April 1, 2012

The Race (Part I)

I tentatively peeked around the corner into the hospital room, my three older children quietly tagging along behind me.  As I caught the first glimpse of my newest foster baby, my initial thought was, “This is the scrawniest thing I have ever seen.”  I could almost see the bones showing through her thin black legs, her tiny arms hung limply at her sides, and her facial expression was listless and flat.  And of course it was impossible to ignore the snaking tubes, tangled wires, and dripping IV’s, which were all connected to blinking, beeping monitors.  

During the drive to the hospital, I had tried to prepare my children for what we might encounter, and had warned them that no matter what she looked like, they were absolutely forbidden to use words like “gross” and “yucky.”  As I stood there those first few moments taking in the unsightly scene and trying to discern which one of the machines was making that disgusting gurgling sound, my older daughter leaned closely and whispered in my ear, “Mama, why is your nose all wrinkled up like that?”  I had to admit to myself that the sights, smells, and sounds emanating from this child were pretty repulsive.  If I had to compare the placement of this new foster child to running a race, here I stood at the starting line, and already I had stumbled.  This race wasn’t starting out very well.

The Training

My husband and I hadn’t planned to become “marathon” foster parents, and we certainly hadn’t anticipated maneuvering the rocky, hilly terrain involved in parenting a special-needs child.  What sane parent would voluntarily choose to go down that path?!  We considered ourselves to be 5K runners, maybe, or even 10K:  a few children for a few months here and there.   For the first several years, our foster children were all healthy and relatively well-behaved.  We didn’t have to deal with any major illnesses or disabilities, and none of the children had tried to murder us while we were asleep (those are the stories people always hear about!).  They stayed with us for about one year before moving on to an adoptive home or being reunified with a parent or family member.   They were all pretty straight-forward, by-the-book placements.

But then the children started arriving with minor “issues.”  The baby who was born with a paralyzed arm; the 4-year old who was in a body cast for 2 months and then had to learn how to walk all over again; the teenager with a kidney disease that required huge amounts of medication, twice-weekly trips to the specialist, and a rigorously restricted diet.  A little injury here, a slight disability there.  When we were asked to temporarily care for a severely brain-damaged 2-year old girl, I was terrified at the thought.  But I told myself, “I can do pretty much anything for just a few weeks.”  In spite of her near-vegetative state, her sweet personality shown through, and I found my fears melting away.  The first time I dangled her feet into the cool water at the pool and splashed her little legs, her bright smile completely captured me.  How could I have ever been afraid of this precious, precious child?
I was blissfully unaware that during the years I was caring for these less-than-perfect children, I was actually in training, preparing my parenting muscles for an endurance run that would test my strength and stamina well past the breaking point.

The Starting Line

Like foster parents everywhere, I generally go about my daily life, never knowing when I am going to receive The Call to take a child.  But the ringing of the phone and the voice of the social worker on the other end generates an instantaneous range of emotions.  Excitement:  Here comes a new child into my heart!  It’s an opportunity to fall in love all over again!  Uncertainty:  Am I ready?  Is my home ready?   Apprehension: Do I really have time and energy to take on this new challenge?  Should athletes really be running marathons after the age of 40?  Anxiety:  What am I getting myself into?!  What if this child’s needs exceed my abilities?  But most of all gratitude and humility:  I can’t believe that of all the people in the world, God would choose ME to care for this child!

When the social worker called me about taking this particular baby girl, her description of the situation was grossly understated.  “She has some health problems, but don’t worry.  The hospital will teach you everything you need to know before she comes home with you.”  After several phone calls with the medical staff, I had a better understanding of what to expect, and the information was indeed pretty overwhelming.  Her physical condition was so fragile that she would require 24 hour, around the clock care.  Yikes!  The details were all a bit overwhelming, but by the time I went to meet her at the hospital for the first time, I had already “given it a name.”  Like Sully in the movie Monsters, Inc. who became attached to the human who had inadvertently entered the monsters’ world, I knew from experience that once you “give it a name,” it’s too late:  my heart is already committed.  Despite the uneasiness and self-doubts, my husband and I both felt that God had called us to care for this child.  We didn’t really know if our training had properly prepared us for this race, but you never know what kind of athlete you are until you actually compete.

Over the next few days, my husband and I visited her in the hospital regularly, familiarizing ourselves with her care, which included quite a few machines, equipment, and medical supplies.  We spoke with her doctors, learned tips and techniques from the nurses, and mastered the fine art of holding her without causing any alarms to blare.  It was a necessary warm-up for us:  we were mentally stretching our legs, tying our shoes, and psyching ourselves up for the start of the race.  With much excitement and anticipation, the day finally arrived for her to be discharged from the hospital.  The horn had sounded, and we were off!

The First Few Miles

Those first few days of bringing home this new addition and getting settled were a whirlwind of incessant activity.  It was impossible to establish any kind of normalcy or routine, due to the other “runners” involved in her care who were all elbowing their way in, jockeying for position and attempting to set their pace alongside us.  The county social worker needed to observe the baby in her new home environment, bringing stacks of paperwork for me to sign.  The services coordinator was anxious to assess her developmental delays and start searching for the right therapists for her specific needs.  The medical equipment provider spent hours setting up her paraphernalia, demonstrating all of the setting and alarms on the monitors, unpacking boxes and boxes of gauze, tape, catheters, probes, tubing, saline, ad infinitum.  The phone was practically ringing off the hook, calls from various doctors and specialists who needed to schedule appointments.  

The most difficult adjustment of this race, by far, was getting used to the home nurses who were literally in and out of our doors 24/7 for their 8 hour shifts, each of them requiring a tour of our home and an orientation for the individual details of this baby’s care.  (Unbelievably, during the time we cared for this dear foster child, almost 30 different nurses had been in our home.  30!)  Some were quite competent, but their skilled efficiency only reminded me that I was an inadequate novice.  One such woman repeatedly asked me to leave the baby’s room while she was on duty, despite my reminders that I was the mother, and this was my home!  Other nurses were inexperienced and unsure about their role; sometimes it was just easier to do things myself than to try to explain again what needed to be done.  And just about the time we found a nurse that we felt comfortable with, she would be assigned to a different patient in a different home, and we would have start the process all over again.  

Regardless of skill level or personality, a stranger in your home is a stranger in your home.  If we wanted our little daughter to join us at mealtimes, the nurse joined also.  The few times I packed up all of the baby’s equipment and ventured out to the market or on an outing other than to the hospital, a nurse was tagging along beside the stroller.  Every phone conversation was overheard.  Every time I disciplined my older children, I had an audience.  The private lullabies while I rocked my sweet baby became a self-conscious performance. My home was no longer my sanctuary; it had become a fishbowl.

All I really wanted to do was sit and rock my baby, and get to know every inch of her precious face and allow her to hear the sound of my voice.  But with all of the unavoidable frenzy of getting settled, those quiet moments were, regrettably, quite rare.  By the end of the first few weeks I was already exhausted, but somehow the adrenaline and excitement propelled me forward, and I remained optimistic about the path that lay ahead.

(Please continue with Part II)

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