Reaching out in compassion has come into vogue again. It's considered high fashion now to help the needy, causes in Africa or India, adoptions, you fill-in-the blank. But each author was drawn to this week’s topic for a reason. Today I’m chatting with novelist Carolyne Aarsen who writes inspirational romances. As you enjoy our chat, you’ll find within its folds her inspiration for writing coming in the surprising package of a boy named Justin.
PATTY: Welcome, Carolyne, and thanks for chatting about this very personal time in your life. Could you first share the process that led you make these life-changing decisions.
CAROLYNE: Thank you, Patty. My husband and I had always talked about finding ways to save the world. We had always felt we had been given so much and wanted to give back. We had four children ourselves, so we knew that whatever we did had to happen at home. So we decided to foster.
PATTY: We did this a few years when our youngest was around two. That made six children in the Hickman hacienda. We were a little idealistic about it at first. How about you?
CAROLYNE: We had starry-eyed dreams of changing one child's life and making them a better person - of taking all the gifts we knew had been lavished on us and giving back. What was kind of interesting, looking back now, was that we had four children under the age of 9, we lived in a broken down house that we were renovating and my husband had just started his own business. Now, I wonder what we were thinking. But at the time, we were full of caring and generosity of spirit.
PATTY: It’s a courageous act, to bring children you don’t know under your roof with your own children. What sort of rearranging did you have to do in your life to include this kind of life change?
CAROLYNE: When we first applied to be foster parents, we specifically stated that we preferred younger children and that we didn't feel we were capable of taking care of a handicapped child.
PATTY: I’ve met those few angelic souls who specifically request a handicapped child, but it’s not something I would have asked for either. But sometimes we don’t always get what we ask for, do we?
CAROLYNE: That’s right. We got a phone call from Social Services about a one year old boy who had spent most of the first year of his life in the hospital. He had cerebral palsy, suffered from seizures, couldn't sit up, couldn't lift his head, and was malnourished. He also had a stomach tube. He sounded like a child that would be too much work. However, we discussed the matter and then I thought I would go see him for myself.
PATTY: That was brave.
CAROLYNE: When I held this helpless child in my arms, I smelled hospital and saw emptiness in his eyes. And I was hooked. We took him in and our entire life was turned upside down. The first week we had him, I went twice to the emergency department to get his stomach tube reinserted. After the first month, and more sudden trips to the emergency ward, I thought we had taken on too much and I wondered how we could keep on.
PATTY: I can relate to that sense of, “What have I done now?”
CAROLYNE: We leaned heavily on the Lord and on friends and family to take care of this child. But what really added to the burden was that on top of taking care of him, we were also supposed to be involved with his mother, a young single woman who already had one child. The supposed goal was to have her learn to take care of Justin and be able to take him back. I knew, after a month, that this girl had more than enough to deal with in her life and would never be in any position to take care of Justin and all his needs. However, we dutifully went through the motions. She came when she could, and we got to know each other over cups of tea and cookies.
PATTY: Grace in action.
CAROLYNE: Then, against all odds, Justin began to recognize us, began to put on weight. He finally grew teeth, his hair came back in, his eyes brightened and his skin took on a healthy glow. And we loved him even more. He grew and started learning to do all the things he should be doing.
PATTY: But probably more than even food and regular healthcare, he needed the abiding touch of people who loved him.
CAROLYNE: I got to know the pain and sorrow in his mother's life. How she had been abused and treated and how she was a lost and lonely soul herself. We always said we had two foster children when we had Justin - him and his mother. We learned, through spending time with her, of another side to our lovely town. The evening side, the darker side.
PATTY: Perspective comes with the package.
CAROLYNE: The people who get up at 2:00 in the afternoon, wander around town then party all night. We found out about drug abuse and physical abuse. We got to see, up close and person, the results of that lifestyle, made even more real when the young, pretty woman who came into our house every week, sat across from us in the hospital, her face a mass of cuts and bruises.
PATTY: You were now inviting those feet under your dinner table.
CAROLYNE: We hurt for her and felt inadequate. What could we offer this broken woman? Then, one day as we were sitting on our deck in the sunshine, she turned to me and gave me an awkward hug. "You're like a mother I never had," she said to me. It sounded cliche and in any movie I would have been watching it could easily have been corny. But she made me cry. And she made me want to do better for her.
PATTY: What seemed to you like an inadequate gesture to her was like making her a member of the family.
CAROLYNE: Our life was initially invaded by these two lost, hurting souls and there were many, many times that I felt I couldn't do this anymore. I couldn't face one more leak from a stomach tube, do one more round of physio, visit one more doctor or specialist, re-attach one more oxygen hose, clean out one more filter. I felt, at times, like I was cheating my own children of their precious childhood because of the time this child took up.
PATTY: How were you able to write?
CAROLYNE: I needed escape. I needed to find a place where I was in charge. Out of desperation and a need to find something that was just me, I started writing. I worked on my first book the entire time Justin was in our home and then, as his care grew too great, set it aside.
PATTY: How long did you care for Justin?
CAROLYNE: We carried on until, four years after we took him in, Justin went into the hospital to have hip surgery and, at the same time, a new stomach tube.
PATTY: This was a crisis for a little boy having already gone through so much.
CAROLYNE: The day before we were supposed to take him home, he passed away.
PATTY: I’m sorry.
CAROLYNE: We went through the grieving and loss and all the emotions attached to this rend in our lives. But after, as we began to heal, we realized the gift this child had been to us. The lessons he taught us. He was completely helpless, he had so little, yet his smile made us feel like we had given him the world. He gave us hope and he gave us pain.
PATTY: He taught you lessons.
CAROLYNE: But he showed us that maybe saving the world doesn't happen in big ways.
PATTY: Look at the small town ministry that Jesus carried on over such a short amount of time. It boils down to obedience in the small things.
CAROLYNE: My husband and I are no saints by any stretch of the imagination. And when we took Justin in, we learned more from him than we could have from any course, any book.
PATTY: There is so much wisdom found in opening our hearts to those who have never known an open heart. Perhaps Jesus spoke so long and hard on love was because he knew that when we unpacked it we’d find all the treasure his Word promises us.
CAROLYNE: As a writer, I'm trying to find the big dramatic finish to this story, but there really isn't any. We took a child in. Through him God tested us and blessed us in ways we could not have imagined. Our children learned compassion and caring. We are still learning. But Justin made a huge impact on us and I know our family has not regret for the time we had with him.
PATTY: Carolyn, that’s a beautiful epilogue to a life well-lived. Thank you so much for sharing with us today on Words to Go.
I appreciate all of your comments this week. Words to Go is provided for readers in order to help them connect in a more personal way with today’s popular writers. We share our stories to lift up and encourage rather than weigh down with obligation. Christ leads all of us to reach out in love within the circle of influence he’s placed us in. It can be as small as checking in on a grieving friend or as big as inviting a child into your family. It’s not about whether or not you get some impressive story out of it to write that ends with a big finale, as Carolyne so aptly put it; it’s really just another part of the story of the human condition, of humans connecting and joining God in His work. It’s a way of finding common ground, putting mistrust behind, and embracing people not like us for the purposes that their Creator had in mind.
Tomorrow, I can’t wait for you to hear novelist Harry Kraus’s astounding story of an adventure he and his family embarked on as they made room in their lives for compassion.
See you tomorrow, compassionate friends.