I love Bruce so much it hurts. When I think of him I smile. When I see him in pain I can't bear it. When I talk to him I am immediately in a good mood. When he hurts, I want to hide him away and protect him. No, Bruce isn't my husband or son; he's my eight-year-old foster brother.
Over the last 18 years my parents have taken in about 70 foster children (See: The Kids Are All Right). Some were easy and some of the babies completely took over the house. Until they settled in there was no telling what an evening would be like -- a quick run to the hospital, ventilation machines, oxygen, crying, crying and more crying. The first drug addicted baby that lived in our home cried 24 hours a day. We took turns leaving the house to go for walks just to get away from the noise.
I don't know how I got through that year of high school. Slowly, over the years, we adjusted. We all learned that if we wanted our parents' attention, we had to stand in front of them and say "I need you now!" Otherwise there were so many, more pressing needs to attend to.
We had seen a lot of sick children, but Bruce was the most frightening.
Bruce came into our home when he was four months old, our first shaken baby (an infant who has been so vigorously shaken that brain damage and extensive physical injury has resulted). We had seen a lot of sick children, but Bruce was the most frightening. I still remember coming home from school excited to see our latest addition, even though my mom warned that he was straight out of major brain surgery. He was in his infant seat on the floor of the kitchen and it actually hurt to look at him. His muscles were all clenched and his post-surgery stitches indescribable. My only thought was "How can I avoid ever holding him?" Bruce was expected to be extremely low functioning. It was unlikely that he would ever walk or talk. The medical teams that worked on him were not hopeful. For months after he arrived my mother would sit and uncurl each of his fingers and move his feet so his muscles would get used to moving and he would loosen up. His head was too big for his body due to water on the brain. But Bruce has done more than beat the odds; he walks in between running and talks in between laughing. He's an eight-year-old miracle. He just entered second grade in an integrated school with a shadow, someone who plays with him when the class is doing work that is above his level.
He is not at his age level in maturity and he has enormous physical challenges, but Bruce has made tremendous progress. There are times I think my parents must be angels -- when he is sick or in too much of a state to listen to reason, or when he and Jason, my five-year-old brother and Bruce's sidekick think its snack time at 2am and come bouncing into my parents room, turn on the light and proclaim, "We're hungry!" I laugh now, but don't try pulling that one on me.
It's hard to figure what Bruce understands and what he doesn't. There were two high school girls who came to play with Bruce once a week to give my parents some respite. Their first afternoon with him, before they went to play Bruce brought them into the kitchen and said, "Mom, can you make my friends a pot of coffee?" (The first thing done when anyone comes into our house.) She replied that she didn't think they drank coffee. He suggested tea, and a number of other things until they decided on juice and baby carrots. He insisted that they have something to eat and drink before they started playing. It seems he has understood the idea of hospitality.
Above all, Bruce has a striking sweetness and purity. He is so sensitive to people's feelings that even when he was much younger and was crying about something, he would stop if he heard someone say ouch to ask, "You okay?"
All the children who have lived in my parent's home over the last 18 years have taught me more than I ever learned in school, or anywhere else.
People ask me all the time if it's hard to see so many sick children and so much pain. They ask me how God could make these things happen. I am unqualified to answer that question but I can say that Bruce, and the other shaken babies, Downs syndrome, drug and alcohol addicted and abused babies who have lived in my parent's home over the last 18 years have taught me more than I ever learned in school, or anywhere else.
They've taught me how far you can actually go until the words "I can't take it anymore" truly apply, and that even then you can take it. I've learned that sick and pained children teach the people around them about giving, love and inner strength. That the will to live and contribute, to help people and to do anything it takes to give someone a good life is imbedded in most of us, but we never learn the strength we have inside until it's tested.
All of the kids in Bruce's class and most of them in his school have been exposed to him and his world that is very different from theirs. Maybe if they see another child that is not exactly like them they won't ridicule him. Maybe they will even be kinder. Maybe they will go home that day with an extra bounce because they got a smile from Bruce and he warmed their heart -- the way he always warms mine.