I’m not sure what to say to Alli. “I’m sorry” just feels so meaningless. I’ve repeated it too many times over the last week. I said it to Teo every time he smiled at me. Every time I changed his diaper. Every time I made his bottle. The phrase now feels so hollow and does nothing but add to my sorrow. I lean over the car’s transmission tunnel to talk to her, and all I can tell her is, “I love you.”
Our trials to become parents, although excruciating in the moment, pale in comparison to the day Teo left our home. After three and half months in our care, much of which was spent in my arms, attached to my chest while I wrote, walking the dogs through our neighborhood, in Alli’s arms giggling at funny noises, or with Alli and I both singing his favorite songs by John Legend, Jack Johnson, and Chris Stapleton, California’s Department of Children and Family Services had decided to move Teo closer to his biological mother as she had suddenly changed her mind about his adoption. He was set to be reunified, and we were set to once again have our family reduced to just two.
That pain, that pure unfiltered anguish as he was literally taken from my arms, was the only time I have ever seriously wished tomorrow would never come.
The thought of spending another second in our apartment, another second in a place devoid of his soft cooing, his giggles, and the now-empty crib felt unbearable. It was all just too quiet. And our love for both Teo and our growing family, the love and hope for the future that permeated our home, had been ripped away and discarded so violently and without regard, we knew we either had to leave or lose our minds with sorrow.
Is there a set course to take when you stop being parents?
Alli and I just knew we had to get away, so we picked a destination. Palm Springs, a short journey, but with enough distance separating us and our home. We grabbed the keys to the least baby-capable automobile—a 2018 Mazda Miata generously loaned to us—and left our silent heartbreak, hoping the miles and open, barren desert would be expansive enough that no one could hear us cry and big enough to give us space to grieve.
I’ve written about our ordeals to become parents before. We had spent four years trying to get pregnant to no avail. We had seen doctor after doctor, each telling us that we were healthy and that it may take some time, but ultimately, there was nothing biologically wrong. Yet after each failed pregnancy test, we’d lose a little more faith that’d it work out. Our parents told us that whatever we needed, they’d help us conceive as well. Though, after personal experiences with friends who had conceived through in vitro, we knew that it wasn’t a path we wanted to take.
What we landed on was adoption, which had always been something we wanted to do. Both our families are made up of quite a few adopted members and it was something that was always part of our plans. However, when Alli found a program here in Los Angeles for Foster-to-Adopt which places children removed from dangerous situations with loving families, and after we went to an open-house at the agency we decided upon, we jumped at the chance to become parents. What we didn’t know, or maybe what we weren’t truly prepared for, was the heartache so involved with the Foster-to-Adopt process. We’d soon be given a master class in it.
After almost eight months of training, classes, home visits, and psychological evaluations, we finally got the call for a six-pound baby boy, and were elated to finally become parents. What we couldn’t have predicted was the following 72 hours and the fastest, and most drastic, change of emotions I’ve ever experienced. After just three short days, little Parker was removed from our care while I was 6,000 miles away in Europe on a trip with Bentley, and placed back with his mother.
Reunification only happens about 33 percent of the time in Los Angeles County, at least according to a 2004 study completed by California’s Department of Children and Family Services and the Commission for Children and Families. Nationally, it’s closer to 76 percent. No matter the difference, the impetus of the state is to cater toward the biological parents’ welfare and rights, rather than the child’s. In our classes, we were told that once children are in the Foster Care system, they’re more likely to stay or return to the system even after being reunified.
A 2006 study published in the Children and Youth Services Review states that reentry into the Foster Care system after reunification happens to a third of children. Friends who are going through the process as well tell us the overall sense is that the state is quick to reunify parent and child, especially given the circumstances of many of these children’s cases. One possible reason behind this could have to do with the strain on, and lackluster support for, the child welfare system in terms of personnel and resources to adequately assess each and every child’s situation.
