Fostering Compassion by Anne Kerrigan

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

When my husband and I hosted foster children, our home arrangement was considered “short-term.” This meant that we had an infant from the time he was born until he could be returned to his parents. This gave the parents a chance to get back on track, for whatever reason. The unity of the family was always the ideal scenario, but it didn’t always work out that way. If the parents were not able to take the baby within approximately six months, the child would then go to a “long-term” foster home. In the “long-term” home, the child stayed indefinitely until suitable arrangements could be made for his prolonged well-being. Since babies arrived when they arrived, not always conveniently, the agency needed homes which would be able to accommodate a newborn at a moment’s notice. That was us, and we loved every minute of it.

Freddie was our sixth and last foster child. He was two days old when he arrived to our home. He was African American, with enormous black eyes that looked like precious stones and soft, black curls. He was a treasure from the moment we met him. Our job was to love and nurture Freddie, preparing him for his future, whatever that might be. He was always surrounded by our own five children, and so he undoubtedly learned many of the skills needed for social interaction. Since he was the youngest of six, he probably also learned some survival skills! Freddie had a wonderful personality, always smiling and laughing. He had the most beautiful broad smile, and I still see it in my dreams.

Months went by, and still no word on long-term placement for Freddie. This is where Freddie’s story took a different turn than those of the other babies we had over the years. Those babies stayed with us for an average of six months. It was painful to see them leave, but we always knew they were on their way to a permanent situation. Yet, in Freddie’s circumstance, the Social Service Department had been having some difficulties sorting out his future. They asked us if we would mind keeping him for a bit longer than the usual six months until they made specific arrangements for him. “Of course not,” we said. We were secretly hoping that the arrangements were never sorted out. Time went by, and soon Freddie was walking, trying to talk, and just having a grand time exploring the world around him.

Freddie was exactly one year younger than our youngest son, Sean, so they shared a room. It was small, but there was space for two cribs and two dressers. Eventually, Sean figured out that the crib had wheels, and that if one jumped up and down often enough, the wheels would move and the crib would shift positions. Freddie was very observant and quickly followed Sean’s example. In the morning we would hear persistent noise from their bedroom. It was a cacophony of sound, like a relentless alarm clock or a rock’n’roll band having a jam session. The slight movement of the wheels, combined with both Freddie and Sean’s efforts, propelled both cribs close together. When the cribs were next to each other, Sean would heave himself over the side of his crib into Freddie’s. Every morning we would find them in Freddie’s crib, laughing and playing, just having a grand old time. When they saw us approach the room, they would duck down as if to hide. The laughing and giggling were non-stop. Sean’s fair skin, green eyes, and straight blond hair was a stark contrast to Freddie’s dark skin, black curls, and coal-black eyes. What a beautiful sight! Those moments remain as clear in my mind today as when they happened. Because they were so young, I am sure that neither Sean nor Freddie recall those specific experiences, but they have given my husband and me a treasure trove of memories.  

Then came the call. Social services informed us that they would be transferring Freddie to what was called a “long-term” home. These new foster parents were an African American couple, both teachers, and they were taking Freddie with an option to adopt him. “Wait a minute,” we said. “If that family has the option to adopt, why don’t you just leave him here and we will adopt him?” We were informed that the department did not do cross-racial adoptions, and so our request was not an option. We were heartbroken. We begged, begged again, and begged some more, but to no avail. They said that society wasn’t ready for cross-racial adoptions. We responded vehemently, saying that the only way society would get ready was just to do it!

Round and round we went, again to no avail. So we all said our good-byes, dressed Freddie in his best outfit, and sent him off to his new family. He was almost two years old, and he had been with us since he was two days old. Oh, the tears flowed the day he left! The only thought that gave us some comfort was that we knew he had been loved and cared for since he was born. It was a small consolation, but one that sustained us during the mourning period we experienced after Freddie left us. I still occasionally cry for our Freddie and pray that he has had a good life. The joy of having Freddie as a part of our family was worth every bit of the heartbreak that followed when we lost him.

My husband wrote a letter to the new family and gave it to the social worker. We have no idea if the family ever read the letter, but we felt better about sending it. To this day it remains a family treasure and reminds us of Freddie. Here is the text of the letter, exactly as it was written in 1973:

We will never meet you—I guess that’s best. But, I’d love to meet you because you are going to have our Freddie. He’s in your care now, and we shall never see him again. I feel happy for you both, for he’s a wonderful, joyful little guy—yet, I’m so sad. For almost fifteen months he has been a part of us. He’ll always be a part of my family. There are seven of us who will miss him.

He has given us so much happiness. He takes our love with him—he always will. When he reaches out to you to hold him, I like to think that it’s because he found love when he reached out to us. When he laughs, I like to believe it’s because our children have made him part of our happy home. Please don’t think I’m looking to praise myself or my family when I say this . . . but, part of the love you’ll find in Freddie we gave him, and we now give it to you. God bless you.

So many marvelous things happened because of Freddie in our lives. The fact that he was part of our family taught our children to recognize that even though human beings can be different, they are basically the same. Hopefully, they learned to respect other people, at every level. Tolerance for others is not an innate trait. It must be learned, and I believe that children must see it as a lived experience. In a religion class, one of our young children had to draw a picture of how “you have loved another.” He drew a picture of stick figures, a family with one little dark-skinned child sitting on the mother’s lap. I still have that picture from so many years ago. Even though our own children were young when Freddie lived with us, I believe that, in some way, he helped our own children to look beyond their specific cultural, racial, and religious experiences as they interacted with the world.

Freddie was our last foster child. When he left, life moved on in other directions. I was studying nursing, working part-time, and my husband and I were busy raising five children. While we missed the “foster child” part of our lives, to this day it remains an incredible blessing for us. We loved being present to the gradual and beautiful growth of a human life. It was a privilege to be a part of it all. Because Freddie was with us for so long, he holds a special place in our hearts.

There are times when I see a young African American man with a wonderful smile, and I envision Freddie, who would now be in his forties. I also envision George Floyd, the African American man who was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May of this year. George Floyd and Freddie are almost exactly the same age. As the policeman knelt on his neck, I heard George Floyd cry out that he couldn’t breathe, and I heard Freddie crying out for air. I heard George cry out for his mother, and I prayed that Freddie had a woman in his life he was able to call mother. I wish it could have been me. George Floyd’s situation was very painful to see, and it was very personal for me. I still ache as I continue to read about the endless ramifications of the incident.

I wish George Floyd has been granted the gift of a long and happy life, but it was not to be. Hopefully, Freddie’s life has been filled with many blessings, and I pray that he has been able to deal with and survive any racism which might have impacted his life. He carries this mama’s love within him still, whether he knows it or not.

Anne Kerrigan is a registered nurse, mother of five, and grandmother of nine. She also has a master’s degree in theology and is the winner of the Australasian Religious Press Association Silver Award in Excellence for “Best Faith Reflection.” She is in the process of writing her memoir. She can be reached at martker@aol.com.

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