Be Willing to Wait

I present a repost of James’ story. His name has been changed to protect him, and he is grown now with kids of his own. We have recently been in touch, which is a blessing all on its own. He works in the Tech Industry and on his own, trains service dogs for traumatized foster children. Not all military children are born into the family. Some come to stay for just a while and leave an imprint of love on our hearts forever.

boy and dog

At 11:42 pm on a Wednesday night I opened the front door to a weary-eyed social worker, a police officer so rigid he looked to be vibrating, and a two, perhaps three-foot tall blanket that may have been light green at some point in its history.  I stepped to the side to allow them entry.  No one moved.  Red, usually attached to my hip, stayed in the doorway in a sit position, but his front paws crept forward until the tip of his black nose nudged the blanket. A tiny hand appeared, touched the top of Red’s head, and then quickly withdrew. The movement snagged a silky frayed edge and the cloth fell away to reveal a mess of brown hair, round blue eyes and a perfect spray of freckles across cheeks and nose. The boy stared straight ahead, jaw set, lips rigid, “I not talk,” he said.

I nearly smiled, but this felt like a test, so I nodded once and said, “Good to know.” I ignored the woman’s raised eyebrows and instead, turned and walked down the hallway, as though welcoming a frightened child and two strangers into my home with five children asleep upstairs and my husband deployed was simply another day in the life.  It wasn’t.  But I had trained for and signed on to be an emergency therapeutic foster parent, and it was far too late at night to admit I might be in over my head.

A piercing, rigid scream coincided with me flipping a switch in the kitchen; the brightness igniting the sound and the child until both dissolved onto the floor, skittered across the tile and came to rest as a steady choking sob in the corner of the room.  I glanced toward the sound of whispers in the hallway, heard the baby cry, heard the upstairs floor creek with footsteps and nearly missed the words from woman to officer, “I thought I mentioned he doesn’t like to be touched.” Still, my focus was on the dog huddling peacefully next to the trembling boy in the corner of my kitchen.  My first thoughts: Who the hell touched him? Then: Dog is fine, boy is breathing, floor is clean.  Really, this is my brain in crisis-mode.

I’m sure I heard God chuckle as I ushered the adult people out of my home with a quiet, thank you.  To my ears I sounded like a crazed Ms. Manners.  I just barely controlled my urge to laugh aloud at their relieved smiles, the promise that the child would be placed in a permanent foster home by the weekend; and the pitifully small paper sack in my hand with the name “James” scrawled in black marker.  It was weep or deal time so I closed the door, found two pillows and a large quilt and settled in for a long night on the kitchen floor.

Until that night I thought I knew what was in the next room, what kids like for dinner, what grass feels like on bare feet.  I was comfortable with the orderly mess I orchestrated each day. It was crazy and hard and joyful and it was mine. Until the night of James — when I discovered that in three years a child can be so badly abused that his small world is reduced to a corner in the kitchen and an old soiled blanket.

On day two, James and I compromised with a makeshift bed upstairs next to Red’s pillow at the end of Aaron’s crib.  He dressed himself, but only while underneath the blanket draped over his head.  He ate with his hands, brushed his teeth and appeared intrigued by the maneuverings of the older children in the house. They spoke to him, answered for him, proclaimed his cuteness and ignored his quirks.  Still, he did not talk.  He paid no attention to Aaron, or so I thought, who, for most of the day remained strapped to my chest in sling. One morning, in the midst of a chaotic (our norm) breakfast, signing papers and packing lunches, James tentatively stepped very close to me and with the edge of his soiled blanket, reached up and wiped a bit of spittle from Aaron’s chin.  For an instant all activity stopped.  A collective deep breath filled the space and then – through the guidance of angels perhaps – we all knew not to react to this tender moment – instead, we resumed chaos as usual.

Baths were out. Since I drew the line at Red and the blanket in the bathtub, our first attempt at bathing ended in shrill screams and a brief regression to his safe place in the corner.   Sheri – in all her eight-year-oldness, cleaned out the plastic baby pool and with Red’s patient cooperation, a bar of soap and a three-year old at the end of a hose, we had a semi-clean boy and a sparkling, if not matted, Golden Retriever  every other day.

