Five years ago today a part of my heart left. When Jason Weber (Christian Alliance for the Orphan) suggested that the subtitle of my book be “How to Grow Your Heart by Giving It Away”, I loved the sound of it. Little did I know that right before my book went to print, I would come to understand exactly what that meant. If you don’t know the story of our precious daughter Brejah (who would have been Emme Camryn if she’d become an Erwin) here’s the story. Today I am grateful that though I had to ‘face the clouds’, six months later a bouncing baby boy was the ‘silver lining’. Even though its been 5 years since she looked at me through the window of a disappearing car, today I’m praying for my girl and asking the heavenly Father to allow her to build on the foundation He gave her while she was mine.
Chapter 18 – Addendum- “Empty Arms”
The manuscript was complete, the editing was done, the printing and publishing quote was in, the graphic artist was chosen for the cover, and it seemed that everything was on go. However, exactly one month, three days and eight hours ago, things changed. Another story happened, another piece to the puzzle, another strand in the tapestry of my ministry, another chapter in my story, and it has to be told. Even now, as I sit with my hands on the keyboard, I’m not sure I have the strength to tell this story. I feel the knot in my throat; tears well up in my eyes and my heart beats faster as I anticipate actually seeing this chapter in print. Nevertheless, if I am going to do what I set out to do in the beginning of this book, that is to truly be transparent, to leave nothing on the table, then I must conjure up everything that is within me, all of the truths the Heavenly Father has taught me, in order to let my heart spill out onto this page. This is the story of a little girl I’ll call Baby B.
I will never, ever forget the day I got the call about B. Jeff and I were sitting in a parenting conference at our church. Serenity’s adoption was still not final, and we were fostering her one year old brother at the time. As I sat in the conference with my cell phone on silent, I looked down and saw that I had received a call from Serenity’s caseworker. “Interesting,” I thought, “on a Saturday.” I excused myself and went to the foyer to return her call.
“Everything is fine with Serenity’s case,” she said, “I just wondered if you knew of anyone, Christie, who would be willing to take a five week old baby girl?”
“Well, not me!” I thought. “Who do you think I am, the old woman that lives in the shoe?”
“I can’t think of anyone right now,” were the words that actually came out of my mouth, “but, I will make a couple of phone calls to see if anyone I know can take her, and I’ll call you right back.”
I made the phone calls, but had no success in finding a family for this baby. So, I did what I considered the next best thing, I asked Jeff if we could take her for the weekend. He looked at me as he often does when I come to him with one of my emotional schemes, but as usual he agreed that we would take her for the weekend. I would call the caseworker on Monday and she would find a permanent placement for this baby.
I immediately went into “baby mode”. I left the conference early, rushed home to get my infant car seat and headed to DHS. There, in the arms of the caseworker was the most beautiful newborn baby girl with curly hair and chubby cheeks and all dressed in lime green.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened next. On Sunday night Jeff looked at me and said seven words that would change my life:
“You want to try this, don’t you?”
As crazy as it sounded: taking on another baby with the chaos of a preschooler with ADHD, an incredibly active one year old and four other children going in four different directions, I found myself saying “Yes.” I really believe it was my heart answering, not my mouth. I knew deep down in my soul that this was our daughter and she belonged in my arms; I just didn’t know for how long.
The event that brought Baby B into foster care was horrific. Although, by God’s grace she was not harmed, it was a violent act that could have been catastrophic. That truth made me hold her tighter and love her deeper. It also filled me with a deep resolve that no one would ever, ever, be in a position to hurt her again.
Little did I know how tight my hold on this precious one would become, how deep my love would root and how intense my resolve would tunnel down into the very core of my being. Baby B was the perfect baby. She slept like a log. She was content. She spit up a lot, but hey, nobody’s perfect! She was a little “snuggle bunny” who was so easy going. We began to notice that she seemed a bit too easy going. She would sleep long hours at a time and never seemed to wake during the night, even with the high pitched screams of our one year old son. Jeff and I became very concerned about her hearing. We had her hearing tested; she failed. We had her hearing tested again; she failed again. We went to a specialist and had her hearing tested; she failed. (Bless her heart, she will probably be in therapy later in life for all the ways we tested her hearing ourselves: loud screams, sudden whistles, books dropped on the floor loudly, her name broadcast at mega decibels from every part of the room.) And yet, she wasn’t hearing us. Although I know many people thrive in and through their deafness, I couldn’t help but grieve as I thought about her life without sound. For some reason, it was her not hearing music and our voices that grieved me the most. Jeff began to pray that God would take care of whatever was causing the problem or just miraculously heal her as only He could do. When she was five months old, we returned to the specialist to have her tested again; she passed. God had done it; our girl could hear!
Next, B’s difficulty with swallowing almost required a feeding tube. And because of the months of not hearing, she was speech and language delayed. But other than that, she was growing and was way ahead of the curve in height and weight. She had her own fashion sense (Okay, I had my own fashion sense for her.). She looked beautiful in lime, orange, and fuchsia- and even better in a combination of the three. And as with any girl that resides in the Erwin household, she never left home without a bow. Everywhere I went people talked about how gorgeous she was. Our family bonded with B quickly and deeply.
