adoption, family

Home Again: the Prodigal Son Returns

He’s home. He’s finally home. If I peek into his room I can barely make out his sleeping form beneath the covers and beneath the dog. The huge sense of relief I feel overwhelms me even now. I am not even sure where to begin with this post.

 Marcus, our “prodigal” son will turn 20 next week. Some of you may remember when he disrupted from our home after a tumultuous few months prior to what would have been his adoption. (Thank you, by the way, for all of your kind emails and comments.)

This happened rather suddenly. He’d just been to see us for a visit on his brother Carl’s birthday. I think it reminded him what being in a family looks like. I believe that in this trip we somehow managed to show Marcus we were really there for him. Despite the fact that we never officially adopted him, we are here in all the ways that really count.

It happened during a workshop I attended. There was a panel of former foster youth speaking about what they wished foster/adoptive parents knew. I will never forget the one young man who had moved “home” at 25 after the death of his biological mother. He affectionately referred to the couple next to him as his parents. He had no hesitation about belonging to more than one family.

I’m embarrassed to say that I started tearing up as he told his story. I mean, how on earth did they convince him that it was OK to love two families? How was he so well-adjusted? Did it come with time? Would we ever get there with Marcus? Because honestly? Dropping him off and leaving was the hardest thing to do.

Right in the middle of the panel I got a message from him: “I need a place to stay. Can you please pick me up?” Life is full of strange coincidences. I know it wasn’t ideal for him to get kicked out of the place he was staying. I know he can only manage a few months of love and family at a time. I know this may not Work out well at all. I know he is on his way to Job Corps as soon as his medical clears.  I’m happy about it all the same. Because I am not perfect.  Because I am selfish. Because I missed my son.

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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adoption, family

Dear Teacher…


I often struggle with how to explain my child’s trauma-related behavior to new teachers. Being a teacher myself, I know that we don’t have time to review much at the start of the school year. We are too busy reading your childrens’ IEPs and 504 plans while filling out mountains of paperwork. I don’t have all the answers, but here is what I wrote to introduce Carl to his teachers. Please comment with anything YOU use at the beginning of the school year.

The Talented and Amazing Carl !

If you are reading this, you have the tremendous honor of teaching the death-defying, brave, and fearless (except for spiders) Carl! Congratulations! (Picture a crowd going wild.)

I’m his mom, and believe me, we got lucky too. I guess you’re in good company. We met Carl when he was 8-years-old and in the foster care system. We adopted him, and his younger sister, Mary.

Carl is an amazing kid. He hates spiders and vegetables despite what his mother tells him. He is sensitive to gooey materials, bugs, and the dark. When Carl first came home he couldn’t read that well. After a lot of practice, and the Wilson reading program, he is now an avid reader. When it’s time to pull him out of a Harry Potter book we generally employ the use of a fishing line or long cane to retrieve him.

In addition to being an avid reader, he loves history. Carl is a history buff with a strong interest in Betsy Ross and all things colonial America. Every season Carl plays a different sport. He’s a linebacker in football, a “middie” in lacrosse, and something-or-other I can’t remember in basketball. He’s very athletic and it’s a great way for him to manage his ADHD and blow off some steam. It’s also a great excuse for his dad to yell loudly at sporting events and wave his arms all around.

As a family we are active supporters of child labor. To this end Carl is now able to wash his own laundry, mow the lawn and vacuum like a boss. He can also brew me a mean cup of coffee on the Keurig machine! We pay him a small pittance for his efforts, of course, because…child labor.

Sometimes, due to his history of complex PTSD, Carl has trouble controlling his temper. His brain goes into fight/flight mode and it’s best to give him some space. If he feels cornered or pursued his body reacts as though he were in actual physical danger. If he needs a consequence or a reminder, it’s best to have him take a bit of space first. This way he can be calm enough to process what you’re saying. If he appears agitated or fidgety you may want to send him on an errand. I strongly suggest sending him to make you a cup of coffee in the teachers’ lounge. Or maybe to wash your car. Because…child labor.

