Sometimes I have to laugh or roll my eyes or sigh at myself and how very wrong I have been. How often do I claim something as truth only to find out I was so completely off base? When I said a teary goodbye to Annalise several months ago and began a new journey of love, I honestly thought that my season of foster care was over. I told people that God had released me from that responsibility, that I was free to recover and heal and move forward in a new adventure. I wept over the fact that I would never get true closure from my time with Annalise, that there would always be an open wound attached to my spirit. A wound from her and from the other kids that had passed through the doors of my house and my heart. I was okay with that. I had come to accept the fact that we don’t always get a happy ending. Not every story finishes with a sunset or a romantic kiss or an upbeat song. Sometimes stories end tragically. There’s no comedic relief to tie you over. You finish reading it and are left feeling like something is missing, something was left unsaid, and you feel the weight of the end. This was how I read the final chapter of my time with Annalise. It didn’t end like I wanted it to, but it was over. The book was closed. I worked through the pain of our goodbye and put the book back on the shelf.

I was wrong. Perhaps the chapter was finished, but the book was not. A couple weeks before I left for Colorado, I got an early morning phone call from a number I didn’t know. I don’t typically answer anything that doesn’t pop up with a name from my stored contact list, but something in my spirit told me to answer this one. It was Saturday, my sleep-in day, way too early to be awake. But I answered the call.

“Hello? Ms. Shelly? This is Annalise!”

Those words woke me up faster than any fire alarm could have. I sat up, fully awake, all systems engaged. Adrenaline pumped through my body. Annalise? I had not heard from her, or about her, in over five months. The last time I saw her I couldn’t even bear to look at her face; her eyes were so distraught and empty and hurt. She sat on a hospital bed begging me not to leave her. I didn’t even know she knew my number. Perhaps she kept it from the little note I sent to her when I returned her North Face coat to her caseworker. It was an afterthought, but I wrote a sweet note telling her I loved her and signed it with my name and number. No matter the avenue she obtained it or memorized it or happened upon it, Annalise was calling me.

This is grace. This is what is so sweet about walking with Jesus, about trusting Him, about putting all the details and unfinished stories into His hands. He can take those torn up pages, the tragedy, and He can keep writing a book. God has this amazing way of adding pages to a book we’ve already closed, already finished writing. I talked to Annalise for about 20 minutes; we chatted about her school and family and boys she has crushes on. We laughed and giggled and reconnected. Not once did she mention our parting. Not for a moment did she even hint at anger or hurt from being left at the hospital, from having to be moved. We talked as if there had never been a broken moment to our relationship, like it was healed.

Over the next couple weeks we texted some, and then the week before I moved God gave me another incredible gift. My mom and sister were in town and we were able to take an hour trip out of town and meet Annalise and her grandmother. We met in a small Subway on the corner of a busy street and spent two wonderful hours together. We swapped stories from the last few months, showed pictures of snow and mountains and artwork, laughed until our bellies hurt, and slowly watched the sun slip away behind us. While we showed pictures of my mom’s latest paintings and I explained to Annalise’s grandma how my sister got all the artistic talent from my mother and I got none, I could see a change in Annalise’s expression, like she was pondering my words, mulling them over.

“Ms. Shelly. You may not be an artist, but I know what your talent is.”

Here I thought she would insert some antidote about my writing abilities, my wit or humor, my ability to keep plants alive.

“Your talent is you are a very good mother. You were a great mother to me; the best foster mom I ever had. That’s your talent, Ms. Shelly. You are a mother.”

As we ended our night together, knowing full well this may be the last time I see that sweet girl, but also very aware that God’s plans keep surprising me, I was able to walk away with a heart full of gratitude. A heart that was mending. A story that I thought had ended as a tragedy actually hadn’t ended at all. In fact, even while I was not with her, her character and mine were still being woven together in a beautiful plot. There are several of my kids that have moved on from my home and I will realistically, probably never hear from or see them again. But Annalise isn’t one of them. Getting to say a happy goodbye to her before I moved was one of the greatest gifts God could’ve give me. It set me up for a season of healing, of restoration, of joy.

