We have said goodbye to a dear child who had been part of our family for almost a year. This was part of her care plan and we had all been working towards the end of this placement for many weeks. It is, for her, the best possible outcome. And yet...She is too young to come to terms with everything that has happened in her short life and cannot understand why another move is required now that she has settled. And we feel her absence deeply as we pick up where we left off before she arrived, anxious and bewildered, all those months ago.
She leaves us with many happy memories, as have all the children who have been in our care. Like all foster carers we rarely have time to reflect on the wonderful times we have enjoyed. This seems like a good moment to pause and consider some of the very best.
1. First trip to the seaside: They come as a threesome, and woe betide anyone who comes in between. Hyperactive bundles of energy, with an extraordinary curiosity about the world that exists beyond their estate. Even though they have lived only a few miles from the seaside, this is their first outing to the beach, and it proved to be a meeting of powerful forces. The oldest run wild, splashing through the waves, but their little brother stays at the shore, shrieking at the approach of every ripple. He puts his ear to the wet shingle, listening to the drag of the water. Even as the sun sets and the air chills they don't want to leave, refusing to believe that this magnificent playground will still be there when they next return.
2. Riding without stabilisers: She barely seems strong enough to support her new bike. But there can be no doubting her determination: she will not leave the park today until she can cycle without her training wheels. There are falls and there are bumps; there are tears and tantrums. But suddenly, when all hope seems lost, she takes flight. She's pedalling and pedalling and beyond our reach. If only she had learned how to stop without falling off... Her mum should be there to enjoy this wonder. Instead, we are there, relative strangers, and we feel blessed.
3. School report: It has been a tough year, with more strife and uncertainty than any child should have to bear. How relevant can science and maths be when your family is falling apart. And yet, here it is, an end-of-year school report that makes us almost burst with pride. Her academic progress has been monumental, and she has found her voice, in the classroom, on the sports field, in the playground and even on the stage. Who knew she could sing like that?
4. Easter fun: It is the Easter weekend, and there are children playing in our garden. Quite how many, I couldn't say. Nephews and nieces mingle with children who are living with us now and children who once knew this as their home. And these days there is a grandson too. The garden is big and when the weather is fine an Easter egg hunt or hide-and-seek can last for hours. Our grown-up daughters are the first to begin to hiding and the last ones to give up, and there Easter bonnets will also be full of chocolate eggs. Fostering has given us this.
5. A new Nan: A chance encounter in the street, with the lady who has become our new Nan. There are hugs and kisses, and she introduces herself to the toddler who is hiding shyly behind our legs. He is in foster care and Nan knows what he is going through. Children who are very dear to her were once in our care and we formed a deep friendship during these most turbulent days. Now in much happier times, the children are frequent visitors and they are always welcome so long as Nan comes too.
6. A giant cupboard: I am no carpenter, and I'm not particularly skilled at DIY. So when the lad announced he wanted to build his own cupboard I wasn't sure where to start. I need not have worried: with an extraordinary eye for detail, which is sometimes the gift of autism, he designed the cupboard, ordered me around B&Q to make sure I bought the right wood and fittings, and then assembled his own piece of furniture for his bedroom, using a jigsaw, electric drill, sander and power screwdriver. It took us three weekends to complete and I am happy to tell you that neither of us lost any fingers or suffered serious injury, although I did my back in carrying his oversized cupboard up our narrow stairs.
7. A family is born: The doorbell rings, and we welcome the couple who are to become the parents of the baby held in my wife's arms. It is a moment of deep joy, to be present as a family is made, and also of profound sadness, for we know that the time has come when our work is done and we must say goodbye. But today there is much laughter, and looking forward. We share an extraordinary bond through the love of a child born to someone else.
8. Singing: This is not one single memory but a collection of memories. As a foster carer I sing, badly, hopelessly out of tune, but frequently, with my family and children of all ages: nursery rhymes, lullabies and pop tunes, at home or in the car. For many years I did not sing and now I do. Go figure.
9. Acceptance: A candlelit dinner with my wife, during a weekend break in Budapest, of all places. A moment of enlightenment. As we reflect on issues that children in care must deal with, I suddenly understand that I was not to blame for events that had been my burden since childhood. For a few years my life spiralled out of control and I had accepted without question that it had all been my fault. It wasn't, and it was essential to acknowledge this to be able to help the children who come into care with their own sense of guilt. This remains one of my most vivid memories of fostering, and it guides me through my daily life.