Pippa

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A year later, we had moved 90 miles north to a smaller town and a quieter pace of life. At least a quieter pace of life was the plan, anyway.

One day, the phone rang in my new classroom. The kids’ state caseworker explained that my children were about to have a new sibling born in a month’s time. The State had already determined that this child would be placed directly into an adoptive home and, since siblings get first priority for placement – was I at all interested in adding to my brood?

I really did have my hands full already, but as soon as he asked, that voice in my gut spoke up loud and clear with the pronouncement that the child was a girl, and that she belonged with us.

Pippa was born on Wednesday, November 10, 1999 – the day before Veteran’s Day. Since the courts were closed the next day for the holiday, I made arrangements for us to travel the 3 hours south on Friday to pick her up after the social worker had gone to court for all proper signatures. Meanwhile, Pippa, while fully healthy, had been placed in the NICU for safekeeping – with a police hold on her. The only people allowed to have contact with her were myself, and the social worker.

Luna woke up especially early that morning – at 3:30am. I couldn’t sleep either, so we woke Camaro, got ready and hit the road hours ahead of schedule. We stopped midway at a friend’s house and I called the social worker to tell him that I would arrive early.

He informed me that, in spite of all precautions taken, Pippa had been kidnapped from the NICU the night before and that her current state and whereabouts were completely unknown. We had no choice but to return home empty handed.

The following weeks were filled with flurries of phone calls, brainstorming, strategies, search updates, and anxiety ridden sleepless nights full of more “What ifs….?” than I care to reflect on. Finally, on the day before Thanksgiving, Pippa’s location was disclosed by a less than savvy private attorney working on behalf of the biological mother. Threats were levied, and a court date with order to hand over the baby was set for the following Monday. Joyful and relieved, I told the children that their baby Pippa would join us in a few days. There was much whooping and hollering and dancing about. That night, piled into my big bed, we all slept well at last.

The following Monday, I drove the 3 hours south again to the DCFS office and waited for the social worker to arrive with Pippa. He stomped in a few minutes later – without a baby. He chucked the car seat across his cubicle, ripped off his tie, and collapsed into his chair. Evidently, in spite of all of the years of child welfare evidence – including the recent kidnapping, the judge refused to make a ruling – thereby granting the child to remain with her biological mother for the time being. Once again, I drove home without Pippa.

Eventually, the full bizarre story came out.

A year earlier, while Olivia and Daniel were waiting for Rose to arrive, the State sent her for a neurodevelopmental evaluation – just to make sure that there were no latent or obvious issues that needed addressing. At the evaluation, an intern was present and he was given the case history – including all family information – as material for his further learning. He read through it, took the confidential information home to his wife, and they hatched a plan for the (inevitable) next pregnancy.

They happened to know a couple who wanted a child, but who could not pass a background check and/or Home Study. So they decided to beguile and befriend the birthmother, hire an attorney and pay all the legal fees to ensure that she got to keep this baby. At some later date, they would eventually dispense with the birthmother and sell Pippa to the couple. The birthmother, oblivious to all of this, accepted their offers of help and so she set about moving into their lives and home.  Their plan was off to a brilliant start.

They set her up with a plan to get her GED, a plan to get her a job, and paid to set up a cozy nursery. They fed and clothed her and introduced her to their “friends”. They taught her to crochet and helped her prepare for the baby’s birth. She started calling them “Mom and Dad”. When she went into labor, they took her to the hospital where she was registered under a fake identity. She, being less intellectually sophisticated than they, and by now on very friendly terms with the Child Protective Services social worker, immediately called to inform him of her location, status, and fake identity so that he could wish her great joy on the arrival of her newest baby and pay her a visit! Her “benefactors” went into the delivery room with her, and invited their “friends” (the baby buyers) to accompany them.

The birthmother was released from the hospital several hours later, and thanks to her own phone call alerting the social worker, baby Pippa was moved to the NICU and placed under police custody. The “Benefactors” returned with the birthmother the next day and approached the NICU nurse who had drawn the short straw to have holiday duty. They asked if the baby was under police custody. While the nurse went to check on Pippa’s legal status, they walked into the nursery, picked up the baby, and walked out into the night. And that was that.

