When your life is routine, and fairly mundane, you begin to believe that there isn’t much that can change it. Life was beige. Waking up, doing mundane things, going to work, earning a paycheck, grocery shopping, laundry, maybe a night out to eat. Sometimes, if Keith and I had a day off together, we’d go to a local pub and have a cold beer on the patio and people-watch. Nothing much exciting happened. We didn’t necessarily strive for excitement, either. Life was lived in a little beige box and we were seemingly content with that.
A year ago today that changed in a way we could not have expected. And we’re the better for it.
The phone calls were frantic at first. “Sean, you MUST call me back when you can!! M has been arrested and D is at a children’s center. Call me ASAP!!” This from Keith’s ex-wife, trying desperately to get a hold of me.
I can’t really get into the dreary details, but I can give you an idea. Keith’s grand daughter was removed from her parents for neglect. His daughter’s daughter. A neglect we couldn’t have fathomed was as bad as it was until that morning. A neglect fostered by drugs and alcohol. A neglect we’d hear the specifics of at a group meeting a month later (and it was worse than we’d thought).
Child Welfare Services asked if we’d be willing to take D into our home while the next steps were laid out. We didn’t even hesitate. I can honestly say here that I had zero hesitation when I answered that question. Instead I asked, “Where is she? When can we pick her up?”
And the rest is history. A years’ worth.
As much as I’d like to share why (mostly to admonish the parents who allowed their four-year old into a cruel, unsafe way of living, though it’s fair to say D’s father’s eventual suicide is admonishment enough) I’m really here to reflect on how life changed for Keith and myself.
When D was born I hadn’t even considered I’d get close to this beautiful infant. In the beginning, visits to see her seemed like just that: visits. But then, inevitably, I fell in love with that crazy little girl, and made it a point to see her every weekend. By six months old, Keith and I were spending our weekends with her. By a year old, D was spending her weekends with us. As she got older, it wasn’t uncommon to have her 2, 5, sometimes 8 days at a time (in hindsight, we understand why, but at the time we attributed this to her parents needing a break). We were Papas, and that was that.
Then the phone call. Before we knew it CWS was at our home, evaluating, assessing as they do, making sure our apartment was livable and, more importantly, that we were stable. This was all done in the first 24 hours, they move that quickly. “You’re looking at six months of fostering, at least,” they told us, “perhaps a year. Are you willing to do this?”
Is the Pope Catholic?
And there it was. We became parents overnight. It took several weeks for this to sink in for me, to be brutally honest. I hadn’t weighed what, exactly, this meant. You see, I looked at D’s placement with us as an extended weekend. It couldn’t be much different…right?
The next six months were a whirlwind. More visits with CWS. New case workers. Parenting classes. Appointments. More appointments. Mom and Dad barely in the picture. Family meetings. Doctors. Psychiatrists. Going here, going there. All of this on top of our work schedules. I really do look at those first six months and I wonder: how did we do that? How did we do that and maintain a safe, loving environment for D? How did we make it so she never quite knew exactly what was going on?
By August pre-school started. This was bittersweet. Dropping D off on that first day was heartbreaking; we’d had her everyday, all day, for 8 months. Playing, laughing, teaching, watching awful cartoons, coloring, painting, building forts, going to the park…to suddenly having an eerily quiet apartment. Was she ok? Was she having fun? Is a 7-hour school day too long for a 4-year old?? It was then, I remember, that I began to understand something about myself: I’m really doing this, and I’m good at it.
Needless to say, it all worked out. We went from controlled chaos to settling into routines. Bedtime hours. Chores. Potty training. Ceasing pacifier use. Visits with mom, visits with extended family, of which we are bound to supervise. Thanksgiving, Christmas, D’s 5th birthday. We’ve taught D there’s nothing to be afraid of. When her concerns rise to the surface – as they inevitably do given her past – we are certain to quell her fears. “Sometimes, with Mama and Dada, we didn’t have food,” she told me once. “Sometimes Mama and Dada would leave me alone.”
“We will never do that to you, D. You will always have food. We will never leave you alone. You are safe and loved.”
If you told me at 20 years old I would be a parent at 42, I’d have laughed at you. Heck, if you told me that at 38, I’d have laughed at you. I have learned so much about myself this past year. I have learned I am capable. I have learned if I can do this, there are so many other things I can do as well (which I have, to great success). D taught me there is such a thing as unconditional love. She taught me I have a will to love beyond that of my partner and my family. She taught me I am selfless, and that I have the capacity to take a bullet if necessary. To give my life if it meant saving hers.
Which is interesting because, in essence, D has saved my life. She exploded what was mundane. I am reminded of this when I am watching television, perusing Facebook, or feeling listless, and she comes storming into the room and says, “Papa Sean, I forgot to give you a hug and a kiss!” She jumps into my lap, wraps her arms around my neck, and plants the sweetest kiss you’ve ever had right on my cheek. Then she giggles and runs off to play with her toys.
A year. How has it possibly been that long yet feel like it was just yesterday we tucked her in for that first night? How did I go from self-doubt about raising a child to scheduling doctor’s visits and reading books at bedtime? How did 365 days melt into a single instant? Why did I never know my life could have turned on a dime?
My life was beige. D turned it into a rainbow.