She came to live with my family just after her third birthday. Huge brown eyes peeking out under long dark bangs. As a result of crummy life circumstances Jesse was placed into foster care, her own mother unable to care for her mentally handicapped daughter. My siblings and I welcomed her into the fold and scooped her up like a stray puppy in need a home.
Slowly she learned basic life skills, like how to sit still at the dinner table and how to transition from diapers to big girl panties. It was fun having a little sister. She enjoyed being dressed up in fairy princess outfits much more than my little brothers ever did. Her mental abilities caused us to see her as much younger ‘little sister’ than her age suggested. A new coloring book or a baby doll that giggled when you shook it delighted Jesse until the middle of her elementary school years. It was like having a permanent four year old in the house. A four year old with captivating puppy dog eyes she could blink so strategically.
As the years went by, she stayed. When other foster siblings came and went, Jesse became a permanent fixture. Her family was never quite ready to take her back. Months passed. Years passed. And Jesse grew into something much deeper than a temporary sibling.
Then something happened that changed everything. Jesse got older. My parents got older. And soon it could not be ignored that this was turning into a very long term deal. Jesse was a handful. She was as cute as a bug but a whole lot of work. My mom spent more and more hours at school, discussing behavior issues with Jesse’s teachers. At home, Jesse pushed my mom’s patience again and again. Everyday things were a battle. Something as simple as brushing the tangles out of her beautiful thick hair was a nightly conflict. Getting her in the bathtub bordered on war. When added to the stress of raising many other foster children, and their own five offspring, it began to burn my parents out.
My first year of junior high I began to hear the discussions. A decision was being forced upon my parents. Adopt Jesse or let her go. She needed some type of longer term stable plan and if my parents were not going to adopt her, the social worker wanted to find a long term home placement. It was an agonizing decision.
I couldn’t imagine a life without Jesse as my sister. I scraped together all my spare change and offered it up to my parents, thinking the financial factor must have been part of the issue. My mother so gently tried to express to me that this decision was about so much more than money. It was more than my tender hearted twelve year old heart could bear.
Eventually Jesse went to live in a group home with other mentally handicapped children. She found new friends and new caregivers. But in her simple mind and her gentle heart, we were her family. Her only family.
My mom ached for her lost daughter. She was sure she had made the right choice, that her own stamina and patience had just worn too thin to give Jesse the life she deserved in the long run. But it did not make her heart hurt any less. Foster care rules prohibited us from knowing where our girl had been sent. A clean break, that’s what the social workers called it. But clean breaks of a bone hurt just as much as jagged ones.
Ten years later, on the first anniversary of my mom’s death, Jesse called, out of the blue. My dad answered the phone, thinking it was me or one of my siblings, calling to comfort him. Instead he heard that familiar little girl voice, saying, “Hi dad! It’s Jesse!”
Through her teen years, as she had lived in the group homes, Jesse held tight to ‘her family’s’ phone number. She chanted it to herself as she went to sleep, knowing that someday, when she got custody of herself, she would call her family, and find them once again.
And that’s exactly what she did.
She’s once again back in the fold. She mingles with the younger grandchildren at family gatherings and still enjoys a brand new coloring book. I know my mom would have been so pleased to see how well her girl turned out. Seeing that bright smile, and those same big brown eyes peeking out from under long dark bangs, my mom would have been so content.
Today would have been my mom’s 66th birthday, had she not left the planet 15 years ago. There are so many things I wish I could have said to her. So many mothering truths I have learned in my 17 years on the job.
But one of the top things on my list has always been to give my mom one last hug. One tight squeeze where I lean in and whisper in her ear, “Thank you. For showing me what a mother’s love is all about. Trudging through the yucky parts and having to make really hard choices. I will never forget how strong you were and how brave you were, when there weren’t any good answers. It makes me a better mother, having been in the presence of the best.”