Today is October first, which in the last four years, has become one of my favorite days of the year.
It’s the day we got the call for our daughter.
I used to blog regularly, but when she came, the blogs left. You see, it was a legality I couldn’t take a chance with, and we’d had a friend nearly lose their child (whom they were fostering at the time) because of her blog. So I shut it down. There was no blog numbers, no publicity worth losing my daughter over.
Audrey-Grace has been a Yarros legally for nearly two years. I’ve been in the clear to blog about our experience for just as long, but the time never seemed right. We were moving to Colorado, we were adjusting to being a complete family again, we were adjusting to her autism diagnosis…you name it. But every time I’m at a signing, someone tells me that it’s our story—Audrey-Grace’s story—that inspired them to foster, or to adopt.
Jason and I have had the talk: how open should we be? How public? Should we share her real name? How much of it is simply her story, or that of her biological parents? Would our story help inspire those who are thinking about opening their home to foster the 428,000 children currently in the US foster system? We hope so, and it’s with that in mind that I’ll be blogging this series for October. If you’d like to follow along, just hit up the subscribe here box on the left, then sit back and take the ride with us. We’ll be as open as we feel we can be while still maintaining the privacy of everyone who impacted our lives during that time. Oh, and forgive the typos…because it’s just me, in my office, stopping way too often to chase our little Tasmanian Devil around the house as she plays with everything that makes a noise, lol!
Our story begins way before October 1, but today, that’s what’s on my mind, so let’s start there.
We’d been waiting over two years to adopt, but I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.
October 1, 2013.
Jason was a little over five months into his fourth deployment. This time he was in Afghanistan. It was just me, our four boys and our oldest daughter when she could visit, living in Upstate New York in our home that had been built in 1890. Yes, you read that right: 1890. God, I loved that house. It was old, and crooked in places from settling, but it had floor-to-ceiling windows, high ceilings, and the 6th bedroom we needed for the little girl who would eventually be ours. We’d bought it for her, and she had yet to make an appearance.
In all honestly, we were in a good place. Our kids were healthy, Iron Man had just started preschool, which meant that for the first time in YEARS, I had three hours to myself in the morning, which worked out because I’d just received the offer from my publisher for my first novel, Full Measures. I missed Jason with the kind of longing that words won’t do justice, and things were hectic, but I felt capable, like I’d finally found a little bit of my deployment footing.
Around 4:20 p.m., as I was logging onto Facebook and yelling at the boys to get on their Under Armours for hockey practice, the phone rang with a familiar caller ID: Jefferson County DSS. I told myself not to get excited. They called to invited us parties, to check on our certifications, all that. They’d only called us once for a placement before…and well, that had broken my heart. So I answered, and our adoption case worker said, “Here’s what I have.”
At the same moment, fate being what she is, Jason logged on to facebook from half way around the world. I typed as fast as heard the words coming from our social worker.
They had a baby girl who needed a foster family. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Five months old. Temporary foster care. She’d probably only be with us a month, as her mother was waiting to be placed in an available bed for rehab. Did we want her?
Jason and I typed over FB as our social worker hung on. He wasn’t there in the physical sense, but it felt like he was sitting next to me on that couch. We hadn’t expected a baby—we’d honestly figured we’d get a toddler. We didn’t have anything for a baby besides the crib Jason had put together the year before. But none of that mattered.
We said yes, and it changed everything.
I told our social worker that we definitely wanted to foster her, but that we were headed out the door for hockey practice. She said, “No problem, we’ll bring her to the rink.”
I blinked. You’ll deliver my baby to the ice rink like a pizza? Insane thought, I know, but I had so much adrenaline in my system that I couldn’t focus, couldn’t think, couldn’t calm my heart. I got offline with Jason and told him I’d send pics as soon as I got my hands on her, and then I raced up to the small, pink room we’d painted with friends two years ago in anticipation of this moment. I grabbed a pink, fuzzy blanket just in case she’d need it in the rink.
Four years later, I don’t remember a lot of the details of the drive into Watertown from our little village of Carthage. I remember telling the boys that we’d be fostering a baby, but just for the month. I was scared they’d get attached, that this time I wouldn’t just have my broken heart, or Jason’s to deal with, but theirs.
I didn’t tell many people, but I called my sister immediately.
“You know how everything in my life always tends to happen at once?” I asked her when she picked up.
“Yes…what are you telling me?”
“Well, I just got an offer for Full Measures and I’m about to sign my first book deal, right?”
“Oh my God. You’re getting a baby.”
“I’m getting a baby.”
I laughed, and I think she knew it wasn’t pure joy. It was nerves, and worry, and exhilaration, and sheer terror.
