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Three months as a family of 7

After we lost our baby boy, we were clueless as to how to proceed. What was normal supposed to look like? We had made plans to make room in our home and our hearts for this unexpected little guy, and now he wasn't coming after all. Fortunately the only concrete move we'd made was purchasing a new van with more/better seating arrangements; we had met with a contractor about adding onto our home but we had not made a definite decision or started funding that project. Having to live in a constant reminder of a nursery that would never be used would have been salt in the wound.

Around this time, we became aware that a family we knew from church, the Kempes, were going to have to move to Utah because the father had gotten a new job there. They had a foster son, M, for nearly a year, and he would not be able to go with them as foster children must remain in the state where they enter the DCS. It was not yet time for him to be reunited with his biological family. M is the same age (4 days' difference) as our Truman, and they had been in the same class at church and cub scout den as well, and got along great. He is a very likable and sweet boy. We decided to inquire if we'd be able to have him live with us. We weren't licensed or anything, had never done foster care, and there was a timeline winding down until the day they would have to move. We were put in touch with Molly McDonald, the regional foster care specialist for our area, and she said that we would be eligible to take M under something called kinship care - typically this refers to children being placed with relatives such as grandparents or aunts/uncles, but can also apply to anyone with whom the child has an existing relationship. (In our last foster parenting class, we met a retired couple who had recently accepted three boys into their home under kinship care, who they only knew from having been their school teachers.) Kinship care can move very fast - within a day or two - because it requires much less than licensed foster care, just background checks and a quick home inspection.

Molly told us that it would be in our best interest to pursue a foster care license even after M came to live with us, because kinship care provides no reimbursement for the child's care; all children in DCS custody are covered by Medicaid and receive free school lunch and books, but that was all. His clothing, food, transportation, sports, and any other costs would fall on us. They also could not give us a timeline of when he might be reunited with his family, only that it was still the plan. His situation is made more unique by two factors: he is a type-1 diabetic on an insulin pump, and his biological family is all in another state. He had no one in Indiana besides the Kempes, and suddenly, us.

Moving-in day (I have M's family's permission to share his photos)

He came to stay with us for a weekend first. We were plunged into a crash course of counting carbs and reminding him to test his blood sugar. We went swimming (it was mid-August) and watched movies and had fun. His blood sugar was pretty high for awhile (due to the excitement most likely; we would soon learn how closely emotions and blood glucose are tied), and his foster mom had to come over and give him an extra dose of insulin, but otherwise it went well. So the following Friday, his other foster mom took him to school, and in the afternoon I went to pick him up, and he was ours.

I should also throw in here that this was my first experience in dealing with public school. Other than Lucy attending a cooperative school in Bloomington, my children have never attended school. I wasn't sure what to expect, and overall it was a positive experience. Of course, I also got to see the ineffectiveness of having several hundred children forced to live on the same schedule and learn the exact same things, but I also got to see how deeply his sweet teacher Mrs. Butcher cared for him and all of her students, and the two school nurses (who I got to know very well through daily phone calls and several in-person visits) were wonderful as well. In fact, they loved M so much that they bought him gifts on his last day, and got teary-eyed when I picked him up that final time. All were such sweet people. Public school is not an ideal situation, but I felt good knowing that there are really fantastic adults choosing to work there and take care of these kids.

Jacinda especially loved him. She would be so excited when he climbed into the van at school pick-up time. He was very sweet and gentle with her.

Another aspect that made M's situation unique is that he had spent 11 months living with a family that, in many ways, was very similar to ours. The same religious background, the same Sunday expectations, family prayer, etc. The other family had also lost a baby - though later than we did; their little girl was a month old when she passed away two years ago. So M was used to the idea of visiting a grave for a baby, and when we'd take him with us to lay flowers at Desmond's, it wasn't a totally foreign idea to him. I think having come from a similar household to ours made the transition easier on him AND us. Of course he had to share a room here and he didn't there, and we have far fewer farm animals and far less land to keep him busy!

It was hard to know at times if having him with us was helping us through our grief or making it slower. Many times, at least two or three times a week and sometimes more, he would have stubbornly high blood sugar at night despite having had a normal diet and activity. We would have to get up every couple of hours and check his blood sugar by pricking his finger (sometimes we made him wake up to do this but even then, we had to be there and make sure it happened). The hope would be that it would come down to a healthy level, without going too low. The lows were the immediate danger and the highs were the long-term danger. People asked us if we had to cut out desserts or certain foods; we really didn't. M, as well as other diabetic children, was encouraged to eat normally and eat what he enjoyed, and just to not overdo it, stay active, and keep track of the carbohydrates he ate. Over time we did learn certain things would trigger bad reactions (such as pizza) while other things seemed to be surprisingly okay (such as ice cream). The sad part was that M was always hungry. He only once in the entire three months he was with us, said he felt "full." His previous foster mom, whose husband and son are both diabetic, said this is common with diabetes, that insulin prevents the person from ever feeling that fullness. But we knew what he was eating and that it was plenty. He often ate more at meals than David or I did, or even both of us put together! 

