‘Tis the Season to Reminisce with Our Picture Albums

I noticed as I looked through our family albums this week that many who have left us still live in the albums, frozen in time, and in the hearts of those who love them.

Sandy (right) making mochi with her family last Christmas Day, 2009
Sandy (right) making mochi with her family last Christmas Day, 2009

Friendship is one of the most precious of life’s gifts. Those friends we have kept up with for over forty years are irreplaceable. A group of friends is rudely reminded of that this month, as it lost the first member of this group to cancer on  November 30. She fought a long and hard battle, but the cancer finally won.You can read more about Sandy and her family tradition of gathering to make mochi on Christmas here.

Her family and friends and others she has inspired over the years are gathering to remember her the day after Christmas, and since they are getting together — a rare occurrence since we are scattered now over several counties and even   states — we are also planning a surprise for someone else who means a lot to all of us.

Our children, Sarah and Jason, Christmas, 1987
Both our children are gone now, leaving at ages 14 and 34.

This  surprise has us all thumbing through our old photo albums, as well as our more recent ones, and,  in the process, I’m sure I’m not the only one strolling down memory lane. And I’m sure I’m not the only one realizing that half my albums are peopled by multitudes of pictures of those who now live on a different plane. So it’s a bittersweet trip. Jason loved life and Christmas and left us while riding a jet ski in 1991. Sarah enjoyed Christmas more than life, which she chose to leave in 2009.

My mom with Jason and his cousin Bobby in 1990, Jason's last Christmas
My mom with Jason and his cousin Bobby in 1990, Jason's last Christmas

This picture, too, has only one living person left, my nephew — the one with dark hair. Mom and Jason are both gone. We lost mom to cancer in 2005. I was privileged to be able to help care for her in her last months, and I’m glad she lived close to me so I could see her almost daily during her last years.

Rich entered our lives in 1993 when we moved to our current home in

Celebrating a mini Christmas with Rich and Bobby the week the weekend after in 1994
Mini Christmas celebration with Rich and Bobby in 1994

Templeton, California. My nephew, Bobby, also spent a year with us in 1994, and we had a mini Christmas  celebration with Rich, who was like part of our extended family by then, that year. He is another dear friend whom we continue to miss at Christmas and every Friday night, as that’s the night we used to meet for dinner and Bible study together. This was taken during our small Christmas celebration the week after Christmas, since Bobby and I and my husband went south to Mom’s over the actual holiday. Rich left us in 2003. Rich used to say he didn’t take pictures because the picture in his head that is always with him, is better than any he could take with a camera.

With that in mind, what about those in our pictures still living on earth? Some may be casual acquaintances, but many will be the people we care most about. Do they know how much you care? Might not this holiday season be a good time to tell them? After all, you never know if it will be your last opportunity to reveal what’s in your heart. Whether you are 14 or 94, or whether they are, not everyone makes it to 70 — or even 17.

Pictures keep us frozen in time, as we are frozen in place in the hearts who love us. Just as my parents and I were frozen in place on this, my sixth Christmas, so

Mom and Dad have gone on, except in my heart.
Mom and Dad have gone on now, but this Christmas with them remains in my heart.

I still carry them in my heart 61 years later. The real album is my heart. It is there the pictures come alive bringing back laughter in times past, and, sometimes tears as I miss them, especially those who seemed, like Sandy, Jason, Sarah, and Rich, to go much earlier than they should.

What do you say after you bury a daughter?

It’s been a long three weeks since we learned that our estranged, adopted daughter, whom we haven’t seen nor heard from in fourteen years, took her life…. Many people simply can’t deal with the spiritual issues surrounding a suicide. It is our contention that no one but God truly knows the heart of a person or what drove them to such drastic action.

Sarah, the child we knew.
Sarah, the child we knew.

It’s been a long three weeks since we learned that our estranged, adopted daughter, whom we haven’t seen nor heard from in fourteen years, took her life.  There’s a reason I haven’t been blogging for a while. This kind of information takes some processing. Sarah was the last of our two children. Jason, her natural brother, went first, in a jet ski accident, in 1991, when he was fourteen.  Sarah lived to be 36. Before she left home we had issues we could not resolve.

I began this late last night. It occurred to me this morning that in my exhaustion I left out the picture of the delightful little girl Sarah often was — the young girl you see to the left.  She delighted in animals, in helping to make our home orderly, in playing the piano, and, most of all, in her relationship with her brother. She had a lot of artistic talent. She simply had trouble trusting adults and being honest in her relationships with others. That’s why many of us had so much trouble understanding who she really was, and which of the selfs she presented to others was genuine. She may have been some of all of them. I often wonder if she herself knew.