James’ two day emergency stay turned into two weeks, four days and three hours – this according to James –and not duly noted until the day I received a phone call notifying me of a permanent home move, to which I responded with a simple, no thanks, he’s already home. The social worker was still speaking when James took my hand (a touch miracle of its own) and pointed with glee to his tiny drawings on the wall in his safe corner.  This was the first smile, the first initiated touch and the first emotion I’d seen from this child.  After some confusion (he still wasn’t speaking) I came to realize that he had drawn meticulously neat small dots to represent hours, circles around exactly 24 dots to represent days and squares around each set of circles to represent weeks.  Also, he was partial to blue crayons, which oddly complimented my yellow flowered wallpaper.

Patience is not one of my virtues.  I tend to set my course and go, obstacles be damned. James, though, elicited a calm in me I cannot to this day explain.  I was content to watch him watch life, soak it in and return to his safe place in the corner as necessary.

Red was my Godsend and as it turns out, James’ confidant.  Shortly after the baby pool baths began – and out of necessity – I showed James how to brush Red’s coat.  Our back deck was about a foot off the ground and built around a large oak tree.  Each day, James would sit on the edge of the deck next to the Oak trunk.  Red would cuddle up to his left side and as the brushing began – a methodical, tender child stroke – James would quietly talk.  Usually, I sat in a glider on the other side of the massive oak rocking Aaron, but James never seemed to notice that there was anyone else in the world except for him and Big Red.  He told Red in vivid detail about his broken arms, his round scars from “retts” (cigarettes), his mommy’s bruised eye, how Man #3 was more mean than Man #2, but wrestled better until he got mad.  How touching meant hurts and talking was trouble and how he thought maybe Man #1 might be his dad who went to Heaven but mommy didn’t tell him for sure.

On the forty-second day of James, a sunny, breezy day, James asked Red if he ever wanted to be a cowboy some day.  I heard hope in the question and I so wished Red could just this time… answer the question with a hearty Yes! I was still smiling to myself when I heard Red’s sigh from the other side of the Oak, heard his nails scratch the deck board as he stood and shook.  James – holding on to Red’s collar – appeared at the side of my chair.  He reached out and patted Aaron’s head, touched my hand and asked, “Could Red and me please have a butter jelly sammich, Mommy Lynn?”

Exactly one year, thirty days and two hours from the first moment we met – and I have the wallpaper saved to prove it — James left our home to live with his natural grandparents in another state.  From letters and phone calls I know that James learned to ride horses – to be a cowboy – and in high school he began to train dogs specifically to work with abused children.

That was the year I learned to listen.  Really listen.  I kept notes – The Journals of James – I wept in the shower each night for the pain this child endured, I testified in court to make sure Man #3 saw the inside of jail cell, I learned to listen to small words, small gestures, tiny movements and night terrors and wait with baited breath for the moment when a simple request for a butter jelly “sammich” rocked my world.

We have to be willing to wait.Big Red

Lynnette Bukowski © 2010

Warriors of the Heart

Steve &  Aaron

Steve & Aaron

“The Warrior knows that he is free to choose his desires, and he makes these decisions with courage, detachment, and – sometimes – with just a touch of madness.” ~Coelho

We all have to rise to our destiny, embrace miracles and accept Grace. I am absolutely sure of this now.  Not so much twenty-two years ago. Back then, I was still trying to “steer the river,” hell bent on forcing life to gather round and listen up. I was in charge. Twelve years into a marriage with my handsome Warrior, raising children on my own for most of each year and hell bent on saving the world, miracles and Grace had to damn well wait until I put them on the schedule. I never knew what was on the other side of the proverbial door, so I kept it locked. Pretending I had it all under control was survival.

Still, Grace sneaks in under doors we were told as children not to go through.

This is the story of Aaron.

On January 8, 1991, I picked up a one day old infant from the hospital and brought him home as our sixth foster baby in as many months. At 4 pounds, 9 ounces, he was a tiny soul without a name. His skin was sallow; he had no muscle tone, could not eat and would not sleep. At just over a week old, he died three times in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. I watched his little eyes open to find me each time he was revived and I knew, right then, I was in way over my head.

