To be sure: We did not go into this whole host-parenting thing blind.
To be equally sure: There is a big difference between having sight and 20/20 vision.
When I researched and wrote the article “Rewriting Their Stories,” I literally took notes on what being a host parent was like from someone who was actively doing it. I also observed what being a host parent was like, thanks to my job at the hospital, as well as the miracle of live in-your-home video calls made popular thanks to a killer virus.
Rewriting their stories Host parents play important role in Shriners Hospitals international efforts to change lives It’s less than an hour before surgery, and Soumaila is taking deep whiffs from an oxygen mask that has been scented with cake batter. The mask isn’t hooked up to anything. It’s a replica that is part of a […]
But as I know is common from decades of doing this whole storytelling thing, when you pop in and then pop out of someone’s life, you never get the full pie that is their existence. At best, you get a tiny slice — and, if you’re good, you can then extrapolate to fill in some of the missing pieces. Still, you’re never getting the whole thing. Ever. I don’t care if you’re doing in-depth research on a book. You will never know anyone’s full story.
That’s because human beings are amazingly complex creatures. And just when you think you’ve got someone figured out, a new variable hits their lives and that story changes.
I’ve written two books about the death of my first son. Both of them were deeply heart-felt and put forward strongly held beliefs that I thought would never change.
That doesn’t make what I wrote in those books any less valid. It just underscores the impermanence of even those things we hold sacred. People’s lives are infinitely more nuanced than the parts they show the world.
And that’s where the surprises in this whole host parenting thing have come.
In doing my research for the story I mentioned above, I heard from multiple people: The only thing you really have to pay for is food.
My family is not of great means. We have been hit hard by some financial things in the past decade. Hard. That could have been an easy out to not be a host parent. But then there’s a little boy stuck in Africa with broken legs and no real chance at a future.
When we found out D was coming to live with us for six to nine months, it seemed logical to start a Go Fund Me to help defray some of the costs. What I’ve learned during the many trials in my life is that people want to help. We do the world and them a disservice if we don’t allow generosity to happen.
No matter what we were told — that the only thing we were going to have to pay for was some more food — I knew the extra money would help, if only for that additional food. We stretch every dollar we can as it is.
And people gave. Their generosity in money and clothes and toys was astounding.
It also led some people to throw darts at us and accuse us of trying to profit off of D’s stay.
Now, this could be something that enrages a host dad. The implication is, at best, that I am a person of dubious moral character and, at worst, a criminal. I admit, I still have to stuff down some misgivings when I am around these people. I also can show them receipts that detail how the money donated to take care of D has gone to do exactly that — and is long gone.
Because it’s not just food. Here’s just a small sliver of the other expenses that come with being a host parent:
- Gas: It takes fuel to make a car go on those hour-and-a-half round trips to the hospital. We gladly make them and knew we would have to. That doesn’t mean they’re free.
- Diapers: We were told two days before D arrived that he might not be potty trained and that he would be flying over wearing a diaper for the ease of the amazing woman who was bringing not only him but four of his tiny countrymen. “He might not even have a toilet where he lives, so be prepared for him to go anywhere.” Indeed, we’ve learned that he does his thing somewhere outside at home. And his legs made it impossible to really stand up and pee. Leg casts and now braces makes it impossible to sit on the potty and get that downward angle that would prevent him from peeing all over himself. So we’ve been using diapers and pull-ups. Lots of them.
- Medicine: Kids who have surgery need pain meds. So there’s that. Then, midway through D’s stay, we were thrown a huge curveball. During one of what’s no 14 (I think) surgeries, D contracted a staph infection. A nasty one. A 104-degree-temperature-stay-in-the-hospital-for-two-weeks one. One that, when he got out of the hospital, requires not-cheap antibiotic three times a day and will do so for a year, if the doctors have their way. When these kids come over, they don’t have Obamacare. They have nothing. So you’re paying full price for this stuff.
- Experiences: To be fair, this is, indeed, discretionary money. We could simply sit home and have D watch TV or play with toys all day. But really? You’re not going to take the kid to a baseball game? We got free tickets. But there’s parking and, yes, food. How about bowling? The zoo? Science center? McDonald’s a time or two? The things you would do in the course of your normal family life now come with the added expense of another child. When you leave surgery that didn’t start until 2 p.m., meaning D didn’t eat all day and had only a Popsicle when he woke up in recovery, you’d be cruel if you didn’t stop somewhere to get something for him to eat for the drive home.
- Stuff: Again, yes, discretionary. But when all the neighborhood kids, who are so amazingly nice to him, are out in the cul-de-sac riding bikes and D can’t join them because his legs don’t work on a regular bike, you might want to get him that special bike that allows him to pedal with his hands. Don’t have to, no. But wouldn’t you want to?
- Time: Carla works a part-time job to help us attempt to make ends meet. Two days a week, eight hours a day, she goes in and helps a guy run his handyman business by being his front-office person. Except now, she can’t work those two days a week all the time. There are doctors appointments, physical therapy appointments and other things to consider. Her boss has been kind enough to allow her to bring D with her (it’s a really small office), and D does a great job of entertaining himself while she returns phone calls and such — for a while. Eight hours? That’s a bridge too far for most 4-year-olds. And D is definitely part of the “most” group.” So now she might work one six-hour day a week. That loss of income is felt.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
And please, this is not some roundabout plea for money. People’s generosity has been greatly appreciated, and we will pay it forward someday. But we aren’t looking for more money.
(Sarcasm alert: I wouldn’t want my detractors to think I’m building up a Walter White-sized stash somewhere.)
What I’m saying is this: There’s more to host parenting than purchasing extra food. There are a lot — a lot — of expenses that you willingly, happily take on because you fall in love with this kid whom you at one point before he arrived couldn’t imagine ever thinking of as one of your own.
But you do.
And so you buy the chicken nuggets on the way home from his 11th surgery in two months and pick up the refilled prescription from the drug store, no matter the cost, and get the special bike so he can play with his new friends. And you are intensely happy to see all the benefits your host kids gets from them.
Sustenance. Healing. Entertainment.
You smile that “inside” smile you last smiled when you saw your own kid at that age enjoying those presents that “Santa” knew he would love or when he finally got over that infection and was back to his old self.
Listen, no one lied to us about host parenting. Maybe we didn’t know all the right questions to ask. Maybe we just dove into the deep end of the lake before realizing it wasn’t a pool and that unseen things sometimes swim under the surface.
But the reality is this: Even if we had known the challenges — the unexpected financial things, the twists and turns in a healing journey of this magnitude, we wouldn’t do a damn thing differently; We would have still quickly said “yes” when the opportunity arose to bring over this little guy — this specific kid — for life-changing surgery he would never have been able to get where he lives.
We’d do it over again.
All of it.
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