When the time came to go to court, they filed their own paperwork and documentation filled with lies and misinformation and a sob story about their good deeds to support this young vulnerable woman and her newborn. They even supplied photos to further substantiate their story. Thus, the judge had to decide between 2 sets of equally presented credible documentation. Wanting more time to further investigate, the ruling was delayed.

After the State’s first failed attempt to procure Pippa in court, they filed a protest and a new court date was set for a few weeks later. At this court date, custody was granted and at 5pm on December 7th, 1999, I received the phone call that I had been waiting for. Luna, Camaro and I jumped into the car. After 2 hours of driving through the proverbial dark and stormy night, we arrived at an equally dark adoption agency where an outraged and exhausted young social worker stood outside with a hungry baby in her arms. Pippa looked up at me with that newborn searching look as if wondering if I were the one who was going to stay and raise her and, if so, why ever had I taken so long to show up? I looked back just as intently, earnestly apologized for her wait, and told her that she was indeed, home forever.

Power and Choices

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Driving home one afternoon, Luna piped up sweetly from the back seat. “Go McDonalds, Mama?” I explained that we were not going to McDonalds, and that we were going home for lunch.

She pursued her request a little less sweetly. “Go McDonalds, Mama – eat french fries.” “No, Luna” I replied, “We are going home for lunch. We have sandwiches and strawberries and milk waiting for us.”

Less sweetly still, she insisted… “But I want go McDonalds! Eat French fries!”

“Sorry, Kiddo, maybe another time”

Now growling and fuming, the 30lb Tasmanian Devil in the backseat menaced at me from behind the confines of her 5 point harness. “Ohhh grrrr, I can’t wait I grow up. Save my pennies. Go McDonalds. Eat french fries. No one stop me!!” Looking in the rear view mirror, I saw black hatred in her eyes. Her face was bright red with rage. Her arms were crossed over her chest and she pummeled the back of my seat with her tiny feet.

Over the course of her childhood, I was reminded of this story frequently, because this is pretty much how it went with her. I was always both her golden ticket and access to what she wanted, AND the greatest and most invincible obstacle that kept her from realizing her whims and desires at any given moment and in any situation. Reason only went a little way at best with her, and I was mostly disregarded as completely irrelevant to the majority of situations. She always passionately wanted what she wanted, effortlessly justified her actions, and childhood was always her prison. Throughout all of her growing up, she verbalized her dissatisfaction and impatience with childhood and it’s limitations. She was eager to grow up, be sought out as an adult, and to be finally given the ultimate freedom and power to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, and without any limitation or thought to consequence or a future of any kind.

I don’t imagine she’s the only child who has grown up with this self-centered, childish vision of adulthood – or insistent proclamation of self-fulfilled desire, no matter how fantastical it might seem once said out loud. Heaven knows the world is chock full of adults who act more on their immediate desires and greed with little to no thought for the well-being of the future for themselves or their offspring and community. But it was endlessly challenging, nonetheless.  While I didn’t begrudge Luna her desire that day in the car, I did want to tell her to pace herself with her indignant rage – so as not to burn out her whole spirit over something so small as an afternoon desire for French fries. I think, however, she would tell me that I just don’t get it.

I don’t remember feeling this way as a child – with eyes like spinning plates turned toward adulthood, certain that all fulfillment and absolute freedom awaited me – but I confess, I think I might have felt a bit like this as I anticipated parenthood. As a special education teacher, I had great freedom in making up and implementing curriculum based on the individual needs, talents, and learning styles of my students. However, they were not my own children, and I had only limited access to them.

As a soon-to-be parent, I very much looked forward to the long term project – the responsibility and privilege of watching and nurturing a child from their early days until they were grown. I looked forward to the fuller freedom of setting out and developing a life curriculum and perspective together – making decisions and choices that led us from one place to another – from one wonder to the next. The idea that I would be virtually unlimited in my options and freedom to make choices for my family…….Well, it was very appealing and I looked forward to it with as much anticipation as my young daughter looked forward to her French fries.

