by Dr. Linda Sonna
(Originally published in A Cup of Comfort)
As we approach the elementary school, Juanito's little hand grasps mine. His fingers tighten until his nails dig small moons into my palm. I am the eighth mother for my six-year-old foster son. When he arrived at my house, a lone plastic grocery bag held his only links to the past: three pairs of blue jeans, three T-shirts, three pairs of socks, four pairs of underpants, a pair of pajamas, and a handful of small plastic army men.
In his time with me, Juanito has confronted a new town, a new house, and a new foster parent. And new water. (“It doesn’t taste like water in that other town—whatchacallit.”) New food. (“But I don’t like your lettuce. It tastes icky!”) New rules. (“But that other foster mom—what was her name? She let me stay up all night!”) A new brand of toothpaste, (“Pretty good, actually.”) Two strange dogs. And a house filled with unfamiliar shadows. He gropes for light switches in his bedroom, rummages through four dresser drawers to find his socks, and struggles to extricate himself from the seatbelt in this confusing new world.
Yet, he’s settling in. An ice cream cone brings a wan smile to his lips. An occasional giggle ripples from his throat when I flutter a butterfly kiss onto his cheek. In rare moments between the storms that accompany bathing and getting ready for bed, his brown eyes sparkle and the dark circles underneath them fade. Hugs, toys, and treats from a stranger eager to love him are not enough to erase the trauma of this move or to staunch the wounds from so much loss. But they provide short respites from the pain.
As we step into the bustling school where hundreds of tiny people mill about my knees, I realize that my leap from an unattached single woman to a foster mother has dramatically altered my life, too.
I no longer sip cappuccino while debating the meaning of life with philosopher friends. I don’t get together to discuss the state of the planet with colleagues or participate in local political events. I am too immersed in cooking grilled cheese sandwiches, singing nursery rhymes, bandaging skinned knees, and finding lost shoes to indulge in the frivolous pursuits that used to captivate me.
Instead, Juanito and I try to unravel the deeper mysteries of the world. As he marvels at the clouds sweeping past the moon on a star-filled night, I join him in wondering why. When we chance upon a fuzzy worm on the sidewalk, we wonder what. As we study the makeup on a clown at the circus, we wonder who. And as we watch mothers shepherd their children through the grocery store, push swings at the city park, and distribute hamburgers to smiling broods at McDonalds, we retreat into ourselves to ponder the most important questions of all: where, when, and for how long. . . .
Where will the bureaucratic wheel that has caught half a million children in its spokes send Juanito the next time it turns? When will his mother choose him over drugs and build the kind of life that has room for a small boy? If her parental rights are terminated as expected and Juanito joins the 130,000 children in the United States awaiting adoption, will a family come forward to choose him? How long will he be mine to love?
Today, as I walk Juanito to his new classroom, the small hand clutching mine provides the answer: here and now, if not always. The security of tomorrow is what he truly needs, but any mom can chase the shadows from a youngster’s day. As I give his hand a reassuring squeeze, I feel honored that, for the time being, it is me.
*The child’s name and identifying information have been changed.
Publication 2007. Dr. Sonna has fostered six children. “Fostering is the hardest job you’ll ever love,” she says.