This is one of those weeks in which I walk around with my mouth in a comical twist, caught halfway between laughter and tears. I've always said that I could never be a foster mom; I was sure I couldn't survive the constant loving and letting go, especially when the letting go means sending them into an environment you wouldn't choose for them.
Pretty sure God looked ahead to what I'm doing now and chuckled quietly. Anyone who works in human services, especially in a residential setting, is subjected to high volumes of love and loss, pride in "their" kids' accomplishments, and sickening fear while watching them make really hurtful choices. Saying possibly permanent good-byes to (I'm guessing here) 90 teens in a year takes an emotional toll. Because of confidentiality laws, I am not allowed to contact my girls once they leave, not for three years or until they turn 18. They are allowed to contact me through the agency, which happens infrequently. When it does happen, sometimes it's at 3:00 AM and they are out on the street, partying, and you can hear the hunger for stability and love in their voices. And I wish they would still be here, where I could make sure they are safe from the person who is following them and freaking them out. I could share my crackers and cheese with them when they wake from bad dreams and send them back to bed with a hug and an extra blanket to keep them warm.
Not long ago, several of my girls watched a scary movie right before they went to bed. Bad idea. This has resulted in some severe insomnia and sleeping in the living room before. These girls have lived through shootings and seen some pretty crazy spiritual activity; I have no idea why they watch things that will trigger their own worst fears. Especially before they go to bed. But I did find out later that, while they were watching the movie, M. said, "Maybe we shouldn't watch this at night." And J. replied, "It's OK. Becky works tonight. She can come in here and rebuke the devil." When K. told me, I laughed (I could just HEAR her say, "and reBUKE da DEBbil"), felt extremely honored, and remembered the time I prayed with two of them and invited the Presence of God into their fear and into their room, asking Him to help them feel safe enough to sleep. Immediately, they had.
This time, three of them lay on their mattresses just inside their doorways so they could see each other and talk quietly. With their lights on. Until 4 AM. Because it was a weekend, the time thing was no biggie to me. I asked them if they wanted me to pray with them, and J. said, "When we was all trying to go to bed, I said a prayer and we all said 'amen'. So I think we're good." Oh, mercy. They make me laugh so hard sometimes. Finally, all but J. fell asleep. She literally raised herself, has fought on the streets since she was 9, and is tougher than I will ever be, but she asked me to check her room every 5 minutes to make sure she was still alright. An hour later, she had fallen into a light sleep. When I stuck my head quietly through her open doorway, she bolted straight up in bed, her irises dwarfed by the whites of her eyes. She saw it was only me, and slumped with relief, panting.
"You poor girl!" was all I could say past the rushing of warmth that pressed on my heart. I sat on the edge of her bed, put one arm around her, and said, "God, J. is scared. Please help her to feel safe. Help her to feel how much You love her. Protect her. Thank You for her." The rigidity left her body, and she leaned against me. I held her tight and swallowed hard because she is not very affectionate and not at all demonstrative. The moment was sacred. She lay down, pulled her blanket up to her chin, and I tucked it in around her shoulders. "Sweet dreams," I whispered, then ran out to the staff desk and rummaged blindly for the Kleenex box through the tears of the blinding realization that this, in all probability, might be the first time she had ever been tucked in. I wished I could make up for the years of putting herself to bed, never getting what comes naturally to me because I received it; a little rough-housing while getting ready for bed, reading a story all snuggled in a rocking chair, saying prayers, then being tucked into bed with a goodnight kiss. Peace. Safety.
Five minutes later, she was breathing deeply. Fast asleep, with a little smile on her relaxed face. I probably could have turned the light off without her noticing, but I left it on because she had asked. I wished I could freeze that moment. Keep her safe. Keep HER. Forever.
Within the past week, four of my girls were discharged. Three of them within 24 hours. All four are close enough to me to feel like family. One of them has been here for the length of my employment, over a year. That's rare. I tell them I am proud of them. They have changed so much, worked so hard to learn to control their behaviors so the judge will deem them stable enough for discharge. And they are. But only two of the four are returning to stable environments. One is going to another group home, to yet another group of people who won't even know her after another year has passed. One is 18, no longer in state custody, and ready to try to live on her own. I wonder who will be there for them when they are afraid. I know how easily they could end back up on the street, vulnerable to all manner of pain and harm. I know how easily they could be put in jail in a few years for following crowds that get them into fights and drugs. I will miss them.
I love them, but I have to let them go. Let them try their wings. Trust God to protect them and heal them when they crash into walls. When they fall.
Fly high, little birds.
And God will take care of me, too. He always does. I laugh. I cry. I love and let go. I will forever carry the imprints of their faces in my heart, but the process of releasing them to their own choices teaches me to love like the Father loves. Like the Father loves them. And me.
When I arrived at work this morning, a note was scribbled on the white board in the living room. From Dae Dae*, who left yesterday afternoon.
"Dae Dae* is going to miss everyone (meaning Jaye*, Nehna*, and Becky). Keep ya'll heads up high, lovely gurls! :) "
Fly high, dear little bird.
*Variant spellings and nicknames used to protect identities.