My niece, Sara, came to live with our family last summer. Rebellious, anxious, depressed and broken, Sara's arrival scared me to death, even though her initial stay was only to last four weeks. Words like "ODD" (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), ADHD, depression, suicide, self-harm, chronic liar, thief and even sociopath had been used in connection with this 17-year-old who had thus far burned almost every relationship bridge.
I had already been "standing in" for Sara at her school and in her medical appointments for a few months after Sara had worn out her welcome at both her mom and dad's houses with turmoil, emotion and drama. When school let out, I didn't want Sara alone all day every day in her sister's apartment in Milwaukee, so we asked her to come stay with us in the Chicago area for a few weeks while she did some credit recovery in the local high school's summer school program.
In the end, we couldn't let her go back to Milwaukee. My husband Adam and I felt a firm conviction that she needed the care, structure and guidance we could provide her. I also thought my own 14-year-old "only child" could benefit from a pseudo-sister and the unique lessons that come from sharing with siblings. We traded our daughter's queen-size bed out for bunk beds, and Sara moved in permanently.
It has been an amazing journey -- not an easy one, but always insightful and meaningful. People say kind things to us about changing Sara's life, but in truth, she has changed me in more ways than I can begin to describe. The experience has made me a better listener, a better advocate, a better mom, a better person. Because Sara is not my child and because of her past and special needs, I realized early on I couldn't just tell her what to do, or "command her". Instead, we analyze things together, weigh the pros and cons and I help her look at her options when she is making a decision. When facts are laid out calmly before her, she rarely makes the wrong choice. And to her credit, ODD diagnosis notwithstanding, Sara has been nothing but respectful, obedient and committed to our family.
My sweet, smart, funny daughter, Aislynn, does not yet realize the debt of gratitude she owes to Sara. But I can see how much more patient and thoughtful I am with Aislynn now, in large part because of the way I have had to change my approach in addressing Sara's needs. I am playing the long game. I am mothering with intention.
A year ago, when Sara was a junior, I asked her about her plans after high school. "I don't think that far ahead, Aunt Jenn, because I don't think I'll be alive."
On Sunday Sara graduates. Last week, she shared with me her final English essay, where she laid out her post-high school plans which included strategies for living not only her life -- but a life worth living. A good life. As I read the essay, I fought to hold back tears, so moved was I by the transformation.
Many years ago, I was the starfish washed up on the shore, drying out and dying. It was my beloved grandmother who plucked me up from the sand and tossed me back into the ocean, hydrating me and saving my life. I saw Sara as that little starfish, and one of the reasons I brought her into our home was because it was my chance to be the star thrower, to be the rescuer, to be the one who at long last does the saving - to pay it forward.
But as I think about Sara's effect on me and my effect on her, I've had a revelation. We are not either one or the other, but rather possess both starfish and star thrower within ourselves. For as sure as I have picked Sara up to toss her back into the life-giving waters, she has also found me on the shore and tossed me to a better, more meaningful place.
Thanks for stopping by the blog, and here's to all the ways each of you makes a difference.