The Evolution of Anna

“Never say never whatever you do…” —An American Tail

Throughout my life, there are many things I never wanted to do.  I had a mental list of 8 things. You might find this shocking—okay, no one who knows me will find this shocking—but my Never List was a way of protecting myself from re-living old trauma.  Sort of a mental buffer to avoid facing my fears. 

The problem is, I’m very self-aware and have never shied away from doing the next right thing, if I know that’s what I should do.  So one step at a time, I’ve faced each item on my “Never List.” Not because I wanted to, but because, as life tends to do, I was faced time and again with a choice to either avoid and live half-heartedly, or live whole-heartedly (dangerously) and keep stepping in faith. In full disclosure, this does not look very glorious. My method of doing the next thing looks a lot like a curmudgeonly old man who, while muttering under his breath about how annoying the stray cat is, feeds it the best caviar.

So, thanks to God’s love, time, therapy, a husband who truly believes I’m a badass, my own willingness to face things that feel terrifying, and allowing myself to love others enough to do them, my Never List is completed this week.

I share this list with you as both a celebration of sorts and because I think it’s absolutely hilarious that I ended up doing every single thing on my list of things I never wanted to do.

Here’s the list, replete with the reasons I didn’t want to do them and the reality of how they are turning out:

I never wanted to date (I believed men only wanted to have power over women).

What I didn’t know was that the person who loves you would want to empower you, not tear you down.  Dating Ethan was the first step of this very slippery slope of doing things I said I’d never do. I’m not sad about it 🙂 

I never wanted to marry (I would have to give up my independence and freedom).  

The person who loves you wouldn’t ask you to do that.  Ethan loves me for who who I am without trying to change me.  He has helped me to find more freedom, not less.

I never wanted to raise kids again. (Too much self-sacrifice and I never wanted to be needed again).

Although people get really offended whenever I say this, I still think it’s true.  People choose to become parents for one of two reasons: ignorance or sainthood.

Yeah, go ahead and throw those arms in the air, but I’m not wrong.

If you’ve never parented, you might have all of these blissful ideas about it.  If you’ve already parented, you know how hard it is.  And if it is in a war-zone kind of environment as mine was the first go-round, you might think to yourself as I did, what could ever make me do that again?  Love, hope, and grit–that’s what.  Unlike when I was a child/teen, and didn’t have a choice of how much of myself to sacrifice, I can find a balance between meeting my needs and theirs now.  I have a choice this time and that makes all the difference.

I never wanted to raise girls (What if evil men did things to them they did to me?).

This might happen.  I hope and pray it won’t, but I’m also a realist and I can’t protect them at all times. But what I can do differently is listen and be a safe place for my girls when/if they tell me things that happen to them.  I am proactively teaching them to know what to look for to determine if someone is trustworthy, how to take their own power–no matter how young they are–no matter how terrified or confused they are.  I will be here for them.

I never wanted to have to cook for children with weird food allergies/sensitivities (being that parent).

Haha, I guess I will be that parent because my kids need that.

I never wanted to make homemade bread (symbolic of being treated as a voiceless less-than woman).

Have you tried store-bought Gluten/Dairy free bread?  Enough said.

I never wanted to learn to sew/crochet (I failed time and again as a kid with shaky hands and was mocked by my mom when I made her sewn gifts).

My son wants to learn to sew and my daughter to crochet, so guess who will have to bite the bullet and learn?  LOL.  Shaky hands or no.

I never wanted to homeschool (Layers of shame: undiagnosed learning disabilities, a parent who constantly told me how stupid I was and couldn’t teach me, ATI).

So this is the last on the list and a big one.  And as of a few days ago, we have decided that starting in the fall, we will be doing a hybrid homeschooling option for our kids: 3 days at home, 2 days at a school.  It’s a huge leap of faith.  My inner anxious introvert is screaming somewhere in the corner of my mind that I’ll never again have alone time and how in the world will I ever finish writing the books I’ve been plugging away at in my spare time (haha)?  But this is what my kids need and I think this is the next right step for us. 

I am looking forward to being with my kids more and for them to be less anxious and stressed than they are with school currently.  I’m excited for them and for myself.  We shall see what happens. 

I guess that sometimes, healing looks like giving in and making a damn loaf of GF/DF bread.

What things on your Never List have you ended up embracing?

On this, the Anniversary of Your Death

When you died so many years ago, I felt that I cheated you and myself because my grief robbed me of the capacity to say the true but unacceptable words at your funeral. You can’t speak ill of the dead at a Southern Christian funeral. And so, the words remained buried because the majority of my memories of you were not good. They were not kind, but they were true.

The poor bewildered pastor. He didn’t know you at all and we, in our grief and with minds clouded and overcome with hosts of negative experiences, could not offer insights of good that weren’t tainted with bad. Only Lydia could bravely tell her truth at the time and I loved her for it. Her eulogy was the only real part of your funeral, and the rest felt like a dark joke.

Those first few weeks, I felt numb to all but my anger, loss, and relief. Anger that you’d finally gotten what you’d tried to achieve for years: to be done with life. Anger that you didn’t care that you left behind your younger children. And relief that there would be no more late night phone calls from young children 12 hours away asking me what to do when you slept through your days, rendering you unable to care for your children still left at home. None of us called it addiction back then, but that’s exactly what it was. I was relieved to no longer be living on the edge. I did not like being the one to constantly confront you, knowing you were lying to me, knowing you couldn’t stop yourself.

But time and distance have helped me to heal and to feel your absence. Those random moments that I wanted to call you and tell you something but remembered you weren’t there. Wishes that you could meet your grandchildren because I know you would adore them and they, you. And time has helped me to remember the good. Yes, for me at least, the bad is the majority, but there are good memories and the good was really good.

So on this 14th anniversary of your death, I want to thank you for the many ways that you loved me. Even though nearly all of these have their tainted edges, I want to remember the good today. I want to say the things that I could not at your funeral.

You knew my love of music from very early on. I do believe that you understood my heart. You also understood that although I struggled (as I did with everything), I should keep at it. You made me practice and didn’t allow me to quit. And when I composed my first little piece (and stole half of it from Bach), you were proud of me.

I truly believe that in the moments that I shared my heart as a child, you truly cared. You listened, you felt deep, loving empathy. I do not believe that it was ever your intention to turn nearly all of my vulnerable moments into shame; that was part of your illness, your long ago corrupted self-defenses.

You liked to hear me sing and play the piano (most of the time).

You raced us once in the driveway and beat us, and you told us about your high school track career, and we loved that you did that with us.

You helped me get my first job at the doctor’s office when I was 11. And coincidentally, I learned the invaluable lesson that I will try to always avoid working in an all-female environment (Lol).

You made me feel special and loved as we took our fast-paced nightly walks together. You told me things that were probably unhealthy for me to know, but they made me feel close to you. And during those times, I could share some of myself with you.

You advocated like a bear when you wanted us to have things for which there was no money: piano lessons, homeschool co-op classes, etc…

The one time that I loved having you as my teacher was when you taught us what we called anatomy, but it was really nursing 101. You taught us with enthusiasm and passion and I’ll never forgot how much I learned. I still use much of that information to figure out the weird stuff with my kiddos and they are convinced that I’m basically a nurse (hahaha!).

You taught me how to work hard. It may not have been in a healthy way, but I learned how to work hard nonetheless.

You made me feel special when I was old enough to stay up late and watch your favorite shows with you: I Love Lucy, ER, and Mr. Bean were many of our favorites. Sometimes, we even ate ice cream with maraschino cherries and coconut.

Once we discovered the 99 cent section of the old movie rental place, you and I shared a special love of black-and-white movies that no one else seemed to share. I accidentally introduced us both to some pretty amazing classics that are still amongst my favorites: Rebecca, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Bringing Up Baby. This led to the hilarious problem that my few teenage crushes were either very advanced in age or dead. We also got a few duds we laughed about later, like The Grass Harp…oh my gosh nothing happens…

You believed me when the unnerving incident occurred at our church. You stood by me when the church leaders accused me of being “on a witch hunt” and that the particular “Godly man” would never do what he did and because you believed me, we left that church.

You showed up to one of my home school high school tennis matches, with all the little kids in tow.

You knew how I loved to be in plays and always encouraged me to do it.

That time we were in the store and you wet your pants because we kept dropping the celery—or was it broccoli?—because there was no bottom to the plastic bag we were trying to put it in. Thank you for your laughter and mischievous sense of humor.

You wrote in your journal after I left home that you “missed the music and happiness that [I] brought to the house.” You said it wasn’t the same once I left.

You came to visit me at college. The one time, you were on your biggest Bipolar high and charming as hell and not at all yourself, but you came and that meant something.

I built up a wall as a teenager, wise to your ways. It was nearly impenetrable, and over the years, I nearly lost a large part of my empathetic self. But I didn’t because I let others in. Some forced their way in, others were patient enough to wait for me to allow them entrance. But you put us with people and in places where there were good people surrounding us.

You kindly offered to buy me a wedding gift that I knew you couldn’t afford: a George Foreman grill. Not because I wanted it, but because you wanted it, and you had trouble with being able to tell the difference. I thought it was generous of you, but I’m glad you didn’t give me anything as I asked.

And when I began to show you loving but impenetrable boundaries as a newly-wed, although you hated me for it at first, you eventually grew accustomed to them. In time, I was able to share with you the small vulnerable things. Things that I knew wouldn’t hurt me much if used against me. I shared with you the shallow “tidal pools” of my heart, to borrow the phrase of a wise friend. But I could never share with you the depths of the ocean within myself because I might not ever fully recover myself from your impending vengeance. But I am thankful for those shallow tidal pools that we shared in safety together.

I hope that you are healed, better, content now in Christ’s loving embrace. I can’t claim to miss you, but I do love you and I look forward to one day seeing you again—this time for the real you, not the one drenched in so much sadness and trauma and propped up by drugs.

A Tale of Two Stories


I’ve been trying to write the story of our adopted kids and how that came about, but I’ve found it to be an impossible task to separate their story from the parallel story of our former foster sons.  In my heart, their stories are not only parallel, but strongly interwoven and nearly inseparable.  It is a two-sided coin: love and joy on one side and sorrow and longing on the other.   But it is a beautiful story that I want to tell you, so I will try my best.

During the height of the Covid lockdown, a few months after the three boys were reunified, I went on a walk with a friend.  At the end of the walk, she asked me what it felt like when the boys left. 

“It feels like the same grief as when someone dies—perhaps a little like a miscarriage.  Everything that you’d imagined and hoped for them is erased and there is a yawning absence.”  But it’s also different.  With a miscarriage, you don’t know the child’s personality.  You haven’t had to look into their eyes and share with them devastating truths that you know most adults couldn’t handle and then hold them as they sob for an hour processing it.  There is no intimate history between you.  You are not sending them back into a potential lion’s den.  The miscarried babe will be perfectly safe in the arms of their loving Creator.  And this, to me, was the worst part.  Against my will, and with my knowledge, they were going back because they’d become too much of a long-term financial burden to the county. It was that simple.  

That day we drove them home, they read farewell notes from their friends at school, cried, and silently stared out the window, their eyes unfocused.  When we arrived, there were balloons and Welcome Home banners and cake.  I had a knot in my throat as we unloaded their things and walked them inside.  They looked like zombies.  They gave us the secret “I love you” signal—three squeezes of the hand—and didn’t watch us leave.  

Earlier this summer, as I sat across from Valerie, our adopted children’s first Mom, she asked me, “I know it was really hard for you when the boys left, so how did you know when you were ready to foster again?”  This is a typical kind of question from her.  She’s an empathetic person who doesn’t shy away from asking hard questions and I appreciate that, as I also have a penchant for asking hard questions.  So when she asked this, knowing even more than I do the pain of giving up children you love to someone else (in her case, that someone being me), I rambled, not really knowing my answer.  After thinking it over later, the most honest answer would be that I didn’t feel ready.

But then, I never feel ready.  I just take a breath and leap. “You never look nervous,” people have told me so many times, when I’m doing something they find terrifying: rock climbing, repelling, or singing in front of people.  They assume I’m not afraid, but that’s never true.  I simply know myself well enough to know that I can’t give myself time to overthink it.  I just have to do it.  It’s going to be imperfect, messy, but it is going to happen.  So it was the same with this decision.  I wasn’t ready, but I don’t know that I would ever would be ready for what might be ahead: more potential heartbreak, sleepless nights, chaos and rages for 6 months, complete mental and physical exhaustion, and calming kids whose nervous systems are constantly telling them they’re in danger and that I am the enemy while also their safe place.  It’s one of the hardest things you could choose to do.  That stepping into the unknown with just enough historical knowledge to know how hard it could be.  

