“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”