We were on a list that got an open invitation to attend a “foster family appreciation picnic” at someone’s ranch in Chandler, OK yesterday. It was for families like ours as well as families who work in foster care in some capacity. The email promised a “cook out, horse-back riding, fishing, hay rides, face-painting and just a great afternoon in the wonderful outdoors.” Craig was out of town this weekend and I’m generally always on the hunt for things to do with a large group of kids that fits the following categories: fun, free (or cheap), and takes a lot of time. This one seemed to fit all three, so off we went.
These kinds of events are usually hit or miss – they are either going to be awesome or lame, super crowded or barely attended. We had no idea which way this one was going to go until we got there and when we finally did get there (it was about a 45 minute drive from home) we made a snap judgement based on a quick first impression and I had to rally the 9yo-and-over troops to just hang in there with us for a little bit and to try to see this from a 3-and-4-year-old’s perspective and try to make the best of it. Fortunately for me I didn’t have to convince them too much. All of the girls seemed to have their intuitive switch flipped on yesterday and they quickly figured out that this wasn’t your average rodeo.
They embraced it for what it was and off they went: Kiddie Train? Check! Wagon Rides? Check! Horseback riding? Check! Fishing? Check!
And once we’d made up our minds that we were going to enjoy this, we did. We’d brought a friend along with us (because what’s another kid when you already have 6?) and there were 8 of us altogether. I told the crew I was comfortable with them splitting up and heading off on their own so long as they had a buddy with them. Maddie reached for A4. Chloe claimed R3. Katie and Anna paired up and that left me with my favorite 9yo. No arguing, no complaining about the pairs, just a family doing what a family does. It was beautiful.
So why, then, did I almost break down crying on multiple separate occasions while we were there? What went wrong? I’m still trying to pinpoint exactly what it is we all ended up experiencing while we were here, but there was a profound display of the brokenness of our world that someone was making an effort to redeem for one short afternoon, but the irony of the situation was that all of us were there because of some really hard stories, really tough situations, really bad choices made by someone on behalf of someone else. And for a couple of hours we could each forget our own situations, but we were staring square in the face at everyone else’s.
I think my first round of almost-tears came and I started to name what caused them when Millie casually mentioned that we’ve been doing a lot of fun stuff since the boys came. There’s an element of truth in what she said – we never would have come to this picnic had we not been involved in foster care, but I’m not really sure what else she was thinking of at that moment other than some other things we’ve done lately that we would have done anyway whether the boys were living with us or not. But I wanted to focus in on what she was thinking – that it was because of the boys that we were doing fun things and I agreed with her that we had done a few extra fun things because they were part of our lives now. But I asked her to look around at all the kids and families and stories. I said that there is a sadness in that because what most of these kids really need is to be consistently involved in normal family life – to live in a home where they are expected to do their homework, expected to put away their clothes, expected to participate in the family dialogue, expected to love and be loved. And that a lot of these kids didn’t have that. But they did have a series of fun events and I’m not sure what that means for them. We were quiet for a while.
While I was at the corral watching some of my crew ride horses and some of them wait their turn, I entered into a conversation with a grandmother who currently has custody of several of her grandchildren. And she told me her story. And I affirmed her for being present in these kids’ lives. And she talked about her own kids and how they weren’t fit to be parents and how she vowed to do everything she could to make sure she kept the kids away from their parents until they got their lives straightened out. And I held back tears.
And as I was in line for a hot dog and some chips, a little girl, maybe 6, initiated a conversation with me. “This is my 3rd year to come to this picnic!” And I exclaimed on her behalf about how fun that was and how we were rookies as this was our first year and there was a pang in my heart because, Lord? She’s been coming for 3 years? And how many picnics’ worth of foster care will our little guys start measuring time by? And I almost cried again.
And then there was the fishing – boy, do these boys love to fish. And I don’t. So it was awesome that there were some folks there at the ready, complete with poles and a worm buffet, to be there with those kids. And they did so with such grace, such patience. As one guy was helping us untangle a cord, he casually muttered, “Fishing is just an exercise in controlled frustration,” and I laughed and said, “Sounds an awful lot like parenting, no?” And he laughed, and we kept at the line a little bit longer.
And one of them took a smoke break and another rummaged a cooler for some sweet tea, though I’m certain he would have replaced that with a beer in a heartbeat if he could have, and I quietly declared them all saints for the day. They laughed and I said, “Maybe that’s the first time anyone referred to you that way, but the work you did here today is important and it matters.” And I thought to myself, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,you did it to me.”
We shared the pond with a handful of boys from a local boys’ home and we cheered with them when they caught fish and we listened to them as they dispensed advice on where the best spots were and we beamed with them as they bragged about how many they’d caught that day and for a moment we were family. But it was a fleeting moment and we will likely never see any of those boys again, nor do we even know their names. And I pondered again on how many of these events these boys have attended with strangers-as-family-for-a-moment, who loved well for 45 minutes, but then drove back home to their own quiet lives. And the tears sprang up again.
Because these boys? They are precious. And sure, I only interacted with them for one short moment, but they were courteous and polite and funny and interesting and…heartbreaking. And I looked at my two guys and I looked back up at them and something in me broke. Because that scene you see above? It’s likely what lies in the future for our two if someone doesn’t step in and soon. And while I’m grateful for the group home these boys can go back to, thankful they aren’t sharing space under a bridge tonight, I wanted to just bring them all back to my house and say, “Be in my family. Let me love you like you deserve to be loved.”
But I couldn’t do that. And this time I actually cried.
Because who is going to be the keeper of these boys’ memories? Who will they go back to to help them remember the time they got a dragon painted on their cheek and road a horse named Noah and got to help themselves to coolers of sodas?
Who will be the grandparents to their kids? Who will love them for the rest of their lives? Who will be present with them in all of their future joys and sorrows and experiences?
I can’t answer those questions and I don’t know if I will ever be able to. And it makes me cry.