November 1, the day he stole our hearts
I’m not sure at what point you fall in love with your child. For a pregnant woman I believe it’s the moment that she fully absorbs that there is life growing inside her. It’s absurd to think about loving and protecting something the size of an almond, but I think it’s true. The moment I found out I was pregnant with my girls I gave up anything that would be potentially harmful to their growth. Even coffee. Ridiculously, I would stare at my belly for a long period of time and wonder who was in there. Priorities start to shift in your life and you prepare for the kind of love that makes you stronger and more confident, and ultimately no longer your own number one priority.
Today I am picking up a baby that I didn’t know existed until a mere 36 hours ago. A baby that will call me mom; even though he’s not my son. I wonder if that love will be immediate or if the situation with which we are presented is going to interfere with the process.
I find myself trying to take in what might make a mother do something so wrong that their child is taken away. I can’t grasp it. I want to enter this journey with no judgement, but it’s already hard and I haven’t even picked him up yet. I don’t know if I’m dealing with mental illness, drugs, ignorance, selfishness or something I haven’t even considered yet. Whatever the case is Judge, I am truly going to do my best not to condemn this mother. I will try to understand that all of our paths are different and I have no idea what it’s like to walk in her shoes. I will try. I will try. I will try.
“Shelter pick up”
Like a record on repeat. All night long: “I really should get some sleep tonight because after tomorrow I will have a newborn keeping me up. Drop the kids off at school, install car seat and that will leave me approximately one and a half hours to get downtown. Is that enough time in rush hour? Should I take some formula with me? I wonder if he’s on soy milk. I should have gotten that fancy bottle cleaning machine. Do I have enough blankets? Do I need to take an outfit to change him into? I wonder if he’s awake now. I wonder what his story is. We should have taken both boys. I should just get up because I’m not going to sleep. No. GO TO SLEEP. I wonder what he’ll look like. I know I’m forgetting something.”
I think I slept for two hours that night – and it wasn’t consecutive.
We chose not to tell our daughters about their impending brother’s arrival just in case it was another “false” alarm. If pick up goes as planned, they would find out when they got home from school and discovered him. Ravyn woke up with a stomach ache. I knew it wasn’t a real one but I didn’t have the energy to go through the tug-of-war that goes with a fake get-out-of-school illness. She was cautiously surprised when I caved quickly and agreed to let her stay home.
Watching me try to get the car-seat base installed was like watching an episode of “The Three Stooges.” Maybe it was because the autopilot feature in my brain was malfunctioning, but I literally could not do it. I swallowed my pride and stopped at the fire station on the way to get help.
Because it was a Thursday and Daryl had to work, I had to drive myself downtown and meet him there. I sat in my car for a few minutes and stared at the building. There was a small deserted playground behind the shelter that made me sad. Tricycles piled up against the slide and the weeds that were overgrown everywhere made me believe that no one had played there in awhile. I thought about all of the kids we learned about in training and wondered why the playground wasn’t a more inviting place for the scared children who would call this home for a moment. Malachi had only been there for a couple of days but his older siblings had been there for a couple of months.
I nervously approached the front desk which was directly to my right after being buzzed in through the double doors. After telling her my name and signing in, the receptionist guided me to the second door on the right down a short narrow hallway with another set of double doors at the end of it. I entered a very small conference room with old car seats, diapers, coats and boxes lined along all four walls. There was a tiny table in the center and there were already three women waiting there. I introduced myself and said I was here for Malachi. The stunning woman with bright green eyes and a shaved head shook my hand and presented herself as the worker for DCFS. Then I met Nina, the case worker from our private agency, and finally Kesha, the foster mom here to pick up the two oldest boys in the family. The guardian for the two sisters was a woman named Ms. Persons but she could not be here until later today. The couple taking Jay had not arrived yet but were on their way.
