Out To Dinner

I don’t get to go out to dinner too much these days, but the other night I made a special effort.

I’ve got my regular crew – the three boys: L who is 4 and who is ‘on the spectrum’, N who is 20 months and J who is 4 months. But for the last couple of days I have also been caring for W, a 7 year old boy who has come from a very remote community to attend his annual medical appointments at the hospital where he has a range of issues monitored, primarily his hearing.

W stayed with me last year also, so it has been nice to have him with us again. I thought it would be a fun  experience for him to go out to dinner at a family restaurant. Something that doesn’t exist where he comes from. So I called up my parents and asked them to come along too.

We were a motley crew of 7 aged from 4 months to 84 years. There was quite a range of skin colour too, from L’s beautiful pale complexion and red hair, to W’s black as black. And of course there was the range of abilities. I know that it’s my ‘normal’ having to keep L close to help him manage in new situations, helping him to regulate himself and control his volume (he’s going through a real noisemaking phase).

W’s hearing impairment means that he needs to wear a hearing aid and even then it can be difficult for him to understand. But what a kid! He’s so social and really a fabulous communicator.

For many years one of my ‘truisms’ has been that – timing is EVERYTHING. As a musician this has always been especially true for me, but in life there is nothing better than good timing and this certainly applied tonight.

We got up to the restaurant at about 6pm and stayed for less than an hour. There was only one other family there when we arrived which meant our food arrived super fast (yay!) The kids really had a lovely time, all of us did.

There was pizza, pasta, drinks and ice-cream.

I had made sure they had all had their bath before we left so that when we got home, all they had to do was clean teeth, get into their pyjamas and drift off to sleep after a big day.

And that’s what happened.

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Island Life: part 2

The family I lived with in this island paradise consisted of the grandmother – an enormous woman who slept and spent most of her time in the kitchen, the grandfather – a skinny & fit guy who gardened and fished most days and kept himself generally busy. Their youngest daughter Salome and her husband Bale a young, couple who became good friends, and two teenaged grandchildren. There were other relatives on the island, but these were the people who I spent every day with.

Living on Yanuca (pronounced Yanutha) was a very simple and healthy existence. Food was mostly fish, caught each day, rice, some vegetables – eggplant and a delicious green leafy vegetable called bele, a lot of coconut milk and a huge amount of casava – a bland root vegetable that is a staple throughout the pacific. Every now & then a chicken or pig would be killed, but this was rare. I learned to bake beautiful bread on an open fire and would occasionally cook something to entertain everybody with the strange things that we eat in Australia.

Being the only white girl provided endless amounts of entertainment for everybody. I was the butt of everybody’s joke in the nicest possible way. As they explained it, I gave them something different to talk about and in a small, isolated community, that difference made a big impact. I got used to people laughing at me, so used to it that as I started to learn the Fijian language, I was able to have a laugh too. I certainly gave them a lot to laugh about as I learned about island life.

Everybody had to work, though it took them a while to let me truly make a contribution on a daily basis. Most of the work was done in the morning between breakfast and lunch. After lunch was reserved for a lie down. Oh how I loved that nap. It took me approximately 5 seconds to go to sleep and I’d wake about 2 hours later, ready for the next phase of the day.

Every afternoon as the sun went over the hill and created a beautiful shaded area between the bures and the water, we would start a game of volleyball. If you weren’t playing, you were watching. After a number of intense games, we would head back to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal – scraping the coconut, tending the fire, shooting the breeze. After the evening meal, everyone would gather again to drink kava, play music, sing, dance and tell stories.

I had some amazing experiences – seeing the annual spawning of the mbalolo coral worm where a flotilla of dinghies headed out pre-dawn to harvest these multicoloured headless worms as they rose from the coral and turned this corner of the ocean into a seething, wriggling wormworld – mind-boggling.

I saw quite a few sharks and I’m not talking about those friendly reef sharks I was initially worried about. One in particular silenced the boat as we passed it swimming in an area where they guys often went diving. The distance between dorsal and tail fins was easily 8 feet. It was a true Jaws moment.

