It didn’t hit me until I’d checked Mariah’s seatbelt and climbed into the van.
I had that fluttery stomachache I get when I am nervous. I had always considered myself to be a compassionate person, sensitive to the needs and emotions of others, especially children. The events of a hot, August day challenged my self-perception. I had no idea a half-hour appointment with a caseworker and a seven-year-old would heighten my awareness to the desensitization social workers and foster parents can fall into when overwhelmed and busy with the responsibility of handling large caseloads involving human lives.
As we drive to Wendy’s, just the two of us in our big, fifteen-passenger van, which looks more like an airport shuttle bus than a family vehicle, she is humming and giggling. Mariah is excitedly anticipating eating out as the only child, with two adults all to herself. She is excited to see Jen, her caseworker, who has been a special visitor for her at our house, giving her attention and little gifts, always appreciated by a little girl living in a home with seven other children. This is someone she has learned to trust and enjoy.
We walk together into the restaurant to meet Jen. As we made our way to the end of the line, I am assaulted by the usually pleasant smell of salty french fries and grilled burgers, which today, due to the nature of our mission, is upsetting to my stomach. There is a buzz of voices flowing, laughter and conversation in English and Spanish. I am beginning to wonder at our choice of locations for this important meeting. I have been unsure how to prepare Mariah for this life-altering conversation. As the foster parent, it was not my role to disclose this type of information to her. In my uncertainty how to best prepare her, I had simply told her that we would visit with Jen at Wendy’s and that Jen had important things to talk about.
Mariah had moved into our foster home a year ago, and enjoyed regular visits with her mom two times a week. She fit in well with the other kids in our home and took pleasure in the home itself. She came with her “luggage,” a black shiny lawn and leaf bag full of oddly mismatched, ill-fitting, stained clothing, and a large variety of kid’s meal toys. She had excitedly left our foster home six months later for a family placement. The kids and I picked her up in the big van eight weeks later when that placement failed. The family was ill-equipped to deal with her stealing, lying, and passive-aggressive behaviors. The kids in our house had finally figured out who had been soaping their toothbrushes once Mariah left, but all were willing and eager to welcome her back among them. She was part of the family for this time. As we pulled up to her and her pile of belongings that day, she had excitedly jumped up and down with a big grin, ready to return back to our home.
As we wait in the seemingly endless line to order, I watch Mariah in front of me. She is bouncing, as is typical for her, gently and steadily. Mariah, when excited, is in constant rhythmic motion. There is a glistening sheen of sweat from the sweltering August heat at the top of her forehead where her thick dark hair meets her golden brown skin. Her hair, which had been cut off a year ago in a non-empathetic effort to rid her of pesky head lice, has grown back in painfully slowly and is now a full two inches long, tamed only by a headband and a lot of hair gel. As Mariah weighs her choices on the menu, she giggles and grins wide, exposing two perfectly even rows of tiny white baby teeth; like pearls on a necklace, their perfection marred only by the four silver caps shining out from the back of her mouth. She bounces from foot to foot on her hot pink high top sneakers, worn without socks, below her long, tan, coltish legs. Her long narrow fingers, tips iced with cotton candy-colored, chipped nail polish and constantly in motion, play over the multicolored beaded bracelet on her wrist, like a pianist fingering a treasured keyboard.
Once we get our food, we spot Jen sitting at a table and join her. Mariah sets her food down and skips around the table to hug Jen. I spot Jen’s face over Mariah’s shoulder; her bright blue eyes are filled with moisture. Her cheeks are pink, whether from emotions or heat, I am unsure. The social worker casually asks Mariah how her summer is going while Mariah eats her chicken nuggets and fries with one hand, and handles the small plastic bag her treasured dinosaur toy is encased in with the other. I always have the kids eat first before opening their toys, due to my visions of eight toys flying around at the table, landing in ketchup and sticky orange soda. For this brief moment, Mariah’s biggest concern is finishing her food so she can explore her treasured prize. Then the bomb falls, as my stomach sinks and my eyes automatically cast downward. Have we done this right? Have I given her enough preparation to deal with this? Will she be okay?
“Mariah, you know that your mom had assignments, homework she needed to do before you could go home.” Mariah giggles excitedly with anticipation. “Is she finished now? Can I go home?” Jen inhales deeply and sighs slowly before answering. “No, honey, your mom did try but was not able to get all her homework done. She didn’t complete all that she needed to. You will not be living with your mom again.”
Mariah is not told that her mother’s new baby had been born with methamphetamines in his system, and that he is in a different foster home. Nor is she told that her mom still has not found a job or adequate housing, or that her mom has another jail term to serve for theft. Silent tears begin to drip out below her metal-framed eyeglasses. Her little hand with pink nails quickly attempts to swipe them away.
“What about mommy’s boyfriend, or my auntie? Can I live with them?” The caseworker, now sweating and red faced, quickly jumps in with her response. “Those homes are not an option for you, but we do have a wonderful family that wants you to be part of their family. They are so excited and have chosen you to be their little girl. You’ll have a sister, and your own room. Isn’t that nice?”
I scoot in close beside her and wrap an arm around her in an effort to comfort Mariah as big, wet, splashy tears flow down from her face. She continues her feverish attempts to wipe the steady flow of still silent tears. Again, Jen is talking rapidly in quick short bursts, like a chicken pecking at feed. “You will get one more visit with your mom, a good-bye visit. Won’t that be nice?”
I’ve been to good-bye visits before. There is nothing nice about them. In fact, they are heartbreaking, the tone comparable to a funeral; which, in a way, it is. It is the death of a family unit. Sometimes even the parent opts out of this painful opportunity for closure, leaving the child sitting in a van, crying and waiting just a few minutes more in case their parent should arrive. Eventually the van pulls away with a crying child and other kids who have shared this painful experience patting them on the back and offering expressions of care and understanding.
It seems the goal of the caseworker and myself was not only to break this news to Mariah, informing her of her intended fate, but also to hear her say that everything is okay and to then check this uncomfortable assignment off our to-do list. Mariah finally offers Jen what she needed to hear, that she will be okay.
She has full understanding that she has just lost her mommy, the one that has known her the longest and loved her the most in this world. Her mommy is the one that swept her gangly, seven-year-old body up into her arms and tight against her neck for a hug. She knows she will never again hear the sweet voice of her beloved mommy saying, “There’s my peaches!”
As Mariah and I walked out of Wendy’s, back into the hot, dry August afternoon, I knew then I would never be the same. How many times can you be a part of giving innocent children heartbreaking news, telling them that their parent has just died, or that they have to move again before this realization hits? How can we adults continue making dry-eyed announcements, expecting the child to reassure us that they will be okay? How can we rush through a life-changing event like this in a half-hour, then check it off our to-do list and return back to life as normal?
While driving back to the house, I asked Mariah if she had any questions. She sighed, wiped away the last of the tears she would ever allow me to see, and said, “I do have a question. Can I play on the swings when we get home?” Her response aligned with the amount of sensitivity we had used with her. I have kept in touch with Mariah and her wonderful adoptive family. She is doing as well as can be expected, although she is still stealing, lying, and having trouble in school.