It’s still etched into the soft tissue of my mind’s eye. Late home from school, I peer through the slim gap between the frame and the door of my old bedroom. Curled up in the foetal position, a rigid, skeletal body cuts an unfamiliar shape into the mattress. I don’t know him, but he’s my brother.
It’s a strange thing, fostering. When it’s first explained to me by my parents, and subsequently by our ever-enthusiastic social worker, I imagine storks flying through our windows at night. They drop off unblemished bundles of joy and are on their way.
It’s not like this.
The process is like plunging into an ice bath. I knew what we were doing was good: I was told by everyone I looked up to that it was. But it’s still a slap in the face when the freezing water hits, an enforced reconsideration of every decision that’s led to this point. Every promise about the joy of fostering, about its healing powers for your new brother and sister, about how you will grow in the process, is cast into cold and immediate doubt.
But we persist.
Fostering is good. I know it is, even aged 12, even when I struggle to remind myself of this fact as another of my prized Pokémon games go “missing” again. I never fully forget it.
And within months I don’t even need to remind myself that this person, a stranger to me just months ago, is my brother: he just is. The young wanderer who I walked in on, curled up warm, has grown in front of my eyes. On both sides, the fears and inhibitions we both felt at first have seeped slowly away. They never fully leave, but as my brother grows into their new home I find myself growing towards them. It becomes symbiotic.
I was younger then, forced to confront a new – and very real – challenge to my perception of what it was to love and be loved. When we started fostering I loved my mam, dad, sisters and dog. It wasn’t tough. They loved me unconditionally.
But I was existing inside a cushioned reality. I was removed from the tough worlds I walked past every day. Fostering broke the chains. Like Plato’s allegory of the cave, fostering revealed a much bigger, scarier reality, existing just beyond mine.
I tried to explain it to classmates, the things I’d seen and heard from the battle-hardened souls and the trials that led them to our door that winter evening. I tried to explain the fears and anguish that had etched themselves into their psyches, and marked mine indelibly.
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I tried to describe the ugly forms that humanity can take. I relayed the cruelty of the “real world” to those who would listen. Some did. Some were content to remain in their caves, watching the world’s shadows dance on the walls.
Nevertheless, in a few short months my perception was changed. My rudimentary understandings of love shifted. Love was no longer just a part of life – it became life.
At first I thought of fostering merely as a process of healing. Soon, though, it became a process of teaching – and learning. We’d teach our new brother what we knew of caring and safety. We’d teach them what we took for granted. They, in turn, taught us to be grateful for what we had. Together we unlocked doors to realities beyond our own, feeling emotions we hadn’t known existed.
Ultimately, fostering shifts your perception of reality. Bertrand Russell wrote that “look at me” is the most fundamental of the human heart’s desires. For me, every roar and stamp, every tug of my coat sleeve, was a reminder of this truth. Fostering taught me that a cry for attention is a cry to be loved. It’s a lesson that’s stuck with me, that I hold dear as I peer into the little black mirror in my hands and scroll through these same cries in photo form. It’s a lesson for life, and a lesson for love.
And then it ends.
The social worker returns, downtrodden and forlorn. My brother is “moving on”. She mumbles something along the lines of “it’s for the best”. Her eyes tell a different story. As the body that became a brother is whisked away in the back of a beaten up Skoda to start a family all over again, my brothers and sisters crumble and cry. My parents stay strong. Not for themselves. For us. That’s real love.