At the start of 2011, having recently graduated from college, I moved to a foster care home on a Native American reservation to serve as a missionary in a newly created home. It's one of the few things I've felt a strong calling to do. Since I had already graduated from Clemson, yet had six months before having to start Teach For America, my parents suggested that I use this time to go on a trip anywhere I wanted in the world to fulfill my strong desire to travel and serve children. After much thought on Thailand, Africa (I finally made it earlier this year), returning to Fiji, Central America even, the one place that hung heaviest on my heart was Lame Deer, Montana.
So, in early January 2011, I packed two large suitcases and flew from Jacksonville, to Charlotte, to Denver, to Billings, and then drove the two hours to Lame Deer. At the time of my arrival, the house had two older, teenaged boys, and had been that way for a few weeks. Within days, we received a call that we needed to take in three children, an eighteen month old little girl, and two little boys who were four and five. This is what I came here to do and I could not wait for their arrival. The baby girl came in looking like an eskimo she was so tightly bundled in her jumpsuit and the five year old boy spoke so softly, I could barely hear a thing he said.
The four year old, walked in, rat-tail and all, and as the boys were out helping get their belongings from the car, he used this opportunity to direct me to show him to his new room. Always one to fall for a strong personality, I took his hand and showed him around our small,yellow house that would eventually be home to 11 boys and 2 girls with one bathroom.
From the begging, he was difficult. One night, he loved spaghetti. The next night, he strongly disliked spaghetti and would sob as loud as a siren at the thought of eating it. Prior to our home, he was the primary caretaker of his little sister and had a difficult time not being responsible for her daily responsibilities. He had a very difficult time following directions and his favorite response to any correction was (through a sea of sobs) "I just want to listen." Like me, he didn't share too well and he had a thing for being the center of attention. He clashed a bit with the boys in the house the same way that I struggled with little girl.
One day, when it was above zero degrees outside, me and one of the other boys ventured to the park across the street with the two youngest boys. Little boy and I were up on the jungle gym running from the older boy who was playing crocodile below. We were running away trying to save ourselves, when he ran towards me, wrapped himself around me, and said "Mom, save me from the crocodile!"
I froze. At this point, I had Henry, yet I still did not really refer to myself as his Mom. I'm 22, I wasn't anyones Mom. I looked at the precious boy I was holding in my arms and said "what did you call me?" and he responded "well, you are my mom aren't you?" I squeezed him so incredibly tight and never wanted to let go.
For the remainder of my time there, I let it happen. I was Mom. When he came home from school everyday, he walked in the house yelling "Mom!!" and I was usually by the door waiting just as eagerly to see him. He instructed me to call him "son" and so, I did. I was Mom in the grocery store. I was Mom when he splashed too much in the bathtub. I was Mom when he wanted to build castles with his Leggos. I was Mom when he knocked the Leggo castle down. I was Mom when he was scared in the middle of the night and had a bad dream and would run to my room yelling Mom where I would quickly scoop him up saying, "please do not wake up your sister" who I shared a room with. Every night when he got out of the shower, he would ask me to smell his hair, smell his face, smell his belly, and then excitedly "SMELL MY FEET" knowing how much I disliked feet yet every night, I would kiss those precious little feet and tell him they were the most wonderful smelling feet in all the world.
Together, I taught him to swim, we learned that a hotel is not one giant house and that we shared the space with other guests, that when we went places with parking lots we had to hold hands at all times, and I fell madly in love with that sweet little boy. On my last night in Montana, I laid in his bottom bunk bed with him and his Spongebob pillow and blanket and his Teddy Bear, as we said our prayers. Every night, he would ask me to rub his belly until he fell asleep. Usually, I set a time limit but for that night, I rubbed his belly until we both fell asleep.
Leaving him was one of the hardest, most emotionally challenging things, I've ever done. His birthday is still the password on my phone and I think of him daily. In my perfect world, I would have brought him home with me, and would have lived together, mom and son, happily ever after. But God knew this was going to happen and that I had too much ahead of me that I needed to do off of the reservation. So, a year and a half later, he sent a Mom to him.
I know he is well and pray he always will be. In my heart, he was and is my first son. On Mother's Day, I think of my first Mother's Day card I ever received from my sweet boy. It was on pink construction paper and I am pretty sure he was trying to draw me flowers. While I am no longer his Mom, I find myself thinking more of my sweet little boy every Mother's Day. Happy Mother's Day to all of the mothers, in every traditional and nontraditional form, who may be reading this. Thank you for all that you do.