‘Where is God?” My 4-year-old daughter asks me as she looks at me from the floor with her inquisitive, chestnut eyes. I am on the couch, and she sits at my feet playing with Legos.
She startles me with her question. She is a happy, gregarious child, not prone to contemplation—she’s too busy bouncing off the couch and spreading her 576 toys across the floor of our small condo. But in the midst of this hurricane-force toddler there is obviously an eye of the storm, a calm place where she holds all her big questions. Once in a while she releases them into the universe.
I didn’t know what to tell her. The cliché answer “in heaven” just didn’t seem adequate. The answer “He’s all around us” seemed too vague. So I gave her an answer I hoped a 4-year-old could understand: “It’s hard to see God, but we can see him in the people we meet, and we can see his handiwork in the trees he created and the people who love us.”
I didn’t want to tell her that sometimes I’m not even sure God exists.
In her Catholic preschool she has learned to pray the Sign of the Cross. “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!” she says definitively, in her tiny munchkin voice, with her brown hand the size of a dinner roll scrunched up and touching her forehead, heart and then her shoulders. She’s proud of herself.
I feel guilty she’s learning all about God at school and not at home. I wonder if I am shirking my parental responsibilities, because we seldom pray before meals, and at night I am too exhausted to pray with her before bedtime. I often feel as if our toddler is the spiritual leader in our home.
She came to us as a foster child when she was 2½ years old, after having lived in another foster home for two years. Shortly after she arrived, she asked me, “Where is my home?” I assured her that her home was with us, right here, forever. Two years later, we stood before a judge in a wood-paneled courtroom and she officially became our daughter.
Our New Family
Along with adopting Desta, we also committed ourselves to do whatever is in her best interest when it comes to her relationship with her birth family.
The first time I met her grandmother, whom I will call Grandma G, was on a conference call during a court-ordered mediation a few months after Desta was placed with us. The court had ordered all of us—the birth mom, the birth dad, lawyers for all involved, the guardian ad litem, the social workers—to meet in order to iron out some issues. We all sat around a huge beige conference table in a nondescript room in the Juvenile Court building south of Chicago’s Loop.
Grandma G was at work and called in for the meeting, so I heard only her voice over the speakerphone. But even though she wasn’t physically present, her presence was the largest in the room.
“Who are these people Desta is now living with?” her voice boomed through the phone. “Why was she moved from her other foster home, and how do I know she is O.K. and they are treating her right?”
The social workers tried to reassure her that Desta was in good hands—that the move had been planned and communicated for quite some time. But Grandma G was having none of it. She was angry.
I was scared of her. I hope I never have to meet this woman, I thought.
But a few months went by and although legally not required to have visits with Grandma G, we decided to do so for our daughter’s sake. So one day I took Desta to McDonald’s PlayPlace near our home to meet Grandma G.
I was nervous. David, my husband, couldn’t join us because he had to work. I made sure Desta was dressed right and her hair was all in place. I wondered if Grandma G would yell at me. I wondered if our meeting would be awkward and tense.
Instead, she walked in and gave me a big hug. She wore dangly feather earrings and a blinged-out baseball cap. “I didn’t know you’d be so pretty!” she said to me, laughing. She was carrying bags of presents for Desta. She had me at “pretty.”
Grandma G loves to laugh. She has a mischievous sparkle in her eyes, just like Desta. They have the same nose and high, defined cheekbones, too.
Although our visits went well, over the months our relationship was often tentative. After one visit with her, I got a text: “Why did you dress Desta like a homeless person?” She didn’t give me a chance to explain that Desta had had an “accident” at daycare and her teacher had dressed her in clothes from the school clothes bin.
But over time, her anger and defensiveness seemed to melt away. She brought gifts or $10 bills for Desta—doting on her like any other grandmother would. We became allies in caring for Desta. We collaborated on buying clothes for her: “What does she need? What size shoe does she wear now?”
