If we’re honest, it’s anger now.

And if I’m raw and still honest, it’s what I want to feel.

Dock 6

Some months ago I’d had a friend call me upset and angry, to vent about life, the life she thought she’d planned out and been perfectly happy with. That life had its own plans. Took her in a direction she simply didn’t want, but could do little about. I gave her my best words. On deaf ears they fell.

I hung up the phone and realized…that  girl didn’t want to feel better and move past it. Not yet. She wanted to experience the anger that she had every right to. I looked at the trajectory of her life, the loss of control and helplessness she felt…the only thing she probably felt in control of at that moment were her own emotions. And she was going to choose them. That day, she chose to shed the happy, shiny surface layer and feel  all that was not happy or shiny. In the safety of a trusted friend. Without hurting another soul. Good for her.

Pool 1

Today, just for a time, though the sun is shining down gorgeously in my favorite backyard spots, though the birds are singing their early morning summer songs, though there are six healthy kids still sleeping and there is so much to warm a heart….I kind of, little bit, just want to sit in it, the anger.  I want to be allowed it, is all.

Pool 2

For all these months that we’ve stepped into the life that is kinship care, I’ve tried so hard, prayed so hard, to love, rise, strengthen from the inside, real deep down. Right where I needed to love, rise and strengthen. But it’s hard work for someone as imperfect and damaged as myself. And amidst all the loving, and maybe, because of  that intense loving, other feelings come…

Dock 5

The anger comes, nearly a year deep in, when…..

…doing the right thing so often feels like the wrong thing.

…justice isn’t served.

…others walk away, and there you are, hands full of the pieces, broken.

…the pieces broken from the lives of others. But carry them you do. And carry them you must. (Are called to?)

And the pieces, can they ever fit back together?  Can the kid-sized pieces be mended?

And with furrowed brow you focus laser on those kid-sized pieces, sorting them out, trying your best to fit them together (which may not be good enough)…then, a familiar, but louder this time, shatter from above.

Sinking in your stomach pit. You look up, adult-sized pieces smashing down on you, all around you. Again. Overflowing the open hands. Crumbling the kid-pieces into bits.

You there, unable to stop the shattering. Unable to fix it.

After the sadness, the anger comes.

Dock 4

And it comes when….

….it isn’t your life decisions you’re living anymore. It’s the paying for someone else’s. And it’s endless.

…you have the sickening realization that some will continue to hurt, the there-in-plain-sight hurt.  And you just can’t make it stop.

….you know the source of the hurt, right where a child only sees a glorified mirage.  Maybe right where an adult does too.

….you cry with them, pray for them, love with them, right where your inclination is, instead, to curse. But only in your dark, private, subconscious dreams do you curse.

….you know the truth, feel the truth with every ounce of your being…but you’re the only one.

…you empty yourself everyday, from early morning hours until bedtime reading, only to feel like the bad guy when you drop into bed.

…you hear people say they care. Knowing that genuine care is a daily act, a daily love sacrifice, a daily selflessness.

….to others it seems a game, participation based on whether they’re winning or losing.

Dock 2

…everyday you can see God’s work, your own transformation, your own healing process, from something that was once so ugly and messed up and long ago abandoned…and still they tear you down, make you question what you shouldn’t.

…you are mocked for the deeply personal, core things that make you who you are, those things that are more you than anything else, those things that see you through it all, always have.

…your sensitivity causes you to feel every hurt, even when it’s not your own to feel.

It comes when…

…people hurt children. Children. And some of us have to look at that hurt. Everyday.

…people make light of those children. And carry on with  seemingly charmed lives, higher priorities. And some of us continue to look at that hurt, witness the full circle of damage. Everyday.

…you do the most thankless thing you’ve ever done. And you know, there was never any other option. Because love.

…you know that however it ends up, whichever road you walk, will be the hardest one.

…you remember how you always said the hardest roads are the best ones to be on…but seriously, can you just chill off the road and on a Puerto Rican beach for one sec?

…some people tell you that your life screams Jesus…while others tell you that what you need to do is find more Jesus.

…you realize that life doesn’t hand out rewards. It even snatches away the hard-earned ones.

…you blame a mean God for all this. The unjust.

…but mostly, you blame yourself, for not being better. And for, sometimes, feeling your worst self seep out of your pores and into the air around you just when you thought that self was gone forever.

And I just want to feel it for a minute. All that is not warm and fuzzy. Here in my safe space.

But for all this anger…all this ugly….there’s this glimmer….

One recent night two young girls and I lay in the hammocks as the sun went down and the fireflies began to light up the backyard. As the sky darkened, the upcoming celebration of Father’s Day was mentioned and the conversation shifted. Shifted to a little baby girl whose father moved away from her and now she’s a grown-up woman with no real dad and Father’s Day for her can be awkward and it can sting and so she focuses on her husband, the father of her children. And in that night, one little girl discovered that Aunt Amanda has hurts too. Most of us do. Sometimes the hurts can cause us anger. Sometimes tears.

Sometimes, if we’re lucky and open, those hurts lead us to deeper connection, trust, safety with those people, those moments, that life we do have.

Dock 7

“I like having conversations with you at night. I can’t go to sleep unless we have conversations.”

And then, as we watched the sky turn dark…

“Can I sleep with you?”

A question never, ever asked by her before. Words never, ever said by her before, this one who internalizes most all she feels, all she has seen and lived. This one who guards her heart carefully, unsure of what’s real, who to trust. There under the pines, reclined in hammocks, “firefly!” interjected among the hard topics, underlying sadness and vulnerability.

Dock 8

“Can I sleep with you?”

Somehow the talk, the real one with the unshiny stuff, with a child who maybe understood it better than I would wish for her to…somehow it comforted.

She wanted the discussion, the nearness, the shared truth to continue into the night.

Now it’s clear. When we love hard, we feel hard.  And not just the nice feels.

When we love people, our people, children, we feel when life is unfair to them. And that’s ok. It spurs us to love action.

Dock 1

Thank God for the feelings. For the talks. For what is real, for a life imperfect. Mostly, for healing and for love.

Every day I breathe is not for the anger. That shall pass. Everyday I breathe, it’s for better love.