In addition to athletic talents and the ability to work in harsh conditions, Carl is extremely empathetic. He loves animals, younger children and his grandparents. Papa is his best friend and they are always up to no good. Maybe if you ever meet Papa, you should preemptively give him a detention. Just trust me on this. Papa is naughty and has probably already pushed all the buttons on your school intercom.

Finally, Carl comes as part of a package deal. When you get him as your student (again, the crowd goes wild) you also get his family. He has Nana and Papa in town. He lives with Mom, Dad, and his younger sister Mary. He has 3 older teenaged siblings that come on weekend visits. We are all here to work with you in any way necessary. This is going to be a great year.  Trust me, I’m his mom!

   https://fulltimetired.com/roundup/?vote

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved

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adoption

Scars and Secrets: Memories of Child Abuse

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They kept so many secrets in foster care. So many. My son has three tiny round scars on his top left shoulder. They have spread apart and faded as he has grown and his shoulders have broadened. Those scars are not his fault. They are from the metal end of a belt buckle. He was beaten with it in his biological home by “everyone,” he says. His biological mother, his biological father, and many other men that passed through the house.

When his skin browns deeper in the summer sun, they stare at me in accusation. I wasn’t there to protect him. In the winter months they are easier to overlook. Easier to lose sight of, at least for me. Carl never forgets.

Other memories he has of his biological parents are fun. His biological father let him steer the car while driving drunk. Bio-dad had Carl “help” when he worked on cars. He bought Carl little toy Hot Wheels for a collection.  Once, when their biological father was drunk and left a $100 bill under Mary’s pillow for the toothfairy.

But Carl was left alone a lot. When his biological parents were drunk or high, they often left 5-year-old Carl to care for his younger sister, Mary. They would find their own food  in the cabinets while their mother slept and the older kids went to school. Soon after Bio-Dad left, a string of men were in and out of the house. When Bio-Mom wasn’t high and sleeping, locked in her room, she was drinking and partying with anyone and everyone.

These are stories that I have heard from our children and their older biological siblings. Obviously, I wasn’t there, but I believe my kids. I believe their siblings. I know these things happened. Yet, I also know that their Bio-Dad loves these children and his feelings for them are real. Once we started contact with their biological father, things changed a bit.

Our littles both got cards and pictures from Bio-Dad for Christmas. Mary got a birthday card. He promised to send Carl a birthday card as well, only if I told him when Carl’s birthday was. We have decided to let the kids respond if they want to.I continue to send updates and photos.

Carl looked at Bio-Dad’s Christmas card, tossed it aside, and continued playing a card game with Luke. Later on he put it under the coffee table and hasn’t looked at it since then. Mary kept both of her cards in a memory box and seemed really happy to have gotten them.

But their views are very different. Carl remembers being beaten. He remembers more because he is older. Mary was younger. Most of what she remembers came from the many boyfriends mom had after bio-dad. The difficult part with having siblings adopted from the same traumatic background, is that they hold different memories.

Mary has begun insisting that their Bio-Dad never hurt them, it was only their bio-mom. She has begun to build up this fantasy around him (similar to what I did when I was younger.) Both children got into an argument about their bio-dad the other day. Mary insisted he never hurt her, so whatever Carl did must have gotten him hit. His face crumbled as she implied that the abuse was somehow his fault. I corrected her immediately and ended the conversation.

I spoke to them each separately about how different the things they might remember are. Everyone sees things from their own viewpoint. I stressed to Mary that she must never, ever, ever invalidate her brother’s feelings.

With Carl I explained that his memories were his and all of his feelings were OK. He and Mary might feel differently, but she will not be allowed to invalidate his experience. No one should ever be abused physically. It was never Carl’s fault. Bio-dad probably just had no idea what to do as a parent.

Later at dinner that night, Mary started counting all of the “moms” she had. She came up with 4 or 5. Carl scoffed at her and said, “Well I only have one mom!” His feelings may change on the subject but for now he refuses to contact Bio-Dad. That’s OK.

