Christmas was pretty complicated at our house this year.
It hasn’t always been that way—at least, not for me. For me, Christmas has always been pure joy. It’s my favorite holiday, and I have nearly four decades of happy Christmas memories, all made of love and connection and celebration, of singalongs and game nights, of delicious cookies and even more delicious anticipation and, best of all, the people I love and care about most.
We always spend Christmas Eve with my parents and siblings, and I was thrilled to have my adopted daughter, current foster daughter, and former foster son joining us. I wanted to give them the same sort of joy and love and connection that I share with my own family. I wanted to do everything I could to give them a good Christmas. I went all out, and so did my family.
And it wasn’t just good. This year, it was great.
It was one for the ages. It was magical, filled with love and laughter and joy, with card games and too many gifts, with hugs and snuggles, with carols sung around the fire and way too much food, and the sweet, sweet comfort drawn from the simple company of those who truly love and accept you.
But that joy proved too sweet for some.
I did not think such a thing was even possible, but it happened when one of my kids broke away from the game we were playing and asked for my car keys, saying he needed to get something. I couldn't imagine what, but I gave him my keys anyway.
He didn't come back inside.
After some time, I followed him out to the car. I assumed that something had set him off, that he’d gotten an upsetting phone call from one of his biological family members. But that was not the case. He was just sitting out there, in the dark, alone. I asked him what was wrong, and he could only shake his head, but we both knew what it was.
It's always the same thing, after all.
He had felt the joyful magic of Christmas, and that was exactly the problem. This joy was a glimpse into the life he’d been denied. He had retreated to my car to escape, to hide from the joy because all that sweetness was just too much.
Like a toothache.
Having these kids with us was beautiful, but any joy they experienced with us was undoubtedly tempered by the knowledge that they were not experiencing it with their biological families. No matter what I did, I would never be able to fill that void for them. I had wanted them to experience pure joy this Christmas, but the best I could give them a diluted version that we’ve learned to call happy/sad.
I wish I had a better word for it, but I don't. Happy/sad is a very real emotion. It's not quite the same as bittersweet. It has the same juxtaposition and contrast of pleasure and pain as bittersweet, but there’s an element of competition and confusion that happy/sad has—an internal war is waging. Sometimes, there’s a third contender, and it’s happy/sad/mad. You don’t know what to feel, what you should feel, but you feel it all, all at once, and it’s overwhelming.
Adoption itself is happy/sad. So is foster care. There’s always that stab of pain, that element of loss. Nearly every holiday and milestone we celebrate with the kids in our cares come with this complicated feeling. We have come to expect this, and we are doing our best to help them endure these emotional tsunamis. I spent an hour crying outside in the cold in my pajamas on Christmas Eve, apologizing through the window of my car for things that I knew were not my fault but felt bad about all the same. When happy/sad struck him, I wanted to help, but the only things I could only offer were my presence, my tears, and my reassurance.
It didn’t feel like enough. (It never does.)
My mom told me that there’s nothing worse than watching your children suffer, and I know now how true this is. Watching my kid experience happy/sad made me feel a version of the same. I did my best, but I couldn’t get him to come back inside. He just wanted to be alone. He asked--begged—me to leave, so, because he asked, I did.
I returned to the house alone, with puffy eyes and shuddering breath and a heavy heart, and when my dad asked me what was wrong, I started to cry again. I felt awful, like I’d been caught inadvertently flaunting my happiness. Dad saw my pain, put on his coat, and went out to talk to him. His efforts were successful, and they returned together and shared a hug.
Happy/sad—that I have a loving biological father, yet he does not.
My foster daughter saw my crumpled, tear-ravaged face, and she opened her arms to me. “It’s okay,” she said. “I get it.” I fell into her arms and cried into her shoulder.
Happy/sad—that she cared about me yet likely felt the same thing he did.
Happy/sad—the feeling is maddening.
This Christmas had been joyful, and my kids did enjoy the holiday—they told me so, all three of them. But there will always be an underlying sadness there that no amount of sweetness will ever soothe. This will likely always be the case when celebrating with children who have endured foster care, and that’s happy/sad for me, too. I love sharing the holiday with them, but I am saddened by the pain and grief that the joy of this holiday evokes.
Family is about finding those who will help us weather the storms of our feelings. Sometimes, you’re born surrounded by them; other times, life brings them to you. Either way, I’ve been blessed by both kinds. I know I’ve experienced my own share of emotional tornadoes, and I’ve been unconditionally sheltered by my family circle as they’ve raged. I’ve had a good, steadfast example, and I believe it is my calling to go and do likewise, to build a shelter around these kids and help them withstand their storms.
It’s a holy calling, even if it’s a happy/sad one.
It’s Advent—the season of preparation and anticipation.