But the truth was (and is) that, when it came down to it, I felt nearly as constrained as Luna. I count myself fortunate to have – or feel like I have had – choices, and life is much more bearable with them. But it turns out that parenting choices are way more complex and deceptive than I ever thought them to be.

I had grown up in the Christian Science church and had only ever used prayer and metaphysical endeavors for the healing of body and distress of all sorts. Adopting a medically complex and involved child 4 years in the making was a stretch for me in terms of thinking about how to parent and seek treatment for him. Given that he was deeply entrenched in multiple diagnoses and various treatments and therapies, and given that I was under multiple supervisory and inquiring eyes, and given that I had been a parent for about 5 minutes, it seemed the best choice to follow the path that he was already on.

I remember agonizing for weeks about what kind of peanut butter to buy…… do I buy the brand that I had grown up on and figure that, even if it contained sugar – presenting evidence showed no negative affects on my health, OR should I spend the extra $2 and buy the organic natural kind with no sugar?

Should I buy the cheapest milk available and take the risk of the children sprouting breasts and entering puberty at age 7 due to the hormones that the cows ate, or should I spend the extra $3 per gallon and buy organic?  I was already down to raiding Cam’s penny jar as it was.

Do I let the kids watch TV or not? They were plenty used to it, and books did not hold their attention as much as I would have liked. And, more horrifying than that, as far as I could tell, they didn’t know ANY songs – even Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star was new to them.  Would witholding TV translate to them as denying them their basic rights, or serve to redirect and refocus their play and aspirations?

Camaro might have had little to no attention span, but it was Luna who kept me on my toes at all hours.  Despite the fact that she still dressed in diapers and toted a sippy cup, she was a force to be reckoned with. The amount of time between the occurrence of her thoughts, and the action taken to realize them was shorter than the amount of time it didn’t take her to tell me. She was a girl of action and saw herself as both invinceable and omnipotent – the Boss Of Her Own Universe. If I gave Cam a direction, Luna was inevitably right there next to me – at age 2 – giving him her slant on my direction, and following up with him to make sure that he completed it to her satisfaction. If I gave HER a direction, she would either partially perform it with her own spin, or feel free to ignore me completely and carry on as if I didn’t even exist. Utterly charming to everyone else, it didn’t take me long to figure out that there was a mounting trail of throttled toys, scissored clothing, and broken household furniture and appliances piling up when my back was turned. Items disappeared and never reappeared.  Clothing, stuffed animals, and then furniture started to present with slits in them that were oddly the same size as scissor snips……. it was all pretty subtle, but the evidence eventually overwhelmed my ability to explain it away.

I felt an enormous amount of pressure in becoming a parent. I had been raised by a set of parents who confessed no feelings of insecurity or doubt about any moment of their own parenting, or any worries about their 3 children over the span of years in raising them.  I walked into the journey of parenting with 2 little people who were already vocal and mobile, and who had already accumulated years of unknown experiences and operated from the assumptions they made from these experiences.  As in……… Why did my children sneer at, poke fun of, and hide in fear from any law enforcement people that we saw out in public??  Why were Cam’s ONLY spontaneous words cuss words and how, if he couldn’t easily communicate basic needs and wants, could he use them so appropriately??  I quickly realized what a grace it was to start out parenting with a newborn who was totally dependent and utterly trusting of their parent – who didn’t yet express an opinion or offer up a challenge at the end of a sword on a regular basis, and who slept a lot – thereby giving their parents hours at a stretch to figure out what their next move was. Oh, what I would have given for a few hours to figure out what to do next……..

The children woke up between 4am and 4:30am every day.  Even for a lifelong morning person, this was a bit extreme.  While it ensured that I would never be late for work, it did mean that, by the time the rest of the world was up and cracking fresh to a new day, I was already looking for a rest stop and was heading fast toward the downslide of my day toward evening.  By the time suppertime arrived, it was all I could do to scrounge us up something to eat and stay awake longer than the children – who often fell asleep in their food.  In the early weeks/months, I remember showing up at my parents’ door on Saturday mornings by 8am – with a car load of dirty laundry and 2 wild kids ready to play.  My recollection is of my father and brother taking the children away – leaving me to slither to the floor and my mother to pat me, saying “there, there…” and ply me with tissues.  As I remember it, it took a very long while to build up my parenting muscle enough to find a sustainable rhythm that included enough sleep, 3 meals a day, and clean clothes for each of us.

