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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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A Dog Teaches Me To Trust Love, Trust Myself


Around ten pm, a few days before Christmas,  I sat cross-legged gazing through the burnished glass of a wood stove. Heat rippled toward my face. Flicking flames evoked emotions and memories: a needlepoint Santa stocking for a boy who no longer lives, the ending of a marriage I held precious, decisions that tangle and untangle a life. My two–outdoor only–dogs snoozed nearby. A few weeks earlier I decided to bring them inside with me. It was the best present I’ve given them–and myself.

Kenai, the five year old Chesapeake Bay Retriever came over, prodding my forearm, seeking attention. I stretched out on the carpet; he laid full length next to me.  I stroked the groove between his eyes with my thumb. Tears prickled my nose and eyes, unbidden. Something melted in me. I want to learn to love this fiercely again. I want to share radical unconditional love. I blinked unexpected tears, continuing to pet his fur.  While wood crackled and popped, I realized how defended and sheltered my heart is. Kenai stayed still, simply present.

Dogs teach us. This was not the first time Kenai had been my companion. I think he is an angel in disguise.

He went missing in the wilds of Granite Canon, Wyoming, for nine months. Only a pup, his loss came three months after the death of my only child. That was nearly five years ago. Then a miracle occurred.

It was New Year’s Day, 2007.  I’d returned to northern Colorado from a visit to Alaska, and welcomed the new year,  standing on a snowy ridge top in Wyoming. I called to my lost pup–the only visible movement  in a vast horizon. Kenai bolted through snowdrifts  into my arms, with whimpers and cries. I buried my hands in his fur that day too–later realizing no human hands had touched him for nine months.  Our story “Lost and Found” was printed a Chicken Soup book.

I remember the miracle, and share my 2011 happy new year wish: May we learn to live with fierce tenderness and unmeasured mutuality.

This is an excerpt from Lost and Found followed by a link to the full story. May peace be with you, and me.

…A new year

January 1 dawned clear and sunny. We drove to Wyoming. Entering the ranch, we stopped to scan the landscape with binoculars. On a distant ridge we saw him. There was no doubt now. My stomach started to churn. Within a few minutes, we met Brenda. I could barely breathe. There was only room for one of us in her tractor cab. Jim stared at me and whispered, “Go.”

Maneuvering to the ridge top seemed longer than ten minutes. Cows followed as we lurched through icy snow drifts. The sun radiated brilliance against snow and rock. We stopped where Brenda had left food for Kenai. Heart pounding, I stepped from the cab.

Brenda backed the tractor away. I walked forward. Suddenly I saw a flash of brown on the other ridge. Clapping my hands, I called, “Kenai, Kenai, Kenaiii,” over and over and over. Could he hear me, would he remember?

Kenai stopped and sniffed the air. Instantly wiggling with recognition from nose to tail, he raced through snowdrifts toward me. Whimpers and cries erupted from both of us. I fell to my knees in the snow, arms wide open, calling him. I could see his puppy collar! A solid, furry hay-smelling body launched into my embrace. He was undersized, but unharmed. We jumped up, tumbled around each other, playing, touching, petting, tears pouring forth. I can’t believe he remembers! He’s safe!

When Jim was within one hundred yards of us, I knelt, presenting to him Kenai. Kenai looked to me, then rushed to Jim as I watched, sobbing with joy.

Oh yes, I hope. I believe.

– (c) Pegge Bernecker, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living Catholic Faith, 2008

Links
Read the full story: “Lost and Found.” See photos of Kenai and the Wyoming landscape where he lived.

Where Are You From?

Where are you from? Who are the people, places and experiences that shape and form the amazing critter of you? My son, Justin, wrote these words two months before he died.

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