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The Things We Want Most

© 2000, by Lisa M. Roberts

Sometimes my work tires me. Not the professional work -- rarely the professional -- but the parenting, often the parenting. It's not the physical work that tires me (the cleaning, the taxi-driving, the cooking), but the perpetual, daily work of building character in each and every child under our care. "Focus on one thing at a time." "Keep track of your stuff." "Sit straight with your feet in front of you." "Use your words, not your hands." Over and over and over again. It's exhaustive.
 
Then someone somewhere reaches out to me, or turns my head in a new direction, and I realize I can do this. We are blessed. The kids are alright, and there's a much bigger picture than the one of my small home. This time three separate paths led to the same place in my heart -- the first took the form of a book, the second a movie, and the third a visit -- and all in the span of one month.
 
The book, The Things I Want Most: The Extraordinary Story of a Boy's Journey to a Family of His Own, by Richard F. Miniter is the portrait of two Entrepreneurial Parents who, after raising six children, decided to give their parenting skills one last and fierce test by opening their hearts, their family and their home to a young boy named "Mike." Mike, living in the limbo land of foster care, was profoundly emotionally disturbed from a tortured and unspoken past. Yet he was able to express a simple wish in a language that the heart of every parent can understand. At the height of self-awareness he had once scribbled on a piece of paper:
 
The Things I Want Most:
 
A family
A fishing pole
A family
 
And because of this articulation, he found one. Chronicling the relentless year Mike's wish came true, his father writes about parenthood in a language most all of us can understand. For instance, early in the book he offers us an indelible image of fatherhood when he sees the silhoutte of his youngest biological son, Liam:
 
"The sun had been setting west over Shawangunk, and just a few shafts of light remained. One of them reached arrow straight from the top of the mountain ten miles away and lit up a spot in the meadow about three hundred yards away. I said to Liam quickly, 'Can you run out and catch that before it goes?' The boy ran down the hill in the darkness, through the swampy brush, along the deer run, and far out into the field. In the instant that the light disappeared I saw him there, a far-off tiny figure jumping around with his arms raised, twinkling golden in the rushing darkness. The stars were out when he came back. 'Liam,' I said, 'to me you'll always be the last light in the meadow.'"
 
When Mike moves in and starts sharing a room with Liam we begin to understand the enormity of this family's mission, but are replenished by the humor of the author. Liam reports to his father:
 
"Dad, this kid is nuts. He was upstairs arranging his pillows on his bed. First he put one pillow on top of the other, and then he switched them. They he switched them again and then again. He kept doing that for about ten minutes before he made moaning sounds and started to pull his hair." (The Dad shrugs, and then says...) "Everybody gets a little tense at pillow-arrangement time."
 
But it's when Mike wreaks havoc in reaction to the commonplace routines of childhood the rest of us take for granted that I, as a reader, felt the greatest impact. His parents' search for simple truths helped me re-evaluate my own parenting style and perspective:
 
"Sue, remember all those 'activity resources' the children's home was so proud of? They had a pool for the children, crafts, art class, puzzles, games, TV time, baseball, basketball, a little natural history museum, a library; they took them fishing, tubing, hiking, had a computer room with games...Well I remember being terribly impressed, even overawed. But when you think about it, you have to concede that few families on earth can come close to that ideal. In a real family there's one or two or three things, and a kid spends most of his time on one of them...At some point in (Mike's) life, pride and self-confidence have to come to him, and they must come from his own lonely effort in some activity."
 
How did this remarkable book find its way into my POB? A few months ago I went in search of a slippery statistic: how many entrepreneurial parents there are in the U.S. I found an article published by Reader's Digest (April, 1999) entitled "Entrepreneurial Parents Profit from More Time with the Kids; Family Values Driving New Work-at-Home Boom" and decided to contact the author, Rich Minitir (!), to see if he turned this number up in his research.

Although we spoke at length about
entrepreneurial parents, we of course did not go into our life stories. But when I found his father's in The Entrepreneurial Parent mail, I felt a strong bond. Even my 12-year old daughter felt a connection -- she read the book before me and said, "I know I don't really know Mike, but in a strange way I feel now that I do..."
 
