Sunday, August 30, 2009

Getting to Feel Like Family

We had another great weekend with T. This weekend, it felt like we settled into a family dynamic, with less of the everyone-on-extra-good-behavior feeling of our previous visits. There's a real compatibility among the three of us. Certainly, T. has tried to make himself easy to get along with, but, beneath that, there's a mutual recognition that seems to spring from pure chemistry. In fact, the less self-conscious and "good" he acts, the more we settle into a relaxed habit of being together. Some things to remember from the weekend:

We met up with his brother at a rock-climbing event for the program we're all in. His brother is a cutie, about three years younger. He has a laid-back vibe similar to T., but he's a lot more hapless. Within minutes, I was holding his stuff for him and helping him climb the starter wall, which he was doing with great trepidation. By then, T. had already worked his way up the advanced wall and was attracting a small crowd of admirers.

There's a heartbreaking aspect to this, because T.'s brother obviously idolizes him and probably just became aware this weekend that T. is with us now, while he has yet to find an adoptive match himself. In fact, he's about to transition to yet another foster home - I believe he's been in more than a dozen in his twelve years. And while the prevailing wisdom is to keep siblings together as much as possible, these two have often been separated and T. doesn't want to be with his brother right now.

After the event, in the car (which is where all significant conversations happen, it turns out), we told T. that since we're approved through our program to "host" kids on weekends, if he wants to visit with his brother, we can probably arrange to have him over for a weekend. He stared into my eyes and shook his head silently "no." I said, great, we just wanted to be sure you have the chance to spend more time with him if you want it. This time he spoke, "no" in a gentle but firm way. I told him about how the agency originally told us they wanted to be together, but we suspected otherwise and pressed his social worker who told us T. would prefer to be on his own. He nodded his head enthusiastically and somewhat gratefully.

A few minutes later, he explained, in his own indirect way. He and his brother had once lived with some extended family. T. had been very young - first grade - but he was put in charge of caring for his brother (then a toddler), and doing certain housework. "I think that's why I'm so clean," he offered. I said, "Yes, I imagine that's also why you are wise beyond your years." He looked at me intently and nodded in his gentle way. He told us a little bit more after that about how they went on to a foster home after that where the foster parent mistreated T.'s brother. As always it was offered as a matter-of-fact statement of truth. I said something after that about how, having been in charge of responsibilities so young, he now had the chance to be a kid - I probably said it in a tangled way, but I think my tone of voice conveyed that I understand support his desire to be the only kid in the house. I'm glad we were able to talk it through. It's a big priority for us to give T. ways to define what he needs and wants.

There were a few funny moments this weekend, too. Before the rock climbing event, I asked T. and Tim whether we should have a private signal in case one of us got bored and felt it was time to move on. T. said "I'll make a bird sound (demonstrated something like a hawk cry) and then I'll flap my arms like this (gestured with full wingspan)." Later, as we were preparing to leave the rockclimbing event, there was a sudden flurry of activity - one of the social workers was asking the kids to fill out a form, while all sorts of desperate unmatched adults were hovering around trying to catch the kids' attention one last time. And it was about 105 degrees in the room. T. turned his head and looked right in my eyes and let out a giant hawk cry. We cracked up completely, as he flapped his long arms. I jumped to my feet and we were almost out the door when we got stopped on our way by a prospective "host" parent, who had taken a liking to T. and wanted to "say goodbye" to him - which involved a prolonged, rather intimate hug. We were somewhat panicked, but he navigated the situation with grace and then jumped in the car.

This weekend we also talked about taking a trip this fall. But he looked totally overwhelmed by the invitation to weigh in on a destination. "I don't know any places," he said helplessly. Whoops! I think we need to provide more guidance and less democracy on this issue. He has never been out of Los Angeles. It occurs to me also that a trip might feel like a vacation to us, but like a relocation and an upset to him.

But here's the best moment: We went out to get frozen yogurt and do some errands later in the evening. He was chatty, as he often seems to be in the evenings (not a morning person!) and after consuming sugar. From the back seat, he piped up: "When I'm 18, I'm going to get wings tattooed on my back. But they're going to be kind of torn up." I said, "Oh yeah, like wings you had to fight for?" "Yes!" he said. "Because I'm going to soar, with some help from you guys. That's what I'm going to tell the social workers. Please just let me be with Amy and Tim, because I like them and they like me. And they're going to help me soar." At times like that, we are almost struck dumb.

We also joked around about all the stories we might come up with when he moves in, like telling people he's in witness protection, or that he's in a special gifted program and we've been hired by the government to watch over him. He came up with one story where he's Obama's nephew, and he's staying with us while he finishes school to get away from all the hoopla. It was a generally hilarious conversation and one that released a little tension about how we all explain to the outside world how we came together. Tim also did a great job of using it as an opportunity to convey a serious message, by saying "We'll back you on any story you want to tell to explain how you're with us white people." That had to be said at some point, and humor floats it without making it too heavy.

We miss him now when he leaves. I think he misses us too.

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