January 23, 2013

Unbreakable Bonds

Empty Arms

“Please,” she pleads on the other end of the telephone.  “Please don’t let him forget me.”  I can’t ignore the desperation, the near hopelessness in her request.  It surely follows years and years of disappointments and frustrations, watching dreams of the future crumble around her.  It is an appeal made from a heart of grief, knowing that she will most likely never see this child again.  It is the cry of a heart-broken grandmother.

Parents may make mistakes, and sometimes they do foolish things or make decisions that affect the lives of their innocent children.  The children end up in the foster care system or being placed for adoption, in hopes that some of the damage that has wreaked havoc on their young lives might somehow heal.  But when children are separated from their parents, it’s not just the nuclear family that is dramatically affected.  Where does that leave the grandparents?  How do they fit into the story?

When her precious grandchild was born, she did as much as she could to support her daughter and to shoulder some of the burdens that an unmarried young mother faces.  Every week she would scrape together a portion of her meager paycheck to pay for clothes and diapers and formula.  When the baby’s father went to jail, ending any hope of financial support from him, she offered her daughter the sleeper-sofa in her living room, and purchased a second-hand crib to squeeze into the corner for the baby.  It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was the best she had to offer.

Unfortunately, in spite of the long months of effort and patience and sacrifice, it simply wasn’t enough. Her daughter simply refused to become a responsible parent.  When the social workers came to the door to remove the child from her home, there was nothing she could do.  While she knew that her grandchild would be safe and cared for and protected in a foster home, her grief was inconsolable.  How had things gone so terribly wrong?

Every week for over a year, she faithfully took one afternoon off of work in order to drive to the social worker’s office for a supervised visit with her grandson.  The time had actually been reserved for the child’s mother, but her attendance had been sporadic at best.  Her car had broken down, or she hadn’t been feeling well, or she forgot.  Nevertheless, the grandmother came week after week, kissing that little guy like it would be the last time she would ever see him.  And indeed, one day it WAS the last time she would ever see him.

She knows that the grandchild that she loves so much is going to be adopted.  Her daughter never did “get her act together,” never did take her role as a mother seriously.  Now the parental rights have been terminated, which means that her role as his grandmother has come to a screeching halt.  The child will soon be leaving my foster home, going to live with his “forever family.”   How can she possibly accept the loss?  She sobs into the telephone, her mind and emotions failing to comprehend the finality of what is about to happen.  “Please,” she begs me, “please make sure you give his new family all the photos you have of me.  I want him to remember me.”

It’s been eight years since that child left my foster home, and still his grandmother calls periodically, asking if I have heard anything from him or his new family.  I haven’t.  I don’t know his adoptive family at all, not even their last name.  I don’t know how they feel about their child’s birth family, or how they explain the situation to him.  But they are probably like many adoptive families who simply want to move forward with their lives, leaving their child’s early experiences in the past, not quite realizing the broken hearts and empty arms that were left behind.  Their son may never know that somewhere in the world is a grandmother who has never stopped loving him.

Outstretched Arms

“Please,” she begs her daughter.  “Please don’t make this decision.  I’ll quit my job and take care of the baby for you when he is born.  I’ll do whatever I can to help you raise him.  Please don’t go through with your plans.” Adoption, as a concept,t is generally a good thing, she admits with reluctance, much better than the unthinkable alternative. But that’s something that other people do, not her family.  Surely not for this child!  How could she possibly accept the loss of her first, and possibly only, grandchild?  Unfortunately, she realizes with dismay, there is no persuading her daughter to change her mind. The decision has already been made, the process already set in motion.

The day of her grandson’s birth is bittersweet, so many conflicting emotions running through her heart that she can barely process it all.  Her daughter is about to give birth to a precious baby boy; it should be a moment for happiness and celebrating, for snapping photographs and sending announcements.  Yet across from her in the hospital waiting room, my husband and I, the couple who will become the baby’s parents, perch silently and awkwardly on our plastic chairs, not quite sure what to say or where to look.  How could she not feel resentment that we would soon be taking this child away from her?  Anger that we are stealing this joyous moment, contributing to her loss and heartbreak?

