On a winter’s day this year, I logged on to my computer to check my eldest daughter’s recent team roster to see if I remembered any of the kids from last season. I started reading down through the list and caught my breath as I recognized one of the names. Not from last year. This little girl — young lady now — was, with her brother, the very first child to enter our home when we started foster care ten years ago. Ten years since I’d seen her or spoke to her apart from a passing sighting once at a doctor’s office a couple years after they lived with us. My hands and voice were literally shaking as I told my husband. He smiled. I nearly had a panic attack.
The next time I picked up my daughter from practice, I scanned the girls coming out into the parking lot to see if I could get a glimpse of her. It was weeks until their first game, and as that approached, I got more and more anxious about what it was going to look like. I knew for sure I would lay eyes on her at the game, and I wasn’t sure at all what that would feel like in the moment.
Why? It took me months to put an answer to why this affected me so deeply.
What was I so scared of? My reactions for one. Could I hold it together when I saw her for the first time?
My failures? Most definitely. Looking back now, I think this was the deepest fear that I was battling when I imagined coming face to face with the beginning of this journey - what if somehow, some way it brought me face to face with some kind of failure? The previous two years have brought me face to face with some fairly intense failures, whether factual or perceived, and I wasn’t sure my heart could handle it again.
I wanted her to remember me — this little girl who, months later, still remembered everything about the day we picked her and her brother up from that doctor’s office waiting room. She watched me get ready in my bedroom the very last day she was with us, and casually just throws out, “I love those earrings. You wore them the day we moved to your house.” Then followed it up with virtually every detail of that day. First and last days make a mark.
I didn’t want her to remember me — this little girl who had endured such trauma in the days and weeks before coming to live with us. I didn’t want her to remember those months of cautious behavior, so cautious that as a preschooler I only had to correct her behavior one time during the months she lived with us. I didn’t want her to remember that first night when I knelt with her beside the window and followed her instructions to help her wish on a star. I didn’t want her to remember those subsequent nights when I sat for hours beside her bed, holding just her little hand because that was the only part of her she was willing to have me touch.
That first game day, there she was warming up with all the other girls. I made an excuse to call to my daughter so the girls could all see me and who I belonged to. Was there a flicker of recognition? I couldn’t tell. She was there with her mom, whom I actually never met while they lived with us. They both looked good. She seemed funny, like there was a spunky attitude behind the game play. She looked amazing. Grown up. The same.
I sat through that whole day and held myself together. I came home and sobbed. There’s something about coming face to face with someone who only knew you for one very specific period of time, a long time ago. As if you are coming face to face with a previous version of yourself. I was scared to see who she was now, but I think I was even more scared to see who I was then. Were her memories of me good? Were they awful? We knew nothing when we started doing this. I would have done so many things differently now. I would’ve been more aware of how little kids process trauma. I would have known better parenting techniques. I would have not focused as much on how this huge life change was affecting me and instead put all of that reflection into how to better love those children. I don’t think we did a bad job, but I’m not sure how good of one we did. I just prayed she knew that even though I might not have known then how to help her heal, I still loved her intensely.
I debated all season whether to talk to her mother. Whether to talk to her. I decided against talking to her unless I talked to her mother first. I decided against talking to her mother. Well, it was less of a decision and more of a failure to act, I guess, but the whole season passed without a word being said between us. I didn’t want her to remind her of trauma, but I also didn’t want her to think we had forgotten her. She probably has no idea that everything about her is imprinted on my memory forever.
I want to tell her about the night we returned them for good to their family. How we came home and all four of us huddled on the bed she slept on and wept and mourned as a family because we loved them so deeply. I want to tell her that we fought for her - not to stay, but to go home. We knew without a doubt that she belonged with her family. I want to tell her that I’m sorry for the things we missed. I want to tell her that she changed my life. I want to tell her that she changed my daughter’s life. That a passion for this kind of life was born in our own sweet girl during those days that burns brighter than even mine some times. I want to tell her how much it meant to our daughter that her four-year-old playmate became her fourteen-year-old playmate. How special it was. How life-affirming it was. How motivating it was.
I dreamed about her last night. In my dream, I had not kept quiet the whole season. I had written a letter. I had told her all the things in my heart. I delivered it via her mom. Her mom gave me permission to go ahead and talk to her, and left for work. We played Uno while I considered what to say. We went on a drive where I imagined I would speak to her in person, but instead we spent our day navigating bomb threats in this town of my dreams. I protected her fourteen-year-old self the whole dream, swerving around explosions, helping the authorities disable the high-tech devices, and it doesn’t take any kind of dream genius to parallel that to the ways I had protected her four-year-old self from threats both real and imagined. Then true to life, my dream just flashed forward ten years. No explanation. I still hadn’t talked to her. I never did. My dream ended with a hug that was deeper than I could have imagined with all of the words I hadn’t yet said wrapped up in our arms, and we walked forward side by side into a restaurant.
Maybe I wasn’t brave enough to say real words in real life to this girl who changed my life, but the purpose of that promise that started in my heart with her ten years ago was revealed this year. It's quieter than I imagined. It’s lodged in a secret place of my heart rather than with in person declarations, but it’s a promise fulfilled nevertheless. What I’m learning now is that sometimes that’s enough.