In September of 2020, we reopened our home for potential placements.  This time around though, a few things were different.  

No Girls Allowed

When we first discussed fostering, I’d said no girls ever.  Girls are too much drama, too much unbridled emotion, just too much complication (I wasn’t wrong).   And, although I couldn’t admit it to myself at the time, part of my desire for boys-only was so that I wouldn’t have to confront some of my oldest trauma that our girls might one day potentially face.  Besides, I’d raised mostly boys and was basically a professional boy-mom at this point.  But midway through 2020, as we prepared for our next kiddos to darken our doorstep, I began to think how much my selfish preference for boys was depriving Ethan of a potential father-daughter relationship.  And that can be very special and different than a father-son relationship.  So, I reached out to our family caseworker Sharon, and said, “Here are our parameters: IF there is a girl in the sibling group, the girl must either be a parentified oldest or the youngest.”  We were approved for up to three children ages 2-10 (ish) and that now included girls.

The Premonition

On September 30th, 2020, I awoke, knowing that later that afternoon, our family worker who happened to be stopping by to do our annual home safety inspection, would also be bringing files with her for new kids…THE kids…whoever they were.  Of course, no one had said anything like this, and the likelihood of a caseworker having files in hand for kids we had never discussed, were zero.  But when I know, I know.  Sometimes it sucks, but this wasn’t one of those times.

So I set out on a run with the dog, refreshing my e-mail every few minutes because in every fiber of my being, I knew that today would be the day to take a breath and leap.  Sure enough, midway through my run, I received an e-mail from Sharon.  

“Ethan and Anna,” it read.  “I know this is a sib group of four………however, I wanted to send them your way and see if you might be interested in exploring the possibility of these children.  I did mention briefly your family to this worker as I was describing the families that I have who are potentially open to sibling groups this size and she expressed interest in hearing more about your family. I know I will see you guys this afternoon, but let me know if a sib group of 4 is something you are open to………..”

I opened the flyer attachment and read:

“These FAB FOUR are one of a kind! George and Faye (6) are adorable twins!

Faye lets you know she is the older of the two! Ben (5) and Renee (3) will also

keep you on your toes! This sibling group loves being outside, riding bikes,

climbing on monkey bars and running through the sprinkler. George loves Paw

Patrol, Tweety Bird cartoons and the Superhero Squad. He is a kind and sensitive

boy. Faye loves the Superhero Squad like her twin brother. She enjoys coloring,

doing puzzles and working with Playdough. She is always smiling and is super-sweet.

Ben loves to build things and is very imaginative. He is a cutie and has a charming

smile! Renee loves spending time with her older siblings and likes to be in charge!

She is adorable, loving and has a mind of her own! All of these kids are good

eaters and good sleepers. They are all very verbal, friendly and enjoy the attention

of others. George and Faye are going into Kindergarten this Fall. Ben is in the

Headstart program and is doing very well. He receives speech services but has

made major progress! Fun Fact about these 4…they are learning sign language!

They love learning new things and are adventurous. We are looking for a family

open to birth family contact post adoption, as this sibling group has positive

connections with their birthmother, older half-siblings and extended family. The

County will pursue termination of parental rights once these beautiful children find their forever family.”

The names were changed, and because this was not my first rodeo, I knew to look for the coded red flags.  There were no big ones, just potential smaller ones and it sounded like a great fit for us.  I texted Ethan to check his e-mail and I finished up my run and headed home.  When I got home, he was outside his newly renovated workshop with a grin on his face.  

“Did you see the email?” I asked. “What did you think?”  I could hardly contain myself.

“We should ask for more info,” he said with a smile.

“Am I crazy for thinking this might work?”  I asked.

“Then we’re both crazy because I was thinking the same thing.”  We both laughed and looked at each other like, yeah, we’re 100% cray-cray.

I e-mailed Sharon back and she said she’d try to get their files sent over, but that usually took weeks or months.  When Sharon came for her scheduled visit late that afternoon, she was astounded that they’d gotten her all of the files that same day and in time for scheduled visit.  

“That never happens,” she said.  “It must be God.”  

I just smiled and told her about my premonition upon awakening and she laughed delightedly, perhaps because this wasn’t the first premonition/dream that had happened since I’d known her.  She reminded me of another one I’d told her about the year before when we had the last set of boys.

As we read through the files, I felt strongly that these were THE kids.  Fiona, with her sweet bespectacled face, Giovani and his deep dark eyes, Bo and his mischievous smile, and Revi with her cute chubby cheeks and fiercely stubborn expression.  

Ethan and I didn’t need to look at one another.  After 45 minutes of reading about each child, we simply said, “We’re in” and Sharon set to work.

That night, I dreamed of myself arguing with a 14 year-old Fiona about what she was going to play on piano for a recital.  And because of how that dream felt compared to normal dreams, I knew it was a true one—we would adopt these kids.  Also, now that I know Fiona, that dream might also be super accurate, hahaha.

The Interview

The next step to the process was an interview with the children’s caseworker, the caseworker’s boss, and the state adoption specialist who had written the flyer and all the files for the kids.  This team of people selected several families to interview and needed to decide which family they thought would be the best fit for the kids and their situation. It took several weeks for them to locate all of the candidates and schedule interviews.  

I want to take a moment and remark upon how strange it is—this concept of matching kids with families, reading their files, and interviews to see if you are right for the children.  It feels like a business deal and it’s strange.  

Foster Care Lesson #1: Waiting. I’m going to diverge for a moment longer here and tell you that the most difficult part of foster care is the waiting.  The year before, we waited in dread for the final verdict on the three boys.  Oddly enough, my most free days to pray the rosary back then were Tuesdays and Fridays—the days of the Sorrowful Mysteries.  I seemed to be stuck in the Mystery of the Garden of Gethsemane, praying alongside Jesus, “May this cup be taken from me if it is Thy will.”  And yet this time around, as God would have it, I was stuck now in the Joyful Mysteries (Mondays and Saturdays).  I tried not to think too much on it, but the natural rhythms of life that seemed to be tied to the Rosary were hard to miss.

But I didn’t want to get my hopes up.  Hope mostly leads to pain.  Each time we’d gotten our hopes up before that someone, anyone, would do the right thing for the boys, they chose not to.  They all chose short-term convenience and to uphold the bureaucratic financial status-quo.  So it was better not to hope.

Finally, our interview day arrived.   I was so nervous.  Ethan always interviews well.  Heck, he’s been in podcasts, TV, radio, newspapers.  But me?  What if I come off as the weird, awkward person that I am?

It didn’t take long in the interview before we got into a groove.  We shared our previous experience with our last foster sons, their special needs and how we cared for them, our experiences with Nicolas, and our love for the outdoors and physical activity and our philosophy of the importance of outdoor play for foster kids.  We also talked about how we worked hard at being able to keep them connected to their extended family throughout.  As long as the children are safe, we both strongly believe that keeping kids connected with their biological family (first family) is very important.  We later learned that this was one of the deciding factors that made us standout from the other families interviewed.  We had a track-record of a good relationships with biological family members.  

It became abundantly clear that had we not experienced the things that we did (the good and the bad), it would be unlikely we’d be considered this time around as candidates. God’s plan isn’t always clear, but when we see small glimpses, it’s astounding.

At the end of the interview, one the caseworkers asked, “Do you have any questions for us?”

I don’t remember if Ethan had any questions, but if he did, I’m sure they were astute.  But for once, I had one.  

“Do the kids have a say of whether or not someone is right for them?”  They all looked at one another for a moment.

“No one’s ever asked that before,” one of them said. “Yes, I guess they do.  I mean, if they really didn’t like you, we’d take it under consideration, but it would just depend.”

“Okay, thank you.” I said. “I was just curious.”

The interview ended and more waiting ensued.  But this time, we only had to wait a few days.  We got the call that we were chosen as the best fit for these children.  Afterwards, one of the caseworker’s said that they were impressed with how relaxed and genuine we were.  I wasn’t relaxed, but I have a good poker face when it comes to hiding my anxiety apparently…and both of us are too lazy to put in the work to be disingenuous, so you get what you get.  If you like us, great.  If not, join the club.

Our First Meeting

As we prepared to meet the kids for the first time, I was so nervous.  We drove the hour and forty minutes to the group home that they’d lived in since May, 2019, me feeling the excited jitters the entire time.  We first saw them out on their scooters and bikes.  They were all very tiny and the cutest kids we’d ever seen.  And even though I love kids, I’ve never been one to think that kids are cute.  I know, super weird, right?  But these kids were adorable—even to me.  

We went inside where they were playing in what was called the “Sensory Room.”  It had monkey bars, padded floors, a swing, a small rock wall, large building blocks, and coloring books: a kid paradise.  I don’t remember too many details except that we all had to wear masks and the kids had tons of energy.  I also remember they were puzzled and believed us to be slightly magical by the fact we knew their names already.  I also remember Bo doing dangerous leaps off of high places and miraculously not breaking his neck.  I would soon learn, from tales of his group home dad, that this was typical Bo.  And lastly, I remember Revi trying to con me right away into taking her to get water from the water fountain down the hall.  I checked with her group home dad, Tom, and he confirmed that nope, she wasn’t going anywhere.  Haha, nice try mini-me!  She didn’t care for being told no, so she ignored me after that and batted her cute little eyes at Ethan.  It didn’t work then either.  She was going to have a frustrating existence with adults that communicate.

After the two hours were done, their Adoption Specialist and caseworker Caroline spoke with us in the parking lot.  “What do you think?  Are you interested in pursuing this?  You can go home and think it over and let us know.”

Ethan and I smiled at each other.  “We’re all in.  It’s a yes.”

Caroline raised her eyebrows like we were so weird and gave a kind but befuddled smile. “Well okay then.  Onto the next step.” 

Meeting Their Mom

“You’re gonna love this woman,” the Adoption specialist Megan informed me.  “She talks fast when she’s nervous, so just try to keep up.”  I have some auditory processing issues, so I have a hard time keeping up with fast talkers and especially if they have any type of accent.  There were many times that I didn’t understand what she said and felt stupid having to ask her to say it time and again, but she was very gracious.  What astounded me was the fact that we had so much in common.  She grew up in a dysfunctional family of 11, knows from experience what a personality disorder is, knows herself well, has a quirky sense of humor, and is an empathetic realist.  As I later told her, she is a chimera parent in the foster care world.  Many parents whose kids are in foster care are unrealistic with themselves and are grappling with denial about their own problems.  But Valerie was not like that. She knows herself and makes no bones about how she had arrived at this point. I really do feel for the parents and find that I have a great deal of compassion toward them all.  Yes, their own actions brought them to this point, but they usually have no support system for one reason or another. I really wish that our social support system was more proactive to help families before they get to the point of desperation.

“You know, Anna,” Valerie said in her thick Philly accent, “Megan told me all about you and Ethan and now that I’ve met you, well, I just have a good feeling about youse guys.”  

Not long after that, she did something unimaginably difficult: she signed away her rights as their mom.  I try daily to honor her sacrifice by loving her kids and being the most present mom as I can be for them.  It’s humbling.


On January 29, 2021 the kids came to live with us.  They had visited us each weekend since November, and we had been waiting to get the stamp of approval from the judge for them to move in more permanently.  In typical foster care fashion, we drove out to have what we thought would be a two hour visit, and 2 minutes before we arrived, we received the call telling us they’d be moving in today.  Their group home parents threw things together and we stuffed every possible thing into the car, knowing we’d have to drive back to pick up the rest another time.  And that’s Foster Care Lesson #2—Nothing ever goes according to plan.  Prepare to have your life constantly upended.

This time around, things were different.  Different kids, different life, different needs.  I don’t love the relearning period because it’s hard.  Although I tried very hard not to compare these four sweet kids to our three former foster sons, there were some things that took me a long time to get used to.  First, my parenting style has to be much more direct and firm for these kids to feel safe and loved.  If I use my normal gentle voice, it doesn’t seem to register for them that I’m serious.  They have to have even more structure and routine than our previous foster sons.  But the most stark difference was that these children were naive and innocent.  They were the closest to being typical children that we’d ever had in our home.  Their Mom had loved them and had done what she could for them.  Then, they lived in a group home with group home parents that loved them dearly.  They were not severely neglected nor were they abused.  They were inexperienced and sheltered in many ways.  It was endearing, but I found myself unable to connect deeply and quickly as I had before.  