I know now never to claim something as true when I have no idea what God is doing behind the scenes. He may very well make this story into a trilogy or a series or even some day, a full blown motion picture. But whatever He is up to, I can rest assured in knowing that He is up to something, and it is good and rich and beautiful.

This afternoon I look outside at the radiant shades of yellows, reds and oranges, brilliantly lighting up my vision on autumn trees and leaves scattered on the dying grass. The sunlight is hitting the colors left hanging on the trees. It’s my favorite time of the day, my favorite time of the season. Summer has faded away months ago and fall has taken over. Everything about this time of the year makes me sentimental and nostalgic, full of happiness and gratitude. Something about it slows me down and allows me extra moments to breathe deeply the cool, dry air. A couple days ago I even found myself climbing that old tree rooted beside the creek in my back yard. And I just stood in the tree and soaked in the sun and listened to the wind whisper through the leaves. The leaves were sparkling like golden glitter; I just had to be as close to them as possible. Whenever my body senses the change of seasons, the colors and coolness, the amount of sunlight that fills the day, my mind drifts to life’s seasons and all the moments that God has called me into and out of over the years.

Tomorrow is Orphan Sunday. It will be almost three years exactly that I started my journey through foster care. These kids weren’t orphans in the traditional sense, but they were beautiful children needing love, needing a family. So today I think about them. I remember their faces. I hear their voices. I think about how unique each one was, all the way to the way they curved their letters on their writing assignment or colored their pictures when we sat at the table doing crafts. I remember them all. Each one incredibly special. Each one imbedded in a little corner of my heart.

I have been thinking lately about how I never finished my story. Things got crazy and I ran out of words to express what we went through. It’s been almost four months since I’ve had a full-time placement and I am finally at a place where I want to share the remaining stories of my time in foster care. Today I want to finish the story of Annalise.

Annalise was doing well for a while. We were seeing progress at school and she was opening up more emotionally to me and to others. I had just started her into counseling and although things weren’t perfect, they were manageable. But the closer we got to the date when there was supposed to be a hearing to decide whether or not to terminate Annalise’s mother’s rights, the more things got out of whack. She started to get more antsy, more irritable. She got more hostile and violent and aggressive. And when the date of the hearing came and went and was continued because our caseworker couldn’t make it, something inside of Annalise snapped. She told me and our worker, “If I can’t go home, everything here is going to get worse.” She was right.

I took Annalise to visit my family in NC for a weekend and the first night there I realized things were no longer okay. We had a lovely afternoon swimming and hanging out with my parents, but that night she kicked a hole in my brother’s wall and attacked me with biting, scratching, hitting, beating. It wasn’t until she injured herself by tripping over a chair she had thrown at me, that she finally calmed and I was able to soothe her to sleep. Annalise is a big girl and much stronger than I am, so these episodes scared me. A lot. Her aggression was getting out of hand. We cut our visit short and attempted to come back home the next evening. This time ended with a struggle on the side of the road at 10:00pm, her beating me, on top of me, drawing blood from my arm with her nails. She couldn’t stop. It took two other people to help hold her off of me. It wasn’t until she urinated on herself and felt the weight of shame that we were able to get her calmed. I still have the scar on my arm from that night.

Over the next couple weeks things got worse. I was no longer in control in my own home. If I said “no” to her about anything, she would break something, flip over some furniture, come after me. I got to a place where I wanted out. I knew God had called me to take care of Annalise, but I couldn’t do it any longer. I wrestled with guilt and wanting to give up, wondering how you know when it’s time to raise the white flag and surrender.

