Christmas Journey: Meeting the Stranger

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We’re traveling far this Christmas, thousands of miles to meet a small stranger. I’m fairly certain he won’t be a stranger for long. From what I hear, he’s a born extrovert. As for us, we’re already smitten, sight unseen.

He’s 20 months old. By chance or providence, he has landed in the home of two exceptional souls who seem to have been waiting for him all their lives. He arrived on a September night, rescued from danger by police and delivered to this safe place by a social worker. He came with a plastic bag of ill-fitting clothes and a tattered blanket and a look of bewilderment. He was meant to stay for 24 hours. Three months later, he’s still there.

Too often, the stories we hear about foster care are sad ones. An overburdened system, inadequate resources, and the inevitability of human error leave children at risk. Sad stories make headlines. Hopeful ones, not so much.

This story is about hope and about courage, the everyday kind that doesn’t get much press. It’s about two people who decided they wanted to make a difference in a child’s life. They’d given to local charities and written checks to support needy youngsters in distant lands. Somehow, it wasn’t enough.

So they signed up for the training and the screening and the background checks and the home studies. They answered every question and filled in every form. They submitted their lives to the fine-toothed comb of bureaucratic scrutiny. One day last July, their foster-care license arrived in the mail. They framed it and hung it on the wall. And then they waited.

The call, when it came, required an immediate answer. This was an emergency placement, unlikely to be long term. But the need was pressing. It was late, the baby was exhausted and frightened. They said yes. 

They had been told by experts that this commitment is not for the faint of heart. They had been warned about the risks, the emotional roller coaster of caring for a child who may stay forever or be gone tomorrow. Still, they said yes.

They have been saying yes every day since then. Yes to sleepless nights. Yes to another incomprehensible state requirement that defies logic. Yes to the persistent joy of seeing a little boy thrive in their care. Yes to the constant anxiety about his future.

Here is what I pray every day, one of them told me. I pray that everything and everyone may work together for his good. I try not to ask for anything more.

I tell them that they are living in the hardest place of all, that limbo between hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. I tell them that each night they can be sure of one thing: that they have given him another day of grace.

I stand on the front porch and look up. The brilliant star that I see each December is back, pinned to the night sky like a sign from heaven. Tomorrow we begin our journey. We’re not shepherds or kings, but we’re drawn inexorably to a faraway place where a child has found shelter. In this story, there is room at the inn, a warm bed, bright new toys, a fridge full of toddler-friendly delicacies. There are soft lights and soft voices and in lieu of sheep and cows, a gentle and extraordinarily patient Norwegian elkhound.

I look at the star and think about the words of a favorite carol:

For those who would the stranger greet/Must lay their hearts before him.

I think about risk and about trust, and finally about the simplest definition of love: to will the good of another.

And to ask for nothing more.

Stephanie Piper

Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.

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