Sunday, July 18, 2010

My Forever Family

Sometimes it is in the moments of our greatest happiness that we must also confront our greatest fears and our greatest pain.

This has been a big summer for my family, full of triumphs.  Our foster son graduated from high school.  More importantly, he was accepted into one of the  most prestigious Universities in our state, and was able to secure sufficient financial aid to guarantee that -- so long as he works hard -- he will be able to complete all four years there, preparing him for the career of his choice.  He's transitioning out of foster care and into independent living, which is a goal all of us have worried about and worked hard for.  In doing so, he's beginning to accomplish all the highest hopes and dreams that every parent has for a child.  We are so proud of him.  We are so excited about what he's accomplished so far, and what he will accomplish going forward.

As a family, we achieved another extremely important goal.  As the culmination of a nine-year-long process of finding Göran's birth certificate, establishing his identity and connecting with his birth family, we were finally able to go on a trip abroad that we have been longing to make almost as long as we have been a couple (over seventeen years)!  Thanks to that little piece of paper -- a birth certificate! -- we are able to defend Göran from arbitrary denial of health care, employment, and travel.  It grants us civil and legal rights that we both need in order to take care of each other.  By traveling abroad, Göran and Glen were able to experience the mind- and soul-expanding possibilities that can only come from experiencing the world from an entirely different cultural perspective.  Also, I was finally able to introduce them to a branch of my family that has been an integral and important part of my life.

This was what was most significant to me about our trip.  I can't even begin to say how important it was to me to connect with my uncles, aunts and cousins, and to revisit places where I learned some of the most important things about myself, and people who helped me learn those things.  I wanted my family over there to meet my husband and our son, to see and know who and what I have become with Göran and Glen.  I wanted to meet the new members of my family over there -- children and spouses of cousins -- and see who and what they have become.  That is why I desperately wanted the language to be able to communicate with them more freely and fully, why one of the most important aspects of our trip was to be able to speak Finnish, to be able to tell about my husband and his struggles, and our son and his progress, and to hear and understand the changes and journeys of my family members over there.  I had to (wanted to!) struggle with a sense of loss too...  The fact that these people who are so important to me have been so distant for twenty-three years!  I never again want them to be so distant for so long.

For me, this was all only the latest chapter in my own journey of personal integration -- bringing all the different, disparate strands of my life, all the things that have remained separate and unreconciled, back together into a harmonious whole.  Body and soul, mind and spirit.  Family is about that, about integration.  Every member of the family is unique, with individual experiences, perspectives, and history.  This is true, regardless of the nature of our relationships.  A father and son share so much in common, and yet can be so different from one another as to be mutually incomprehensible -- to sometimes make war on each other!  A brother and sister can have the same mother and father, and yet look and think and act and feel so differently from one another that they might as well have come from different planets.  So let's not even begin to get into the differences that separate an African-American, Memphis-born man whose family have been in the U.S. for as long as there has been a U.S., and a Finnish-American Utah-born Mormon whose roots in this nation are no longer than five generations and as short as one generation.  And yet, despite that we are each -- all of us, brother, sister, mother, father, lover, spouse, child -- so different as to sometimes seem virtually alien to one another, there is no joy in remaining apart, remaining alien to one another.  Our only joy is in finding unity that binds us through our differences, so that our differences become incorporated into our sense of who we are.  So that our difference makes us stronger, more compassionate, more powerful.

There are times when I feel Göran and I have achieved a unique kind of unity, a bond so intense that when he is pricked, I bleed.  And yet, a couple, no matter how close, is constantly in movement, constantly experiencing growth and change.  Each part of the couple is experiencing his or her own growth and change, separate and unique from his or her partner!  So closeness in a relationship is never something you take for granted.  It is something you always work on, something you always build.  Something that requires constant course-correction, constant listening, constant communication!

So those seemingly innocuous things that we do...  Going for a walk.  Playing a game of monopoly.  Sitting next to each other in church.  Crossing the Atlantic and visiting a different country!  It sounds like fun!  And we have in our culture -- especially in our puritanical American religious cultures -- a tendency to denigrate "fun" as not serious, as unimportant.  But it is in the simplest of moments -- often the times when we are being the least serious -- that we are doing the most important work.  We are creating bonds, connections and a love that forges us together, that turns the chaos of difference into the harmony of family.  So a family summer full of momentous and important and innocuous and seeming unimportant things -- graduations! parties! family reunions! summer vacations! -- it's joyful and fun and Oh So Important.

