I’m working in a coffee shop this morning. The chair is hard, but the earthy aroma and a friendly hum of conversations and quiet jazz make it a great alternative to the office some days.
A lady named Irene just stopped by the table to say hello. We’re friends from church. She held a bright-faced 11-month old. Irene smiled and laughed, and the little girl did too, mirroring the love she so clearly receives in plenty. The little mouth squeaked and giggled and melted me with a two-tooth smile.
Irene and her husband Mark* have been fostering this precious little one for nearly a year. The road has been predictably difficult – the prickles and thorns of dealing with a strained foster system…constant uncertainty about the little girl’s future…sleepless nights of teething and the flu. Just a few weeks ago, tears rolled down Mark’s face in church when the pastor called them up front and the whole congregation joined in prayer for them and their foster daughter.
But through it all, I’ve seen their love for that little girl grow only deeper. They’d be overjoyed to adopt her – to give to her the same family name and inheritance and unbreakable bond that Irene and Mark’s other children received as birthright. But they pray instead for God’s very best for this little girl they love, and for healing and new hope in her mother’s tangled life, whatever that might mean for them.
Irene and Mark live on a knife-blade of uncertainty. At any moment this precious girl may be returned to a situation that is anything but ideal.
But this uncertainty hasn’t made them pull back emotionally. Not at all. They’ve thrown open the gates to their heart and let her all the way in. They know the likely cost. They will ride a wild roller coaster of hope and joy and grief. But they also know that this is precisely what every little girl needs: a family willing to love her enough to be brokenhearted when she leaves.
Whatever happens, this love Irene and Mark are pouring in won’t be lost. Two days ago I heard a lecture from one of the country’s top experts in child development. He described how every single action of parental love – every touch, every returned smile, every pick-her-up-when-she-cries – forges the neural pathways of a baby’s brain. If these things do not happen in the tender first years of life, the adult the child becomes will struggle against much higher odds of all manner of ills, from migraines and stomach aches to broken marriage. But when a person forms secure attachments in those early years – even if the future bring many hard knocks – they carry gifts of resilience and vitality that last a lifetime.
That’s the hard science. What’s harder to figure out is why Irene and Mark are doing this, when they could so easily spare themselves all the hurt. But I know. They’ve told me. “God has loved us like this. He embraced us into His family. We’re just reflecting that.”
Irene and I talked for a few minutes more – about some good things and hard things, the insecurity and difficult journey, behind and ahead. But Irene was smiling. It was so clear to me: she knows she is loved by God, deeply and irreversibly. And like a mirror, she’ll simply reflect that love to the little one in her care for as long as she’s with them.
I gazed again at the little face looking up at me. She was smiling, too – glowing actually, the two tiny teeth bright as ivory in her gums. Like a mirror, she was reflecting Irene’s love.
For a moment, an image popped into my mind of the series of mirrors that one of my friends made for his science project back in the 4th grade. A flashlight shined into a shoebox from one end, bounced from mirror to mirror to mirror inside, and then gleamed out the other side.
God’s love shining. Reflecting from Irene to the little girl. Reflecting from the little girl to me. And seeing that irresistible grin, I couldn’t help lighting up with a big smile of my own.
*Names changed to protect privacy.