My friend Addie Zierman asked her readers to share their stories of faith in the darkness to mark the release of her new book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. I highly recommend her book and have already shared about it, but I wanted to take up her challenge and write my own story.
This is not an easy story to share, as you’ll see. There’s more I could confess. There are other, different, arguably more important perspectives. But this is my perspective and the only one I can share. I ask your grace and mercy in sharing this, not for me alone, but for everyone who had a part in this season.
The darkest season in my life started with a nine hour stay at the emergency room. That night—well, early morning I guess—we came home without our daughter. We would see her again, but she never came back to our house.
This is the story of a disrupted adoption.
That’s safe, clinical language for an adoption that falls through. You welcome a child into your home, make her a part of your family and do everything you can to convince her that this is a permanent and lasting home.
And then you kick her out.
It’s the antithesis of everything adoption is supposed to be.
And it’s what my family went through in 2011.
I remember driving home from the hospital and passing a wrecked car abandoned in the street. There were no police. No flashing lights. No people standing around. Just a mangled car. Broken glass littered the street, catching our headlights and throwing pinpricks of glare into the early morning dark.
It looked like someone crashed into a parked car and then drove off.
That hit-and-run felt like too apt a metaphor for what had just happened to us. There was no one at the site of that accident—no one to blame, no one to accuse, no one to give answers or directions. Just a ruined car and a lot of questions.
Here’s what happened.
We already had two young children, Lexi and Milo, one biological and one adopted internationally, and we wanted to adopt an older child. It would likely be a local adoption through the state foster care system. We took the classes, filled out the paperwork and were thinking about the next steps when we got the call.
No child in need of adoption has what can be called a normal situation—trauma abounds, by definition. While this scenario was especially complex—not state foster care, but a disrupted international adoption—the uniqueness made it seem ideal for our family. Two months later we welcomed an 11-year-old girl into our family.
She wasn’t actually 11. More like 13.
And that was just the beginning of things that weren’t “normal.” Things started off well enough though. We had several honeymoon months before the real tensions began to surface.
It’s not like trauma was the only challenge. We were helping her with English and reading, we were working through the social issues that come with middle school, we were trying to fill in basic gaps in knowledge.
I remember sitting down at the kitchen table with her, hoping to give a quick overview of American history before school started. I began with the American Revolution, but then had to back up and explain who they were declaring independence from, and then back up further and explain the colonies and the “new world,” and then I just had to switch to basic geography.
“Are we done yet?” She didn’t like this quasi-school idea and had made me promise it would only take 20 minutes. I think we even set the timer.
It’s tempting to feel superior to this kid whose understanding of American history consisted of 9/11, but how familiar are you with the history of a country across the world?
“Yeah, we can be done,” I said in frustration, releasing her to go listen to Hannah Montana (that summer I scored points by finding a Miley Cyrus poster, but would have lost those points because I didn’t know Miley and Hannah were the same person).
And that was a good day, with normal frustrations. The calm before the storm.
But it didn’t last. Behaviors we weren’t prepared to deal with exploded out of nowhere. Well, it felt like they came suddenly and unexpectedly, but the trauma was always simmering out of sight. We had social workers, therapists, psychologists—it felt like we were doing what we needed to.
Then it went to a new level. Experienced parents tell you to pick your battles, and we were learning fast when to push and when to let things slide. Battle felt like an everyday occurrence. A war metaphor seems poorly chosen when you’re talking about your family, but every interaction felt like a powder keg about to go off. We were always on edge, anticipating the next outbreak, trying to find a safe path through a minefield, attempting to negotiate a kitchen table truce when bombs were raining down around us. Safety—for everyone in the house—became a serious concern.
While I usually work at home, I had an on-site job for a week or two during this time. Those days, nothing was easy. I dreaded hearing my cell phone ring. One day it did and I had to come home. Panic in my wife’s voice. That brittle edge of fear and anger and helplessness. All while I struggled to get home, fighting traffic, praying the coughing rumble of our borrowed car wouldn’t be its last. The whole time not knowing what I’d find when I got there.
And then one day it went too far.
The police showed up, again, and when they couldn’t de-escalate the situation she left in an ambulance.
I remember standing outside, hugging myself in the early March cold, frantically calling friends and social workers on my crappy cell phone. I didn’t know what to do.
When we went to the ER to find our daughter, I remember I brought a book with me, like I always did. I would turn pages and not remember a word I had just read. The TV mounted in the corner played the tragic Selena biopic, starring Jennifer Lopez as a Mexican-American singer who took the nation by storm, clashed with her domineering father and was gunned down at only 23 by her friend and employee. I didn’t want to watch it, but I couldn’t look away either.
We spent the night at the hospital trying to talk her down, trying to bring her home, somehow, some way.
But she never came home again.
