I had heard the expression “Smoke and Mirrors” many times in my life without thinking much about where the original phrase came from. If I think about it as a child, I imagine one of those Carnival Fun Houses, where you walk in to the House of Mirrors section and try to figure out which way was the right way out.
I hated those things.
I would have been the one to run in to the attraction full force with my two sisters, each of whom were much more adept and graceful than I was. My older sister smart and quick-witted, thinner and physically strong, able to think and prance her way through that maze without a hitch, time and breath leftover to taunt me and send a few digs mocking me along my halted way. My younger sister so full of life and light, young enough to not have ever counted the cost, not ever needing to, whooping and hollering with glee at the adventure before her, barreling through with bravery and excitement, too overwhelmed at the chance of a new venture to be afraid… and too young to think of me, stuck and left behind, alone.
Maybe it was the mirrors I hated the most. I was the heavy child of the sisters, “big boned” they used to call me, maybe in the hopes of easing my already-fragile self esteem. “She’s so strong” they would say. “Such a hard worker.” Sometimes I accepted those words as a compliment, honored to be a part of the legacy my 6’ 4” grandfather left me. But with my buck teeth growing in with a gap so large I could put a popsicle stick through it and the perm-turned-frizzy hair of the eighties, it was difficult to see how I could ever measure up to the girls on the covers of the magazines we had laying around the house, never mind my sisters who lived with me day and night. I avoided mirrors as often as I could, yet now here I was entrapped by them in a “Fun House” seemingly on every side.
Maybe it was the smoke I hated the most. White clouds coming from unseen sources blocking my view to find the way out. Sometimes the noise from the cheap machines as the air was released was enough to make me jump. If I rushed ahead to catch up, inevitably I would smash my glasses-covered face into a wall of mirror, bend my wrist too far back as I ran to catch up and hit another wall too hard, or catch my harachi sandal on the grated metal between mirror sets. If I lagged behind carefully, I lost my sisters, my only friends in that scary place, and found myself alone. It was too close to the horror movie I had accidentally watched in the third grade, and coupled with the hated mirrors and the loss of my sisters, this was pure torture.
Time heals many things and maturity helped alter my perspective of that awkward stage in life. My heart grew to care for young children who found themselves in similar scary places in life, and I determined to walk as closely with my own kids through those moments in life to help the little girl who remained hidden away in my heart of hearts.
We could not be more proud of our own biological children as we have walked the path in becoming foster parents. As “normal” parents who see their flaws and failures each day, it was a daunting task to think we could bring even more children into our home and maintain some semblance of peace and order with all of us growing together. Surely our flaws and failures would multiply as we added even more children with even more complex situations???
But obedience won over fear, and each day we stepped out in faith was another day of victory down in the books. Oh, the flaws, failures and shortcomings were constantly evident, but the growth, change, laughter and love that flowed out of it all was nothing short of a miracle. Our kids were soaring as foster siblings and growing in to amazing human beings to boot. Each moment we saw our children bond with the new ones was enough to burst our hearts wide open with a pride that cannot be explained with words. Watching love win has no greater reward on this side of earth.
Of course housekeeping issues as well as heart issues would crop up from time to time. It is inevitable in a house of seven or eight people. And out of those heart issues, we would address them as quickly as we could and try to move on to the next great memory.
But one dynamic kept us tripping through the entire foster care journey, no matter the amount of thought, prayer and tactics tried. Our nine year old son, a natural born leader full of as much sour as sweet, life and spunk, was wrestling with the life he had been given when we took in the five year old foster buddy. This young leader also happens to love order, and thrives with knowing the letter of the law. We had demanded obedience with each and every one of our biological children, and doled out appropriate consequences until each was properly trained. So what the heck were Mom and Dad doing in these apparent hostage-like negotiations mixed with compromise, discussions and near bribery with the newest and smallest member of the family? The thought was maddening to him, and his almost OCD tendencies were pushed to the edge time after time.
With the teenagers, we were able to share more of the brutally honest truth of the family situation and the reason “why” we treated littlest buddy in a different way than they were raised. We let them watch the videos on trauma in foster care, and explained the classes on what parts of the brain are affected by abuse and neglect. We even used the teens to help us train our foster buddy, showing him how authority can be good and trusted when he depended on me too much for too long as his only source.
But how do you explain to the nine year old what domestic violence looks like? How do you teach him age-appropriately about substance abuse and addiction when all he sees is an ungrateful five year old who has a tantrum when you tell him he has to take turns at Hide N Go Seek? When he is the reason Mom is too tired to play a game after the littlest have been tucked in? When everyone else has to play by the rules since Day 1, but foster buddy gets a learning curve and hall passes that defy every fiber of justice in his nine year old being?
We have been trying to course correct this heart issue since foster buddy came. The bedtime conversations and tears are too many to count. The prayers have been endless, but the solution had not seemed to arrive yet.
We have been planning for the arrival of a sweet little foster girl for the past few months. She fits very well in to our family and she will soon need a forever home. She has come to stay on weekends as we shuffle paperwork and make plans that ease the transition for all involved. She loves to come home with us, begs to stay, and it seems that our entire family feels the same way. Each cautious step we took seemed to be a green light that kept us moving forward in that direction to grow our family.
But a Nagging Fear in the back of my head reminds me daily of the Unfinished Business we have left unsettled with the nine year old in our family. Who are we to bring yet another child in to our home to upset the apple cart when we don’t even have the cart righted from our last addition? That Nagging Fear caused me to flash forward ten years in my Parent Mind and play out a horrible scene in my head where my strong leader son is now 19 and screaming at me about how I ruined his life and was never there for him, how I chose other people’s kids over him, and I loved him less through it all.