Flesh of My Flesh
Often, I look at Desta’s skin, her soft brown skin leaning up against my white skin as she watches “Dragon Tales.” I love her velvety skin against mine. She often begs for someone to cuddle with her, and I stop what I’m doing and sit down with her on the couch, her warm body against me, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. Our skin doesn’t match, but in the two and a half years she has been with us, she had become mine as truly as if she had grown in my womb.
When I put her to bed at night and we cuddle before she falls asleep, she insists on laying her entire body on top of mine. She often puts her head under my shirt and pretends that she’s “in my tummy” and that I’ve given birth to her.
Once, shortly after our adoption was final, I was trying to get her to stop squirming during Mass. Frustrated, I sat down and plunked her on my lap in an attempt to get her to stop disturbing those around us. She took my face in her pudgy hands, squeezed my cheeks together and whispered loudly in my face “I love you forever and ever and ever.”
Last August, on a Sunday, we went to the South Side of Chicago to go swimming. It was a perfect day. The sky was clear blue and it wasn’t too hot and we left after lunch to drive down to the South Side for a visit with Grandma G. We were late, as usual, and we got lost and drove through neighborhoods that we could tell were bad: boarded-up two flats, people loitering on the sidewalks, potholed streets, empty city lots tangled with weeds and trash. The hot summer air was heavy with desperation. The unfamiliar streets and our tardiness made us testy.
“Why did you take this route?” my husband demanded.
“I dunno—I took a wrong turn, I guess.”
Grandma G lives in a safer, working class suburb bordered by neighborhoods like this. In Chicago, there’s only one or two blocks—a hairbreadth—between the safe and the scary. And between despair and hope.
We cross the border into Grandma G’s neighborhood. We make it to the pool before she arrives with her entourage. Grandma G always brings people with her—her husband, other grandkids, friends of grandkids. Our visits are always a community affair and we never know who’s going to show up. I have come to realize we are all kin.
Desta wears her pink goggles and Hannah Anderson swimsuit. She and I swim and splash, with Desta practicing her “scoop and kick” that she learned in swimming lessons.
Two of Desta’s cousins are a bit older than she is, but she adores them and wants to swim with the “big girls.” So we are there for an hour, and Desta swims and splashes and practices her “scoops and kicks” while the other girls jump and do handstands and swim underwater like guppies.
David and I are the only white people in the pool.
Grandma G and her husband both have jobs, but they are surrounded by a community of people who can’t find work and who experience gun violence on a regular basis. In the swimming pool Grandma G gives me the latest news on extended family and friends who form her community.
Systematic injustice and poverty have created such a mire of quicksand that no matter how hard they might try they cannot seem to get themselves out. This is a world I don’t know very well, but I am learning about quickly.
From what I can tell, Grandma G and her husband share their resources, trying to hold up not only themselves, but all of those around them. I have learned from her—learned how beautiful it is to be generous, even when your own resources are stretched to the bone.
In one of my favorite movies, “Before Sunrise,” the character Celine says to Jesse: “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
Where is God? Sometimes I doubt he is anywhere. But then I see glimpses of him on the borders, the in-between places, in the conversations between two people, and at the tipping point between joy and sorrow, darkness and light, rich and poor. “You were here all the time, and I never knew it!” Scripture says in Gn 28:16-17, “This is nothing less than the house of God; this is the very gate of heaven.”
The same week we went swimming, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo. People were protesting on the streets. As I watched from a distance, I wanted to drive to Missouri and join the protests. But instead I drove to the South Side of Chicago to go swimming with Grandma G.
At the pool there was shrieking and laughing, and as the kids splashed, the chlorine water turned to crystals against the azure sky. We squinted our eyes against the blinding brightness of the late summer sun reflecting off the water.
Grandma G and I laughed, and we watched the kids dive and spring up from the water like corks. I was standing in the crystal water holding Desta, her wet skin as slippery as a baby seal’s. In the midst of the loss and despair and hope, and shrieking and laughter and joy, I leaned down and whispered into her ear, “God is right here.”