Read Part 1 of this story, Separation.
My memory of my first foster care placement is of a campus of institutional-looking buildings. The two-story dormitory had grates over the windows. The girls were housed on the first floor and the boys on the second.
On the boys’ floor, the single hallway, wide and antiseptic like a hospital, ran from the stairwell at one end of the building to the common room at the other end. Doors with adjacent windows lined both walls. Most doors opened to rooms of various sizes that held two or four beds, and each window guaranteed no room had total privacy. I imagined the girls’ floor looked the same, although I don’t remember ever seeing it. I just knew my sister was a floor below me, and we could see each other only during meals in the cafeteria located in a different building.
During one lunch or dinner my sister gave me her dessert of red Jello with canned fruit mixed in, a favorite of mine at the time. In the future I would wonder why the soul of my inner child clings so tightly to that memory, and why I could no longer stomach even the thought of red Jello with canned fruit mixed in. Probably because it’s the last clear memory I have of her before she was placed with a foster family. The next time I saw her was about a year later, together with the rest of my family, for the first time since we were separated, during a supervised visit in a room with plastic chairs and concrete block walls painted a flat green.
I spent the rest of that summer and part of the fall at that campus. There I learned to fight and avoid the teenagers who used the little kids for sex. When it came my time for my next placement, I exited, like so many before and after me, carrying a brown paper bag and burdens too heavy to bear.
My second placement was a foster home with four other kids. We slept in the attic bedroom, went to church at least twice a week, and the parents were nice. I started first grade a month or two late, but that Christmas my teacher pulled me out of the classroom to give me the most fantastic gifts of a coloring book and box of crayons. I never forgot that moment of pure ecstasy, which my child’s mind tied so tightly to an adult honoring me with a moment of genuinely undivided attention. The coloring book and crayons soon disappeared, but the emotional imprint of this teacher’s genuine caring often soothed my scorched heart for years to follow.
In second grade and in my third placement, I was the only foster child. I remember the dad was a police officer, the older boy played on a baseball team, and the older girl was in high school or college. The mom stayed at home and she was very nice. She made me sandwiches and let me watch cartoons while I ate lunch.
The next placement introduced and then hurled me into despair. After a few months with this family, I could no longer cope with my crushing isolation and insecurity. One way my internalized rejection started to show itself was through a regular ritual. Walking home from school or a friend’s house, I scanned the street to see if the social worker’s car, always black with a gold seal on the driver side door, was sitting outside the house. I viewed my social worker, whether fairly or unfairly, like an angel of death ready to drag me away to the next terrifying unknown. If the car was not there, I scanned the front steps or porch for a brown paper bag with my clothes, which indicated the car would arrive soon. If the bag was not there, I walked into the house and waited for some instruction that would indicate whether or not I was staying the night, such as to set the table or do my homework. Only after I cleared this ritual could I somewhat relax my anxieties until the following morning.
All told, between foster care and moves with my family of origin, by the age of twenty I had lived at twenty-one different addresses. At one time I looked at that track record through steely eyes and with a stone heart, swearing to myself: “I’m a fighter, I’m still standing.” Now I look at that track record though wise eyes and with a restored heart, praying to myself: “How can God use me to encourage other foster kids that they too can heal and use childhood suffering as the gateway to adulthood success?”