I’m headed out I-30 into the nothingness that is East Texas. Antique malls, hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants, truck stops. Several hawks circle overhead, taking their time to survey what’s beneath. I take note of them, never having seen this many hawks on one stretch of road before. They are glorious with their wingspans silhouetted against the sky, but they do nothing to abate my sadness. It’s late January 2012, and a weak sun shines upon my journey. In the car with me is Sugar Biscuit. He’s my foster son, and he’s been with our family since we brought him home from the NICU almost a year ago. He is a fat cherub of a baby with an angelic demeanor and a quick temper. The type of baby that everyone takes notice of when we are out in public. He’s all blue eyes, blond curls, and dimples, with a gap between his front teeth. I nicknamed him Sugar Biscuit when I’d had him about two days. In those first few weeks Sugar Biscuit lived with us, I had no idea of the mountainous journey of faith, miracles, and sorrow upon which I was about to embark. Today, I’m traveling though one of the dark valleys on this path. In the wake of legal motions that will likely terminate the parental rights of the woman who gave birth to the boy that I’ve come to see as my own, I’ve been instructed yet again to deliver him to his maternal aunt. So, with hawks circling above me, I drive and tamp down the grief that weighs so heavily upon me that it becomes its own entity, making it impossible to get air deep into my lungs.
The call to become a foster mother had been with me since I was fifteen years old, and my travels around the world, seeing the suffering of so many third world children, cemented that desire. Seeing children in Tanzania who were at risk of death from dirty drinking water or a simple mosquito bite, spurred me into action. As I got older, I knew I could make a real difference right in my own home, and I set out to do so. My husband and I decided we would be a new breed of foster parents. We wanted to support the family of origin and be mentors to the birth mothers and fathers that had lost their way. We wanted to work with them and help them get their children back. So, with the blessing of our older children, ages 15, 11, and 8, my husband and I started classes in September 2010. We were licensed as a foster only home that December, and placed with Sugar Biscuit two months later.
There is no way class facilitators can fully prepare you in foster parent training for what it’s like to bring home someone else’s child from the hospital, to bring that child into your home, to meld him into the framework of your life. Though we were called last February to pick up an eight-week-old infant, what I brought home was a sunken, depressed old man of a baby who had to be given phenobarbital every four hours to ease his withdrawal and cut down on muscle tremors caused by being born addicted to methadone and pain pills. What I brought home was a baby who wasn’t present in his own body, who refused to make eye contact even at two months old, and who screamed and refused to sleep for the first six months we had him. We started calling the baby Sugar Biscuit after a sweet treat my Grammy used to make for us kids on Sunday mornings. But he was anything but a sweet treat at the time he came to me. He was grumpy and miserable. I instinctively knew this baby needed to spend as much time as possible strapped to my body and in my arms. He needed to learn that the world could be safe, he was loved, and he was going to be okay.
In the beginning, the caseworkers had asked us if we wanted to adopt, as it appeared that the birth parents weren’t going to be able to complete their service plan, get sober, get well, be able to parent. We had planned only to foster, going back to our old lives as world travelers and food connoisseurs in between placements. But it took a mere two and a half months for Sugar Biscuit to weave his way into the fabric of our lives, for us to decide that yes, we wanted to make a family that included this fitful, frustrating, wondrous child after all. My husband was the one who spoke it out loud first. He said he’d dreamt about Sugar Biscuit being carried out of our home, and the baby looking into my husband’s blue eyes with his own, wondering where we were sending him. My husband knew after this he would never be okay sending this baby away with strangers. Sugar Biscuit was part of us, and we of him. We then changed our license to be a foster/adoptive home.
About that time was when Sugar Biscuit’s aunt decided she wanted him. We waited months for the homestudy on his aunt to be completed, then packed him up to be sent away. Then picked him back up to come home again when she decided that caring for him and her own new baby was simply too much.
Then we discovered there is not only a legal father who signed the birth certificate, but also a biological father. The legal father committed murder, ensuring his lifetime would be spent in prison with no possibility of parole. The biological father came forward, then disappeared, then came back. The trial for the termination of parental rights in early February 2012 was delayed, the birth mother still did not have her life together. The judge gave her extra time, along with time for the biological father to work his required service plan and get custody. The biological father then relinquished his rights. Concerned for Sugar Biscuit’s future, and for his safety, we hired an attorney.
There were times since then when I found myself collapsed in a heap on the leopard print rug in front of my door, making deals with God, the Virgin Mary, begging for an end, for release. I was glad my older children were not at home, and my husband at work. My husband became lost in his own world of worry and despair, for he came to love this boy as his own, just as our children had. The fury of my grief scared me, and I did not want them to bear witness. I learned how soothing a good cry can be and became a master of quick storms of tears as an outlet for my anguish. More than a year of soul crushing blows mixed with glimmers of hope made me a master of putting one foot in front of the other. No matter what they teach you in training class, you cannot soothe, diaper, snuggle, feed, and lullaby a child without becoming, in whole or part, his mother. I became what I said I would never be: a foster mother who wanted to keep the child who was placed with her. Sugar Biscuit fit into the curve of my hip as I carried him, just as my birth children did. He smelled of me, and I of him. We had our own fragrance, Byredo’s Gypsy Water mixed with powder and baby hair lotion. I dreamt the same dreams for him, sang the same songs as I did for each of my daughters and my son. Each piece of news that came to tell me he may not be mine forever made my heart pound, my hands shake. I lost twenty pounds. I remember sitting in the parking lot at Chik-Fil-A, desperately trying to make a Chik’n Biscuit go down my throat, knowing I must sustain myself, but unable to do so.
