The leather was cool on my back as I sat in the chair across from him. My lawyer was talking about the case the State of Nebraska was attempting to build against us and as he spoke, I could feel the chill of broken-in leather behind me. In the movies, these scenes are portrayed by zooming in on the speakers lips, and deafening every other sound so that it creates a vacuum where only the words can be heard. In slow-mo. Turns out, it happens that way in real life too.
“In two years’ time, it will be like this never happened. You guys will be fine.” He said.
Two years????? How can he act like two years is so little? My mind raced to comprehend how my family, the one I gripped until my knuckles turned white because I had no expectation of ever receiving such a beautiful gift and certainly didn’t plan to let it go without a fight, could survive the shattering effects of two years’ worth of foster care and the broken court system. He elaborated that a court case could take up to a year. But maybe two years for all the exhausting family court hearings to end. TWO. YEARS. We were just two weeks into the process and every single second felt like agony. The days that used to fly by so quickly, propelled by the busyness of life, now dragged as if held down by heavy boulders. I tried to push them with all my might in the hopes that moving the weight would bring my daughters home faster, but it was to no avail.
In those moments, the life-defining moments that assault your senses and sear into your mind, I had the gift of hyper-awareness for the oddest things. The overhead lights, buzzing like fluorescent lights do. The stacks of white paper near his desk. The frame holding a photo of his sweet grandson on the corner of his stately desk. The smell of the building, layered in years of life and people and activity, stationed in the center of downtown Omaha bustle. And that leather chair molding around my body. My lawyers words echoed in my ears and wrote themselves on the files of my memory. I’m certain God designs us this way. With focus that becomes laser sharp when under duress so that the heavy devastation can be compartmentalized elsewhere in our consciousness. The same way we redirect toddlers away from the candy they have their eyes on, in the hopes of avoiding a melt-down, Father kindly redirects His children on the brink of despair to the most simple of activities.
‘Look at the picture, sweet daughter. Listen to the hum of the air conditioner. Watch the bird sitting on the window ledge. I’ll carry this, I’m strong enough. Just stay with Me.’
This relief from thinking or doing or feeling too much, existing in the barest of minimums and casting everything else aside, is a gift.
Our lawyer had been around the block a few thousand times. He sat there, an L-shaped desk between us, carrying 50 years worth of law experience. Fifty years. He had spent more time in a court room than I had been alive and he had seen it all. This man had won far more than he had lost. He was full of contrasts. Like steel when it came to the woes of weaving through a legal system so tattered it barely felt viable to even try. He acknowledged how tainted the system was, this profession he knew like the back of his hand, but insisted it was the best one on the planet. When talking of his beloved family, he softened considerably. Family mattered to him. Probably because he witnessed so many torn apart. He was all business, while still being incredibly charming and relational. We still communicate with him occasionally. It’s the oddest relationship, that of a client and legal representative. For a time they are your best friends and biggest defenders, with no prior knowledge of the life you’ve lived before walking into their office. And then just like that, the relationship is no longer needed in its current state. A judge makes a decision, resolution is reached and it’s all over, for better or worse. You talk to them every day, multiple times a day, and then all that’s left is silence.
But he felt certain of our future success. And that our family would remain whole. That we’d continue on with life as if this wretched blip in time was nonexistent.
He was wrong. There were many days following the victory God handed us that felt like a continuation of the torture. Days when we wept with devastation at what we had walked through. Days when we had to stare into the eyes of the daughter who had used words to betray the family that adored her and say ‘No matter what, we love you.’ Nights spent in bed with my back faced towards James because we disagreed on how to put one foot in front of the other, to move forward. Sundays spent in church, sitting just rows away from the families who had become entangled in that wreck of an experience, the very sight of them invoking a crazy mess of emotions. Week after week and month after month of walking through daily life as if everything was okay when it really wasn’t. The longing to make it all go away and return to normal was so strong, but so impossible to attain. There was no denying that we had to heal and it was going to be painful. The only way you can talk yourself into trudging through the heat of fire is by knowing God will go with you. And He did. He really, really did.
So, it wasn’t as if this had never happened. Not by a long shot. June 15th will mark two years and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t remember a moment or flash to an experience from those 76 days.
But our lawyer was also right.
We have remained whole. Despite every rational mindset, the lowest of lows was not enough to destroy, as the enemy had planned. We have succeeded. God has gathered the ashes and sculpted the most stunning of views. Though that time in our family’s story still holds a strong presence in my mind, the things I think about are changing all the time. God mingles a picture of the courtroom with the smell from the rose bushes at Lauritzen Gardens, where I met my daughters once for a supervised visit. He reminds me of long, snuggly hugs with Natalee at Red Robin the very first time I sat at a table with my children and a woman I didn’t know as she observed our interactions and typed on a laptop…..and I smile through tears at the memory. Bad with the good, melancholy with jubilance. My God is trying to help me see the overwhelming exquisite that sits right next to the ugly. One day it might be possible that I see the exquisite of that summer far more often than I see the ugly, if His grace allows it.
Olivia and I just returned from Costa Rica, where God redeemed one of the dreams we lost that heartbreaking summer. My Father did a great work there. He healed the wounds that still had a bit of scabbing over to go. On that 7 acres of tropical land, filled with sweet children who lack families, He flipped my perspective completely. In 2015, when my daughter and I were supposed to head to Costa Rica with a team and serve children in foster care, in a cruel irony, Olivia became a child in foster care. But nestled in the sticky heat and shades of deep green and torrential downpours of rain, was a trade hidden and just waiting to be revealed. God took that ironic twist and didn’t just fulfill a dream. He upgraded it. My daughter, the one God gave me as a surprise, went from being a girl called to caring for foster children….. to being a fostered child herself…. to fulfilling the dream to help with the temporary keeping of children in foster care after all. She fostered God’s love with her focused smiles and gentle touches and tender words, with fiery prayers and a decidedly maternal spirit. She kissed chubby cheeks and induced the belly laughs of little ones still in the wait for their moms and dads. And she could relate to them in a way that many can’t. My daughter knows what they feel in a real, aching way. But she put on a wardrobe of hope and poured out all she had taken in during those 76 days of foster care limbo. And Father took the rubble of my shattered dream, chiseling away to create a lovely team that He asked me to lead. In the Kingdom, the lost become leaders, y’all. With opened palms, that same God who saved me nearly two decades ago handed me the gift of understanding when I glanced across the covered structure where children played in the afternoons. I looked around and saw all the people He had appointed to my team and the way He had pieced them together. Sitting among them was my girl, strengthened by trial but softened by agape love, rocking a baby boy as she tried in vain to keep the heat from engulfing her in perspiration. There she sat with a whole new dream, one she never saw coming, one that couldn’t have been revealed in 2015. In those seven days in Costa Rica, God called out worship pastors and foster parents and prophets. And I got to witness it all. That stunning view wrapped my heart in warmth and pulled scales from my eyes to see things in a whole new way. He gave me the reasons why I can count it all joy. Every single part CAN be joy.
My lawyer was wrong. The days of that ugly summer haven’t faded off into the sunset as though they’ve never happened at all. They inflicted scars that are felt in real-time, despite the passing years. And yet.
My God knew all along. That the pain He allowed would come and go, and be raised up into greatness. We trusted Him to exchange our despair for cheer, and He’s been faithful to do it. The heart that once gasped for life gave way to bursting, with crystal clear understanding, and then reveled in joy. That’s what my God does. He makes it all count as joy, every time.
Count the joy, friends-