One day a few of us took a boat and travelled around the island fishing, diving, picnic’ing and having a lot of fun. In the afternoon we were in the beautiful little bay where the yacht had first dropped anchor, when a friend said ‘oh, look, the big fish are coming’. I was in the deep water hanging onto the boat – I need more information. What do you mean big fish? You know – the ones with the (they made the shape of a dorsal fin). I started trying to hook a foot into the boat – trying to hoist myself out of the water in an extremely undignified and desperate manner (more laughter). I wasn’t keen for a close encounter. Of course, it turned out to be a pod of dolphins who stayed and played with us for the rest of the day.

It was my sad duty to have to tell everyone that Elvis had died (this was 7 years after the fact) – they were horrified. They were equally amazed when I told them about washing machines – that was simply too much to take in – inconceivable!

Eventually I had to head back to Australia. I had spent my $800 (mostly on flour, rice & tea) and had been there for close to a year. Christmas & New Years had come & gone and we were now in 1985. Time to go back to my home country and get on with my life.

The time I spent on Yanuca changed me. It gave me the chance to spend some time reflecting on what was important to me. I had no idea that was what I was doing but when I returned to Australia I poured all my energy into music and I know that this time had made me feel that was possible. I loved the freedom of having no expectations on me and in some ways felt that my time there was like a second chance to be a teenager, without the angst.

I cried like a baby as I left the island, everybody did. I stayed in touch for a few years, sending boxes of clothes and fun things for the kids. But as my life moved on that connection waned. I don’t think I’ll ever get back there but the people who took me into their home and their hearts will always have a place in mine. My dumb idea turned out to be one of the best moves I made.

Dumb Ideas – Tropical Island Part One

This edition is a diversion from what I have posted to date. But what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t write about what ever takes your fancy. I’ve put this under the heading of Dumb Ideas because, as you will see, this story did not have an auspicious beginning. However, I’ve always been willing to jump off the metaphorical cliff and this is merely one example of that.

I once planned a trip to go island hopping around the pacific on a bicycle. What was I thinking? The year was 1984 and I thought it was a good year to get lost. I was right.

The first leg of the trip involved flying to Fiji. I arrived on the main island Viti Levu at about 2am and stayed in a shared room at a youth hostel. I had left Australia with a total of $800 to last me for the whole trip and get me home to Australia again.

The next morning I set off on my trusty road bike to circumnavigate the island and see what adventures awaited. Those first few days were pretty boring. Riding through cane fields, dodging vehicles on a narrow road, not really meeting anybody. Everyone thought I was a complete lunatic and I was starting to agree with them.

There weren’t any hostels or accommodation of any kind on the northern side of the island, so finding somewhere safe to sleep was an issue. I got about half way before the gravel roads and the lack of opportunity to meet with local people saw me jumping on a bus and heading to the capital, Suva.

Suva was more fun with a few more travellers around. I wasn’t sure what my next move would be until I heard that you could pick up a crewing berth on a yacht down at the sailing club. I’d been out on Sydney harbour a couple of times – sure I could crew! So I rode my bike down to the club and looked at the notices on the board and left a message for a couple of them. A day or so later I had my ride on a 40 footer with an Australian captain – ex navy marine surveyor. The bike satyed in Suva.

Captain’s plan was to island hop around the numerous islands that make up Fiji. Sounded good to me. It was for a while too. We went to Ovalau the beautiful old capital, then up to Vanua Levu, the second largest island. We stopped at some very small islands, some uninhabited, one where a white couple had set themselves up to live out their remote island fantasy.

The most wonderful experience was going snorkelling for the first time. It was just off the boat about 50 metres from shore. I remember putting my head into the water and seeing this parallel universe. It literally took my breath away and I came scrambling up for air. I had to take a minute to summon the courage to go under again – it was an intense; so many fish, big fish, reef sharks, sea snakes, rays. We were in about 20 metres of water and the reefs created an unbelievably beautiful underwater seascape. But could I cope with the thought of those sharks cruising around not that far, in fact, pretty damn close to my flapping legs?

