After Losing a Foster Child, Contemplating Another

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He’s sitting on a couch with his brothers, presumably in the home in which he’s now growing up. The photo has a graininess to it that is reminiscent of photos from the 1980s, but this picture is much more recent than that. It’s the first visual I’ve had of my former foster son since I hugged him goodbye.

The boy we nicknamed “BlueJay” lived with us for almost a year when extended family members stepped forward to take custody of him and his two brothers back in March. In the series Foster Parent Diary, I wrote about the experience of loving and losing him. Now, I zoom in and out of this photo, studying every blurry detail. I know he was 4 years old when the photo was taken, the same age he was when he left our home, but he looks so much older. I can see how his legs are longer, his shoulders broader.

His biological mother sent me the picture. She and I have remained in contact since he left. As far as I know, it is the only photo she has received since her son went to live in a home several hours away from her. The updates she gets and passes along to me are sporadic and superficial. I’m not sure even she really knows how he is doing.

I dream about him. In my dreams, he’s always a little bit older with slightly more chiseled features. Sometimes he remembers me, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he runs into my arms, sometimes he runs from them. On the days when he remembers me, when I pull him in for a tight hug and he asks me where I’ve been, it feels so real that I wake up with an irrational hope that he had the same dream, too. That maybe we’d found a way to cross the distance between us, just for a moment.

My son, Ryan, who is now 6 years old, recently asked me if we could call his former foster brother one day to talk to him, to tell him we miss him.

I’m sorry, buddy, we can’t,” I said.

But why?

But why. It is the central question I have struggled with over the past 10 months. Why couldn’t we stay in his life? Why couldn’t we send him a new outfit for school or call him to wish him a happy birthday when he recently turned 5? Why couldn’t we continue to offer him our love from afar?

We couldn’t because his relatives didn’t want us to. They didn’t see the point of it, the value in it. They wanted a clean break.

A lot of time has passed since our foster son left. We talk about him more with smiles now than with tears. We’ve given ourselves the time and space needed to figure out whether the hole in our lives is one that only he was meant to fill or whether our family is still incomplete.

Finally, we are starting to feel ready. My husband, Mike, and I are preparing, once again, for foster care adoption.

We’re being more cautious and more deliberate this time. This time, we are moving slowly. This time, we are more educated and less exuberant.

We are setting new parameters. We will consider only children who are legally free for adoption or as close to it as possible. We will not be called one day and asked to pick up a child in need of an immediate, temporary home. This time, we will be matched with a child who may have been waiting for a permanent family for as long as we’ve been waiting to complete ours. Realistically, that probably means a child Ryan’s age or older. There will be fliers with pictures and stacks of files and the child’s own opinions to consider.

Caring for a child for almost a year and then being given less than 24 hours to pack him up and say a permanent goodbye changes a person. It strips you of your naïveté. It inflicts a sense of loss that cuts deep. It can harden you with cynicism, sadness and fear, if you let it.

Our former foster son looks different in the photo. He is not smiling. He’s staring into the camera with a blank look I don’t recognize on him. He doesn’t look like the happy, spunky little boy I knew. He looks more like how I felt for months after he left: Dazed. The longer I stare at the photo, the more I wish I’d never seen it.

Then again, it’s just one picture. One moment out of a billion moments in his lifetime. How could one picture be a fair representation of his current life? Maybe he was tired or bored or cranky when it was taken. Maybe, overall, things are going great for him. Do I have a real reason to believe otherwise? All I have is one picture.

We can choose the cynicism, the sadness and the fear, or we can choose hope. We can shrivel up into a hardened ball, or we can pick ourselves up, dust off our arms, shake out our hair and press forward.

We can acknowledge our own heartache for what it was: The inevitable result of fully loving a child who was never really ours. There was no mistake in that.

We can let go of our worry and instead, believe in him. Believe that he’s strong enough to overcome the hardships of his early life, strong enough to thrive.

We can allow ourselves to hope the final piece of our family’s puzzle is still out there. We can close our eyes, take a deep breath, center ourselves. And then we can go in search of that piece.