Beyond that, it is up to them if they decide to write to their Bio-Dad. So far, neither one has. I’ve put a moratorium on discussing their bio-home together until we get to the therapist’s office. Until that time they can talk to Mom or Dad alone about their first parents. Good and bad memories are OK. Mixed feelings are OK. Love and anger are OK, even at the same time.

I will continue to casually mention that sending a letter or picture would be nice, but the contact is up to them. So far I haven’t gotten any takers, but I am determined to leave that door open and respect my children’s wishes. Only time will tell what happens next.

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Mary happy with Daddy Luke

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

 

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adoption, family

Therapeutic Strategies for Sleep Disturbances

Our Daughter has such a difficult time sleeping at night. She used to physically fight for her life when bedtime came (you can read about it here.) Bedtime triggered her fight/flight response because she experienced trauma at this time in her biological home. Luckily we have the very best trauma therapists to work with us and out children with therapeutic strategies. These are some of the best strategies to calm our daughter’s fear response at night. She needs to feel safe in order to rest.

  1. Comforting Smells: I like to use lavender scented baby lotion to give her arms a deep-pressure massage before bed if she needs it. She will also put a drop of essential oil onto a tissue and rub it together. Then she holds it to her face and breathes in slowly. Smells activate the brain’s Amygdala, which triggers memories from the hippocampus and can activate an emotional response. The mom-massage is a good smell, thus triggering feelings of love and safety. I also rub a bit of my hair conditioner in her hair before bed sometimes.
  2. Comforting Sounds: We have a noise machine for both of our children. They can choose to listen to white noise, rain sounds, a forest, the ocean, a brook, etc. They use these sounds as a coping skill when they need to calm down throughout the day. The sounds also give them a sense that they are not alone in a scary place.
  3. Soothing Light: Our children have always needed a night light to sleep. Complete darkness means they can’t see if any danger is approaching. Although there isn’t a real threat inside our home, our children have an overactive fight/flight response. In order to calm this fear we provide creative nightlights. Our daughter had one that was activated whenever a the light was turned off. We also have a mushroom nightlight probably intended for infants. It projects a series of flowers and stars onto the ceiling with slowly changing colors and designs. This is mesmerizing to look at and soothing for her to watch. Our son has a moon-light that comes with a remote control. He can switch the phases of the moon depending on his mood. A quarter moon if he feels safe, a full moon if he is feeling afraid, and a rotating phase moon to look at if he can’t sleep.
  4. Soothing Taste: Fruits and vegetables are always available for our children in the house. Our kids choose an apple or a clementine (Yuck! After brushing teeth?) before bed. Sometimes our daughter will choose to eat a lemon. I can’t explain that one! Tasting food before bed helps to ease the constant fear that there won’t be enough food and they will starve. This is another leftover fear from their bio-home.
  5. Calming touch: We have given our children physical objects that they can hold throughout the night in order to help them. One of these is a giant stuffed dog named “Mr. Luke” that my daughter has slept with since she got home. It always wears one of daddy’s dirty shirts (preferably from that day) so that she can hold it and feel like daddy is there, protecting her. We also bought Mary a large body pillow and our family wrote positive messages all over it. We used fabric markers but permanent markers might have been just as good. Then we wiped my deodorant all over it and dressed it in my dirty shirt from that day. This way Mary can feel like she is sleeping between mommy and daddy.
  6. ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE: Every night we keep the same schedule so that our children know exactly what is going to happen. This gives them a sense of control over a world that was previously chaotic and unpredictable. Their bedtimes remain the same, even on weekends (with maybe a 30 minute difference.) While one child showers, the other child gets to choose an activity  with mom or dad, completely led by them.  Every night I say the same goodnight. I rub their backs, slowly counting down from 10. Then I touch their faces in the same pattern and say the words, “I love you forever, no matter what, and I am so glad your home!” Then we both make a “pop!” sound with our lips and hug each other.