I believe she spent a lot of her life searching for her identity. She was very interested in her roots in her natural family, and that may be why she  decided to cast her lot with them rather than with us in her later years. I have heard that for many years she had blamed her mother for some of what happened to her as a child. It is interesting to note that one little envelope in the package of pictures her husband sent to us contained some inspirational clippings and bookmarks, two of which were the “Footprints” poem many of you are familiar with, a “God Made Us Friends” verse by Rebecca Barlow Jordan, and a verse I will save for the end of this. Also in the envelope was a picture of her with Jason and a yellow sticky note with these words: Mother: I blame her for nothing — I forgive her for everything.

Sarah came to us at the age of nine through the foster care system, along with Jason, whom we had met first because he lived in a foster home next door. Unlike Jason, who had merely been neglected by his birth parents, Sarah had been sexually abused by her birth father. Though she was in counseling almost her entire eight years with us, she was never able to bring herself to confront the issue and work it through. This resulted in some unresolvable problems when she was almost 17, and that put her back into the foster care system, by her choice. After that she was in three foster homes, at least two of them with people who had especially requested her because they had known her when she was still living with us.

In the first home, she functioned pretty well at first, though she still would not obey the rule of the county that she could not be alone with the 37-year-old man(whom I will call M) she had been secretly meeting while she was with us and for whom she ran away.  M falsely accused the foster family of abuse and they almost lost the foster baby they had been planning to adopt. Naturally, Sarah was removed from that home.

Sarah was next placed with a “real” foster family. That means that this family already had other foster children and had been fostering for a long time. They were on a budget, and Sarah complained she had actually had to drink powered milk instead of the bottled milk she had been accustomed to at home and in the first foster home. At her request, Sarah was moved after two weeks into a home that had gotten a license just to take her in.

This third home should have been an ideal match. The father of the family was a professional musician, and Sarah was also a talented pianist. The family, although not extremely wealthy, was  more economically well off than the average family in the community. They had a large home in one of the better sections of town and  a landscaped yard with a custom swimming pool.  Sarah was definitly able to live the good life there, above what she was accustomed to, and probably considerably above the lifestyle of the average foster child. This home was tailor-made for Sarah.  Unfortunately, she continued to break the rules, and the family had to send her back to the county system.

From there she went to a group home, where she discovered that what she considered restriction when she was with us was nothing. Now she really couldn’t do those things she told the county she couldn’t do when she was with us. She really couldn’t go anywhere without supervision, she couldn’t sneak out a window in the middle of the night, and there were other restrictions she never had at home. She discovered the hard way that if you will not accept reasonable boundaries, the time will come when you  will have stricter boundaries enforced you cannot get around.  After spending some time in the group home, Sarah finally agreed to visitation with us — in fact she called and wanted us to bring her home for a visit when she had refused to see us before.

We had had hopes she might finally be ready to come home and work on resolving issues, but that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted to come home simply because she thought she’ have more freedom since we couldn’t keep 24-hour watch as the group home did. She wanted to make phone calls that she wasn’t allowed to make from the group home and use us to evade their rules. When we didn’t bend, she asked to go back and then tried to get us to drop her off  an unmonitored location instead of where we were supposed to take her to meet her social worker. (The group home’s location was supposed to be a secret, so the workers would meet their wards in public parking lots and take them back to the home.)

When Sarah was 18, she was released from the county system. For a time she worked as a live-in aid to some elderly people, but none of these elder care positions lasted long. She occasionally called me for a recipe or to help solve some problem during that time, but we never were able to talk about much of substance. During part of this time she lived with M but she also lived for a time with my brother’s family, and then with her half-brother’s family.  She did not stay very long in any of these living situations. We last heard from her after we moved to Paso Robles in 1992, while she was staying at a ranch not too far away. She mentioned she might come visit, but she never did and she never called again.  We later heard from her half-brother that she had moved to Colorado to be with an aunt (birth family).  Later she moved from there into a common-law marriage that lasted for 14 years, until her death on May 13, 2009.

