She was small for four-years-old, with light brown hair cut short and bangs bordering a pale, pixie face. Her dark brown eyes could not hide the pain and fear that was churning inside. Carrie had been taken into care by the authorities following an incident of domestic violence in her home. She was now going to be placed temporarily with my husband and me.
I too felt fear. I had never been a parent before let alone a foster parent now taking on a child — a troubled one at that. Oh, I had read all the books. My degree on the wall said I knew all this intellectual stuff. But I didn’t feel like I knew anything. As I looked at my husband, ‘Al’, I wondered if he felt the same apprehension. How would Carrie react to him as a male considering her experiences with her father?
Our first days and weeks together were not as I expected. There was no honeymoon period. We were immediately dealing with a very distressed little girl. For example, at mealtimes Carrie would not eat. She mostly stared and poked at her food. We tried gently prodding, ignoring, encouraging, even bribing — my personal no-no. We tried making favorite kids’ foods like hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. Even desserts were rejected. Nothing helped. It became frustrating and infuriating as our patience wore thinner and thinner.
Bedtimes were clearly terrifying for this wounded child. Even with a night light on to chase away the demons, Carrie’s eyes brimmed with tears as she clutched my hand in desperation when I tried to leave her.
“Sit with me,” she cried.
And I did. I read bedtime stories until she could barely keep her eyes open.
“Sometimes I have bad dreams,” she said. “There are snakes crawling all over me. Sometimes there are dinosaurs chasing me.”
But when sleep could no longer be denied, she pulled the covers over her head and burrowed underneath like a turtle in its shell. I worried how she could breathe, so once she was asleep, I pulled back the blankets to find a little girl swimming in a sea of perspiration in her self-made cocoon. This burrowing behavior also occurred whenever Al came into her bedroom to say good night or good morning.
Some days, as she dressed herself, she looked at her reflection in the mirror and mumbled softly, “I’m an ugly girl.”
“You’re so pretty!” I countered.
But reality and reassurances did nothing to assuage her self perception. Minor mistakes were enough to trigger self-recriminations such as, “Nobody likes me. I hate myself!”
Then, after months of curling herself up like a ball on the chair at the dinner table, an unexpected incident blew a hole through the thick wall she had built around her. Al suddenly turned to Carrie, took the spoon from her hand and shook it at her vigorously shouting, “Eat! Eat!”
The silence that followed was deafening! I was in shock. Carrie looked as if a bolt of lightning had struck her. Her whole body froze, her mouth and eyes wide open. Then just as suddenly, Al’s face melted into a smile, followed by a burst of laughter. The tension broken,
Carrie too erupted with a loud and explosive laugh.
And then the strangest thing happened. She took the spoon from his hand, shook it back at him, then proceeded to shovel the food on her plate into her mouth all the while muttering to herself, “Eat! Eat!” And she did — voraciously! Carrie repeated this scenario every mealtime for the next several weeks, and it gradually subsided.
From that miraculous moment on, she made progress by leaps and bounds. I will leave it to the mental health experts to analyze what happened here, but whatever it was we were grateful. Other dramatic changes followed. For example, she turned her fear of Al into a game of peek-a-boo whenever he came into her bedroom. She burrowed under the covers, peeked her head out, laughed gleefully, then burrowed again.
Magically, other things began to change. Little things. Like the day she looked at herself in the mirror and said proudly,
“I’m Carrie,” then kissed her image in the mirror, saying, “I love myself!”
Neighborhood children came to call and she went happily outside to play, coming home with invitations to birthday parties
We knew Carrie’s stay with us was temporary. Even so, when the call came, many tears were shed. Before she left, however, we gave her a final parting gift — a doll that could be fed with her own spoon.
“Oh, she’s beautiful!” she exclaimed. “I think I’ll call her Carrie.”
“That’s a beautiful name. You take good care of her now.”
A few final hugs and she walked out of our lives for the last time. We just hope she took something from this brief encounter she could carry with her for the rest of her life.
*Some details were changed to maintain the integrity of confidentiality.
A longer version of this story was published in Homemakers magazine in May 2000 under the title “Carrie”.