"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Modern Family

When I met Mike he was footloose and fancy-free—an unattached, single man in his late thirties with no children, a rarity in Utah. With my shared custody arrangement for my daughter, I often have four day/five night stretches free from the daily tasks and responsibility of mothering.  For several months we enjoyed days on end of fun, frivolous time together, just the two of us enjoying each other’s company, doing what we wanted when we wanted.  In many ways it seemed like we were in a charmed, protected little bubble. Little did I know how dramatically things would change.   
Most people who know me also know that Mike now has a foster son, Isaac.  Newspaper articles published earlier this year tell the story about how he came to be in Mike’s care.  To read them, click on these links. Expected Step, Fighting to Become an American Citizen
Going from being childless to being responsible for a 17-year old boy is a huge change.  Fortunately, Mike is very laid back and pretty much takes everything in stride. Isaac is similar, which is probably due to his upbringing, and the fact that he had to learn to roll with the punches early in life. Things have definitely changed from the early days of our relationship, with more than a few bumps in the road due to the many challenges that come with making the abrupt shift from being childless to having a teenager.  I have to admit that at times I’ve been less than supportive, and have been discouraged by the many hurdles due to Isaac’s lack of citizenship. Not having legal status hampers his ability to legally work, making him dependent in ways most American teenagers his age aren’t.  Along with the challenges though, there have been many fun times and new experiences shared. Isaac is a hard worker, and a compassionate, caring person, who rarely, if ever, complains. He’s also just plain fun to be around. I’ve been able to re-experience many things that have become commonplace to me as Isaac discovers them for the first time.
Dinner the other night is a great example.  It was a pretty ordinary meal of chicken salad with blue cheese dressing (No offense to the cook for calling it ordinary.  Like everything Mike makes, it was beautifully presented and very tasty).  Even though it was an unremarkable meal for us, it marked another first for Isaac.  He’d never had blue cheese dressing before!  Mike teased him about blue cheese being what sophisticated people eat. Not that Isaac cared; he just thought it tasted good. The rest of the dinner was spent talking and laughing about the many new experiences Isaac’s had, some good, some not so good, like the Wasabi peas Mike goaded him into trying.  Those definitely fall into the “Dislike” category, and I think Isaac still holds a bit of a grudge for being tricked into trying them. 
Here’s a short list of just some of the new things we’ve experienced together this past year

  • Sushi – the verdict is still out on this.  Isaac ate more than one roll, but he didn’t rave about the meal. 
  • S’mores – I had no idea that Isaac hadn’t had them before, which explains his lack of enthusiasm when we talked excitedly about making them around the fire pit one night early this summer.
  • Driver’s license – this was more a formality than anything else.  Like most teenage boys, he’s very comfortable driving a car. 
  •  Quinceañera – this was kind of a first for all three of us.  Isaac performed traditional Mexican dances at the celebration, and Mike and I attended our first Quinceañera.  
  • Stadium concert – The bar may have been unintentionally set a little high by taking Isaac to see U2 for his first stadium concert experience.
  • Cooking for a date – Mike taught Isaac his go to “cooking to an impress a lady meal” of Chicken Alfredo with Bananas Foster for dessert.
  • Corn in a cup, sliced mango with chili powder and Sopes with cooked pigskin – Isaac treated us to traditional Mexican snacks one evening.  Mike and I were good sports and took one bite of the Sopes with cooked pigskin, but refused to eat more.   
  • BLT’s – again I was perplexed at his lack of enthusiasm for this summer favorite using fresh garden tomatoes.  After having a bite, Isaac asked what was on the sandwich.  He’d never had a BLT before!
Isaac performing at the Quinceañera
Me, Mike and Isaac at U2 Concert
Homework Time
Isaac's First Sushi Meal

This list is off the top of my head.  I’m sure there are many others that I’m forgetting.  There have also been some unpleasant firsts.  Isaac had to say goodbye to his dad, sending him back to Mexico with the knowledge that he may never see him again.  He also spent just over a month living in a Juvenile Justice Services shelter while waiting for Mike to be approved as his temporary foster parent.  For the past year he’s experienced so much upheaval and change. His resilience and good nature through it all has been amazing to watch.

