This is a day I never thought I’d be able to see. Don’t misunderstand, I’ve always believed he would finish his high school degree. This is a point I hotly debated with the many social workers, and clinicians involved over the years. “He won’t want to graduate from high school when he is almost 20. He’s missed too many credits. He’ll probably just get his GED,” was something a clinical consultant on his case said to me once. What he meant was “Marcus will surely drop out.” But I knew better. Marcus, our children’s oldest biological brother, never backs down when he’s determined about something.
It’s just that after he decided he didn’t want us to adopt him, he left and swore he’d never return. So I believed that I would have to miss the day he got his diploma. I stupidly tried to comfort myself with thoughts of seeing his pictures on Facebook or being there “in spirit.” Marcus eventually made contact with us and we managed to forge a new kind of relationship. Despite this, I didn’t think he would want his “old parents” at his high school graduation. But he did. He asked us to come when he contacted me to say “Happy Mother’s Day.” Man can that kid make me cry!
For me, he will always and forever be my eldest son. For him I’m probably one of the many “moms” he’s had through his years in the foster care system. He often felt like a throwaway kid. Marcus felt out of place being loved by a family. So he pushed back. He got suspended, kicked out of schools, sent to a group home, disrupted many foster placements and did a stint in “juvie.”
Social workers cautioned us from the beginning against getting too attached to this “troubled teen.” But attachment was just what he needed. Unconditional love, acceptance, and ultimately the ability to ride out his struggles. No, we never got to adopt him. He aged out of foster care. But eventually Marcus returned to the house of his first foster mom. He wasn’t “in the system” anymore. She had long since retired from fostering kids. But Marcus? He always had a place with her.
Marcus often felt that no one wanted him. He pushed back against love so hard that he tried to drive the people closest to him away however he could. It didn’t work. For this graduation the vice principal and resource officer (the same one who had to arrest him once) from his former school attended. He had a childhood friend he’d kept in touch with over his years shuffling through foster homes. He had his first foster family. He had an older sister’s ex-husband. And he had us. One of his older biological sisters came and surprisingly, so did his biological father. We all loved him enough to be there.
When Marcus first started coming to visit us, he reminded me of the little boy Max from the children’s’ book Where the Wild Things Are. For one thing, he would stretch waaay into his 7-year-old sister’s footy pajamas, shirts, and headbands when playing with her. He was just shy of the wolf costume Max wears in the book’s opening illustrations. Like Max, Marcus was always quite fond of “making mischief of one kind or another,” and like Max he was an expert at driving his caregivers crazy.
If ever a child deserved to be made “King of the Wild Things,” it was Marcus. He would have angry outbursts and tantrums over the smallest things. Then he would put on his headphones and drift away to a place where no one could make contact with him. Marcus would come back at his own pace. So many of his relationships followed this back-and-forth pattern. Like Max, Marcus was a lovable child at heart and needed to know it. I obviously had to read him the book aloud. He loved the experience! At 17, he’d never heard of the story, or even heard of parents reading stories to their children at bedtime.
When we started his adoption process, I bought him a hardcover copy of the book. I slipped it beneath his pillow after writing on the inside cover “You have finally come home to a place where someone loves you best of all.” We never discussed it. After he left us, he packed everything except that book. It crushed me. Like the beasts Maurice Sendak created, I wanted to roar and gnash my teeth. I wanted to eat him up, I loved him so! But I couldn’t. So I let go. I had been wrong about this story the whole time.
I wasn’t the mother waiting at home with his hot supper. I was one of the many “Wild Things” trying to love him along the journey of foster care. So when Marcus asked us to be at his graduation, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I felt love, pride, and gratitude that we were still family. I cried through the ceremony from the moment he walked in until the moment he crossed the stage. Luke and I were by far not the only ones there for Marcus. He had the largest group of supporters of any graduate that day. As we stood around wiping tears and snapping pictures, I figured maybe I wasn’t the mother or the “Wild Thing” after all.
Marcus approached Luke and I last. Without words, he fell into Luke’s arms and pulled me into a tight group hug. He was crying and so was I. In that moment, in that hug? Marcus really was “home.” No matter where he goes in life, that hug was the place where “someone loved him best of all.”
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
*My sincere apologies if I botched the plot with my interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s story book Where the Wild Things Are