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

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Part 2 -Lee Family: Our Birth - Foster - Adoptive Journey to 20 Children

(This is Part 2 of the series telling our family story.  I am asked to tell some part of this story every day.  I have finally written it down. Part 3 will follow.)

Over the years, times changed. Open-adoptions began.  Foster parents began to have some contact with the adoptive and/or birth parents. The times were finally catching up with what we already understood.

We kept other medically fragile children, including Robert, who lived with us while awaiting his kidney transplant and Kristen, who died while waiting for hers.  Robert was a chubby little black baby.  This was the early-1980’s in Alabama.  Although race wasn’t a daily issue for us – I was surprised by the number of people who were offended by the fact that we were taking care of a black foster child.  This was after Timothy and so most of our friends expected the unexpected from our family.  This was just another crazy thing our family did.  Strangers weren’t always so understanding. 

The day Robert’s kidney became available, my mom was out shopping with Robert.  This was before cell phones.  We got the call from the transplant center and had only a matter of hours to find them and get Robert to the hospital.  We called all of the usual places she shopped – asking if there was “a white woman and a black baby” in the store.  At that time, it was a novelty.   But that novelty may have saved his life because we found her and he got his transplant.

Twenty-five years later, Robert is still an integral part of my parent’s lives and his mother is a close friend of the family.

And then there were the older kids.  We didn’t have many, but they were memorable.  While I was studying for the bar exam, my parents took in 6-year-old Lavar, who had been confined to the hospital for almost four years of his life.  He came with a tracheotomy, but he was as solid as a tank. He rammed into you so hard he could knock you over – and that was when he wanted a hug. 

My mom was good with the kind and gentle children, but she wasn’t naturally attracted to the rough and tough kids.  I was attracted to the 6-year old football player with an afro, who had to put his finger over his trach to eek out raspy words.  The boy who carried around an oxygen tank with a 100-foot cord so he could move and play.  That relationship worked out well for us. 

There always seemed to be at least one of us in the family who was perfectly suited for the personality of each child.  I was living with my grandmother only a few miles away, but I made it a point to have a relationship with Lavar and when he was hospitalized right before Christmas, I used my newly acquired legal skills and knowledge to fight for his right to visit his mom on Christmas Day.  I’m not sure what ridiculous things I surely said, but he got to go home for the day and I felt like I was following in my parents’ footsteps as an advocate for the best interest of the child – even when it didn’t match protocol, the rules, or what the world thought. That trait has come in handy over the years.

And no one can forget Fini.  She won’t let you.  She’s the star of every social event.  When she was born to poverty stricken parents in South Alabama, she had tetrology of fallott (three heart and lung defects).  She was in and out of hospitals for much of her first two years of life. 

She suffered from brain damage that left us uncertain about her future.  Never afraid of the challenge and always deeply committed – my parents hardly flinched.  After working with her parents for almost two-years to get her back home, Fini’s parents decided to allow my parents to adopt her.

Now my 23-year-old dark-skinned little sister – her simple mind and big heart have done more to change, inspire, and soften the heart of my father than any other person on earth.  She will always need my parents.  But the truth is – they need her too.

Yep. It must be gain, because I’m now 49-years-old and ultimately, not much has changed in my life. There were a few gap years in between the time I grew up as a foster sibling and the time my husband and I became foster/adoptive parents.  At first glance, it looks as though my life took me in a totally different direction from the one I lead now – but God knew what I needed to accomplish to be useful to Him!

Now bear with me for a moment because the next part of my story has a lot to do with my education and career choices, which can seem boring and unrelated. But looking back, I can now see that themes began to develop early in my life and that many of my seemingly unrelated decisions turned out to be key components of the big picture of my life.  In other words, they are important.

So, in between, I went to Samford University on a debate scholarship, hated it, and transferred to the University of North Carolina during the Michael Jordan Basketball Era. (Claim to fame: Michael and the rest of the basketball team were the “co-ed” part of my floor in our dorm). Being a classic overachiever, I earned two degrees in 3 ½ years: There was a B.A. in Speech Communications and a B.A. with Honors in Public Policy Analysis – with a specialization in Race Relations and Human Inequality.  I wrote my Honors Thesis on desegregation of campus housing at Carolina. It required me to go into the archives of the University and interview people who had been around for the 20 years since the school had become integrated.  I was an advocate for improving measures to desegregate campus housing.