Hanging out with Jacinda at a pediatrician's appointment

M had to have a blood test, A1C, performed every 3 months, so we did this twice while he was with us. It was almost funny how very stressed out he got about this test. For a child who had to poke himself in the finger at least six times a day and get a pump infusion site injected into his arm or leg every 3 days, he was surprisingly afraid of blood draws. He handled both of them bravely!

Backyard campfire

One of the things M really wanted to do was visit Holiday World, which is one of our favorite things to do anyway so it didn't take much convincing. We went on Labor Day so that David could go with us. Holiday World was hard for me because the last day that Desmond moved, we had been at Holiday World (July 4th). Also I could not find any of my normal swimming suits and had to wear my maternity one, with the saggy too-loose belly a constant reminder of what was missing. 

But M had fun!

Driving an old car

Going down water slides about 4,000 times

Pretending to be too cool for photos

At his school's walkathon

At the fall festival pet parade (it was very cold)

Receiving his soccer award. The kid is a natural!

At the zoo

He wanted to be a red ninja vampire for Halloween

With Dewayne, his therapist. Dewayne was awesome, so patient and laidback and genuinely cares for the children he is assigned to help. 

Finally, a moving date was set for November 19, exactly three months after M had come to live with us. His cousin Susan and her husband were going to take him under kinship care, and they live near his mother, so this would allow him to begin having in-person visits with her - most of the 14 months he was in Indiana's DCS custody he only saw her via skype or talked on the phone, because of the distance. M was of course extremely excited to be back with his family members, and the last couple of weeks with us were a bit rough - he had really checked out and was ready to move on, which is totally understandable. His cousin and her father drove here and picked him up on a Saturday morning. We only had a little time to go over his new insulin pump and other medical information, but she and I had been in touch for quite awhile already, and we continue to keep in contact. We have been able to speak to M on the phone and he seems to be happy and settling in at his new school. The plan is still for him to eventually live with his mother again. 

Desmond died four months before he should have been born. M was with us for three of those four months, leaving just four days before Desmond's due date. I had told myself when he first came to live with us, don't get attached, because you know he's not staying. And immediately I realized the stupidity of that sentiment - first of all, you can't "lock your heart," and second of all, we have no idea how long we have to spend with any of our loved ones. Any one of us could be gone tomorrow, so why not love everyone fiercely while you can? I didn't realize until the day he left how attached I had become. I had started to look forward to him moving because it would be a break (there had been fights and arguments and just general stress as his move date got closer); no more counting out the tortilla chips at dinner or weighing the cereal at breakfast. But once they drove away, I cried all day. I cried because I was so happy for him. I cried because I was afraid for him having to settle into a new school and routine yet again. Most of all I cried because it hit me how much he had filled the void in our family, seeing that fifth face in the rear view mirror and hearing that fifth voice in our home and playing in the yard.

I asked the kids what they had learned from the experience of having M live with us.
Lucy: It's hard to live with someone I don't know. I learned a lot about diabetes.
Truman: We had a lot more fights when we lived together. What it's like to share a room with someone. A lot  harder to have a same aged sibling. We did play video games together even though we don't have a lot of the same interests. The things I think are big problems, aren't really.
Penny: We played outside a lot more. It taught me how to take care of diabetes. What it's like to have another brother. It's hard to live with your friend. It's a lot of work to get a foster kid, but they need it. 

Obviously, any good we did for M was repaid to us tenfold  in satisfaction and knowledge we didn't have before. 

We don't know if we will foster again. It was a unique experience, meant to be in many ways. We are licensed now, and a mistake was made in our license that states we will only accept relatives (which is funny because M was not our relative). We could make a phone call and have that changed and then very likely be called right away, because there is a desperate need for foster homes in Indiana. On the other hand, I still struggle to complete daily living tasks. Christmas is especially hard, an entire holiday season devoted to the celebration of the birth of a living baby boy. It's a happy time but a bitterly sad time as well, and facing Christmas day without seeing my sister is going to be tough as well. David is going to have to travel quite a bit in the first half of next year and I'm not sure if I can handle fostering solo. So for now, we have not decided. We may very well do it again, but we will need to feel it's just the right situation too. 


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