I am repeatedly surprised with how children enter our home. Time and again they walk in ready for whatever we have for them, open to a new experience. Marthaline was different. She was not about to trust us. She had never lived with white people and she had no idea who we were or what a foster parent was. She went to her room and cried, alone.
When presented with different options for the evening she wanted to go to the store. She had nothing with her, and she was determined to have clothes for school the next day, school was the most important thing to her. I talked with her as we shopped, as we waited in the car for Andrew to get groceries for the dinner she had requested – steak and potatoes. Marthaline held everything, not showing me any of the truth. It was in the days ahead that her story would slowly come out. On that Tuesday night she revealed only what we already knew from other sources.
Those first few days with us Marthaline got up and went to school. I struggled to get her to talk in the car to and from the Middle School she loved. Her face lit up when she saw the building, when she saw other African students – she pointed out cousins, and introduced me to her twin sister, Martha.
School was taken away within days.
There was a court order that Marthaline could not see her family. She was no longer allowed to go to school. She was devastated.
So we became her companions on the journey she did not want to take.
She preferred Andrew. Which is a kind of lovely part of foster parenting, each child chooses one of us as his or her favorite. Whenever we played a game, she was on his team. She longed for a father/brother, but not the one she had been given.
She thought I was ok too. I pushed her hard. We made multiplication flashcards, and before she could have dessert or play a game she would have to prove she had learned another set. We studied history together. I had her read out loud to me in that slow struggling accent, catching on quickly that it was a great effort for her. We bought her a journal and I gave her assignments when I left to tutor others. She had to write about what she liked, she had to describe her family, she had to list things she knew about her life, a variety of homework to help her process all that was going on around her.
And when Jacob journeyed up from Pennsylvania, I was daily the heavy; insisting, she had to see him, had to interact with him.
There was no training in our MAPPs classes on how to reunite a father with his long lost daughter; how to navigate when she didn’t want to be in the same room as him; what activities to plan. Those were exhausting days for all of us. We were out doing all kinds of things, the Museum of Science, Blue Man Group, various wanderings and activities. Every night we would come around our dinner table in our little condo, Andrew doing his best to cook for two Africans who did not particularly like American food. And our nights were always the same. Dinner was Marthaline’s most talkative time, and she would always get honest once it was over, usually exploding in some manner of frustration. We would all push into her frustration together – validating that it was not fair, any of it. Answering any questions we could. And after we all seemed to be submerged under emotions together, somehow we would all come bobbing to the surface.
Then we would usually eat ice cream and play a game.
My favorite moment of our time together was when we sat across the table form Jacob, a man who has seen and been through war, the loss of a wife, the loss of a baby daughter. Who has struggled for years to sit at a table with his daughter, even though she continually insists she wants nothing to do with him. On his last night with us Jacob articulated beautifully how we were feeling. “I will not forget you, my friends. You have become family to me.” We exchanged gratitude and hope with one another before Marthaline hugged her father good bye.
None of us had known how to step out into this crazy adventure together, but all of us did. We stepped, we floundered, we surfaced – together.
To be continued . . .