Most of you know from previous posts that my husband and I are foster parents and that we recently went through something extremely difficult – losing our beloved foster daughter of 16 months. I can’t go into great detail, but because of our unique situation, I can honestly say the whole process has been the hardest thing we’ve ever gone through. However, like most horrible things, good can come from them. Lessons can be learned. Stories can be shared. Wisdom can be obtained. Inspiration can be spread. I can only hope my experience will be so fruitful. I believe in many ways it already has.
I wrote this memoir as a journey in grief and remembrance. Hopefully, it can inspire others going through the fire.
“Beauty Out of Ashes”
My ten-year-old niece sits in my passenger seat, twirling her long, blonde hair, rambling about some movie she watched recently. I’ve kind of zoned out. We’re supposed to be having aunt-niece time. A twinge of guilt tickles the back of my brain but doesn’t register enough to matter. My mind wanders a lot these days.
I’ve only caught bits and pieces of the movie’s plot, but my ears perk up at the mention of the word ‘phoenix.’
“Do you know what a phoenix is?” I ask, hoping she doesn’t. I need a good distraction, like teaching my niece about the coolest symbolism in literature.
“Nope.” Her wide eyes invite me to continue, revealing her hunger for the interaction I’d been neglecting to give her.
“A phoenix,” I say in my teacher voice, “is a mythological bird that was said to have burned itself up in its own nest and then rose from the ashes, reborn and new. It’s used a lot to symbolize going through something difficult and then coming out of it stronger. It’s a symbol of hope. “
She’s silent for a moment. I can’t tell if she’s contemplating the information or if I just went over her ten-year-old head. Eventually she speaks, and her words are soft, careful. “Were you and Clayton like the Phoenix when you lost Aubrey?”
My breath catches. The familiar burning sensation shoots up from my chest to my throat, and the resulting hollowness is almost too much to bear. My eyes sting.
It’s only been a few weeks since my husband and I have been childless. Our precious foster child, whom we’d grown to love as fiercely as any biological parent over the course of sixteen long months, ever since she came into our lives at two months old, was no longer ours.
But what my niece doesn’t realize is we didn’t just lose our child, Aubrey. We lost our dreams of being a family. A family with her in it.
My mind races back to the first day I realized our lives were forever changed by this girl. We’d been foster parents before, but never for a baby. I wasn’t prepared for the nearly instantaneous bond…for the way I looked into her eyes and knew after three days that she was already “my baby.” And that I was her mother. As a baby she was entirely dependent on me, her caretaker. I was her world…so she became mine. There was nothing I could do to stop it.
And so the nest was built.
I remember one of her first family visits once we knew her leaving us was a possibility. After handing my crying child to a man I didn’t know, I stepped back into the house and stared at my living room floor. Her toys were strewn all over the carpet, but her voice was blaringly absent. Without her, the house was vacant. Too quiet. It was as though time had stood still, and my life was on hold, refusing to exist without her.
And then someone dropped the match.
It was a Tuesday. She knew something was up. We’d packed all her toys and clothes in front of her, and although we’d done our best to hide it, she’d seen us wiping away tears. She’d sensed our anxiety. And then, once outside, it hit her. Somehow, in her sixteen-month-old mind, she understood. She knew what was happening. Her arms suddenly clung to my neck, her body tense. The worker placed her in the car seat of this unfamiliar vehicle, and she sobbed, uncontrollably. With tear-filled eyes, she pleaded with me to do something. But I couldn’t. We’d been through so much. We’d fought a good fight. But in the end, I was helpless. My heart burned. I couldn’t breathe. This couldn’t be happening to me. To her. To us.
I couldn’t take anymore. I raced inside and collapsed, throwing my face into my hands.
And all I could see were the flames.
I managed to survive the next few days, staying busy, doing my best to hold everything in out of necessity…until I was finally faced with something I’d managed to avoid until then – being alone in our empty house. I was fine before I left from visiting my friend. But on the way to my empty home, I felt myself start to lose control. Nerves had me on edge. Something was off inside me. It was like my body knew my violent emotions needed somewhere to escape, and I could only keep the dam in place for so long. Once I got home, I ran to the untouched nursery, grabbed the edge of the unused crib, and released the unrelenting torrent of tears as I sank to the hard, wooden floor.
And it was then I knew…this was real. I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My whole world was in flames.
Then there were the triggers. A week later, I sat in our Life Group, passively listening to others have a discussion about normal things, when a little girl Aubrey’s age ran in wailing to her mother. She’d been hurt somehow, so her mother picked her up and held her. As I watched the mother comfort her sobbing child, an unexpected flood of emotion rushed through me. The sound of this girl’s crying was almost identical to Aubrey’s cry the day she left. The last sound I’d heard her make. Not only that, but why did this mother get to comfort her child, and I didn’t? I wanted so badly to hold and comfort my little girl wherever she was at that moment. But I couldn’t.
Then my nephew came over. He was a little older than Aubrey but still a toddler. As my husband and I sat on our couch watching TV with our feet propped up like we always did, my nephew came up to me with his toy. He leaned against my legs as he played, and déjà vu struck me like a blow to the chest. For a split second, she was there again. Everything was normal. But reality told me she wasn’t there, and it would never be normal.
Later that night when my nerves were still on edge, my husband’s foot fell between the cushions of the couch. He wrinkled his brow at me like he’d found something strange and reached in with his hand. A few seconds later, he pulled out a plastic spoon. Aubrey loved to pull out plastic spoons from the kitchen drawer and was always playing with them in the living room. He held the spoon out to me with a grin. A gift. I accepted it carefully with trembling hands…and then I lost it. It was an object she had touched. A memory we had shared.
And now it was lost in the flames.
Another week or so passed, my husband and I went out to lunch with our closest friends and their child. Though it was still painful, a lot had changed in my heart already. I shared with my friend how I felt like God allowed certain things in our lives because it was what we needed at the time. She said something to me I will never forget. A truth to which I will cling whenever doubt creeps in and I wonder Why? or Was it worth it? or Should we have done things differently? She looked me square in the eyes and said, “And you were what she needed. She needed you to be her parents, not just her caregivers.”
And just like that, I could see clearly through the flames.
The sudden clarity and shift of focus made me dizzy with emotion as I grasped what this truth meant. If our little girl needed us to become so attached to her that we thought of her as our own child in order to get the loving bond she needed in her first two years, even if it meant we would have to go through such a painful sacrifice in the end, then I was grateful we were able to do it…and I would do it all over again. I loved her that much. My heart hurt with how much I loved her.
And somehow, that made the flames okay. I could endure them for her. I would endure them for her.
I swallow hard before glancing at my niece. She’s still waiting for an answer. Were we like the phoenix? Had we risen from our ashes?
I return my gaze to the road ahead of me and take a deep breath, reigning in my tears for another time. “Not quite yet,” I say. “I think we’re still in the fire.”
But for once, as painfully true as that statement is, I’m okay with it. Because “yet” holds a promise. A promise that one day, when the flames have finally died down, I will rise up out of the ashes of my lost dreams, beautifully refined and new. I will look back at our journey and see not only how much I’ve grown, but also how it served a much greater purpose – to love on a precious girl who needed to be loved.
I pat my niece on the knee with a forced smile. “It’s okay, sweetie.” I return my hand to the steering wheel and hold tight, willing myself to believe what I’m about to say. “The fire won’t last forever.”