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“One Mother’s Dream” … A Foster Adoptive Forever Family Story

“One Mother’s Dream”
–Pegge Bernecker (c)

For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of holding a baby. When I was a child she was an infant sized doll. If I could sit still, I was allowed to hold my baby sister, then three years later, my brother. In summer, I rocked a large zucchini with button eyes from Grandma’s garden. When the neighborhood gang played house in our backyard, I was always Mom—and a bit bossy! Acting as Mother Mary in the annual La Posada at church, I felt honored to be carrying baby Jesus.

As I grew older, with each romance I dreamed of the day when I would hold a baby, and birth a family. I wept barren tears in my mid-twenties during years of discerning a celibate religious vocation, and later while in a relationship with a man who didn’t want to marry. I held babies I loved deeply … first a goddaughter, then a nephew, all the while smiling with joy, wondering when my time would come. I continued to dream and started to pray.

At thirty-one the dream began in earnest. Together with Jim, my new husband—literally the man next door—I imagined the day we would hold our child, fantasizing perfect names and even beginning to purchase necessary baby gear. Month after month after month, tears and blood flowed like clockwork. I held another nephew, then niece, then a second goddaughter. Well-intentioned friends said things such as: “Just relax.” “Get away for a romantic weekend.” “If you adopt you’ll get pregnant for sure.” “Fall on your knees and pray more.” As if I hadn’t already prayed, and tried everything I could think of! I was angry and sad. In prayer, I let God know it. After all, I was working in church ministry serving the Lord. I deserved my dream. I began to wonder if I was paying a price for past sins.

But the God I encountered in prayer was suffering with me, not condemning me. Barrenness has a powerful precedent in scripture. Stories of Sarah, Rachel and Elizabeth brought me renewed hope. I just knew a baby and family was God’s good and creative dream in me. How could it be denied? I heard God’s word in Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” Yet, year after year my healthy, strong, vibrant body betrayed me.

Jim and I spent considerable time contemplating fertility treatments, sperm donors, domestic and international infant adoption, and our limited finances. When a notice in our church bulletin listed a phone number with a request for foster adoptive parents, we just wanted to eliminate a choice we didn’t think was a fit for us. Thus, one hot July evening, we sat on our porch with a caseworker from the local foster adoption agency. The three of us sat on our deck, overlooking a Colorado lake with a little rowboat moored on the shore where Jim spent most leisure time fishing.

As our conversation progressed, the caseworker asked, “Are you certain you want to adopt an infant?”
I replied “yes.”
A little later in the conversation, the same question. My answer remained “yes.”
Finally, again: “Are you certain you want an infant?”
I looked into her eyes “What are you thinking? That’s the third time you’ve asked me the same question.”
“Well,” she answered, “if you were to adopt an older child you could continue working.” I just stared at her. “And,” she continued, “I know a seven year old boy in town that loves to fish, and desperately needs a strong father and forever family.”

I didn’t move. The next thing I knew my six-foot-five husband was towering over us, practically shouting, “That’s the right age for me!”

I sat stunned. Birds chirped in the trees. I listened to my heart beat wildly.

So be it.

One month later, just in time for third grade, our son-to-be spent his first night in our home.

Nothing prepared me for parenting a little boy who had lived in nine foster homes. The warm fuzzies I had anticipated were nonexistent. Somewhere along the way I neglected to comprehend that foster children like Justin already had birth parents, a family and past experiences that shaped their lives. Bonding and attachment might not happen, maybe couldn’t. I discovered my own worst behaviors were not unlike Justin’s: anger at not being listened to, not having my needs met. Odd that as an adult I had the same feelings as the child in my home.

I slowly learned to understand the gift of being a lifesaver for a young boy—and he becoming a lifesaver of sorts for me too, as I grew into fuller maturity, discovering within myself reservoirs of patience and wisdom. My prayer was simple: love him as Jesus.

Together we learned the safety of boundaries. We talked about feelings, listened to one other. Justin began to grow with our focused, consistent attention, meals, and bedtimes. Learning about Jesus, he discovered he could be loved no matter what. I felt happiness that he felt safe enough to throw a temper tantrum. He explored personal interests, caught fish, and gained confidence. I learned to love him as if I had birthed him myself. God softened my heart and taught me generosity.

One afternoon after an emotional meltdown, Justin asked if he could sit on my lap. Though his legs and arms were a bit long, I snuggled him closely against me. Looking beyond my shoulder, he cautiously asked: “If you had been my birth Mom, what would you have done?”

Realizing he wanted to hear a different version of his own tumultuous childhood, I said softly: “I would have held you every day, rocking you just like this, and told you stories: real and imaginary. You would have known you were safe and loved, no matter what.” I stopped talking, feeling the weight of his body against mine, then continued, “And you know what; we can still do that, even though your elbow is poking my side!”

We chuckled together, and after a minute of rocking, the air hushed. He turned, looking me straight in the eyes and asked, “Could you tell me a story now?”

My blinking eyelids pushed back tears. Smiling at him, I began: “A long, long time ago, a little girl dreamed of being a mom and holding a little boy on her lap….” His hand gripped mine tightly. Breathing slow and steady, he listened intently, never taking his eyes from mine.

In the coming months Justin often asked to sit on my lap, and we discovered how much we both needed each other. Later that year after his legal adoption, I received an unexpected valentine: “Dear Mom, Thank you so much for taking care of me over all these years and making sure that I have food to eat and that I have a roof over my head. I also love having a very loving and caring person such as you.”

Not words I ever expected I’d receive from a child. But, still more powerful to me than an actual: “I love you Mommy,” which I suspect I’ll never hear.

