A FOSTERED ANNIVERSARY
An essay by Brandi Watts
Two years ago today, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. and left for Reno, Nevada. In my short layover in SLC, I was browsing in a bookstore as the song, “This is Going to Be the Best Day of Your Life,” piped through the store speakers. Midway through the song, I realized I had forgotten my bag, which I’d checked à la Carte in Butte, so I ran for the gates. An airline worker agreed to look. At least 10 minutes passed, but finally, she came walking through the door with my little green bag that had nearly returned to Montana without me.
Mid-morning I landed in Reno, and as I walked outside into the covered rental car area, I thought heaters were running in the parking garage, something seemed wrong. Then realized I was outside. I hadn’t felt 105 degrees in a long time. It felt dangerous.
I immediately headed west toward a small Nevada town in the compact sedan I’d rented. It had been a dry winter, and I was relieved to see at least a few miles of the hour-long drive were pretty because of a little river along the road creating a few green patches among the brown. The weather forecast on the radio warned of storms and flash floods later in the day. “Right,” I thought as I passed through the dusty landscape.
As I drove in to town, I called to find out where we would meet. I was early, and the woman on the other end of the phone sounded perturbed. “Shut up,” she said, as a small but strong voice yelled, “Brandi! Brandi! Brandi!” throughout the conversation and could just as easily have been shouting, “Save me!”
I sat waiting in the McDonald’s parking lot for about 30 minutes. The time went fast, and I was thinking how a new phase in my life was about to begin. Then the big truck pulled in. An imposing woman stepped out. We introduced ourselves cordially, and she placed a small bag in my car.
A little girl stood there quietly, not saying anything. I’m not an overly affectionate or sociable person, so I stalled at making eye contact with her, and focused on exchanging formalities and receiving militant instructions from the foster mom. The entire exchange took less than five minutes. Finally, I bent over, said, “I’m Brandi,” and gave the tiny girl a gentle hug.
She was six years old, but closer to the size of a three year old. She had feet and hands the size of a toddler, if not an infant, and her head was noticeably small, which concerned me at first glance. I’d only seen a couple of low-resolution photos of her before we met.
“Are you ready?” I asked. She smiled, said, “Yes!” and climbed in my back seat. That was it. We headed back to Reno together. After a couple miles, she spoke her first real words to me, “Can you turn up the music?” I did, just like my mom and dad turned up the music the countless times my brother and I made the same backseat request as kids, and all of those times flashed through my head, and instantly, I realized, my parents were good.
It started to rain, and then it started to lightning and rain so hard we could barely see the road. Then we hit water, and the car spun in one direction, and then another. In my head, I noticed the canyon wall on the right, and I thought to myself, “Good job, Brandi. Five minutes, and you already killed her.” Out loud I said, “Woo hoo! It’s like we’re in a boat.” Now anytime it rains while we are driving, she still says, “Remember when our car turned in to a boat?” I think it’s her first happy memory.
We made it back to our hotel room at Circus Circus in Reno. The elevators were out, but we were only on the fourth floor, so we headed for the stairs. She was six years old, but that’s when I learned she didn’t really know how to walk up and down stairs. She took one step at a time, like a toddler, holding the banister with one hand and my hand with the other.
We got to our room and made a few brief phone calls. As soon as Charley was on speakerphone with Grandma and Grandpa, I could hear that they already loved her. Just like that. We also called Uncle Heath and Aunt Mary in Philadelphia and our friend, Tanya, back in Montana, who also already loved her. She could barely talk to Tanya because she was so giggly and giddy about the size of the bed she’d get to sleep in that night. Charley still talks about those phone calls, and that bed, like other kids talk about Christmas or trips to Disneyland.
We spent most of our time the next five days walking in Reno, talking and looking at things, in the hundred-degree heat. We trudged up and down the stairs in the hotel several times a day. By the time we left for Butte on the fifth day, Charley had gone from being exhausted after awkwardly walking a couple of city blocks, to easily trekking several miles in a day. And she could run up the stairs. “This will be easy,” I thought, as I basked in the glory of her running past me.
We flew home late on the 5th of July. “They told me I might see god in the clouds,” she said as we were flying. “No,” I said, “but if you look down, you can see Salt Lake City.” People were still lighting fireworks, and we watched the ground sparkle and pop as we left Salt Lake for Montana. She stayed awake for the whole flight, and people on the plane complimented me on how sweet and well behaved she was. Again, I thought, “This is going to be easy.” We arrived in Butte a little after midnight, July 6, my dad’s birthday.
Today, two years have passed since Charley and I first looked each other in the eyes in that McDonald’s parking lot. Very little about it has been easy. My mom was diagnosed with cancer the day after we landed in Butte. Charley spent over 50 days with her, all day, every day. Even though it was short, we built memories. Some kids only visit their grandparents a few days a year, so I feel lucky she had so much time with her, even if it happened all at once. During that time, if I was correcting or disciplining Charley, my mom, often too sick to get out of bed, would call me and my dad into her room, and with her full fierceness, she would command, “You two had better be nice to that little girl. She’s just a baby.” Charley heard her and reminds me often.
I could write a thousand pages on the things I didn’t expect and another thousand on how the foster system is harming children in spite of their best intentions. Instead, I’ll end with a few good things about Charley.
She’s grown over a foot since she landed in Butte. She went from toddler to 8-year-old physically in two years, including her feet, hands, and head (phew). She could barely color, and within months, she could draw far better than I could at her age. She couldn’t assemble a puzzle, play with toys, or use her imagination. Now she can. And she reads above her age level, every day, by choice. Charley loves nature, people, and animals, and is gentle with them all. She has already seen over 20 grizzly bears in her life, and she has climbed mountains.
It’s probably not appropriate to publicaly admit I’ve almost given up dozens of times, but I have, and I suspect I will again. In some ways, the last couple years have felt like decades, but in other ways, it seems like just a few weeks have passed. It definitely feels like Charley has been here forever. If I could go back, and know then what I know now…(deep breath)…I’d do it again. Maybe I will do it again. I’m sure it must get easier.
Brandi Watts strives to be a creative and compassionate being who spreads harmony in the universe. She lives in Montana and often spends time in nature with family and friends, thriving on the beauty of the mountainous country that surrounds her. In addition to writing, taking photos, and creating other visual arts, she also works from her home as a professional writer, designer, and problem solver for a behavioral health company in Oregon. During the last decade, Brandi has had the opportunity to frequently teach creative, technical, and business writing and graphic design at the local college. She is currently working on a fiction novel, and her goals in life are to keep writing and making art while ensuring her actions align with her conscience.