Before foster parenting, I can’t remember a time when I said “I love you” and it wasn’t returned. When there wasn’t an immediate expression of similar affection. An “I love you, too.”
But in foster care, I am learning love isn’t so simple or so easy. Kids already have parents they love. And the love they know often looks different than the love I have been shown.
But no matter what it looks like, it is still love and it is still theirs to keep.
Some kids ache to go back to a love I don’t understand. Others see their own neglect and cling when they feel something more stable and consistent.
Our longest placement, Big D was loved well in his biological home and struggled mightily to know how to respond to Jonathan and me standing in their place.
After 18 months of caring for him through thick and thin, he knew our “I love yous” weren’t just words. Our love comforted him when he was sick, fought for him when his case went to court, and spoiled him whenever we could.
And so as he came to know and believe our love, he began to respond. In his own way. Never with words. He played us a beautiful one year anniversary song to mark 12 months of living with us. He drew us a picture of the house he hoped to build us when he became an architect. And after I had minor surgery, he was by my side tenderly helping in any way he could.
Jonathan and I would remind each other that he loved us. Encouraging ourselves that he saw our love and that he cared. We saw Big D choose kindness and we marked it as love in our hearts.
In my head, I sometimes thought it shouldn’t bother me. That I had become a foster parent to give love, not to receive.
But as a human, I desired my love to be reciprocated. I wanted 18 months of love to be powerful enough for an “I love you, too.”
But we never heard it. Sometimes it was implied or hinted. But never said aloud.
And so we said goodbye to our dear Big D, as he grunted “uh-huh” to our, “We love you more than you will ever know.”
And that was okay. Even if we ached for more.
He’s gone now. Living far away with family. We are beyond lucky to be able to call him weekly and hear his precious voice.
We don’t know why or how, but suddenly, over the phone, hundreds of miles away, when we say, “Goodbye buddy, we love you more than you will ever know.”
We hear his little voice quickly return, “I love you, too.”
My heart is grateful that it’s worth the risk to him to name what we hoped for so long.
Because whether he says it or not, we love him very much, and we always will.