Then not too long ago I took my daughter to see "The Cider House Rules," a film adaptation of John Irving's novel of the same title. Up for Best Picture of the Year, it's a heartwarming tale of an orphanage in Maine, St. Cloud, that existed long before the present-day foster care system came to be. While primarily the coming-of-age story of the eldest orphan, Homer Wells, the more impressing character depictions (for me) were the many younger children who were growing up at St. Cloud. They grow, learn and dream under the affectionate care of the resident doctor, Wilbur Larch, who acts as their surrogate foster parent. As the children wait, yearning and hungering to be adopted by a "real" family, Homer learns something the others don't understand yet. These children already have a family -- each other.
 
The last piece of this puzzle came last week, when I had the opportunity to see first-hand what a surrogate family staffed by paid professionals might be like. My sister, Dr. Joann Galley, is a resident psychologist at the New York Foundling Hospital in New York City, an establishment that cares for very sick and/or severely disabled children. Some of the children are there for only rehabilitative purposes, but many more stay for years, sometimes even for the duration of their entire but short lifetime. Joann has worked in the hospital for four years, and throughout has shared many heartwarming stories about "her 163 children" with me. But it was only last Friday that I found the courage to visit her and "her children," and only at the request of a friend of mine who had an interest in volunteering at that particular hospital. I guess I was afraid I'd be so moved to tears at the sight of these poor children, that they'd see the pity in my eyes and feel even more vulnerable than they were. I just didn't know what to expect.
 
What I found moved me not to tears but to joy. Joann took us on a tour of four floors, showing us the recreational room, the library, the classrooms, and all the other wonderful physical resources available to these children -- much like Minitir talks about in the above clip. But to me more remarkable than all that was how well-staffed the hospital was, how strong the bonds between the children and the staff seemed to be, and how important communication was among all.
 
These caregivers were not harried and worn, as I imagined, but energetic and cheerful. I noticed this in the little things -- the smile on the face of a nurse that was carried down the entire length of the hall and was given to her by a teen-age patient. Three girls playing in the gym -- one with a severe heart condition, another paralyzed from the waist down, and another who breathed through the tube in her throat -- who spoke to each other with the ease, familiarity and affection of sisters. The boy lying still in a stretcher who asked me a question as I passed that I couldn't understand. He tried and tried to articulate and finally I made out the words. He was calling for his favorite nurse, not from pain but just to talk, and when I repeated her name, "Mary Lou," his entire body resonated with happiness.
 
I left my sister, and the movie house, and closed the pages of The Things I Want Most with many questions. How can I communicate to my children how much I love them, how blessed they are, how much I hope they can reach out and touch others as they grow in ways I know I cannot? How many foster care parents like the Minintirs could there really be, when it takes true angels on earth to endure what they did? Is the present-day foster care system a failed ideology in practice, with more children in need of a home than there are extraordinarily resolute foster parents available to take them in?

Wouldn't children whose parents are no longer physically or emotionally "there" for them, and who are labeled "difficult" and therefore not strong candidates for adoption, be better off in a less-taxing system than the drastically overworked foster care one? Wouldn't they at least be able to build family bonds with each other if they lived in the stable home environment of an orphanage?
 
In the end, I believe what Mike wants is what we all want -- people who love us, things we like to do, people who love us. The children at the New York Foundling Hospital had people who loved them...my sister being one. They had personal goals that were not unlike those of a more able-bodied child, and they strove to achieve them with a combination of self-determination and the patient help of others who truly cared about them. Most poignantly, the boy who wouldn't give up on communicating with me spoke for us all when he finally did. I will never forget his face, and the feeling expressed in it, the feeling of being "heard" and understood. I have seen that expression before -- in the faces of my children, my husband, my sister -- and have felt such exhilaration myself. Ah, yes, you heard me, you know me, you love who I am. Finally. Like Mike, it's what we want most.
 

To learn more about Mike and his EP parents, go to The Things I Want Most: The Extraordinary Story of a Boy's Journey to a Family of His Own,
 
To read Rich Minitir's Reader's Digest article about EPs, go to:
www.businesswire.com and search for "Entrepreneurial Parents Profit"
 
If you'd like to share how YOU have been inspired to continue your parenting work, please write to us. Let's share!
 

Lisa Roberts is the mother of four, owner of The Entrepreneurial Parent, LLC and the author of How to Raise A Family & A Career Under One Roof: A Parent's Guide to Home Business (Bookhaven Press, 1997). Copies of her book are available for purchase at EP and through Amazon.

 
 
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