A goodbye and a new home

Part ll of an occasional series on the adoption of foster-care siblings.

When Pedro, Caroline, and Carlos Trinidad awoke on that gray September Saturday, they knew the countdown had begun. In a few hours, their entire foster family - grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins - would arrive for a party in their honor. The table would be laden with food, as it had been at previous get-togethers. But when this celebration ended, the three siblings would leave their foster family's home for good.

Everyone in the Martinez household tried to act nonchalant. Foster mom Ileana Martinez busied herself in the kitchen while Pedro and Carlos started playing ball in the upstairs hallway with their foster brother, Danny. A few feet away, Caroline brushed her foster sister Ismarys's hair, as she had so many times before. The two had become almost inseparable. Both girls wore jeans and yellow T-shirts.

There was much to celebrate, everyone knew. The Martinezes had provided a good, loving home to the three children for the past five years - nearly half of the children's lives. Now another family, the Ortizes, would give them a permanent home, something that most foster children never get. Of the 500,000 children in foster care in the US each year, about 50,000 get adopted. That number is up from previous years.

"I don't think they're too happy," says Mrs. Martinez, who had wanted to adopt the children but couldn't because her own kids were very ill. "They haven't said anything to me, but at school they've told people they're very sad."

The children - twins Pedro and Caroline, 12, and Carlos, 10 - couldn't verbalize the complex emotions they felt, perhaps a combination of excitement and grief, anticipation and nervousness. But their behavior spoke volumes. Pedro and Carlos squabbled over who would shower first. Caroline kept checking her hair, changing her headband from pink to white to black.

The transition would begin at 1 p.m. That's when the Ortizes would arrive and the farewell party could begin. Until then, the children did their best to pretend this was an ordinary Saturday.

Mrs. Martinez knew what they were thinking, though, just as she had the day they moved into her home in Lawrence, Mass., in 2000. She chuckled, recalling how Caroline and Carlos made themselves at home right away. But Pedro, feeling shy and embarrassed, stood outside the front door, refusing to enter at first. Mrs. Martinez, who became a foster parent in 1999, one year after emigrating to the United States from Cuba, asked him how he was doing. Then, a few minutes later, she asked if he liked to play video games.

"Do you have Nintendo?" she remembers him asking. From then on, Mrs. Martinez knew what to say and do.

But on this day, the best she could offer was hugs and her undivided attention when the children came downstairs.

A few minutes later they did just that. Carlos wrapped his arms around her neck and clung for several minutes. Caroline walked into the dining room, where she and her foster father, Daniel, watched home movies on the video camera.

Then they went back upstairs, to pack a few last treasured items. All the while, the clock kept ticking.

Before noon, Mrs. Martinez began preparing the meal, with help from her mother-in-law. The two women worked quietly, efficiently, making dozens of tuna and ham-salad sandwiches. They opened bags of chips and M&Ms - Caroline loves chocolate - and they put out two store-bought cakes.

"Doesn't the table look pretty," Caroline says.

Together she and Mrs. Martinez made the pièce de résistance: "American salad." The two smiled and laughed as they added ingredients: condensed milk, cream cheese, canned fruit, and mini-marshmallows. "This is so good," says Caroline, with a wide smile. For a few minutes it felt like old times.

Other members of the Martinez family arrived, and the clock continued its slow procession. One o'clock came and went, without the Ortizes. One-fifteen. One-thirty. No one seemed to know what to do.

Carlos, normally full of mischief, hugged his grandmother, resting his head on her shoulder. "My baby," she says in Spanish, stroking his hair. By 1:45 p.m., the tension was almost unbearable.

Finally, at 2 o'clock the Ortizes arrived, full of apologies and smiles. Now the party could begin.

Mrs. Martinez brushed a tear from her cheek as Pedro, Caroline, and Carlos hugged their new adoptive parents. "It's a bad day to take the children. Another time," she joked.

The Ortizes repeated what they had said before: "You will always be part of our extended family."

That statement seemed to lighten the mood, and after a prayer from Mr. Ortiz, a minister, everyone filled their plates. The two fathers sat side by side, talking like old friends. The mothers chatted, too.

The children, however, had some rough moments. Caroline reached for the hand of Helena, her new sister, as if to say, "This is where I belong now." The two ate together on one side of the living room, while Ismarys sat alone on the other. Pedro and Carlos took their lunches outside, where they and some of their foster cousins ate in the Martinezes' van, away from everyone else.

But as tough as the meal was at times, Pedro, Caroline, and Carlos must have known they were loved - by two families. And that would help them get through the next few days and hours.

As the party came to an end, the gray clouds parted. The two dads brought the children's luggage to the Ortizes' minivan. Everyone stood at the curb, and the kisses and tears began. Pedro, Caroline, and Carlos got into the van, buckled their seatbelts, then hopped out again, wanting one last round of hugs.

During the ride to their new home in Malden, Mass., the children said very little. "Everyone tried to act happy," recalls Mr. Ortiz, "but there was some kind of transition in the air."

Roughly 30 minutes later, the family's van pulled into the driveway of their three-story home. There were suitcases to unload and last-minute adjustments to be made. The Ortizes moved some furniture around so that Pedro and Carlos could be in the same third-floor room with their 5-year-old son, Jacob. Caroline moved in with Helena down the hall.

After the kids unpacked, the Ortizes greeted relatives - 17 aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, all of whom had come to meet their new family members. The whole group stood in the dining room as Mr. Ortiz introduced them one by one. "You won't remember all of their names," he told the kids, "but this is just the beginning of your new family relationship."

Three hours later, the children headed up to their rooms to pick out clothes for church the next day, get into bed, and perhaps dream about the new life ahead of them.

Next: How the Trinidad children adapt to their new home. (Part I of this series ran in the Nov. 2 issue of the Monitor.)

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