 

 

Concrete Steps

The summer came to an end all too quickly after Luna arrived, and soon it was time to head back into a new school year for me. I had accumulated a large cache of sick leave over the years that allowed me to be quite creative with my schedule, and work only part time for the first semester. For the days that I was busy in the classroom, I enrolled Cam in a local preschool, and a friend offered to include Luna in her at home time with her own child.

Every day that I picked Cam up from school, he would stare in amazement me when I came through the door. And as I buckled him into his car seat, he would say “Mama, you comed back – you picked me up!” as if this was some sort of miracle. I couldn’t figure it out. Eventually, after weeks of this, I called Patty and asked if she could shed any light on this behavior. The only thing she could think of was their practice of taking the children to daycare daily, but once in a while – when they went on vacation, or wanted a break from the kids – someone else would pick the kids up from daycare. They didn’t ever tell the children, she said, because they didn’t want the children to feel abandoned by them, and if someone else – a stranger – picked them up, then the children would be more likely to blame the stranger – not Patty and Sly. This line of reasoning left me speechless. But it also explained another mystery behavior.

Every night – EVERY night – as I put the children to bed…….. read them books, sang to them, and tucked their little selves in snugly with their stuffed friends……. They would inevitably ask “Where we go tomorrow, Mama?” “Where we sleep tomorrow, Mama?” “Who be our Mama tomorrow, Mama?” I found it somewhat reasonable following a big disruption in their lives, but the question was SO persistent, and they had – random vacations and events aside – lived a somewhat seemingly predictable life with Patty and Sly….. So, after weeks and weeks of this, and with the growing insight as to how concrete their thinking was, I decided to make them a few equally concrete props.

From photos cut to the size of a credit card, I made them each a double-sided photographic necklace. On one side was a photo of them with me, and on the other, was a photo of the three of us together. I tucked these into their little shirts each day when we parted, and they were free to pull them out and look at them as needed throughout the time we were apart.

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Since Luna really liked books and Camaro really liked photos – especially ones of himself, I made them their very own book that told their very own story. It was important to me that their story be accessible to them, and that any personal feelings or opinions that I might hold be left out. While it was easy for me to have a million emotions and opinions and judgements about who had done what in such a manner to them throughout their lives, the bottom line was that all that they really needed to know was that they had been loved and cared for since birth – to whatever degree each player was able to demonstrate it to them. With those 2 guiding principles in mind, I set about this project very late one night.

When all was said and done and delivered, these 2 items were perfect for the job, and as it all sunk in, the anxious questions ceased, and a sense of stability started to build.

 

It’s Not Just A Child That You Adopt…….

Camaro and Luna were actually the second and third of 4 children that their biological mother had given birth to, and the first and second of 3 children belonging to their biological father. Marie had first been reported to Child Protective Services when her first child, a daughter, was about 6 months old and was found to be covered with bruises. When reported and brought in for medical evaluation, it was found that the child had developed Leukemia. It was quickly determined that Marie and her partner were not capable of keeping up with treatment for a seriously ill child, and so she was placed in the custody of her paternal great grandparents. Parental rights were terminated in a later trial, and so Marie moved on. The baby continued to struggle with Leukemia, and was later formally adopted by the great grandparents. She passed away shortly afterwards, at the age of 6 years.

Soon after losing custody of the baby, Marie met up with David, and they promptly gave birth to Camaro. Cam was born with a cleft palate, a tethered frenulum, and jaundice. He was also septic, experiencing active seizures, and had recently (either just prior to or during birth) suffered a stroke. He was placed in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where he remained for 3 weeks. While there, genetic tests were run and it was discovered that he had some chromosomal abnormalities that were unique in all the world. He also failed 2 hearing evaluations – making his auditory status both unknown and unknowable for the next several years. Shortly after his birth, Marie and David disappeared for several days, and so the child was reported as abandoned. When they eventually returned to the NICU and were observed feeding Cam a Tootsie Pop, social services were already involved. Due to gross negligence, Cam was discharged from the hospital directly to Patty and Sly’s foster care.