“What should we call her as a nickname?” I asked my little boys after I’d hung up the phone. I didn’t want them calling her by her given name if she was only going to be here for a month. I didn’t want them to shatter when she left. That had been our biggest fear when we chose to walk this path, and why it took us over a year to agree to foster instead of straight-up-adopt. A nickname seemed safest for them.
“It’s October, so we should call her Pumpkin,” The Hulk said.
“No. She’s a baby girl, so she’ll be Princess,” Iron Man added, his voice crazy strong for a four-year-old.
“I like Pumpkin,” Captain America said.
“Me, too,” Thor agreed. “Pumpkin.”
“Well, that’s three for Pumpkin. What do you think?” I asked Iron Man.
He crossed his little arms and narrowed those grey eyes. “I’m going to call her Princess Pumpkin. Period. That’s her name.”
Well, I guess that was that.
We made it to the rink, and I got the older boys dressed, tied their skates and sent them onto the ice. Then I paced the lobby like a mad woman until I got the text that they were outside in the parking lot. I took Iron Man’s hand in mine, gave the other to Thor, and we walked outside to meet her.
The case worker who had removed her gave me the briefest rundown in the history of rundowns outside the car. She had tested positive for drugs at birth five months ago. Today had been an emergency removal for neglect. She didn’t have much with her. They were expecting us to only have her for a month.
Then she opened the back of the SUV, and I saw her.
She was tiny for five months old. About the size of Iron Man when he’d been about six to eight weeks. One of the other social workers was giving her a bottle in her car seat, and my thoughts raced about three hundred miles an hour.
Her hair was a fluffy, blonde cloud in a patch above her head, but the rest of her head was bare.
She’s biracial. Oh God, how do I do her hair? I don’t know how to do her hair.
Yes, that was seriously my next thought. I was horribly inadequate. I was going to mess her up. I was going to do something wrong and ruin her.
But then she finished eating, released the bottle, and looked at me.
Those blue eyes locked on mine, and that was it.
Oh, there you are, my soul said to hers. I’ve been looking for you.
She was beautiful.
The social worker popped the hatch and showed me a few grocery bags. She had a few pairs of stretch pants, a few onesies, a pink floral shirt, and some formula. Then they unhooked her car seat and handed her to me, making an appointment for the next day to come visit the house and make sure everything was okay.
It’s been four years, and I can still feel the weight of her in my hand, adjusting my grip on her car seat while the small plastic bags dug into the skin of my fingers in the other. Everything my daughter owned to her name came in a few plastic bags.
“Thor, hold Iron Man’s hand and walk right next to me,” I said to my boys.
Then we walked across the parking lot to my van—the one Jason had bought the day after we’d been certified as foster/adoptive parents—and strapped her car seat in. Only after that was secure, and her things in the trunk, did I unstrap her from the seat and hold my daughter for the first time.
“Hi,” I told her softly, brushing the soft skin of her cheek with my thumb. “I’m going to take care of you. Got it? Don’t you worry about a thing.”
Only about an hour after they asked me if we wanted to foster her, she was in my arms.
Her weight was slight, and she didn’t have the typical muscle mass of a five-month old. She could hold up her head, but not the rest of her body. She felt like a newborn in so many ways, loose limbs and soft posture, she smiled, but her eyes were a little vacant, as if her personality was in there…just sleeping. Her toes were bare. I glanced through the bag again and then thanked earlier-Rebecca who’d grabbed the pink blanket. I wrapped her in the blanket, took my boys by the hand, and walked into the rink.
The hockey baby, as our team would lovingly call her, was born.
I snapped that picture for Jason, and then sent it to my best friend without an explanation. I’m evil like that. (Yes, she called pretty darn fast, that was for sure!)
While the older boys were on the ice, I looked at our new little charge, seeing the things I knew would take extra care. She was drastically underweight. There was a cyst next to her eye inside her skull, and that eye wasn’t focused the same as the other. She wasn’t alert, and didn’t have the same strength I’d known from having kids. The social worker had told us they felt she’d been left in her car seat, which would explain why she only had her little tuft of blonde hair on the top of her head, but I didn’t know. I realized I’d never know anything about her for certain other than what happened from this moment. I looked at her facial features, her gorgeous blue eyes, her forehead, the area between her nose and her mouth, and knew something was off…but I kept my thoughts to myself.
The boys came off the ice and fell in love with her. Theirs was an instant, intense devotion that has never wavered, no matter what we were about to go through as a family. In that instant, she was theirs, and no one could tell them otherwise.
As we headed home, I strapped her into her carseat, and she began to shriek. It was high-pitched. Unmistakable.