We got the tragic news from Sarah’s half brother. He had been contacted by the aunt, and she had been contacted by Sarah’s husband. We were immediately thrust into issues such as who was next of kin by law so that we’d know what part we would have in planning for burial and the memorial service. We were given the number of the funeral home in Texas, and we were able to contact the husband. We learned from him that Sarah had made known at the beginning of their relationship that if anything were ever to happen to her, she wanted to be buried beside her brother in California. All of the California family had already wanted to comply with those wishes, but we didn’t want to act against the husband’s wishes, whatever they might be. He wanted to comply with Sarah’s wish, and gave us permission to arrange everything, since he could not afford the tremendous expense.  We have spent the last three weeks trying to see that Sarah’s wishes were carried out.

Yesterday was the culmination of this.  The memorial service was held around the grave Sararh now shares with Jason at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach on  June 6, 2009.  It was an informal service where the message was split between Bob, Sarah’s half-brother, and my husband, Kosta. Bob began by putting  Sarah’s life as he had witnessed it since her birth into context for those of us who had only seen part of it.  Around the grave were Sarah’s mother’s mother and sisters, her father’s mother, Bob’s family, my brother and his family, and some close friends.  (Sarah’s parents had preceeded her in death.) After Bob shared the stages of Sarah’s life on earth, my husband tried to give the mourners some encouraging words and offer some hope from his unique perspective as to where Sarah was bound.  He focused on Romans 8: 28 through the end of the chapter.

Many people simply can’t deal with the spiritual issues surrounding a suicide. It is our contention that no one but God  truly knows the heart of a person or what drove them to such drastic action.  People like to make rules about what God will or won’t do in some situations,  But God cannot be put in that sort of box.  Some people think that suicide is an unforgivable sin, but nowhere in the Bible is it judged so. We are told that when someone belongs to Christ, no one can snatch him or her  out of his hand. In Romans we are told that nothing can separate a believer from the love of God. There is always room for hope.

Sarah had a very difficult life journey.  As a child she had to face what most of us never have to.  These early experiences made a lasting impression. If a child is physically crippled, we don’t expect her to be able to perform athletically as well as a child who was always physically healthy. Yet we seem to have the same moral expectations for children who are spiritually and emotionally crippled as we do for children who have lived normal emotional lives in intact and emotionally supportive families. We tend to look only at actions and judge a person’s heart. God sees it all. He has always welcomed the captives and loosed their chains. He died for us while we were yet sinners. Not a one of us is righteous in ourselves. All of us must be dressed in the righteousness of Christ. At the gate of Heaven, it is not our good deeds that will gain us entrance, but our faith that Jesus took our sins upon himself and met the standard we could not meet to bring us to the Father.

We have reason to believe Sarah believed that. There was evidence, according to her husband, that even in her life with him she believed that. We know that Sarah was being treated for depression at the time of her death. Depression, like cancer, is an illness. Like cancer, it can lead to death — this kind of a death. We believe any judgment should be left in the hands of God, who knows all the details and what they mean.

After the service, most of us went to Bob’s home to share our memories, including a big box of pictures Sarah’s husband had sent to me. (He was, unfortunately unable to attend because of the travel expenses.) All of us had been hungry to see what Sarah had looked like as an adult. Except for her grandmother, Bob, and a couple of other relatives, none of us had seen Sarah since she was about 20.  Even Bob and her grandmother hadn’t seen her for a couple of years, when   she made a visit to California.

As we looked at pictures in small clusters, we exchanged information, as each had different experiences with Sarah at different points in her life. All of us pretty much agreed that although we loved Sarah, she had trouble receiving it and being able to feel loved. We told her often that we loved her, but she seemed to have a wall up that kept the message from getting through.

Bob and Sarah’s grandmother had known Sarah since birth. But Sarah’s best friend through her high school years was also sharing her perspective, which as a confidante, was quite different. Three families Sarah had lived with at various times were also in the room, including us, so we all shared the pieces of the puzzle we had — all hoping for a better understanding.

In these situations, no one of us will ever fully understand why Sarah found it necessary to end her life — including Sarah’s husband, with whom we talked on the phone for three hours.  All of us have a unique grief experience. All of us will take some time to work this through. Our parenting journey is over now, but our love for our children is not. Here is that other clipping, from a newspaper, whose author we recently found to be Julia Napier.

If you are ever going to love me,
Love me now, while I can know
The sweet and tender feelings
Which from true affection flow.
Love me now
While I am living.
Do not wait until I’m gone
And then have it chiseled in marble,
Sweet words on ice-cold stone.