B’s case was complicated by the incident that brought her into care, by mental illness and by a history of family members that didn’t get along. We began a roller coaster ride that was all too familiar to us. A few weeks after she came into our home, it seemed as if she would be leaving us to go and live with a relative, but then the tracks turned downward, and that plan was scrapped. Paternity was established, and she began visits with her biological mother and father as well as with a couple of extended family members. The tension within the family was palpable, and the internal hostility infiltrated the whole case. As time marched on, it seemed as if there was no straightforward plan for the future of this baby.
Meanwhile, we loved every minute as B was growing and changing. We hung on every little sound that eked out of her mouth. I learned that styling her hair, which was so very different in texture from Serenity’s, was a breeze. We watched her learn to crawl, to pull up, to patty-cake. We were there when she got her first tooth and then a mouthful of teeth. (She drooled constantly. Jeff said that wherever she crawled, she left a trail, like a slug.) We cheered as she took her first step, and we hosted her first birthday party where everything from her dress and bloomers to the two cakes were pink and green polka dots. We watched as her love for books bloomed, and our hearts overflowed as we observed the way she tenderly rocked her baby dolls. She loved her blankets, so we bought every ultra soft blanket we could find. She would pull them all into her crib at night and be lying on top of the blanket mountain in the morning. When she was tired, her blanket would go up to her face and her thumb would go into her mouth. She even adopted one of Serenity’s silk dresses as a pseudo-blankie. She’d grab any purse, bag, infant carrier, whatever, and throw it over her arm like it was a genuine Coach or Dooney and Bourke, and she was a princess!
We had the distinct pleasure of being her favorite audience as she learned to dance with the grace and humor that only a one-year-old can. We laughed our heads off as she and Serenity performed their musical theatre, complete with a boom box and “High School Musical” CD, for all of us as we sat in the living room. I was the recipient of her first kiss as she leaned into my cheek and smacked “MMMM-MA”. B and I were inseparable as we shopped, ran errands, picked up kids and moved the Heart Gallery together. Cara called her “pipsqueak.” When Chase and Caleb came home from college on the weekends, she would run into their arms with a huge smile. Connor loved her with an undying love! Serenity loved to mother her, almost as much as I did. The small group of newlyweds that Jeff and I lead on Sunday nights nurtured her, loved her and fed her every week. She would move from one set of arms to the next and always knew that the guys in the group were the softies who would feed her the most! They felt like they were her extended parents. B was well loved, and we were all well loved by her.
The decision was made by DHS and the courts to terminate parental rights. All of the parties in the case were on board in a passionate unified way that I had never seen at DHS. (Except the birth parents attorneys of course, who wanted her placed with a relative.) We made our way to court for the termination hearing, fifteen months after B came to live with us. Arguments were made, questions were asked, positions were taken, and the outcome, the very destiny of this child’s life, was left in the hands of one woman: the judge.
Although I haven’t said it up to this point, I’m sure you have read between the lines and know our position: This is our daughter and we want her to be our daughter forever. (It is very important to note that when reunification was the goal, we were on that team, but once the goal in B’s case was changed to adoption, our hearts and minds turned towards adoption as well.) I had picked out her name months before (Okay, maybe my heart and mind had “turned” a little ahead of schedule.). Cara and I had kept the name to ourselves for awhile before letting Daddy in on it. “Emme Camryn.” Granted the “C” name wouldn’t be first this time, but it would be there nonetheless! I looked on the internet one night to see what “Emme” meant: whole, complete. “It’s a sign,” I thought. Once B is added to the Erwin gang, our family will be whole and complete: three girls, three boys. A modern day “Brady Bunch”. I rehearsed the names of our new family over and over again in my mind: “Chase Sullivan, Caleb Saeger, Cara Elizabeth, Connor Scott, Caroline Serenity and Emme Camryn.” Wow! That had a ring to it.
No new court date was set; all we had to do was wait for the judge’s ruling. All we had to do was wait for the judge’s ruling. For five weeks we waited with bated breath.
It seemed like any time I ran into anyone that was involved in the case from DHS they would say, “I don’t think you have anything to worry about, I can’t imagine the judge deciding to do anything but terminate.”
On a Wednesday afternoon, I was loading B and Serenity in the car to head to the dentist’s office. My cell phone rang, and my life would never be the same. B’s attorney was on the other end of the line.
“Christie, the judge has decided to send B to the relative,” she managed to mutter. “I’m sorry.”
To say I was in shock would be an understatement of epic proportion. I fumbled with my purse and the diaper bag, clumsily got B out of her car seat, grabbed Serenity’s hand and nervously led them back into the house. “I’ve got to call Jeff,” I thought as I dialed his number.
“They are sending B to the relative,” I heard myself say, all the while wondering if I was really saying those words.
“I’ll be right there,” he said. And he was. Chase was home from college working at Jeff’s office. He, too, was at my side in a matter of minutes.
