I was 10 years old when my Mom sat me down in the front room and told me she had some exciting news.
No, she wasn’t having another baby. No, we weren’t going on holiday. Next week a social-worker would be visiting to ask us a few questions. We were, Mom said, going to become a "foster family." Wouldn’t that be fun?
I was a shy child who had to be shooed outside to play, and even then I spent most of my time alone. The other kids hung out in gangs as I collected insects or sat in a tree. I was the oldest of several children, but I was a seasoned loner.
Eileen was the social-worker’s name. On the first occasion we met, she sat in one chair and I sat in another. "I want to ask you a few questions," Eileen said, "about your thoughts on becoming a foster-sister. How do you feel about it?"
I’d never been asked before about my feelings on any subject and I remember staring in a kind of bewildered way at the plate of fancy biscuits on the table between us. I had no idea how I felt and I was aware that in our house biscuits only appeared on very important occasions.
I was sitting on a swing in the garden on the day the first foster child arrived. A taxicab came to a halt on our gravel driveway and out of it stepped a girl who seemed only a few years older than me. In her arms was a baby wrapped in a blanket. An older woman stepped out after her.
It was the beginning of summer and I watched from a distance as my mother welcomed this small curious party into the house, and closed the front door.
Baby Lucy was the foster child. Her mom was too young to raise her and soon a cradle was set up in the corner of our living room, bottles lined the kitchen draining board and the scent of talcum filled the fair.
She was what they call a "pre-adoption" baby. As the social-workers searched for her long-term home, Baby Lucy lay gurgling. Sometimes I’d go and stand beside her to touch the top of her head and try to make sense of it all. Why did some people have babies they couldn’t raise? Where would she go? Would I ever see her again after she left?
After Baby Lucy came a stream of teenage girls, one after the other. They came for weeks, months or sometimes years. In my teenage years, I became used to the presence of policemen, rape counselors and caseworkers in my home. They came with the girls at any time of the night or day.
I arrived at the breakfast table one morning and sitting there, eating cornflakes, was a girl with a purple bruise flowering above her eye. I learned when to ask questions and when to ask none.
In crisis situations, adults often forget to communicate information to children. They forget that children cope much better when they know what’s happening. But I wonder if often what is happening is so complex and subtle that perhaps even the adults don’t have the language or the correct responses.
I was in a supermarket one time with my Mom and a foster-sister who had been living with us for a few months when a neighbor casually pulled her trolley up alongside ours and started to make small talk.
"What age is your eldest now?" the neighbor asked.
"Sixteen," Mom replied pointing to my foster sister. In just two short syllables I had been demoted as the eldest of the family.
By the age of 20, I had lived with almost 30 girls, who each stayed for various lengths of time, generally not less than six weeks. I learned to live with strangers, and to develop an emotional understanding of what sisterhood really means.
Sisterhood is not purely based on blood or biological connection; it is often something mysterious that comes from a place of familiarity and recognition. It has nothing to do with time and everything to do with how time is spent.
A person can live with another for years and develop no emotional connection. A person can live with another for a few weeks and develop an unshakeable bond. For me, it comes down to the ability one has to feel safe in the presence of another.
Patricia is the sister I remain closest to. We lived together for over 10 years and despite a large age difference, I came to recognise in her a hurt I completely understand. For many years we shared a room and out of ordinary everyday living situations came candid questions and conversation. Patricia was not very old when she turned to me one day and asked simply, "How can a mom just abandon a child?"
Learning to love being a foster-sister has been a long, slow process. At times, it has been lonely and -- as I explained recently to my therapist -- I gained a lot from the experience. But I also lost a lot. I lost a degree of innocence and stupidity about the harshness of the world. I lost my ability to be selfish sometimes, when required. I lost my own special relationship with my Mom.
"How do you feel about that?" my therapist asked recently, leaning back in her leather chair. It’s been 20 years since I last sat in a chair opposite a care-worker.
"Conflicted," I replied. I feel both sad and grateful. I feel hurt, but I’ve also gained a unique insight into what it means to be human.
In my adult life today, I have what I consider to be a compassionate outlook. I have a deep sensitivity toward women in vulnerable situations, and an attuned understanding of why people sometimes act the way the do. I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes, even despite the best intentions, we cause immeasurable hurt to the ones we love.