I can also tell you that when we lost the baby in our care as foster parents who hoped to eventually adopt—while I was away on a trip to drive a car for a story, no less—it broke me.
I had become a dad and then not in such a short time, I had no idea how to live. I had railed against the world in the Bentley’s isolation. But most importantly, I felt like I had failed Alli. I wasn’t there to help her through anything. I was so far away and I couldn’t do anything. It was the darkest day of my life.
Yet, even though we had both gone through our own personal hells, without real hesitation we jumped back in when we received the call that Teo needed us a short time after Parker left. Looking upon his little face, I hoped the pain of the past couldn’t be repeated. That he would stay with us and we’d get to love him for the rest of our lives. But that’s the thing about hopes and wishes; they’re not certainty.
The road to Palm Springs from Los Angeles is an arrow, a straight shot across Interstate 10. Even in the madness of end-of-day traffic, from Downtown Los Angeles to destination took barely two hours. Time, however, seemed to stall. The sun remained in the sky longer than normal. It felt as if the world was turning slower under the weight of our grief. By the time we reached our destination, the inky, warm darkness of night in the desert actually made the world feel lighter.
Once we reached our hotel, however, blackness brought new demons. For three months, Teo and I would wake up around 3 a.m. and spend an hour laughing and eating before he fell asleep in my arms or on my chest. The repetition became ingrained. Muscle memory.
Again at 3 a.m., I woke—but to the nothingness of our hotel room. I tossed and turned until daylight. When Alli awoke, we headed back out into the desert, our hands interlocked, only breaking our grasp when shifting was necessary. We had hoped we could find some idea of peace. And for a little while, I think we both felt a calm come over us. At least calm enough to begin to collect our thoughts.
Our little Miata gave us access to the empty skies and warmth and wind of the desert. We sped off in the two-seater to a hike through a slot canyon with a picturesque waterfall, a jewel nestled at its terminus. With each step along the trail, I began to feel more grounded, more at peace. John Muir wrote, “Break clear away once in awhile and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” And I was breaking clear until, while taking a picture, I lost my balance and fell into the river. What should’ve been a funny moment, a laugh to break our mostly silent pilgrimage, turned to panic as I realized my phone—with all of my photos of baby Teo, all my happy memories of him—was my back pocket, under water.
Without concern for the pain from crashing against river rocks or the handful of welts and bruises that now littered my back and arms, I shot up like I had just scalded my skin and reached into my back pocket. To my amazement, the phone worked.
Slightly damp, but working. I scrolled through the last few photos of Teo giggling at me. I smiled at his sweet face.
The waterfall felt good, the cleansing force Muir suggested finding. The icy spring water jolted me into the present instead of dwelling on the past. I thought, at least for a moment, of the future, of having another in-need child coming into our lives. I remembered that becoming foster parents wasn’t for ourselves but for the children in need. The frigid stream and force of the waterfall brought clarity of purpose. I crawled to dry land and saw Alli, standing in the sunlight, looking incredulously at the falls and then at me, and I was reminded again of the pain of loving someone so much and then losing them. And I wished I could do more to make her happy.
Back down the mountain, we set off in the Miata once again. We had only filled a fraction of the day and weren’t sure what else to do. We knew we didn’t want to sit in the hotel staring at each other, the silence would be too unbearable. The distractions were helping and pushing away our thoughts on our empty apartment. We felt more human, less like a raw nerve, exposed to the world. The pain still shown through our smiles to one another though, but they felt less forced than the previous days.
From previous experience, I knew that the general isolation of a car ride sometimes helped, but there aren’t many roads capable of the sort of distraction we were looking for in the desert. Most are just long and straight and unremarkable. Nevertheless, with a short map search, we found a path that I had hoped would further quiet our restless souls.
The serpentine routes of California’s highways 243 and 74 stretch from the industrial valley near Banning, California, up 6,000 feet through the alpine San Jacinto Mountains where snow still littered the ground, down to an open savanna with horse and cattle ranches, climbing back up to 5,000 feet through a desert pass of rock and dirt and cacti, and then back to the desert floor. A natural beauty untouched by the heavy hand of man. A place for us to stop and breathe.