I barely got my butt into the chair when the green-eyed woman startled me with very fast ramblings about some labs that were run on Malachi this morning that indicated that his bilirubin was insanely high and they were likely going to have to admit him to the hospital. Thank God my husband was walking in the doorway at that very moment because a) I had no idea what she was talking about and b) I was starting to feel like those four walls were closing in on me. I immediately calmed when we caught each other eyes with a look that said “are you freaking kidding me right now?” When Daryl asked what this meant she clarified that WE are his caregivers now and we would be the ones seeing the admission and hospital stay through as if he were our son. She said that the baby was with the doctor now and we would be updated any moment.
She wasted no time moving onto the next topic as if she hadn’t just dropped a grenade in our laps. Nina handed me a red binder as the green-eyed woman filled us in on Malachi’s family. Bio-mom was cognitively impaired and would be needing some extra help from the foster parents. She didn’t fully understand what was going on and has a long way to go to prove that she can handle six kids. The red binder would explain more and she encouraged us to familiarize ourselves with the contents. Every attempt has been made to find a family member to take the children but every person that bio-mom has presented as her family proved to be a lie. Five of the six children were said to have the same father but he was nowhere to be found and was not expected to resurface.
The doctor opened the door like she was running from a fire and aggressively blurted out “the baby is fine, the lab tech ran the test wrong and he’ll be ready to go in a few minutes but I have an emergency so I have to go.” I took a breath as if I had been holding it in the entire time. Wow! Okay, so here we go.
Cheryl and Darrin arrived next. They were going to be taking custody of Jay, Malachi’s 18-month old brother. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. The couple seemed to be around our age and had a biological daughter at home who was the same age as Jay. Nina informed us that she would be contacting us in the next few days to schedule our first home visit, a visit with bio-mom and a sibling visit. Visits with mom would be once a week and the home and sibling visits would be once a month.
When a child first enters the foster-care system there is a one-time $300 voucher that goes with them and because Malachi had never been placed we got that voucher to purchase a crib, car seat, and whatever else might be needed. It wasn’t going to begin to cover it but we didn’t expect to get anything. We signed for the voucher and the form that states we are taking the placement, and then she handed us a letter qualifying us for WIC if we wanted to use it for formula and baby food. That was it, two signatures and a letter later, and we were ready to go meet our foster son.
We strode through the double doors at the end of the hallway to an area that reminded me of a hospital. The hallways were white and bare and it smelled of antibacterial soap and medicine. We entered the first door on the right into a room with hospital cribs lining two walls and baby swings and bassinet scattered throughout. It was eerily similar to how a movie portrays an orphanage. My eyes were drawn to a newborn swaddled in a swing and I wondered if that was our Malachi. As we walked toward him, a woman standing on the right informed us that Malachi was in the back getting cleaned up and would be out in a minute. We made our way to the back of the room and stopped to wait by an old-school play-pen that was currently occupied by the most stunning-looking little boy I have ever seen. He was sitting very quietly with just a diaper and socks on. He had long light-brown hair that was in a very unkempt frizzy afro. He peered up at us with really big piercing blue eyes. I whispered “hi there buddy, how are you?” He just studied us intently with no expression on his face as he took his socks off. The woman tending to the baby next to us said “this is Jay, he is Malachi’s brother.” I glanced at my husband and we both knew that if we saw him first we would have taken them both for sure. Not because he was gorgeous, but because we were drawn to him.
A voice from a small corridor that connected the room we were in with another room that was identical to this one beckoned us to “come on back.” As we approached the tiny area we saw Malachi. He was dressed in a shabby Mickey Mouse onesie. The instant my eyes laid on him I felt the need to protect him. He appeared so tiny and fragile. He didn’t have much hair and so his forehead looked big, almost like he had a receding hairline. This, coupled with the puffy cheeks and furrowing of his brow made him look like an old man. My beautiful precious old man! When the woman placed him in my arms, my body remembered what to do and I fell right into mommy-mode. My heart immediately grew to accommodate a new love. Tears filled my eyes and I wanted to let it go but instead swallowed the lump and handed him to my husband so he could place him in the car seat carrier.