I remember sitting at my kitchen table a few days later and talking with the county-assigned social worker, trying to recount the whole story. I don’t think she’d seen anything like it. They called a nationally recognized adoption expert to consult on the case.
A few weeks later we sat down at a shiny table in a Dakota County conference room. I remember a feeling of trepidation going into that meeting. Nobody wanted to say it, but we knew the situation was coming to a crossroads where we’d have to make a decision. There was a fork in the road. Might as well be a fork in the eye.
Our social worker and a supervisor laid out the situation. I scrawled furious notes, not wanting to miss anything and trying to process at the same time.
It came down to the fork in the eye. We had to make a decision. We could commit to keep going no matter what and things would get much, much worse. Or we could give up. Cut our loses. Disrupt the adoption. No matter how you say it, it sounds awful.
It is awful.
I remember walking to the car in a fog. We didn’t want to make a decision right away. We needed to think about it. There were other experts to consult, some family therapists we could work with. I have notes from that conversation outlining the scenarios and safety plans we’d need to develop. But I think sitting in our car after the meeting we knew the answer. We didn’t want to know, but we knew.
We had a final meeting to say goodbye a few months later. We sat across from one another, a box of her stuff on the table between us, as she bristled with anger. Who could blame her? Let’s just say there weren’t hugs.
A couple weeks later she was gone.
Anne Lamott says that the first great prayer is help. I remember in those days my prayers were short and urgent, pleading. That’s about all I could say: Help! Over and over again.
Those days taught me the importance of taking care of yourself. I dusted off a bike stand and set up my bike in the basement so I could get some exercise no matter the weather. I bought a video game system so I could play Call of Duty and shoot something (because that’s healthy). I took evenings by myself to “run away” and go somewhere without the constant cacophony of kids. My wife and I picked up a neglected habit of writing letters to each other.
We reached out to friends at church and cried out for help. There was an email list of several dozen people and someone coordinated everything. We’d ask for help—a babysitter, a playdate, a car to borrow, a meal—and people would show up. Someone came over to fix a toilet and take our car in for an oil change. Another friend picked up our dogs and took them to the groomer. I remember once our pastor came over to sit in the living room reading a book while our kids slept so my wife and I could go out. Not on a date to dinner and the movies, but just out, together.
We tried couples therapy. I remember sitting on a couch in a nicely decorated office in this dilapidated building while the therapist just let us talk. I think we needed someone to listen. There weren’t any answers and we didn’t go back.
We took our 5-year-old daughter to preemptive therapy. Lexi didn’t need it, but we figured she’d just had a big sister walk into her life and then walk right out. That could mess a kid up. My two-year-old son and I would wait outside during her sessions. Milo would climb into my lap and we’d read the worn copy of Good Night Gorilla sitting there in the lobby.
People would ask, “How are you?” with that look of concern and pity, when they knew damn well we weren’t fine. I’d shrug or mumble something. I would put up with platitudes and offer nervous laughter or a fake smile. I couldn’t maintain eye contact.
I remember sitting at a friend’s picnic table in his backyard, the weather finally nice enough to enjoy an early evening outside, sharing our stories of lost children. He offered me a beer, but I declined. I always tell my wife it’s a good thing I don’t like alcohol, because there are times when I can imagine drowning in it. I would be a great alcoholic.
My friend had been through something similar and I was looking for an answer, someone to tell me it was OK. But his story wasn’t similar. At all. We were dealing with an angsty teenager, worried about keeping everyone safe. He was telling me about a baby who stayed with them for a few weeks. Adoption may have been a far off, someday possibility, but it never materialized.
I remember sitting at that picnic table thinking, “Really? That’s it? That’s your relatable story that can offer me comfort and insight and help me feel like I’m not drowning in a swirling pool of darkness?”
I guess in retrospect that wasn’t exactly what he’d offered.
He offered to listen because there was no comfort or insight or answers.
We just had to keep living our lives and eventually the pain and hurt and loss would recede enough. Enough to what? Just enough.
I’ve kept a blog since 1998, before I even knew the word. I couldn’t write about much of this struggle on my blog, and I wondered if this trial would be the end of the blogging. If more than a decade of personal reflection and writing would be silenced.
About six months after this time I started reading voraciously—like a dozen books a month. I’m on my fifth straight year of doing that, but I wonder if it started in part because of those days of groping in the dark.
Acclaimed children’s author Pam Muñoz Ryan once said, “I read because it’s safe. I write because it’s dangerous.”
I found safety in reading. But writing in those days was hard; dangerous, painful, raw.
Somehow I did find a few words in the midst of those dark days. On Good Friday I penned this on my blog:
Good Friday is about waiting. Waiting for Sunday to come. Waiting for hope to break through. Waiting for light to shine. Always waiting. Humanity is plunged into the dark night of the soul, with nothing to do but wait. I grow so tired of the waiting. I want to plunge forward with reckless abandon, but it’s not in my power to do. I can only wait.
