Wednesday, July 29, 2009
It all seemed so surreal. We sat in the austere room on the hard wooden pews trying our best to avoid direct eye contact with everyone else. Occasionally we glanced out the window and down to the street below as cars passed by during the cool, misty noon hour. Across the street the larger court house stood majestically with an intimidating statue, complete with the scales of justice perched above the Jeffersonian inspired columns. In the realm of a domestic relations court, justice often proves rather ambiguous. We would soon discover just how elusive it could be.
The raspy public address system finally announced our case’s arrival at around 2:30, nearly two hours after the scheduled time. The morning docket had run over and the judge needed to grab some lunch. The butterflies in our stomach curbed our own hunger pangs, but didn’t stop the auspicious growling I was sure others heard. We hesitantly stood along with the two other foster families, exited the waiting area and walked across the hall to the courtroom.
The clerk announced the names and the state’s attorney began his speech. This same court, he stated, implemented a plan in July of last year when the children were taken from their home that included a goal of eventual reunification with their parents. These parents, however, were now separated, each having found another companion with some hard baggage of their own. Each attorney for the mother and father offered little in response. The judge wasn’t impressed. Six more months without significant progress, she asserted, and a different “goal” would be set. She said the court was not interested in further delay of a permanent solution.
I left as soon as the judge adjourned the case to gather the entire brood of my three biological children and the other daughter with whom I don’t share similar genetics from their elementary school. My wife stayed behind to meet with the social workers and attorney representing the children desperate for advice and counsel in confronting the challenges beset this little girl now in our care.
The whole way to school I fought back the urge to cry. Tears clouded my eyes and hung precariously on my lids as I struggled to suppress their descent. Suddenly they fell, tracing a conspicuous path down my cheeks, meeting their eventual demise absorbed in the wool fibers of my suit’s trousers. The scales of justice swung wildly in my mind. I wondered most about her real mother unable to reunite with her young children. What kind of family had she come from? What cruel hand had she possibly been dealt? Where was her mother? What is really best for these four children? What is really best for this four year old stranger now sleeping in my house far away from the family she once knew and still loves? Is the God I serve seeing this now? Most of all, does he really care?
Justice? What is justice for this child when tomorrow may be too late? What is justice for this mother who now sits dependent upon others for the mercy she desperately needs? Where was the justice for a perfect man who breathed his last breath impaled to a Roman cross with his bloodthirsty countrymen taunting him from below? I kept wondering, kept weeping, kept wishing for answers all the way to the school. My search for answers just revealed more questions.
I tried to dry my eyes before I entered the school. I gathered up the children. Of all, this new child asked if I had been crying. I did the only thing I knew to do. I picked her up, held her tight, and walked to the truck.
“I had a pain in my heart, and it hurt,” I told her.
“Do you need some medicine?” she asked.
“Just a little love, sweetheart, just a little love, ” I said.
Suddenly she announced, “I miss mommy,” as if my mention of love awakened a lost neuron that fired down a forgotten pathway. I resisted the urge to ask her which mommy she meant fearful of how she might respond.
“We’ll be home soon,” I countered not sure if she even really knew what home meant and a little unsure myself.
Sometimes I’m not sure he is listening and sometimes I’m not convinced he cares. Some nights I lay awake struggling to make sense out of life, love and hurting children. Maybe someday those answers will come. Maybe someday the opaqueness of life will suddenly reveal a stunning clarity. Maybe, just maybe this life will ultimately give way to that different time. Until then, we play our hand, we search for truth, we hurt in our heart, and if we’re really lucky, we find a little love along the weary way…
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Things are a little quieter tonight. They came today to get her. She didn’t know it was coming. The experts say its better that way. In just a few, short weeks this little girl will be five years old, having already endured enough heartache to last most a lifetime. We didn’t know it would be this hard for her or ourselves for that matter. Our once incandescent flame of faith quickly disintegrated into a faint flicker of dying embers and through it all compromised the very foundation of our own family and marriage. Funny how it was our faith in the first place that prompted opening our home to a foster daughter. Being a child shouldn’t be so hard. Loving a child shouldn’t be so hard either. Sometimes it is.
Hurting children have haunted my wife and me for sometime. Faultless religion, after all, is taking care of widows and orphans in their distress according to our Bible. This was our chance to practice what we preach. This was our chance to make a difference. This was our chance to lead a thirsty traveler to a vast oasis of love. The contingency we never accounted for, however, was her potential unwillingness to drink from its soothing waters. Our conviction of its compelling siren song left us wholly unprepared for her ultimate resistance. Evidently she saw instead a distant mirage obscured by the fear, rage, and shame of her brief, but destructive past.
There were a few victories. There was hope at one point. Hope for her, for us, for being together. That hope is gone now, instead replaced with uncertainty-uncertainty about our convictions, uncertainty about that oasis, uncertainty about her future and mostly,uncertainty about who will ever love her enough.
I have questions. I question a better Father than I who could let such horrors occur to children all the while convinced that his love is ultimately the only salve good enough to heal her hurts. We who know him are the instruments of that love, some still desperately seeking to strike the elusive chords of his brilliant symphony. Others perhaps content in allowing past failures to impede future efforts at producing great, royal melodies. My own faith now hangs in a kind of skeptical suspension of belief, fear, and outrage. Where is God when it hurts? Where is he now? Does he see this little child? Will he reach into her life with his great cosmic hand and offer for her the comforting cradle of his generous palm? Did he reach into her life? Was I the instrument that failed her?