If you have tender thoughts of me,
Please tell me now.
If you wait until I’m sleeping,
There will be death between us,
And I won’t hear you then.
So if you love me, even a little bit,
Let me know while I’m still living
So I can treasure it.

If you would like to know more details about Sarah’s life story and see pictures of her growing up, please check here: Sarah: The Suicide of a Child It deals more with the living Sarah, her problems growing up, and what factors  might have contributed to her fatal choice as an adult. It also contains useful resources for others dealing with this kind of loss.

Is This What They Mean By Socialization?

Just how much did socialization help Jaheem Herrera? How I grieve for his family, who will miss socializing with him the rest of their lives. How glad I am that when my son died, it was not like that, but while he was out at the lake with his friends, where he rode a jet ski to Heaven.

What Bullying Can Lead To

I just read this story on the CNN site and it made me very sad for the family and angry at whatever made this happen. As a former teacher of children in public schools, I saw more than my share of playground behavior. Even students in private schools can be very cruel. When my son was still in public school, he was happy in the classroom and miserable on the playground, even though he was friendly and outgoing. At the time he was still a foster child and some of the other kids knew it.

How My Own Children Suffered from Playground “Socialization”

My daughter, in another school’s special ed program, was perfectly happy for two years with a wonderful teacher. Then that wonderful teacher had a sabbatical midyear and her class (in which Sarah was the only girl) got a male long-term substitute who didn’t mind pushing values that were different from ours (and the former teacher’s) at his students in the 3-4 grades. But it was the playground that was the worst problem. Our daughter would come home and complain that the boys were always propositioning her during recess. (She was a very attractive fourth-grade girl.)

Is This What They Mean By Socialization?

We complained to the principal and were told that the teachers on duty at recess can’t see and hear everything. As to the classroom situation, the best we could get was that Sarah would be moved to a resource room with a female teacher after her female teacher aide went home the last hour of the school day.  These are the things that are part of the background of my reading this news story.

I also lost my son, but not this way. My heart goes out to the mother and sister who got the terrible shock of seeing their loved one hanging in the closet. It’s a terrible thing to lose a child. You don’t ever get over it. But to know that your child was so unhappy at 11 that he would take his own life — that is one of the very worst ways to lose a child. There is only one way I can imagine that would be worse, and that way always makes the news, too.

Finding the Right Education Solution

On our journey to find the right education solution, we tried private schools. We finally found one that would take both my bright son and his sister, who was behind due to some emotional baggage she was carrying from her life with her birth parents. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, as it turned out, the school closed after one year.

The next year we found a principle approach private school that was just right for the next two and two-thirds years. I had always wanted to homeschool, though, and that last third of the last school year, I got my chance.

Is This What They Mean By Socialization?

My husband was on a contract job in the Seattle area and we all went up to see him during Easter break. We went with another family to let the children play in the snow, and my daughter’s sled got stuck. When my husband freed it for her, he tore a ligament in his arm that required surgery, and he needed us to stay and help. I called our principal at home, and he convinced my husband, who was always the one who objected, that I would be perfectly able to teach the children, who were then in grades 5 and 8. I had been teaching English part time in his school for a year.

Washington was a marvelous state in which to begin the homeschool adventure. Although we had textbooks at home that were used at the school we were coming from, they were still at home and we couldn’t leave for a couple of weeks to go and get them. So we used the Auburn Public Library, near where we found a house to rent. The school district was also good to us when they heard of our situation.

So What About Socialization?

Jason, surrounded by friends at beach BD party
Jason, surrounded by friends at beach BD party

We loved homeschooling, but we heard what almost any other homeschooling family hears from friends and neighbors. What about socialization? Many people think that home school children sit home with their books all day and never see anyone outside the home.

Maybe they don’t realize that children who study at home still play soccer, go to youth group, join the scouts, play with the neighbor children, and learn to get along not only with their peers, but also their families and people who are younger or older than they are. Jason’s  social life improved 100% when he started studying at home. He could actually get along with children who couldn’t get along with anyone else.

In public school, Jason had been teased because he was small for his age and because he was a foster child during his kindergarten year. He often came home unhappy. He loved learning and was naturally compassionate and helpful. I had watched him comfort younger children in the neighborhood who were crying when he didn’t know I was watching. He didn’t know how to respond to the meanness he encountered at school on the playground. Is this what a child needs to be considered socialized? To learn to respond to bullying and meanness from others?

