Off the Wall


I’m sure it looked like I was being kidnapped.

It was the middle of the day, the kids were at school and I was leaving my house with an unfamiliar man. And he was more than just unfamiliar – there were shades of Stranger Danger. He was dressed in baggy, droopy clothes, had a neck tattoo, studded eyebrow, a scraggly billy-goat beard and what looked like claws piercing each earlobe. With his hat pulled low on his head and his shoulders hunched, we got into my van and drove off.

He may have been unrecognizable, but he was hardly unknown. Several years ago, Justin had been my foster son. He was in town visiting a new girlfriend and decided to stop by. We visited for about an hour and then left to grab a coffee at Timmies. It wasn’t until we got back that I realized someone watching us leave might have been concerned.

Back at the house, we sat around drinking our coffees, reminiscing and the subject of weight came up. Justin had been a tall, lanky teenager but last time I saw him – two years ago – he was carrying quite a few extra pounds. On this visit, Justin was back to his own slim self. He told me that some of his friends were worried about his weight-loss because they’d never seen him so thin. I asked if he had shown them old pictures and he told me he didn’t have any – a former girlfriend had thrown them away.

I immediately got up from my chair and walked toward the staircase. Justin’s eyes followed me as I took one of the framed photos off the wall. It was a candid group shot of some of my foster kids. Of the five guys in the picture, only one was still living with me. The other four had left, at different times, for different reasons. But looking at that picture still makes me smile. I had hung that photo years ago, and it never occurred to me to take it down or replace it.

As a foster parent, I’ve consciously avoided having a vanity wall. I do have some photos hanging around: near the stairs, in the living room, magnets on the fridge. But nothing formal or contrived. I figure if you take enough photos, even someone like me can get a few good ones. And the good ones get framed.

So I handed the photo to Justin and, luckily, I was watching him as the emotions whirled across his face. Confusion, surprise, embarrassment, pleasure, ending with a nostalgic smile.

And it was the smile, the transcendental smile, that melted away the years and burned through the ink and hardware. My Justin was still there and, I hope, he remembers I’ll always be here.

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