The post was interspersed with borrowed words from spirituals and hymns my church sang for Holy Week services during that dark Lent. One folk song, “Not a Mumblin’ Word,” was first recorded by prisoners and later by blues musician Lead Belly and in 2008 by The Welcome Wagon:
We nailed him on to a tree, but he never said a mumblin’ word. Not a word, not a word, not a word.
Sometimes there are no words to say. Good friends know this and are content to sit with you in the silence of sorrow.
Perhaps the greatest sorrow is that I can only tell my story: how I managed to cope, how support rallied to our side. I can’t tell you how our displaced daughter survived. We abdicated our right to know that story.
Sometimes there are no words. Or maybe you cling to borrowed words. Maybe there’s just prayer: Help, help, help.
I’ve learned that life has seasons. There are times when life is grand and everything is beautiful. There are other times when life is struggle, and we cling to anything that will get us through, whether it’s a patch of sunshine or a handful of chocolate.
There are seasons when you have to drive four hours to Fargo and back to bring home a kid who won’t come home. Spring will come, but I’m sorry to say it might come with a flood. That long, narrow strip of I-94 rose just high enough above the flooded fields, and the hospital was surrounded with sandbags. They were preparing to evacuate, to make for higher ground.
We were drowning and the water kept rising.
All I know is that spring we were standing on the shoulders of giants. Our family of friends surrounded us and bore us up above the flood waters.
That spring we went to a lot of parks. And the zoo. Lexi started soccer and ran in fields of yellow dandelions.
Over Memorial Day weekend we joined a group of friends who camped out every year. We hadn’t been camping in nearly a decade. The kids gathered around the fire, roasting marshmallows in cutoff footie pajamas and sandals.
In July my wife and I stood in the summer rain at a U2 concert, clinging to each other as lightning flashed in the distance: “I know it aches, How your heart it breaks / And you can only take so much / Walk on, walk on.”
That fall Lexi started half-day kindergarten in the afternoon. The bus picked her up in front of our house at 10:30 and she’d eat lunch at school. While waiting for the bus, the three of us would play an improvised version of the video game Mario Kart in the front yard. I’d cry out, “Banana at Milo!” then pick him up and spin him around until he fell to the grass in a dizzy daze. The bus would come and Lexi would mount the stairs and head off to school. Milo and I would go inside for lunch and a nap.
Seasons changed. We somehow walked on.
A couple years ago my wife and I had breakfast with our [former?] daughter. Against incredible odds she ended up with a third adoptive family in yet another state. We were driving home from a conference and her family kindly invited us for breakfast.
Nobody knew what to expect. They don’t write manuals for this sort of thing.
She was 16 now (her age had been corrected). She had agreed to breakfast on the promise of donuts, but she could always change her mind. Would she be willing to see us? Would she talk to us? As a teenager, would she even be awake before noon?
That breakfast meeting started off rough, tentative and unsure. We sat across from one another, a platter of fruit on the table between us, awkward smiles and forced laughter. But eventually a few real smiles broke through.
We learned what she’s up to now in halting stories, coaxed and prodded out of her. She asked about Lexi and Milo. We remembered the good memories, realized that there were memories good to remember. We watched the interactions between her and her new adoptive family, the underlying tension and rough edges, but also the belonging and deep, deep love. It wasn’t perfect or smooth or ideal, but they were making it work.
There was pain laid bare on that breakfast table. Sometimes it goes down easier with donuts and an egg bake.
It’s not a happy ending. But it’s something.
Maybe that’s enough.
I always loved coming to the communion rail at church when my children were babies. You had to juggle that tiny bundle and kneel down, leaving one hand free to take the bread and drink from the cup. Then my pastor would gently lay his hand on the baby’s head, and whisper that ancient blessing of Moses: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you” (Numbers 6:24-25).
Addie Zierman reminded me that when Moses approached God, the Bible described it as a “thick darkness” or a “dark cloud where God was” (Exodus 20:21). And later, when Moses came out of the cloud and down from the mountain, his face shone with the glory of God (Exodus 34:29). That’s where the blessing given to my babies comes from—out of the darkness.
We don’t like the darkness. My kids still sleep with their closet lights on, overkill night lights. But the darkness still comes. Every night the sun sets and every year the daylight fades. Sometimes all we can do is walk through, carrying our failures, knowing that the sun will rise tomorrow, hoping that spring will come.
That is my one true hope, that spring will come to our struggles, that life will break through the snow and grime, that love will somehow prevail despite the darkness of our disruptions, that there can be hope in spite of the sorrow of our flooded springs.
I’m sorry we couldn’t do more, be more, endure more. We did what we were able and now we walk on, praying for better angels to watch over this our lost daughter, to comfort her soul, to make his face to shine upon her. And us as well.