I struggled within myself because I missed the depth that trauma had hollowed out in the hearts and minds of our former foster sons.  We had experienced similar enough trauma that we intuitively knew each other’s hearts, many times speaking volumes with our eyes.  When some of my brothers met our former foster sons, they all commented that the boys seemed just like more of our siblings.  It was true.  Throughout the day and night, we would have conversations about loss, grief, forgiving the unforgivable, God, miracles, prayers that weren’t answered, and things that no kid should have to dwell upon…and that was our normal.  

Ethan, however, was able to relate much more to these kids and was immediately comfortable and fully in love.  For the most part, they were happy kids.  I found myself so happy for these children, that they did not have to carry around these heavy burdens of trauma, but it was so difficult for me not to be able to relate.  I knew it was my problem and I had to work it out.  I was still deeply grieving the fate of our former foster sons and I returned to therapy as soon as things began to open up.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully give my heart to these kids while needing to finish grieving.  And they deserved a whole-hearted parent.

And no matter how healthy children are, if you are separated from your first family, that is trauma enough.  And the one that bears the brunt of those feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, and separation, is the mother figure.  It’s always difficult, especially with young children to whom you cannot yet share with them the truth.   Much of their fury and fear and feelings of betrayal are heaped upon the new mom and it’s so difficult at times; especially those first 6 months, where there is no trust built up, and no subconscious expectation of your consistency.  Did they have a bad day at school?  Your fault.  They couldn’t find that thing they misplaced?  You stole it and threw it in the trash because you’re evil.  You get the idea.  You, as the mom, are both the enemy and—thanks to evolutionary biology—the safe one.  

Now, thanks to time and consistency, we’re no longer there as often.  But life is cyclical and those furies spiral back, but thankfully, with less power and frequency each successive reiteration.  

Another difference was time.  We didn’t have to try and squeeze everything into this small amount of time, knowing that at any moment, they might be returning.  This time, we could take our time and if these kids needed extra therapies, we didn’t have to do it immediately, knowing that it would be discontinued the moment they returned home. 

Lesson #3 of Foster Care: you have to play by their (Child Services) rules. And if you do, you probably will only get a fraction of services your kids need.  Your job is to both fight for your foster children and be willing to play the game.  And if the kids get too financially unwieldy because they need too many services, the kids could be removed at any moment.

After the year mark, the kids started to really settle in.  I began to see glimpses of our new norm and it was lovely.  There was now a deep love between us and it was showing in all of us.   We felt happy.  And as we drew closer to our adoption date and everything looked like it might really happen, my jaded self just waited for the other shoe to drop.  

And that’s when we got a phone call about the plight of our last foster sons.  Things had gone very badly for them and a family member stepped in and took them.  And would we be willing to take on the legal fight to become permanent guardians in the future should anything happen to their current caregiver?  This, this was the worst-case-scenario that had been lurking in the back of my mind since they left our home.  Every part of me, says that this is the definition of an IMPOSSIBLE ask.  I can’t do this.  Physically, I can’t.  Mentally and emotionally, I can’t even imagine it.

And yet.  And yet, we can’t say no.  We love them and they love us and tell us so every time we see them.  They say things like, “You’re the most like a mom and a dad that we ever had.  And is it okay if we think of you like that?”  They tell us about how they wept every night for months and still dream about living at our house with us.  And they have no one else.  So we pray for the continued health of their current caregiver and see them whenever we can.  We agreed to take them on if anything ever happened to their caregiver. On a side note, they get along pretty well with our kids too, so that’s good.

Lesson #4 of Foster Care: An exercise in futility. Sometimes foster care is about being stabbed in the heart repeatedly with sewing needles: not enough to kill you, just enough to drain you of the will to keep fighting while being asked to document everything…and that careful documentation will likely remain in an unopened folder on someone’s dust-laden desk.

But enough of that.  This is a happy story with the parallel story that’s getting me off-track.

The moments leading up to the adoption, Ethan and I remained skeptical that it would really happen.  And then it did happen and it was most ethereal set of moments.  But this joy also had pain attached to it.  I couldn’t help but think of Valerie and her sacrifice.  I couldn’t help but think of the last court date with our former foster sons, and how it had gone so badly.

So here we are right now, the kids are adopted, and we are falling more and more deeply in love with the kids.  I can be whole with them, no longer having to withhold parts of myself.  They give me so much joy.  They like my weirdness and think I’m funny. I love calling them my kids. They are starting to call me “Mom”–something I’ve never asked of them but presented as an option if they chose. They want hugs and kisses and snuggles now.  They know how to play and are able to use their imaginations.  I look back at how far they’ve come and I know the purposeful cultivation it took to get where we are. 

I do not regret for a moment that I said yes to girls because they are delightful and two bright treasures for sure.  They are also dramatic and complicated and really, too much like me (aka extremely stubborn), but truly wonderful. And yes, they’ve made me a better person.  And good grief are they fierce!

The boys are sensitive and full of life.  They are the first to express their feelings and keep us on our toes.  Giovani is very much like me in that he’s cautious, sensitive, a slow and steady person, and loves the idea of routine.  Bo is very much like Ethan: sensitive, adventurous, and passion incarnate.

They have three older half siblings who love them and are very kind. Their mom is a friend to me. I know this is not always possible for some adoptive families, but we are so grateful for the kindness of their first family and the trust that they have placed in us to care for their siblings/children.

Last night, we went to church and the kids sang up in the choir loft, while I prayed the rosary down below.  Their sweet little voices filled the church and brought tears to my eyes because they seem truly happy and content.  And I love to watch them out the window while I cook dinner and see them building forts, running around in their little super hero capes and masks, while someone else pretends to be a horse pulling a sled and another is creating new dances and composing songs with the neighbor.  And I feel, for the first time in a very long time, that all feels right with the world.  I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

And I try to keep my mind and heart on the here and now.

5 Years Later: On My Catholic Conversion

Never for one second have I regretted my decision to become Catholic.  Within its theology, I have found more challenge, more vastness, more embrace of the whole of me.  And I’m not exaggerating when I say that the last five years have been the most challenging of my life and if I had not become Catholic, I don’t know how I could’ve made it through. 

The Challenge of Purgatory

Before you understand what I’m about to say, you must know what purgatory is and what it is not.  It is not hell.  If you are familiar with the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14) where many are invited but no one comes, and then everyone from the streets is invited, except each must “wash and put on a new garment” before joining the wedding feast.  That is purgatory.  It is the place where, before we enter heaven, we must be purified, putting on the new garment in order to join the feast.  It is a time of purification. But purification is never easy nor is it desirable.  

Knowing that then, I’m going to tell you something very personal.  For the first three years of being Catholic, I kept telling myself that I didn’t know what to pray for those in purgatory.  I wasn’t even sure how sold I was on the idea of purgatory.  And specifically, I didn’t know what to pray for my mom.  

For awhile, I believed my own excuses until I really asked myself why.  Why was I so hesitant to pray for her soul? Was it really that I didn’t know what to say?  But no, the truth was simpler than that.  The truth was, I didn’t want to pray for her.  I had forgiven her over and over while she was alive, but that final step of praying for her while she was suffering for her sins, seemed to be a step too far.  There was a deeply buried part of me, that thought it fitting that she suffer for the things that she did while she was alive.  This praying for her in purgatory was one step further than forgiveness.  It was wanting and praying for her full redemption and it took me 4 years of being Catholic to finally do it.

I know how horrible that sounds because it is horrible.  I am a sinner and I’ve got a front-row seat to knowing how dark the crevices of my heart can be.  Which leads me to the next beautiful and much needed part of Catholicism.

Reconciliation (aka Confession)

“I’m going in for spiritual my tune up,” our wonderfully eccentric friend Sam once said, while waiting in the confessional line.

As a child, before I knew God, I became very aware of my sins.  I went around to my siblings asking forgiveness for all of the things I could think of that I’d done: lying, stealing, bossing, etc…I confessed to the adults around me that would listen.  Particularly, my friend and my Dad’s friend and coworker, Larry.  I got in trouble one particular evening because I skipped choir to confess my sins to him.  For a little while, I would feel relief for having voiced these things.  And this need to have a physical confession to someone else and not just to God is still within me.  

Although I get nervous before every confession, it is so freeing.  I know that I am forgiven by God and that it doesn’t require a priest, but you know what?  I think that people are created for physical confession.  Protestants have accountability partners, and it’s very similar.  For me, to hear the priest say, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Is a beautiful thing.  Not only that, but to be given a penance and knowing that the priest is also doing a penance on my behalf is so comforting.

Mind, Spirit, Body

Speaking of physical acts, I love this aspect of the Catholic church.  Whether crossing ourselves, kneeling, confessing, bowing, standing, the smell of incense, or something larger like a pilgrimage, the physical body is an integral part of worship.  Each physical act has a meaning and a purpose and I appreciate that.


“It sucks that I pray ‘Thy will be done’ and mean it,” I told my priest not long ago, “because then he goes and asks something even harder of me every single time.  And good grief, it’s been such a hard last few years.”

“Jesus wouldn’t speak of taking up crosses if it was easy,” he gave his small smile.  This particular priest is one of my favorite confessors.  He has personally been through so much suffering himself and he takes his own faith very seriously in his quiet way.

During some of the hardest times in our lives, we felt fully loved and fully embraced by our church family.  This is not to say that we haven’t felt loved by those in other churches, but many times, it was only in the parts with which they could personally identify.  In our church now, they wept with us in our grief—sometimes weeping for us when our numbness was too great–and rejoiced with us in the good things.

One dear man, who has battled cancer for many years, and who is still in the throes of cancer treatment, hobbled over to me one day, tears in his eyes.  “I offered up my cancer suffering for you, Ethan, and your boys.”  I stammered my way through a thanks, my chest feeling hit by a brick, but at the time, I was too numb to cry.  The idea of offering up your own suffering on behalf of another is such a beautiful and humbling thing.  

But joy and suffering go hand-in-hand.  They are inseparable.  The deeper our grief, the more expansive our joy. And just as we grieved together the boy’s leaving (and what has turned out to be further trauma for them as we’d feared), our church family celebrated with us every step along the way of meeting our now adopted kids and supporting us.


Spending time in the same room with Jesus is pretty much exactly what I need every week.  Early on Saturday mornings, me and Jesus hang out.  I pray, I try my best to listen, and I tell him things.  He’s a great listener, and as hard as I can be on myself, Jesus never is.  He asks things of me, hard things sometimes, sure, but he always offers to be there with me.  I’m so thankful for this dedicated alone time with Jesus.  This cherished time to adore him.

The Acceptance of the Body of Christ

I love that within just our parish, we have the pentecostal types, the lace head coverings, and starched-suit types, the hangover late-to-Mass-college types, the large Catholic family types, the families who never have it together and whose kids have never seen a hairbrush, the families who always have it together, the guy who brings his homemade wine to choir practice, the ladies who spend their lives as caregivers to disabled family members.  There are blue collar workers, white collar workers, stay-at-home moms, farmers, migrant workers, and refugees.  There are CEO’s, entrepreneurs, politicians, and teachers.  And they all bring their own beautiful uniqueness to form the church.  

One of my favorite things I’ve witnessed over and over and somehow, it still surprises me every time, is radical acceptance.  A few years ago, a girl came in wearing short shorts, and a tank top and sat down in the pew two rows in front of me.  The older lady in front of me leaned over to the woman next to her and I fully expected the usual judgment I’ve heard so often in churches.  Instead, I heard, “Look at that.  That’s Helen’s daughter.  I’m so glad to see she’s here.”  No judgment in her voice, only joy.

Not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s a beautiful, imperfect, fully-embraced mess of people and I’m thankful to have found it.

Rejoicing and Mourning: Rambling Reflections on 2020

Sometimes you just need to grab a hand and leap through the flames.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”  In so many ways, this seemed to be 2020’s tagline.  I witnessed those thriving more than ever before, and those struggling more than ever to survive.  It was a both/and kind of year.  And as it drew to a close, I thought back with deep gratitude, realizing that for me, it was a deeply healing year.  But it began by emerging from survival mode.

