I tend to be more fatalistic than Erin. I work at the things I can control to some degree and not worry about the things that are beyond my control. Erin worries about everything. When we were going through fertility treatments Erin took each negative pregnancy test as a sign of personal failure, that she was personally responsible for our inability to have a baby. She even thought God was punishing her. I never saw it that way. We took all the steps we could to have a baby, but at the end of the day it simply didn’t happen. It took me a long time to see the situation from her point of view. I’m not sure any husband can fully understand that instinctual desire to carry a child in one’s body many women have. All I could do was support Erin by loving her and listening to her as she worked her way through the mourning process.
Phillip and Carl came to live with us in April 2013. We had our bumps and bruises, but we were in a solid routine by time summer rolled around. Both boys played soccer that year and we planned a week at Walt Disney World in Florida the week before Erin and I would return to work to prepare for the new school year. I was starting a new job at Cleveland High School after two years of pure hell at a middle school in our home county. I was ready to begin life anew and find my love of teaching again.
My first day teaching at Cleveland High was August 26. Talk about a change! Not only was I teaching high school classes again after ten years of teaching middle school, but I was in a new building with new administrators and new colleagues. It was wonderful. Even though I was at Cleveland only a short period of time (I earned my Masters of Library Science eighteen months later and took a 12 month position in a neighboring county) it was a joy to work in a positive and supportive environment. The end of the first day was met with exhaustion but also with excitement for what the new year would hold. Once students left the building at 2:30 the faculty met in the media center to discuss the events of the day to work out any kinks in the schedule and to address any concerns the teachers had about the events of the day. Just before my principal started the meeting my phone started buzzing. It was our case worker from the foster agency. We weren’t due for a visit, so her call was little concerning. I told my principal I had to take the call, so I stepped into the media center office for privacy.
“Hey, Josh. I just got off the phone with Cumberland County. They have an infant who is in the NICU (neo-natal intensive care unit) in Fayetteville and is going to be released soon. Are you and Erin interested?”
My heart jumped to my throat and I fought back my emotions. I knew better than to let my heart rule my head in situations like this.
“What can you tell me about the baby? I will need to talk to Erin and she’ll ask me a million questions.”
“She was born on August 12 and weighed 3 1/2 pounds. She is up to five pounds now. She was born with addiction, but I don’t know to what. She’s been on morphine to wean her off the drugs, but I have no idea what she’s like right now. That’s really all I know. I can’t tell you if it’s short term, long term, or a possible adoption. The baby’s name is Autumn and she’ll be ready to go home in the next week or so. Are you interested?”
“I have to call Erin. Can I call you right back? Don’t walk away from your phone. I’m calling right now.”
I immediately called Erin but she didn’t pick up. I called over and over again, but I couldn’t get hold of her. I called Erin’s best friend, Becky, to see if she had heard from Erin and might know where she was. I told her we might have a chance at an infant. Becky immediately dropped what she was doing and drove to Erin’s school to find her. Within five minutes Erin called me back. I barely got out a single sentence before Erin was nearly screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” It made no difference to Erin what the baby’s condition was. She was ready to love a baby no matter what it took.
I called our worker back and told her we were ready and willing. She said to sit tight and she would give our information to the social workers who would make the final decision.
That night we hardly slept. When you want something so desperately in your heart it’s hard not be overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. I tried to temper my own expectations while helping Erin do the same. I wasn’t very successful. The only good thing we did that night was refrain from going to Target and clearing out the baby section.
The next day during my lunch break our case worker called. We weren’t selected. The social workers chose another family who lived closer to the Fayetteville area, making parental visits easier. I was disappointed but resigned. It was Erin I was worried about. I called her at work and told her the bad news. She cried a bit but she also accepted that it just wasn’t meant be. We had our boys and we had faith that eventually we would have the chance to foster a baby. That night we took the boys to Krispy Kreme and enjoyed an evening with them.
On Wednesday during my planning block at the end of the day, our case worker called me again. When I saw her name on the caller ID I assumed she was calling to check in to see how we were doing. That wasn’t what happened.
“Are you still interested in the baby?”
“Well, of course! What happened?”
“The couple who was selected weren’t told that the baby was born with addiction. When they found out they decided they weren’t willing to care for a baby with special needs. The social workers saw that you two were both educators and might be the best fit to care for a baby who will probably have lots of problems. Are you OK with that? Do you want to call Erin?”
“No. We talked about it for a long, long time and we both are willing to care for the baby regardless of her needs. Did you find out anything else?”
“Yes, a good bit, actually. The baby’s mother has had several other children who were born under the same circumstance. She is well known to the nurses at the NICU. Her other children are being raised by their biological fathers. The baby’s mother doesn’t work and has a history of substance abuse. I still don’t know what drugs were in the baby’s system, but I would be prepared for the worst.”
“Where is the baby’s father?”