But there was a moment a few days ago, when all of that seemed to come crashing down.  Why?  Because everything that matters in life is a product of faith.   And faith is invisible.  Faith is like Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee.  What keeps him from sinking into the waves and drowning, even within reach of his Savior?

Family is real, because we believe in it.  Because we proceed in trust that it exists, that it has value, that we can count on it.  And there are a million things out there in the world -- in that big bad world full of grandeur and wonder and excitement and truth and love, but also full of hate and falsehood and ennui and blindness and degradation -- there are so many things out there that will tear us down and undermine us and make us believe that we are unworthy and less than.  There are things out there that might cause us to doubt that the things that really count in life, that really matter are even really real.  The world is hard that way, which is one reason we need families to help take care of us and to take care of.  But even our greatest resource, our families, can support us only through that act of faith which enables us to believe in them, to trust that family is real.

So my son, who has been our son for three years, is facing not one but two or three enormous transitions.  He's starting this whole new chapter of his life where he starts college.  But he's also moving out of the house (into a college dorm).  And those transitions are extremely difficult.  Anyone who's seen a kid go off to college knows how painful that transition is, how you wonder if anything will ever be the same again.  How you wonder if you're actually losing someone.  When of course you are not!  But it can feel like it!  And it feels like it because in those transitions we are reminded that the ties that bind us are built of simple things!  Summer vacations!  Bike rides!  Sharing a meal!  And relationships -- like all the most important, best things in life -- are invisible!  So transitions are scary.

And my son is making, not just this college transition that is made by so many other kids in so many other "normal" families.  He is making a transition that not very many kids make -- out of foster care.  So he wonders.  Once the state-sponsored obligation is over, once there's no longer a file full of documents in some bureaucrat's office saying that we have some kind of formal relationship with each other, does that mean we are no longer family?  Our son was beginning to be afraid.  He was beginning to mourn the potential loss of everything that has come to mean so much to him.  And at our -- at his! -- moment of greatest triumph!

So a few days ago, we had another one of these conversations where he was disconsolate.  Terrified.  He doesn't know if what we have is real or not.

Now I can only think back to that very first moment, when he walked into our house for the very first time, and our hearts melted.  We felt bonded to him almost from the very first time we met.  We knew, by some invisible, interior, but nevertheless incredibly powerful means, that he was part of our family.  And I came to know that we would be a family literally forever.

And so my reassurances to my son become a sort of testimony-bearing.  My telling him what I know and how I know it.  And an admonition to him to have faith, to be faithful, to act in accordance in the world with what you know to be true deep inside, with that invisible place known as the heart.

To be a family and to love is an act of faith.  It is to face the chaos of reality, it is to face difference and very real conflict, and it is to face doubt.  It is to stand up and face everything that tells you you are not a family, you cannot possibly be a family and it is to say, No you are wrong.  Our love is invisible, but it is real.  You may not see us as a family, you may not see a family in us.  But we are.  And you can't prove it to anyone but yourself, ultimately.  It is not real to those who don't share faith with you, who don't keep faith with you.  But that does not ultimately matter, because it only is to those for whom it matters most.

Now, see, this is why in my humble opinion all the fussing and fretting and whining and campaigning by all those good, decent, respectable religious folks against gay marriage and against gay family is indicative of one thing.  And it is not indicative of their faith.  No, this kind of campaign does not come from a place of faith.  Because if my love for my spouse and our love for our son could possibly touch them or take anything away from them, to me that suggests that they never had anything to take away in the first place.  If, after all they have done to deny me my sense of family, they have failed to deprive me of the love and faith and hope that it takes to make a family, how on earth could our mere existence take an iota away from them?  To me this says that they are overcome by the world, that they have already lost faith in the very institution that they claim to value most.  And in their desperate attempt to shore up something they don't actually in their heart of hearts really believe in any more, they are attacking me and my family.  And they are doing so in the worldly realm that they apparently think matters most.  They're trying to make us unreal as a family by legislating us out of existence.

From the moment I came to realize that family is an act of faith, I became free of the anguish such a campaign ought to cause me.  Because I began to realize that precisely because the things that matter most are invisible, precisely because they are a matter of faith, a political, legislative campaign cannot touch me at the innermost, most vital place where I am and move and have being.  Sure, they can make things difficult for us.  They could take things away from us.  But we can only lose that which is most important to us if we let them implant doubt in us.  If we stop believing.  If we let their lack of faith become our own.