My Mom always told me the story about how, not long after my second birthday, I turned in my pink security blanket and told her I wouldn’t need it anymore because I was grown up now and to prove how much of a big girl I was, I would stop sucking my thumb too. Mom kept the blanket at the ready for when I changed my mind.  But as days turned to weeks and then months, and I never again mentioned my blanket and never again sucked my thumb, she reluctantly accepted that her little girl had indeed grown up.  This iron resolve of mine, or if I’m being honest in my labelling, my stubbornness, has never flagged. And, as my favorite neurotic detective (Monk) is known to say, “It’s a blessing and a curse.”  

During 2018 and 2019, my stubbornness was a blessing and essential.  It was two years of white-knuckle resolve for survival.  2018 had also been stressful, but 2019 made 2018 look like a frolic in the meadow.  But—and here’s where it’s a curse—my stubbornness that was imperative for those years suddenly became a hindrance in 2020.  I couldn’t seem to relax from my constant vigilance and ridiculous amounts of stress.  

There were no more late night paranoid phone calls about hallucinatory homeless people trying to break in.  No more meetings with lawyers. No more filing endless reports and paperwork in every spare moment.  No more driving all over the face of the earth to and from therapy appointments.  No more counting the minutes until bedtime.  No more steady stream of kid-noise or making silly faces to get easy laughs. No more pretending that the newly conjured knock-knock jokes made sense and were TOTALLY funny.  The end of January 2020 (which was the conclusion of 2019) was a jolt, a falling-into-frigid-water shock. I was caregiver to 3 young kids and one young adult, and then suddenly, I wasn’t.  The quiet I had yearned for so long now just felt like an empty void.  And yet, I couldn’t enjoy the stillness because my body was stuck in stubborn-resolve mode.  

So I kept myself busy with home renovations and reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I thought to myself, if only the world would just stop for a minute so that I would be forced to catch my breath. And then exactly that happened.  The world ground to a halt and overnight, became a place barely recognizable.  That was not what I was hoping for, but it did strip away the distractions, and that helped me to begin healing.  

For me, healing usually looks like getting sick, which is exactly what happened.  First it was a several month CFS flare up then something else happened.  Although there are still no definite answers, the best guess is that I had appendicitis and something else unknown.  And much to the shock of my gastroenterologist, after my colonoscopy, my IBS seems to be completely gone. I’ve had it for most of my life and I’ve had no problems for nearly 7 months.  I wrote about praying for miracles back in June, and although this was not an option on my radar, I’ll take it!  Thank you, Lord.  There is still one unsolved painful mystery, but that requires surgery that is deemed “elective” and no hospitals are doing those, so I’ll just wait.  

I was able to take time to grieve when and how I needed to.  I hiked often and I started learning Spanish.  I read a lot.  I composed.  I wrote. I helped Ethan with tons of renovations/construction.  I tended our lovely garden and I was conscripted to work for our church’s streaming/audio/visual team that Ethan spear-headed (because Catholic churches are operating in the dark-ages, technologically speaking).  I spent a couple days a month getting my mind off of me and onto others (this is something I’ve found is really important for me to help me stay grounded) by packing and delivering food to needy families in rougher sections of town, and making bi-weekly phone calls to elderly shut-ins.  But by far, the most healing and wonderful part of 2020 was spending Thursday’s with God in the perpetual adoration chapel. For my non-Catholic friends, perpetual adoration is where the Host (the literal body of Christ) is placed upon the alter, and as the name implies, people sign up for 1 hour time slots to sit in the literal presence of Christ and adore Him so that prayers are being offered 24 hours of every day.  There a several things that I wanted to share with you from some of those times.

At some point during the summer, as we grew closer to opening up our home once more to children, and I sat telling Jesus about my fear of fostering again, Jesus brought to mind Peter.  “You’re like him sometimes, you know.”  

“Ew, no thanks,” I thought.  Of all the disciples, I wanted to be like the beloved John or the practical James, not Peter.  Peter was always shooting his mouth off in an ignorant and brash kind of way.  He was ridiculously stubborn.  Okay, okay, I can see that one.  And Peter also took more risks than anyone else, thinking he was ready when he clearly wasn’t.  

“Yes,” Jesus reminded me, “but he was the only one willing to step out of the boat into the storm.  You can’t always feel ready for that first step onto the water. You just have to trust me that I’ll pick you up as I did Peter, when your strength is used up and you’re sinking.”

I looked over at a picture that hangs to one side of the altar, and realized for the first time, the artist probably had that very moment in mind when he painted Hippie Jesus. I call it Hippie Jesus because he’s got a feathery 70’s Fara Fawcett hairdo.  He is smiling compassionately and extending his nailed-scarred hands toward the viewer. It’s the same look that a parent gives their child when they’ve told them it’s a bad idea because they’re not ready, but allows it because said child is stubborn and going to do it anyway, and then when the child inevitably hurts himself, the parent compassionately smiles with a hint of I-told-you-so, but picks the child up anyway and encourages him to try again.  “You trusted me last year to hold you up when you were drowning in what seemed like an impossible task. I was there for you then and will be always.  Trust me.  I have good things for you.”  And I saw myself as a scared child reaching out a tentative hand.  I felt deeply the Psalm that says, “I will give thanks to your name because of your kindness and your truth. When I called, you answered me; you built up strength within me.” 

At another time, as I prayed about all of the hatred that seems to be so pervasive right now, I had to own up to some anger I was holding onto.  And then I sat, trying to still myself enough to listen.  “It’s hard to hate up close,” Jesus gently reminded me.  “Get closer.”  And Jesus, as always, was right.  So, I went and spent some time with the people that had hurt me (don’t worry, outside and properly distanced), and you know what?  It’s true.  I’ve never been able to stay mad when I’m looking someone in the eye and they’re sharing their hardships with me.  And then it hit me. 

The collective behavior I’ve seen during 2020 brings me back to the greatest challenge of foster-parenting.  Each moment of my day is spent calming children’s central nervous systems so that they are no longer living in a constant primal state of fight/flight/freeze.  It’s hard sometimes too because these fearful kids just seem angry, have control issues and temper tantrums.  They live in a perpetual state of victimhood because they feel out of control.  And victimhood is the ultimate empathy killer.

But it’s not kids acting that way.  In 2020, it’s all of us adults.  It’s been shocking to observe the many smart, rational people become these angry, completely unrecognizable and irrational people.  It is a natural, physiological response for us to act angry and irrational when we are living in fearful, out-of-control survival mode.  The problem is, that state of being makes it completely impossible for us to have empathy for others.  And empathy is what we need most right now; that ability to rejoice with those rejoicing, while simultaneously mourning with those who mourn.  

These realizations helped me to look at people differently and instead of desiring a verbal sparring match on social media or getting frustrated, it helped me realize I need to pray more for others, and perhaps pass on some of the things I’ve learned as a foster parent, as a reader of holocaust memoirs, and as one who has spent plenty of time in survival mode. So here goes…

  1. Own your feelings and actions, name your fears, and work to stop being the victim in your own mind.  When you are able to verbalize your fears, they lose their power over you, and you don’t have to keep being the victim. Remember: you are responsible for your reactions and choices. No one else.
  2. Narrow your focus to right here, right now.  Not the past, not the future, not others, just  I picture all of the times I was so sick and had to focus on one step at a time and that’s it.
  3. Find something that gives you a sense of control.  Whether it’s taking control of your inner thought life (praying or meditating), or an outward physical action (gardening, cleaning, working out, turning off the news or social media), find something that gives you a sense of contribution.  It can be tiny.  On my worst days, I write a to-do list filled with things I wouldn’t think of not doing, just so I can cross it off and feel productive: wake up, make coffee, etc…  
  4. Find something to be grateful for each day.  Most people in survival mode struggle with this because they are always on the lookout for the bad and have trained their brain’s receptive pathways to be alert for the bad, so practicing gratitude is really important to retrain your brain.  Being grateful also makes you happier.
  5. Find a purpose or a way to feel useful or to give back. Again, even tiny things can make a HUGE difference.
  6. Find something/someone to hope in or for.  Every Holocaust survivor has someone or something that they said helped them stay alive, no matter how bad things became. Whether it was their belief in God, the importance of their work, or a loved one.
  7. Remember that now is not forever and this is not normal.  One thing that gave me inestimable comfort and joy was being able to go outside where life was “normal.”  The birds still sang, the trees still gave their shade, and the flowers still bloomed.  Holocaust survivors also mention how strange and yet comforting it was that the earth continued along its normal seasonal path, despite their feeling that their personal world was ending.  
  8. If you can’t feel empathy for someone, then go through the motions of it.  That’s right, fake it ’til you make it.  With our foster kids, we taught them to consider how someone else feels, knowing that they’d be parroting this behavior for years before internalizing any of it.  And that’s okay because the practice of it is what matters.  Feelings are fickle, it’s your mind that you’re training. And with enough time and practice, maybe you’ll be able to actually feel empathy as well.

So as 2020 closed out, and 2021 has begun, I encourage you to keep on keeping on and give a little more grace as you can, because frankly, we’re all just a bunch of scared children desiring some measure of control.

2020: Praying for Miracles

Miracle is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in this way.  1 : an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs (the healing miracles described in the Gospels). 2 : an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment (The bridge is a miracle of engineering).

This year has been filled with the unexpected.  On a global, national, and personal level.  It has left me praying for miracles—for others.  Not for me.  Never for me.  But we’ll return to that in a moment.

In March, I found myself struggling with constant GI pain that began a week before everything shut down.  The timing was unfortunate, to say the least.  

“We’ll send you for an ultrasound, but you’ll have to wait for the hospital to call you,” was what the doctor told me.

A month passed by and the pain grew much worse—I was barely eating or sleeping.  The hospital never called, so I called the hospital.  They scheduled the ultrasound, but it was 2 weeks out.  I called my doctor, and all of the doctors were out on vacation, but at the end of Friday, the Physician’s Assistant called me and said, “It sounds like appendicitis, so I’m going to call you in some antibiotics and see if that works.  If your pain gets worse or your fever gets any higher, get to the hospital right away.”

A week later, I finally got in to see the doctor who ran blood tests and sent me for a CT scan.  But by then, the antibiotics had done their work and the massive swelling had gone down, some pain was gone, and my fever had lessened.  “You definitely had tons of inflammation and infection,” she confirmed after looking at the blood tests.  Yeah, I know.  I was there.  “We just don’t know what was infected or why.”

So, she sent me to another doctor who in turn, finally sent me to a GI specialist.  After regaling him with the details of my annoying saga, he gave a befuddled laugh and said, “You have a very strange body.”  Yeah.  I’ve been informed of that for most of my life.  He ran a few more blood tests and told me to come back in a few weeks if the pain didn’t magically resolve.

So, it’s almost July and I still have no answers and am still in pain.  To use the current buzzword, it’s a little triggering as I’ve been through all of this before.  The endless frustration of waiting for 3 1/2 years, and finally receiving a diagnosis of a little understood incurable, chronic illness.  That was disappointing.

So, when I found myself in the garden, and praying fervently for others in our broken world, God asked, “Why haven’t you asked me for a miracle for yourself yet?”

I came up short.  I thought back and had to admit to myself that I have avoided praying for myself or anything that I want.  But why?  And then, as I found myself yanking up weeds with ferocity, I admitted it: I felt duped.  And then, laughing at my own foolishness, I thought of how, alongside those past prayers for miracles I’d also prayed “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” just as fervently, secretly hoping that God’s will was aligned with mine (not the other way around).  The irony doesn’t escape me.

And if anyone had driven by right then, they’d see a crazy person, talking to herself and crying, like a petulant child throwing a tantrum, because her dad didn’t give her what she wanted.  I listed my litany of grievances to God because asking for miracles shouldn’t be so freakin’ complicated.  

“I asked you for a miracle when I was so sick last time,” I started.  “I asked for healing.  And what did you do?  You gave me a sickness that I can’t fix, that no one can.  You gave me something that slows me down, forces me to face my inabilities and weaknesses daily.  I have to do less, ask for more from you and others.  That’s not the miracle I wanted.

“If I ask for a miracle this time with my sickness, what should I expect?

“Last year, I begged you for a miracle for the boys.  My heart was—still is—broken, and what did you give me?  A dream.  Before I ever even met them or knew who they were, you told me that I could never call them mine.  So I asked you for that to be untrue, for that dream to be just a dream…but I knew it wasn’t.  I told no one.  I asked for you to let us keep them.  And what miracle did you give me then?  You helped me to find love for the people who hurt them time and again.  You helped me understand and love them in their broken humanity because their brokenness called to mine.  You changed my heart to want them to be successful caregivers, to know that they are cared about by others.  That’s not the miracle I wanted.  

