Dicka created her birthday wish list and attached it to the fridge, so I couldn’t miss it. Right after “Converse high tops” and “art supplies,” she had scrawled “baby.”
“We can’t just get a baby whenever we want one,” I said. “Other host families want them too.”
“I know. But just in case,” she said.
Two days before her tenth birthday, I got an email from the Safe Families for Children placement coordinator.
“I know you’ve tried for a baby a couple of times recently. One just came up, and it’s a month-long placement. Do you want him?”
When Dicka emerged from the school’s front doors that afternoon, she waved when she saw me. She ran to the car, and then her eyes lit on the car seat in the back. She screamed and scrambled inside to see the baby. Her friends clustered around the car, peering in at our new addition.
Baby Caden was Dicka’s baby. When she wasn’t at school, she entertained him. At eight months old he still had digestive issues.
“Why does he always spit up on me?” she said, her shirt soaked through again.
“Because you’re the one who’s always holding him,” Ricka said.
We got permission from Caden’s mother to take him with us to a Memorial weekend family camp. Still homeless and struggling, she was grateful. The first night at camp, he was unsettled and ran a fever.
“Maybe he’s teething,” I said.
Husband stayed up with him so I could sleep. The next day, Baby Caden perked up.
A few weeks into the placement, Caden’s mother found housing for the two of them. Before Dicka handed the baby back the day we said goodbye, she clutched him one more time and kissed his cheek.
“Is it too hard?” I asked her in the car on the way home. “Because if it is, we don’t have to do this anymore.”
“No, I want to,” she said. But she turned away from me, so I wouldn’t see her tears.
Our first little one—four-year-old Jamal—left his mark on us. The girls delighted in him. He called Flicka “Jo-Jo” and ketchup “barbecue sauce.” He loved yogurt and basketball—sometimes even trying to combine the two—but he ate too much one day which ended in him "spitting" in the back yard. We read to him each night while he breathed in his nebulizer treatment. And every day, a bus came to pick him up at the end of our block for preschool.
One morning, the girls and I walked Jamal to the bus stop. While we waited, he danced his fastest to make us laugh. But just then, the bus pulled up with a hiss, and the door screeched open. Jamal’s smile vanished.
“No, no, no,” he hollered, his feet stuck to the pavement.
“C’mon, buddy,” I said, lifting him up to the bus steps. “You had a good time yesterday.”
“No!” He kicked one foot up on each side of the opened bus door and locked his knees.
“It’ll be fun, Jamal,” I said. “You’ll come back to me very soon.”
He still braced himself against the door, while I held him under his arms.
“I gotta go, ma’am,” the bus driver said. “We can’t wait any longer.”
I stepped back and set the little boy down. “Okay, Jamal. You can stay with me today.”
The bus driver closed the door and drove off. The girls had witnessed the meltdown, wide-eyed. We all walked back to the house.
“You mean you can do that?” Ricka said to me.
“Refuse to go to school like that?” said Flicka, incredulous.
“Don’t even think about trying it, girls.”
Three-year-old Tyrone loved his toy cars. Our living room floor was his parking lot, and he lined them up with precision. One day, our dog trainer and friend, Mimi, came over before school. Her dog, Pocket, zipped into the house, and got sick just then, leaving a puddle of diarrhea dangerously close to the rug where Tyrone had parked his special vehicles. I ran for the paper towels and disinfectant.
“Girls, get your lunches packed,” I called over my shoulder as I ran back into the living room with cleaning supplies. Our dog, Lala, chased Pocket through the kitchen and out the back door. The phone rang. Husband stepped over the activity on the floor as he made a beeline for the door to escape for work. Across the chaos, he raised his travel mug of coffee to me. Mimi and I laughed. Tyrone wailed.
“It’s gonna touch my cars,” the little boy said.
“No, it’ll be fine,” I said. “See? Mimi’s cleaning it up.”
Mimi whisked the mess away, the girls pulled together their lunches, and Tyrone calmed enough to play with his cars again. And just in time, we left the house for school.
As a surprise, I had kept the news of the five-month-old twins under wraps. When the girls returned from school, they dropped their backpacks and clambered to relieve my arms of the wiggly house guests. But with three girls and only two babies, we had to set a timer to settle the holding disputes.
The babies came to us the day of their mother’s court date. The placement was written for the duration of her three-month incarceration, but the judge reduced her sentence to simply probation. We had them only one night—and it was a blur. Husband and I took turns getting up. By morning, I wondered which one I had fed in the night and which one he had tended. I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The crying one?”
When the girls woke up for school, they took the babies from us, so Husband and I could sleep for a few minutes.
The memories of our Safe Families for Children kids warmed us, and we often talked about them. One of the four-year-old boys was skittish around our dog, but another one wanted to sleep with her. We hosted “The Screamer”; one who said, “Kiss me” for “Excuse me”; and one who requested pancakes or chicken nuggets at every meal. And we tucked one in at night with a photo of his mom and sister, because he couldn’t sleep without it.
All the little ones who came into our home quickly attached to us. Like they’d done it before. It made it easier for us, but it saddened me. A little two-year-old girl—as she was carried away at the end—clawed the air to have me back, screaming, “Mama! Mama!” I felt my heart squeeze. But that was life: by the second day, the toddlers called me “Mama.” We hoped our help imprinted their lives with stability, even if they wouldn’t remember us. And we prayed our love made things brighter and not harder.
Our house was small, but safety and love don’t require a lot of square footage. And they don’t require a perfect performance. Messes, missed preschool, fevers, and spitting up make life real. Throw in a dog or two and some flawed humans, and the adventures become gold.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date
*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.