Neighborhood Socialization

One of the boys who lived next door to us was also an adopted child, and he had been abandoned in Korea by his birth father — just left at the train station. He was also handicapped — he had a leg brace. He was dealing with a lot of issues. Jason had lived in his house first, and that’s how we met Jason. I will call the other boy X since he became the neighborhood bully who delighted in getting the younger boys in trouble and then would disappear just before the adults came on the scene.

There were enough adults around, however, to make sure things didn’t go too far, to give comfort after such an event, and to try and help prepare our children for the next temptation to misbehave X lured them into. X never was able to overcome his emotional baggage, and he caused even bigger problems in his adoptive home than he caused in the neighborhood. Eventually, he had to go back to the juvenile system. Meanwhile, though, while he was still around, all parents kept a watchful eye when the children were all outside playing.

The Dark Side of Socialization

So just what is socialization? According to my American College Dictionary, to socialize is “…to make fit for life in companionship with others; to make socialistic; establish or regulate according to the theories of socialism.” The application for education is “to turn from an individual activity into one involving all or a group of students. ” For the moment I won’t ask just what part of this definition others are concerned about when they ask how homeschoolers will socialize.

What I don’t see here is that to socialize means to accept bullying, learn to be insulted at a young age,  subject oneself to verbal abuse and just shrug it off.  On one hand, we are told how devastating it is when a parent or other adult is verbally or physically abusive. If such socialization occurs at home and it is reported, the children are often removed from the home.

Yet we mandate by law that children must go to school where they often receive this kind of abuse and more from their peers, and the principals and teachers say they can’t really prevent it  — in spite of their anti-bullying programs. That’s what it says in the CNN article. That’s what I found in my child’s school in a good neighborhood. This doesn’t just happen in the inner city.

Learning to Socialize in a Healthy Way

Is This What They Mean By Socialization? An Example of Healthy Socialization

I do not think socialization is good in itself.  In my opinion, there is good socialization and bad socialization. Children get their first introduction to socialization in their families, learning to speak, share, take turns, sit and eat and talk with the family, etc. They learn to get along with their siblings. They still do all these things when they study at home. They also, as mentioned before, socialize in sports, community, church, and homeschool groups with children and adults. My son’s friends’ parents were amazed that my son always chatted with them when they came to pick up their own children from youth group.

Their school-socialized children avoided talking to adults unless they had to. My son enjoyed talking to them because he considered adults people, too. His very best friend was a fireman who had acted as an adult mentor when my husband was on those contract jobs. But the friendship went two ways. Jason tried to comfort Terry, too, when Terry’s marriage was breaking up. Both Terry and his wife were Jason’s friends, and the break-up was hard on Jason, too.

When Jason died in an accident at 14, I was amazed at all the friends of various ages he had. Some were younger children he played with. Some were his own age. Some were boys and some were girls.

Many were adults we didn’t even know he knew from around the neighborhood. He would ride his bike around and start talking to any adult who appeared to be doing something interesting outside, especially if they were doing something mechanical. (That’s actually how I met Jason when I was working in the garden in the front yard.) These became his new friends. He’d get up at 6:30 AM to go visit with a construction crew in the neighborhood while they had their coffee before starting their work day. They even let him watch them work for a bit before he had to come home for breakfast and to start his school day.

One day he came home from a construction site in the afternoon. (He often went back when school was over for the day.)  He was very excited because he’d met the geologist who was checking the area around the site for signs of faults. He also brought home clay from the soil on the site the geologist had given him. He was excited because the geologist told him they were building the homes on a fault. What a tie-in to a science lesson.

Is This What They Mean By Socialization?
Top: Jason at Court of Honor, Sarah with Younger Cousin
Bottom: Our Family Picnicking with One of Our Favorite Families, Jason digging clams at a camping site with new-found friends.

I think Jason had a very active social life — more active than he ever had when going to school. He also kept ties with friends made in his last school by joining their Boy Scout Troop. His Scout friends played an active part in his memorial service. And Terry stood there and cried, along with about 399 others.

So what was missing in Jason’s socialization? Being bullied? Being subjected to peer pressure to do drugs? Learning words that would not really enhance his vocabulary? He got enough of some of those things just playing with the kids in the neighborhood. Would it have been better to get more of it on the playground where there were not enough adults to intervene? Just how much did socialization help Jaheem Herrera? How I grieve for his family, who will miss socializing with him the rest of their lives. How glad I am that when my son died, it was not like that, but while he was out at the lake with his friends, where he rode a jet ski to Heaven.