After a week or so of cruising up the west coast of Taveuni and going far up into the north eastern sector of the Fiji Islands we came to a small group of uninhabited islands and dropped the anchor.

The next day we went around to the other side of the island and found there was a small village. The people of this village were very excited to see us. About 40 people lived a very basic existence here – no roads, no electricity, no shop, just a collection of thatched huts. They waved for us to come ashore and invited us to eat lunch with them. Before we knew it, they had thrown us a party – guitars and singing, kava drinking, beautiful food fresh from the ocean. It was so wonderful, it was the kind of experience I had dreamed of when planning this crazy trip.

Made it back onto the boat that night, but the next day, after a generous invitation to come and stay with a family on the island, I abandoned ship.

The plan had been to stay, as invited for a couple of weeks until the next time a boat would be heading back to Taveuni. After those first couple of weeks of heaven, I was told I couldn’t go, that I must stay longer. So I did.

Many exciting adventures followed and will be shared in part 2

I Can Live With That

My 4 year old has autism. He came into my care when he was seven weeks old and the first thing we did together was go to the ophthalmologist where I was told he was totally blind.

We’ve been through a lot together and every Mother’s Day (all four of them), even though he’s supposed to be making me breakfast in bed and bringing me presents that he made himself (yeah, yeah yeah, I know…he’s 4!), I thank him and give him extra special hugs and kisses, because this little boy has made me a mother. He has done what I couldn’t do myself.

Luckily the blindness was due to a delayed maturation of the optic nerve and by about 6 months I knew he could see – how much and how well was another issue, but he definitely had some sight.

Unluckily, it turns out that for him, EVERYTHING is about the brain. As time went on and this beautiful baby fell further and further behind his little friends at playgroup it became clear that something was going on. Just what that was took a little longer to get an answer on.

So the motherhood dream crossfaded from idealism to hardcore reality, as it must for all parents at one point or another.

So what has being the parent of a little man with autism taught me? (I’m leaving out all the obvious ones)

  • I can survive on not much sleep. In fact I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since he came into my care, but that’s not entirely his fault – I do keep fostering those little bubbas!
  • Sometimes the smallest things are the greatest. Seeing him make a milestone that comes so easily to other kids or sharing a joke that only he & I get – very precious.
  • Never take your ability to communicate for granted. The frustration of not being able to ask for what you want or understand what is happening would send most of us into a flapping rage within about 5 minutes.
  • Little girls with gorgeous flowing curly hair are like a big beeping target for my little guy – watch out princesses!
  • It’s worth teaching your kids how to go to a café. It’s all about strategy & timing but I’ve been amazed to find that my kids often behave better than others.
  • Roaring is fun. When you find yourself getting frustrated with whatever is going on at the time (the packet of cereal just got flipped and is now spread high & low around the room or that important document just got ripped into a million tiny little confetti like pieces etc.), then roaring like a lion as loudly as possible for as long as necessary is a great way to let off some steam, entertain the kids and distract them from their task. Hand actions help too.
  • Silly dances are even more fun – no explanation necessary.

Autism keeps you in the now. It’s so hard to predict how things are going to go. Will he be toilet trained before he starts school? Don’t know. Will he ever communicate fluently? Don’t know. Will he ever have friends of his own? Don’t know. There’s no way to generalise except to say we have a ‘known unknown’ situation.

Questions I can answer – did he eat lunch? Yep, did he have fun today? Yep, did he go to bed tired and happy? Yep. I can live with that.

Letter to a beautiful girl

To my darling little A,

As I am writing this – you are 9 months old. You are a beautiful little girl who is laughing, crawling, babbling, exploring, pointing and loving life. In a few days you will be meeting your new family and your whole world is going to change. Right now they don’t even know who you are, but I know that your Mum & Dad will learn to love you just as much as I do. I know just how lucky they are to be able to have you as their little girl and to see you grow into an amazing young woman.

