When my brother Bob called to say that he and Dorie had taken in six foster siblings, I offered to make other plans for Thanksgiving. With all assorted relatives and such, that would make more than twenty for dinner including eight kids under the age of twelve: overload, I was sure, for Bob and Dorie.
Bob would have none of our other arrangements, so Mark and I steeled ourselves for possible chaos. And sure enough, as soon as we pulled in the driveway at noon on The Big Day, there was the whole menagerie outside, Bob swinging three of the kids in a porch swing tied under a tree and the other three playing on the driveway. Grant, eight years old and the oldest, immediately strode toward us and introduced himself, his hand outstretched. “That dude’s the little man of the family,” I noted to myself. Tyler started kicking a soccer ball around with Paul, while a little bitty girl wearing pink sparkly sneakers and a knitted cap on her head tried to push around, with one hand, a tiny tricycle which kept falling over.
I glanced at Bob. He seemed relatively sane. Now sane and Bob have always been very “relative”. During his sojourn upon the earth, he has attacked with gusto everything he’s set his mind to do, including flying hot air balloons and ultra light airplanes; mastering the workings of anything mechanical; and building radio controlled airplanes, paddle wheel boats, house additions, you name it. Bob has also always been one color – loud – though tempered in recent years with a softer hue named Dorie. Bob has also nursed a tender heart his whole life. I can attest to this even though, as his younger sister, as kids his tenderness wasn’t always directed at me. At any rate, seeing him push kids in a swing was no surprise at all.
Throughout the afternoon it was hard to get the six kids straight. In between the smoked salmon and baked brie appetizers I looked out the window to see them playing well with my kids. That was a relief. But why had I presumed that foster kids would be a batch of terrors? They also had good manners: When they came in for dinner, all dutifully washed their hands and stood in line, sat without fidgeting in their seats, and asked politely to be excused. During the partaking of all that is Thanksgiving dinner delight, I picked up tidbits on their background. Their mother was only 24. The kids had been removed by CPS due to her purposely burning her 3-yr-old on the hand. The family had been living in a one room apartment where meals consisted only of Blueberry Pop-tarts although one day the “present” father had brought home strawberry by mistake. When Dorie had asked Alyssa, the eldest girl, to talk about a good day at home, the girl had remarked , “There weren’t any.” They had been removed once before, but the judge in this particular county of this particular state held that children should be with their parents, so had allowed them back. And then the burn, which had required a hospital stay and skin grafts. This three-year-old, according to the other siblings, had become the object of her mother’s frustration. The other kids had been taught to needle her, disregard her.
With the holiday hullabaloo in full swing it wasn’t until that evening, after the pie had most of the guys zonked on the couch and while the kids were in the basement playing foosball and ping-pong, that the little itty-bitty girl who had been pushing the tricycle around outside approached me, her arms raised to be picked up. It was then I realized who she was with the bandage on her hand, a persistent blister peeking around the dressing. On her fingernails was shiny red polish, now chipped, that a doctor had lavished on her before she left the hospital. I picked her up and hugged and kissed her. She pointed to the basement stairs. “You can take her down if you stay with her,” Bob explained, “but she’s not allowed to navigate the stairs on her own.” I wasn’t sure I should navigate them either with the clunky high-heeled boots I had on. She grasped at my blouse and I hugged the wall to keep from plunging headlong with my precious cargo.
When we reached the ping pong table I tried to set her down, but she continued to cling to me so I alternately stood and sat, rocking her and kissing her forehead while she tapped my teeth with her fingers, my braces making plinking sounds. “Wot dat?” she asked. “To make my teeth look pretty,” I answered. I gently held and pointed to her painted fingernails. “Like your fingers are pretty.” She grabbed at the cap on her head and pulled it off, exposing a wide swath of shaved hair which was starting to grow back, where doctors had taken the skin grafts for her hands. While she shifted her gaze back and forth from me to the boys, I tried to get a glimpse of her soul through her eyes. My heart flip-flopped. What I saw seemed muddy — shallow. I held her to me and prayed for her then, remembering Ellen’s response at my hope that her young age would relieve her future memories: “They say that a burn is the one thing you never forget.”