Seventy miles of mountain road lay before us.
Normally, I’d attack the road, laying waste to each corner like our dogs do marrow bones. If I was writing this as a road test, I’d talk about the crispness of the Miata’s manual transmission, the way you can bounce the little two-seater off curbs. Or how I wished it had slightly more horsepower.
But I just had no urge to do so. My normal state of mind had been erased. Through the passes, instead of short shifting, heel-toeing, and throttling up, I held Alli’s hand and tried to breathe normally. As we neared the route’s peak elevation, the air chilled. Just a few miles later, we passed a bustling kindergarten playground. I could feel Alli’s hand tighten around mine. Or maybe I tightened my grip? Whatever the case, our grip didn’t release until we stopped to stretch.
I’m not sure when John Legend’s “Love Me Now” came through the radio, but for the past three weeks, I had been dreading its soulful notes. The chorus goes like this, “I don’t know who’s gonna kiss you when I’m gone. So I’m gonna love you now, like it’s all I have. I know it’ll kill me when it’s over. I don’t want to think about it. I want you to love me now.”
When I first heard it, the song brought me to tears. I can remember the exact moment. Teo was laying in my arms, sound asleep after a bottle. I was rocking him back and forth in our kitchen when the song played through our Echo system. Those lyrics resonated hard.
So when it blared through the Miata’s speakers, it took every ounce of strength I had not to curl up into a ball. At the same time, it gave me a sort of closure. I had given every bit of myself, as did Alli, to this beautiful little boy. We had hoped to improve his life in some way. We were his stability, his rock when everything else in his life had been in upheaval. We loved him like it was all we had.
At the base of the savanna, we stopped, got out of the cramped space, stretched, breathed in the mountain air, and exhaled as deeply as we both could. It felt like a turning point. A vanquishing of demons haunting our minds. By no metric were we healed, or even close to being okay, but at least for me, the dark thoughts that invaded my mind lifted and I was able to look at Alli without welling up.
Over dinner that night, we finally talked about Teo and about the future. We hadn’t hardly said a word of real feeling or consequence since we left Los Angeles. The miles of open country, a talk-free drive, and top-down expanses had given us the space we both needed to collect our thoughts and open up to one another. We hardly ate as the conversation jumped from our happy memories to the realities—and probably more pain—of our continued journey as foster parents. Each sentence poured out of our mouths as if a drain was opened. We talked about our naïveté when we started and how we felt ill-prepared for what the reality of Foster-to-Adopt was and how we would simply fall deeply in love with each child who came into our care.
By the time the check came, and although our pain still weighed heavily on our hearts, we came to the conclusion we still wanted to continue. No matter our heartbreak, we knew we could help these children.
Our evening conclusion felt like a turning point, a moment where our pain could begin to dissolve or at least be reduced to where the silence could be bearable when we returned to our apartment. That wasn’t the case. As soon as we stepped over the threshold, it all came flooding back. No happy coos, no need to clean bottles, no need to get diapers ready, no times when Teo needed to be rocked slowly to get him to sleep, no getting ready for our morning walks. The tears came flooding back.
It was foolish to believe a weekend road trip would be enough time to erase the pain. I still wake up at 3 a.m. I still look for dirty bottles in the sink. I still listen for his breathing at night. And I still miss him being in my arms, smiling back at me.
I do think our time away helped us gain perspective on our situation in a way only the open road and the such an intimate setting as that tiny car’s cabin can offer. It forced us to collect our thoughts and to strengthen our bond. It forced us to communicate. It helped us take the first steps of grieving.
But it’s going to be a long road to acceptance of the sorrow and also being ready to accept another child back into our lives. We will be ready to love another child just as much as we loved Teo. And Parker before him. Just not yet.
Jonathon Klein is an writer based in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Automobile, Auto Guide and more.