I love Advent, maybe as much as Christmas. I love the whole month of December, actually, and I love spending it in celebration. I love the decorating, the baking, the weather changes. I love making lists and checking them twice. I love the music and the good cheer. I love shopping for gifts and wrapping them and placing them beneath the tree.
I love this sort of preparation. I love having everything ready for the celebration to come. Maybe it’s the control freak in me, I don’t know, but I love feeling ready.
It is appropriate then that I am spending this Advent season in another sort of preparation—we are likely getting another foster placement by January: a teenage girl.
It’s an interesting parallel, that these two seasons of my life are overlaid in this way. I’m currently nesting, getting the bedroom and bathroom ready, cleaning and dusting and washing bedding. I am preparing my home for this child, much like we prepare our hearts for the arrival of Christ at Christmas. There is a spirit of welcoming in this sort of preparation. It is an anticipatory joy. Such celebration shows care. Such preparation shows sincere desire. It says, You are wanted in this place. You belong here. I am ready for your arrival.
I want to be ready to welcome this new child. I am spending this time in preparation, anticipating the connection we will forge, the bond we will have. I am hoping that this spirit of welcoming that I’m trying to cultivate with clean sheets and fresh toothpaste is akin to the Christmas spirit all around us—peace and goodwill, hope and connection.
Welcome to our home and our hearts, new girl.
You already belong.
I lived in a haunted dorm room for one semester, and that was long enough.
It was at small private college just south of Des Moines, with buildings made of tired brick crawling with ivy, a college with a bell tower in the center of campus whose bells rang at indiscriminate and unexplained moments. A bride was rumored to have leapt from its heights on her wedding day after learning that her spouse had been unfaithful.
I lived on the third floor of a historical dorm building, a red brick monstrosity that looked, smelled, and felt collegiate. I shared a corner room with three other girls, a room that was the envy of all freshmen: four built-in bunks, a huge walk-in closet, a large dormer window, and enough floorspace to turn several cartwheels. At first, we relished our good fortune—the other dorm rooms were the size of our closet.
But it was not long before the older students told us of the room’s dark past.
There was a crawlspace at the back of our room, just to the left of the dormer, where the ceiling above began to slant. Its door was wide, but it could not be opened.
A girl was said to have crawled in there years ago, intending to end her own life. But after she had turned her blade against herself, she had a change of heart. She tried to open the door, but it would not budge. She spent her final moments scratching at the stubborn door, trying in vain to free herself.
It was said that this girl haunted the crawlspace, that her final, ragged breaths could still be heard in the middle of the night, that her desperate scratching could still be heard against that crawlspace door.
I figured this story was concocted as some sort of freshman hazing ritual, and I half expected a group of sophomores to hide in the crawlspace just to scare us, so I tried to ignore it and enjoy the fact that I had the biggest dorm room in the building.
Urban legend or not, this terrified two of my roommates so much that they wanted out—within a week, one of them left the school (the ghost wasn’t the only reason), and within a month, another found a different room on the second floor. That left me and a Mississippi girl who was used to the haunts of the deep south.
She’d heard more terrifying tales as childhood bedtime stories, so this rumor did not bother her. Instead, she seemed to revel in it.
After the other girls left, I tried to enjoy the extra space in our already enviable suite, but I could not pretend that I did not hear it —a noise coming from that crawlspace, one that could only be described as a scratching sound.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
I wanted it to be my imagination, but my ghost-loving Mississippi roommate confessed that she heard it, too.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
I told myself it was mice, even rats—an infestation was preferable to a ghost. I grew up in an old country farmhouse and was used to the sound of critters in the walls. Sometimes, this made it hard to sleep. My imagination would get the best of me, and I could not help but picture bloody fingernails raking across that crawlspace door.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
But this noise was the cost of our prime real estate, so I tried to smother my fears with the blanket of logic. It was mice. It was the wind. It was the pipes.
It was a prank—it had to be.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
I held onto that belief.
After a few months, it became background noise. We got used to the sound. Eventually, it didn’t even frighten me anymore. Sleeping became easier.
Until the moment it became impossible.
One night, when we were both asleep, everything on top of my nightstand crashed to the floor at once.
It was a lot of stuff: a lamp, a green cordless phone, my dog-eared copy of The Autobiography of Malcom X, a stack of papers, a notebook and some pens, all fell the floor at the same time, as though someone had swiped an arm across the top of the nightstand.
Like someone—or something—was trying to get our attention.
It felt urgent. It felt deliberate. It felt sinister. And there was no explanation for it.
It startled us both awake, and I was so terrified that I ran across the room and crawled into my roommate’s bunk with her, and she was so afraid that she let me stay there with her until the sun came through that dormer window.
That was the day we put in a request to be transferred to another room.
We moved just across the hall at the semester’s end, and we never heard those noises again.