At times like those, I thought often of Sugar Biscuit’s birth mother, of her own pain. I marveled at addiction, the power of the opiates that ruled her life, and damaged childhoods. These things can be so powerful that they can render a woman unable to do what she needs to make a life for her child. Years of watching her own mother struggle with addiction, her abusive father in and out of jail, saved from CPS herself by a grandmother who raised her as well as she could, did not prepare her for motherhood. I wondered if her pain at losing her child was greater than my own, and if the bonds of blood were greater than the bonds forged over hundreds of ounces of formula, and bedtime stories, and endless rounds of lullabies. I searched for compassion and begged for grace.
Over the course of that first year, in an effort to reunite Sugar Biscuit with his birth family, I reached out to Sugar Biscuit’s mother. In case he was returned to her, I wanted her to have a mentor, someone to show her how to be the best mom possible to this child. I offered her encouragement and talked her into going to rehab. I visited her in jail. I felt it was my duty to try to heal Sugar Biscuit’s mother so that no matter what happened, even if she lost him, I could tell him I tried to help her. Tell him what she looked like and how she spoke and how much she loved him, despite her illness and limitations. There was a brief period early on in which we all thought she might make it. She might pull it out and be able to hold a job, find housing, surround herself with healthier people. But the cycle of poverty, and her unmet hierarchy of needs were stronger than her desire to parent her son. She offered to relinquish and we made an open adoption plan.
And then she changed her mind.
This happened four times in December 2011 alone.
From February through May 2012 I would enter the most difficult part of this journey yet. Sugar Biscuit’s mother would get angry that we’d hired a lawyer and we would have a falling out; she only saw that we, along with the state, were trying to take her son. At the same time, I would realize that we could not lose sight of doing what was best for the child simply because we felt sorry for the mother. This boy needed stability, a home, a family.
Through the process of trial preparation, I would learn horrible things about Sugar Biscuit’s birth mother. I would be told about the thefts, the threats, the choking of her own grand- mother. During one particular meeting at our lawyer’s office, I would have to hold onto the table. Bile would rise in my throat as I read the case notes and found out what my aunt calls “the bad truth,” the history of the family of origin, the acts committed, the sins of the fathers and the mothers. It became even clearer that the circle needed to be broken, that Sugar Biscuit needed a chance at a clean slate. Though this type of no-holds barred battle would shame me to some degree, the new knowledge we held would free us from guilt while imbuing us with sadness for Sugar Biscuit’s birth mother.
Today though, with the hawks circling above me in the January sky, I don’t yet know this. All I know is for now, I drive Sugar Biscuit east to strangers, away from me yet again, honoring the request of the court to return him once again to his aunt.
As I drive, I cry. I am already disheveled, having left the house late, not willing to strap him into his car seat and make this journey. I spent too long in our blue rocking chair, singing him songs of mercy, and hope, and strength. I sing his favorite, “This Little Light of Mine.” I sing as much for me as I do for him. My face in my rearview is oily, my eyes swollen and wet. I beg again for mercy. Just like Sugar Biscuit’s mother, I am powerless in the face of this challenge, and I must admit my weakness. This is my own First Step.
My family has spent so much time putting one foot in front of the other on this journey. We are tired. We cannot do this for another second. It has simply become too hard. The pain too much and too constant. The rollercoaster takes the life from me, one dip at a time. It is stealing me away, bit-by-bit, from my other children, my husband, who need me more and more.
But as I drive and cry I notice again a hawk. He is majestic with wings spread, almost spectral. His indomitable size and lazy shadow is hovering over my car. He swoops down and lands on the median, watching me pass. And then there is another landing. And another. Red-tailed hawks, one after the other, are lining the road. They circle overhead, land gracefully, and line the median, paving my way. Somehow, I know at once they are there for me. They are playing sentry, paying respect. In amazement, I stop for lunch and call a friend who tells me that hawks are symbols of our guardian angels. They are protecting me. We both begin to sob. I know at this moment how loved my family and this baby are. There is no more room for worry. We are safe. We are shielded. He will legally be our son someday soon. I do not know where this knowledge comes from, but it fills me, pushing out the worry and fear and allowing in hope and light. I now know that this time with Sugar Biscuit has been a testing of faith, and of strength, and of the limitless bonds of love. This painful process has made all of us stronger people. I realize our family is now impenetrable, our circle of friends woven tighter. The ability to find joy in simple things is amplified. We’ve learned to persevere, to do the right thing. We have experienced grace in its truest forms. These are the things I will tell people when they ask me how I do this, how I go on. However, I have a secret. I know the truth, pure and simple.
The truth is that the very first moment I laid eyes on this child, a voice whispered in my ear. I dismissed it, but now I know it was true. Perhaps it was a guardian angel, perhaps it was God, perhaps I am crazy. But perhaps I am more sane than I have ever been. Still, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what this voice said.
“This is your son.”
And he is.
Author’s Note: I wrote Guardians in an effort to share with people an honest portrayal of foster care. Many foster care stories focus on the roses and sunshine, and neglect to show the dark days and nights that being involved in the system can bring. I hope to portray that while it stretches your limits to unimaginable borders, mothering our foster youth is extremely worthwhile and rewarding.
About the Author: Sarah Green is a wife and biological mother of three, adoptive mom to one, and a foster mom currently on hiatus. She is currently working on a book about the realities of foster care. As an advocate for foster youth, Sarah devotes her spare time to educating others about the system. Read more about her daily life at tumblewieds.tumblr.com.
Also by Sarah Green for Brain, Child:
Signing the Adoption Papers
Eight Months Later
To read more Brain, Child essays on adoption, purchase our adoption-themed bundle.