One lazy Saturday morning the middle of July I was sitting at my dining room table working on the computer, praying that God would make it abundantly clear when I could stop fostering Annalise. I secretly wanted them to let her go back home, even though I knew it wasn’t the best for her, so I wouldn’t have to be the one responsible for the decision to send her away. I didn’t want her to leave, but I was so scared in my own home while she was with me. Annalise was playing quietly, working on some crafts I had given her. There was a lovely moment of peace and happiness. We were both so content. And then she got tired of doing crafts and asked if she could play on my ipad. When I said the simple word, “no”, instantly a bomb went off inside of her. In a matter of ten minutes we were in full blown fight mode. She destroyed my living room; poured glue all over the carpet and walls and doorknobs. She beat the trashcan to shards with a chair, gashing the linoleum on the kitchen floor. She ripped apart papers and boxes and memories.

Thankfully I had a teenage foster girl staying with me that week as well or things could’ve gone a lot worse. I wrestled scissors out of Annalise’s hand and had Jamie help me get away and get my phone. I called the on-call person and she said she was on her way but it would take an hour for her to arrive. It’s funny how when it comes down to it how silly the techniques and theories can all sound. She was giving me well-intended advice, telling me to hang in there, telling me I was doing a great job. I was sobbing on the phone, begging her to come get Annalise. She told me there was nowhere else for her to go; I had to keep her here, I would be okay. I hung up the phone and braced myself for more blows from those strong childish hands. My body ached. I was scared to death.

And then Annalise looked at me and Jamie and said, “I’m going to kill you.” She had fire in her eyes and I completely panicked. As Annalise ran into the kitchen to grab a knife, Jamie and I held our bodies against the hallway door to keep her out. I picked up my phone and called 9-1-1. My on-call person had told me not to, but I didn’t want her to arrive 30 minutes later to two dead bodies. I tried desperately hard to keep calm as I told the operator that a nine year old child was trying to murder me. Jamie and I tried our hardest to keep the door closed as Annalise beat through it with a 2-pound hand weight. I heard glass shattering against the wood and as she beat the door I could hear it coming apart, piece by piece. I didn’t know how much time we had left.

Finally, like a scene from a horror movie, Annalise broke through the door. A hole the size of her face. She peered through and said, “I’m going to get you” and beat even harder on the door. I knew we didn’t have much more time. Jamie and I took a run for it and locked ourselves in the spare room where she had been staying. When we heard that door starting to come apart one hit at a time, we had no choice but to bust out the screen and escape through the window. At this time I’m beyond panicked. I’m beyond thinking straight. Jamie and I hide behind the side of the house and wait to hear sirens approaching. The operator on the phone tells me they are coming; I should hear them soon. Finally I do. As they turn the corner and stop in front of my house, four cop cars in all, I start sobbing in relief that we are going to be okay. They have to climb through the bedroom window and find Annalise. They walk over the glass that has been shattered around the room. Thankfully I didn’t have to see what happened when they found her; it would have been too much to handle.

Neighbors start to come out of the woodwork. Ones that have never talked to me suddenly want to be my best friend, want to hear all the juicy gossip about what’s going on inside. I don’t want to tell them; they won’t understand. They shake their heads and talk about the state of parents and how it’s no wonder kids turn out this way. They judge and tsk tsk and roll their eyes, never for a moment wondering how desperately this breaks my heart.

When I’m finally allowed to come back inside, I find Annalise handcuffed, sitting on the couch, crying. My sister comes and together we try to sooth her. An ambulance arrives and it takes five of them to get her out the door, hog-tied down to the stretcher. My heart aches. That’s my kid. I love her.

And as much fear and adrenaline that has filled my body, the moment Annalise starts yelling, “Miss Shelly! I need Miss Shelly!” I am instantly softened and come running to her side. I stroke her hand, kiss her sweaty forehead. I say goodbye to the cops, goodbye to my sister, goodbye to the mess in my house, and climb into the ambulance beside Annalise. She doesn’t seem so strong anymore. Her eyes aren’t filled with fire but with fear. She looks small.

The next few hours are a blur of talking with doctors, nurses, and our DSS worker (who although on-call arrived three hours later). Annalise and I said a very tearful goodbye; I hugged her and held her and told her she was loved and forgiven. I squeezed her ladybug stuffed animal and filled it with all my love so she could always have that to remember me by. And then I turned around, sobbing, and walked out the hospital door to never see her again.

