The four days

After I tucked her into bed, five-year-old Tabitha pummeled the wall with her heels, and I knew she was missing her mama. I patted her back to soothe her, but she clamped her teeth onto my t-shirt and yanked her head back until the fabric tore. She released her bite and then cried until she almost threw up. At last, she fell asleep. Whimpering, her three-year-old sister lay on her back in bed next to her, staring at the ceiling. I hugged them both, left the lamp on—at their request—and tiptoed out of the room.

We had hosted Tabitha and Tia before. In fact, this was their fourth time at our house. The first time was when Tabitha was two and Tia was six months old. They knew us. And maybe this time—since the placement had been written up for a month and not just a long weekend—we could establish some consistency in their stormy lives.

Other host families had struggled with the two sisters. Some had said they’d take Tia but not Tabitha. She was too difficult.

“That’s not right.” Dicka furrowed her brow and shook her head when I told her about the girls’ track record. “If their mom needs help, she needs help with both of them.”

“You’re right.”

We fumbled through our days, managing behavior and redirecting when attitudes soured—which was often.

“I would act out too, if I were in their place,” I told Husband after the girls fell asleep one night.

“Maybe we should offer to keep them for more than a month, so they can have some stability,” he said. “Moving them around from one host family to another doesn’t make sense.”

Their mother—trying to recover from her own fractured childhood—had suffered a fissure that was now splitting her adult life. But was there a time frame for healing? Would even two months be enough?

I rubbed my temples. “Let’s see how this goes.”

That weekend, even though the little ones’ needs were louder than the rest of our household demands, writing deadlines still nipped at my heels.

“I’ll take the girls trick-or-treating so you can get your work done,” Husband said.

In a box of toys in the basement, I found furry, stuffed tails to clip onto the girls’ back sides and some headbands with ears. Husband took Tabitha and Tia—now cats—out to circle some nearby neighborhoods. Two hours later, they came back with their pumpkin buckets full.

I kissed Husband at the door. “You’re my hero.”

After the usual bedtime battles, the girls went to sleep. It would all get better in time. One day at a time. Soon, the weekend—having been pounded by temper tantrums—was over.

But on Monday morning, I was nervous. Tabitha’s school had arranged transportation to pick her up from our house. I sat with the two little girls on the front steps, and we waited.

A school van pulled up, and the driver hopped out, holding a piece of paper and looking around as he eyed the surrounding houses. I waved to him. But just then, Tabitha jumped up and dashed into the house. A second later, Tia scrambled down the steps to the sidewalk. I scooped her up first and then ran into the house after her sister. Dicka was still home, so she distracted Tia for me.

Tabitha crossed her arms and plopped into a living room chair.

“The van is going to take you to school, honey.” I pasted on my cheery face and held out my hand. “It’ll be fun.” She shook her head and grunted. My smile slipped away. “You need to come.”

She took my hand and stomped outside. Then she turned her limbs to jelly and dissolved onto the front steps. I shrugged at the driver and then turned back to her.

I still held her hand. “Let’s go, Tabitha.”

She splayed out on the steps. I pulled her to standing.

“No!” But a tiny smile played at the corners of her mouth.

“I’ll help you.” I picked her up—sixty-eight pounds of kicking and flailing—and deposited her into the van. I buckled her in, but she unclasped herself. I clasped her in again, and again she unbuckled. Finally, I slid the van door shut and apologized to the driver. My heart hammered as I waved good-bye.

Then I drove Tia to her pre-school. On the way, she kicked the back of my seat for several minutes, and I succumbed and let her play games on my cell phone. The traffic on the freeway crept along and then came to a stand-still.

“I have to go potty.”

“Hang in there, hon.” I massaged a knot in my neck. “We’ll be at your school soon.”

When I dropped her off in her classroom, I gave her a hug and then turned to go. Tia sobbed and clawed at the air for me to hold her, but the teacher intercepted. I slipped out.

Back in the car, I took in a deep breath and then exhaled. Why were we doing this again? We hadn’t expected it to be easy when we signed up to be a host family for Safe Families for Children. But this morning had cranked up my blood pressure. And my patience was still sitting back on our front steps.

My heart rate settled back into a normal range, and I returned home to face my work deadline.  At 10:00 a.m., the phone rang. The social worker from Tia’s school.

“Tia’s mom wants the girls back today. In fact, she’s coming to pick up Tia from school in an hour.”

The next phone call came from Safe Families for Children. They relayed the same information, and just like that, the placement was over. What I had thought would be a month or more commitment had shrunk to four days. Four chaotic days.

I threw a load of the girls’ laundry into the washing machine and collected things they had strewn around the house. While I packed, the guilt seeped in. Maybe I should’ve given up the van fight and let Tabitha stay home with me. Maybe I should have hugged Tia longer when I left her at pre-school. Maybe I should have cut out the busyness of our home over the weekend and kept our days quiet. I had hoped to get past the initial rough patch and move on to smoother waters as the weeks with the girls passed. But we had been given only four days. Four difficult days.

Like Tabitha’s feet kicking the bedroom wall, my thoughts pummeled me. The girls had struggled during their stay, we had stumbled through in flawed service, and what we had given didn’t seem to help their mother. In fact, she was annoyed the organization had stepped in when she was at her lowest point. And so the girls—still shattered—returned home, their time with us having disturbed their lives once again. Had the four days counted for anything? After the refining fire burned away my shortcomings and impatience, would there be any gold left?

“Life isn’t about us.” I had preached that mini-sermon to my girls countless times. But my desire for stability for Tabitha and Tia, for a satisfying performance for us, and for eternal gold for our efforts had all kinds of me written all over it.

I sought out a friend, hoping to grab onto her wisdom. I told her about our four days and my smashed intentions of returning healthier children to their mother. I told her they might even be worse off now with the disruption of the short time in our home. And I told her I was sure none of it would count for anything on the other side.

“You did the thing that was put in front of you; you were faithful. Now give away those days—the good, the bad, and the lacking. Lay it all down as a gift. He can turn it into gold.”

I went home and gathered up the four days. I wrapped up my exasperation at the girls’ behavior, my hopes for their tidy healing on my clock, and my good intentions that fell short. Then I walked into the living room to that familiar place in the middle of the rug that I always go to when I’m at the end of myself. And I laid that gift down.



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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.