Last week we said goodbye to our baby. Well, technically she was never “our” baby, but for nearly five incredible months Nili (not her real name), a beautiful, delicate-featured newborn baby girl lived with us, until last week when she was officially adopted by her new family. For whatever reason, her biological mother was unable to raise her, and so until all the bureaucratic details for adoption were worked out, we took care of her, and loved her with all our hearts. We saw her very first smile, heard her first gurgles and laugh, clapped wildly for her the first time she rolled over, and then last week, with tears in our eyes, we kissed her as she left for her new life with her new family.
Actually, this is the second time we said goodbye to a foster child. The first baby was with us for almost a year and a half. He was just starting to walk and had a few words – nana (banana), up, ball. Watching as Nili drove away brought back memories of the same scene with him. It’s been almost two years since he left and there isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about him.
The Bible is full of stories about childless women who finally become pregnant and have children. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel spring to mind. In the book of Samuel, the familiar pattern is played out, where the barren woman, Hannah, has to endure a co-wife who has multiple children, and who, according to the Midrash, uses her superior fertile status to taunt poor Hannah. Finally, desperate, Hannah pours out her heart to God, and promises that if He grants her a child she will dedicate him to the service of God. God hears Hannah’s plea, she becomes pregnant, and soon after giving birth she keeps her promise. She delivers him to the Temple in Shilo where he is raised and eventually grows up to become the prophet Samuel, one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people.
How traumatic it must have been for Hannah to give up this child, the answer to all her prayers! Although the text never says it in so many words, a close reading hints at the difficulty Hannah had in parting with her baby. Right after she gives birth her husband pays a visit to the Temple, but she doesn’t join him, preferring to wait until the child is weaned. In the space of the next three verses, the notion of “until the child is weaned” is repeated four times, as if the phrase is ringing in her ears, looming over her. With each passing day that she nurses her baby, the inevitable separation draws closer.
And yet, when the time finally comes, Hanna does leave the child at the Temple. Perhaps she is able to do so because she understood something that we only fully comprehended through the experience of fostering. No child is ever your personal property, an object to possess and do with as you please. Each child, your own or one in your care, whether with you for a short time or a longer one, is a temporary gift from God, a cherished present not to be taken for granted. True love for a child sometimes means letting go, setting them free to follow their own path and fulfill their own destiny.
Because we were constantly aware that Nili’s stay with us would soon come to an end, we learned to truly open our hearts, to live and love – her and our own 7 children – being fully in the moment, pushing aside the typical dreams and plans for the future that usually occupy so much of a parent’s thoughts and only concentrating on the immediate present.
Our deep, profound, and unconditional love for two complete strangers, taught us something else too; that our responsibilities to care for children are not limited to “our own” children. Funny things started to happen when we became foster parents. On a plane once, a mother was trying to comfort her crying baby. We went over and asked if we could try, and took the baby for a bit. It was a natural gesture, because we – the generation of parents – are meant to aid and care for the children – all of them, anywhere. Our two foster children taught us that our responsibility goes beyond the parochial and the particular in a kind of expanding ripple effect.
When the opportunity to foster Nili came up, we asked our kids what they thought, having gone through this once before. The response was unanimous. Although saying goodbye to the first child was the hardest thing they had ever done, it was so worthwhile, they said, that they wanted to do it again. And that is what we focus on now, as the hole in our hearts is so raw and fresh. We tell the kids that they did wonderful things for Nili, gave her love and joy, a sense of humor and a feeling of belonging and lots of self-confidence, and that those things will stay with her and shape her personality for the rest of her life, wherever she goes and whatever path she chooses.
We wish little Nili a wonderful, rich life, full of happiness and good times, with her new family who will most certainly love her as much as we do. She probably will never even know that there are people far away that think about her every day and have her in their hearts and in their prayers always. Goodbye Nili.
(Written together with Judy Taubes Sterman)