“I begged for your help in teaching Nick to make better choices.  But he’s in jail, and has suffered so much there.  He is starting to change, but does it have to be like this?  I prayed for miracles, but this is not how I’d envisioned them.  

“And then there’s Jeremy.  I don’t even know where he is right now.  Is he in jail, homeless, in a mental hospital, or has Charmaine found him once more, and like a guardian angel, taken him into her halfway house again until he wanders off once more when his meds stop working? She is not the miracle that I imagined, but her love for the most broken certainly is.

“And then there’s Mom. I prayed for you to heal Mom from her depression my entire life, but she remained depressed and suicidal until the moment she died.  She’s healed with you, I know, but that was not the miracle I’d wanted.”  

And there it was, some of my deepest griefs and fears laid bare.  And as I considered what God had done, I realized that he did do miracles and they were beautiful, but they took massive amounts of pain and sometimes sacrifice.  He changed me, not necessarily the things around me.  

I prayed for the first time this year, for miracles for me, whatever that means.  I prayed that God will prepare my heart for the next set of kiddos that darken our doorway, whether they are here forever or for just a short time. I prayed for a doctor who could figure me out.  I pray that I’ll have the energy to fight for our next kiddos as hard as I did for the last, that I won’t instinctively guard my heart from them, that I will love them through their pain.  

As the time draws near for us to open our home once more to new children, I’m excited and nervous for that next phone call when our lives will completely change once more.  There will be the hard period where we relearn these next kids, their traumas, their likes, their dislikes, and start to help them trust, one moment at a time, perhaps for the first time.  Maybe they’ll have been starved, abused, or abandoned. Perhaps they’ll act out violently or hoard food.  But I’m praying for strength.  

And as I think about myself and my own need for miracles, I think of everyone else enduring this profound year of 2020.  I see the turmoil as a hopeful and redemptive phase; birth-pangs of the miracles that are to come.  Some say the end of the world is near, and they throw up their hands and wait.  I say, what does that change for me?  Nothing.  I’m still going to hope, to do, to pray that others hope and that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves (hopes, dreams, time, whatever else) for the love of God and others. 

It is our duty as Christ-followers to be those who hope and pray for redemption by being actively redeemed.  But many times, our own self-righteousness, fear, and anger cause “even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion…we have to be stonecatchers.”—Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

2020 might not be the year we want, but maybe it’s the year we need. Now is the time for compassion.  Shall we pray for miracles and be the stonecatchers together?

Thoughts on Being a Mom Never Called Mom and the Importance of Trust-Based Parenting

I’ve been called many things by the kids I’ve raised: Mama Nina, Nina, Anna, Miss Anna—but I’ve never had the title “Mom” because in the fostering world, and in our family growing up, that title is one of contention.  Growing up, it was taboo to speak of me doing the job of a mom, because it would hurt my Mom.

But to me, the title means nothing because I know something that other parents either don’t know or are able to take for granted: it’s the trust your kids place in you that matters, not what they call you.  It’s all in how they say your name that matters and the love in their eyes when they look at you.  My favorite pictures of my siblings and all of my foster kiddos are the ones where I’m behind the camera. They’re looking at me and it is that special smile that I never seem to see in pictures that others take of them—and that is more than enough.

First, a little history if you don’t already know my story.  I’ve been parenting off and on since I was 6 years old.  I raised several of my siblings (5) until I left for college at 19.  You may also know that my husband and I became guardians to my youngest brother in 2013 and had another brother live with us for a year.  For the past 13 months, we fostered 5 young boys (2 for a short time, 3 for 13 months) that we had hoped to adopt.  And last month, they were reunited with family.

Currently, the house is quiet.  The quietest it’s been since 2012…and I’m okay with it.  People keep asking me how I’m doing through the grieving process. I’m appreciating a break after a super stressful year, but this separation from the children that I’ve cared for and love deeply is not a new experience. The difference being, I can talk about it this time. 

You see, I felt exactly the same way when I left my siblings at home and went away to college.  I imagine it’s how people feel when they are empty-nesters…only they generally know their children are safe…but there was no such guarantee for my siblings.  And who could I share this with?  What other college student would understand?  I was 19, felt like a complete pretender at college anyway (because I’d homeschooled myself in the moments I wasn’t teaching my siblings or working and had huge gaping holes in my academics), and I worried constantly about my kids that weren’t mine.  One of my brothers, refused to eat for the first 3 days after I left and cried himself to sleep each night, asking if I was going to come home soon.  That was heart-wrenching.  So I did what I could to keep the attachment alive: I called every few days, wrote letters, and purposefully bombed choir/chamber auditions that first year just so that I wouldn’t have to go on tour and could go home instead.  

So letting go of these kiddos this time around, felt no different.  It was still hard, but the mettle of my heart has been tested before and I know its strength because really, I’m heavily relying on Christ’s boundless strength.

So why am I saying all of this?  Well, I suppose that I fully realized this year what I’d intuitively known since I was a kid: my 7 brothers, 1 sister and I grew up with all of the same issues that foster kids/orphans have.  I got to see it all play out before my eyes each day as my husband and I fostered. I hope that the experiences of my own past can help each child that comes through our home and perhaps other parents.

I’d like to share some important things that we learned along the way.  Some of them, we learned from books (I’ll put links at the bottom).  Many of them I drew on from my own experiences.  Others, we learned from the classes that we took in preparation for fostering licensing.  Many of these will apply whether you have your own biological kids, foster kids, adopted kids, or even no kids at all.

Please know that this is simply to share a condensed version of the most important things that we’ve learned–not everything. And this is certainly not to brag or say that we know it all.  It’s also not to put down my own parents (whom I love very much and I know tried their best with what they knew at the time–what I think all parents desire to do), but to share pieces of my own story–“the why” behind what I’ve learned. Parents need to help each other in whatever ways we can through sharing what we’ve learned.  I’m hoping that this will give encouragement, maybe prompt new ideas.

A few things to keep in mind…

1) The best thing you can do for your kids is to work through your own issues.  Face them, name them, practice daily defying those demons from your past because if you don’t face them of your own volition, your kids will unwittingly force you to.  This is the most important thing I learned from foster-parenting classes, but it’s something all parents should know.

2) Building trust is everything.  This is the gist of most parenting books.

3) Parenting traumatized kids is like living in a backwards world.  When you naturally think you should punish, that might be the best time to do love and grace instead.  You learn to do the opposite of your instincts fairly often.  The more your child trusts you, the worse their behaviors will become because they will be testing to see how much you really love them.

For You, the Parent

Know your personal priorities

What do you need to do for yourself to help you be a good parent?  For me, I need alone time each day or I will not be even remotely close to being a good mom.  Ethan needs a way to decompress after work (a good workout). 

Know your family priorities  

Our top priorities were these: Felt Safety, Love, Learned Self-Reliance, Family means teamwork, and Empathy.  And all of these were really just avenues to build Trust.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

This goes hand-in-hand with knowing your priorities.  One of my priorities is to get kids places on time.  As a kid, I always dreaded Sunday mornings.  My parents would argue all morning and kids would be wrangled into clothes we didn’t like or didn’t fit and everyone would pile into the two cars, angry and harried.  As a teenager, I remember reading that someone decided to dress her children in their church clothes Saturday night, and although the clothes were wrinkled, it made for less stressful Sunday mornings.  Wrinkles mattered to my mom, so we never did that back then, but I tucked it away for later use. So this past year, with three very ADHD kids, we had no choice but to dress the night before to get to school on time.  Sure their clothes were wrinkled, their shoes might be on the wrong feet, but they were on-time for school.  This made Friday and Saturday’s our fun pajama nights.

Another of my priorities is also having a sanitary house (it doesn’t have to be spotless).  So, combined with getting ADHD kids out the door on time, we take shoes off at the front door.  We never spent a second looking for lost shoes, there was less cleaning for me to do, and we got out the door on time.

Another priority of mine is to teach kids that although I enjoy being with them and playing with them, it is not my job to entertain them.  So, to go along with my personal priority of alone time, each day, we have a quiet time.  At first, this was 10 minutes and eventually, we were able to build to an hour where each person could play by himself quietly.  

Be Flexible on all the non-priorities and let your yes be yes and no, no

To build trust, always say yes whenever possible, and draw hard lines for your no’s.  For people like me, I’m always looking for a way to say yes.  I am very good with structure and creating routines but not always as flexible as I could be.  For people who are the opposite of me (naturally more unstructured like my husband), look for places to draw the line. One thing that kids learn after a little while is, if I say maybe or “Let me think about that,” it truly means I’ll do just that and neither of us know what the answer will be yet.  Whatever you say, say what you mean and stick with it.  Speaking of which…

Be consistent

Kiddos from hard places crave structure and consistency.  They love knowing what is expected.  At the same time, because it’s a new experience, they will have tons of meltdowns and tantrums, testing those boundaries, but ultimately find comfort in them.  Never say something that you don’t plan on following through on 100%.  Whether you promise a day a the park or that they will not get dessert.  Help them to see that you are trustworthy.  If you say, I’ll pick you up from school at 3:30, you better be there every time you say it.  

Explain the Why (when appropriate)

Life doesn’t always go as planned (if you’re a foster parent, you can bank on nothing going as planned).  Kids are always watching, so if you don’t accept failure with grace and dignity, odds are, your kiddos won’t either.  If you promised a day at the park but a thunderstorm made it impossible, tell them why you can’t go, maybe express your disappointment so that they too feel free to express theirs and show them how to move on to a plan B.  Maybe they can give you input about what that plan B looks like.  Kids feel pretty good when they’re in-the-know. 

Time-ins, Redos and Making it Right

As my priest once told me during confession, “Guilt is good because it tells you that you did a bad thing and you can make it right.  Shame is bad because it tell you that you are bad and there is no grace in that.”  Shame is a huge burden that all kids from hard places carry.  It permeates every aspect of life for them.  They all carry around the message that they are not good enough.  So it a parent’s job to help them learn right from wrong without shaming.  Separate who they are from what they did.  When kiddos mess up, move away from the “scene of the crime,” and wait with them until they’re calm (depending on the kid and their level of dysregulation, this may mean an hour).  Waiting until their calm gives you the time to calm down too (you may need it just as much as they do).  Then, talk, step-by-step about what happened, how they were feeling while making their bad choice and how they could do it correctly. Our standard thing (with many variations) was to say, “You made a bad choice, but that doesn’t make you a bad kid.”  We would hug, and then ask, “What can you do to make it right?”  Eventually, they were able to come up with some great ideas.  Sometimes it was hugging the kid they hurt, or sharing a favorite toy, etc…Kids love making things right because that makes them feel successful.  Once the plan is in place, we take them back to the “scene of the crime” and they demonstrate the right thing to do and practice making it right.  It’s really a beautiful thing to witness.

When Things Go Bad, Be the Mature One and Forgive without strings attached

You’re going to be tempted to hold grudges, to forgive with strings attached, but when you forgive, try your best to let it go forever.  Especially when a kid has a pattern of a particular bad behavior, you might find yourself wanting to bring up their bad behavior the next time a similar situation rolls around, but don’t let yourself.  It’s one thing to tell them that you’ve noticed a pattern, but don’t tell them you expect them to fail again.  

Apologize without Buts…

A sincere apology is so important.  My parents didn’t really do apologies–it wasn’t a part of culture back then either.  The few times they did, there were always buts attached.  “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but if you hadn’t ______, I wouldn’t have done that.”  As a kid, this made it worse because the message was, “I’m sorry, but it’s your fault.”

What Kids need from us: Safety/Control/Love

“Never underestimate the power of the mundane to a traumatized child.”  I forget who said that, but it is so true.  It is those little details that matter to traumatized kiddos.  So here are some parts of the mundane that matter.


A routine is a great way to give kiddos that feeling of safety.  Letting them know what is coming next (having a calendar with pictures, making a routine chart, and talking through things before they happen) can mitigate many meltdowns.  Once established in the routines (this may take months), allow them to begin choosing the order of portions of the routine (should we clean up toys first or go brush teeth first?). This gives them a feeling of acting as a team that they most likely will have never had before and gives them that sense of control they so desperately want.  As a child and teen, I craved structure in our dysfunctional, chaotic household.  I saw that some of my younger siblings wanted the same thing, so I started to create routines and I saw how well they worked to smooth life for all of us.  

