In class, philosopher Cornell West once said that every story that has ever been told is either a tragedy, a story with a sorrowful ending, a comedy, a story with a happy ending, or a tragicomedy, a story with elements of both. The tragicomedy, West said, is the most difficult story to tell, but it is the most powerful.
Angel Mateo was 17 months old when he entered our lives. We were his first non-family placement, but his fourth placement in four months. He was shipped from one family member to another until none were left. We expected a traumatized child to arrive at our front door. But Angel Mateo had almost no signs of trauma. He slept like a rock, met every strange new face with poise, and greeted every ball he saw with an enthusiastic “BALL!” as though it was the first time he had encountered this spherical admixture of magic and fun. Joy exuded through every pore of this boy.
We fell in love.
One of the beautiful things about fostering is that you learn to love the other. When you look at your own child in your arms, you can be captivated by the ways this being reflects yourself back at you. There is a powerful beauty in beholding oneself in another.
But there is also beauty in closely examining one so different than yourself. My children are blue-eyed. Angel Mateo has the warmest liquid chocolate eyes I’ve ever looked so closely into. His adorably stubby nose stood in contrast to our prominent, pointed noses. His comprehension of two languages at such a young age fascinated me.
When he was particularly happy or resolute, his hands would ball into fists, his arms would tuck up, he would swing his hips, and his stocky legs would powerfully meet the ground in a cartoonish march. It’s that march that earned him the affectionate nickname “Thumper.”
When I grew out my beard, Angel Mateo would grip it with his pudgy hands and look into my eyes, and then, when I put him to bed, he would run his cheek back and forth over my beard while I held him in my arms and stroked his back.
And so, when we learned that Angel Mateo was going back home our hearts ached. And when, after seven months in our home, the Department of Child Services agent arrived at our doorstep in mid-January to take him to his mom, we wept. There is no way to express to a two-year-old what is going on, that you may never see them again, but that you will love them forever. There is no way to thank a sweet little boy for teaching you about joy and gratitude. When a beautiful child leaves your home, a gaping hole remains. You can’t replace Thumper.
This is a tragedy.
And yet, this is a comedy, too. This isn’t merely a sad story; this is a happy story. Angel Mateo’s mom worked hard to get him back. In seven months, she only missed one visit. She got her GED, and she got her first job. Her mom (Angel Mateo’s grandma), who struggles with addiction, cleaned herself up so that her daughter and Angel Mateo could live with her. Lives changed for the sake of this child.
Over those months, my wife forged a relationship with Angel Mateo’s mom via texting. We cheered her on from afar. And so, when the DCS agent arrived at our doorstep, it was a happy conclusion of months of hard work by his mom and grandma. It was the day an orphan was no longer an orphan, a son was reunited with his mother. It was the start of a new chapter for both mom and son.
This is a happy story. You don’t get many happy stories in foster care. I better not miss them when they’re there.
That happiness doesn’t dampen the hurt, it doesn’t fill the hole in our home. Our story with Angel Mateo is a tragicomedy. It is a story of loss and gain, of success and tears. Each one making the other sweeter.
I think, if I had eyes to see it, most of the tragic stories in my life and are not truly tragic, but are, in fact, tragicomedies.
In Romans 8, Paul speaks of life as a tragicomedy, holding together the suffering and the happy conclusion of the life of a Christian, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” After reflecting on creation, which itself endures this tragicomedy, Paul assures us that in the midst of the tragic, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” And then Paul concludes with those weighty words of hope, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
As tears of loss slip down cheeks, hope awaits. The Spirit sees. And glory is assured.