Tonight I’ll pray for her. I’ll pray she keeps at bay the long, torturous night of darkness. I’ll pray she believes the Bible School song she often sang proclaiming God’s ability to destroy all fear. I’ll pray that God’s grace is sufficient for my failing her. I’ll ask him to assuage my guilt and forgive me for not appreciating the charmed life I am privileged to live. Most of all, though, I’ll pray that one day, even if only in a different time, she will find an authentic love that will wipe away all her tears. Until then we wait and we search, praying that God will send our way another thirsty traveler who will drink more freely from the healing water of his greater fountains.
His life was a study in adversity. Child psychologists say the formative family connections children make early in life largely determine their future. If true, his life defies the textbooks. Early in his childhood, a stable home proved quite elusive. While Mothers and Fathers were taking care of most his age, he was left early to forge his own path alone. Consequently, he sacrificed any formal education past third grade for the practical and often harsh reality of work in the fields and eventually the more dangerous coal mines.
As he often does, God used a woman to save him. Their attraction was mutual and immediate. She noticed in him a curious charm. His interest in her was, at first, more carnal. They came to commitment. It wasn’t easy. Love never is. Through her, however, he came to know a greater, more eternal love found only through spiritual realities. Together, they raised the three daughters that became their mission field to cultivate.
What struck me most during subsequent visits as I became older and began raising my own children, was his fascination with poetry and music. This served as one of the few common denominators between his life and my own and was an often undecipherable language for others that we both understood. Shortly after we would arrive, he would fetch the notebook in which he had recorded his humble musings for all posterity. Written free-hand on the crude parchment, its lack of ostensible opulence was striking. And yet, studied in its entirety, on the whole it revealed a most poignant rhapsody of an ordinary man with an extraordinary heart. His passion was reminiscent of a certain king, from a time long since passed, known as a man after God’s own heart. Funny how the most profound chorus, over which the powers of darkness cannot drown out, rises so often from those who never even knew they were singing.
He was no slave to political correctness, but a principled man. He was controlled by circumstance, but lacked no vision. He was limited by his environment, but not by his imagination. Mostly, he was a man from a different era, feet planted firmly on the road much less traveled, united with God’s redeemed from past generations and ages yet unseen. Glimpses of his journey down the narrow path reveal a profound lesson that is strikingly acute. The value of one‘s existence lies not in physical dimensions, but in spiritual ones. What is so often obscured in life becomes readily apparent in death. What we have is of no consequence compared to who we have and more importantly, who we’ve touched. Willard Ashmore touched many. And his life proves that somewhere, out there, past the brightest of rainbows, far beyond the darkest clouds, where trees are always green and roses forever red, some dreams really do come true. As his final rest begins in the bosom of his Lord, his dream is being fulfilled by the eternal peace reserved for only the faithful.
In our own private moments, we may be able to hear him strumming a familiar song on an old guitar. And, if we listen closely, tuning our hearts to the frequency of the still, quiet voice of God’s spirit inside us all, we may hear the great, Cosmic Artist, who breathed the life into his lungs in a time not so long ago, gently proclaiming, well done Willard, well done my son. Well done, my good and faithful servant.
My wife called in transit to tell me about the impending crisis I would face when they arrived.
Feeding the other three children and getting the oldest son to his ballgame on time prevented me from joining them at the sale. I waited in the garage when they finally got home. The subdued sniffling of my nearly eleven year old daughter interrupted the eerie silence as she slowly sauntered in through the side door.
I played dumb, but she wasn’t buying it.
I began with my perfunctory, “What’s wrong, sweetheart," knowing all along that she was fully aware of my wife’s forewarning. The floodgates opened. Her sniffles turned to full- fledged sobs as she buried her head into my chest and held on tight to my waist.
“I loved Jack. He wasn’t just an ordinary steer. He was special,” she said. “Why can’t we keep him as a pet?”
This love affair with Jack was short in the making. Just a few months earlier her Grandfather (and our neighbor) presented our daughter with a proposition. He would purchase Jack and his larger brother Big Mac as a 4-H project for Mary. She would feed and care for the steers during the winter and show and sell them in the market animal show in early May. Proceeds from the sale would then be used to reimburse him for his expense and any profits deposited in her college fund. Her mother and I were a bit hesitant knowing the work we would likely all face during the long, cold winter. My animal loving daughter, however, couldn’t resist.
It never occurred to me then what we would now face. My prior experience with steers was quite limited preferring instead to relegate my bovine interaction to the knife and fork stages at a few, well-chosen steak houses and our own dinner plates. I was ill-prepared for this cow conundrum now beset her.
I began my speech about the circle of life and Jack’s ultimate purpose to provide sustenance for those higher on the reasoning and dietary chains. I argued that by nurturing Jack and caring for him he would now take “care” of others. I was quite impressed with my pontifications.
The more I talked the more she cried. After all, hours of feeding Jack, walking around with him and caressing his carcass generated her authentic affection. No amount of Daddy logic would change the way she felt about her prized livestock destined for a close encounter with a speeding bullet. I abruptly ended my soliloquy and we went inside to face a long night of sadness together.
Solomon said there was a time and season for everything. For Mary and Jack, there was a time to be together and a time to be separated. Now was the separated part and it wasn’t easy. It’s a lesson, however, that will serve her well in the years to come. People, situations, and even relationships with animals change. Few things last forever. I hope she will always understand that. I hope she stays sweet like her Mother. I hope her fear of being hurt won’t keep her heart from becoming too hard. I hope she won’t be too afraid to be vulnerable again.
Most of all, I hope she always remembers that it truly is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.