In the summer of 2008, the world of foster care found my family and I. We weren’t seeking it out; we had two little ones, a boy who was nearly 3 and one who was 9 months old. But when I happened to be in the right place at the right time when the daughter of a friend of mine was removed, I volunteered to take her home with me. I called my husband, asking him to leave work early and meet a social worker at our house. We had no idea how much that moment would deeply impact our lives.
We didn’t know what the future would hold. We knew what the social workers told us, and what we saw as the truth from our perspective. We knew that a judge signed an order requiring her to stay in state care. We didn’t, however, know what foster care would mean, how it would impact our children, if she would stay, or what our family would look like in a year.
I took her home and began untangling a perpetual knot: her tummy was hard and she had awful gas; she was dehydrated and being fed the wrong formula. We had to borrow a crib to pass the homestudy, and she had serious colic. She would cry from 5 o’clock in the evening until 1 o’clock in the morning, every night…for a couple of months. The system began dictating our lives; we had to consult a manual before we could rearrange our house, being certain we were complying with state regulations on sleeping arrangements. Visitations began dominating our weeks as our schedule wrapped around the trek downstate for her parents to visit with her.
And we became attached; very, very attached. We fell madly in love with her. We caught her first smiles, her first giggles. We watched her learn to sit up on her own and enjoy rolling a ball. We watched her crawl for the first time, and we have a home video of her playing with a guitar while lying on her belly in our living room, maybe 8 months old. She took her first steps, celebrated her first birthday, and began calling us muh-muh and duh-duh just like our children did. On all days except Tuesdays, it felt like she was ours. We knew, we always knew, that tomorrow was never guaranteed. Everytime I saw a new pair of shoes a few sizes bigger on clearance or shopped for next season’s jackets, I wondered: would I be the one to put them on her or would she be gone? Every celebration was bittersweet: would this be our last together as a whole family?
The years passed, and as she reached 2.5 years old, her foster care case came to a close. She was ordered to return home, and our fairy-tale ended. On a cold December morning, she was roused from her slumber, carried downstairs, rocked in our living room, slowly dressed, carried into our kitchen, sat at the table, and fed breakfast. She didn’t touch her food. In a brief picture that was snapped that morning, she looks somber, forlorn. When the appropriate time came, her hands were wiped off, her sippy of juice replaced to the table. Her jacket was retrieved, her hat removed from the sleeve. With all the strength I could muster, I slipped the hat on her head. I zipped up her jacket. I kissed her on her soft head, held her close, told her mommy loves her, and handed her off to my husband. He solemnly carried her out the front door to the car her mother had parked in my driveway. She was buckled into her carseat and driven off. I haven’t seen her since.
On Thursday, the weather around here began to break. My kids were able to go out and about without wearing a jacket. Spring is coming. We went to a local children’s museum with some friends, and on the way back we had to stop at the grocery store. Singing along to some song I had just heard on the radio, I bounced to the back of my van to unbuckle my middle son. And for a split moment, I went to unbuckle her. Instead, I found the empty space where her carseat once sat. I closed my eyes, and she was still there. I’ve memorized every line on her face, her chubby toddler hands, the space where her nose meets her forehead – between her eyes – my favorite place to kiss. For a moment, she was still there; my heart wasn’t broken.
Having other children while losing one is both a blessing and a curse; I am grateful that life goes on. I am grateful I don’t have to stop to think about my pain so often – I am far too busy caring for the 3 that still remain. But in those moments, those times where life marches on, sometimes I still see her sweeping through our family, resuming her usual place in our lives. It has jolted all of us, and my children often talk about her. At one point, my son asked me if we would ever have a sister, “You know, one who doesn’t have to go away?” My three year old asks, at least once a week, where she is, if she is still living with her mom. These questions are usually followed up by, is she gone forever? Yes, sweetheart, she is gone forever.
I don’t know how to answer these questions. Most times I go with the brutal truth, watered down enough to be palateable for small children. Most times I feel okay telling them, “Mommy really misses your sister today.” Sometimes I think I do get it wrong, like the times my oldest has caught me bad-mouthing the way her case ended and her family decided to cease all communications with us. But most days I let him know it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to hurt. And I try to show them that, through it all, we will survive. We are strong, we are blessed, and they are loved. And usually that’s enough, for slowly her vivid memory is fading, being replaced by newly packed memories, moments she never shared with us. Slowly we are growing into a family of 5, no longer a family of 6.
About Jen Salowitz
I am a mama to 3 boys. I strive to live a greener, healthier live while preserving my children’s innocence. I enjoy reading, learning more about natural birth and health-care, and playing the piano!