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Because the cleft palate made it impossible for Cam to form a suction and feed from a regular bottle, he was discharged with a nasal gastric feeding tube and a pump. Patty and Sly reported to me that it was a hassle to use, so they pulled it out and used a bottle instead. Unfortunately for Camaro, the calories he expended in trying to procure his food exceeded the calories that he took in, and so he continuously lost ground and was eventually labeled as “Failure to Thrive.” A nurse was sent to the home and Patty reported that she enjoyed the visit, but did not see the need to continue work with her, and so the issue of feeding was dropped.

Camaro’s caseworker signed him up for therapy services, and so he was taken to Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, and Physical Therapy. Case notes that later arrived in the Big Box of Documents indicated that their attendance at appointments was poor, and that he was eventually discharged at age 12 months because he had finally learned to sit, and was therefore deemed making sufficient progress. Nevermind that he was still heavily sedated by seizure meds and had not yet undergone surgery for the palate repair or tethered frenulum. Nevermind that he was shortly thereafter hospitalized again for meningitis.

Due to Camaro’s fragile health, Marie and David were not allowed unsupervised visits, but they were entitled to supervised visitation on a weekly basis. They were also given a long list of conditions upon which their fitness to parent would be based. They had financial, housing, hygiene, parenting skills, and anger management classes to attend, and were also required to complete psychiatric evaluations. They had numerous forms of in-home assistance afforded to them, provided all free of charge. After a few years of this, with the conditions left unmet, parental rights were terminated again and Camaro was free to be adopted.

By then, Luna had been born and, despite the State policy of providing a fresh start to parenting with each successive birth, Luna was placed – after an uneventful birth – with Patty and Sly. Unlike Camaro, however, she was subject to lots of unsupervised visitation – including regular overnights – with Marie and David. Documentation by caseworkers and visiting professionals state that the environment was extremely unhygienic, and included floors and carpets that were littered with animal feces and dirty diapers. The social climate in the home included violent outbursts and the presence of known drug dealers. Luna was expected and forced to lie amongst them for her rest.

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Marie and David quickly established a habit of giving birth to children pretty frequently. By the time Cam was 19 months old, Luna was born. When Luna was 22 months old, Rose was born. By this time, the family had stabilized a bit and so Rose was left in their custody. Again, there was a long list of conditions upon which Marie and David were allowed to continue parenting in their home. Luna continued to visit and got to know her new baby sister. By the time Rose was 6 months old, the State had thrown all the resources they had at the situation, and had supported Marie and David with rent monies and education and warnings and all manner of support. In spite of this, they still managed to be evicted due to violence and unhygienic living conditions, so there appeared to be no choice but to discontinue the State efforts at reconciliation and move to a plan that provided for permanent safety and stability for the girls. At that point, Luna was placed with me, and Rose was given to the adoptive care of Daniel, his wife Olivia, and their 6 year old daughter, Molly.

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At this point, all visitation became supervised and took place at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Arrangements were quickly made for the girls to have visitation at the same time and so, at the pre-arranged time, I knocked on the back door of DSHS and was introduced to Rose’s new family. Both families quickly communicated a desire to remain in contact with each other throughout the raising of our children, so that they would continue to have access to each other. Weekly, we gathered at DSHS and, while the girls visited with Marie and David, and while Molly played with Camaro, Olivia, Daniel, and I got to know each other and made future plans for our newly expanded extended families.

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Family!

And so we set about carving out a routine and life together as a family….

I had kind of assumed that once the children moved in, it would be simpler. No more meetings with case workers (as lovely as they were, and as fortunate as we were to have such great support in them), no more long visitation with the children elsewhere, no more checking in and getting permission from the State for things like haircuts and traveling, no more wondering when and where and who and how, no more strategizing, no more worrying about the final outcome and whether or not Luna would be able to join us. I had assumed it would all quiet down and we would just be the 3 of us – setting out to better get to know each other and find our own way in our own time. But it didn’t work quite that way. Looking back, I suppose I should have known better – but I guess my eyes and mind were too full of what was already unfolding in front of me.