But right now, I am the one person who knows you the best. I know all the little things that make you happy, how to hold you to calm you down when you are upset and where all your ticklish spots are. Here’s a few of the things I know about you now that I think will always be a part of you:

You have a big personality – you know what you want and you won’t stop till you get it. You have a quick temper, but when you feel safe and loved, you are the most sweet, charming and delightful little person. You are very passionate and very intelligent – I know that nothing will stop you from achieving any goal you set for yourself. The people who love you will need to be very patient because it takes you a long time to feel safe and secure, but once you do, your love is an incredible reward.

You are such a special little girl to me and I love you very much. You will always hold a special place in my heart. I hope that one day I will open the door and find you there. If you have any questions about the first 9 months of you life, I hope I can answer them for you. It’s been a privilege to be the first person to really know you, and to love you because of who you are. I wish you the absolute best in life – I’m so proud to have been a part of it.

Lots of love

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Last weekend I attended the Australian National Foster Carers Conference. I was asked to review one of the workshops I attended for our state magazine. Here’s a snippet from what was a really inspiring weekend.

By Sunday morning all the conference goers were a little tired, especially those who stayed up and danced the night away at the conference dinner. So it was great to walk into a room with a lot of energy in it.

This session was being led by Gregory Nicolau, Director of the Childhood Trauma Group in Melbourne. Gregory has extensive experience in helping children in out of home care and had given the keynote speech on Saturday afternoon. He’d obviously made an impact as the room was full and just kept getting fuller as more & more people turned up to hear him speak again.

This session was about helping carers and their support workers to understand the real message our kids are telling us when they swear and have tantrums, withdraw, lie or use violence. More than that, Gregory planned on sending us home with some skills and ideas that would help us to see past the behaviours through to the hurt child, and to help the child to find new, more effective ways to communicate how they are feeling.

The session was entertaining and gave us a lot to take away and consider. I appreciated that Gregory acknowledged that we had a reasonable working knowledge of kids, brain development and the impact of trauma. He took us on at a higher level and kept us thinking and reflecting on our past and present challenges.

When I go to a workshop I hope to come away with some key piece of information that really resonates with me and my current line up of kids. With this session, it was the idea of ‘credits’. Starting every day with a fresh portion of credit for each child, then giving them more credit for getting out of bed, for eating breakfast and for every time we catch them ‘being good’ or doing something that takes them closer to being a regular kid. Remembering to celebrate and acknowledge the positive steps they make in day to day life – heart medicine (as Robin Moore would say).

I came away feeling like my reserves were a little fuller than they were at the start of the session. Thanks Gregory!

How do you say goodbye #2

Most of the children who come into my home are babies or at least under the age of 5. I have cared for older children, but somehow over the past few years it’s the little ones who keep coming through my front door.

Sometimes these little darlings go back to their birth families, some go to their new families when they are adopted and some stick around. As I write this I have one playing at my feet and one being burped on my lap while we wait for the third to come home from his family visit. I am perfecting the art of one handed typing.

Saying goodbye is such a personal process. In the weeks, days or hours before one of my kids moves on, I start my goodbye by writing them a letter. In this letter I try to tell them a bit about the time they have spent with me, some of their experiences and milestones. I like to tell them a little about their personality traits and my hopes for their future. Mostly I want them to know how loved and cherished they were.

If they were newborn when they came to me, then I like to tell them some of the details of when they were still in hospital and when they came home. Of course they will have either a lifebook or journal that goes with them, but these letters are something very personal from me to them. I hope I can help them to fill in a little but important piece of a big jigsaw.

For some children who are being adopted, they won’t get to read this letter until they are 18 years of age and able to request their file. I try to imagine how it might be for them to get this little window into their very early lives. I know that I am the only one who can tell them about this time in their lives, so I try to honour that precious role.

