The children arrive on a Saturday. Their foster parents drive them over with boxes of their belongings. When I open the door, I’m met with shy smiles, and Kate and Evan each give me a hug. Then their foster father directs them, “Take your things up to your rooms and unpack them.” He says it firmly but with a chuckle that shows me he gets a kick out of them but also feels he has to be stern to keep them in-line.
The children don’t have a lot, a few boxes of clothing and keepsakes. I let their foster father do the parenting. He is used to parenting them; I am not.
“Make sure you hang up your suits,” he says to Evan. Evan doesn’t respond but disappears upstairs. Within minutes, Evan comes right back downstairs. “You okay if I leave?” their foster father says. He hesitates as if he expects Evan might ask him not to go. Evan hugs him briefly.
“Bye, Kate,” the foster dad yells toward the upstairs. Kate appears at the balcony and waves to him. I’m surprised she doesn’t come downstairs to say goodbye, and I hope he doesn’t feel hurt.
Now Evan and I are alone in the kitchen. Evan seems more interested in conversation than in settling in. “Where is everyone?” he asks. I list each member of the family and explain where they are and when they will return home. I assume it’s my older boys that he’s looking for. Then his eyes wander around the house, and I surmise he’s looking to see what he can play with. I direct him to the large boxes of building blocks in the playroom. He has told me how much he enjoys building, and his “Wow” as he makes his way downstairs let’s me know he’s thrilled.
Kate stays upstairs in her new room for a while. I listen for her and wonder how I should best interact with her while she unpacks. Eventually, I go upstairs to check on her progress. I find her sitting on the floor, surrounded by items from an open box. I watch from the hallway as she pulls out her possessions, one by one, and looks them over. I knock on the open door and walk in.
“How’s it going?” I say. She looks up but doesn’t answer.
I sit down next to her on the floor. A strange sense of longing comes over me as I watch this girl who is not yet my daughter. She is very small for her age, this child, but confident and determined. Suddenly I am a stranger to this room in the house where I have lived for almost 20 years.
This room—the perfect shade of pink—is my own daughter’s room. My husband and I mentioned that we needed a place for the adopted children, and our daughter packed her left-behind clothing in plastic boxes. “She can have my room,” she said. “I’ll sleep on the couch when I come home to visit.” Her easy relinquishment startled and impressed me. We had planned to juggle rooms, using a downstairs office to provide the necessary space.
Now as I linger, I scan the room and then Kate’s face, and I feel almost uneasy to be helping a new child unpack her things into my daughter’s space. Even though she moved out of her room willingly, I’m sensitive to the fact that she has always loved her role as the only girl in our family. I feel tentative about my own role here.
“Need any help unpacking?” I ask.
“I’m fine,” she says. Kate seems to be enjoying the silence. Perhaps she is reliving some of her memories or perhaps she is simply relishing the idea of having a room of her own.
I cast about for a conversation starter. What does a new mother do in this case? Do I help her anyway or do I give her a chance to absorb her new surroundings alone? Is she protective of her possessions? This is where mothering is already different. I have no history with this child. I don’t know her likes and dislikes. I don’t yet understand her emotional needs. I decide to stay put and silently watch her unpack, and see what develops.
“I’ll just stay, if that’s okay, in case you need some help,” I say.
Kate smiles and takes out a small box from the large plastic one. “This is my artwork,” she says. She pulls out a drawing and runs her hand over it before holding it up for me to take a look.
“That’s really great. Pastels?” I say.
“Yes,” she says, pulling out another drawing. She shows me her drawings one by one. There are many of them, and I feel as if I’m living through the short years of her life with her. We look at sketchbooks, art supplies, colored pencils, sharpies, and even her extensive rock collection. She holds up a particularly pretty one, pushing her long hair from her face and waiting for my response.
“Tell me about it,” I say. “What kind of rock is it and where did you acquire it?”
Her face brightens as she tells me the story of visiting a gift shop on a family vacation with her biological parents. There’s a bit of relief in knowing she has had some amount of normalcy to her family life. She hands me the rock and dips back into her box of treasures.
With each piece of artwork comes a small tidbit from her unpredictable life. A place she lived. A new school. A short-term friendship. A lost opportunity to succeed at dance. So much life for such a young girl. So much seen and taken in stride. Survival stories tucked into plastic boxes between rocks and drawings and colored pencils. I suspect her heart is tucked somewhere in there too.
There is so much I want to know about who she is and where she came from. I want to understand her struggles so I can know how she needs to heal. I ask her small questions, carefully, as if I’m stepping on her life. She answers them willingly. So many different people and places, I’m not able to piece together her story. But I know there will be time for that.
I ooh and aah at each rock until, suddenly, I have trouble focusing. My eyes have caught something else in the box. Something gray, something wedged between a set of colored pencils and a zip bag full of paints. A book.
Noticing the beeline of my gaze, she reaches for the book and pulls it out to show me the cover. My breath catches at my heart, and I’m covered in goosebumps. The book that brought me to this point—it’s there in her box. The book that told the story of a 12-year-old girl in foster care who ran away from home after home until she found a loving older woman who took her in. The main character is a talented artist, and she and her foster mother, also an artist, form a loving bond that helps the girl to know what it’s like to have a family. This book captured my heart and first made me want to adopt a child. I take a breath and call out its name: Pictures of Hollis Woods.
She looks up at me with large eyes. “Yeah, it’s my favorite,” she says. “My teacher gave it to me when she found out I was in foster care.”
“It’s my favorite too,” I manage, not wanting her to see my shock. “It’s the book that made me want to adopt you.” I hold still for her response.
She flashes back a look of understanding, a look that shows me she too sensed hope in that beautiful story. I’m filled with a warmth, a strength, a light. Suddenly I’ve found my footing. A small sign to show me I am in the right place.