It's not that outward things aren't important.  I support and will continue to support legal, same-sex marriage for the same reason I long for harmony within my family.  I will support it for the same reason I learned Finnish and hungered to communicate with relatives living on the other side of the globe.  I will support it for the same reason I support political campaigns to deal with hunger, to educate the disadvantaged, to protect the environment and to promote peace and safety.  I support same-sex marriage because I long for reconciliation of all the differences that make us unique so that we can in some sense be a unity, so that we can in some sense be one.  Not just as individuals in individual families, but as individuals in a single great human family.

I have faith in that too.


sara said...

Hopefully money and time will let you all make a yearly summer trip out of this - a good break from college and work! We used to go visit my mom's family every summer and it was really important to us, and made for great memories. Since then they all moved closer, so that's great too. It is so important, all of what you said.

MoHoHawaii said...

What a beautiful post! Thank you.

From experience with my own children and from talking with a lot of other parents, I can tell you that the freshman year of college is the single most stressful year in the parent/child relationship from the parents' point of view. I think it is a unique point in adolescent development. The joke among parents is that adolescence is a process where you gradually lose your kids by age 18 to 20, but you get them back at age 25.

So it's possible that you are seeing (and will see over the next two years) the interaction of two effects, the natural self-absorption of an 18 to 20 year old adolescent, and the test of an adoptive relationship. The problem is that the years 18 to 20 are the ones where a young person normally has the least connection to their parents and the strongest connection to their peers in their entire life. I can't tell you the number of parents who feel utterly abandoned by their children at 18 to 20. (It's a temporary condition; the kids do come back by age 23 to 25.) This happened to me, too. Never underestimate the self-absorption of an 18 year old! :- )

I guess what I'm saying is that you shouldn't expect your son's emotional development at age 18 to 20 to be what it will be at 25. There are significant developmental changes (based on the biological maturation of the brain) from 18 to 25.

I don't know how the natural urge to separate might interact with insecurities about a foster/adoptive relationship. You might find that he pulls away from you (as his peers will be doing with their parents). Maybe he won't because of his insecurity about the relationship he has with you.

Is formal adoption an option? I believe 2nd parent (i.e., gay) adoption is legal in your state. At age 18 it is mostly symbolic, but what a symbol! I guess this also depends on your son's relationship with his family of origin.

With my own children, I called them on the phone weekly on a regular schedule. Even if we didn't talk for long, it was something they could rely upon. You'd be surprised what a box of cookies sent by mail can do.

I think the next two years are an opportunity for you to demonstrate the durability of your commitment to Glen as parents. Your constancy will not go unnoticed. If you make sure to plan holidays well in advance, he won't worry that he'll be left out. (And don't take it personally if he seems to be more interested in his friends at school than in you. I promise it's only a developmental phase.)

Are there cousins of approximately the same age as Glen? Can they keep up with him? Can your parents write, send e-mail or care packages, etc.? This is something the extended family can participate in.

Best of luck, and congratulations.

Beck said...

Fantastic advice from MOHOH! He's spot on!

I would add that you've got to let him go. Helicopter parents are those who will not let their college freshmen get scraped and bruised through the process. Both my daughter and son had horrible first year experiences at college, but they learned from those experiences and grew. We, as parents, had to let them stumble and fall a bit, or get banged around.

That said, always being there and consistently being available to them and helping them to know that you are always there to love, support and help, is vital.

What a great challenge and opportunity of growth for you and Goran as well.

As for adoption after 18 years of age, we have friends who are wanting to do this with their foster son who is now 24 and serving in Iraq. It's symbolic but they all want to do it just the same... kind of making it a "forever family".

J G-W said...

Thanks, Sara! We hope to go back within 1 or 2 years at most. I really cherish these relationships!

MHH and Beck - Thanks! I recognize the excellent advice of two who have been there... We'll get through somehow. I wish adoption were an option, but our foster son is not legally up for adoption. This has just been a very long term placement! (3 years so far, with the possibility of extending foster care for another 3!)

Under the circumstances, we must find other ways to reassure Glen of our constant love and support for him. Among those have been extended family relationships that WILL indeed continue on vacations and at family reunions. We'll find a way through...!

Mister Curie said...

Beautiful post on the love you have in your family. Thanks for sharing.