When we went back upstairs, Dorie was down on her knees with one of the girls, enlisting her help in getting the toys picked up and put away. “Can we please please please have a Bible story?” Grant pleaded, walking into the room. Ellen stood up. “Let me tell ya,” she said to me, “These kids put me to shame when it comes to their desire for God.” Bob ambled into the kitchen, looking a bit done for. “How do you do it?” I asked him. “Daycare!” he laughed. “School and daycare. They’re great kids, but the weekends are so exhausting I’ve never looked so forward to Mondays in my life!” “So what was it that inspired you guys to do this in the first place?” I asked. “I felt that God was calling us to do it,” Ellen explained. She paused and stated simply, “Obedience.”
Obedience. What a dog. It lay at the foot of my bed as I went to sleep. It was one thing for me to live four hours away and admire from afar Bob and Dorie’s decision to take in these kids; it was quite another to connect grace directly with these little faces, and to see in their eyes (well most of them anyway) deep pools of spirit. The little pink jackets hung on the coat tree and sparkly shoes lined up by the door were no longer just shoes and coats; they embodied hope. As I lay in the darkness I again felt the three-month-old baby melting into my shoulder after I fed her her bottle. I heard the squeals of joy as Bob pushed the three on the porch swing high into the air. Then I heard the dog at the foot of the bed groan and remembered times I’d ignored that supernatural nudge, holding my ears and closing my eyes until it had stopped. But then the awful emptiness .
I had only seen obedience from one side – mine: The work it would entail. The hours it would consume. The faith it would require. Now I saw obedience on the other side: the hope the work produced; the joy contained within the hours. The blossoming of increased faith.
It was easy to shift any self-reflection away from my weakness and to instead despise the mother. Easier even because I’d never met her. Six kids including a newborn, three different fathers. Had she used her brain at all before passion took over? Was she redeemable? Did I want her to be redeemable? I tried to put myself in her shoes. Was she in the throes of post-partum depression? I could almost talk myself into being sympathetic until I remembered that Dan had said she was willing to legally sign away her burned daughter. She didn’t want her. That I found hard to swallow.
The next morning, Friday, the tribe was headed out the door to daycare by the time I got up. Grant led the older siblings into the van like the General, while Bob and Dorie stood on opposite sides strapping the three-year-old, one year old, and three-month-old into their car seats. I watched Bob, that sometimes obnoxious loud-mouth of old, standing so humbly, tenderly and patiently making sure every belt and buckle was in order.
“You guys are doing a great job,” I offered when they came back into the house. “How about we go out for breakfast?” I searched their faces for signs of cracks. “I hope they manage to stay buoyant,” Dorie’s mom had said the night before. “Six kids. It’s exhausting.”
At the diner Bob and Dorie finally got to relax and watch Mark and me wrangle with our three over the perceived injustice of who got the least bacon. On the way back to their house Bob and Dorie drove us by some income property they had just bought and were fixing up. They explained how the events surrounding the sale had them convinced that God had orchestrated and blessed the whole thing. Well, that’s a no brainer, I thought. Being selfless like this, taking in these kids like this, obedience like this, faith like this, I’d think blessings were certainly in order. This was a family who would certainly live happily ever after.
But that is why I hate sequels.
Characters are supposed to live happily ever after. It especially drives me crazy when writers try to mess with Jane Austen perfection. I wish they’d just leave the happiness alone, but then they write ridiculous sequels where someone inevitably dies in childbirth, has some hunting accident, or discovers love is too difficult.
Monday morning Bob called me. I immediately knew something was up and was fearful that it had to do with those kids, that they were being sent back to their mother. Instead, Bob told me that he has cancer. A difficult kind. He has surgery in his future and possibly radiation. The surgeon wants to remove his lymph glands. I have lived long enough upon the earth to learn that these things — illness, pain, suffering – come to all, whether or not they take in foster kids or attack life with zest, or whether or not they are my brother – or dad – or uncle. We live in expectation – with groaning expectation at times – for what CS Lewis calls The Weight of Glory – for that Land far away, that Longing for Home.
Bob says he feels ready for that. He also says he doesn’t feel as if it’s his time to go. How do I feel? I feel as if I’m still in class. I feel like I’ll be in class for the rest of my life, having to learn and relearn, when life slings its muck, to fill my life with the kind of prayer that leads me to not only pray with confidence for Bob’s health and healing, but also leads to trust, to hope, to faith, and followed up with the obedience to put it all into practice.