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Tolling For The Luckless The Abandoned And Forsaked
Published on Friday, February 9, 2007 by The Wiscasset Newspaper (Maine)
Tolling For The Luckless The Abandoned And Forsaked
by Christopher Cooper

No two toilets, I've observed, flush in exactly the same way. The uniqueness of the snowflake, we receive without question or objection at a very early age; it is part of our cultural heritage. When at length, having matured beyond staggering about the back yard with our tongues out and heads upturned to intercept and absorb such precise wonder, we stumble upon a display of some of Wilson A. Bentley's remarkable glass slide snow crystal photographs, we find our faith rewarded. So it is, I believe, with the confluence of biological imperative, mass production technologies, and the grand randomness of the universe that is the modern, white as the new-fallen snow, water closet. We have only to twist the lever and watch and listen.

I have lately learned the ways of the apparatus located on the second floor of the old federal building on Water Street in Augusta. Briefly: you flush, you wait, you worry, you flirt with despair—then the deluge, delayed but the more welcome and forceful for having gathered itself before responding. One walks out of that room renewed, invigorated, content. There is majesty in that counterclockwise swirl.

The building has, too, many other charms, including its solid stone exterior, round turrets, preposterously high ceilings and massive, convoluted crown mouldings. Who does not love marble staircases, terrazzo floors? And what wonderful windows, so unlike the narrow casements of the modern office building: huge double-hung sash, suspended by chains and balanced by cast counterweights, some opening onto a view of the ice-gnarled Kennebec. Somebody should have thought or bothered to fit another layer of glazing to these single-pane anachronisms this many years into our unraveling of the planet's heat management systems, but I didn't come here today to complain.

In fact, I have almost no news but good news this week. Remember this one, my loyal readers—a rare little essay of praise and delight wedged in among my ponderous collection of columnar hate crimes.

For four Saturdays I have voluntarily committed myself to a room on the second floor of this edifice. Twenty-two other souls have done likewise, all of us to receive information and advice from two instructors, Audrey and Libby, on the Fundamentals of Foster and Adoptive Parenting, a course constructed by an outfit called the Child Welfare Training Institute at the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service. (Readers who do not remember the middle years of the last century will want to direct their Googling toward answers relating to Governor, Senator, Vice-Presidential candidate, Manchester Union-Leader, and Lincolnesque, rather than those suggesting that one seek the muskie by drilling a hole in an iced-over lake or visiting the bait shop.)

I do not take instruction well. I'm argumentative. I resist most conventions of contemporary pedagogy. Whatever small abilities and minor talents I now possess are either innate or self-taught, since I didn't apply myself in high school, went to college in the nineteen-sixties (about which subject, again, ask Google if you weren't there), and have not since sought mental or moral improvement in any organized fashion or venue. Until now.

My wife, who took this course last summer (she being pro-active to a fault, and me just the antithesis—lazy, procrastinating, disorganized, turning to any task only when deadline hangs heavy or law enforcement is walking up the path to my door), said I wouldn't like it. She said, “You'll hate it!” “It's everything you can't stand.” Then she told me I'd have to do it anyway. And she said this in that way that leaves no room to doubt she means it and will enforce it. So I went. Perhaps we are all surprised, though, that I went with an open mind. And I did love the building.

The obligatory instruction manual, was predictably awful. It's your typical cheap vinyl three-ring binder, three inches through, stuffed with introductory pages of self-congratulation, followed by ponderous pedantry, case-studies, homilies, anecdotes, vignettes, lists, suggestions, cautions, repetition and appendices. Each of its eight sections (we did two each day) includes several pages of homework questions of such generally vague and sometimes obfuscatory construction that I did sometimes cry out as I confronted one or another, using language one is advised not to inflict upon any child, fostered, adopted, or otherwise.

But if the instructional materials were an all too typically sad example of how reading and learning and thinking can be reduced to drudgery and tedium at any level higher than about sixth grade in this country, the people I sailed with on this cruise were a delight. And you all know what a “People Person” I am.

Twenty-three of us started; one dropped out midway; I think one or two had homework yet to complete by the last afternoon. The rest of us passed, got our certificates, and may now receive one or more foster children into our homes or adopt a child who needs a family. We are also, even if some of us don't take in a new family member, changed. Improved. Each of us has become a better human being. No doubt for some only a small tune-up was required. Others of us may have found our hardened hearts growing the Seussian “three sizes” as we moved through our hours together.

