Publication Information: Putnam, C. L. (1998, Jan / Feb). On Losing Nickel. Christian Woman Magazine, 14(1), 22-23.
The warm little arms of my first-grader were wound securely around my neck as I twirled him through the air that autumn afternoon. The sunlight shone on his dear brown hair and laughing eyes. It was a moment of joy I will always remember.
By that time, Nickel had been with me as a foster child for several months, and many difficult days had blended with many happy ones. The walk with foster children is never easy. Aggression, hostility, and defiance had marked those early weeks.
But gradually, trust takes root, and this tender little boy had begun to grow and blossom. While playing in the sunlight that afternoon, he suddenly fell silent. He was still for a moment – so unlike him – and then he lifted his dark eyes to mine. “Mommy,” he declared solemnly, “this won’t last forever.”
How his words pierced my heart. My mind flashed back to the previous year when I had been contemplating and then training to become a foster parent.
“Don’t get too attached,” protective friends had warned. “It will kill you when they have to leave.”
Now that time was nearing, and it seemed they were right. Letting Nickel go was difficult to imagine.
Other predictions had been made in those early days. “You won’t be able to go out and do things anymore,” one person cautioned. “You will have to be home by 8 o’clock.”
Or more ominously, “Why go looking for trouble? Those kids can have a lot of problems. There is no telling what they have been through.”
There was some validity in their words. My life had changed. In some ways it was more stressful, limiting, and frustrating. But the endless rounds of movies, singles’ get-togethers, dining out, retreats, and concerts just were not filling the bill anymore. I longed for meaning, not just activity. I needed a way to join in partnership with God, to pursue what was close to his heart.
For me, with a background in education and mental health, the path seemed to lean toward children. One call to the state Department of Children’s Services, and I was on my way.
It was not always easy. Not knowing what difficulties would have to be dealt with when a new child was escorted to my door could be downright unnerving. Would it be lying, stealing, bed-wetting, cursing, withdrawal, hitting, property damage, or nightmares? All that could be known for certain was that along with a paper bag of clothes, a child brought a broken heart.
With my Nickel came tantrums, timeouts, and tears, and it was not just in the beginning. He was a high-energy little guy with definite ideas about how things should be run.
“Who makes up the rules around here?” he inquired the second night.
Loving him called forth every reserve I possessed. He challenged the boundaries every day, and many nights my only prayer was “God, help!” A lot of extracurricular activities got crossed off my list, and I was often in bed by 8 o’clock myself.
But joys also came with Nickel. His silly, childish ways; his husky voice; his warm hand in mine – all endearing gestures of his that tugged at my heart.
He was not averse to feats of daring and strength. “Are you amazed?” he would ask with an elfish grin.
I loved his irrepressible imagination. Once he slipped away from me on a shopping trip, and it was a moment before I spotted him posed in a mannequin display.
“Do you think I could run as fast as a kangaroo?” he wanted to know. “If we had a race, I could find out!” My little Nickel. My own, if only for a while. He came into my life and carved a niche in my heart that only he could fill.
I know that a seed was planted in Nickel’s soul, nurtured and watered by the Christians who came to love him. I am convinced the commitment, security, and bonding that a child my experience in foster care can make a lasting difference.
Children learn healthy ways to tackle problems, to interact, and to handle mistakes. They take the lessons with them, even if they are returned to families that are less than ideal. They are learning that life has options.
They are discovering, perhaps for the first time, that God is not just a swear word and that he counts them precious in his sight. I will always remember Nickel’s questions: “Mommy, why did Jesus have to die? We need him” and “Mommy, will God let us sit on his lap?” What helps ease the gut-wrenching pain of a child’s departure is the hope that he will never forget the goodness of the Father.
Just before Christmas, Nickel was returned to the custody of his parents. I am thankful they were able to provide a home for him again. That is what we hope for every child who comes into our care. But it is an agonizing experience for a foster parent to give up a child she loves.
As I waited with his parents in a room in the State Office Building for the final paperwork to be completed, I remember making small talk about everything except what we had come for. I remember watching Nickel playing with his sisters, going happily on with his life, as he should.
I remember the snack machines in the corner, the table where we were seated, the clang of the elevator doors in the hallway outside, and the expression on his father’s face. The ordinary things.
I was feeling proud of myself for letting go gracefully when his young mother handed me a card. Out fell a photograph the family had made during a previous weekend visit and along with the picture, her note: “Thank you for helping to get my family back together again.” That is all it took to shatter my brave façade.
I somehow made it through the next few days, alternately sobbing and screaming with grief.
For a while nothing helps; no words can erase the broken-hearted despair.
My sister says, “When you stop crying, then you know that you have cried long enough.” That time eventually comes even after the loss of a beloved child.
What helps bring back the joy? The satisfaction of having given your best. The knowledge that a child has been touched by the love of God. The comfort of a Father in heaven who understands your pain. Friends who empathize. A puppy who licks your hand. A trip to the grocery store that does not involve Cap’n Crunch. And your first relaxed bubble bath in month. You are going to make it.
And soon, you will pick up the phone and hear a social worker say, “We have two little girls who just came into state custody today. They are 5 and 8 years old. Would you be interested?”