If you’ve ever been around a baby who tests positive for drugs at birth, you know the cry. It’s ear-piercing. My mother, who has her masters degree in all things childbirth and neonatal nursing, identified it immediately.
Oh God, what if I wasn’t enough? I was a great baby mom, I knew that. It’s easy to soothe a baby when all they want is you. But this wasn’t my baby. She didn’t know me. She’d been pulled from the only home she knew, the only mom she’d ever had, and was now here. With strangers. What if I couldn’t console her? Hell, how could I console her when I knew I wasn’t the one she wanted? I didn’t know anything about her. Not her schedule, her preferences, her needs. I didn’t know if she liked to be swaddled like Captain America, or needed to sleep upright like the Hulk.
The car was silent the first ten minutes of the ride home, except for her screams.
“Well, at least we know her lungs work,” the Hulk said, and everyone burst into laughs, cutting the tension.
And in that moment, I knew we’d be okay. As alone as I felt then, with Jason so very far away, and my family on the other side of the country, I knew those boys had my back. I knew they had her back.
When we got home, the flurry of bedtime activity began, and I realized just how unprepared we were. She’d shriek any time I put her down in her car seat, so the boys took turns holding her as I got them ready for bed. We didn’t have a swing. A bouncer. Anything that related to a baby this young. All we had were a few items of clothing we’d bought and stored just in case we had an emergency placement, and a still-in-the-package Dr. Brown’s Bottle for the same reason.
Oh, and an over-abundance of hair bows. I’d bought them while we waited those two years for her, accumulating them like some kind of visual representation of our prayers to God that eventually our daughter would wear them.
I dressed her in some fuzzy jammies I thought would be soft against her skin and let my heart absorb that moment. I’d bought those jammies in the hope, that tiny, heart-swelling emotion, that one day she’d wear them. Then, after the boys were in bed, I paced the floor with her, singing Your Song by Elton John and Home by Phillip Phillips, the two songs that had gone through my head constantly the last two years waiting for her. We’d even had this painted for her room and hung it above her crib…just waiting.
And our wait was over.
When she was in bed, and Jason was able to get to a phone in Afghanistan, he called. I tried to explain the feelings, the events, her history, everything about her as best I could. I sent a dozen pictures, anything I could do to bring him into our moment, to understand what lies ahead of us.
“They say it’s only going to be a month,” I told him.
“Okay. Just…just be careful with your heart. And I know that’s impossible for you, just try,” he told me, having had to pick me up off the ground six months earlier when an overnight placement went home.
“I know. I keep telling myself that…but it’s hard. And I think…”
“You think what?”
“I think there’s something wrong. I think she might have fetal alcohol syndrome.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Okay.”
“What do we do?”
“We take care of her for however long they let us,” he told me.
I had no idea in that moment just how many times he would say that to me over the next two years. It became our mantra.
She woke up in the middle of the night…around 2 a.m., as babies do, and I fed her, realizing her tiny belly could only hold about an ounce or two of formula, but nothing more. I remember pacing the halls with her after she’d finished, the hardwood cool beneath my feet, her body warm against my chest. The earlier terror I’d had that I wouldn’t be enough started to fade with each step. It’s hard to explain those moments adequately, but something transformed within me.
While the rest of the world slept, we paced as I sang, and she went from being this tiny, wailing stranger…to quiet, content, and mine. And I knew that our time together was more-than-likely only a month, and nothing that she would remember. But I also knew that though she wasn’t mine, she desperately needed for me to be hers.
And I instantly, irrevocably was.
Audrey-Grace wasn’t Audrey-Grace yet, and we wouldn’t get the privilege of calling her that for another two years…to the date. But that night she fell asleep in that pale pink room, surrounded by the things we’d bought her from all over the world, as a stranger. When she woke up, it was to the Hulk smiling down on her (who still wakes her up every morning to this day), and she wasn’t a stranger any more. She wasn’t the baby they delivered to a hockey rink.
She was their sister, just another Yarros kid.
The Hulk sat with her on the kitchen floor and I snapped the picture above, then made the boys’ lunches because it was a school day, and the bus waits for no mom. I used my husband’s phrase over and over. “We don’t know how long she’ll stay. We just know that we get take care of her for as long as they let us.”
The miracle of fostering was in this moment, that instant bond between them which has proven unbreakable.
It happened in an instant.
On September 30, I went to bed with five kids.
On October 1, I fell asleep with six.
Four years later, Audrey-Grace is running amok in our home in Colorado, stealing her brothers’ cell phones, playing the piano, giggling as she races past the french doors of my office, and generally ruling the roost as only a tiny girl can.
All because we answered the phone. All because we said yes.