One of my favorite family pics of almost all of us a few years ago!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Part 1 - Lee Family: Our Birth - Foster - Adoptive Journey to 20 Children

I am asked to tell this story a few times every day.  The story I tell standing in the grocery line with 3 carts of groceries and a load of kids is far more abbreviated.  This is the full story, written for my children and for those who keep asking me to write it. In the interest of time (yours, not mine) - I will post the story in parts!

The Very Beginning...

I distinctly remember the social worker standing in the breezeway between the main school building and the annex at my catholic school.  I don’t recall why I was with her in that particular spot, but I remember the feeling that my life was about to change.  Ironically, she wasn’t coming to take me away from my parents and place me in the home of strangers.  Rather, she was there to explain foster care to a group of fifth graders, who - up to that point - had more than likely never encountered anyone that they knew to be a foster child. 

I actually have no other recollection of the social worker visit or what she might have said that changed my thinking for a lifetime, but it must have impacted me because standing in that breezeway looking at what was probably a nun dressed in street cloths - a new concept in the 1970’s -  I knew something big was about to happen.  Likewise, I have no recollection of going home with a flier recruiting foster parents, but my parents tell me that my sister and I brought it to them and told them that we had to do something about these kids who had no home. 

The only other memory I cannot erase has to do with moving out of our tiny two-bedroom home where all four children shared one room, to a four bedroom mansion -- or so it seemed to me - that my architect father and incredibly frugal mother had just built alongside a few professionals and their four motley kids.  After the move, kids at school started to call us “rich.”  I don’t understand why that word was so profoundly negative to me, but it created an overwhelming sense of shame that made me recognize that I was exceptionally fortunate, but that it was useless if I didn’t do something good.

And so the story began.  For reasons I have never fully explored, my parents agreed that we needed to become a foster family.  So we did. 

The first call we got was for a pregnant teenager named Mary Grace.   This was the 1970’s and back then, pregnant girls didn’t live with their families.  Especially Catholic girls. They were whisked away to have the baby quietly so that the baby could be placed for adoption without humiliating the girl’s family.  In this case, the parents didn’t want her grandmother to find out she was pregnant.  Mary Grace was apparently feisty and she told her parents to send the grandmother away if they didn’t want her to know.  And they did. For some reason, I remember thinking she was brave to stand up to her family and not hide in shame. I thought it was bad to be pregnant, but worse to be fake. She never came to live with us.

The first foster child that actually came to live with us was a 16-year-old girl named Beverly.  She lived with us for about a month, but she really didn’t want to be there and tried to make everyone’s life miserable.  While skating she broke her arm and through an odd set of circumstances - eventually went back to live with her family. At that point, my parents decided to foster younger children instead of teens – thinking that might be a better fit given that my siblings and I were between 5 and 10 at that point.

For the next several years, my life became an emotional rollercoaster for me as babies moved in and out of our lives. But this was definitely a family affair.  When my parents received a call for a child, they gathered the family together to discuss our options. From the moment we decided to foster a child, we all seemed to fall deeply and incredibly in love.  Whether the baby stayed for days or months or years didn’t seem to matter.  God seemed to give us all the ability to bond and attach instantly, which made the leaving part especially challenging.  Fortunately, my parents created a unique family ritual that helped us cope.

Up through the 1970’s, adoptions were closed and foster parents had no contact with the adoptive parents.  Essentially, the adoptive parents were told to pretend like the day that they received their child was the first day of the child’s life – no matter the age.  That left no room for relationships, comfort items, familiar objects, or even pictures of the time before adoption.

But my parents were far ahead of their time and understood the importance of this information for both the child and his new parents.  My mom kept a daily journal of the baby’s activities.  She made photo albums to send to the new parents.  She sent the baby’s favorite toys and blankets.  But we were at the mercy of the social worker.  She could give all this to the adoptive parents as some record of the baby’s early life - or toss it carelessly into the trash.  We would never know. 

When it was time for a child to leave, our family would begin the ritual of what I can best describe as grieving. We all understood that our role was to love this child for as long as she or he was with our family.  Nothing more.  But that didn’t make the goodbye easy.  In fact, if we did our job well, leaving felt incredibly hard. 

As soon as we received word that a baby was leaving, we began collecting items, packing belongings, writing notes, telling stories, giving extra kisses and love as we prepared for the final moments when the social worker would come to our home to take the baby to his new home.

