This is the first week that finally feels like fall. The mornings are cool and crisp and I take a blanket out with me when I have my quiet time on the patio in the morning. My potted mum from Costco blooms on the deck right beside my Chaco sandals, covered with wet grass from when I went out earlier with the kids to blow bubbles and stomp rockets and pull up a few random weeds.
I can’t shake the feeling of someone standing up after a bad fall, gingerly touching their bruises, and then looking around perplexed at where they are and how they got there. On the surface I felt content, settling into a happy and comfortable fall rhythm, but beneath flows an undercurrent of feeling hurt and displaced.
When our foster baby left in early July, it came as no surprise. I had grieved and feared his leaving for months, and when he did leave, it was such a gradual shift that in some ways it wasn’t as horrible as I had expected. It was so anticlimactic it would have made a terrible movie. I packed up the clothes in his dresser and sent those away one day. Another day I boxed his toys. Eventually I emptied our kitchen cupboards of baby food jars and Similac cans. I did all those things and I kept breathing and we kept seeing him for visits. Only last week we put his car seat and high chair in storage—easily accessible, but not always visible.
We went camping, also with my family, and we played mini golf and Laser tag, and went swimming every day twice a day, then down the water slide, on the hay ride, to the flag raising and the craft times, and then at night around the campfire to roast hot dogs and marshmallows and fall asleep in our primitive cabin.
In the little time we were home, the kids had daily swim lessons beside one of the best playgrounds in the area, so every morning we would meet our friends there, first enjoy the swings and slides before it got too hot, then swim and eat our lunch on the way home, rest, and wake up the next morning to do it all again.
We went to a pony farm, and the kids rode ponies and fed the animals and played with friends. We went to Chick-Fil-A Cow Appreciation Day, which is basically like a summer holiday for the kids, to dress up like cows and enjoy free food and play in the play area about as long as they like. We went to the county fair and admired the crafts and saw the animals. The kids each selected one ride, then David watched a little of the tractor pull, and on our way out we found a building just for kids with balloons and crafts and toys.
We drove to South Carolina to visit Ben’s family and managed to have a wonderful week despite Elanor getting rotavirus. We visited the zoo and the kids ran around looking at the animals, especially the pink flamingos and the elephants spraying themselves with mud. We read stories and watched movies and ate delicious food. We went to the lake and waded and swam and had a picnic in the shelter. We went to a museum with a delightful dinosaur exhibit that the kids wanted to walk through twice.
Our summer was just like Shauna Niequist’s description in her book Bittersweet:
“The idea of bittersweet is changing the way I live, unraveling and re-weaving the way I understand life. Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a moment of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich even when it contains a splinter of sadness.
“Bittersweet is the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the calluses on our hands. Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, audacious, earthy....
“This is what I’ve come to believe about change: it’s good, in the way that childbirth is good, and heartbreak is good, and failure is good. By that I mean that it’s incredibly painful, exponentially more so if you fight it, and also that it has the potential to open you up, to open life up, to deliver you right into the palm of God’s hand, which is where you wanted to be all along….”
Our summer was bittersweet. Sometimes I wondered if it was even healthy to be doing so many fun things right after we lost our baby. But I really think it was. We needed to celebrate the family we still had. We needed something to cushion those weeks. Was I trying to escape the grief? I hope not. Our vacations naturally fell at that point in time, and our kids really needed to do something fun. Grief went with us wherever we went, but so did joy—it was bittersweet.
I felt like I was in free fall until August when we were through with our adventures and I landed. I was home, with two kids, and even though it was mid August, it was the beginning of fall because school was starting and every week one more thing fell into place to fill our new rhythm.
I realized I had no idea how to mother just two kids at home. I could do school with David well enough, but Elanor walked around the house simply lost, looking for a playmate and someone to mother and scold and love. The floors stayed remarkably clean. Mealtimes only took half as long and were half as noisy. I would sort laundry into baskets and think, “That’s all there is?” Everywhere, in everything, we felt the absence of noise, of mess, of happiness, of chaos, and now just the quiet routine of what was left.
On the surface we looked once again like the ideal family size—one boy, one girl, well spaced—but that didn’t account for what felt like a gaping emptiness we took with us wherever we went. At Costco Elanor used to ride with him in the cart, and she didn’t want to be alone, so now her dolly Jenna flopped beside her, which needless to say was not the same. The normal question, “How many kids do you have?” became hard to answer. Sometimes I say two and sometimes I say three. Foster care makes life so complicated. Legally I have two. I birthed two. I love three. I cared for three. I pray for three and hold three in my heart. I totally know how to do three. Two feels weird.
David got an “About Me” worksheet to complete, and the family space asked for the number of his brothers and sisters. I held my breath a little, giving him no prompting and wondering what he would do. He said cheerfully, “Well, I’ll put zero in the brothers space because I don’t have any brothers! I have one sister, though!”
I walked over to the kitchen sink and remembered in the spring when one of his teachers first met our foster baby and asked, “Is this your brother?” and I said, “Kind of, he’s our foster baby” and David surprised everybody by shouting, “Yes! He is my brother! And when he leaves, I’m leaving, too!”
And I think about that zero on that worksheet and I think, he is healing, and this is good. Elanor is healing, too. She asks about him several times a day, but she asks happily like he is a good friend who will soon come to visit.
Last week when he was here, crawling crazily around looking for what he could destroy in the dining room, I was sitting at the table, and it hit me—we did have a choice with him. We never had the option of adopting him, and if we had, we would have in a heartbeat, but he did come with a choice. We could have said no, or we could have said yes for a year. And I am so, so glad we said yes for a year. Investing in his life is one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done.
Now we are ready and waiting for another baby. Two calls have turned out to be false alarms. In the meantime I am busy—busy as two kids, a part-time job, and a church community can make you, meaning I am busy but not as much as I was last year this time. I feel that emptiness, and I’m wanting to meet the Lord in it, and to wait for whatever, whoever, comes next.