Little Boy in a Lifeboat

Five of us sit, silent in a 10 x 10 hospital room. Our foster son is on an operating table down the hall having a minor procedure which feels major given the previous months of recurring illness and sleepless nights. We are hoping this one finally does the trick. The last procedure, six months prior, brought little improvement.

This day feels different, though, and I have hope, so much hope for so many things, a number of them in contradiction to one another. I hope for resolution to this little guy’s ongoing sickness. I hope for growth and stability for his mother. I hope for permanency for our foster son and for his family…and also for our own. Living in this world of unknowns that stretch on 90 days at a time has beaten me down.

I hold all these things at once, constantly reframing these hopes, these portraits of permanency into a picture equaling the very best outcome for this child all the while knowing that “best” is a subjective word. What is best for this child might not be what is best for his mother, and what is best for his mother might not be what is best for us. I remind myself that we are at the bottom of this food chain. That is the spot we signed up for. What is best for us does not factor into this equation, but that doesn’t erase the question from our minds.

I look from face to face, strangers packed in a too-small room, and I thank God thoughts are not word bubbles above our heads. Our foster son’s mother and her partner huddle together, whispering back and forth every few minutes. My husband stands in the corner guarding the door, anxious for our shared little boy to be rolled back in. He makes small talk as we wait, and I am thankful for his conversational ease in these hours of awkward quiet.

The social worker is perched next to me, sandwiched between foster mom and bio mom, a physical representation of these challenging roles we fill. I sit closest to the hospital bed and wonder every few minutes if I should give up this seat and offer it to his mother, his mother who is showing up more frequently now, his mother who is trying, his mother who is here today but was not here six months ago when my husband and I sat in this room all alone wondering if she had already given up. This day feels different. I get up and stand next to my husband by the door.

The tides are changing, and I’m starting to worry I’m too far from shore. I want to swim back and save myself, make sure I get out of here alive, but that is not what I said I would do. When we became foster parents a year ago, when this child was handed over our threshold at 8:00 pm on a Tuesday, we promised we would do this work to help families reunify, supporting not only the child but the parents whose child found himself in our arms.

We said we would love this child and welcome him into our home. We would feed him, bathe him, read him stories and tuck him in, just like we do for all our children. We would wipe his tears and take his temperature. We would pull all-nighters when he was sick or scared or sad. We would do all of these things like this child was our own, but we would not claim him as our own…because he isn’t. We promised these things, and we have to remind ourselves every day, sometimes every hour, that this is still the goal. The love that has grown to envelop this child so completely should not change this, but it does. How could it not? But what we feel and what we do, I am learning, can be two different things.

I can love a child like I am his mother and not be his mother. I can take pictures of precious moments and cherish them while understanding his mother needs them much more than I do. These moments that I am so fully blessed to be a part of, to see first-hand, are not solely mine. I share them with her and hope it encourages her to keep moving forward in the direction of her son. But in the same breath, in the same instant that I send these photos across the digital threads that connect us, I also hope for more time because I know she is not ready to do this on her own. There are obstacles in her way that she cannot move with arms that hold a squirming infant. She would fail, and he would fall; this image keeps me up at night. It steals my sleep and pours strength into my weary arms. I can hold this child longer. I can keep us all afloat.

He is wheeled back into the room by two nurses while a third sits atop the bed holding him against her shoulder. She is trying to remain still so as not to disturb him.

The nurse looks around the room and says to no one in particular, “He woke up really upset. I am going to hand him off to whoever he is the most comfortable with.”

This person is me, but I do not flinch. I hold my breath and wait.

“Mom, why don’t you give it a try?” the social worker says, and I watch his mother rise from her seat and take the empty chair closest to the bed, the one I’ve just vacated.

I know what is coming. I suspect we all do. Their weekly visits have not been going well lately as he has become more and more reluctant to go to her.

He is handed off and as she takes him, he begins to cry. The cry quickly escalates to a scream, and I press my back into the wall, trying to glue myself to it so I do not run to him and steal this moment.

He cries and cries in a cloud of anesthesia and confusion. He pulls away from his mother, tries to push himself out of her arms. She holds on. She tries.

I observe from the opposite side of the room and count the seconds that stretch into minutes until I cannot watch them struggle any longer. Slowly, I approach and ask his mother if it would be okay for me to try to calm him. She nods, hands him to me, and he quiets almost instantly. Relief and regret clash into one another, fighting for space. Did I do the right thing? And for who?

Our priority in this hospital room and beyond is to keep this child safe and comfortable, to help him feel secure. He bounces back and forth between my husband and me, while I replay those few minutes over and over again in my head. Did I do the right thing? Did I do the right thing? Who is to say in this sink-or-swim world?

Nurses return to check vitals and see how the patient is recovering. An hour later, he is determined to be ready and we are released. We thank the staff and replace his hospital gown with a cozy sleeper and winter jacket. He fusses through the changing but settles again in my arms. I walk him over to his mother and dip my right shoulder toward her face, so she can kiss her son and say good-bye.

“I will make sure to send pictures later today to let you know he’s okay,” I tell her.

She nods. I smile. Our usual exchange.

“Say good-bye to your Mama,” I say aloud to this sleeping child. “We will see you on Tuesday,” I add to his mother. Tuesday is their next visit. It’s Friday.

She and her partner exit, and my husband and I lag behind a minute to put space between these two worlds so inexorably linked. It takes energy and effort to come together in this way, shoved in a hospital room with too-few chairs and doctors unsure on whom to address. The waiting and worrying, the wondering how to behave and where I belong in this tangle of love and loss is too much. By the end of it all, I am drained and ready to go home. 

We buckle the dozing baby into his car seat, and I release the breath I’ve been holding for hours. As the tension leaves, new feelings quickly slip in to fill the void. Anger. Frustration. Self-righteousness. These feelings do not serve me well nor do they serve the little boy sleeping soundly in our backseat, so I call forward the questions – the only things big enough to quiet my indignation. How would it feel to climb into a car without him? To be the ones waiting on photos to know he’s okay? To hand over your child to a mother in a lifeboat so you can repair your own? To drown while that mother keeps your child afloat?

These questions keep my head above water, so I do not get swept away in hopes that are not in line with the end goal – to put families back together, to put this child back in his mother’s arms. They remind me that the discomfort and fear and potential loss that I feel as a foster parent is a tide pool compared to the choppy sea his mother endures. And still, she shows up. She tries. She hands over her child to another mother and goes back to work on her own lifeboat, hoping she can patch the holes and prepare a spot for her son’s return before he’s out of reach.

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