 

At the end of the day, I wish I could tell you that everything is fine and our daughter has no trouble whatsoever sleeping with these strategies in place. Unfortunately, That simply isn’t true in our case. Ever since she’s come home from an inpatient stay, she’s been seeing “monsters” and hearing “talking things” downstairs. If I had a completely healthy back, I might sleep downstairs with her for a night to show her it’s OK. But I can’t. So we’ve moved the bedroll upstairs to the hallway right outside our bedroom. This way she knows mommy and daddy are close. My fingers are crossed that this stage won’t last long. Either way? She’s our girl and we will do whatever it takes to make her feel safe at night!

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved

 

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Attachment Disorders, family

The Prodigal Son…Cancels?

mhorse

I would consider myself a fairly decent mom, even pretty good at predicting my children’s trauma-based actions. Not this time. I entirely missed the mark. Last week I wrote about Marcus asking to visit. After a lot of time and planning, he was finally coming this weekend. He sent me numerous messages about how excited he was. I really believed it was happening.

He is the oldest biological brother to our 2 adopted siblings. Our relationship with him is haphazard at best. At one time he lived with us. We wanted to adopt him. We tried. But the closer we got to him emotionally, the more he seemed to fight against that bond.

The day he left was the day his adoption worker from our state was coming to meet him. He was 17. On that day I truly believed he sabotaged his adoption because remaining in the foster care system was more familiar and easier to him than committing to being part of a loving family.

He threw an enormous tantrum, threatening to kill us and bury us in the backyard. (I guess he knew all of the best places since he had painstakingly cleared out an area of forest and landscaped it in our backyard the week before.) At our house, he had been the one to grab the tool bag eagerly and enjoy fixing things around the house with “Pops,” my husband.

He called me a whore, and a b**ch and a c**t. He told his younger siblings that he hated them and he would kill them, too. He slammed doors, threw things, kicked me and threw his iPhone at me, shattering it. I actually think he didn’t mean to make contact with me at all. His big scary tantrum was more along the lines of putting on a big show. Later he apologized to my husband saying, “You know I didn’t really mean to throw the phone at her, right? That part was an accident.”

He got his way that day. He had done this many times before. He would get really close to me, discuss his feelings about his biological mom with me, or simply let me in on an emotional issue with a girlfriend. For a few weeks we’d be closer than I ever thought a teen and his mom could be. Then, he would drop all communication and act as though he hated me and couldn’t stand the sight of me. He’d cut off contact, only to resume again in a few more weeks, asking to return or visit (we always said a joyful yes, but with behavioral boundaries.) But that was from 16-18. The closer he got to 18, the more he tasted his freedom.

Like so many other foster kids, he aged out at 18 and began life on his own. After that, our relationship actually improved a bit. Our communication was spotty, but when he had a problem, he always came to me. He bounced around to a few different places. I assumed, with a fair amount of certainty, that he was back on the streets hanging with his old crew. He’d put selfies on FaceBook throwing up the symbol for the “Bloods” a notorious gang. Whether he simply admired them, or was involved, I’ll probably never know. He was always wearing their colors of red and black.

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Over time, I began to think of him as the son who just left the nest early. He called and messaged us when he could. If I squinted my eyes really tight, and let my vision go blurry, I could almost see a son who was off to college, or the military, or the peace corps, and checked in when he could. He had asked for visits before, but this one seemed so real to me.

That was, obviously, a fantasy. There are many sides to Marcus. He loved family dinner we had each night. He took pride in our family and our home. He decorated his room immaculately with all of his favorite things. He played board games for hours with us, as if he couldn’t get enough. Our family took him to science centers, zoos, and museums. He was delighted and amazed by the reptile show at our local library.

These were all of the amazing memories I was reminiscing about when he called to cancel his upcoming visit. I had to stop and question myself. Why had I really believed he would show? He’s a few weeks away from moving somewhere new. We are trapped in this cycle where he gets close and then pulls away. His issues with attaching to a family are too complicated to let him enjoy a typical family relationship with us. This is what complicates his ability to allow himself to be loved.

My daughter told her therapist that she thinks he didn’t get adopted because he was “too dangerous.” This gave us the opportunity to explain that no matter what Marcus did or said, we would have gotten help and we would have adopted him. It just wasn’t what he wanted anymore, and we respected that. Mary agreed there was less swearing when he wasn’t in the house. She loved his happy, playful side, but was scared of his short-fused anger. Me, too, I told her. But no matter what, we will always love him.

