To everyday families, Thanksgiving epitomizes ‘togetherness’. To an adopted child, Thanksgiving is a second chance at acceptance.
As the Department of Children and Family Services, accompanied by the Illinois State Police and Glendale Heights PD, came crashing through our small Roosevelt Road home one dreary 1979 day, an angel in heaven grew new wings. I was finally liberated from an upbringing filled with beatings, drunkard parents and a daily reminder that my birth was a mistake.
36 years later, I reflect on what my first Thanksgiving meant as an adopted child, and how children across the world need more than iPads and shiny bikes this holiday season – they need a constant reminder that they matter. Because when Black Friday comes, a different kind of black just may come back into the hearts of the neglected adopted child.
How it started
As I sit in a Glendale Heights Police station, one officer looked in utter amazement: The level of malnutrition I was experiencing should have killed me. Most of my organs were clearly visible with my shirt off, I was dirty and would literally be full if someone had fed me a spoonful of rice. What was the first order of business, according to the police chief? Get them kids some food. They literally laid more food on that small wood table than I’d ever seen – and ate about 5% of it before feeling too full. Pictures were taken of my sister and me, and we spent the night in a warm bed brought in for each of us, with nothing but questions as to what tomorrow would bring. I did have one toy with me: a squeezable plastic replica toy of ‘Pop’ (from Rice Krispies).
I should back up for a second.
The Department of Child and Family Services discovered my sister and I during a routine ‘theft’ trip at the local grocery store. I say theft because my mother would fill up a grocery cart and push it out without paying. Never caught once – up until that day. It just so happened that the person whom my mother nearly barreled over leaving the store was a DCFS worker who, of course, phoned the police. That discovery was in 1977.
DCFS waited 2 years to act. Two years of hell, I may add. Sounds like a familiar DCFS horror story from last year.
Now, I’m by no means qualified to do a social service worker’s job, but I don’t need to: common sense (and maybe some humility) would tell me to get the kids out immediately, especially if their condition was life-threatening (as mine was).
So here I am, attempting to sleep away from my abusers for the first time ever. In the morning, would I return to that sadistic Roosevelt Road home? Get shooed off to one of these cops’ house? I was scared, I can sure tell you this. The next day came, and I was shoveled into the arms of some married couple operating an adoption ‘transition house’, a vetted family-like atmosphere with a bunch of kids awaiting their final destination.
First Thanksgiving in foster care – decent.
My tenure lasted three months at this transition home. The couple decided fostering a dozen kids was too stressful, forcing them to downsize their operation to, well, zero. Off I went to yet another foster home, a couple who had three natural children of their own in a 5 bedroom Victorian style home. With two of those children being boys, I took my fare share of brotherly beatings – but as painful as it was, I started to feel a sense of companionship previously foreign to me.
My first Thanksgiving was a feast. If you cooked it in November, it was served that Thursday. I ate, talked with everyone, ate some more, went out and rode my first bicycle, ate some more. I think I had a tapeworm that day, but at age 8, it sure felt good eating without restrictions or denials.
My sister and I lasted 18 months at that home. We were sat down one day and told our presence was creating a financial burden, but there was a young couple prepared to adopt us as they couldn’t have kids of their own. I was both elated and depressed with each passing word.
First Thanksgiving as an adopted child – rewarding
With my new family, I felt the love and comfort every child dreams of. I fostered with them one year before I stood before a judge and was sworn in as an official child of these wonderful people. My sister was happy, too, which is essentially all I wanted.
Our first Thanksgiving as adopted children was extremely rewarding. I say that with zero trepidation, too. The smiles that filled the room, the love and laughter which embodied me and meeting new family members for the first time was more invigorating than my first trip to Toys R Us (cost a lot less, too).
I carried that feeling through the rest of grade school, high school and still embrace it today. Unfortunately, my adopted parents have shut me out due to their ‘unexpected’ birth of their blood daughter when I was six months from being 18. Although I feel like I was a rented child – an opportunity to practice parenting before it actually happened – I still hold on to my first Thanksgiving as a reminder how getting a second chance at acceptance meant the world to me.
Should children need an epic holiday event such as Thanksgiving to finally feel wanted? No, but if that’s when you wake up as adopted parents (or biological parents), embrace the moment tightly. Because while you concentrate on the cooking, cleaning, seeing unruly in-laws and other aspects of Turkey Day, an abused, battered and otherwise unwanted child you adopted is only concentrating on your love.
Don’t wait too long to make your child feel accepted. At 42, I still don’t know whether I am or not, so take it from me – the struggle is real. And it’s a struggle no child (young or old) should go through, especially at Thanksgiving.