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Several years ago, toward the end of the summer, a county social worker called and asked me to meet, and possibly provide weekend foster care for, a 7-year-old whom I'll call Joey. His full-time foster mom needed some respite care for him, two weekends a month. He's had a hard life, the worker told me, but in the right circumstances he can be a great kid.
We'll see, I thought.
What I saw when I met Joey at his foster home was a pair of brown eyes that looked at me with lively interest over the furry body of the dog he was holding. I squatted down to his level, told him that I had an even bigger dog named Sally who loved everybody, and asked if he'd like to meet her. He put the dog on the floor and smiled at me. He would like to meet Sally.
Joey and Sally were best friends about 10 minutes after he arrived at my house. Within an hour, he was best friends with the boy next door, who was, to his great astonishment, only one day younger than he was. He watered my flowers, and himself, with my new dial-a-stream nozzle. He commandeered my BMX bicycle and was soon burning 180s in the alley. We biked the Gateway Trail to the Hwy. 96 bridge and back, a round trip of (to his great astonishment) eight miles. We hunted turtles on the lake. We spent a wonderful weekend together, and Joey was, indeed, a great kid.
The next weekend, he was waiting at the window when I came to pick him up. We had an even better time, and I was not too surprised when, a few days later, his worker called to ask me to take him full-time. I was beginning a yearlong sabbatical at the college where I work, so I said yes, and by the end of the week Joey was in residence, clothes, toys, video games and all.
In the weeks that followed, I learned that respite foster care is to full-time foster care as grandparenting is to parenting. During respite care, we'd had nothing but fun; now I had to get him out of bed, dress him, feed him and put him on the school bus every weekday morning. I had to stand over him while he cleaned up his messes and his room. I heard myself saying "I want you to eat those vegetables, Joey, not hide them under the edge of your plate" (I know all the tricks) and "no TV until homework is done, Joey" and "you will read with me for one half hour every day; shall I set the timer?" (This requirement he came in time to like).
I discovered limits to my patience that hadn't been tested since my own children went off to college, and I began to see in his behavior evidence of the hard times he'd been through before he came into the system. Yet he accepted me as a parent, and after a few bumps in starting up, we seemed to be making normal progress.
And I began to remember things about Joey when he was in school or asleep or in an occasional weekend of respite care: the straightness of his back as he sat on the edge of the sofa watching a movie; the high loud voice, like chanting, that he used when reading to me; his heaviness in my arms when I carried him sleeping to his bed; him sitting on my lap at Christmas Eve Mass, still wearing his sheep costume, singing "Joy to the World" in a confident monotone. And I began to have a strong sense of his sturdy little spirit, vulnerable and brave and infinitely valuable.
• • •
After the holidays, Joey went into another placement, a foster home with a mother, the one thing he needed that I couldn't give him. After a few initial bumps, he settled down and seemed to be doing well, and I got to do respite care with my little guy every weekend. What could be better?
And then, a year after I'd met him and almost from one day to the next, Joey was gone; because of the abuse and neglect of his early years, his behavior had become increasingly disturbed, and despite our best efforts, it appeared that he needed therapeutic care that neither his full-time foster family nor I could give him. I finally agreed with the county that this new and distant placement was best for him, but my world was emptier than it had been. I was free to do what I wanted whenever I wanted, but what could be better than hanging out with Joey? And worse than missing him was the feeling that I had let him down. I had thought I was giving him what he needed, but could I have done more, given him more attention, been more patient?
In the weeks that followed, I returned to work, which helped. I forgot my sadness when I was talking with a class, but when the class was over, the sadness was waiting in the hallway. Joey's worker told me that he was doing well in his new placement, and that I might eventually mentor or do respite care with him, which also helped.
Later that fall, I started mentoring a lively 7-year-old, which also helped. One day when I stopped to pick up my new charge, his caregiver, a woman who has been doing foster care for 50 years and who knew what had happened with Joey, turned from her kitchen stove and summed everything up, waving a spatula: It hurts to let them go because you're doing your job. You love them; you do the best you can for them; you let them go. You have to be tough without being hard. You have done him more good than you know. The time he spent with you he'll remember as long as he lives. And you will see him again.
• • •
Five months later, a county worker called and asked me to meet a 12-year-old whom I'll call Daniel. He's been through some rough times, she said, but he can be a great kid in the right circumstances.
We'll see, I thought.
What I saw when I met Daniel at the county shelter where he lived was a lanky kid with an eager, open face who proposed to face the subzero January cold wearing a sleeveless down vest, the only outerwear he had, over a T-shirt. When we got to my house, I loaned him my other jacket for the duration of this trial weekend visit. The delight in his face when he put on the jacket, and the sight of him playing in the snow with Sally, and his appreciative politeness, and his eager appetite for meatloaf or spaghetti or whatever I cooked for him, and a glimpse through an open door of him sleeping in my spare bedroom with Sally curled up at his feet, led me to believe that this trial weekend might become a trial month, or even more.
Daniel settled right in. For the first few weeks, he was the quietest 12-year-old I had ever known -- I could be in a room for quite some time before I noticed him sitting unobtrusively in a corner -- but eventually he began to slam doors and pump up the volume and shout at me from two rooms away, and I learned from occasional incidental remarks he made that keeping a low profile had been a survival tactic in his former life. Though he seemed to be turning into a normal teenager, some rough edges remained, and I occasionally wondered if I weren't too old for this kid-raising business. Yet we got through the rough times, which weren't, in retrospect, so different from the rough times every teenager has with his parents.
• • •
Five years later, Daniel is looking for a job and practicing for his driving test (he's a very good driver) and discussing his 18th-birthday present with me -- he can't decide between a subwoofer for the teenmobile and a season pass to a snowboarding park (he'll have to contribute to either present). He'll graduate with his high school class (God willing) in the spring. His room is a mess, but he eats his vegetables and just about anything else he finds in the kitchen. Joey has not come back into my life, but I hear that he's doing as well as can be expected.
And I've learned what every veteran foster parent knows -- that the children who have been entrusted to our care deserve the best we can give them, and that our best is the most we can do. Joey needed more than I could give him; for Daniel, the best I can do just might be enough.
Michael Nesset teaches English at Century College in White Bear Lake and provides child foster care for a county agency.
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