For the first time I’ve experienced subtle, unspoken racism.  It’s funny how people are so supportive when they hear about Isaac, but when confronted with interacting with him in their familiar, middle-class, Caucasian-filled environment most pretend that he doesn’t exist.  Maybe they’re uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say? I could go on about racial stereotypes, but that’s a topic for another post.  On the positive side, I’ve watched a friendship develop between my daughter and Isaac, something that’s been very fun to watch.  They tease and support each other much like siblings do. Sometimes, Isaac takes Gillian to the Mexican market for a snack of fresh mango with chili powder. Many evenings they’ll both be at my kitchen table doing homework with the puppies snoring beneath their feet. I love those nights! I also love the nights all four of us eat dinner together, teasing, laughing, and making fun of the cultural differences and misunderstandings that frequently happen with us. Sometimes Isaac tries to teach me a Spanish word, but he usually ends up shaking his head at the futility of it. 

On our first date, Mike promised that if I spent much time with him I’d be pushed out of my comfort zones.  He wasn’t kidding!  I never could have foreseen the many challenges and uncomfortable situations I’ve faced over the last 17 months.  Sometimes I want to go back to that time when it seemed I was in a safe, protected bubble, but I know that isn’t possible.  Life happens, not always the way we think it will.  I’m trying to roll with the punches and enjoy all the new experiences I’m having, but mostly I’m trying to focus on gratitude.  Gratitude for Mike, for Isaac, for my daughter, and for the connection we all share. 

Not long ago I walked into the kitchen to find the three of them with their faces buried in their phones.  I started to say “Is this modern day family time?  You’re together but ignoring each other because of your electronic devices?”  I stopped myself before I said family.  Then it occurred to me. We are a family. Maybe not in a traditional sense, but we do what I think families should do.  We care for each other, we help and support one another, we share the good times and the bad, and we offer shelter from the storm, both literally and figuratively.  We try to instill knowledge and values in our children, hopefully giving them the skills they need to live life successfully as adults. I never imagined this is what getting out of my comfort zone would look like, but I’m glad I took the challenge.     

Mike and I - April 2011


  1. What a lovely story, Keicha. I think it's wonderful what Mike is doing with Isaac, and the fact that you tell the tale with such understanding of the ups and downs of it, it's very touching. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. I am proud to include Isaac as an important person in our family.

  3. Living in a blended family is always a challenge, but also a huge basketful of fun, excitement and great rewards. And having to work at it brings the best of the world to those who stay the course. I love the sound of your family.

    I understand the issues of racism. My daughter-in-law is from Mexico. No matter the subtlety of it, you can't help but notice when it regards someone you care about. My DIL notices, but she doesn't get caught up in it; I, on the other hand, am passionate about bringing respect to every person! I think most people simply don't know quite how to behave in a new situation, and it becomes awkward as they struggle to figure out their responses. Time will help. :)

    I love your story and the news story, as well. Good luck!

  4. Keicha, I am only fairly recently discovering your blog, though I've "known" you for a bit through your mum. (And obviously reading backwards, so now I know who Mike is!). But I can't tell you how much I love this post and how you have built your family and filled your life with discovery. Change is a challenge, and as my friend Jim, who has fostered and since adopted a couple of kids, has said, every day is a discovery. You've rolled with the punches and created a genuine family, as non-traditional as it might be. I loved the photos and getting to know you all better. And I've got to say, Mike scores huge points for creativity with that costume in the other post and also for going through the challenges that must be part of his world.

    On an unrelated but heartfelt note, I really thought the piece you wrote about suicide survivors that Sally shared was amazing. You have such a gift. I see it in this post, that and others. A real gift.


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