I received the sweetest Christmas letter the other day and I got permission to share it with you. It is from a very dear friend, Heather, whom I love and appreciate for all that she does, not only for me but for so many! Thanks for sharing your story and your talents with all of us.
Christmas Came Early
*Jake came into our home with bright brown eyes, an infectious smile, and the physical signs of abuse burned into the cigarette shaped scar on his cheek. He walked right into the door and asked where his room was. The case worker had warned me that he had just been removed from his home and placed directly into our care, so he may feel agitated or scared. The emotional outbursts we were waiting for would come later, instead, when he discovered three older sisters that adored him, we heard outbursts of laughter and watched him jump side to side in a happy dance. Jake was gracious, polite, and extremely loud. He picked up after himself, washed his hands regularly and tried to make dinner for us. Most kids get a little whiny or upset when they get hungry, Jake just asked for a can of beans and a can opener. I gave him an apple and he squealed with delight. I told him he could have as many apples as he wanted – the whole bag was gone by morning. I could tell his diet had been very limited and his choice for food revolved around oatmeal, beans, ramen and water. I later had to apologize to his mom for introducing “fruit snacks” and the word “Happy Meal”. Such extravagance was a novelty and I wished somehow I had not been so quick to please the taste buds of my own children, so when I asked, “Where do we want to eat tonight?” The answer would be Jake’s eager response, the dinner table, instead of, Texas Roadhouse.
Two days passed and he had not once asked about his mother. I got a small glimpse of the life of this three year old when he accidently spilled his milk on the counter. He quickly climbed down, huddled in a ball and looked up at me with scared, bulging eyes and repeatedly asked, “What are you going to do to me? Are you going to hit me, scratch me, bite me? What are you going to do to me?” He seemed to want an answer so he could prepare for the tidal wave that was to consume him.
I, cautiously, went to the refrigerator, opened the door and gently told him, “I’m going to get you some more milk.” I began to wonder what child is this that fears the rebuttal of a simple mistake.
Jake had hidden claws and brought them out when he felt threatened. The first of many incidents came when we were heading out of a museum and into the parking lot. I asked Jake to hold my hand as we crossed, but he refused. As he ran into the road to get away from me, I caught him by the arm, picked him up, and started to go on about why we need to hold hands and such. However, he did not like the constraints of my hold, and started to scratch, hit and swear. My husband, calm and collected, pulled Jake off of me, put him on his shoulders, walked around a bit, and then put him in his car seat. We drove home trying to explain to Jake that we don’t hit, we don’t bite and we don’t say bad words.
My girls added, “We don’t tackle, pinch, kick, pound or spit.” (I know, it is hilarious watching us with a boy.) He looked at me, smiled and once again showed off his vocabulary. Trying hard not to laugh, we rode home and listened to Jake as he pronounced all the “four letter” words he knew. Not once did he mention the word love. What child is this, who knows the stones people use to wound their prey?
Jake had his first scheduled visit with his mom the following week. The caseworker met Jake at the door. Flickers of recognition flashed across his face and, ironically, Jake took my hand. We entered the secured play room where Jake’ s mom was waiting. He grasped tighter as he was now forced once again to walk into the unknown. His mom was older than I expected, she looked tired and a bit beaten up. Our eyes met and I clearly understood that I was an intruder. The hour passed and the caseworker led Jake out of the room. She asked me if I could call *Ashley, Jake’s mom, each night and let her talk to him. She said it would ease the anxiety his mom felt at the absence of her son. It occurred to me that Jake’s mom may think of me as the enemy. That’s a twist.
That night, Jake got ready for bed, and then called his mom. He asked if his mom would come over and sleep here. To no surprise, Jake started in with a series of frightful nightmares that led to terror filled cries for help. I held Jake in my arms and tried to protect him. This time he let me. When my sister and I were little we would sing Primary songs in bed with the lights off for hours. The stillness of the night and the sweet sounds of the gospel truths were a comfort to us. I still had the habit of singing those same songs when one of my children would wake from the night. Jake’s heart beat slowed down as I started in on the soothing melodies. Every night after, I could hear him in his room repeating the familiar tunes of “I Am a Child of God” and “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus”.
Thanksgiving came and I felt like Jake should have a visit with his mom. I was talking to her every night and we had built up a good rapport with one another. The caseworker said that no one would be able to supervise a visit because of the holiday and it was advised we not meet up. Since I am not accustomed to following rules, I called up Ashley and asked if she happened to be going to McDonalds for Thanksgiving around noon. Getting the hint, she thanked me and welcomed the visit. Jake, Scott (my back-up), and I met Ashley at the restaurant. Scott and I watched in a corner while Jake and his mom played, ate, chased and enjoyed the freedom of this grateful day. Jake asked me if he could wash up, so we went to clean his face and hands. While we were gone, Ashley opened up to Scott about the hardships she had been having, the changes she was making, and the dark times when she, herself, went into foster care. This year had been very difficult for her; she sent Jake’s dad to prison by testifying against him and then needing a place to stay, moved in with her dad. It was an unhealthy environment for everyone and she had made some plans to move in with her grandmother soon. She wanted Jake back, but could tell he was happy at our home and felt a sense of security for him.
It was almost three, and we needed to leave for our own family party. I watched as Ashley put the uneaten chicken nuggets and cold fries into the bag and got in her car, she ate them immediately. On the way home, Scott told me about Ashley’s past and her plans for the future. He said that she kept saying how grateful she was for me. I tried to imagine her life and all the people that kept pushing her to the ground. I was amazed she could even get up. I was leaving to go to a Thanksgiving feast where family members I loved, trusted and could count on would welcome me with open arms. Where was she going? What would she eat? Who helped her in times of need? Had I extended my hand to her at all? Guilt struck me as I thought of how today, it seemed, the most important thing Ashley had going on was seeing Jake and spending time with him. I, however, had left extremely important instructions for my children on what to wear, what to clean, and when to leave. For the first time since Jake’s arrival, I felt a sense of gratitude and appreciation for Ashley, for her survival against circumstance. She was still trying. Aren’t we all?