These past few months have been a time of healing for me. That day, in a strange way, God really answered my prayer. I asked the He would show me when I could be finished with therapeutic foster care. That day He allowed my child to be taken away from me. I have done respite for three other kids since, all with sweet stories I will eventually share, but for now I feel very confident that this season has come to a close.
I loved every single child that came into my house. I poured my heart and soul into their lives. I am as passionate today about foster care as I was three years ago. My heart aches for these kids and breaks for what they’ve had to endure. But God has also given me so much peace and comfort in knowing that I can be finished. I was faithful with what He entrusted to me, as much as a fallen human being can be, and He has now allowed me to enter into a season of rest and healing and love.

In a way I’m thankful for the scar on my arm. It helps me remember. Even though so many moments with the six kids placed with me were horrific, so many more were sweet and precious. I was blessed through their little lives much more than I deserve. So I want to remember.

I will always remember my kids.

I will always love them.

I will cherish every moment, good and bad, that I was allowed to spend with them. I hope they remember me. I hope they come to know Jesus. I hope to one day hear stories of how their lives have changed. I know mine will never be the same again.

Several weeks ago Annalise and I swung by Subway to grab some sandwiches and a couple bags of chips for a quick dinner before we had an appointment with one of our case managers. While sitting at our kitchen table inhaling our food, a tiny bit of guacamole slipped out of my sandwich and on to my face. I don’t really remember how it happened (or why I didn’t just wipe that green mess off my face with a napkin), but in the moments that followed I ended out chasing Annalise around the living room jokingly trying to hug her and smoosh my guacamole drop all over her face. In a monstorous voice I yelled, “You’d better run or I’m going to get you with a guacamole hug!” She giggled and ran around the room while I (now cleaned faced) continued to chase her and smother her with loving bear hugs. She absolutely loved it. And guacamole hugs have now become our thing.

Annalise came to my house with a huge wall built up around her. When she misbehaves and you ask her why she did such-and-such, she will reply, “That’s just who I am. I’m a rough girl. Ain’t nobody gonna change that. I don’t care what anyone says. I’m rough.” Over the past almost two months I have worked really hard in helping to tear down that wall and build up a wall of safety and security built on truth. “Annalise, you may have rough behaviors, but that’s not who you are. It’s what you do. You are kind and compassionate and helpful. You are not rough.”

So when guacamole hugs became a thing, that was the first glimpse I had that maybe we were getting somewhere. It’s the first time she belly laughed. The first time she let me touch her and she didn’t shrink away. And since that day she has been toeing the line of vulnerability. I can tell when it’s coming. I can tell when she needs that affection, that affirmation, that love. She will stop what she’s doing and say, “You can’t get me with your guacamole hug!” And she eggs me on until I stop what I’m doing and chase her around the room. She lets me catch her. She wants that hug. She won’t ask for it specifically but she needs a physical touch from someone who is not going to hurt her. My touch is the first one she can trust. She can’t admit it yet, but she wants to be hugged.

A couple nights ago we were having moving night and were watching Tangled for the umpteenth time. We had to stop it half way through for bedtime and apparently not having a conclusion really messed up her poor little mind. The last three nights she has been afraid to sleep because she’s afraid someone is going to break into the house and steal her. “I know how Rapunzel feels!” she cries. “Rapunzel got taken from her family and is now a foster kid. I know how foster kids are.” It has been a struggle every night to get her to sleep because she’s so petrified that she will be removed again. She blames herself for being taken into foster care; thinks it was all her fault. And perhaps that’s the greatest fear of all – the fear of losing your family because you just weren’t good enough.

The first night she couldn’t sleep I sat in her room with her and prayed over her. I hugged her tight and reaffirmed her that everything was going to be okay. Honestly, it was late and I was tired so there was absolutely nothing magical about my words or even my attitude. But I did it because I knew it was the right thing to do. So last night as I hugged her goodnight, Annalise said, “Miss Shelly, you know what? Last night after you left I fell right to sleep. You know what I think? I think your hugs are the reason I can sleep at night.”