Food Security

Food is a big struggle for many kids, but especially those from hard places.  Food is very connected to feeling loved and safe and feeling in control.  Get to know their favorite foods right away and incorporate them into the menu (small and mundane but super important!).  It’s more than likely pb&j, Cheezits, fast food, and pizza, but over time, you can start slowly adding things to their diet and finding new favorites. Because food insecurity is typical, have a fruit bowl or healthy snacks ready whenever “needed.”  The first six months, we offer a little snack every 2 hours.  Letting them help make meals is a great way to get them to try new things and again, to feel in control.  We have a garden and letting them work alongside us to plant, tend, and harvest the produce, got them to eat fruits and vegetables that they previously refused to try.  At each meal together, we made sure to always assure them that there was plenty of food and that no one else would eat it if that child needed to leave the table or use the restroom.  Some of these things I learned from books.  Some of them I already knew from growing up with food insecurities. We were a poor family with 11 people and not always enough food for those that ate last—the people who prepared it (mostly me and my mom).


By giving limited acceptable choices (for kids 7 and under, 2 choices is sufficient and I only offer things I find acceptable), you are empowering the kiddo to feel like a teammate and to be in control of his or her own choices.  If this is new to them, they might find it difficult to choose (they will pick something not offered, or they will refuse to choose), but as long as you, the adult, stick to your guns, they will usually choose.  If they don’t, let them know that you will make the choice for them.  Examples of mundane choices would be two choices for toothpaste, and did they want bubbles or no bubbles at bath time, did they want pretzels or chips with their pb&j?  Simple things like that helped them feel like they had a certain say over their own lives.


The concept of family being a team is definitely foreign to most kids from hard places.  My husband likes to describe my side of the family as Lord of the Flies.  And it’s true.  When you grow up surviving, you learn to trust no one and family means a bunch of people living in the same place, but truly, it’s every man for himself. That’s why the messaging and modeling of teamwork from the very start is so important.  This can be as simple as how you and your spouse interact with each other.  If your kiddo has a chronic problem, collaborate with them on a solution to show them how helping each other as teammates works.


  Although this is the one that develops last, the foundation for it should be from the very beginning.  And that begins with play.  Play is your most powerful tool as a parent to kids from hard places.  As I’ve alluded to before, none of the kids from hard places have come to us knowing how to play. I cannot stress how important it is for traumatized kids to learn to play and you will have to teach them how to do it.  Play helps them to learn independence, self-regulation, self-reliance, how to share, get along with others, compromise, and most importantly, develops empathy.  

There are 3 basic types of play.  

1) Prescribed play.  That is playing a board game, building Lego with instructions.  At least for us, this is the type of play that developed last.  For our kiddos from hard places, there is too much pressure (losing, failing, doing it incorrectly).

2) Directed play.  You, as the adult are the one essentially modeling for your kids what play looks like.  This is the type of play that we cultivated for months on-end before they learned how to play independently, using their own imaginations.  You as the adult will be bored out of your mind at times, so you have to find a way to keep yourself interested.  I am imaginative, so making up stories and games is my favorite type of play.  At night, I love to read books and tell stories.  When we play, there is always a storyline. Some of the kiddos love to make creative artwork, so at one point, we made wanted posters and stalked around the yard in hats and nerf guns in hand, playing bounty hunters.   

3) Self-Directed play. This is when they can build with blocks on their own, make up their own stories, and find pleasure in it.  

Appropriate Touch and Eye Contact

Many kids from hard places have a strange relationship with touch and eye contact.  Whether they’ve encountered neglect, sexual, physical, or even psychological abuse, being aware of your own body language is extremely important.  Many kids from hard places have PTSD, so practicing self-awareness is imperative.  If they don’t make much eye contact, make sure that when they do, your face is welcoming: a softness in your eyes, a gentle smile on your face.  If they have a problem with being touched, take what they offer and offer it back with a tad bit more.  For example, if they want to hold your hand, take their hand, and maybe hold it in two hands for a moment while making quick eye contact with a smile.  Sometimes, kids from hard places won’t use appropriate touch, so make sure that you let them know when it’s not appropriate and model something that is a better choice.

Speak truth to them through their attachments

Kids from hard places aren’t always capable of accepting kind words directly.  Sometimes, you have to talk through objects that they are attached to. This might be a stuffed animal, this might be a real animal. I might say, “I sure do like how Jimmy is so kind to his brothers today.  He’s doing a great job sharing” (talking to the stuffed animal).  Or if I’m using our dog as the attachment piece, I’ll say things to the child like, “Look at that tail wagging.  She loves you so much, Jimmy.”

Model Gratefulness

This is one thing that my family always struggled with and one thing that all of our foster kiddos have struggled with: only seeing the bad.  There is tons of research out now that shows why that is.  When bad things happen, we tend to focus on them, replay them, as a predictive way to protect ourselves the next time (this is a primal instinct).  Unfortunately, this also means that we are training our brain to only see the negative.  Thankfully, the brain is malleable and can be rewired through practicing gratefulness and looking for the good.  So to do this, each night at dinner, we would go around and ask each person about their day.  They could tell up to 3 things that were great about the day and one hard thing.  For months, one kiddo couldn’t think of a single good thing, but he had a never-ending list of bad things.  So sometimes, Ethan and I would add simple things like “I got to eat my favorite food today” or “It was sunny” or something simple for him to catch onto.  After a while, that kiddo not only found 3 things he was happy about, but had to be limited to 10 to give others time.  The point?  Noticing the good, makes you a happier person.

Hopefully, some of the things that we’ve learned can help you and your family as well. Blessings on your journey (whatever that may be!).


The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Dr. Karyn Purvis

Better Behavior for Ages 2-10: Small Miracles that Work Like Magic by Tara Egan

The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart M. Brown Jr.

Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld

Greetings From the Foxhole

A sweet goodbye letter from one of our kiddos (as transcribed by his teacher).

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds. Because you know that the testing of your faith builds perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

We must be lacking a lot. It was a year of great joy, unending grief, of bottomless love, and of waiting in dread while trying to keep placing our hopes and trust in Christ’s hands.

After a string of difficult years, this one surpassed all the others. Ethan calls it our foxhole year, and rightly so. This was an exhausting year, of fighting for the “least of these” within very broken systems. The concept of fighting for and not against is a difficult one for most people to grasp. It is nuanced and mostly, misunderstood. But isn’t that our calling? To love everyone and fight for justice even when our actions might be misunderstood?

It was also a fight within myself to find love and compassion for those who’ve wronged others. In every aspect, it was a year of hard, raw, growth. This particular scene kept playing in my head as the year went on: “Why do you want to adopt?” our caseworker asked, one sunny day last summer on the back deck, while all hell was breaking loose in the moat out front. “Because we have extra love in our hearts to give and an extra room,” was my answer. And that, in its simplicity is the truth. And love we have. More than we thought possible. And by the end of the year, in our battle-exhaustion, it became impossible to distinguish between the peace we’ve begged God for all along or numbness. Either way, it’s where we’re at.

This year revealed just how blessed that Ethan and I are that we can depend on each other as partners, battling shoulder to shoulder, on all fronts. And also, this was the year that we leaned most heavily on friends and family to support us. And they did, with the greatest love you can imagine, knowing that their own hearts might be broken too. But they did it anyway and for that, we can never thank them enough.

It began like this…
On January 1st, we opened our home as a foster-to-adopt home. By January 4th, we received an emergency phone call for 2 young brothers who needed an emergency placement that day. We’ll call them Alexi and Andrew. We took them for 3 days to see if things could work as they were said to have some difficult behaviors (that was an understatement). Imagine the most horrific life you can imagine children living, and theirs was worse. We learned bits and pieces of their story after we tucked them in each night, and in the darkness, they opened their little hearts to us. They were little survivors longing to be loved, and their survival techniques equated as extremely difficult and dangerous behaviors. 

If you ever foster or adopt, you need to know that many of these children (so far all of those who’ve come through our home) do not know how to play. Play is a luxury learned when you don’t have to spend every moment in survival mode. So, we applied our universal knowledge of boys: boys love sticks. So, we took them to the woods to play with sticks. They had never been in woods before. They had never played with sticks before. We watched them explore the woods with wonder, curiosity, and trepidation. It was the most joyful, beautiful set of moments. 

Alexi found a stuffed puppy amongst our toys that he grew immediately attached to. He carried it everywhere over the next few days and because of his inability to be gentle, the beads inside started to fall out. I put a purple produce rubber band around its neck to keep the beads in and Alexi thought that was great because now it had a collar. 

In only a few days of being with us, Alexi and Andrew were making plans for their future that included us. And me and Ethan? We could make no promises because although we tried to find any possible way that we could make this work, we simply couldn’t. The intensity of their behaviors set off my CFS pretty badly. Even though we are accepting of a wide range of behavioral issues, their needs were far beyond our abilities, and we had to say no.

When we had to tell them goodbye, Alexi wept, inconsolable, while Andrew lay down on the floor and stared at the ceiling in silence. When he finally spoke, it was in a flat tone, his eyes unfocused. “I thought we were going to live with you forever.” If you want to have your heart ripped out of your chest, just look in their eyes as you tell them goodbye, knowing that you will never see them again, and will likely never know what became of them. Alexi hugged his puppy to his chest and I told him to hug it tight whenever he needed to feel extra love because I’d put all of my love in there. I’m sitting here still sobbing as I think of those boys. I know that we did the right thing, but the right thing sometimes sucks. They will always have a piece of our hearts and we will always keep them in our prayers.

After that, we said that we might need some time to regroup and rethink our choice of a sibling group, but 4 days later, we got a call for 3 brothers. After I got the phone call, I got on my knees on the floor begging for a clear answer. I called Ethan. We were both hesitant. We prayed. We asked each other if we were crazy because we felt like it was a “yes,” and called the agency back. As soon as we met the boys, I felt comfortable, as if they were my brothers, recognizing immediately that their types of trauma are those I’ve spent my entire life understanding and raising. In January, they will have been with us for a year. 

They are terrific boys. The oldest is sensitive, creative, has a unique view of the world, and, as he likes to remind me almost every day, “We have much in common.” The middle boy, I call my “Peter Pan.” He is either for or against everything with his whole passionate heart. I like to say he’ll either grow up to be an actor, a musician, or a forest ranger (he loves nature). The youngest, we call “Little Lion.” He is an unstoppable force of nature and lacks fear. If he makes it to adulthood, he will probably become a neurosurgeon…or an astronaut.

We love them so much and have enjoyed teaching them how to play, to embrace their own talents and creativity, and have loved being able to witness their understanding of the world expand. They now know that God is love. We got to help them conquer many firsts: making friends, learning to read, tie their shoes, ride bikes, learn to swim, and how not to give up right away when things don’t go as planned.

In June, we got some unexpected news about their future. They would start transitioning back for reunification. This is much more complicated than it sounds and all I can say is that this made the rest of the year exponentially more difficult for everyone involved.

It has been a wonderful year that our lives have intertwined with theirs and soon, the plan is for their reunification. We will miss them and always love them.

The not-so-side plot… 

As I alluded to vaguely last year, we’ve had some rough years with my brother Nick. Looking back now, I see clearly that the end of 2016 was the start of what I now know to be the prodromal stage of schizophrenia. At the time, I thought perhaps it was just bipolar. Yeah, you know you’ve been around the block a few times when you say things like JUST bipolar. It was during that tumultuous time in 2016/2017 that he made lots of bad choices during his senior year of high school, and one particular set of decisions that would have ramifications for years to come. At the end of 2018, we learned that charges were being filed. So 2019 was a matter of waiting for sentencing. 

In the meantime, during the first half of 2019, we finally became Nick’s POA and that made it possible for me to navigate the difficult process of getting him on government assistance, making doctor’s appointments, etc…it sounds straight-forward. However, if you are the caregiver to an adult with special needs, mental illness, and anosognosia, you know that HIPAA laws need to be changed. This was the second battlefront: advocating for the mentally challenged.

In the spring, we began to get panicked phone calls by the hour. Nick’s mental health was declining rapidly. Stress, for those already predisposed to mental illness, can be cataclysmic. And that is exactly what was happening for him. After some extended paranoid-delusional episodes and hallucinations, I urged him to check himself into a mental hospital, and after a long period, he agreed. He just wanted—no—needed to feel safe. Once there, he stayed for a month. 

