Another Christmas Present

The little boy in the car looked out the window at the big white house and wondered if it was the new home the lady in the skirt said he was going to. He didn’t know what was wrong with his old house, but the lady said he would be safe here. He did know that he was excited – it looked like there would be lots of places to play.

The lady said he’d be safe here.

He didn’t know he wasn’t safe there.

It was confusing. Maybe he’d understand when he was seven, but for now, he picked up the ragged bear the woman had given him and held it.

His sister Mela sat beside him. She didn’t seem confused – just sad. She was playing with her unicorn quietly. She talked when she was happy. She talked when she was not happy. She didn’t talk when she was sad.

The husband and wife in the house looked out the window at the gray sedan. Thanksgiving had come and gone, bringing and taking a foster child from the corner of their lives. Not long after, five little girls stayed for two nights, and almost took the end of his wits with them. Then the phone rang on the way home from Christmas dinner with family, bringing the news that two children needed a place to be, and there weren’t any other options for them. The lady on the phone admitted that not everything was right about the placement, but nothing was right for the children, and…

“They’re here.” He said, trying to sound hopeful.

“They’re here,” she repeated with just the hesitation that meant she was scared.

He was scared, too. She knew he was – he didn’t need to say anything for her to know.

His fear turned to confusion as the miniature version of himself blazed through the open door and shouted, “Look Mela! They have stairs!”

Almost an afterthought, the woman in the skirt announced their names as the little girl ducked around her to follow her brother, “That is Bobby, and that is Mela.”

“I’m Paula,” the wife told the woman in the skirt. “We spoke on the phone.”

“Missy,” the woman in the skirt said as she watched the husband bound up the stairs to investigate the first crash.

Missy was the eye of a hurricane. It was a calm you could almost reach out and touch, the kind that made it clear she had seen kids from far worse situations land with far more fearful parents. She didn’t even flinch when Paula’s husband, Tim, reappeared carrying the screaming little boy who resembled him so much he could have easily passed for his own.

“What happened?” Missy asked gently. She could see the fear in the man’s eyes.

“He got a little excited trying to close the closet door. He pinched a finger,” Tim said as he placed the boy in Missy’s outstretched arms.

Comforting and chastising in equal measure, Missy took the dinosaur shaped ice-pack Paula offered and soothed the little boy while making it clear that he needed to calm down a little. It only took a minute before he was running off to further investigate his new home, leaving the adults to discuss the late gift from Mr. Chris Kringle.

It was as if the children had read their foster parents’ training manuals. 

The honeymoon lasted for two weeks, almost to the hour, before the first tantrum. It had actually started with Mela – she’d decided it was worthwhile to drop to the floor of the grocery store, screaming and kicking, because she wasn’t allowed to have an exceptionally large chocolate bar in the store right before supper.

Paula had been rattled by it, and with good reason. She’d grown up in a time when little girls still got spanked for throwing fits in public, to say nothing of displays of out and out willfulness that garnered the attention of the store security staff and manager.

“This is what we signed up for,” Paula repeated over-and-over on the phone as she told Tim what had gone on.

There was no doubt that she was right. No one had forced them to become foster parents. In fact, they could count the number of people who had encouraged them on one hand. More than a few had actively spoken out against the idea.

Even Tim, who had made something of a sport out of dragging his feet, made it clear that they’d all humiliated their parents in public at some point or other, even if they didn’t remember it.

All in all, they felt like they’d joined the club called parenthood.

Four days later, they experienced something that no parent should have to be a part of (even though they’d signed up for it, too) – the family visit. The state had decided that in all but the most extreme circumstances (and evidently, in a few of those) that children in Family Services custody should make regular, supervised visits to their family.

The intent was noble. 

Parents  were given time to get their act together before their children were taken away from them permanently. There seemed to be no limit to this particular rule. In the case of Mela and Bobby, who were just a legal step away from being permanently taken from their father after close to three years still visited him weekly. The only reason it had taken two weeks for the first visit was to allow the children time to ‘settle in’.

Which was, of course, pointless, as nothing managed to unsettle them quite the way visiting their father did. They came home with huge fast food drink cups, bags of candy, extravagant toys, and bad attitudes.

Confused didn’t do justice to the kids’ state of mind – it was as if their situation had completely left their minds. Beyond knowing where their rooms were in the house, they’d forgotten every single rule in their foster parents’ home.

In the case of Bobby, who had lost his video game privileges for throwing a cup of water on his foster mother before he left for the visit, realization returned about two and a half hours into what his foster parents had believed was an epic tantrum. The little boy had swore, spat, kicked, screamed, hit, thrown, and broken until he’d literally worn himself out.

Tim and Paula had lay in bed that night, talking quietly about how it was what they’d signed up for.

Little did they know that Bobby considered that night little more than practice for blackout fits of pure rage still to come.

Secretly, Tim broke that night.

He’d realized that if this was what he signed up for, he wasn’t ever going to survive it. He didn’t give up – not by a longshot. He did, however, acknowledge the fact that if things didn’t change, he wouldn’t survive this life change as the person he once had been.

Bobby’s tantrums became fights over time. There wasn’t any other way to put it – it was a little boy fighting everything. Sleep, authority, food, dinner – absolutely anything and everything became something to explode over. He did it with increasing energy and enthusiasm, sometimes taking visible glee in the destruction he was causing.

Somewhere along the way, the state had started making rumblings that the kids were going home, but it wasn’t soon enough for Tim.

The day after his birthday, after having made innumerable visits to a therapist, accepted a prescription for an anti-depressant, considered both suicide and leaving the country, and very nearly suffering a nervous breakdown after a social worker said he stood a chance of being imprisoned for how he’d handled several of Bobby’s tantrums, Tim finally did give up.

He announced that one of them was leaving the house in two weeks, and there would be no more reconsiderations, second thoughts, second chances, or delays.

And so it was…

The aftermath is actually relatively easy to illustrate. Presumably, Bobby and Mela went on with their lives back in the care of their biological father.  There’s  no  way  to  know  that  -  the state  doesn’t  make  a habit  of  broadcasting  the  personal  affairs  of  anyone.

Tim and Paula remember Mela and Bobby every day. They do it privately, most of the time, anyway, but there is no doubt that it happens. Tim didn’t realize it, but the night of that first tantrum, when he admitted to himself that he’d never survive as the person he was – he had already been changed forever by the little boy and his sister. As Christmas rolls closer every year, the anniversary of that day when so much hope pulled up in the state owned sedan also comes with it, bringing even more memories of the two children. Those memories – smiles, laughter, pain, and screaming – don’t come in the proportions that one would hope, but they do come.

Every Christmas.