Suddenly, this summer, we found ourselves in possession of a 7-year-old boy. At times, I have felt as if he was actually possessed by a force much darker than us. Nevertheless, two months into this, we have survived, with our souls and even most precious household knickknacks intact.
The situation is, in the language of state courts and our own realistic reasoning, indefinite. That means we know even less about how long this will last than we do about actual parenting.
The comments of others upon learning of our situation has been a potpourri of commentary. “Disruption is good,” came the philosophical musing of a bookstore proprietor friend of ours on Mackinac Island. “You’re doing God’s work,” was the spiritually infused observation of an administrator at the university. “What are you, nuts?!” was the unbridled expression of a lifelong friend whose honesty I’ve always appreciated and whose tact I’ve never located.
What we are, actually, is family. And we are doing this to keep the child in the family, while his mother can do some things she needs to do before the boy can return to her.
In the meantime, we are at the age of what could be youthful grandparents experiencing the upheaval of first-time parents. I find myself asking all sorts of questions, first of the boy and then of other parents. Of the boy: “Why do you trod the floors with the weight of a 250-pounder when you weigh less than 50 pounds naked and soaking wet?” Also, “Why are you out here in the hallway actually naked and soaking wet?” That latter question is rhetorical – the obvious answer is that Uncle Tim had given up after seven attempts explaining why a towel and clean underwear and pajamas were in the bathroom next to the tub for him.
Questions of other parents: “You mean it’s not unusual for a child to leave on every light in the establishment? Can your child eat breakfast in less than an hour? You can’t duct tape a kid to their bed, can you? How many toys have you found on your roof?”
I am reminded of the perplexity of the television character “Monk,” an obsessive-compulsive detective, who takes in a small child abandoned on a case he was investigating. At one point, having learned he must feed and dress the child, he declares to his assistant: “So you’re saying he’s like a small person!?”
What we have on our hands here is a small person, with the energy and destructive force of a large army.
But it is worth it. In the eight weeks with us, he has processed the disturbing reality of the circumstances by which he was removed from his mother’s care. The screams in the night, which happened initially more than once each night, have ceased. He speaks with appropriate understanding and attitude about his situation. He refers to our house as home. His behavior, from cognition to eating habits to other interactions, are seeing slight improvements. He has known the delight a boy should know, of baseball games, running free on the beach, swinging on swings and playing with new friends.
One day he called me “daddy.” He interrupted his whirling playtime to run up to me, utter the word and scamper away. I wanted to correct him. I didn’t want to correct him. I didn’t know if he said it out of confusion, wishful thinking or boyish silliness. I reminded myself that parent is also a verb. I watched him run and play.
We have had a lot of help. From the principal and teachers and staff at his local elementary school. From friends and parents of similarly age children at church. From neighbors. Even an innkeeper on Mackinac Island during a needed getaway recently, who in a previous career was a special-education teacher, offered many insights. We keep learning.
People ask if we are parents or grandparents. They ask how long we will have him. Again, it’s all unusual. It’s indefinite. The fact that it is God’s work, that it is necessary, that we are making willing sacrifices, that part is definite. But otherwise, it’s a day at a time.
One friend commented from experience that little boys will drive you nuts all day long and then melt your heart with one sweet deed at bedtime. I have learned that, too.
At night, after the stories and the prayer and his begging for one of us to snuggle with him until he falls asleep, I wait for his breathing to be rhythmic to tell me he is at last asleep. I can finally have some time to talk to my wife uninterrupted, or actually catch up on work. But I linger, and wonder about his future. I watch him breathe in. I watch him breathe out. And I determine that’s all I can do for now, as well.
About the writer: Tim Penning, Ph.D., is a professor and writer.