Truthfully, there was nothing noble about our decision to become a foster family. Rather, it was the only reasonable and legal conclusion to a series of events I set in motion in 1989 with nothing more than an abundance of love and irrational passion. After two solid weeks of news reports citing teen girls giving birth and throwing their live infants in dumpsters or remote parks, I placed an ad in the local paper with our address and these words: Unwanted infants can be dropped on my doorstep, no questions asked. Ring the bell and leave. The police called first, then Social Services, then Steve’s Command, and then… well, Steve, and all hell broke loose. No money, no time, kids of our own, my full-time writing gig, and the little fact that he was gone most of each year were all excellent points. So I compromised with the law and Steve by cancelling the ad. Six months later we were certified as therapeutic foster parents.

I do believe Steve felt the full impact of my unorthodox ways on that glorious morning in mid-January when he walked through the door to find our two homemade children, two toddlers he had never met in person and a very sick, addicted Baby Boy strapped to my chest in a sling.

Even under normal conditions, the rhythm of reentry after deployment or missions is an uneasy dance. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that this unusual welcoming committee might just be the equivalent of shock treatment. I held my breath, and for a moment – in slow motion – I let my mind wander through memories of prior homecomings. True, we fancied ourselves madly in love so coming home to me was always the safe haven. Physically he was home, but after the initial welcome and the soft place to land, I had to clog and slog and pull my way through a thick dark muddy abyss with just a glimmer of hope that some semblance of the mental and emotional Steve might come home too.

When shouts of “Daddy’s home!” and twirling hugs took over the room like a long, clear blast of cool air, I exhaled long and slow. It was a sight to behold ~~ this wonderful, weeping man who once again exhausted all of us with his playfulness and fierce love.

And as for the nameless Baby Boy attached to his wife, well, it was love at first sight.

I thanked God right then and there for a man who knew my wild and stubborn ways and loved me anyway.

Steve stepped into home life again as though he’d never missed a day. By that afternoon, he and our older kids had named the baby Aaron Timothy (after Team Brothers, of course), our two foster toddlers had attached themselves to his legs and for the weeks and months that followed, we were both “on” 24 hours a day. Aaron had to be fed with a dropper sized bottle every hour, attached to a heart and apnea monitor at all times and rushed to the hospital every few weeks. We also teamed up against doctors who told us in no uncertain terms that Aaron could not thrive and would not live.

Steve would have none of that business. Right away, he took it on as his personal mission to design a tiny personal training routine wherein he would lay Aaron on his lap and move his little arms, legs and torso several times a day to help build normal muscle tone. He designed a crib setup with a sling so Aaron could sleep at a steep incline to help with apnea, and made a head support out of riggers tape on a door-jam jumpy swing to support Aaron’s head. Then he painstakingly held Aaron steady in the swing, with monitor attached, to simulate a “jump” and “push” to build little thighs. The very first time Aaron pushed off the floor under his own strength, two of Steve’s teammates were at the house and the roars of celebration nearly brought the roof down and caused all of us to burst into tears. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced a wild, exuberant moment of three giants, one woman and a bunch of kids weeping with joy.Steve and Aaron1

At 5 months, Aaron weighed eleven pounds, could hold his head steady and push our hands away with his legs. Undeniable miracles to us, but doctors were not impressed. In unison they shook their heads, looked at each other, and scientifically presented their prognosis: “Don’t get too attached,” one said, “multiple congenital heart defects,” another said, “lungs malformed,” one said. Almost in unison they said, “You need to be prepared.”

If my hands were not already occupied holding Aaron I might have put them over my ears, closed my eyes and babbled nonsense over their words. Instead, I looked all three doctors straight in the eye and said, “Not one of you is God! And if I ever hear of any of you telling another parent their child is going to die, I will…” which is when my throat tightened, so I stomped my foot and burst into tears.

A rapid string of nervous sound came at us from all three doctors about keeping Aaron at the hospital, calling social services, addicted babies, syndrome babies, nothing medically to be done, these things happen. They were truly good men with huge hearts who felt helpless, but they could not see past their medical training to notice the very hand of God. I do not usually lose my bearing, but I was so overwhelmed my tears turned to heavy sobs. Steve stood, looked at me, looked at the doctors, and said, “Aaron is not going anywhere but home with us. We’ve got this. Thanks.” What he actually said contained a few more expletives, not so much directed at the doctors, but to the situation, and we all understood the meeting was adjourned. The doctors blushed, I managed a grin, and we left.