That vain imagination caused my heart to thud in my chest and hot tears come to my eyes. I played it out many times as I drove in my van alone, left to my own thoughts. I wrestled with what I saw as obvious green lights for our little girl to move in versus this unfinished business I so desperately needed answers for.
I cried out to God louder. I listened longer. I waited to hear that sweet, Still, Small Voice tell me what to do and how to go about it. I would leap in to action the moment I heard His answer.
He said nothing.
I waited longer.
He stayed silent.
The day came when our sweet little girl was coming for another weekend visit and there had been some hot tears and squalling the morning before school as our foster buddy, squeamish and disassociative from a parent visit, provoked our nine year old to anger by taking a precious toy and ignoring his pleas to return it, rather chucking it farther away in a careless gesture. Conflict is never pretty, but morning conflict under time crunch is always a guaranteed ground shaker.
We patched things up enough to get to school and practiced forgiveness all the way. As a mom, these scenes were making me weary, and causing worry about this future green light appearing in my mind. Granted, the conflicts were lessening as foster buddy grew to learn right from wrong and healed from his past, but we were still far from a walk in that park, so what were we thinking trying to add to the mix already…?
These questions stayed with me all through the day, and before my muddled brain had sorted any of it out, it was already time to pick the kids up from school. As I drove, I prayed: “I’m not ready, Lord,” I told Him. “I have too little answers to know who to be, and how to be.”
I turned on a back road to take a short cut to the school, and a sign caught my attention: “No Center Line” the orange sign blazed in my face.
That back road had been undergoing major paving renovations throughout the month, and the road itself had gone from something that would have reminded you of Afghanistan to a smooth ride in the country in that time. It was so nice and quiet, we went from avoiding it to gladly driving on it. But it hadn’t been finished yet, and so the sign warned us to be careful, there was no center line to guide us on the way. That sign had been posted for quite some time now, but today I saw it for what felt like the first time.
The sign clearly read “No Center Line” and that should have been the end of the story; my warning, my direction, and the cause of my next behavior.
Except it wasn’t true.
There was a center line.
Somehow in that time, someone had come along and painted the center line in. It was there, fresh clean, bright, clear as day. But the sign still showed otherwise.
Except it wasn’t true anymore.
There was a center line.
I drove the rest of the way to the school focusing on the revelation that sometimes the signs are wrong and we just need to keep going to get to our destination. We only need to have faith and let the right Voice, the Voice of Truth, win over the other voices of doubt and confusion.
I found my peace for the moment, got the kids home and picked up foster sissy for her weekend visit with us. It was fun, it was challenging, and it was exactly what we needed to do. We did life, did it the best we could, the best we knew how, and prayed for grace to cover the rest of it.
Sunday evening came and it was time for sweet sis to leave again. We packed her up with hugs all around and promises to see each other next week. We quickly showered the two littlest monkeys, tucked them in and tried to wrap our minds around Monday prep and what the older three needed. I was so winded from the excitement of it all, I sat down on the nearby shoe bench to hear what the older ones needed. Nine year old buddy smirked a dimple smile and sat down on the bench next to me, which he does not often do without a purpose. “What is it?” I asked, smiling just from looking at his face in spite of my exhaustion.
“Mom, I think I know why God brought these kids here,” he stated as clear as an address to the nation.
Stunned, I looked to Tim, and Abby and Drew froze in mid-lunch packing action in the kitchen.
“Tell me,” was all I managed to choke out.
Matter of factly, he held up one finger on one hand: “One, He brought [foster buddy] to help teach me to control my temper, and Two, He’s bringing [foster sissy] to teach me how it feels when someone bosses you and you don’t like it, so I can learn how to be a good leader.”
He blurted it all out so quickly to get it off his chest before he could change his mind in pride, but there, it was spoken. The words were out and it was obvious to everyone in the room, the revelation was clear and out in the air, spoken and formed and shaped. He looked as though a load were lifted from his shoulders, and relief flooded his face.
I was speechless, unprepared and stunned in disbelief at the words I had just heard.
“Shiloh!” Tim’s voice boomed through my tizzy. “That is incredible!”
“Oh my word, buddy,” I managed to choke. “I am so proud of you.”
We all talked for a bit about how the greatest leaders learned first to be great followers, and tried to encourage him in everything he was sharing. My brain was hot from spinning, and dizzy with the depth of what had just happened.
That little girl who tripped in the Smoke and Mirrors Maze had found her way through once again, yet again. In spite of the voices that scorned and the thoughts that imagined, in spite of the ugly and flawed and botched image in the mirrors, in spite of the fear of the smoke… the sign was wrong. There WAS a center line. And only by the grace of God and some faith the size of a mustard seed were we able to keep moving forward until we got our answer.
God did not answer my prayer directly through these past eleven months. Some things kept me going, and kind, timely words or glimpses of hope helped me see in the distance, but God chose a different way, a better way this time: He spoke through my nine year old son, giving him a gift greater than I ever could have myself, which in turn was the greatest gift I could have received myself.
And I think another piece of my tiny, hidden heart was healed in the moment I heard my son tell me that he understood some purpose for his pain, and some reason for his struggle. Because at least I knew in that moment, he had the right Source, and we were all headed in the right direction, through the maze, in spite of the mirrors, and despite the outdated sign for the roads we were traveling, where we surely would have gone the wrong way and panicked had we not checked the Truth for ourselves.