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Feature Articles

Counting Down
November 9, 2003

By Deborah Gold

Each minute had the weight of hours, and the hours flew like seconds. Each minute containing a multitude of kisses, of breaths, as the time outside streamed on, until my boy would turn back into his mother’s boy and go away, perhaps for good.

I had no choice: this decision had been pre-ordained. This child is going home. You’re not going to stop it. That’s what the social worker had said to me, his first-time foster mother. This was going to be the agency’s rare success story.

Success, in my fellow foster parents’ view, was often an agonizingly slow Termination of Parental Rights, then adoption by us. After all, we county foster parents offered love, limits, clean clothes and everything from Christian homeschooling to three kinds of therapy, nebulizer treatments, new sneakers, Goldfish and sanitized sippy cups.
Success, in the agency’s view, as mandated by the state, meant returning foster children to birth families, no matter how the social workers might have privately felt. The best interest of the child? The worker’s answer: That’s not the standard anymore.

Six months. Michael had been with us almost a quarter of his life. And the best, most intense, most loving, most desperate and exhausted months of mine.

Why do we have him?
Oh, they don’t really tell us much. The agency suggests confidentiality. In our case, Mom’s not doing what she’s supposed to was the only explanation I ever received.

Before I count down further, let me tell you that this story has a happy ending, despite the worry that endlessly hums in my heart. Thanks to his mom, Michael and I and my husband would get to spend weekends, vacation weeks, and Scout nights together, by consent of Michael’s “real” mom, who’d first schemed to meet me by prolonging her cigarette out back of the agency, where I always parked. He’s lost so many people in his life, I don’t want him to lose you too, Jessica had said before Michael returned to her new home. Already, Social Services had anointed her their model of success. As I later read in a newspaper profile, she was proof that children can actually go home again after meth.

Still, it would prove hard for her to share our darling boy. After our first weekend visit, I passed Michael to his mother in a McDonald’s parking lot: “No,” he said and reached for me. I saw the flare in his new stepfather’s eyes as he pulled Michael away.
• • •
Counting down. The precious last days, weeks, seconds, hours. In a negotiation as layered as a State Department protocol, it was arranged for Michael to stay one extra day to spend my Saturday birthday with me, even though it meant the social worker would have to handle our final transition on a Sunday morning, new baby papoosed to her chest.    

Never have I been so present in each moment. And still, the hours flew.

It’s like a death, another social worker said, the closest they could come to comfort. With most great losses, you don’t know when they’re coming. This one you do.
• • •
Counting down the days: I was working, teaching. Michael had to leave us in three days.

I made him a little photo book, with happy photos of us. But what I remember is…the packing. The plastic tubs and boxes I’d bought to hold Michael’s clothes, his prized toys and books: all, I feared, would be snatched up by his stepdad’s grandson, who’d already laid claim to Michael’s birthday presents. Clothes had never before mattered to me, but I prized Michael’s Osh-Kosh outfits and sweet Healthtex overalls, in which he was comfortably himself, and clean. Any foster parent will understand what this means.

On Michael’s last day at daycare, when I brought the farewell cupcakes, he couldn’t even eat one. The teacher said, “It’s tough, huh?” Those past three Mondays at daycare, back from a weekend in his new-old life, he’d walked around warning, “belt, belt.”

I’d packed Michael’s clothes, his toys, his Jesus-Loves-Me wind-up lullaby lamb. I feared they’d disappear for whatever cigarette money they might bring. Coming into foster care, he’d supposedly had to leave everything behind in the meth-infused trailer. But no one had stopped his mother from returning to rescue those toxic belongings. I had no doubt those poisoned things would be his again.

Three weeks later, when his mom decided our post-reunification break had been long enough, Michael and I visited a deserted playground. He spun on a tire swing while I hugged and hugged him, and then he ran and played and vanished and appeared, in and out of the playground hidey-holes, like Peter Pan returned.
• • •
But first, that cold, blue November Sunday morning after my birthday, we woke early, and until the last possible moment, he played silently as his boxes went out the door.

My last hopes sank at the Social Services parking lot. They were there. After my countdown of months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, I’d experienced that Zen feeling dying people sometimes speak of — of looking into the depths of each sand grain, the quiet pool of each moment opening, as I looked into Michael’s blue eyes and kissed his little hands and my favorite feet.

The transfer operation from the back of my husband’s pick-up truck to their borrowed one was underway, polite enough but rushed — their goal was to take off before the social worker arrived and followed them home for her weekly visit. They were planning a family birthday party, and the social worker would just march in, seeing all the others who wanted nothing to do with Department of Social Services folks either.

Michael was buckled into a battered carseat in the borrowed truck, and he sat there alone, as the argument went on between Benny and the social worker. The carseat was tilted too far back. There Michael sat, looking straight out through the cracked windshield, a rocket pilot, facing his journey into the blue.

My stomach clutched. I knocked on the window, and he looked up at me, not smiling, serious. I stood there mouthing I love you, I love you. My little jumping bunny, my one and only Michael.

Just please stamp on your little mind that I stood here with you, waving and loving you every last second until they came back across the parking lot, cursing the social worker who, yes, was going to follow them home, determined to give them the chance she had told me they deserved, and to scoot out of the way before seeing anything that might disrupt the outcome she had planned from the day she had first raced to get Michael out of daycare, to take him away from Mom, and now to take him away from me.

Jessica stood in front of me, looking tiny in Benny’s long T-shirt. “Thank you,” she said to me, “for keeping Michael for me. I know he loves you.” They were words she did not have to say, the gift every foster parent wants to hear and so seldom does.

The tables were now completely turned.

OK, it is a semi-happy ending.  

Yet that day is the still point in time to which the first half of my life ticked down, and the zero hour from which the second half ticks away.

As their truck sputtered, my husband put his arm around me, and we stood there, and I waved until the truck’s exhaust stream had turned back into clear air.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Deborah Gold is a teacher, writer and foster parent. This essay is the title piece in a collection of memoirs about foster parenting experiences she is working on with Ohio University Press. A longer version of this piece appeared in the Press 53 Open Awards Anthology 2011.

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