On the drive home my “what-iffing” began while Aaron contentedly cooed. My stubbornness had placed us in this moment. I wasn’t sorry. But I did know with every fiber of my being that our family life had turned into a constant stream of emotions wrapped around children and it was all painful in some way. Joy, sorrow, love, and fear became so exaggerated, so deep and sharp that we were left raw and yes, in pain. I don’t think the human heart is designed to beat outside the body, but once you have children, by any means, that’s exactly where a parent’s heart is — beating forever on the outside and continuously exposed. I said all of that and more, aloud, while Steve remained eerily silent and Aaron’s cooing enveloped us like a song sent to smooth and comfort.

That evening I arranged for a nursing team of babysitters and a much needed date night. We spent the evening at a Team party and in adult conversations that did not include diapers or homework or doctors. I should probably note here that we did not have civilian friendships with other married couples. We had Teammates because Steve’s “brothers” were the only people he could talk to who understood him without censure.

It worked wonders, or so I thought.

Anyone who knew Steve knows he did not whisper – ever – which is why I had to lean as far right as I could with both hands on the steering wheel and say, “I can’t hear you. Are you sick?”  He answers, but the sound is breathless and I do not actually hear words. When we pass under a street light I glance at his chiseled profile and watch one tear drip through his mustache and onto his lap where he holds his hands, palms down on his thighs.  He stares straight ahead, shoulders back, chin up and my heart starts to race. I look up just in time to avoid hitting the curb.

“Pull over,” he roars; his normal voice.

I turn into the first driveway I see, put the car in park and turn off the lights.  It does not escape my attention that at 1:00 in the morning I’ve pulled into an Izuzu dealership. We are invisible, a silver Trooper idling among a sea of silver Troopers. I get a sudden urge to soften the air around us, ease whatever hurts him. A nervous giggle bubbles up and out and I say, “Okay, there’s no need to cry. Right here, right now, while we’re hiding in plain sight.”

“Jesus,” he says. The slightest grin sparkles in his eyes when he takes my hand in both of his and places it firmly against his chest. Then he looks straight into me and says, “I was praying. And it’s a big deal so pay attention. Are you paying attention?”

I nod. I can’t speak because the air around us is heavy and I’m scared to death.

“We’re adopting him. Aaron. He’s as much a part of us as those two we made. You good with that?”

I nod. Relieved, frightened, exhausted. But I sense there’s more.

“At the hospital, while the docs were babbling and you were crying, I prayed. And I’m praying now. If He takes all of my strength so that Aaron can live, it’s fine. I made the deal and I expect He’ll take me up on it.”

I’m stunned. Making a deal with God is serious business if you believe in such things. Steve did. Uncomplicated and exact, as in every other area of his life, Steve held firm to a belief that a man had to be true to his word, especially to God. He did not believe God responsible for the all the bad in the world; rather, man was accountable for bad choices and ego driven atrocities and weak men in the end blamed all the crap on God.

Steve never blamed anything on God. I don’t think I understood the depth of his faith until that very moment.

“I don’t think it works like that, Steve. Aaron will live or he won’t, but God is about love. I don’t think it’s a this-or-that kind of deal.”

He says, “This is about love. So I call it a deal. Either way, it’s about love. Just tell me you’ve got it. You need to tell me you’ve got this… no matter what happens to me. He’s ours now. ”

I say, “I’ve got this.” And I did.

Our date nights were never boring.

Aaron is now a 6’4” handsome young man. He turns 26 this January 7, 2017. Fairly famous, he is one of 400 people in the entire world still alive with a complete absence of pericardium, multiple heart malformations, pulmonary fibrosis, Marfans Syndrome, Asperger’s spectrum and myriad other issues he deals with daily with a presence that lifts joy.

He truly is our miracle who ignites souls and shows us where love lives.

Never doubt that we all walk among angels ~~ be it Warriors or Tender Souls.

Watch for miracles. Accept Grace.

Lynnette Bukowski © 2016. All rights reserved.