The only good thing that came out of this was that he texted with both of the Littles and told them he missed them. They sent silly pictures of their faces back and forth. They saw the texts where he wrote, “I love you, Ma,” to me. Good or bad Marcus knows we are here for him. And maybe that’s all that really matters right now?

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Whenever he is ready, our door is always open. 

 

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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family, Therapeutic Parenting

Anatomy of a Trauma Trigger: Responding to My Child’s PTSD

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I slept until 11:00AM! Instant panic on my part. Was Carl OK?! I went to bed at 9:00 PM the night before.  I was exhausted after the physical therapy session I had at my house. I took my first steps without my walker (2 in grand total.) Thank goodness my husband was awake to care for Carl in the morning and meet his needs. It doesn’t matter that Carl is 11 and not 5 anymore. This can set off the trigger alarm.

 You see, my kids come from a home with a junkie mom. She was an addict. She had mental health conditions. She would go to bed and not get up for weeks. Sometimes she would lock the kids out of her bedroom and let them take care of themselves. Mary was 4 and Carl was 5 when they were removed from her care during a drug raid.

I know it sounds harsh, but these are the facts. An unresponsive mom in bed has been a terrible threat to their survival in the past. It doesn’t matter how much of this trauma they remember. It stays in their brains and tells their bodies, “Warning! Fight or flight! This is survival!”

Later that day I ended up back in bed, crying from terrible back spasms. The pain ripping through my spine was nothing compared to the pain I could see on my son’s face. Minutes before we had been goofing around as a family, and my husband startled me. Somehow I jumped or moved in surprise and set off a series of merciless spasms through my surgical incision and deep into the muscles surrounding my spine. I took my pain meds, got on my ice pack, and reassured everyone that I was fine.

It didn’t matter, because in Carl’s mind suddenly his caregiver was unreliable. The following is the closest I could come to understanding the conversations we had with Carl the rest of the evening:

Carl: (whining,moaning and stomping around) I don’t want to take a shower tonight! I’m not as smelly as you guys think! I don’t have to shower!

Carl’s Brain: I must stay where I can see my caregivers. Something bad could happen to mom. No one would take care of me and then I could die. I must get some control over this scary situation. Control lets me feel like I can take care of myself.

When he is scared we offer choices to give him some control. He can pick to shower downstairs in his shower or upstairs in our shower, using my trendy new shower seat (you KNOW you’re jealous!)

Carl: (from inside our shower, where he has successfully showered many times before) “You guys have to help me! I can’t turn the water on! It isn’t working. I need help!!”

Carl’s Brain: Are my caregivers still out there? I’m scared I might be alone. What if they aren’t able to take care of me. I have to know they are still caring for me or I will be all on my own again. And then I might die!

My husband “fixed” the shower for him. Carl called out to us every so often and we responded from close by. Showers tend to soothe him. He came out of the shower and demanded (really close to bedtime, and quite rudely) to build the new crystal growing science kit he got for Christmas.

With soft words and soft eyes, I responded, “Are you asking or are you telling? Would you like to try that again? It sounds like you have something important to tell me but I need you to use your nice words.” (I am totally attempting to channel Karyn Purvis)

Carl: (Taking a deep breath) “Can we please build one of my crystal growing kits?”

Carl’s Brain: Are you still able to take care of me? Can I rely on you? If I cannot win your attention and care I will be all on my own again and I might die!

Me: “It sounds like you’re asking for something we may not be able to finish tonight. (Carl huffs and stomps and moans) Bring both kits up here and let’s see if we can make a compromise.

In the end, after lots of groaning from Carlos, one of the kits was a 15 minute project. I suited up in my back brace and got on my walker. Carl ran and got all of the necessary ingredients. Now we are growing crystals on top of a filing cabinet upstairs. We agreed the big glow-in-the-dark crystal growing experiment would be saved for Thursday.

