It’s almost 6:15am when I open the kid’s bedroom door and flip the light switch on. Their little bodies slowly return to life, like two bear cubs waking from hibernation. I wish them good morning and hear murmurs of morning in return as they stretch, roll around, and squint their eyes at the sudden disappearance of darkness. I give them morning hugs, their little heads bobbing around and ramming into my hip. While still half asleep they pull off their pajamas, take turns going to the bathroom, and start to put on the school clothes I finished laying out for them.
For the past year this is pretty much how CJ, short for Carter James, and Brooklyn have eased into each day since they’ve been living with us. They are my sister’s two youngest children who have been in the foster care system for almost half of their young lives. Since I’m their maternal uncle we’re linked as family, but it’ll be another six months before a Judge officially makes Jim and I their adoptive parents–their two dads. Throughout my twenties and thirties, and even into my early forties, I never envisioned myself as a parent, but now I can’t imagine my life any other way.
Both children are considered “special needs” because of their developmental delays, behavioral issues, along with the menu of acronyms we’ve become all too familiar with; ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), and RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), just to list a few. All of us, including our two dogs, Humphrey and Bogart, continue to make great strides together as a family, but it’s the classic “two steps forward, one step back,” scenario that I would gladly trade for one solid step forward and just call it a day.
Brooklyn, who recently turned four, is the first one seated at their little table eating her “apple bar” — a breakfast bar with an apple, strawberry, or blueberry filling, but no matter what the flavor it’s always called an “apple bar.” CJ, who is about to celebrate his sixth birthday, finally shuffles into the kitchen after drawing the curtain on his one-man talk show while he wrestles with his clothes until they miraculously appear on his body. Every morning he becomes fully engaged in a running dialogue about absolutely nothing or continuously makes sounds that mean something to him but are completely foreign, and I might add annoying, to anyone else who has to hear it on a daily basis.
He stands in the middle of the kitchen and asks, “My shoes are on the right feet?” I look down and they are in fact on the right feet. He has a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right each morning, but sometimes the odds are stacked against him.
CJ sits down at the table across from his sister, but there is no acknowledgment of the other. I gather up his morning supplies and as I place the items in front of him he launches into his morning ritual. “Thank you for my napkin, thank you for my medicine, thank you for my water, thank you for my ‘apple bar’.” He swallows his medicine, chews his vitamin, and then eats his “apple bar.” It’s the same routine every morning, which he derives a great deal of comfort from.
There are mornings when the slightest alteration in his routine can cause things not to run smoothly, which in turn makes me realize how much he wants things to remain the same and the monumental challenges this seems to create for him, not to mention for everyone else in the family. For example, one morning a few weeks ago CJ was struggling to get his shoes on. I told him to come out to the table and that we would put them on later. He reluctantly sat down at the table as I mindlessly gave him his morning supplies.
“I don’t have my shoes on,” he said.
“I know,” I said back to him as I pull the clean dishes from the dishwasher and put them away. “Your shoelaces have knots in them so we’ll put them on your feet later.”
“But I can’t have my apple bar with no shoes.”
“Sure you can,” I replied back, not realizing there was a problem.
“No. I can’t.”
Not having shoes on, whether on the correct feet or not, has put a glitch in his morning, and possibly for the rest of his day. I stop what I’m doing to reassure him that we will put his shoes on after he’s done with his breakfast, but this does little to reduce the anxiety that I can tell has already been ignited inside of him. All expression has been drained from his face and his blue eyes begin to fill with panic. By not having his shoes on he isn’t sure what to do next. I prompt him through each step and by the time he has finished eating his “apple bar” he isn’t doing much better. The mental list of his morning routine has been interrupted with multiple false starts and stops all because one item on that list has been done out of order. Every morning since then he has made sure to have his shoes on before breakfast.
By the time CJ is done at the table on this particular morning, Brooklyn is already on the school bus and on her way to torment a small group of adults at her pre-school.
“Daddy Thomas, can you help me with my butt-ins?” In speech therapy CJ is learning to place more emphasis on his consonants so sometimes one word ends up sounding more like two or three. He can even make one syllable words sound like they have two syllables in them, “That tastes good-d!”
This morning he is wearing a powder blue polo shirt with thin white and pink stripes running horizontally around his upper body. If CJ is wearing a polo shirt then he needs to begin his day with every “butt-in” in its hole. I’ve seen him do his buttons before, so I say, “CJ, I want you to try to do your buttons by yourself. If after trying you still aren’t able to do it then I’ll help you.”
“I can’t do it,” he says, without making an attempt.
“Sure you can,” I reply back with enthusiasm.
“I no can do it,” he says.
