foster child and mother

Eric stopped the car at the end of the street, two houses away from the address I’d plugged into the GPS. It was our foster daughter’s first birthday…

“I’m sorry I can’t go in with you,” he said. I understood. Our grief looked different.

He had photographs of Coco taped to his closet wall. He stored the last outfit she’d worn at our house inside a plastic bag. He kept in a bowl on his dresser the pit from the avocado he’d fed her on her last day with us. But he didn’t want to see Coco again until a social worker called to tell us we could bring her home. He couldn’t. Too much. Too painful.

All I wanted was to see her.

We had picked Coco up from the hospital when she was three days old. She lived with us for ten months. Then social workers determined that she could reunify with her birth mother, Evelyn. Now Evelyn and Coco lived in Twin Falls, Idaho, a city 70 miles south of our small mountain town.

I’d only seen Coco once since the day we gave her back. Evelyn asked if I could pick Coco up from daycare, drive her to Evelyn’s house, and wait with her until Evelyn got home from work late that night.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Eric said.

“I’m doing it,” I said.

I drove to the daycare center. The woman at the front desk called Evelyn to confirm I was who I said I was, to make sure I had permission to take Coco home. Another woman led me to a small room. Coco was asleep in a crib. I hadn’t seen her for four weeks. Her hair was longer, curly. Her body was longer, too, more toddler than baby. Beautiful. I picked her up, held her sleepy weight against my chest, carried her to the car. When I was buckling her into the car seat, she woke up. We looked at each other. I don’t think she recognized me. But she wasn’t afraid.

In my grief, I’d read theories about early attachment. I’d learned that even if Coco didn’t recognize my face, she still knew me. My smell. My voice. “Her cells know you,” a friend, who is a pediatrician, told me. “They’ll know you forever.”

Coco weighed less than five pounds when we brought her home from the hospital. Eric and I took turns holding her for hours, skin to skin. Her heart learned to beat from our hearts. She learned to breathe from our breath. For weeks, we fed her every two hours, all night long. Please please please, I’d said, holding her tiny body in that darkness.

Now she was turning one at someone else’s house. I carried her present, wrapped in glittery unicorn paper, down the block. Eric and I had picked out her gift together at the toy store — a wagon to help her learn how to walk. “Your daughter’s birthday?” the woman working behind the counter had asked. “Yes,” we’d said. It was too hard to explain.

The party was at June’s house, Evelyn’s best friend. A sign on her front door said to go around back. In the backyard, a few men stood around a hot tub, one of them filling it with a hose. I recognized one of the men as Evelyn’s brother. I knew, like Evelyn, he struggled with addiction.

“I know who you are,” he said to me.

“I know who you are,” I said to him. “Where are you living now?” I asked.

“Around,” he said.

The backdoor opened into the kitchen. “You made it,” Evelyn said. Coco was in her arms. Evelyn handed her to me.

I sat on the floor with Coco in the middle of the kitchen. People walked around us. I held Coco’s hands. She stood, facing me, bent her knees, bounced up and down, smiled. She was wearing a blue jumper and tiny pink sneakers, her hair in pigtails on top of her head. I kissed her cheeks. I smelled her neck.

An older girl at the party, maybe seven or eight, asked, “Can we bring Coco down to the basement to play?”

“No, sweetie,” Evelyn said. “We get to see her all the time. Sarah doesn’t. It’s her turn now.”

A few months before the party, when Coco was still in our care, Evelyn gave me my first Mother’s Day present, a miniature yellow rose planted in a teacup. We were in a bank’s parking lot, our regular meeting spot for Evelyn’s weekly visits with her daughter. On that day, Coco had her first overnight visit with Evelyn.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” Evelyn said and gave me the rose.

It was her daughter who made me a mother.

At the birthday party, Evelyn let me hold Coco the whole time I was there. I held Coco’s hands as she walked around the house. I carried her on my hip. Cuddled her on my lap.

Though our grief looked different, Eric and I did share part of it — an emptiness in our chests where we used to hold her, as if our insides had been hollowed out. I held one-year-old Coco against that excavated part of me.

June grilled hamburgers. She sent Evelyn from person to person to take orders for who wanted cheese. Corn on the cob boiled in a pot on the stove. On the counter, two cakes for Coco — a big one and a small one, both pink.

I’d brought June a succulent in a green pot to thank her for including me. I knew she would be my lifeline to Coco if something went wrong. She gave me a tour of her house, showed me her daughters’ rooms. She’d adopted one daughter and was the guardian for the other, who was, technically, her niece.

“You know I’m always here,” I said.

“I know you love her,” June said.

I didn’t know then that the birthday party would be the last time I would see Coco. I didn’t know Evelyn would relapse, lose her job, get evicted from her home, go to a different state to hide from child protection services. I didn’t know she’d stop talking to June. I didn’t know we wouldn’t be able to find Evelyn and Coco for months.

On that day, sweetness. On that day, two pink cakes. On that day, candles and wishes. On that day, pigtails and pink sneakers. On that day, gifts.

After a couple hours my body ran out of whatever it had been using to keep me upright. This was Coco’s life now. These were her people. She wasn’t ours anymore. She was never ours. I texted Eric. Now. I left before cake.

Two days after the party, I couldn’t get out of bed. Everything hurt. “DOMS,” my therapist said. “Delayed onset muscle soreness. What happens after a hard workout can happen after trauma, too.” My grief for Coco was physical. Tooth aches. Migraines. Bruises on my shins and forearms. Swollen eyes. Knots in my back. My neck stiff.

She loves this thing, Evelyn texted and sent me a picture of Coco sitting in the wagon, smiling, swinging her legs.

I often felt alone with my grief, as if no one understood what I was going through, what I was feeling. For some people, the fact that we always knew she might leave meant our grief should be less somehow, as if our knowing should have softened the blow.

But one person understood exactly what I was feeling. Evelyn. She lost her daughter to me. Then I lost my daughter to her. In that loss, in that heartbreak, we were one.

stranger care book

Sarah Sentilles is the author of Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours.

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(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo.)