We continued to have regular check-ins with both our private agency caseworker and the State caseworker. We also met with the Guardian Ad Litem regularly – to make sure that the children were well supported, getting all they needed, and adapting and developing well in their new home. Cam was a medical mess and we were quickly transferred from his original hospital to the Children’s Hospital near us – a place we frequented weekly and monthly for a long time, as we sorted out his past, present, and future. There were family and friends to meet, and school and daycare to be planned for as the summer waned and came to an end. And while Camaro was legally free from any parental ties, Luna was not – which meant that the birthparents were entitled to regular weekly visitation with her. This effectively removed an entire day out of our lives each week, and only reopened and exacerbated her emotional wounds and added confusion as to where she lived, who her primary attachment figure was, and what was going to happen next in her life. Being 2 years old, this anxiety and stress exhibited itself in behaviors that, in spite of my education and experience, were unfamiliar to me.

Technically a foster parent to the children, I both had great latitude and freedom to determine the activities they engaged in and the evaluative and support services that I felt they needed, AND I was also limited in how much access and power I had to accomplish these things. For example, although I had been told that Cam’s medical history and status was extensive, I did not have access to his records because I was not yet his legal guardian. The children remained wards of the State until the adoption was finalized – a process at least a year in the making. So, while I was working to get him hooked up with the services he needed, I had no power to request prior records or even know who all of his prior providers were. New providers were able to request some records, but they were unable to search in places that we didn’t know he had been. His State caseworker continued to promise to send along his complete files, but the reality was that she was swamped with children who needed housing immediately, if not sooner, and a child who was already placed in a safe home with good support just never made it to the top of the “To-Do” list. It was nearly an entire year before I received his records in the form of 3 paper ream boxes – full to the brim with loose leafed papers – a massive jumble of medical, legal, and familial/social reports and documentation in no order of chronology or subject. By then, it was essentially too late to be of much use. Cam was relegated to being a 4 year old medical mystery puzzle, and the only evidence we had to guide us beside hearsay and rumor and innuendo was flitting back and forth in front of us asking about cars and trucks.

In amongst these hours and hours of phone calls and research and visitations and appointments and planning, we also worked on leaving the pathological and legal stuff behind to just be US. As a committed parent who came from a happy childhood, I was eager to get started sharing with my children. As a well educated professional, I felt like I was on solid ground with regards to early childhood development. As connected as I was within my community, I felt sure that I had all I needed around me to support us as we started out.

The children – now coming from two different homes and routines – took some time to adjust. They were thrilled to be reunited and were loathe to be separated. I loved the delight they took in each other. Despite their age difference, they were the same size and at much the same developmental level. Luna’s bag of toys and clothing had to be thrown out due to the pervasive odor of urine and grime, so she and Cam shared clothes and toys for the first many months. When we were out and about, people inquired about my “twins” and commented on how cute they were. I eventually gave up correcting them and joined in their adoration of these delightful children.

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It quickly became evident that the children were inexperienced at playing outdoors – something I really enjoyed. So in developing a routine that included meals together and daily naps (I had been told that Camaro no longer napped – true enough, I suppose, but he did fall asleep promptly any time he stopped moving for more than 2 minutes), we also headed OUT!

We went to the beach.

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We went out back and worked in the garden.

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I set up a pool and we played for hours in the water.

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We went to parks.

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We played in the front yard and on the sidewalk.

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We went to the zoo.

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We traveled to see family and friends.

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And, most of all, we enjoyed being with each other.

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Together Again

On August 11, 1998, Luna awoke in the morning and went in search of the latest Patty. In the 10 weeks that she had lived there, Luna had lost most of her newly acquired language skills, but she had managed to retain the ones she needed the most. She looked at Patty and said “Go see Cam ‘day”. Patty stared at her. Luna repeated herself “Go see Cam ‘day”. Patty didn’t understand what Luna was talking about and dismissed her as a wishful thinking toddler who missed her brother. There were a lot of stringy children to care for, so Patty set about the morning routine of changing diapers and distributing flat cereal and thinned milk. Luna stalked her – all the while repeating her confident words “Go see Cam ‘day. Go see Cam ‘day”. Patty didn’t know what to think of her.