Justin is now in his teens and an only child. I have learned the fierce love that I am certain Mary shared with her son two thousand years ago. Jesus has taught me to welcome and love the orphan. Just last week, at five-foot-nine, Justin gave me a hug, and looking down at me, asked, “Do you remember when I was small enough to fit in your lap?”

I smiled a “yes” into his eyes, and offered a silent prayer of gratitude to be living a mother’s dream.

Reprinted by permission of Pegge Bernecker.
“One Mother’s Dream” is published in Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul 2,  (p. 72-76) and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christian Kids, Our 101 Best Stories (p. 276-279).

After-note: On January 24, 2006, Justin died, unexpectedly. An advance copy of the book containing this story arrived in the mail on January 23, 2006. That night, I read the story out loud to him. After I finished, I looked at him and said, “I love you Justin. I’m so glad you are my son.” He looked straight at me, eyes full of love, and said, “I love you too Mom.”
Link: Five Years Later: “One Mothers Dream”

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What’s Your Natural Habitat?


I sit facing my computer screen, inches from a large window. My heart thunks. Outside a shadow moves. A moose peers at me. Vividly tall, she is furry, sturdy, six feet away, eyes glued in stillness. Her nose twitches. I catch my breath, meet her gaze. Seconds pass. Does she comprehend glass? Does it matter? When her shoulder muscles flick, she turns away, hooves crunching tracks through the snow crust. I remain, untangled. My breath is slow and deep.

How can we cultivate compassion when the world we inhabit may be hostile, stressful, aggressive, and painful? It is simple, but not easy, and requires our ongoing commitment. Compassion is not reliant upon ease of circumstance. Some of the most trustworthy, compassionate people I know have suffered profoundly. Paula D’Arcy writes, “How you approach something determines what you will see.” Roshi Joan Halifax tells us, “The world is so tangled, and I need to be somewhat untangled to meet it.” These are good insights. We cannot give what we do not have. What we cultivate is shared with others.

To cultivate compassion we must first show up and be available to place, time, and our embodied self. This prepares us to meet someone or something with integrity and presence. We each live a sacred story with particularities and peculiarities unique to our personality, life experiences, and our decisions of yes, no, and maybe.

Three moose wander in my yard—it is their natural habitat. The two twins were birthed when sun shone for twenty hours a day. Lush green ferns and foliage sheltered their tentative beginnings. Months later, I now sit in silence. Two feet of snow arrived, and neighbors help one another in time of need. I do not live in a wildlife preserve or zoo. Bear tracks across my driveway startle me from complacency. While outdoors, I am calmly alert, with a choice to engage the realness of time and place. I am interwoven in this landscape, a part of it. How will I forge connection and compassion in this climate?

Do you understand my question? Perhaps it needs translation: Where do you live—what is your natural habitat? Who do you encounter with your everyday activity? What causes you to stop in awe and wonder? Where do you rub up against fear and disconnect? These are essential questions in the marketplace or monastery, the inner city, suburbia, or wilderness. Thomas Merton said, “The deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless.”

What can your natural habitat teach you? A spiritual director can accompany you when you share your stories of desire, surprise, fear, hope, and despair. Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp reminds us, “The teaching of compassion, the exercise of the soul, will open the heart. And then nothing will be impossible.”

How do you cultivate compassion through the concrete specifics of your life?

–Pegge Bernecker, editor

Excerpt from Listen: A Seeker’s Resource for Spiritual Direction, Vol. 5.1, “Cultivating Compassion” by Pegge Bernecker, (Spiritual Directors International (c) 2011). Used with the permission of Spiritual Directors International. To order copies or a FREE subscription to Listen: A Seeker’s Resource for Spiritual Direction call 1-425-455-1565 or go to www.sdiworld.org.

Christmas—Giving Birth to Love

Christians begin celebrating the feast of Christmas today. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays rings throughout homes, in cars, on radios, in shopping malls, through halls and walls of buildings and businesses, on computer and cell phone screens. Merry Christmas reigns in streets where kids die, and where poverty, abandonment and abuse deepens. For practicing Christians, Christmas is a time to engage the significance of the incarnation, the birth of Jesus Christ in everyday life.

The invitation for us to ponder at Christmas could begin as simple as this,

How might love want to birth within me?

The cosmic Christmas tree star cluster

The Gift

God did not come into the world wrapped with a shiny red bow, pretty and perfect, labeled precisely. No, God came as a vulnerable, helpless infant who needs us as much as we need God. Emmanuel, “God-With-Us” is birthed, unwrapped, and encountered within us and through our own ordinary and mysterious life experience. In the article “The Eternal Christ in the Cosmic Story” Richard Rohr, OFM, explains, “… Christianity is not just that we believe in God. The mystery we are about is much more than that: It’s that the material and the spiritual coexist. It’s the mystery of the Incarnation. Once we restore the idea that the Incarnation means God truly loves creation then we restore the sacred dimension to nature.”

Celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas!

Christmas is not over on December 26. The Feast of Christmas begins on December 25, and culminates January 6, on the Feast of Epiphany. Every day is an opportunity to say yes to love, and wake up to the present moment. For the Twelve Days of Christmas we can practice genuine delight and forgiveness. We can gaze at people and our world with wonder and reverence. We can play with our family and friends. We can be willing to reach out with compassion to a stranger or someone in need. We can offer understanding and courage in difficult situations. We can receive, celebrate, feast, and rejoice in the reality that the material and the spiritual coexist, and that “the word became flesh.” We can become grateful for the gift of the incarnation of God!

Please join the many spiritual seekers who want to unwrap the ever-deepening meaning of “Yes, I will give birth to love. There is room and desire within me.”

Merry Christmas, Joy to the World!

Spring Growth During Lent

If you were given forty days, or even fourteen days to practice "springing" something new in your life, what would that be?

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