Only moments after the tiny head appears, covered already with thick black hair that reminds the grandmother of when her own children were born, the nurse cleans him and weighs him and gives him his official “score,” and then turns to hand him to me, saying, “Congratulations, Mommy!”  There might as well be a knife piercing into the grandmother’s heart.  “Please,” she screams silently to herself.  “Please let this not be really happening!”

But then I do the most unexpected thing, something I hadn’t planned to do.  I turn towards the grandmother and hold the baby out to her like a peace offering.  Tears stream down her face as she cuddles this long-expected baby.  It doesn’t erase the hurt or the searing loss.  It doesn’t make her suddenly forget the bitter situation.  But somehow that gesture makes the moment more bearable.  It was my way of saying to her, “You are not forgotten.  I recognize and respect your role in this child’s life.”

When our son was adopted 16 years ago, my husband and I had been foster parents for several years, so we had already experienced biological grandparents being involved in our family. We had witnessed first-hand the nurturing, supportive, positive influence that some grandparents can have on their grandchildren.  So when our son became a permanent part of our family through adoption, we wondered.  Should we maintain contact with his biological grandparents?  We could wait until he is older, but then all these early years will be lost.  And who knows if his grandparents will even be around when he is older?  It wasn’t their fault that their daughter was placing him for adoption.  No, we couldn’t think of a single reason to exclude our son’s grandparents from his life.

We may have made many, many parenting mistakes along the way, but one of the best decisions we ever made was to encourage the relationship between our son and his biological grandparents.  They love him wholeheartedly and unconditionally, and many times they have driven hundreds of miles to visit him.  He knows that he can call them any time – sometimes simply to chat or to share good news or to ask a question.  For my son, especially now in the teenage years when he is struggling to find his way, it’s like having a network of strong support and additional love, an extra set of voices to encourage and strengthen and guide.  I am so grateful for their positive influence in his life!

Uplifted Hands

“Please,” she urged, grabbing my hands in both of hers, looking directly into my eyes.  “Please take good care of these children.  I will be praying for you.”  We stood just outside the social worker’s office in the dimly lit hallway, both of us realizing that this would probably be the last time she would see her grandchildren.  But the judge’s gavel, the names on the paperwork, and the physical distance could never possibly change what was in her heart:  she would always be their grandmother, and she would always love them.

For years and years, she had witnessed her son’s life taking a path that she never would have wanted for him.  She had tried to be supportive through his difficult, often tumultuous marriage.  She had tried to offer support and assistance with some of the older children.  But her full-time work schedule, combined with the strained relationship with her daughter-in-law, left her with few options. Her grandchildren had been taken into foster care, and now, months and months later, they were going to be adopted. 

We had met only a handful of times during the time that her grandchildren were in my foster home, not nearly enough to know each other well or to share any personal information.  But now, here we stand at the “good-bye visit” at the social worker’s office, and what could either of us possibly say?  She offers her grandchildren the only thing she can: her promise of continued prayers.

It may have seemed insignificant at the time, simply a last-minute comment when there is nothing else to say.  But oh, what an amazing gift she has given, not just to her grandchildren, but also to the family who adopted them!   Many, many times in the past 14 years, she has written encouraging notes, reminding me of God’s promises.  She has sent both lengthy e-mails and brief Facebook messages, letting me know again and again that she has never stopped praying. 

Raising children isn’t always easy.  Through difficult parenting decisions I have faced, worrisome behavioral issues, questionable health problems and suspected learning disabilities, her prayers continue.  The physical distance between us may be far, and her direct involvement in her grandchildren’s lives may be limited.  But she will never know, can’t possibly imagine how important her prayers are.  Her spiritual influence continues.

Unbreakable Bonds

Is it possible for a child to have too much love?  Too many people involved his life who want what’s best for him?  Children who have biological grandparents in their lives, even tenuously and indirectly, grandparents who love, support, and pray for them, are truly, uniquely blessed.  They are connected to an extra network of extended family members that nothing – not challenging circumstances, legal decisions, nor distant miles - can ever break.  They have a true gift that will last long after they have grown, leaving childhood behind.  They have the bonds of a grandparent’s love.