Since T moved, I’ve done respite a handful of times. I’ve given other foster parents a week or so to regroup. Most of the time it’s been fine. I tell myself I can get through anything for a few days. After all, I survived two and half years navigating life with T.
But I wasn’t quite ready for one specific trip to the grocery store. The kiddo who was staying with me had a rough night, but his morning was going okay, so I decided he was up for a quick walk to grab the two things I would need to make dinner. It was a decision I regretted soon after we got to the store. I could handle the whining that started almost immediately, and I didn’t really flinch when he raised his voice and pounded his fists on things. But I honestly didn’t know what to do when he shoved a package of raw turkey in his mouth and darted out the automatic doors and into the busy parking lot.
The store was packed, so I had to weave through a mob of people shaking their heads in disapproval. I darted past their judging stares, stares that said, with no words at all: Get your kid under control. I looked straight ahead and focused on making sure he was safe, but I really just wanted to scream. I wanted to scream so they would all know. “Look!” I wanted to say. “He’s traumatized. We just met. He doesn’t know me. I don’t know what I’m doing! It’s fine! We’re fine! It’s fine!”
I didn’t say any of that, of course. I just did what I had to do. I rounded up the child and sat on the curb for 45 minutes until he stopped withering and kicking and telling me how awful I was. Eventually, he peeled himself off the pavement, and we walked home.
None of that was ideal.
But the incident reminded me to remember. To remember that we never really know. We never really know what sorrows and pains and joys and hopes other people are carrying around. No matter what we see, we never know the full story.
I remembered to remember again today when I was back in that same grocery store, waiting in a long line and fighting back tears. I tried to decide if I was feeling overwhelmed or scared or disoriented. Maybe I was just tired. I couldn’t tell. But I looked around and wondered what the other people might be carrying with them that I couldn’t see.
No one could see that I’d gotten a call about an hour earlier. The agency had an emergency placement. They were waiting for the judge to sign the removal order before meeting law enforcement and heading to the child’s home. Was I willing to take him, the social worker asked? I said yes, and then I wandered to the store.
I looked around again, curious if anyone else was trying to figure out if they’d grabbed the right food to get through the first night with a kid they didn’t know. A kid who, at that very moment, was being taken away from his family.
Then I glanced in my basket: A whole chicken. Some peanut butter. Three cans of green chilies. A zucchini.
I stood in line and texted my mom. When my phone buzzed, I looked down, expecting to see her reply, but it was a message from a guy I’d met recently, asking me on a date. I started crying. My phone buzzed again. Someone wanted to know what I thought about Trump getting COVID. Another buzz. A friend was texting to ask if I was okay.
I wasn’t. I’m not. Because it never gets easier. It never gets less complicated to set aside my life and my routine to try to step into a child’s chaos and help shoulder their pain.
I put my phone away and thought about what would happen in the next hour. Was he in the car yet? Was he on his way to my house—to a stranger’s house? What was he thinking? How was he feeling? Why had the court ordered he be removed? How long would he stay? Would he ever go home? Would this messed up system ever make any sense to me?
And what in the world was I going to do with a whole chicken and some peanut butter?
I’ll figure it out, I guess. One day at a time. And I’ll try to be a little gentler with the people around me as I do. Because as I make space for someone else’s trauma again, I’m going to try to remember to remember. Whether it’s the kid in my own house having a meltdown or a stranger in the grocery store line with tears in their eyes—no matter what we see, we never know the full story