An hour or so later, the phone rang. Patty spoke briefly with the caseworker and then hung up and stared at Luna. She said nothing, but took her into the other room and changed her clothes. She put Luna into a dress, and stuffed her pudgy little feet into outgrown shoes. She then packed up a selection of items – a few stained, putrid, outgrown clothing items and some equally foul broken toys – and placed them in a large black garbage bag. Luna did not need to be told what was happening. She told Patty one more time “Go see Cam ‘day” and took up vigil on the slimy living room couch. And there she sat for the next few hours.

At 10:30am, Cam and I were outside playing cars with the neighbors. The phone rang and I was told that the State had officially determined that Luna was no longer being considered for reunification with her biological parents, and that she was available for adoption. Cam and I hopped in the car and, 90 minutes later, we knocked on Luna’s door.

At our knock, Patty shuffled to the door and opened it. Behind her came a flying toddler and a high pitched scream of “MOMMEEEEEE!”. Patty stood aside and I didn’t even get a clear glimpse of Luna before she leapt into my arms. She buried her face in my neck and squeezed until I could barely breathe. I loosened her grip a bit, and tried to get her to say goodbye to Patty. Luna would have none of it. Patty handed me that black garbage bag and that was it. We arrived, collected Luna and her stuff, and were back on the highway inside of 5 minutes.

Once situated in their car seats and the car on the road, both Luna and Cam started screaming. I had spent the previous 90 minutes of driving explaining to Cam that we were going to pick up Luna and that they were now going to be together forever and ever. From his car seat, Cam started yelling “Ever and Ever and Ever and Ever!!!”” and Luna responded with wordless howls “AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” – pausing only for the intake of new breaths. I eventually rolled down the windows, letting the freeway wind match their energy and diffuse the sound. The 2 children hollered and bellowed all the way home.

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Settling In

I had enjoyed collecting for and decorating Camaro’s room while waiting for him to move in. Upon his arrival, he had many of his own toys that came with him, but I had also purchased blocks and legos and books and coloring supplies and stuffed animals and puzzles and wooden magnetic trains and tracks and puppets and playdough. I had been teaching preschool for years and knew exactly what I wanted for him. When I was done, his room was cozy and colorful and full of sunlight. There was no end to the amount of fun he and I could have in that room together. I was pleased with my work and couldn’t wait to bestow it upon my new son.

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Cam, however, didn’t have a context for it. He didn’t yet know any of his colors or numbers or letters. His fingers were too weak to use legos. His coordination skills were not yet up to fitting train tracks together or navigating more than a car or 2 down the tracks without battery power. He lined wooden blocks up in great lengths, but he could not bear to stack them for fear of them tumbling down. His life to present had been full of bright red, orange, and black plastic toys that moved and screamed and flashed and wailed and blinked. He wasn’t sure what to do with the relative quiet thud of toys made out of wood that didn’t do anything unless someone applied some planning and imagination. He didn’t notice or care about contrast or patterns or what happened when you mixed colors together. His tiny fingers could not apply enough pressure on paper to make marks with crayons or poke holes in playdough, and he did not yet have enough abstract skills or ideas to utilize representative objects or drawings for any kind of amusement. He did not notice or did not care about anything that didn’t have wheels, and as long as it had wheels – it didn’t matter what size or shape or age level it was intended for. He did love to play, however – in his own unique way.

Camaro was a boy of very little attention, and constant movement. His play consisted of dumping everything out of bins and boxes and then, when the floor was nearly covered, he would make the sound and movement of any object his hands touched. He moved from object to object without any obvious planning or focus – eyes darting everywhere and sounds spilling from his lips without any filter. I tried to follow his lead and join him in his play, but interactive play was another skill that he had not yet acquired. He wanted me with him at all times, but he did not seem to understand the concept of conversation or turn taking. He wasn’t interested in exploring to learn, and his curiosity was limited to finding out what kind of batteries a particular item required. Books, stories, and even TV were beyond his attention span.

