*Names outside of my immediate family are changed.
The child pulls down and twists at the end of my arm, trying to escape my grip on his hand. His mouth opens in a second scream and I crouch beside him. I don't want to lose him in the parking lot, but I'm frightening him and he is beyond listening to my words. His baby brother cries loud, agonized bleats behind me, held safely in the arms of his twenty-year-old foster sister, Katie.
Their foster mother takes over, thankfully, soothing the older child as she herds him to her car. I take deep shaky breaths before I lead Katie and the baby to my car. The boys are three years and twenty months. We are a respite foster placement—they will stay with us for one week while their foster family travels out of state.
They spent the morning visiting their mother. They've lived with their foster family only a few weeks, and today, outside of the grubby visitation center with the high chain link fence and the stained chartreuse green velvet waiting benches, they are supposed to be coming home with me.
It's too many mothers in too short a time. They are frightened and confused despite our best efforts—Carol, their foster mom, and I met at a park a few days ago in an attempt to make my face a slightly familiar one. She has talked to them about a sleep over at my house, my huge dog, and my four kids. We've done our best, but these little boys must feel ripped from place to place, out of control and adrift.
When they are settled into my car, buckled securely, I have more room to think and breathe. I repeat my son Nate's name and he says “Hi” shyly from his booster seat. I talk about our dog and tell them their beds are yellow. The boys eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The littlest takes an occasional hiccupping sob. The oldest, suspicious, begins to ask questions.
Where is my house? What's the dog's name? Where is Mama Carol? When will he see his mother?
Not far. Hampton. She's on a trip, but she'll be back and we'll have fun while you stay with us. Wednesday.
I'm nervous. I can do this, of course. Little boys are little boys. We have cars and tons of toys, Dinosaur Train, waffles, the park. We can find distraction. But I'm intimidated by the task. Will they sleep at all in a strange new home for only a week? Will errands be possible? Thank god I got milk yesterday.
I'm 40—an adult with moderate control over my life—and I feel this. It makes me hurt for how they must feel, buffeted by courts, circumstance, family situations, decisions and difficulties they don't understand.
It's a fun, exhausting, overwhelming week. They are incredibly sweet, hard, kids with quick tempers and little tolerance for structure, but they crave it and respond to it. Their fabulous foster mom is a text away. We find a routine, some rules that work. My life gives, adjusting to their needs. They love the park and I survive the pounding adrenaline of keeping track of them when they are used to absolute independence.
We all love the quiet bedtime routine we develop—I have a strength for soothing, firm bedtime routines. A bath, milk, teeth brushed, pj’s, a book, blankets thrown high and brought down softly over sweet, soap-smelling little heads, once, twice, three times. All done.
And then kisses. The oldest points to his knee, his toe, his elbow, his cheek, his belly. Round and round we go while my patient husband puts our four kids to bed in the other room, picking up the slack I can't manage.
He asks me for bedtime over and over starting at 4:00 p.m. I don't think he's tired. There's something about the structured snuggles that his poor little heart craves.
Ma knee. Ma e-bow. Ma Nose. Ma udder knee. One more time and then night-night.
Too quickly and not quickly enough Friday comes. I drop them at the visitation center for their time with their mother and meet Carol in the parking lot to fill her in on our week and load their suitcase in her car. She'll collect them after the visit and I'll be gone.
We think it's better that way, but what do we know. I'm yet another person who appeared and then disappeared in their lives, setting boundaries, imposing my perspective and my will, however gently, for such a short time. Driving home, I'm grateful for the quiet, but sad wondering if anyone will play the kisses game tonight and if his little heart will survive another tear.