I know this isn’t where you thought you would be at age 17. Still in the foster system, a day pass on your birthday, preparing to be shuffled around again, and then again and again. I know.
As a child, you must have thought ahead to 17 and pictured your life very differently. Maybe you pictured a mom and a dad, a decorated bedroom, your face in pictures from family vacations hanging, collage-style, on a wall.
I know that this isn’t where you thought you’d land.
You were here for the day and we did presents and cake. We did streamers and banners and singing and chalk art. You got binoculars, a small safe (because you’ve told me a thousand times that your stuff is always stolen in the system), a mug for your morning cup of creamer with a splash of coffee, and some cash.
It was fun, it was your day. When I dropped you off, you said it was “a most excellent birthday,” because you recently discovered Bill & Ted. I think you meant it, but I know it was hard to leave. I know it was hard to get dropped off somewhere that isn’t a home.
I get it. But I want to make sure you saw what I saw.
The kids, Johnny. When I told my son and the neighbor children (who, collectively, we call “the commune”) that you were definitely coming for your birthday, it was like I had announced that Christmas was coming early.
Jax, who only calls you by your full title, MyBrotherJohnny, changed our Christmas advent calendar to a Johnny Is Coming calendar. The neighbor kids, every single bright and early morning of the past week, knocked on our front door to let us know that there were “THREE MORE DAYS until we see Johnny!” “TWO MORE DAYS!” “ONE MORE DAY!”
They hunted for gifts and wrapped and decorated. They woke up talking about you, they went to bed talking about you.
They chose their most important treasures. To unfamiliar eyes, it looked like a bunch of old junk from their closets, but I think you got it, I think you saw it through their eyes. Jax decorated the dents of his favorite airplane and wrapped it up with that Mexican candy you like in a bedazzled fabric wine bag. (I encouraged him to try a box, but the wine bag was “way more fancy” so that’s what you got.)
Matthew gave you his favorite toy car. Of course it was broken because that’s how much he played with it. His little sister wrapped up her favorite piece of art that hung in their hallway, you got well-read books, a magnifying glass, a Nerf gun, and can I just tell you that when Phoebe, age six, handed you the pink gift bag containing her ceramic fairy house, I almost lost it. She said she used to look at it and see magic. She wants you to see magic, too.
The kids wrapped up their prized possessions for you, their absolute favorite things. They wrapped up their hearts and their excitement and their love in tissue paper and entirely too much tape and gave it all to you.
Because, to them, to us, you’re family.
Here’s the thing, Johnny, no one lands where they thought they were going to land. No one.
If you can let go of what you thought 17 would look like, if you can walk just a little bit away from the idea that a family has to look a certain way and be a certain thing, I think you’ll see that this, this right here, in all it’s quirky and kooky and chaotic glory, is your family.
I know this isn’t where you thought you would be at age 17. But personally, kid, I think you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.
Happy Birthday, Johnny.
A quick note: My year-long experience with Johnny’s life in the child welfare system has been eye-opening and, frankly, heart-breaking. It was a large catalyst for my involvement with a new non-profit, Generation Justice. The goal of Gen Justice is to restore rights to children, starting with those in foster care. It is a labor of love, fueled by our experiences and the simple belief that these kids deserve better. The founder is the mom to the neighbor kids I talk about in this post. Please like us on Facebook, we are very anxious to rally our public support and start changing things up for these children!
Rebecca Masterson is a writer, speaker, and an advocate for children. For more from Rebecca, follow her on Instagram.