Leaving the Tags On
The toddler left on a warm November afternoon after over three months of living with us. Three months of sleeping in our room, three months of playing, soothing, cuddling, supervising, and loving him. His Aunt came to pick him up and she was taking him - for good this time. He was riding his bike in our driveway and fussed when she buckled him in his seat, all the while trying to unlock the mechanism. He was 19 months by now and had a will and a voice of his own. I picked up the bike and put it next to him on the seat hoping to appease his discontent. He reached over to grab it, momentarily satisfied, but then he looked up and noticed us - us standing there watching him. I wanted to tell him that we weren’t abandoning him, I wanted to tell him that this wasn’t our fault, that we didn’t do this, we didn’t leave him—but I couldn’t. I just stood there helpless in so many ways. How could I tell him that we wanted him? That we would have adopted him?
His aunt kept apologizing. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she repeated. And then she drove away with our baby in her car.
The loss of him was hard. He had been with us long enough to feel normal - such that not having him felt abnormal. Like the baby before, we grieved the still, the quiet, the empty, the palpable goneness of him. And like someone who had passed away, the day came when I fortified my will enough to sort through his things. I had purchased long sleeved rompers and tennis shoes and jackets for him in hopes that we’d still have him in the cold weather, but he’d left in short sleeves and sandals. My dashed hopes lay in the tangible form of outfits not worn, too big shoes, and sweaters and jackets in the drawer beneath his empty crib - most with tags still on. I resolved to return them. The state gives foster families a clothing budget, but we never felt the need to turn in receipts for reimbursement, and so I thought we should have the credit for other things. Packing up the precious items, I placed them in a shopping bag, drove them to the store, waited my turn, and handed them to the cashier. “I need to return these,” I said. “Anything wrong with them?” she asked. “No,” I reply. “Nothing is wrong with them,” I answer, breathing deeply, gathering strength, and trying not to remember my lost boy—the one to whom they belonged. She pulled them from the bag, scanned each item, and unceremoniously tossed them all onto the restock pile on the back counter and I looked away. “Sign on the line,” she commanded, snapping me out of my malaise of sorrow and giving me momentary focus on the electronic pad in front of my face. “Have a nice day,” she said, handing me the receipt and then I turned and walked away - reluctant to leave those textile dreams of the boy I loved behind.
The holidays came and went. Without him. His aunt never called even though I told her, pleaded with her, reminded her, to return him to us if he was too much. He was an active toddler and she was not young, I reasoned. I sent emails to all involved so that they had it on record that we were the backup placement. The agency told us that we could take a three-month break before we’d have to take classes again for certification and I thought we would need all of that to recover. I didn’t want another baby, I wanted, waited for him. Eventually, in the New Year, the children began to clamor for another child and I could feel my heart start to stir again to the idea. Joe joked after returning home from a business trip: “What? You didn’t have a baby come while I was away? I told the guy next to me on the flight that I left with seven kids but might have eight when I get back.” And so it was that I had permission from everyone to go back on the vacancy list.
The flow of children being placed by DCS had slowed considerably since we first began fostering to adopt in August, so it took nearly two weeks to get a call. “We have a three month old boy with non-accidental, bilateral, fractured tibeas and bruising. Will you take him?” “Of course,” I said, processing what exactly that meant. A thirty-minute trip to the store was just enough time to purchase needed items for him - diapers, sleepers, blankets, pacifiers, bottles. The baby arrived shortly after having come from the Children’s Hospital. The family collectively gasped when the case-manager removed the blanket from the baby’s lap revealing two tiny casts like some kind of magic trick gone awry. “What happened to him?” my 5 year old daughter inquired. “Someone hurt him,” I whispered more to myself than to her - bewildered, confused by what I was witnessing. “Who? Why?” - “This situation is under police investigation.” The case manager continued handing Joe the diaper bag. After she left, I carefully removed him from his car-seat, and held him gently, and closed my eyes, and prayed.
This baby cried. He had acid reflux and broken legs and he cried. The medicine that accompanied him was an antacid and not pain relief as I had presumed. My pediatrician tried to hide her horror of the situation as we devised a sleep position that could accommodate keeping his legs elevated and yet his head as well. We decided that the car seat was optimal and so was giving him Tylenol every 4 hours. He weighed in at 11 pounds, which included his casts, and in my book qualified as failure to thrive. Joe and I were exhausted in our unsuccessful efforts to comfort him and so when the case worker called four days later to tell us that she was picking him up - we felt a tinge of relief. I still wept tears for this baby, but they were mostly of worry. “This baby needs three people,” I told her. “He’ll wear one or even two out. They need to rotate. ” She stared back blankly. And so we gave good-bye blessings to our third placement in 6 months. Protect him Lord, I begged. Protect them all. I washed the bedding and stacked the new, unused, clothing in a tidy pile in the corner of the drawer.
“We’re taking a break,” I told the agency when they asked if we wanted back on the list. “Don’t put us on. I’ll call you when we’re ready.” I had so much to think about. I had so much to do. My house, having 6 children (and one who returns occasionally) in it is always full of commotion, but unusually so as we prepared for the arrival of Joe’s brother and his family. They were flying in from Michigan to run in the half- marathon on Sunday. We went to Mass on Saturday night and after pulling into the drive my phone rang.
“This is DCS. We have a two-day-old baby in need of immediate placement. Do you have an open bed?”
An open bed. “An open bed” echoed through my brain. I handed the phone to Joe so that he could hear everything I had just heard. The investigator, who had an old, outdated availability list with our name on it, repeated all of the information he had just given me to Joe. I watched his face listening intently. “Yep. We have an open bed,” I heard him say. “Bring him over.” And I looked around at 12 people who were about to eat their carb-loaded spaghetti dinner and I thought… open bed, open arms, open hearts, open to love again, open, open, open. Yes, we’re open. And I needed to get some things.
And perhaps this one will stay, and perhaps not
but for that reason
I will be leaving the tags on.