While we fumbled with making the straps small enough to accommodate his 8 lb 8 ounce slumped body we listened to the woman tell us a little about him. I was so preoccupied with staring at the miracle that was in front of me I can’t even tell you what the lady looked like. That was when we found out he had a hearty appetite and did not care for sleep. She gave us a few diapers and the tiniest little bottle filled with formula and said that he would be ready to eat again in about an hour. He also came with a tube of antibiotic crème for an eye infection. I was supposed to apply the ointment three times a day for seven days but was assured it was nothing to worry about.
And just like that we were parents to an infant again. Daryl carried the baby to my car and as he was securing the carrier to the base he looked at me with a look that read terrified and said “wow, this is crazy. I can’t believe we’re doing this.” I didn’t even have words to respond to him so I just smiled and kissed him good-bye as he headed to work and I headed home with our son.
“Welcome Home Malachi”
As I drove away from the shelter I felt so many emotions but the strongest one was excitement. I knew there were many things to be anxious about but I chose to focus on the happiness because if we did end up adopting Malachi I wanted the memories of this day to be nothing but happy. I knew that I was supposed to keep in mind that our goal was to return him home to his mother but I couldn’t think about that right now. Not today.
When I pulled into the driveway I settled into the happiness a little more with a long deep breath and could not stop smiling. As I made my way through the front door I called for Ravyn to come downstairs. In true pre-teen form, she was moving at a snail’s pace and I was growing more eager by the second. When her eyes latched on to the carrier in my arms her fake-sick frowning mouth turned into a wide smile and after a short stand-still-in-shock pause, the snail turned into a fox as she rushed down the remaining few stairs. For the first time in her 12 years she was speechless as she stared at him and so I filled her in on all of the questions I knew should be coming out of her mouth as we headed to the couch to unwrap him. My girls have never been around babies and I think Taryn is the only infant that Ravyn ever held, but she was surprisingly comfortable with him as I snapped pictures of them together to send off to my family. I couldn’t wait for Taryn to come home.
I had laid him on a blanket on my bed upstairs and we just watched him for the longest time. The 3:00 hour approached and Taryn walked in the house like it was a normal day. I was giddy when I met her at the door and said “mom has a surprise for you upstairs.” Taryn loved when I played the surprise game and we did it all of the time, but it usually ended with some skittles or M&M’s, not a newborn baby. She immediately got happy and settled in to our surprise routine, “okay mom, let me get me shoes off and close my eyes while you lead me to the surprise.” I took her by the hand and guided her step-by-step up the stairs with her anticipation growing with each “step up, step up, step up, step up.” When we reached my bedroom I put my hands over her eyes so she couldn’t peek and at that point Malachi made a little baby grunting noise and Taryn ripped my hands off of her eyes to see what it was. After her eyes adjusted to the site she stood in shock with a very calm “who’s that? Is he ours?” She was so gentle with him and gawked in awe.
The rest of the day was euphoric and filled with a few arguments over who got to hold him as he slept. After a few friends stopped by to meet the newest member of our family, we settled in and got ready for our first sleepless night.
My mind never strayed too far from the fact that as much as we felt like we were bringing home a new member of our family I was not sure if this would be permanent or temporary. I answered a lot of questions from friends and family with “I don’t know” and from those questions I began to prepare my list of concerns for the case worker who would be coming for our first home visit in the next couple of weeks. For now, I would just continue to fall in love with my little old man!
When the green-eyed DCFS worker handed me the red-binder I had no idea how much detail would be in there. If I had known I would have probably started reading it right away. I’m glad I didn’t though, because those first few days with my son were magical and I am grateful that I didn’t taint it with the reality that his siblings lived with leading up to their removal. The hostile environment that Malachi spent in the womb is scary. I’ll tell you about it next time.
*Names have been changed.