The thought resonated through my spirit. I have absolutely no idea how much the little things I do impacts the life of a child. It may be  a prayer. It may be the time I spend brushing her hair. It may be the hours we spend on the living room floor playing card games. Or it may be something as simple as a guacamole hug. Love makes all the difference in the world.

This may be teetering on the verge of imbecilic, but, control freak that I am, I have been so unwilling to open up my house to friends or small group or pretty much anyone because the carpet in my living room is so ridiculously unsightly. There are more stains than I can count from my old dog, a few spilled drinks, and general wear and tear from the undersides of kids’ tennis shoes. Lately when I’ve come home after work I noticed a pungent smell coming from my living room. You know it’s not a good sign when you can smell your own house. So, dirty carpet plus unpleasant smell equals closing off my house to outsiders. And although it drives me crazy to live like this and have my house feel dirty and unkempt, until today I was okay leaving it like that because no one sees it and no one knows, and no one has time to fix it. But I got a call today from the leader of my homegroup telling me that our service project at a foster kids group home fell through and she was wondering if there were projects around my house that needed completing so the group could come and do a service day with me. I loved the idea, and goodness knows my yard is in desperate need of some TLC, but the thought of this wonderful group of people stepping into my house, my mess, was just too much. I didn’t want their first sight of me in my natural habitat to be one of disarray and stench.

So I went to Lowes this afternoon and rented a carpet cleaner. I got the heavy-duty, made special for dog stains and odor, carpet shampoo, and oxy deep stain removal spray. I got home and moved all the furniture out of the living room: the tv, couches, and even, somehow, the piano. I shoved it all into my kitchen until all that was left in the living room was my fireplace, my built-in bookcases, and the carpet. The dingy, dirty, carpet.

I remember when I first bought my house, fixed it up, and had brand new carpet installed. I was so protective of the carpet; even when we were moving everything in I had my volunteer laborers remove their shoes each time they stepped foot indoors. I loved that carpet! Marveled at its cleanliness. Breathed in the fresh smell of softness. It was perfection. But over time, when I didn’t even realize what was happening, the newness and freshness wore off, real life took place in the living room, and the used-to-be-off-white carpet got dirty.

Tonight as I figured out how to run that laborious machine and walked it back and forth over and over again, wetting stains and sucking the dirtiness out of them, Annalise decided to have a melt down over who-knows-what. She took every basket of toys, every item in the playroom, and threw them, full force, against the walls, the bookshelves, the art table. She shattered toys, indented the drywall, and wreaked havoc on the whole room. She didn’t stop until the whole floor was literally covered six inches deep in toys. She’s not a small kid, so when this happens, the best I can do is get away and wait it out. I can’t stop her. I can’t even stay in the same room. I have to walk away and wait. It broke my heart tonight because this room is such a special room to me. I built it for foster kids. I created it for her. And she destroyed it.

But when I heard her tantrum subside, I prayed for an extra measure of grace, and walked into the mess. I didn’t say anything. I just walked over to where she sat, trying to pick up the mess she made, and I pulled her tightly into a bear hug. She started sobbing. I held her more tightly and rocked her back and forth as she collapsed into my arms. When she had stopped crying, without a mention of the tantrum, I helped her pick up the toys littered around the room. We cleaned in silence for a while and then as she regained her dignity, we started to talk about what happened. She apologized and thanked me for helping clean up her mess. She sheepishly asked if I was going to send her away and when I told her that my love isn’t used up on one melt-down, her face soared into a smile and she leaped to hug me. I spent time reassuring her of my love. We talked a lot about grace tonight and Jesus and how unconditional His love is.

As we finished picking up the toys in the playroom and tossing out those that were irreparable, I returned to my carpet cleaning job. I watched the clear water turn chocolaty brown as the machine sucked the dirt from the ground. It suddenly hit me that this is what Jesus is capable of. I watched again and again as the suds formed, the machine hovered, and dark brown water appeared in the holding chamber.