Christmas took on a whole new meaning with a three year old again. The list of electronics, designer clothes and IPods were callously pushed aside for race cars, toys that made loud noises, legos, nerf guns and plastic swords. Jake never asked for things at the store when we went. It must have never seemed like a possibility to him, but when he saw the pillow pets stacked high in the middle isle his eyes got big and he said, “I want a pet pillow for Christmas”. It took an enormous amount of effort to not buy it right then and there, catching myself with the illusion that this would erase the pain of his past and somehow be able to bring him happiness. Instead, I told him that I hoped Santa would get him one, and then let him pick out more fruit snacks. This seemed like a sufficient plan to him: Believe in someone you don’t know, who likes to wear red and give you stuff you want. He immediately loved the idea of Santa.
Just before Christmas was to arrive, I got a phone call saying the courts had decided to return Jake to his mom and I had an hour to gather his belongings and bring him into the office. My reaction was indignation and disbelief. I was genuinely happy for all the progress Ashley had made, but hidden underneath the layers of outward kindness I secretly wanted Jake for myself. My emotions turned to sadness as I hastily put his clothes in a bag and Jake started taking them out again. Funny how a three year old knows things. I was angry at his circumstance – the injustice that a dysfunctional family claims for a child. I turned to tears as the girls got home from school and I said we had to leave in ten minutes to take Jake back. My oldest asked if we could let him open the Christmas presents they had bought him. Jake, excitedly, unwrapped present after present. Very Scrooge like, I made sure store labels were removed and packaging thrown away so nothing could be returned, certain that greed would overtake the weak and our presents would turn to dust. In the end, I decided to leave one present unopened and told him it was for Christmas.
The drive was filled with concern. What would become of him? What would become of me? I looked back at Jake, the young boy who could make all sorts of noise, silently had tears coming down his cheeks. Driving along and seeing all five of us sulking, reminded me of the promise I had made to Scott when we started doing foster care – if I ever had to give a child back, I would. Scott called three times to make sure I was still headed in the right direction. I told him, “No, I was headed to give Jake back.”
We walked into the office and this time Jake let go of my hand and went straight to his mom. I met her Grandma for the first time- old and crippled and missing Jake. I glimpsed over at Jake’s mom, her eyes held mine and this time I didn’t feel like an intruder, but equals. I think love does this. It doesn’t allow for judgments or misgivings, it emulates mercy. I handed her the last gift, saying it was for Christmas. She insisted that he open it up right there, so he would know that we gave it to him. How quickly the sweetness of my gestures turned to ugly pride as the bitterness of my own conscience made me realize I had assumed the worst in her by tearing off the tag. Jake ripped through the wrapping like a pro and pulled out a pillow pet. The very one he had seen at the store and wished upon. His mom, graciously with tears in her eyes, told me she could have never given him such an expensive gift.
I could clearly see where Jake got his humility and gratitude. This mother was under the blanket reality of the poor, feeling like twenty dollars was exorbitant. She sobbed as she thanked me for taking care of him and providing a good home. She kept saying that this experience had changed her life. Never before had she had so many people trying to help her succeed. Believing in her. Caring about her. Wanting the best for her. Loving her. The warmth of friendship and example we had shared radiated into a belief in herself as a person of value. I said, “It was a privilege to have Jake and her in our lives.” I would have said a lot more, but I could not get the words out through my tears. I looked up at this transformed woman, who grew up in a world that left her behind. She was learning, right along with me, not to be the one who casts the first stone – but to be the first one who walks away. With conviction in her voice she promised that she was going to give Jake a better life and then she freely hugged me. In that moment, I knew I loved her as much as I loved Jake, and all the things I wanted for Jake in his life, I wanted for her. Ashley gathered up Jake’s things, took him by the hand and walked out the door.
The girls and I watched, like at the end of a dramatic movie, Jake, clinging to his “pet pillow” as he called it, driving away happily. He didn’t look back once. This child that had come into our home like a hurricane, left just as fast. The sting of loneliness I expected to feel was extinguished with the unconditional love left in my heart. Holding onto one another, the girls and I slowly went to the car. My twelve year old said, “Christmas came early this year”.
I said, “For Jake and his mom it sure did”.
She shook her head and said, “No, for us. We just gave the best present we could have ever given, Jake back to his mom. Because the best gift is the one you want for yourself, but you give to someone who needs it more.”
I chuckled at her amusing insight. Finding more truth in this lesson as I thought of our Heavenly Father, who gave His Son to the world. A world that would inflict upon him the sins of the wicked. Whose hands were scarred from the nails on the cross He had to bear. His Son, who has given us the purifying love of the Atonement, and above all creations, is the most precious gift to the world, and to me.
Christmas is not a day or a season, but a condition of heart and mind. If we love our neighbors as ourselves; if in our riches we are poor in spirit and in our poverty we are rich in grace; if our charity vaunteth not itself, but suffereth long and is kind; if when our brother asks for a loaf, we give ourselves instead; if each day dawns in opportunity and sets in achievement, however small – then every day is Christ’s day and Christmas is always near. – James Wallingford.
We want to thank all our friends and family for their support with our “foster care adventures”. Thank you for your unconditional love. It is most cherished and much needed.
Scott, Heather, Jessica, Samantha and Adriana