It was raining. Not a good sign. Rain usually meant a cooped in eleven-year-old. Never needing an excuse to lash out, my daughter, Lynn, was particularly prowling that early evening in September. Her manner was pacing, ready for the pounce. The attack came when I reminded her for the umpteenth time about the studying she needed to do for her science test the next day.
“Let me alone, Mom!”
“It’s getting late. Soon it’ll be time for bed. Please get to it. Now.” I used what I hoped was my I’m-not-kidding tone.
“Get off my back! What a nag.” Her voice crescendoed. “I really hate you, Mom. And I hate the baby, too!” She ran up the steps and slammed the door of her bedroom.
My husband, Dave, was out that night. I was on my own to handle our recalcitrant child. I slowly walked up the steps toward her room. Waddling was more like it due to my more than eight months pregnant body. As I approached her door, I chose to fight another day. So I passed by and fell on our bed trying to hold back tears. Pregnancy hormones had had me in their emotional grip for the last month or so, but that night, the tears were not hormonal. I was in despair.
Lynn had made us a family just two and a half years before when Dave and I were chosen by the state’s social services department to be her new parents. She had been in second grade. The day we met her she was not at all shy. We took her to a local burger joint and ordered milkshakes. Her sandy haired pixie cut framed a face with bright blue eyes as she told us about her favorite music and how the chocolate shake made her “taste bugs” dance. Dave’s ruddy face and eyes crinkled in a smile as they met mine. She was charming. Lynn glowed when we showed her the photo of the brand new bed and matching dresser that awaited her a month later when she would move in with us. We were each excited at the possibilities that awaited us as a new family. Then Lynn got quiet.
“What’s up?” I asked. “It looks like something’s bothering you.”
Lynn put her hand up and covered the front of her mouth. “I’m gonna need braces. That costs money.” Her forehead furrowed with concern. “Do you still want me?” Her eye teeth were erupting above the lateral incisors. She was definitely right about those braces. She was also blunt.
“We can afford to get you braces,” Dave responded while squeezing my hand. “That’s what parents do for their children.”
“Well, my last parents told me they wouldn’t get them for me.” She paused, took another sip of her shake and said, “Thanks for adopting me.”
We had been told Lynn’s history. We thought we knew what we were getting into, but after she moved in, her deep pain oozed like a bleeding wound. Lynn’s birthparents had been unable to care for her when she was a toddler so she had been placed into foster care. The foster parents adopted her, raising her on a farm with their biological daughter. One day, Lynn heard her father call social services and say, “Come and get her. We don’t want her anymore. Bring a big car so all her stuff goes with her.” Lynn was three months past her eighth birthday.
Social services placed her in foster care while her name was added to the list of available older children to adopt. That is how we learned of her and applied to be her parents. We’d been approved to adopt after passing the home study process and had been applying for various girls for several months. As we waited, knowing the applications had not borne fruit, I continued to pray for God to lead us to a little girl who needed us. We were not infertile that we knew of, but wanted to adopt an older child since we thought it would fit into our two career lifestyle more easily than infant care.
It did. I could be home every afternoon when Lynn returned from school since I set my own schedule in my work as a Lutheran pastor. She would lean her head against by slender frame many afternoons and listen raptly to stories I would read. On the surface she seemed to trust us, easing into calling us Mommy and Daddy quite readily. Every night it was Dave’s turn to read her a story before the three of us shared in bedtime prayers. She was a dear little girl. She also could morph into a snapping, yowling dog-child when she was angry and feeling threatened. Several times Dave had had to sit and wrap his arms around her for a half hour or more while she kicked, screamed, and used very colorful language, because she had not gotten her way. “Let me go, let me go!” she would scream.
Dave’s response each time was, “I love you too much to let you go when you are like this. You could hurt yourself.”
Keeping her immobile during those episodes cocooned her in safety, and protected our belongings from destruction. It was never over anything big. One time it was because she did not like my correcting her as she tried to sound out words while she read aloud. Such sieges always ended with many tears and apologies from Lynn. She would then skip up the steps to her room as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. We on the other hand were exhausted, especially Dave’s arms.