The vast majority of his verbal language consisted of repeating anything I said – over and over and over again until I said something else. If I failed to say more, he would then ask “Whadja say, Mama?” to get me started again. Then he would ask me the same question repeatedly – at least once or twice a minute – until I nearly lost my mind. It was as if he wanted to talk to me, but didn’t know how to engage in conversation and yet needed the sound of my voice actively talking to him in order to know that he and I were both present.

His unfocused and chaotic play, along with random impulsive acts of burying or throwing out various household and personal items made for a pretty dysregulated flow of time. While Cam was gentle and loving and eager to please, he lacked so many basic social and interpersonal relationship skills. He was very happy with who he was and who everybody else was, however, and he certainly had no fear or reluctance to talk to or follow anyone anywhere.

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At the age of 4 years, Camaro weighed 27 pounds and his whole self fit completely in my lap without anything hanging over. He was not yet toilet trained and could not navigate stairs on his own. He did not know how to jump or hop, and was not strong enough to pull a blanket off of his toddler bed. He did not dress or undress himself, and had great difficulty using utensils to feed himself. He had virtually no problem solving skills. He did not have the attention span or drive to stick to any particular activity or endeavor, and appeared to be more than content to let the world happen around and to him. He did not exhibit any boundary testing behavior to speak of, did not ever get angry, and did not have a strong sense of cause and effect or of object permanence. He was a boy of the moment – aware of only what was in front of him at any given moment, and only on the most superficial of levels, at that. He did not aspire to independence or personal power or greater skill. He did not want to be a “Big Boy” and did not appear to be compelled to do anything on his own for the sake of personal accomplishment. His emotional responses to events were much more like those of a 6-12 month old than those of an experienced 2, 3, or 4 year old who was well on his way to figuring out how the world worked. I didn’t expect that, and wasn’t quite sure how to handle his apparent lack of motivation toward maturity and independence. So we started with what seemed like some practical steps that would make life more fun for both of us.

Since Cam was all about wheels and constant motion and hearing the sound of my voice, we took to the road a lot. We lived in the city and so there was constant movement and varied traffic – cars and trucks and bikes and emergency vehicles and construction machines and lawn equipment. Cam’s eyes could flit to his heart’s content, and I could label things that captured his brief attention. He could repeat and ask for repetition in a more acceptable context. There was a gas station nearby that was also a tow truck garage. Cam took such a shine to those trucks with hooks that I eventually made up a short ditty of a song about tow trucks that made him laugh and laugh.

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In his car seat, Camaro was a captive audience. I quickly accumulated a shoebox full of board books that I knew well and read to him while I drove. Since I had the books pretty well memorized, I could hold them up high with my right hand, glance at him in the rear view mirror, and turn the cardboard pages with my fingers as I drove. We started with him glancing at the picture on each page and getting in the identification of at least one object. We worked our way, over months, up to sentences and connecting pages one to the other. It took nearly a year, but the time did come when Cam sat through and enjoyed a whole bedtime storybook.

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We went to the beach where there was so much open free wild space that Cam was a bit boggled. He slowed down and stayed close. There I used his interests of play and water and the natural elements to start building some fundamental concepts. We noticed wet and dry. The water moved in and out. We walked up and down. We climbed over and under driftwood trees.  The birds flew high and low. Once I taught him how to hold on to and swing at the same time, he went back and forth, higher and lower. We threw and floated sticks, and we threw and sank rocks. We pushed against, gained, and lost our balance in the wind and over the shifty sand. We pulled long lines of Bull Kelp along the beach. We watched the trees bend and the birds soar. The sky was big and soft, the earth hard and solid. We used our eyes to find shells and little crabbies along the water line. We looked for boats with sails and boats without sails. We noticed light and dark and discovered shadows. We chased birds and fed them. We watched them eat. We had frequent picnics and watched the sun set. It became one of our favorite places and over time, Cam started to notice things on his own in other places.

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