On one of my weekly visits to see him, I saw someone I recognized who was with a church group, visiting another patient. We shared a nod of greeting, and I could tell this was his first time in a place like this. I knew his look well. It’s a mixture of fear, slight embarrassment, and serious determination. I’m sure that when I was a teenager visiting Mom in a mental hospital for the first time, I had that look too. But then, I never saw my own face.

When visiting time was set to begin, and all the belongings of the visitors were safely locked away, we were led down a long and twisting corridor. Much nicer and cheerier than any of the other places I’d visited in the past. The staff was friendly and the place was clean. 

Upon entering the visiting room, my brother stood, that sweet grin on his face, his hair an unkempt puff. There were long, mournful faces scattered around the room. An elderly couple, sitting by the large windows, just holding each other in silence. And Nick and I talked about those things that meant most to him; his cat, his dog, and how much he liked being here because it made him feel safe from the world. He was happy. I was happy that he felt safe here and mostly, I was relieved that he was safe for now. 

I kept glancing over at the serious church group who prayed in fervent, serious tones with the patient. They clasped hands, and as if they huddled close enough together like a spiritual football team, they could pray away her demons with sheer determination. I’m sure those were not their intentions and their hearts were right (I mean gosh, they showed up), it just made me sad that there were no warm smiles for her. 

As for me, I found myself laughing and smiling with my brother as usual, and thought about how much a veteran of a place like this that I feel. There is no embarrassment nor shame. This, even though it may not seem like it, is a place of hope. Better the patients here than dead or still suffering alone and in silence.

At the beginning of July, my dear Aunt Mary (whom I’ve mentioned countless times on my blog because she’s my personal hero) suffered a massive stroke. She has since recovered most of the way physically, but she is still struggling with aphasia. I was able to see her at Thanksgiving, and being the frail human I am, I was nervous. What if I wasn’t able to understand her? And then I mentally rolled my eyes at myself because why should that bother me? I’ve raised multiple kids with speech difficulties, taught ESL for years to people who spoke no English. And then I realized, I wasn’t afraid that we couldn’t communicate. I was afraid that she wouldn’t be the woman that I knew. Of course, I was wrong. I showed her pictures of the boys, we exchanged book recommendations, and, true to herself, when she made mistakes or was unable to be understood, she simply laughed a gentle laugh, smiled shyly, and we found another way to get at what she was trying to communicate. She is so strong, humble, kind, and determined. She is the only hero I think I’ve ever truly had.

At the end of July, Nick was hospitalized and then sent to the mental hospital again after recovering. As his POA, it was a fight just to get him on the correct medications and to have doctors listen to his medical history since, according to him, his history changes daily.

During the times he was in the hospital, Ethan and I worked to clean out his house and to do renovations. So, our “free time” was spent at the dump and doing construction. In some ways, it was a good stress-reliever. Mostly though, it was just more stress. And then there was also the cat the was left behind and we had trouble re-homing…

At the end of September, Nick was sentenced and a new routine of learning the prison system would begin. There are so many things that I’m learning about how prisons in PA work and it is disheartening to say the least; especially for the mentally challenged/mentally ill population. And that has become the third battlefront: basic humane prisoner treatment. 

Thus we end our last day of 2019. We are filled with God’s love, and pray for miracles all around. We pray that there are others out there trying to reform these extremely broken systems who are not growing weary in the fight.

Our 2020 looks like more battles, but we’re pretty scrappy, and we are being kept afloat with love and prayers.

2018: Sometimes Grace Looks Like a Broken Knob

Picture a slightly comedic Rockwell version of George Bailey (from It’s a Wonderful Life) standing in his pj’s and bathrobe missing its belt, one sock missing, hair standing at attention in a disheveled heap, a five o’ clock shadow (because who has time to shave when life is falling apart?), and holding the symbolic broken knob from that blasted staircase bannister in his hand.  Ours was a very George Bailey-and-the-broken-knob kind of year. Aunt Mary’s Christmas card accurately summed up our year in 2 sentences (yes, she is that amazing). 

If this sounds like a frustrating year and you’re pretty sure that you don’t want to read about it because you too have had a hard year, I don’t blame you.  I’ve had my finger hovering over the delete button multiple times, but if I don’t tell you the frustrating parts, you can’t see the goodness of God’s faithfulness either, and like gum in a girl’s long hair, those two things are nearly impossible to separate.

To help you to understand our 2018, I need to start back in 2017 for a couple of the pieces. And most of which I can only tell you about vaguely, which is a shame because they were the most dramatic parts of our 2018.

The Backstory (duh, duh, duh)

In 2017, DB (dear boy) graduated high school (by our blood, sweat, and tears, the grace of God, the school principal, and his teachers).  By mid 2017, he was getting his life together after a hard previous year.  The end of 2017 was our cut-off date to decide whether or not DB would be capable of living on his own or not.  And after a year of intense observation and prayer, we determined that although he has made great strides and wants to be completely independent, he’s still far from capable of living on his own and will possibly always need a moderately high level of support.  So, we came up with a plan…which we will get to in a minute.

Also in 2017…

I began taking vocal rehabilitation lessons to see if it was possible to get my singing voice back.  Since first being diagnosed with CFS/ME in 2011, I was sick so often, had acquired new allergies and had so much vocal fatigue, that singing became a thing I used to do.  After only a 10 minute warm-up, my throat would be raw and I’d have lost my voice.  Since singing was my livelihood and an integral part of the joy of my life, that was a devastating blow.  I still sang for church, but it was always weak, faltering, and painful. Midway through 2017, I started to see improvements in my CFS/ME, so I started researching an Italian school that specializes in vocal rehabilitation for singers with health issues like mine and discovered a teacher 40 minutes away that uses that same methodology.  I took lessons until May 2018, and although I stumped her often and had plenty of setbacks, I began to see slow and steady progress.  By June of 2018, I had my voice back and stronger than ever.  I can’t tell you what a joy it is to be able to sing again without pain, and with freedom and clarity.  I feel like me again.  Praise God!!

Christmas and New Years of 2017/2018 found me hard at work creating a multi-leveled ESL work-related curriculum for my refugees class.  The old one was too advanced for most of the newly-arrived students and it was creating student frustration and volunteer teacher hemorrhaging.  By May 2018, the new curriculum was tested and kinks were mostly worked out and I had to step down because my own life was getting crazy.

Okay, now for 2018.

In January, Ethan and I officially started the adoption process.  From the time we started our first class, the clock started ticking.  We had one year to complete all the classes, paperwork, interviews, and pass the home safety inspection.  So, we attended the classes and began the long and arduous process of paperwork, background checks, etc…  We learned so much that we wished we’d known when DB came to live with us 6 years ago (how trauma affects the brain, what that looks like, and how to work with someone who is highly affected by it).  We learned why some strategies worked and others didn’t, and the classes helped me to understand myself and my own attachment issues better.  It was also heartening to be told by our social workers that the difficulties that we’ve experienced in parenting DB are considered to be on the far side of the difficulties faced by adoptive parents. 

There was just one major piece to get into place: in order to adopt children, we would have to build an apartment for DB and get him moved in by December so that we could put kids in his old room.  So, we came up with a plan. 

Plan A: turn our two defunct garages into one larger garage with an efficiency apartment above it.  

Just having the plans drawn up was really expensive.  Nope.

Plan B: we’ll take half of the downstairs of our house (the storage closet, guest bedroom, and the enclosed, but outside coal storage area) and turn it into a small apartment.

I began to demolish things and uh-oh.  Black mold.  LOTS of black mold along the outside wall (as well as dead mice everywhere).  Why didn’t we smell it or notice sooner, you ask? Because there were three layers of walls (drywall, panel board, horse hair plaster) before getting to the foundation wall.  And that foundation wall had so many holes in it that not only was water pouring in, one could also see right through those holes to the outside.  If plan A had worked out, we wouldn’t have known this and things would’ve gotten much worse.  Yep, God’s grace.

Exhibit A: Black mold
Exhibit B: Harry the mouse. He was one of hundreds of corpses that we removed from the ceilings and walls.

Plan C: Put in a French drain outside and patch up the holes.

No problem.  Except that to dig the 15 feet down around the foundation wall, we’d have to dig up our oil tank, pay to have the soil tested, remove the A/C unit and redo the entire HVAC.

Exhibit C: The moat leading to our front door.
Exhibit D: This is where our oil tank used to be.
Exhibit E: This is the finished french drain. And featured in the foreground is the first engine I had to repair.
Exhibit F: These are the finished retaining walls that Ethan, Steve, and I built.

Plan D: We’d talked about the need for a more efficient heating/cooling system for years, so we’ll just replace it a bit sooner than expected.  So, we started contacting businesses for quotes.  We finally decided on one and, bear with me here for a second, although this next piece of information seems completely superfluous, I assure you, it’s not.  The HVAC company had just been bought out by a larger local company a few months prior, and, as we learned in the newspaper the day after we gave them a substantial down-payment, the larger company was being investigated for bank fraud.  The very next day, the HVAC and parent company closed their doors and declared bankruptcy.  We would’ve lost our substantial deposit except that Ethan had thought to put it on the credit card.  The grace of God.

Plan E: Find another HVAC company.  

After another two months of trying to convince people to do the very out-of-the-box work that our unique 1930 house requires, no one was willing to take it on…except the original company that had gone bankrupt and restarted itself independently of the parent company.  

And maybe I didn’t mention this, but between February and August, I saw Ethan for a total of almost 2 weeks.  He was traveling for work, so I was the unofficial foreman who was trying to keep clear communication to all contractors, keep them supplied, and repaired engines and mechanical devices whenever they broke.  Yes, small engine repair is my new hobby. So, I had a full teaching load, and did construction and repairs in my “spare” time.

In June, I was rebuilding a stone wall and despite my proper attire (long sleeves, jeans, work boots), I was bitten by a Black Widow spider. It hurt, I worked a bit longer, then showered up. The bite got to be pretty big and I was sick for two weeks, but the whole reason I’m writing this is so that you know, if you are ever bitten by a venomous spider, just wash it off with soap and water and it will be unlikely to look like the necrotic pictures on the internet.

In July, we had our interview with the social worker who told us that we couldn’t be approved until the house was safe.  I tried to convince her that a house with a moat—heck, we could throw in an alligator—was the latest in home security, but she didn’t buy it.  Theoretically, everything was supposed to be done by then, but between the record-breaking rainfall and the HVAC delay, we were only halfway done.  And before we could be approved, we had to have the downstairs apartment finished for DB, so that we could redo his old room for our hypothetical children.  And, to help you understand how fragile a human I am, small annoyances, like no A/C all summer, no water most days, and no electricity or internet most of the time, all seemed to add up over time so that I felt like a violin string taut and ready to snap with the stress.  Plus, since January, I’d had back and neck issues that just wouldn’t seem to go away, but thankfully, very few CFS issues (yes, definitely the grace of God in that).

August was creeping up before we knew it and with it, our trip that we’d been planning for a few years. We’d decided at the beginning of the year to take a spiritual pilgrimage hiking the Camino, our “babymoon” (if you will), before we adopted.  We were scheduled to leave on August 21.  But there was a problem.  Who could we find to oversee the ongoing construction projects, take care of the pets, and keep an eye on DB (who always seems to have panic attacks when we’re away) for one entire month?  Enter God’s providence.  We got a call from Ethan’s cousin Fritha.  Their family decided to move from Florida up to PA and needed a place to live for a month starting August 21 and going through September 21st and would it be possible for them to stay at our house and not be homeless? THE EXACT TIME WE WOULD BE AWAY.  I’m pretty sure I may have wept tears of relief.  Jeff, Fritha’s husband, I knew would be more than capable with the construction aspect of things and Fritha is a nurse and DB could go to her for any medical needs. Wow, the grace of God.

We left on August 21 for our flight from JFK to Madrid and from there to Oviedo where we took a rest day to get acclimated.  It was a few days into our trip that we found out someone had stolen our credit card number and was using it in Yonkers to buy movie tickets and Gym memberships. I hope they saw a good movie and got fit.  Thankfully, I thought to bring an international back up…just in case.

At some point, I hope to write about our Camino experience in a much more detailed way (I made sure to keep a journal), but for now, just know that it was exactly the “rest” that our souls needed.  We walked 380 miles, and it took a good 200 miles for me to leave behind the massive amounts of stress that clung to my mind.  I did have some issues with CFS (mostly joint problems) that I always conveniently forget the existence of until it’s painfully obvious.  At home, thanks to the capable Jeff and Fritha, the few things that would’ve been a big problem for anyone else, were taken care of with aplomb and without our knowledge until after we got home.