When she came, she arrived to our family ritual.  All of us kids stayed home from school and we all sat in our adult-only living room crying as we passed the baby around for our final goodbyes.  We remembered.  We talked.  We laughed.  We would tell the social worker all the things that we thought were important for the new parents to know.  And then the baby walked out of our life, never to be heard from again.

When I was about 17, my mother was contacted about fostering a very special little boy named Timothy, who was medically fragile.  He was 8-months-old and had been labeled a vegetable by the medical staff. Born with serious medical problems to a 16-year-old mother, the doctors had done all they could do for him.  If he had any chance at life, the doctors felt he needed to be in a home.

My mom and our family had absolutely no experience with medically fragile children.  We had no idea how to do anything. My mom, who would bear most of the burden of providing for his medical needs, simply didn’t feel qualified to handle such serious medical issues.

But that has never stopped my mom and dad – and now their kids – from doing anything.  She and my father went to visit Timothy in the hospital and they decided almost immediately that they were willing to sacrifice to take on his enormous challenges -- but they wanted my siblings and me to agree because it would impact us too.
Shortly after meeting Timothy in the hospital, my mom was in the car with my 15-year-old brother on the way home from football practice.  My mom said to my brother, “Chris, I don’t know if we can handle this kind of child.” 

Much to my mom’s surprise, Chris responded, “Mom, all the other kids have been easy.  Maybe God is asking us to do something hard.”  My mom later said that clinched the deal for her and my father.

After that conversation, there was no turning back.  This tiny helpless infant - who was purportedly blind and unresponsive to humans. This baby - who had never smiled or laughed.  This child - who was fed through a tube in his stomach and had never even sucked a pacifier.  This child was the one my parents fell in love with. 

We brought Timothy home and he lived and inspired more love in our household than one could imagine.  People from all walks of life fell in love with this little boy that supposedly had nothing to offer this world.  We were supposed to help him.  We fed him.  We held him.  We clothed him. We gave him medicine.  We cleaned his tubing.  My mom worked tirelessly to develop his sucking reflex.  We did everything for this helpless baby.  But the truth is - he helped us. 

When he was 15-months old, Timothy died in the home of another foster family that had been preparing for weeks to take care of Timothy  – just so my parents could have a few days of respite from his 24-hour care. My dad sensed that Timothy’s time on earth was nearing an end and he was trying to give my mom a short break to re-energize -  but he had no way of knowing it would happen the one night they took for rest. 

My parents, who were both raised as devout Catholics, were also a product of the 1960’s and – my dad especially – was never one to follow the crowd.  Mom and dad chose a plain pine casket and had Timothy brought to our home for the wake and funeral.  They couldn’t bear the thought of allowing his tiny little body to be alone in some refrigerator at a strange place.

I was older by then, but it didn’t seem strange to me that the cold, lifeless body of our precious Timothy was upstairs in our living room while I tried to sleep in the room directly below.  I remember going upstairs once during the night to check on him and I saw my mom sitting beside the casket, crying. 

There were probably 200 people crammed into our house for the funeral.  There was music and poetry.  My siblings and I were teenagers and all our friends were grieving with us.  Timothy had impacted their lives too.  It was beautiful. 

Looking back, I thank my parents for breaking modern taboos and opening my heart up to the unexpected.  I had no way of knowing that 30 years later, I would bury my own child and that my views on her memorial would be so significantly impacted by my parents’ choices. 

Last year, I described these experiences to a new friend, who said to me quite sympathetically, “Wow.  You must have suffered a lot of loss in your childhood.”  Based on the look on this man’s face, my reaction was anything but expected.  I burst into tears as I tried to gather my thoughts and respond. 

Loss?  The word brought on a flood of emotions.  I thought for a moment, “ Did I suffer because these children came and went from my life?”  Through hiccupping tears that must have made this new friend think he had opened some terrible wound of my past, I said, “No.  It wasn’t loss at all.  For me, it was all gain.”

My tears were those of joy.  Not sadness.  Even now it make me cry to realize how blessed my life was by these children.  "No sir, it was not loss.  In my mind, it was all gain."

Up until that moment, I never realized that I thought of my role as foster sibling that way.  It was a profound moment.  

Enough for now... barring disaster - or another trip to the emergency room for the staph infection that finally presented itself like a unicorn on the forehead of my baby -  the story continues tomorrow.  


  1. I love that you are sharing your experience. I always thought ya´ll are an incredible family. I rememeber Timothy´s picture and your mother telling his story. Great writing too!
    Love ya! Julissa