“How would you like to get your feet wet?”

That was how the social worker began a phone call on March 24th that changed my life. A ten-year-old girl needed a new foster placement temporarily, because her foster family was dealing with some personal issues.

She was ten years old. She had some behavior issues. She had some medical issues. She had an incredibly delicate and complex court case. She had a family history that was not only traumatic and heartbreaking, but so dramatic and shocking, it sounded like a tabloid.

They said it would just be for the weekend.

I said yes.

The social worker, the girl, and several duffel bags materialized in my living room within the hour.

I showed up late to my dance rehearsal at the YMCA that evening, breathless, nervous, and distracted—experiencing for the first time that multitasking maternal instinct: half of my brain was focused on the dance steps, but the other half was wondering and worrying about the child I had left in the YMCA “child watch” downstairs.

After dance rehearsal, I took her home. I helped her unpack. I don’t remember what I made for dinner.

Sometime during the evening, she snuck a pile of candy. She lied. She got caught. When I gently asked her about the candy, she became frightened and broke out in hives. I didn’t have any medications on hand, so we drove to Walmart. Walking hand in hand around the store, I wondered what I had gotten myself into when I agreed to care for this child with an unspeakably complicated history, barely knowing anything about her. But I also felt like we were on an adventure.

We got home after our bedtime. The hives subsided. I tucked her into bed with a prayer, and the same questions and answers that my mom had asked me every night.

“Does Mommy love you because you’re smart?”
“Because you’re sweet?”
“Because you’re pretty?”
“Because you’re silly?”
“Why does Mommy love you?”
“Because I am I.”

Only I replaced “Mommy” with my first name.

Once I had tucked her in bed, I sat in my living room, listening to her breathe. I crept back into her room numerous times that night to make sure she was still breathing.

It was an adventure. I was excited to learn and grow through that weekend.

But it wasn’t just a weekend.

A weekend turned into a week, which turned into two weeks, which turned into a long-term placement agreement.

She attended the school where I worked. I watched her cross the monkey bars on the playground from my classroom window. We read books together. We rode bikes together. I signed her up for piano lessons. We planted a garden. I taught her songs, poems, and Bible verses. We ran a 5K. We ice skated, went to museums, and rode horses. I bought her an Easter dress with butterflies on it. When I think of her, I still think about butterflies. She attended my friend’s wedding and my sister’s high school graduation. She was family.

I learned about the process of reunification with a birth parent. I learned about court days, and how quickly a child’s situation may change. I learned about advocacy.

I sat in a room with her birth mother, listened to her tell me about her own trauma, and learned first hand what people mean when they say abuse is cyclical. We baked her birth mom a cake for her birthday and bought her a gift for Mother’s Day.

I celebrated my first Mother’s Day.

Then, four months later, she was gone. The court had ruled in a direction none of us had expected. I remember the outfits we were both wearing on the day we said goodbye in front of the foster agency.

I remember—I’ll never forget—the look on her face when she first recognized a family member she hadn’t seen in years. Whatever may have been wrong or right about the process of reunification—whatever I may have thought was best—I now know exactly what it looks like when a person with a piece missing in their heart feels that piece slip back into place. I know what a child’s face looks like when they tell themselves for the first time in years, “I belong.”

I went home without a daughter—to a house with an empty room that had been filled with her toys and clothes only an hour before.

It was only four months. She had entered my life unexpectedly and left suddenly. But she was my first child, and I had loved her deeply.

I told the foster agency that I would need a while to recover.

A week later, I got another phone call.

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