Over the past nine years Annalise’s life went from new and clean and perfect to messy and dirty and shameful. Because of what happened to her, she now joins in the mess, creates chaos, and destroys other things that are beautiful. Her life is soiled by her past and by the choices of her family.

But that’s not the end of the story! There is grace and forgiveness and a deep, life changing cleansing that is possible through Jesus. He can pull all the mess out of her life: the dirtiness and guilt and muck that has been her life. There are some stains that will never go away (goodness knows that red soda stain on my carpet is there to stay!), things she will have to look at and deal with for the rest of her life, but they get less noticeable with time. And as the cleansing work of Jesus takes place, more and more of life’s dirt and grime disappear. He is able to make ALL things clean.

One of the privileges I have as a foster parent is that I get to watch that dirt be removed. I get to participate in the cleansing. I get to see the stains lessen. When Annalise first came to me she didn’t smile, didn’t laugh, showed no affection at all. Over the past two months she has come alive; she is helpful, compassionate, and incredibly cuddly. Last night when I got home from youth group she was still awake in bed. I went to say good night and she just beamed with joy as I walked in the door. She clung to me, hugged me, and giggled a happy laugh. Dirt removed. Stain erased. A cleansing beginning. I get to see it. I get to help. And I get to live over and over again with a picture of grace, right here, in my living room.

Every night at bedtime Annalise and I lay in her bed and spend some time reading the Bible and a devotional. It’s become routine in my home to do this with my kids, but God really laid on my heart a couple weeks ago to not just read it out of routine but to actually spend time discussing the content of what we are reading and leave time for Jesus to actually stir in Annalise’s heart. Reading a Bible verse and three paragraphs from Jesus Calling for Kids, saying a quick prayer for sweet dreams, then shutting off the lights and closing the door does not bring about change. I was realizing there was no fruit from our devotion times and found myself leading out of some sort of superstition that if we didn’t do this then Annalise would have bad dreams or Satan would some how come and attack her mind. If we spend time, even out of obligation and habit, reading the Bible and praying then God owed us some sort of hedge of protection, right?

But it wasn’t enough. Life wasn’t changing; at least not in a positive way. I always say I get a one month “honeymoon” with my foster kids and then all hell breaks loose in their behaviors. Annalise has been no exception. This week has been rotten and culminated today with her getting suspended for the rest of the week for shredding a library book with her bare hands and attacking her principal (also with her bare hands). Today was bookmarked with news that I won’t be getting my car back (or receiving any money for it) and that I was overdue on my utilities bill so my water was disconnected over lunch. Life change was not happening this week and I was feeling so overwhelmed. Where’s the good in today?

But when we snuggled into bed tonight after a really good time at Home Group, God poured over us like He has over and over again. I don’t know why He is so gracious to me; I certainly don’t deserve it! But as we laid there looking up verses in the Bible Annalise had asked for from church two weeks ago, flipping through pages, passing areas she’s already underlined and highlighted, God spoke to me.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28

I looked at her, thinking about how much of her life has been filled with pain and disappointment and brokenness, and I told her that this verse may be one of the hardest to believe. How could God work all the bad things in our life for good? Then with simple, childlike faith, she turned to me and said,

“Miss Shelly, He already has.”

When I asked her to explain what she meant she talked about how bad today went (and it was bad!) but how incredibly good it was by the end. “See, Miss Shelly. God turned a bad day into good. Of course He can work all things the same way.”

I know we have a long road ahead of us. Today was a baby step on the road of faith and growth and freedom. But tonight when I lay my head on my pillow I can sleep peacefully, not because I prayed a five second prayer for serenity, but because I believe, with all my heart, God works ALL things together for our good.

I’ve been meaning to write for days (or has it been weeks already?) about how delightfully smooth my time with Annalise has been going. She has adjusted well and has had very little negative behaviors. Her “tantrums” include the silent treatment or laying all over the kitchen chairs or couch, sighing extravagant sighs to try get attention. Normally if I ignore her for a few minutes, she pops back and we’re back to playing Nerts or Uno. I probably should’ve written about those things because then today wouldn’t have felt like such a downer. But I guess God knew, perhaps, I needed a little more time to mull over the good times, to cherish in my heart those quiet days, and to contemplate in my own mind what He’s been teaching me before I put my fingers to the keys.