On their last morning with me I always take a photo of us together. The protocol for children being adopted is that the foster carer is not in any photos that go with the child. So this photo is for me and for them but they won’t get to see it until they can access their file.

I am usually able to hold onto my emotions right up until the point where they are heading off for the last time. If I can, I like to carry them out to the car, strap them into their seat, tell them I love them and give them a final kiss goodbye. After that, I’m a mess and the best thing that can happen is for the parents or workers to drive off into the sunset and leave me to shed some tears for that little piece of humanity who needed me for a little while.

If I can, I’ll take myself off to a sad movie and sit there in the dark shedding a quiet tear. It’s remarkably therapeutic. After all the build up and the final farewell it’s great to have a moment to myself with a wonderful distraction (I never get to see films these days!!).

Life goes on and I try to get on and do things I can’t normally do when I have a bubba in tow – there’s always plenty of jobs to do around my house & garden. It gives me the change and purpose I need and before I know it, the phone is ringing and someone else is on their way to me.

Adios mi Querido

Dear R

If you are reading this – you must now be at least 18 years old. Your first 7 months doesn’t sound like much time compared with all those years you have now lived – but at one time, it was your entire life – and this was the life you had while you lived with me. I was your foster carer from birth until you were adopted.

When I went to pick you up from the hospital, you were just 4 days old. I knew nothing about you except your name and that you were a boy. It was the Thursday before Easter. When I arrived at the hospital, your birth mum was still with you, giving you a feed and helping you to settle down for a sleep before she said goodbye.

You were a beautiful baby. I used to call you my ‘golden child’. I had a strong feeling that you would have a charmed life – that things would work out for you in a really good way. I hope that has been true so far – and that you have had a happy childhood, that you feel loved and that your birth mum gave your mum and dad a most precious gift.

We had a wonderful time together. While you were with me, you went through a lot of your early milestones: learning to smile and then laugh, learning to sit, learning to eat (something you loved to do!) and cutting your first teeth. But I guess the most important thing you learned was about love. You thrived on love and gave it right back to me (x millions!!).

I’ve included a few photos of us from that time. You had an older foster brother who was 2 years older than you and a younger foster brother who was two months younger that you . It was pretty busy with three kids. You all looked so different, people used to give me funny looks and sometimes would say things like ‘oohh how did you do that???’ I’d smile and tell them ‘magic!’

Saying goodbye to you was hard. Although I was happy for you and your parents, I was sad to think I may never see you again. I hoped that the transition from the only world you knew wouldn’t be too hard for you. I knew you would be OK, but I really missed you – and still do. I have a photo of you on my wall and so I often think of you, wondering how you are going and imagining what an amazing man you are becoming.

My door is always open to you and I would love to hear from you – anytime. I’ll be happy to share whatever memories I have from that time in your life and to answer any questions you might have. To meet you again and to see who you have become would be very, very special to me.

Take care and never forget that there are people in the world who love you very much and that you will always have a place in my heart – forever.

Lots of love,

How Do You Say Goodbye?

First post – something close to the heart.

One of the first things we learn to do as a child is to wave goodbye and throughout our lives we are constantly saying goodbye to the people we love. Most of the time we do this knowing that we will see them again soon, talk to them, send them an email, a birthday card and have all the normal connections and reminders of our love for each other.

Foster families have the very special task of learning to say goodbye to our kids, sending them off with love, with great hope for their futures and no expectations of ever getting to see them again.

We all cope with this difficult, often sad and sometimes disheartening process in different ways. Some of us need a break before taking on the next placement, others find that the new child or young person who comes into their lives helps them to move their focus onto new challenges.

Leading up to the day they leave our homes, our feelings go on hold while we put our energy into supporting the child through this big change in their lives. But suddenly they are gone and you are left with that empty space where a child used to be.

Through our experiences and training we build our personal repertoires and rituals.  We look for ways to acknowledge these kids and our connection to them.

I’ve got a few of my own and plan on telling you all about them as I get into the blogging world but would love to hear of anyone else out there and the things they do say goodbye.