As I said goodnight to Carl I could sense he was panicking again. I held him close to my chest in a big hug as we practiced our deep breathing. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Honey I know you were having some big feelings tonight. You were panicking a little bit.” He nodded in agreement. “It’s OK, honey, I will always be here. I am always going to take care of you.”

After another giant hug and our normal goodnight routine, he followed Dad downstairs without any further issue. It seemed like he finally felt safe. Not every night goes this smoothly. Fear is tricky, because it can come out looking like anger and defiance. Tonight I was able to translate the trauma trigger coming from Carl’s words. So tonight, I’ll take that as a win.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy involved.

 

 

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mental illness, parenting

In-Patient For the Holiday

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I was so prepared this year. I was ready for anything. My husband and I had every therapeutic parenting technique we could think of at our disposal. Coping skills, body checks, sensory diet, check-ins, time-ins, you name it. We had our game faces on. Why? Because it was Christmas time. The worst time of year for many children from foster care. The worst time of year for our daughter.

We were so determined.We had it all figured out. We were on fire with new and wonderful connected parenting skills. I was even feeling a bit cocky, and posting things like, “Looking forward to our first Christmas with no in-patient stays!” on my parenting group. I was so very prepared this year. I was so very wrong.

Here is the hard truth about raising children with trauma and mental health concerns. Sometimes, it all goes wrong. Sometimes bad things happen anyway.  For several months we were working closely with Mary’s trauma team to adjust/change medications, increase therapy sessions, work on therapeutic techniques, etc.

Mary would be laughing one minute, then crying, then screaming. She claimed to hear what other people were thinking. She was lying more often, which is a pretty strong indicator of feeling deep anxiety and fear. Her emotions were spinning around faster than a tilt-a-whirl at the carnival.  She began telling us that she “felt like she was in a different world” at school. She heard voices that told her to hurt me and she didn’t want to. Welcome to the Christmas season.

Luke and I had contingency plans. We kept to a very regimented schedule, with no huge changes in the day to day routines. In order to alleviate anxiety we lightened the mood by having theme nights. One day the children came home and did their homework in a parisian cafe, while drinking “coffee” (mocha-flavored hot cocoa.) We all spoke in french accents while doing math.

Another night, our son yelled, “I wish everyone would stop talking to me.” So we did. We all sang our feelings rock-opera style. For an entire night. He had an air guitar solo, which he totally rocked, and Mary added some dance moves. I couldn’t talk the next day but he had gone from shouting to singing and laughing hysterically. We were having fun.

When Mary came home crying hysterically and told us she didn’t know where her sad feeling was coming from, we rolled with it. We set her up with sensory coping skills in her safe place. I stayed close until she was calm. Then my husband and I snuck into the kitchen to apply fake mustaches, turn on Frank Sinatra, and invite the children to a pasta dinner in our “Italian Bistro.” With accents, of course!

Typically, our daughter’s intense feelings can be acknowledged, named, and coped with. Mindfulness techniques and sensory tools work well for her. Then, as we lighten the mood and get playful, she can come back from the edge and her emotion will flip. It just isn’t always enough.

She began to rage on the evening of the 23rd and continued into the next morning. She claimed she could see people from her past that no one else could see. She screamed, she kicked, she beat her door. She writhed on the floor and yelled at us. She spoke to people that only she could hear. She lifted up her queen-sized bed and dumped it. She smashed everything in her room, or threw it.

All that work, all those skills, and she still had to go in-patient to be kept safe. She went into the psychiatric hospital the 24th and came home on the 26th. We are now referred back to a partial hospitalization program and Intensive In-home Psychiatric Child Services for her. We’ve done these a million times, rinse-repeat. It seems like starting over.

In the end I realize one thing. Our daughter isn’t a renovation project. We will never “fix” her or “cure” her. Mary is perfect because she is Mary. We want to help her heal but we also just want to be her parents.

When she grows up she won’t look back and remember magical parents that swooped in with all the answers and saved her. She will remember parents who cared. Parents who did the one thing that I believe really helped her. Parents that stayed with her. And if I’m being honest, I really hope she remembers the mustaches.

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**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

 

 

 

 

 

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