I can tell from the lack of structure in his sentence that he’s become frustrated. I kneel down and say, “CJ, in our house, in our family, we try before we give up or say we can’t do something. Now, I would really like it if you tried doing your buttons before saying you can’t do it.”
His bottom lip pops out and his head drops down. “I don’t wanna.”
Normally I would come back with; Pouting isn’t going to change anything. But in a moment of parental genius — if I do say so myself – I try a different tactic.
“Well, I can see that you’re feeling sad right now so I think you need to go to your room and have some ‘CJ time’ until you’re feeling happy.”
“Nooooo, I’m not sad!” he says emphatically.
I take him by his hand and lead him to his bedroom. “Oh, yes you are. And you know what? It’s okay to be sad.”
He plops himself down on the bedroom floor and the sobbing ensues. As I gently close the bedroom door he cranks up the volume so that I’m sure to hear him.
About two minutes go by and his dramatic rendition of “sobbing” continues at an elevated level. This isn’t unusual so I just let him get it out of his system. We’ve been told by therapists that it’s healthy for both children to self-soothe during moments like these rather than expecting one of us to rush in and save them, providing they haven’t injured themselves.
The sobbing comes to an abrupt end and is immediately replaced with, “I’M HAPPEEEE! I’M HAPPEEEE!” The only thing missing is a “GOD DAMMIT!” in between his two declarations of happiness. Even though I know he can’t hear me I try to stifle my laughter. No matter how hard I try to contain it a smile creeps across my face and laughter pops out like an unexpected burp. I feel bad about my reaction, which is further complicated by a sudden urge to post this moment on Facebook.
I leave him alone for a few more minutes. Shortly after the sobbing and the “I’M HAPPEEEEs!” have silenced I quietly open the bedroom door and discover CJ calmly sitting on the floor trying to do his button.
He looks up at me as a completely different little person and says, “Look Daddy Thomas, I’m doing my butt-in.”
I lean against their bunk bed and watch while his small hands tremble as if a series of little earthquakes are flowing through his body. And then, with every ounce of determination, he gets the button through the hole. He looks up at me, his face taken over by a smile and his blue eyes brimming with both surprise and delight, and says, “I did my butt-in, Daddy Thomas!”
“I knew you could do it, CJ.”
“Yeah, I can do my butt-ins now.”
“I want to tell you something very important. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, I’m listening,” he replies while still admiring his recent accomplishment.
“Just because I didn’t help you with your button doesn’t mean I don’t love you. And Daddy Jim and I will never ask you to do something unless we know you can do it.” He continues to stare in awe at the button and can’t stop touching it. “When you get bigger and older there will be all sorts of things that you’ll do for yourself, and then you won’t want us to help you.” I flash forward to the day when he stops asking for help and a subtle burn forms in my eyes as tears begin to well-up.
“Like my butt-ins and tying my shoes?”
“Exactly. And getting your breakfast and making your lunch.”
“I get my own lunch at school.”
“I know you do. And after you get your lunch who do you help?”
“I help my friend, Gus.”
“That’s right, you help Gus get his lunch and you also help him so he can eat his lunch.” CJ nods his head in agreement. “Why does Gus need someone to help him?”
“Because Gus doesn’t have any fingers, but I have fingers!” CJ counts his ten fingers.
“Does Gus have any arms?”
“He just has one small arm.”
“So Gus needs someone to help him, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, and I’m his friend and I help him.”
“You’re a very good friend to Gus.”
“Yep! I’m a good helper.”
“And because you and Gus are friends you talk about Sponge Bob, and all sorts of things.”
“Sponge Bob and Pat-wick are friends, just like me and Gus are friends, and Sponge Bob lives in a pineapple and works at the Krusty Krab and makes crabby patties, and…”
“…and you did your button today!”
“And I did my butt-in. Are you happy and proud?”
I kneel down so we’re just a few inches apart. I gently cup his face with both of my hands and say, “I’m very proud of you, buddy boy.” I open my arms and give him a hug. “Now give me a big hug,” I say. CJ squeezes his arms even tighter around me.
I give him a kiss on his cheek and tell him that I love him.
“I love you too!” he replies.
“I love you three,” I say back and we both laugh.
“Daddy Thomas, will you help me with my top butt-in?”
A grin grazes my face. “Well, since you did such a good job on the bottom button then I’ll help you with the top one.”
“The top butt-in is harder,” he says. I agree with him that sometimes top buttons can be harder as I slide the button through the hole without him noticing.
“But when I get bigger I do it all by myself.”
I nod my head in agreement knowing full well that the next time he wears a shirt with buttons he’ll be asking for help. I can only hope that he’ll try first.