At the age of two, J. speeds around on his orange bicycle at the birthday party like a tiny Matt Wilhelm, cruising up and down the driveway as he carves, turns, and artfully skids.
“No training wheels?” I ask his foster father incredulously.
Chris shakes his head, smiling. “He started riding on the Fourth of July. Both he and our six year old learned this summer together.”
This year came with its share of firsts for Chris and his wife Tina, too. As their oldest was finishing his junior year of high school and the youngest prepared to enter first grade, they received the call they had been waiting for – a toddler who had entered the foster care system when he was a few months old had been placed with them. Although the TPR declaration had not yet been filed by J.’s mother, they hoped that when he crossed the threshold of their home, they were welcoming him home forever.
“What led you to consider foster care as a route to adoption?” I ask them while we sit by the pool, our children and their cousins playing in an inflatable jump house nearby.
“It was something we talked about when we were dating,” Tina replies, looking at Chris, “and I wasn’t sure about having another biological child after our daughter was born.”
Chris nods. Together they recount the harrowing experience of taking their four day old infant for a routine check-up, only to find she needed to be flown to Children’s Hospital for emergency surgery. A small hole in her diaphragm, undetected after delivery, had made it possible for her abdominal organs to move upwards into her chest cavity, to begin crowding her heart. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to see your newborn lying there, hooked up to tubes,” they tell me, and I’m thankful that they’re right.
Nearly seven years later, their daughter is beautiful and healthy — with little to show for her early adventure other than a photo of the helicopter she was flown to Milwaukee on. Yet as Chris and Tina thought about enlarging the size of their family over the past few years, the possibility of becoming adoptive parents through foster care became a stronger consideration, until they finally filed their initial application in the summer of 2011.
J. climbs on Tina’s lap and burrows his head in her collarbone, his heavy-lidded eyes announcing sleep, and our conversation turns. As I hear them tell stories about their own childhoods, I begin to understand that beneath Chris and Tina’s reasons for fostering, there is an even more profound example of love they each received from adults they encountered as children. Chris briefly tells me about the man who helped raise him, whom he has always called Dad and considered a father, despite the fact that they never had any legal or biological tie. Tina describes the impact of visits with her great aunt and uncle — foster parents for decades — of reading the powerful letters written by the children years after they had left the home. Both of them, it seems, have had powerfully loving relationships with people who chose a life of deliberate nurture . . . people who chose to actively care for one or more children without the obligation, the tangible benefit of doing so.
As Chris, Tina, and their family looks toward a November court hearing, they continue arranging for J. to make supervised visits with his mother on a weekly basis, fitting the travel time in with their other three children’s activities. They are nervous and hopeful of the outcome of the court hearing. If the TPR is finalized, they’ll immediately start working with their social worker to file adoption papers.
“What if it’s not?” I ask, not knowing the intricacies of the legal process for a domestic adoption.
“I don’t know,” Chris says, a small frown drawing down the corners of his mouth. “It’ll be hard.”
As Tina rises to take J. upstairs for his nap, I can’t help but think of the sight of the little boy cruising without a care on his tiny bike. I hope he’ll remember the summer he learned the fine art of balance alongside his foster sister . . . along with this wonderful couple working and waiting to give him a forever home.