March 11, 2017

When You Say Yes

Everyone you know is asleep at 2:00 in the morning, but not you.  In the stillness of the hospital at this hour, the noise of the irregular beeps and sporadic hisses and frequent alarms are jarringly loud, ensuring that sleep is impossible.  But because the annoying sounds are coming from the machines that are keeping your child alive, how can you complain?

As you reposition yourself on the blue plastic chair beside the bed, attempting every contortion possible to make yourself comfortable, you think to yourself, What in the world am I doing here?  How did I become the one who is responsible for the child in this room?  Is this really the life I had envisioned I would be living?

It had all started, innocently enough, with a simple yes.  Yes, I will attend that informational meeting, and learn about how to become a foster parent.  No harm in finding out a few more details, right.  And then when they sent you that enormous packet of paperwork and list of requirements, it seemed so daunting and impossible.  But somehow, in the midst of a busy life of school work and music lessons and sports practices and making dinner every night and serving in various ministries at church, you found time, a few quiet minutes here, another couple of spare moments there, to complete it.

The most challenging part of the licensing process, the most soul-searching and thought-provoking, was that single piece of paper with the question at the top.  Are you willing to care for a child with the following conditions?  And what followed was a long list of every possible syndrome and disorder and diagnosis you could think of, and many others that you never would have thought of, all listed in neat little rows in alphabetical order.

ADHD.  Sure, how hard can that be?

Autism.  Oooh, I don’t know.  How would that impact my other children?

Congenital Heart Defect.  Possibly, as long as it is treatable.  (Not realizing, perhaps, that when you will only consider a defect that is treatable, it means that you get to be the hero, the savior who swoops into this child’s world and finds a way to “fix” the problems.)

Deafness.  Um, maybe?  We could look into cochlear implants, right?

Developmental Delays.  Well, that depends.  How delayed?  We are a pretty active family, and we wouldn’t want a foster child to slow us down.

Encopresis.  What on earth is that?  (And now that you know, you really, truly wish that you would have checked no to that one!)

The list continued, and by the end, you realized that, although you had to do a little research on things like Borderline Personality Disorder, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and Reactive Attachment Disorder,1 you had said yes to most of the conditions, with the rest of them being a maybe.  You didn’t want to say a definitive no, because that would have been so cold and heartless.  So, well, negative.  You honestly did want to be willing to consider any child the Lord would want to place in your home.

When the agency called, they described a child with no developmental delays, and overall pretty healthy.  No severe behavioral issues that they knew of.  There were family members who were being considered for a kinship placement, so the time in your home would be temporary, most likely short-term.  And you said yes.  With all the unknowns and with fear in your heart, knowing that your life was about to be forever changed, you said yes.

Oh, how you loved this child, right from the very start!  And what a joy to get to know the intricacies of that little personality, strong-willed and playful and curious and determined.  Sure, there was some manners that needed to be worked on, and some bad habits that needed to be broken.  Definitely a lot of consistent training that needed to happen!  Sitting at the table without throwing food, staying in bed at nighttime, using words instead of screaming.  But mostly, just an ordinary kid, learning how to function in an ordinary family.

It didn’t take long, however, before you noticed that something was clearly not right.  The pediatrician was baffled, and so referred you to a specialist, who referred you to another specialist, and then another.  Several not-so-helpful professionals even said, “Wow!  This one is very complicated!” 

Finally after months and months of tests and evaluations and scans and consultations, a diagnosis was made.  A rarely seen, but debilitating syndrome with few known cases, scarce information, and no cure.  Gone are the neat little rows of conditions on a single piece of paper in the middle of an application packet.  This is something you never could have anticipated or prepared for.  Here in front of you, now very much a part of your family, is a child with a face and a name.  A child you love with all your heart.  A child with a very real and very frightening prognosis.

And now you find yourself sitting in a blue plastic chair in a hospital room in the middle of another long night, listening to the hums and beeps and hisses of this precious child’s medical equipment.  So much for the biological relatives who had once been interested in providing care.  It’s just you now, the one person in the world who knows this child better than anyone.  The one who has been present at every doctor’s appointment, taken notes on every evaluation and medication change and mysterious symptom, participated in every therapy session.  The one who remains committed to caring for this child, whatever it takes.

How could you ever have known that this is what it would mean when you said yes?!  That it would mean watching the days slowly turn into weeks as you keep vigil beside the hospital bed, hoping and praying for a miracle.  You have learned a whole new vocabulary in the past few weeks, phrases like abnormal posturing and PICC lines and NG tubes.  So much for a condition being treatable.  All you can do is wait.

How could you have predicted that your definition of “busy” would take on a whole new meaning?   How can you worry about sports and music lessons and church activities when the life of a fragile child is in peril?  No way could you have known that your yes would eventually mean allowing friends to step in and bring meals and buy your groceries and help take care of your responsibilities at home. 

This unexpected path has led to such a divided heart.  When you are at home, your heart is at the hospital, needing to be with the little one who needs you so desperately.  Hearing a doctor’s report over the phone is not the same as being there in person, joining in the conversations, watching the procedures.  But when you are at the hospital, your heart is with the rest of your family.  Oh, how painful it is when your children call you on your cell phone, asking, When are you coming home?  So much for not wanting a foster child to impact your other children!! 

Who could have predicted that one tiny yes would lead to such brokenness?  That you would become so utterly exhausted that your eyes burn and your bones ache, and sometimes the only thing that keeps you going is counting down the hours until you can take a nap in that blue plastic chair.  Even before being admitted into the hospital, this child has never been a good sleeper.  You can barely a remember the last time you slept all the way through the night.

In the darkness of the night, it’s tempting to allow the darkness of fear to settle deep in your heart.  So many unknowns!  What if this is permanent?  How long will the doctors keep reporting unresponsive?  At what point do you accept that this debilitating condition may never improve? What will this mean for this child?  For you?  For your family?

The time has come when you must answer a question of utmost important.  Not a question on a piece of paper, but one that you will most likely ask yourself over and over and over again in the days and weeks and months ahead: 

Will you resolve to believe?

Will you trust that even in the terrifying uncertainty of an unknown future, even if the prognosis remains unoptimistic, that God is still good?  That He keeps His precious and magnificent promises?2

Even when your eyes are red and your body is fatigued and your energy is spent, will you allow Hope, that thing with feathers, to perch in your soul and sing the tune without words?3

Will you keep believing that He is the One who has called you, yes you, with your frailty and weakness and doubts, to love this child?  To keep pressing on, opening your heart again and again to this little one who has no one else?  

When your faith runs out, will you keep believing that His faithfulness runs strong?

Even though this is not at all the life you would choose, could this be the life that you choose to embrace?

After all, who knows what amazing things, what miracles can happen, when you say yes!

1.    Nearly 70 percent of children in foster care exhibit moderate to severe mental health problems, and 40 percent to 60 percent are diagnosed with at least one psychiatric disorder.
2.    “Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.  For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature.”  2 Peter 1:3-4
3.    “Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without words
And never stops at all.”

Poem by Emily Dickinson

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