Both my specialization and my thesis were influenced by the fact that my best friend in college happened to be an African-American male. This was the early 1980’s, but it was still considered taboo for me to be friends with a black man. I suppose growing up with black foster-siblings gave me a different view than most of my peers.

I say “happened to be” because circumstances brought us together – but color didn’t keep us apart. He was a Resident Director in the set of private off-campus dorms where I lived and I worked under him.  We had a lot in common and formed a lasting friendship almost immediately.  We talked openly about race relations.  He came from a large family and lived poor in a rural town where he wasn’t allowed into an integrated school until 5th grade.

I grew up with extremely frugal parents on a limited income, but my dad made a living wage and also saved and paid cash for everything and as a result, I was afforded many opportunities.  My friend worked his rear off to make opportunities for himself. He was the first and only one on either side of his family to graduate college.   I worked hard too.  Both he and I valued honesty and hard work and diligence and neither of us was concerned by what others said about us.

We weren’t even dating – which would have been the ultimate sin – but people thought that we were. Some of my friends – male and female – openly disapproved based simply on the color of his skin. 

But I was my parent’s child.  And the fact that others criticized us made me even more determined to follow my heart and make my own decisions without regard to the world’s view of my life.

During this same time period, I met the man who was to become my first husband.  We met at a conference in Washington, D.C. and then I had an internship there.  We dated for about a year long-distance.  Me in North Carolina.  Him in Michigan. He was older than me and already in law school.  He swept me off my feet – or so I thought.  It was difficult to tell from a distance. We got engaged anyway.

I moved to Michigan and applied for law schools in the area.  He planned to run for political office.  Long story short, I had a serious automobile accident with a drunk driver 3 weeks before our wedding. Based on what happened during this crisis, I can look back and know that I had all the signs that this marriage couldn’t succeed.  It became apparent to me that he was an alcoholic and we didn’t share the same values, goals and dreams.  But I was only 20-years-old and I didn’t know how to stop a big wedding, nor was I sure that I was supposed to. 

Suffice it to say that it was a bad decision for both of us.  Our first anniversary was spent trying to decide whether we should stay married another year.  Ultimately, we were divorced when he told me that he didn’t love me and never had.  He had married me because he thought it would help his political  career.  I didn’t.

I was in my second year of law school when we finally divorced.  It was an emotional struggle for me.  I never thought I would marry and divorce.  It was my first true failure in life.

Ultimately, I kept pushing through – graduating from law school in the top 20% of my class and writing on to Law Review.  Writing turned out to be my strength.  It gave me many opportunities even my good grades didn’t.  Including a Clerkship with Justice Oscar W. Adams, the first African-American State Supreme Court Justice in the United States.  After an initial selection process, he chose his Clerk based on a writing competition.  He later told me I won it hands down and I spent the next year researching and writing opinions for the Alabama Supreme Court and learning from a man who was a key figure in the evolution of race relations in Alabama.   Race and writing became two strong’s themes in my life.  

The clerkship and writing skills led to a job in a large law firm with a great starting salary and countless working hours.  I was technically a trial attorney, but strongly preferred to write Appellate Briefs.  I handled much of the firm’s appellate work for the three years I worked at there. 

Later, my research and writing skills were the key to my ability to practice law and raise children at the same time.  You can write in the middle of the night!

Since law school, I’ve added a few more degrees and credentials – including a Masters in Education and training in Mediation and Christian Peacemaking - just because I love learning and love teaching what I know. 

But all my degrees are not the source of my self-worth and are fairly meaningless – except to me – because they show me how God was present through every step – even when it seemed I was following a completely different passion.  And all those degrees and relationships and experiences have come in handy over the years as I advocate for the children that I love and help kids both academically and emotionally.

Besides, I met my current husband while I was working at the large law firm. 

... and that part of the story coincidentally falls today - on our 23rd  Wedding Anniversary.  Part 3 - the marriage - will follow so look for it!

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