One day, four months into our new family, we traveled to a summer picnic. Lynn had steam coming out of her ears as she sat in the back seat of the car. She was really mad that we had not let her wear sandals. Really mad. We’d told her it would be safer for her to wear sneakers while playing the running games at the picnic. As we drove, she attacked. First with words that would make a sailor blush, and then with her fingernails. On my arm. Dave was driving so she knew not to attack him, but I was fair game on the passenger side of the front seat. Blood began to drip from the gashes she left. I yelled for her to stop while she yanked the strap of my tank top and ripped it straight through.
“What do you want to do, Margie?” Dave said loudly over Lynn’s voice. He was trying to remain calm enough to drive.
“Just keep going to the picnic, we’re almost there,” I said loudly. I’ll ask our hosts for a tee shirt to put on.” We arrived shortly after and Lynn refused to go into the house. She stood in the garage and pouted. About ten minutes later, after I had gotten a shirt and bandaged my arm, we went out to check on her. She ran to me crying.
“I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m really sorry. I was just mad, too mad.”
“Of course, I forgive you, but Dad and I will discuss the consequences of this when we get home and let you know what that is. Now come out to the backyard and play with the other kids.”
Those consequences were that she was grounded for a week and had to pay for the damaged shirt through her allowance. Interestingly, after that incident, our household became more peaceful. The family counselor we had been seeing for a few months surmised, “Lynn has been as bad as she has ever been and you still kept her, so now she feels more secure. That’s why she doesn’t act out as often anymore. It was a test she didn’t even know she was administering. I’d say you passed.” Hallelujah, was our reaction to a calmer household.
The coming baby, two years later, upset the equilibrium. Lynn was very threatened. “You’ll love the baby more than me.” When she found we were having a girl that made things worse. “Why can’t it be a boy? You’ll like this new sister more, just like my old parents loved their real daughter more than me. They kicked me out, but she got to stay.”
We countered with things like: “This is your forever home, Lynn. You’re our real daughter. We have enough love for both you and your coming baby sister. We’re sure you’ll make a terrific big sister. We’ll always love you no matter what. We are not like your former parents.”
We both tried to reassure her by spending more intentional time with her. Dave read additional stories to her each night. I tried to get home from evening meetings at church to be there for nighttime snuggles. Some days she was happy and excited about our future newcomer. But more often she declared, “This is the end of the world.”
It was raining in the early morning of October 17. Not a good sign. I wished my visiting mother good luck with Lynn, warning her of Lynn’s snarly ways on rainy days. I’d been in labor all night and it was time to go. The baby was coming. Lynn was asleep when Dave and I began our journey to the hospital.
Despite getting there about 6:30 am it was almost six hours before little Angela was born. It was much harder than I expected, but the baby was perfect. I was disappointed in only one thing; that she did not get her father’s read hair. She was sleeping in my arms that afternoon when my mother arrived to my hospital room with Lynn. This was it, the moment I had been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading. Which way would it go when Lynn saw the baby?
She entered the room with a tentative expression on her face and came over to the bed. She kissed me on the cheek. “Hi, Mommy. You’re skinny again.” Dave and my mother stood back and observed the interaction.
“Not quite, but it does feel good to have the baby out. “ Lynn stood on tiptoes so she could get a view of the baby. “Here she is, your sister, Angela.”
“She’s really tiny.”
“Would you like to hold her?”
“As long as you sit down,” Dave told her as he pulled out the chair.
He took the baby from me, neatly swaddled in her receiving blanket, and placed her in Lynn’s lap. Lynn supported Angela’s head as Dave instructed. A long moment passed as she gazed at Angela. Then, her face began to beam with the same sparkling smile Dave and I had seen the day we had met her almost three years before.
She looked directly at me and said, “I love her, Mom.” I smiled back. Rain pelted the window and streamed down in rivulets.