The goodness of kinetic tape when your joints and connective tissues don’t work well 🙂

We returned to surprise medical bills telling us that DB had spent several nights in the hospital while we were away and he didn’t tell anyone because he has major trust issues.  That was expensive.  Anyway, we dove right back into the phrenetic pace of trying to race the clock to get everything set for the adoption home inspection, and finances being tight, we knew we needed to do the rest by ourselves.  So we did. 

My handsome and steadfast man. Ain’t he cute?

Then, I had some unexpected health stuff happen.  I still don’t know what it is, and it is better now than it was in October/November but the only thing that was ruled out with the CT scan and MRI was that it is not a brain tumor.  Whew. I still need to go to a neurologist and figure things out, but that got put on the back burner because something else came up.

October 23rd, we were officially approved for adoption.  Yay!  DB was all moved into his downstairs apartment and loving the independence.  Things were calming down.

The week before Thanksgiving, the last few years came back to haunt us. So now it was a case of DB or hypothetical children.  We’d planned to start the adoption process 6 years ago when instead, we became legal guardians to DB.  We could not put it off again and we also could never give him up.

So, Thanksgiving found us finishing more home projects while simultaneously figuring out our options.  I looked into supervised living options for young adults with special needs, but the waiting list and cost for that kind of place was ridiculous.

As we begin this new year, I’m excited, hopeful, exhausted, and extremely grateful.  We don’t know when kids will be living with us, it could be tomorrow, or it could be next year.  And because of the added responsibilities with DB, I decided to go ahead and find other teachers for all of my students.  I couldn’t keep teaching full-time, especially if we have kids living with us sooner rather than later.  So, in some ways, I’m happy because I’ll hopefully have time to write in the waiting period and that is super exciting.

And if you like photos, here are a few of the finished home projects. We are not putting up photos of the apartment though (even though it turned out beautifully).

Hiking: The Ups and Downs of It

My husband Ethan and I love to hike.  He posts snapshots of those hikes on social media, but I’ve always thought it might be nice to tell the story of the hikes behind the pictures.  So, thanks to the inspiration of another hiking friend who is also a far more prolific writer than I am (go to his blog here), I thought I might finally write a bit about some of our hikes and what it’s like to be an active person with a chronic illness (if you want to know more about that illness, here’s a link). And there is no better place to start than our hikes in Colorado.

Last Thursday night, Ethan and I flew into Denver, Colorado, ready for adventure.  We stayed the night in Denver, and drove to Breckenridge the next morning, stopping along the way for a hike to Mohawk Lake.  Although we didn’t know it, the altitude we started the hike at was 10,000 ft. That is significant because the science of altitude acclimatization is this: your body will acclimate to about 5,000 feet within the first 24 hours.  For each day thereafter, your body acclimates about 1000 feet.  All that to say, we were in no way—having arrived less than 24 hours ago—properly acclimatized.

The hike was said to be an easy 7 1/2 mile out and back jaunt to a series of beautiful mountain lakes.  It was also about a 2000 ft. gain from the trailhead.  That is when I learned the first and possibly only perk of having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: I didn’t get altitude sickness nearly as badly as Ethan because my body is used to running on a lower amount of blood oxygen.  Yay?

The hike itself was beautiful.  We took our time, both out of necessity and because we were enjoying the blue sky overhead and the shady evergreens surrounding us.  The air, although thin, was air was crisp and refreshing.  The first little lake that we arrived at (to stop and have snack) was MayFlower Lake.  The clear teal water reflected the looming mountains surrounding us.  We sat, basking in the warm sun, but in only a matter of minutes, the sun was blocked out by fast-moving grey snow clouds that had crossed the mountain range.  It began to snow, lightly at first, and with the snow, came the temperature drop.  Wearing only sweatshirts, we were not quite prepared, so we decided to get a move on to the upper lake.

Mayflower Lake

The last 800 ft. was comprised of steep rocks and involved some scrambling.  The hiking term “scrambling” means that you have to use your hands.  Along the way, we saw some old abandoned mining cabins and a large rusty metal pulley system.  As for the weather, the higher up we went, the harder the snow became.   I was a bit dizzy from the altitude, but Ethan was feeling nauseas and more out of breath from the altitude.  As we got to Mohawk Lake, we watched a man catch an orange fish, took a couple of pictures, and booked it back down.

Note the snow in my hair

Lower Mohawk Lake

The lower we descended, the more the snow turned to cold rain and made the rocks slippery.  Much of the way back down was not memorable because I was focused on staying warm in my soaked-through clothing.  Thankfully, we went straight to the hotel, checked-in, and took immediate advantage of the hot tubs.  Ahh.

The next day, Ethan wanted to climb Quandary Peak, which is a 14,000 ft. mountain and I refused because it was supposed to be snowing and raining the whole day and I wanted at least one more day to acclimate.  For the non-hiker, or east coast hiker such as myself, a 14,000 ft.  mountain is considered between high altitude and extremely high altitude—depending upon the body and acclimatization of the hiker.  Climbing at this elevation, especially if one is not properly acclimated, can be life-threatening.  That being said, Ethan acquiesced and we took a “rest” day, by attending a yoga class, walked around the picturesque Breckenridge, visited a few museums, and attended vigil mass.  We ended up walking about 8 miles…Oops.  So much for rest!

The Beautiful Breckenridge, CO

That night, I didn’t sleep much because I was dreading the next day’s hike.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking, but I don’t enjoy hiking not knowing how my body will react or how much I will have to pay for it later.  This would be my first 14er and I know from experience that CFS is not always predictable and sometimes does not hit until 2 weeks later, or other times, it slams me like a freight train right then and there, my body surging with pain and fatigue.  Mostly, I had a fear of passing out toward the top or having muscles seize up because my body was not producing enough oxygen (both are likely outcomes and they’ve happened before).  In a way, this would be a sort of test.  Since our hikes in Alaska, where we did several difficult hikes, and one brutal one, Ethan and I have figured out how my impaired mitochondrial DNA intake nutrition and how much or little it turns into usable energy.   We know that if I’m able to keep my heart rate below 140, I can remain in aerobic zone, thus burning fat instead of building up lactic acid and burning muscle (which happens immediately for me in anaerobic zone and quickly incapacitates me).  Knowing this has helped me to get much better than I was even 2 years ago.  We also have learned that I need to eat something every hour, otherwise, my body goes pretty far out of whack. It’s a delicate balancing act.

We also learned one extremely important lesson when hiking in Alaska that every hiker should know and which I will gladly pass along to you, in case you should ever consider hiking large mountains:

Native hikers always understate the trail difficulty as a way of humble-bragging.

Example: “Bird Ridge was a gorgeous hike! My friend and I used trekking poles that definitely helped going down. Be prepared for false peaks. Once you get on the Ridge it gets easier-ish. Peak 3 is where the survey monument.” —A native Alaskan reviewing Bird Ridge

Reality: Easy is not a word to be used regarding this hike.  There were 6 false peaks, the elevation was extremely steep, and there were no switch-backs.  If you stop to get your breath for a moment anywhere below the tree line, softball size mosquitos will swarm you in a black cloud and suck your blood through your clothing.  Towards the top, you must walk through 3 feet of snow, making sure that you don’t accidentally step off too far to either side because otherwise you will fall hundreds of feet down steep drop-offs. Yes, it was gorgeous and no, the review wasn’t accurate.

Knowing that, and looking up reviews for this hike that was said to be the “easiest of the 14ers,” I found this gem and wondered how inaccurate it would turn out to be.

“Only 3.3 miles from parking lot to summit; about 3 hrs to get up top. Makes this a great ‘first timer’ 14,000 ft summit.”—A Native Coloradan, reviewing Quandary Peak

The big morning arrived.  Ethan was annoyingly giddy with anticipation before I’d had my coffee.  I was dreading this hike far more than I was looking forward to it, but I was trying to have an optimistic attitude about it.  Our goal was to summit by noon when the weather would have the highest possibility of being good.  The forecast was 25 degrees, 30-40 mile an hour winds, with a windchill of 7.  We packed layers of clothing and hoped for the best.

Quandary Peak Trailhead

The hike up to the tree line was beautiful, green, relatively easy, and surrounded by vast, snow-covered mountains.  At the base of the mountains were two beautiful, iced-over lakes. Up ahead, blocking the view of most of the ridge, were dense snow clouds, but Ethan had estimated that by the time we got there, it would be passable as long as we dressed well.  He was right.  Thankfully, I married a man who knows his cold weather hiking, so we were prepared with the right gear and were perfectly toasty the whole time.

Most of the people that had passed us earlier in the hike (we were taking it slow) ventured to the ridge just beyond the tree line and were forced to turn around.  They were coming back down as we were headed up. We estimated that only around 25-30% of people who hiked that day actually summited.  The hike up the ridge was very windy, but also relatively easy.  We kept our heart rates low and the clouds cleared to reveal a crystal blue sky.

The snow clouds the we just missed climbing the ridge.

The challenge came at about 13, 700 ft.  The last false peaks were snowy, rocky, and extremely steep.  This was the part I was worried about.  As I had feared, my muscles started to react the lack of oxygen, so the climb up was extremely slow.  I couldn’t keep my heart rate low either, due to the extreme altitude. It was so painfully slow, and it didn’t help morale to see “those damn Colorado native twenty-somethings bounding up the mountain like mountain goats” *said in grumpy old man voice.*  So we slogged, Ethan feeling quite bad from the altitude, but being the amazing person he is,  he remained optimistic and cheerful.  He asked me at one point if I wanted to stop (because he knows that if I stop talking, it means that I am completely focused on finishing), and as he suspected, I told him something to the extent of, “we’ve come this far.  There’s no way I’m stopping now.”  It felt like a hellish eternity (an hour and a half) until we made it to the summit.  I had hoped to feel some sense of accomplishment or elation at the summit, but what I felt instead was the need to relieve myself because I’d been holding it for 2 hours.  So I did, and then had to quickly redress because a young, frustratingly not-breathless Coloradan guy came bounding out of nowhere.

The Summit

Ethan, my sweet, adrenaline-loving man, “Woohoo-ed” and “Yeah-ed” and took pictures, feeling completely elated.  I sat on a rock and enjoyed the view, but oddly, felt nothing but dread of the way back down.  We didn’t stay at the top very long because the wind was biting through our many layers.  As we headed back down, I realized that as I had feared, my small stabilizer muscles had lost their coordination.  I had none of the usual signs of Acute Mountain Sickness, but I was experiencing a sort of Ataxia (lack of muscle control) which is dangerous when you have to climb down a mountain, but thankfully, this is something I’ve experienced often and know how to maneuver.   I know I looked like one of those marathoners who has no muscle control left, but I didn’t care.  What I did care about was the terrible pain shooting through my neck from old injuries.  I kept praying that God would help me to have a better attitude about the whole thing, because yes, I was in a magnificently beautiful place, but I was so wrapped up in the pain in my own body and the effort to make it down, I could not enjoy it.  A great metaphor for life, eh?

On the way down though, God was kind.  In my path, was a butterfly lying in the snow, beautiful purple and vibrant orange standing out against the white.  It was unmoving, and probably brought up by the wind gusts.  Its beauty (even in death) made me grateful that I can even think of climbing mountains since most people with CFS can’t even get out of bed and I couldn’t even have imagined doing this even a few years ago.  A little time later, two shaggy mountain goats made their way up the steep rocky path.  They looked at us with an intermittent mix of disinterest and curiosity.  Their beards had chucks of ice hanging off, making them look like decorative beads.  It was another kindness from God.

C.C. Mountain Goat Massive
Author: Darklich14

By the time we made the tree line, I could barely keep my eyes open.   This used to happen often when my CFS would get really bad and I would nearly fall asleep while running.  The way down was slow and by the time we reached the bottom, the hike had drawn out to 7 hours and I just needed to sleep.  So we reached the rental Jeep, took off a few layers and Ethan drove to Colorado Springs while I closed my eyes for an hour or so.

Was it worth it?  I don’t know yet.  Was it smart?  That’s debatable.  I’ll know better in a couple of weeks.  But I’m glad I did it and I’m especially thankful for an encouraging husband who doesn’t mind hiking a little slower for his old lady 😉