I paced. I cried. I held my baby daughter tight. I saw confusion in Serenity’s eyes.
“How am I going to do this?” I shouted. “How are we going to do this?” “I can’t call the kids at school and have them come home; Cara can’t drive with this on her mind,” I reasoned.
When I finally got the caseworker on the phone, she informed me that the relative wanted B immediately. The caseworker was devastated, as well, and wondered what I wanted to do. I told her that there was no way I could drive my daughter to a strange place with all of her worldly belongings and leave her. She would have to pick her up.
So, for the next three hours, I gathered her things; I washed her clothes and cried, I picked up her dolls, stuffed animals, and her little bike and cried, I held her blankets and “silkies” tight and cried, I organized her precious books, packed all of her clothes and cried. I sent Jeff to the store for extra diapers and an extra duffle bag and cried. I wrapped myself around this precious gift that God had entrusted to me and wept. I could not imagine my life without her.
The hour that followed is forever etched in my mind. Our family gathered for a prayer time. Jeff cried out to the Father amid silent sobs and sniffles. B didn’t have a clue what was happening and I am sure wondered if her entire family had gone totally insane! She wandered from person to person as Daddy prayed. My parents came over and held us. My six year old nephew came to say goodbye. The caseworker arrived and the boys loaded the car. It was time.
And time stood still. I will never forget the utter hopelessness and helplessness I felt as Jeff and I made our way to the waiting car with our daughter. Our entire family was on the porch. I put her in the car seat, buckled her in tight, and kissed her. My weeping was uncontrollable. My heart was shattered. B looked at us with a question mark as we told her how much we loved her and shut the door. The car drove away with my hopes and dreams inside.
There are no words to describe what these last weeks have been. We have lost something priceless. We have lost a daughter. At this point in time, there is nothing anyone can say or do to change that. We have experienced a death of another sort; on one hand there is a sense of finality and on the other, no closure.
It seems that with every store I enter, there is a reminder of the emptiness, of what I am missing: the baby food aisle, the toy section, everything at Baby Gap and even looking at the shopping carts makes me hyperventilate. Cara says I have made friends at all of my favorite stores, and I really can’t disagree with her! I tend to stand out with my babies, which leads to great conversations and opportunities to share my heart. I was in Target not long after B left when one of my “friends” asked me where my baby was. I told her what had happened and with open arms she embraced me, told me she was so sorry, even called me “Boo” and said, “You just don’t look right without your baby.”
We have never had this kind of grief. “Yes, you have,” you may say. “It’s in the book!” The grief caused by the loss of a child, yes. But, not the grief caused by the loss of a child that we thought would be ours forever. We had known in all of the cases up to this point that the child would either be adopted by a forever family or be returned home to his/her biological family; but this time it was different.
I have seen snapshots of B in my mind at every turn: her face as she took our hands in hers while playing “patty-cake” and her tiny pursed mouth as she tried to say “roll it up”, her little round bottom grooving to the music, her thumb in her mouth as she put her head on my shoulder, her eyes peering over the baby bed watching Jeff’s morning routine and him kissing her as he left for work, her horrified look when she feared our Golden Retrievers would run into the house and eat her alive, her crinkled lips and turned up nose when she tried a new food, her chubby little hands reaching out for me, the excitement in her eyes when we picked her up from her Sunday School class, and the list goes on and on. At night as I move in the darkness towards my bed, I run my hand along her bed rail and imagine her little hands holding on, waiting for me to pick her up. I have literally had to catch my breath with grief. There have been times when I have paced around the house uncertain of what to do. I have written down scriptures about hope and strewn them throughout the house. The loss is palpable. The future uncertain. Her destiny unsure.
Unsure by my measuring stick, but there is One to whom nothing is unsure. One to whom no future is uncertain. One to whom there is no coincidence, no happenstance, no ‘luck of the draw’, no karma or kismet, to whom nothing is a fluke. In the midst of it all, He has been here. He has wrapped His arms around me and held me tight. When I shouted aloud to Him, “I don’t trust this situation!” He whispered back, “But you can trust Me.” He has seen the ugliness of my despair and felt the literal aching of my arms just to hold my child. He has known my doubts and fears, tolerated my questions, witnessed my selfishness and disillusionment, felt my heartbreak, caught my tears and yet purposed in His heart to work out His plan in me, even when my purpose, my passion, my calling, and the course of my life seemed unclear. And for that I am eternally grateful.
Though this case is not over and, really, anything could happen, in spite of it all, I am eternally grateful for something else. I am grateful for a “weekend baby” who captured my heart and the hearts of my family; a baby that regardless of proximity, is our daughter forever, period. Nothing and no one can take that away from us. I pray that in her tiny heart she will always sense our love, feel our prayers, and be able to grasp how deep our commitment was and is to her. And one last thing I pray: that this is not really the end of this chapter, that there will be more of this story to tell, more supernatural events to recount, and in the end all of the glory will shine on the Heavenly Father who is “able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of- infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, or hopes.” (Ephesians 3:20 The Way, The Living Bible)