Editor's Note: This is part of a special series, For the Love of Family, which focuses on how as addiction to opioids and other drugs separates parents from children, foster families with unique qualifications (including a military family and nurses) have made room in their homes — and hearts.
When Brian and Jewel Miller* told their adult son, David that they were thinking of becoming foster parents he had three words for them: "You are crazy."
But the time seemed right. In 2012, Brian, 61, and Jewel, 54, stepped away from full-time work to move to Colorado to help care for their granddaughter, Layla, while their daughter was in nursing school. With Layla starting kindergarten, Jewel found herself rattling around their four-bedroom house south of Denver: "I was like, We have all this kid stuff at our house. Why not?"
No palm trees swayed in their empty-nester dreams, anyway. Having built careers around service, Brian as a firefighter and Jewel as a high school teacher, they were drawn to a newspaper ad for a foster parent orientation session. And as semi-retirees, they had the stability and flexibility younger people often don't. "I felt like we could help people who couldn't help themselves," says Jewel.
In October 2015, the Millers completed a six-month process of classes and paperwork. Two days later, they were sitting at their kitchen table when the phone rang. A newborn boy at the local hospital, J.D., had tested positive for opioids and suffered from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a complex set of issues stemming from prenatal addiction that can include feeding problems, tremors, irritability, and developmental delays. (Because of the opioid epidemic, the number of babies with NAS has increased fivefold nationwide.)
Still, Jewel and Brian didn't hesitate. They brought J.D. home and loved him instantly and wholeheartedly. After two months of high-calorie formula, J.D., underweight at birth, grew rounder and started to flash a charming smile. Overall, "he was a very easy baby," Jewel recalls.
Because the goal of foster care is to reunite children with a biological relative (about half the children who left foster care in 2015 were reunited with family), the Millers drove J.D. to weekly one-hour visits with his mother, his father, and occasionally his grandmother. They knew he might have to leave them at any time.
"You know the baby's not yours," says Jewel, "but you give him just as much love as if he were." Not that they wanted to adopt. At their age? Brian would be 77 by the time J.D. graduated from high school. And they'd already raised a family.
They didn't realize how deep their affection for J.D. had grown until, at 6 months, he landed in the hospital with bronchiolitis and pneumonia (babies born exposed to addictive drugs are prone to respiratory issues). Watching his labored wheezing cemented the Millers' devotion to him. "He was just like our own child at that point," Brian says.
Slowly, J.D.'s lungs responded to treatment. When he finally came home four days later, Brian and Jewel agreed: "He's not leaving." With the support of J.D.'s biological grandmother, who decided he would be better off with the Millers, the Millers started the process to adopt J.D. They made it final in January 2017.
Some of their friends say, "You should be traveling!" But the criticism tends to disappear once people meet J.D., now a rollicking 2-year-old bundle of energy who loves T-ball, hot salsa, and pony rides with Dad. J.D. no longer spends time with his biological family, the Millers' children, Samantha and David, have fallen in love with their much, much younger brother.
As an older parent, Jewel admits, "psychically, you get tired more often." But there are benefits too. As a first-time parent, she says, "I knew nothing, literally. Now I know so much" — to keep nap routines sacrosanct, for instance, and not to sweat the small stuff, like J.D.'s terrible-twos spitting phase.
Brian and Jewel are currently fostering another child, and having little ones in the house offers an all-access pass to childhood — perhaps the perfect goal for the empty-nesters years. For J.D.'s second birthday last year, they took him to Disneyland. "We're grateful that we can do that," says Jewel. "But we're grateful for what he's given us too."
To find a foster care agency near you, go to childwelfare.gov.
*Some names have been changed in this story.
This story originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Landcruisers.