“He’s in prison for assault and kidnapping. He attacked the baby’s mother and kept her and her mother against their will. He is scheduled for release after the new year. There’s more, though. Both families suggested people who could care for the baby, but the social workers rejected their choices for different reasons. However, it’s possible for the judge to overrule the social workers and place the baby according to the wishes of the parent. I’m telling you this because Beth, the baby’s mother (name has been changed to protect privacy), has asked that a married couple who is a friend of hers take Autumn. The answer right now is “No,” but that could change. Autumn will probably have visits with her mother at some point and the plan will be reunification. Make sure you understand that before you commit. Are you still interested?”
I told her we were. She said that we were to report to the hospital in Fayetteville that Friday to meet with the nurses and to receive instructions on Autumn’s care. As soon as I hung up I called Erin. She was silent. I could hear her crying in the background. Thank goodness for her kindergarten team who held her and comforted her in my absence. She could finally release all that emotion to find her sense of relief.
My mom and dad came to stay with us the next day so we could go shopping to outfit our apartment for a new baby. We already had a crib just in case we ever had to foster a baby in an emergency situation, but we didn’t have the other bits and bobs that new babies needed. We bought everything we could think of that a new baby would require. It was a daunting task. I swore I would never complain about baby showers again.
Friday came and we only worked a half day. We had to be in Fayetteville at 2:00 to meet the baby for the first time. We also had to order a special car seat for preemies because a regular car seat wouldn’t work. I still remember buckling it in to the second row of seats in the van for the first time. The thought of it still chokes me up.
The security at the hospital was like nothing I had ever seen before. We had to check in at security, show our IDs to the guard who then checked to be sure we were allowed to go up to the NICU, and then receive a special badge that allowed us in. Even after we reached the correct floor there were still many security doors along the way. It felt weird to go through so many steps just to see the baby.
I will never forget seeing her for the first time. She was wearing a boy’s outfit that was much too big for her. It had Winnie the Pooh on it and it was clearly old and careworn. All she had were items that were donated and none of it was for a girl. Her body was so tiny. She had an IV in her arm and pads on her chest. She was awake and looking around but she wasn’t crying. Her eyes were blue just like mine. I didn’t want to touch her because I believed firmly that the mother needed to be the first person to bond with the baby. The nurse asked Erin if she was ready to hold her. I could see Erin’s eyes tearing up. She sat in the rocker by the little plastic bed while the nurse put Autumn in her arms. All Erin could say was, “Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!” My heart melted. I rubbed Erin’s shoulders and kissed the top of her head. I took my hand and caressed the top of Autumn’s head down to her shoulders and her arm. When my had reached her tiny hand she gripped hold of my thumb and wouldn’t let go. It felt like she was desperate for someone to hold her, protect her, and care for her. In that moment I knew I belonged to her and she belonged to me. My life would never be the same.
The nurse told us Autumn may be able to go home that night or the next day. They needed the car seat to test that Autumn’s neck was strong enough to stay up and not cause suffocation in the seat on the way home. Even though I told them Erin would not leave Autumn’s side the whole way home the nurse said it was policy and the doctor would not release Autumn until they knew she could sit up in a car seat for an hour by herself. I left for the parking garage to retrieve the car seat.
When I returned I was able to bypass much of security because I already had my badge and the guards remembered me. But when I reached the NICU floor a nurse stopped me and asked if I were Mr. Jenkins. I said I was. She grabbed my arm and nearly threw me into a side room. Before I could ask what was going on Erin was in the same room sitting on a sofa. While I was away Autumn’s biological mother Beth showed up and confronted Erin while she was holding the baby. Erin tried to diffuse the situation and handed Autumn to Beth. Well, not only was Beth not supposed to be there but she also refused to give up the baby when the nurses came over. The entire NICU was placed on lock down. We heard the announcement over the intercom, “NICU Code White. Code White in the NICU.” Suddenly security came out of the woodwork. We could hear Beth screaming outside the room. The hospital social worker was outside our door telling Beth, “I told you not to come back up here. You knew this would happen if you didn’t stop messing with that stuff. Now don’t ruin any chance you have to get your baby back.” Within a minute Beth was outside the NICU and were allowed out of the room. The whole situation was surreal. Neither of us had ever been involved in anything close to that.
The following day we were allowed to take her home. The doctor explained to us that for the first two weeks of her time with us someone had to have their hands on her at all times. Her body couldn’t control its internal temperature yet, so if her skin felt too much to the extreme one way or another we were to taker her immediately to the closest emergency room. As we prepared to leave we were escorted by the sheriff’s office out of the hospital and onto the interstate in the event Beth or a member of her family chose to follow us. As we put Autumn in the car seat, it was clear that it was still too big for her. We had to brace her in place with multiple blue and pink striped hospital receiving blankets. After we buckled her in, we were able to drive home without incident.
Erin took six weeks of maternity leave. I continued to work a regular schedule. My mom, or as my kids call her, Nana, stayed with us for the first two weeks. Nana stayed up all night holding Autumn. Erin took over in the early morning when I woke up to go to work. When I came back in the afternoon I took the evening shift, often holding Autumn across my chest while I completed my graduate school work on the computer. Phillip and Carl loved her, but Carl doted on her. He lay in the floor beside her and rubbed her head, kissing her and talking to her. To this day they have a close bond.
