A huge part of life as a foster child is spent in the car, being driven to various appointments, visits and checkups. As a foster parent, I have to leave them with strangers on a weekly basis and watch those strangers take them and walk away from me. It is difficult, of course.
But you get used to it.
In the back of your mind, you know that someday they will leave in the back seat of a stranger's car, and they won't ever come back. The door with the county seal on the side will close. They will look at you through the window. You will wave goodbye, and they will be gone.
It is happening for real this time. Not like all the other times, when social workers threw out impossible goals and unrealistic timetables. Gathering strength and speed, it is finally something I can see and feel. It is time for Ella to live with her biological family.
To be sure, it is not the family we started out working with. The family tree has many branches, and a strong and steady one has been found. It is a relief, but it also means that she is leaving—and my heart is tight in my chest. Tears well up just thinking about it. I shouldn't be surprised. It has been 10 months, 10 lovely months as a family of five. But we are really a family of four, and it is important to recognize and embrace that truth from time to time.
The time has come.
I knew it was really happening when Ella's grandmother first met me, the first thing she did was wrap her arms around my shoulders and give me a hug. She thanked me, over and over again. They are grateful and excited. They too are getting ready for their lives to change completely.
As this new little family forms and strengthens and bonds and moves forward, Ella's connection to our family must also loosen until it finally comes undone. It starts slowly: at first, visits happen once a week, and then more often, longer, slowly adding an overnight here and there. A weekend. And while she is with us, I am pulling away, in a very oh-so-carefully that you might not even realize it kind of way. I go out at night so that someone else puts her to bed. Other people give her bottles. I started packing her clothes and toys and bedding, and send them with every visit so that more and more of her things are there every week. Things that smell like me. Things that smell like our home.
I know that it really doesn't matter, but I wonder if she will notice my absence as I slowly fade into the background.
Can she feel the distance I am gently putting between us?
We are staring our first overnight square in the face, and I just can't quite imagine waking up and not seeing her wide grin. Every morning for the last 10 months, her big brown eyes and gummy smile have greeted me from the bassinet next to my pillow.
And then the crib at the foot of my bed.
And for the past month or so, from the nursery doorway.
The distance between us is growing, slowly and purposefully.
She is toddling around now, cruising along the furniture and even letting go every once in a while.
I am following her example. Letting go for a few quick moments at a time, more and more often, for longer and longer periods of time. And it helps that she is more independent now, and doesn't need me every moment of the day.
She learned to wave goodbye a few weeks ago, carefully waggling her fingers slightly as she holds her hand aloft uncertainly. She stares at her palm as her fingers move, mouth agape, not realizing that she herself is the one wiggling them. I make a mental note to discuss this with her occupational therapist next week. It is one of the last appointments I will attend.
I won't be there for her 1-year checkup.
I won't be there for speech therapy in January.
I won't see her walk or run for the first time.
I am realizing all that I am going to miss, and all that I will no longer be responsible for, and every time it is a tiny shock of awareness. A jolt of reality.
I am carefully freeing the end of the string that binds us, and she is lifting up and away from me, a bright sunshiny yellow balloon of joy and laughter, slipping through my hands with a contagious chortle and loud squawks of excitement.
It's time. I know it is time. But oh, it's hard.