Each of us told his or her own story the first morning. A few were young-ish couples, infertile, come to adoption as a necessity. At least one pair among that group hoped for an infant, a commodity in shorter supply than older kids and teens on the lists of children whose lives have arced into our orbits by way of state custody and termination of parental rights. Several intended to foster children, and some of these had done so before, but now needed the state license. I was one among several grandparents and an aunt or two who, somewhere between forty and seventy, find ourselves pledging our shorter futures toward the well-being of a preposterously young relative.

Only a few of us looked really good. We were otherwise fat, skinny, pear-shaped, balding, with hairstyles and mustaches and beards and clothing and mannerisms adopted no doubt to conceal or compensate for all manner of real or imagined inadequacies. Some of us were articulate, others hesitant. We arrived with our misconceptions and prejudices well evidenced. Some of us were suspicious, and pretty much every one who spoke sooner or later said something that a majority found objectionable. I am not illusioned that I was anybody's favorite member of the class, although I do think that by the afternoon of the last day at least a few had developed a sort of grudging respect or even arm's-length affection for me.

Our instructors delivered the important themes without excessive devotion to the approved script. They were clear and direct about the law, current approved child care protocols, and DHS requirements. Their demeanor was loose and accommodating enough to allow room for even such sarcasms as I offered from time to time. Twenty and more years keeping babies and children safe from their own parents, attempting to unify fractured families, and trying to find homes for those innocents when mom and dad prove too far gone to save, gives one a great supply of horrible stories and a smaller stock of happy endings.

Imagine the worst that could happen to an adult. Double the deprivation, triple the abuse you've just conceived. Now visit all that on a newborn, a toddler, a five year-old. Run that movie for months or years. Beaten, burned, buggered, drugged, starved, abandoned—anything you want, we got it right here in the USA. Maine: The Way Life Should Be—unless your mom and her boyfriend have a meth lab in the garden shed. These ladies have seen things you haven't even read about, much less been called out to deal with late at night. I was impressed by their commitment and tenacity and great heart and good humor. They're doing a job you and I aren't rugged enough to handle.

Lesson number seven, the morning of our last day, included a panel of foster and adoptive parents whom we could question about their experiences. I quickly lost track of how many children these people had raised, had rescued, had saved. And most of them were not easy children. People tell me it's a wonderful thing we're doing, raising our grandson. But it's no job at all (although it will, kill us in the end, of course). He's bright, cute, personable, funny, articulate, and has survived the hazards of his gestation and risky first five months of life to become a terrible two year old showing few residual scars or developmental shortcomings. Anybody would adopt him in an instant if he was in the book and available.

But how about autistic kids? What about those who come into foster care in a body cast, so badly did their birth mother wrack their slight young bodies? Who wants to mother a teenager who smashes furniture? Where does an eight year-old who has been raped so often by her stepfather she thinks that's a normal way to live fit into your happy, well-adjusted home? Are you your brother's keeper? Will you suffer these little children to come unto you?

I was most impressed with Pat, from Randolph. She and her husband have fostered and adopted more kids than I've had dogs or cats. None of them came to her whole. Each received as much love as any parent could hope to lavish on an only child. Several are now adults, on their own, while young ones are with them still, and I don't doubt babies are being born today they will someday nurture after unspeakable damage is inflicted upon them. People use the word hero in the same cheap, offhanded way that awesome has been diminiished in common usage. I am prepared to apply heroic in its full, unadulterated form to persons such as Pat and the others we met that morning.

You and I ain't much. We get and we spend. We feel put upon by taxes and gas prices. We buy our own kids far more crap than is good for them. When they're grown, we buy a motor home and drive around the country. Then we die, and really, how much of a loss to the world is that? Most of us, having been lucky in life, disparage those who, through poverty, physical or mental illness, addiction, poor choice of mates, bad choices generally, bad luck or bad character do a poor job of raising their children. That's our right. And we may be right, too, in blaming those men and women. Who knows just where the intersection of free will and destiny lies?

But consider the children, the byproducts of those ruined lives. There are over three thousand babies and boys and girls in foster care in Maine today. About two hundred find adoptive homes through DHS each year. I was privileged to meet a score of men and women who wish to do more than most of us ever will to make life better for at least one other human being. We were guided toward an understanding of the grim realities and potential delights of foster and adoptive relationships by Audrey and Libby over those four Saturdays in this cold midwinter.

Remember that John Hiatt song? “Time is short and here's the damn thing about it/ You're gonna die, gonna die for sure./ And you can learn to live with love or without it/ But there ain't no cure.” The course is free. Think about it. If I'm a suitable adoptive or foster parent, consider how easily any of you normal people could pass.

You wouldn't want to adopt Mr. Cooper, and not everybody would even want to read him, but if you'd like to argue with him, second guess him, demean his intelligence or denigrate his character, please do so at

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