An Empty Seat on the Plane

We boarded the plane and took our seats, thankful that, despite a steady and increasingly thick snowfall, our flight was still scheduled to depart on time. Evan had flown to New York a few times with me in the past, so he was totally cool with the boarding process and not at all concerned that his ticketed seat was a row in front of the rest of us. He would be relatively oblivious to strangers, engrossed in whatever the iPad game-du-jour happened to be. I took my seat with Elysia; I normally prefer a window seat to help prevent motion sickness, but I acquiesced to my daughter and let her have the view. We were only looking at a wing, anyway. 

As we settled in and began to taxi across the tarmac, I leaned forward to check on Evan. "You okay, bud?"

"Mmm hmm."

I paused, reflecting on the empty seat next to my 11-year-old son. His mother should be sitting there. I had her ticket in my pocket. Instead of speeding to sunny Florida at 550 miles-per-hour to kick it with Harry Potter and company for a few days, however, my bride was at home. I leaned back to my seat, letting my hand linger for a moment on the unoccupied armrest. I hated that she was not with us. I was relatively confident that I could Father my way through a vacation without backup, but I knew that she wanted to be with us. In all honesty, she probably needed the getaway more than I did.

For months we had been wanting to take a family vacation to visit some friends in Daytona and to unwind for a little bit. As we started to gain clarity about our future with the timing of a job change, Erica and I decided one night that we just needed to make it happen. It had been far too long since our last getaway as a family, and we desperately needed some time to recharge. I spent a few days scoping out options, and finally was ready to pull the trigger on a weeklong trip that included a couple of days at Universal Orlando. Our kids had just read and watched through J.K. Rowling's series for the first time, so we thought it would be great opportunity to enjoy the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. 

I sat on the couch that night one mouse click away from purchasing our plane tickets. Hesitating, I looked at Erica and asked, "Are we good?"

She stayed my finger for just a moment. "What if we get called with a placement for foster care before we leave?"

"I guess we'll just roll with it," I answered. Foster care was a priority for us, but we also didn't want to put everything on hold for what was, at the time, a completely unknown possibility. It had been well over a month since we signed our contract as a foster family and we had yet to receive a single placement.  If we happened to get called in the next few days, then we would just improvise and make it work however we needed to. Worst case scenario, we'd eat the cost of a few plane tickets.

"Let's do it," she said, with only a little hesitation.

Click. Four plane tickets in the bag.

That was on a Tuesday. On Friday, we were given a baby. When a phone call comes in for a placement, you only have moments to accept or decline the opportunity before the social worker moves on to a different home. In those brief moments on the phone, Erica and I had a thousand thoughts that we tried to process simultaneously, not the least of which was, "What about our family vacation?" My suggestion a few days ago that we "roll with it" was now out of the realm of the hypothetical and had taken on flesh and blood. In this case, "rolling with it" meant that Erica immediately knew she would not be going to Florida with the rest of us. Just like that, we began to feel the weight, the impact, and the responsibility of stepping into foster care. 

Erica had already requested vacation time for the following week; she would use that time instead to care for Matthew while I was away with the kids. That left a gap of three days where one of us needed to stay home before our scheduled departure. The leadership at my church was wonderful to us during that time. I called our Senior Pastor, Mike, as soon as I could to let him know that we would soon have a newborn baby in our house, and I asked if he would allow me to work from home for a few days so that I could care for the little guy. This, after I had given him my two-weeks notice just a few days earlier. He was extremely gracious in allowing me to fully focus on the baby without having to think about exit details. 

For the next few days, it was me and Matthew. He was an incredible baby, really. Unlike many infants who are born into foster care situations, Matthew was not addicted to any drugs. Quite the contrary, after having spent his first 10 days of life in the NICU nursery, he was on a regular schedule of sleeping and eating. All I had to do was stick to the schedule, and the boy was quite content. He was more than that: he was beautiful, and he was at peace. Though he slept in his crib quite well from the get-go, it was nevertheless difficult for me to put him down. It wasn't for fear of waking him, mind you, but simply because I didn't want to let him go. I wanted this baby boy to know the warmth and strength of being held in a father's arms, and I wanted him to hear a heartbeat that was steady, ever-present, and for him. 

The airplane was quiet at cruising altitude, save for the constant hum of the engine and the occasional cough from a passenger. Elysia sat next to me, playing Minecraft on her iPad. "My arms feel empty," I said, breaking the silence. "I've done almost nothing other than hold that baby for the last three days."

"You miss Matthew?" she asked, already knowing the answer. 

"Yeah, I really do, sweetheart."

"Me, too," she replied. "He's really cute."

The next five days were spent in two worlds. By day, I was preoccupied with entertainment: visiting friends, playing at the beach, riding roller coasters, sipping Butterbeer, cruising in the Camero convertible rental upgrade that Elysia somehow talked me into. (I told you, her smile is perfect.) By night, however, I was in agony. Erica was home alone with the baby, left to care for him 24 hours a day by herself. He was an "easy" baby, to be sure, but five days is long, long time to go without reinforcement. 

With each passing night the phone calls became more strained. Saturday's conversation was a perky FaceTime call. By Monday night, I could feel her exhaustion and frustration. I immediately messaged our friends an "SOS." The next day they were there for Erica with dinner, conversation, friendship, and nap breaks. (For anyone venturing into foster care, I highly recommend having amazing friends. They will save you over and over again.) Knowing that my wife would be taken care of gave me enough peace of mind to enjoy our final day at the theme park. Nevertheless, I could not wait to get home. We were less than two weeks into our experience as foster parents, and we were already feeling the strain on our marriage; life as it used to be was just that - a thing of the past. Things were different now, and we were going to have to learn how to "roll with it" each and every day. We are compelled to do this for the sake of the children, and with the faith that it will ultimately be to the benefit of our family, to the mission of the Gospel, and to the glory of God.

We boarded the plane on Wednesday morning, and the short flight felt like an eternity. I listened to Ed Sheeran and stared at another unoccupied plane seat in front me, counting down the minutes until our wheels would touch down and I could slide into the empty seat on the couch beside my wife. And I absolutely could not wait to snuggle that little boy into the empty space in my arms. 


Dan is a pastor, writer, and speaker. He is the host of the Ordinary Faith Podcast and currently serves as a Campus Pastor for Southland Christian Church in Georgetown, KY.