To our surprise Autumn’s care was not outside the normal care parents would give an infant born under normal circumstances. She cried intensely, but she was soothed relatively quickly. She didn’t like to cuddle, though. She preferred to be in her swing or on the floor with Carl. She loved attention and she needed someone to interact with her on a near constant basis which we were glad to do. Erin and I felt fulfilled.
Autumn’s supervised visits with Beth started in October. At first Beth came to visits dressed well and very coherent. Erin interacted with her a little and the visits seemed to go well. Yet in the entire time Beth was seeing Autumn she never brought her anything. We provided all of Autumn’s food, clothes, toys, etc. The social worker gave Beth a few items to give Autumn for Christmas, but no one from Autumn’s family on either side came to see her or gave her anything.
Autumn’s biological father James (again, name has been changed to protect privacy) was set to be released in mid-January. His visits started in late February. We never met him, but he did send Autumn a couple of outfits from Walmart and he gave her a stuffed bunny for Easter. Meanwhile, Beth’s visits were suspended due to a drug test failure. Three weeks later, James’ visits were suspended because he cancelled frequently and wasn’t following through on his court-ordered plan. We breathed a sigh of release thinking that this could be a good sign that we would get to keep Autumn.
In mid-May the case came up for court review. The judge surprisingly gave Beth weekend visits with Autumn that were supervised by Beth’s mother. We were terrified. Autumn had never left our home overnight and we worried for her safety. I asked if a social worker were going to check on Autumn over the weekend but the answer was no. The social worker in charge of Autumn’s case had to follow through with the judge’s orders and we had no choice but to comply. Her weekly visits started the first Saturday in June. Autumn was picked up at the daycare just after lunch and taken by the social worker to DSS where Beth and her Mother would pick Autumn up. I met them on Sunday at 2:00 at the Cracker Barrel in Dunn, NC to take Autumn back home. I shared my concerns with our boys’ guardians ad liem. They knew the judge by reputation and told us to be patient. In his rulings the judge tended to give people just enough rope to hang themselves.
I have to be fair: Autumn was well-cared for by her maternal grandmother. It was clear that she was doing all the work rather than Beth. The only issue I had was that Autumn came back smelling like cigarettes and we had to bathe her and wash all of her things each Sunday afternoon to get the smell out. Other than that, I couldn’t complain about the care her grandmother gave her.
In late July I thought Beth looked disheveled. To me she looked as though she might be using drugs again. I was told she wasn’t because she was being tested each week. I put my concerns away. In early August, Beth started walking with what I’ve always called, “the duck walk of pregnancy.” It’s hard to describe, but it’s when a woman walks with her belly slightly extended and her feet pointing outward when she walks. I reported to the social worker that I thought Beth might be pregnant again. Beth denied it and, once again, I was forced to put my concerns aside. The last week of August Autumn’s visit was cancelled at the last minute because the biological father of one of Beth’s other children reported to DSS that James was violating the court’s order to stay way from Beth and her mother by visiting with Autumn on the weekends while she was there. DSS investigated but Beth, James, and Beth’s mother denied the allegations. Because the investigation resulted in one person’s word against three others the case was dismissed and visits were allowed to continue once again. In late September we planned to take a quick weekend trip to Walt Disney World to attend Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. Jonathan, who came to live with us the previous April, had never been to Disney World before and we were anxious to take him. We weren’t sure if we’d be allowed to take Autumn. A court hearing was scheduled for November 20 to decide if Autumn could return full time to Beth and since Beth’s rights were still intact, we had to have her permission to take Autumn out of state. In the end the social worker decided to allow Beth to care for Autumn an extra day that weekend. Autumn would have her visit like normal but instead of picking her up on Sunday afternoon we would pick her up Monday evening as we drove back up from Florida. Because Beth’s mom had to work Monday this would be the first time Beth had to care for Autumn the entire day by herself.
At that point we were convinced Autumn would leave us in November. Even the social worker indicated her belief that the case appeared to head in that direction. I consoled Erin as best I could and we used the trip to Disney to distract us as much as possible. We had a blast on that trip. Seeing Disney through our kids’ eyes was a complete joy. But by the time Monday rolled around we were ready to see our baby.
Because we had to drive through Fayetteville on our way back home I arranged for Beth and her mom to bring Autumn to the parking lot of a McDonald’s on Ramsay Street. When Beth stepped out of the car with Autumn she looked like hell frozen over. She was twice as disheveled as before and she looked like she was about to fall out in the middle of the parking lot. She didn’t say a word. She handed Autumn to me and got back in her mother’s car without saying a word. I passed Autumn to Erin and then listened to the grandmother tell me what Autumn had to eat and all the little details about her care for the weekend. I remember telling Erin after we drove away that something didn’t feel right. We gave Autumn her gifts while we coasted down the interstate, but in the pit of my stomach I knew something was wrong.
To be continued in Part II….