Today marks the four-week mark of meeting the peerless W. for the first time. We have ten days left with him, our Project 143 host child, and it’s going to be tough when the day for “goodbye” arrives. He’s such an upbeat kid – helpful, proactive, interested. We’re all going to feel his absence keenly.
Spending a month with a foster kid is full of poignant moments; this will come as a surprise to no one. But I’ve been finding that the month-long build-up of these moments – my tracking them and mulling them over – has been a window on just how little we’ve engaged with people whose lives are much harder than our own. Jesus was most concerned about – spent most of his time with – the vulnerable, the outcast, and the downtrodden… We haven’t been as concerned, and haven’t spent much time. The poignant moments in our time with W, and the cataloguing of them, has been helping pull us into the ways of Jesus. They’ve been a gift from Him as we slowly get our start. Here are some that stand out.
During W’s first week with us, he happens to pick up a kids’ picture book lying on the coffee table called Most of All, Jesus Loves You. This is the moment – as he’s reading it aloud to our preschooler – that I realize he can read English pretty darn well. I’m smiling as I hear his competence. But then the words: “Mama loves you, and Daddy loves you. Your brother loves you, and your sister loves you. Your grandma loves you, and your grandpa loves you. Your aunts and uncles love you, and your cousins love you. And your friends loves you. But most of all…. Jesus loves you!” Suddenly I realize what they’re saying, and I want to rush over and pull the book out of his hands, swap in another one. Because, of course a solid 80% of the book is inapplicable to W. He has no mama or daddy, no brother or sister, no grandma or grandpa, no aunts and uncles (that we know of). It’s all moot. Good thing the point of the book is that the most important love we have is Jesus’ love – and that part sure as heck applies. But man. Tough road to have to plow through for a kid in his circumstance to arrive at that happy truth.
This week is vacation Bible school at our church; before the festivities crank up they serve a simple dinner in the fellowship hall. The first night, eating spaghetti, my eight-year-old suddenly realizes that his tooth is about to come out. (Classic, right? Now, at a long folding table surrounded by strangers, is the moment you feel you need to wrench your tooth out? In the middle of dinner?).
He returns triumphant from the bathroom – where I sent him for the pull – and asks me to hold it so he can put it under his pillow for the tooth fairy. W. asks me what this is about. I think: how’s this going to go down? I surreptitiously pull out my iPhone and type the gist of the tooth fairy into Google Translate. He says to me, as matter-of-factly as you can imagine (and out of earshot of my kids), “Oh yes. We have this in Latvia too. I put my tooth under the pillow and wait and wait and wait and nothing happens, so then” – he does a quick charade of grabbing out the tooth and tossing it.
And the sadness wells up in me, thinking of a 5-year-old version of W., retrieving that small white treasure under his pillow morning after morning and eventually realizing that no one’s coming to make that conversion. Reminds me of the line in orphan Annie’s “Hard Knock Life”: “Santa Claus – what’s that, who’s he?”
We join friends for their daughter’s birthday dinner where the theme is the Disney movie “Frozen.” As we sit down to cake and ice cream, I notice a movie motto of sorts is printed on the napkins: Family Forever. It’s such a small thing, I doubt that W. either noticed or understood the tagline. But somehow it sticks in my head, and as we drive home I think… W’s family wasn’t forever. And the heaviness of this sits with me, the hard fact that lots of people’s families – at least their birth families – end up not being forever.
W. was hosted two summers ago in Chicago with P143, and – thinking about his coming return to Latvia – I ask him if he’s stayed in touch with the family that hosted him. He seems not to know what I mean. “Did they write you a letter? Did you write them one?” Again, he seems stumped. “You know, letters,” I say, gesturing a pen and a paper and licking a stamp. He continues to seem baffled by what I’m trying to convey, so much so that I pull up Google images on my phone and show him a picture of a handwritten letter with an envelope. “Oh,” he says. “No. Takes too long from America to Latvia,” he says. I tell him no, it doesn’t take long – 6 or 7 days, most times. We turn the conversation to email – he has an email address, and I ponder the changing age and generation in which electronic correspondence reigns and a handwritten letter is virtually a foreign concept for a kid.
But more than that I think: what must it be like to never get an actual letter? From a grandparent or a cousin, an aunt or an uncle? Because W.’s response makes me think – maybe he never has.
(Molly of A Moose in Moscow has written about the book Infinitely More and how author Alex Krutov, an orphan, writes about how he could barely stand to see his host mom throw away junk mail because he’d never received any mail of his own; the “card shower” she consequently organized for her host daughter is very cool and worth emulating.)
Over dinner one night the conversation turns to elderly people and W. mentions that he still plays a form of kickball with an 82-year-old grandmother. “Your grandmother?” I ask, thankful for his offering a relationship detail of his Latvian life. He shakes his head and, when I try to follow up, shrugs and changes the subject. He doesn’t want to spell out details about the woman who is like his grandmother but actually technically not his grandmother. It’s too cumbersome, perhaps, too awkward at heart-level to find words to describe this relationship: like a relative, but not. Is there wistfulness there? Does it make him feel like a pretender in some way? I don’t know. But how would I feel if I were in his shoes?
We discover that W. loves motorcycles and cars, and I take him to our photo wall to a picture of my husband and me on a motorcycle trip in southern California. Does he like that red Ducati we’re on? (He does.) We start looking at the other images of our family’s history, the memorialized moments of our lives, the baby photos of the kids. And I wonder: is there a picture wall in W’s foster family’s home? Does W’s picture hang on anyone’s wall? Does W. own any pictures of his infancy and early childhood?
I’m chatting with the Sunday school teacher who’s had W in his class for the past few weeks at church; we’re laughing a communication snafu that prevented him access to a Latvian translation tool the first Sunday W. was there. He tells me how well W. handled the situation, which doesn’t surprise me, and then says, “he’s a mature kid.” And I think yes, he’s mature in some ways. He’s more helpful, more adaptable, and wiser than his years. And I wonder at the circumstances that might have made him so… The sense of growing up fast, figuring out the knocks the world is giving you, training yourself to rise above it the best you can.
(Part of a blogging series on orphan-hosting with Project 143)
Originally published July 24, 2014.