God brought me to Matthew 10:29-31 yesterday and it has been so incredibly timely.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Annalise has a mop of thick, dark, beautiful ringlets. Most days we just tie it back in a pony tail and try to mat down the frizzes with a spritz of hairspray. I have braided it a few times, twisted it into a bun, or added a headband for extra pizzazz. But yesterday morning she wanted it flat ironed. Everything in me wanted to make up some excuse about not having enough time before church, but her deep brown eyes, and a stir from Jesus, reminded me that it is not about me. And in reality, it wasn’t even about her frizzy hair. It was about bonding and spending time together and letting her know that I care enough about her to sit still with a magic hair wand and straighten those darn curls.

So I sat on the edge of my bed and she got comfortable in a swivel chair and I laboriously divided her hair and steamed those curls into a straight line. Comb, hold, steam, pull, straighten, brush, repeat. Over and over again for an hour. She passed the time by reading out loud to me from her new library books. I helped her on the hard words and before I knew it Annalise’s hair was four inches longer in perfectly straight form. I trimmed the edges, she smiled in the mirror, and bounced away to her room to get dressed for church. I looked at her as she bound away, her dark hair dangling down her back, and I thought to myself,

“He knows every hair on that head.”

It was a fleeting thought, there and gone as quickly as she was. I didn’t think anything of it again until we arrived home from church and I stood trying to unlock the door to the house. Annalise gasped and I looked over to my left where she was pointing. Laying on the ground atop a pile of brown leaves was a tiny little bird. He still had some of his baby down sticking to his chest and his eyes were barely slits, open cautiously on his little head. His legs sprawled out and his beak opened and closed as if he were trying to cry out but not so much as a tweet left his throat. Compassion filled my heart as I scooped up the little guy and rushed him into the house to make him well. I wrapped him in a blanket and tried to hold him still with one hand while I looked on Google for answers to this little bird’s medical needs. I had Annalise grab a lamp and I grabbed an eye dropper and tried to feed him a drop of water. He jerked and flopped and moved around in obvious pain. I tried to cuddle him up, make him feel safe. A few more tired moves and then he stilled. His beady eyes stared at me, his beak open in a silent expression of pain. And he didn’t move again. He just lay there, in my hand, lifeless. I chocked back a few tears and told myself it was silly to get emotionally involved in the lifesaving tales of a sparrow, but I couldn’t help it. Everything to me is symbolic and I felt, somehow, like I had let this little bird down.

And then the verse came to me again.

“Not a single sparrow will fall to the ground without your Father’s care.”

Hair and sparrows. Cares and sorrows. God holds it all. So when today hit and sweet girl was a whirlwind of attitude, disrespect, and defiance, I remembered yesterday. I do not have to worry about how to respond or how I’m going to handle each situation that arises. I don’t have to worry about holding all these cares in my hand. Because Jesus sees. We are worth more to Him than any sparrow.

I tried to spend time tonight (when my tongue wasn’t caught between my teeth) listening to Annalise share her frustrations and feelings and acknowledging them with my words and body language that I really do understand and care. She frustrated the life out of me, but I kept reminding myself that this actually has nothing to do with me at all. She has a past of hurt. Trauma. And a life time of bad influences. Tonight she just needed to know that someone was in her corner with her, willing to stand and fight beside her, willing to hear her out. I didn’t remove the consequences, but I also figured out tonight no amount of explaining will help. God knows the hairs on her head. He knows when we fall. And my job, tonight and always, is to relinquish control and trust and place them in the hands of the one who told us not to worry. He’s got this. He catches us. He cares.

I love sunny Saturdays! The warmth always envelopes me in a way that makes me come alive. Every year, like clockwork, the grass turns green, the flowers bloom, and I start to live again. The mountains beckon me to come play every time the sun is shinning and there is a slight coolness to the breeze. I must go. I must get in my car and drive. I must devour the scenery and fill my hibernated senses with life again. So today I went.

