Monday, November 30, 2009


We just returned from a five day Thanksgiving trip with T. There's a lot written about the stress that the holidays put on traumatized kids and kids in foster care. It's not hard to imagine why the holidays might stir up grief and anger and loneliness. So we were prepared to manage some complicated feelings and behaviors.

Add to that the fact that T. has never been out of LA County before, so this was his very first vacation out of town.

We chose my brother's place in the Bay Area, because he and his wife are social workers and generally sensitive and low key - plus T. met them a couple months ago when they came to visit us in LA. Our parents were there, and T. hadn't met them before.

He was very very quiet in the car on the way up to the Bay Area. That morning, he took some time to phone some of his relatives with whom he keeps in touch - we encourage and respect this. When I hear them talk on the phone, I'm struck by the bonds of kinship and T.'s capacity to integrate a very complicated past and present.

Once we arrived at my brother's house, T. greeted everyone, which is major progress since his usual m.o. is to avoid greetings and farewells altogether. (Before we arrived, we described how my family would greet him - with a smile and a handshake - and I was glad we remembered to do that, because he walked right up to my dad and extended his hand.)

We asked our parents not to ask him a lot of questions and not to say things like "Welcome to the family!" They've been very supportive all along and they followed our suggestions. We were fairly bossy and probably seemed sort of controlling, but we wanted to anticipate T.'s needs and make sure he felt welcome but not emotionally pressured.

My 18 month old nephew toddled in to visit T. while we were all making dinner. When we peeked in, T. had the baby balanced on his hip and he was playing Wii with the other hand. The next day, they rolled around in bed together playing peek-a-boo under the covers. T.'s magic touch with animals apparently extends to babies as well. He looks like a typical urban teenager, but he has the soul of St. Francis.

Dinner went well - T. ate, and his appetite is often fleeting, especially when he's nervous. Then we played cards - my dad taught him to play poker, which made him beam with pleasure. He seemed to enjoy being part of the group, and even avoided text messaging all day, which is a first.

The next day we moved on to a hotel in San Francisco. He got a great laugh out of hiding in the bathroom of our hotel room and suprising us when we didn't know he was there. It was hilarious and reminded me of the hiding games that much younger kids often play. Sometimes when he's very happy (or very sad) he behaves in these younger ways, and it's always a great gift, to see and parent the child he must have been years ago before we knew him.

This weekend, for the first time, he touched us of his own accord. It took four months to get to this point. T. typically sort of stiffens when he's hugged or kissed. We've been low key in our approach, sneaking in a goodnight kiss to the top of his head at bedtime, for example, but not forcing hugs. Something about Thanksgiving was a milestone for him. Starting the very next day, he was physically more relaxed. He took to playing little games from the back seat that involved tugging on my hair, or putting his face right next to mine and whispering in my ear to suprise me in the car. At one point he gently palmed the top of my head like you would a basketball - something I've done to him as a gesture of affection almost since he first started spending weekends at our house. In the hotel suite, he came into our room and flopped on our bed to play cards with us - such a natural thing, but intimacy and physical ease do not come easily with him; they have to be earned.

As usual, he offered us about a billion opportunities to parent in regards to what I think of as the triumvirate of teen parenting: drugs, sex and violence. He asks our opinion all the time, in a comic way, as if he's got a script, and he is eager to see if we're going to perform the parent lines for him. It usually happens in the car, and he sort of springs it on us out of the blue - usually a shy story about something he's thinking about, or something he's heard about from friends and family. Some of his family background is harrowing, and sometimes we're a little tongue-tied and overwhelmed. But now we know that if we don't say exactly what we wanted to, we're likely to get another opportunity in the near future! And he responds. He is amazing in his capacity to reason and consider. If we don't make a good case, we can tell immediately that he's unconvinced. If we're logical and explain our position, he very often agrees on the spot, and describes how he thinks this new lesson might translate into more careful behavior, leaving us sort of slack-jawed.

Once in awhile, I panic and wonder if we're going to guide him sufficiently. But I derive a lot of hope from T. because he so badly wants to be parented. Sometimes I think he actually enjoys it when we describe guidelines and expectations. He kind of beams a smug satisfied smile, like "Look, I made you parent me!" And he did! I think sometimes we're just as suprised as he is, especially when it's so much fun.

As we got close to LA on the return drive, T. was eager to make Christmas plans. He pulled out a pad of paper and made Tim and I list our favorite colors and musical artists, because he wanted some help selecting Christmas presents. He's hoping for a turtle and an iPod. I said I'm hoping that the three of us will pose for a photo together. We'll see how it goes.


M and M said...

T is a brilliant boy, and it's great to have you back in blogland. I missed reading about the amazing T and your own amazing reflections on life with him.

marythemom said...

I've missed you too. It's so good to hear happy stories. I'm glad y'all had a happy thanksgiving!

Mary in TX

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