Annalise and I had been invited by some friends to explore a state park none of us had heard about. We drove almost an hour southwest and ended out in a beautiful hideaway that obviously few people had discovered. There were paths around a river, rocks to climb and lay on, sand to sink your toes into. We had a picnic lunch, swatting gnats while stuffing our faces with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We explored the river, practiced skipping stones, and allowed the freshness of the day to sweep over us. The whole afternoon was perfect.

There were seven kids with us, my friend and I. We kept a watchful eye over the little ones but allowed them the freedom we were thankful our parents allotted us when we were young. We weren’t worried about how wet their shorts were getting or what they might step on with their bare feet. We just sat and enjoyed their laughter and the moments that kids get to truly be kids. I sat on a rocky bank while the little kids played around the edge of the river, near a waterfall. My friend went to tie up her dogs to an obliging tree on the other side of the rock. My shoes were off and I just sat watching, allowing the sun to warm my wintered legs and feet. All was calm.

How quickly things can change in the blink of an eye. The four littlest kids were playing on the water’s edge and one of them started to get pulled out from the bank toward the waterfall, which was tugging with an intense undercurrent. There was laughter and the kids thought nothing of the situation. It was a game. His little blond head was above the water. He was smiling. He was still able to swim back toward the shore. But all of a sudden he went a foot too far and he couldn’t out-swim the current. I saw panic flood his face at the realization that he was going to get pulled under. At the same time I noticed him, the three other little kids saw this, and formed a group chain, in the water, to try to pull him out. One after the other, they slipped on the slimy rocks and, chained together, all three of them joined their friend in the current.

Without thinking, I ran from my spot on the rock and jumped into the frigged mountain creek. Foamy white water splashed around me. I heard the screams of children grabbing onto each other. Four heads bobbed up and down near the waterfall, swirling and getting pulled further out. I grabbed the two kids nearest me and attempted to swim them out of the current. I kept dropping them, and in the panic, Annalise clawed at my shirt, my neck, and tried to get her head above the water. She kept pushing me down, taking me with her. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t get air. Panic engulfed my normally calm mind. Where are all the kids? Are we all going to drown? I grabbed Annalise and started yelling for help. At the last moment, when I wasn’t sure we were going to make it, my foot hit a rock and I was able to get my head above the water. I grabbed kid after kid floating past me and shoved them toward the shore, away from the current. I held tight to Annalise and saw out of the corner of my eye, my friend running toward us. She helped me grab the kids and pull them safely to shore. We were all a little shell-shocked, but we were okay. The kids were safe. All four kids were safe. And I was still alive.

As we sat on the rock and comforted crying children, my friend looked at me and said, “You know, it was all going to be okay. I’m a trained lifeguard. Not for a moment did I ever doubt that you were all going to be okay. I was on my way to save you.”

I drove home this afternoon, soaking wet, but thankful, and started thinking about the events of the day. Then it hit me. That experience represents not only what Jesus did for me, but what He calls me to every day as a foster mother. There are kids out there that are drowning in families filled with abuse and neglect and pain. Kids that are panicking because they don’t know if anyone will come rescue them. God has called me to notice them. To hear their cries, and to get involved. Being a foster mom is risky; it’s uncomfortable and at times rather scary. Sometimes I barely feel like I can breath. The kids cling to me and claw at me and often times I get pulled down into their pain. Sometimes I’m not even sure we’re going to make it.

But always…ALWAYS…without fail, at just the right time, God leads me to the Rock. He helps me find my footing in the chaos, and allows me the strength to help the kids make it out alive. I was reminded, tenderly, this afternoon, that I am never alone in this rescue mission. Always with me is my lifeguard, the Holy Spirit. He is there and even when I feel like I’m drowning and wish for the hundredth time that God had called someone else to jump in the mess, I hear Him say, “You know, it is all going to be okay. I’m a trained Life-Guard. Not for a moment did I ever doubt that you were all going to be okay. I was on my way to save you.”