‘There are children who need a safe place, how can I ignore that?’ We couldn’t hold our hearts back.’: Mom diagnosed with mast cell disease grows family through foster care, adoption

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“No matter how a child comes to you, a lot of waiting is involved. A woman waits for the right time to conceive. Sometimes, she waits years—through infertility, miscarriages, and even death. If and when physical conception finally takes place, she waits months as her body expands to make room for the child who will fill her arms, heart, and home.

I’m currently a mother to two biological children, one adopted child, two foster children, and a child in heaven whom I miscarried in 2010. In the past, I have mothered three brothers, ages 8, 10, and 13, who were in foster care during the most tragic, traumatic week of their lives, and Aurora, our precious exchange student from Italy whom we unofficially adopted. Each child placed in our family—short term or long—required a wait and preparation, but most of that preparation was an inside job—a transformation of the heart that took place over decades.

family photo on couch with parents and children
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

My Foster Sister

During the summer of 1997 at the age of 13, I became a foster sister to Emily, a beautiful, vivacious three-year-old whose parents had gone to prison. God went to a lot of trouble to bring Emily to us. He spoke to Mom from the Bible about ‘pure and undefiled religion.’ He sent her a flier in the mail from the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home addressed to someone else. When Dad refused to listen to Mom about the idea of fostering, the television show he was watching mysteriously turned off on its own.

It didn’t take long to fall in love with sweet, funny, adorable Emily. She was easy to love, despite her methods of coping with the trauma of her brief past, as tumultuous as they sometimes were. When sharing a room with my younger sister didn’t work out, Emily moved in with me—a depressed, reclusive introvert who liked to stay up late reading and journaling.

emily and melissa at melissas weddings
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

Honestly, I didn’t love the idea. I would have to change. But I loved Jesus and my mother, so I complied with the best attitude I could muster. And you know what? My depression evaporated as I went to bed on time and focused on the needs of someone other than myself. Sometimes, I cared for Emily when she needed something in the middle of the night. My love for her multiplied in proportion to my sacrifice. That love healed me in a lot of ways.

When the time came for Emily to leave, I didn’t think her parents were ready. I wasn’t ready either. I sobbed in the courthouse bathroom when the judge ordered the reunification of the family, though I had known all along that was the goal. The slam of the car door the day Emily left felt so final, but amazingly, she was allowed to visit one weekend per month for a couple of years.

melissa, her sister and emily foster sister
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

Emily’s childhood was scarred by trauma and tragedy that sometimes bred bad choices, but today she is a wife, mother, and successful physical therapist’s assistant, and we couldn’t be prouder of her.

Growing My Family

My family didn’t foster again, but over the years the seed that fostering had planted took root. I listened to stories of adoption with interest and admiration. When I mentioned the idea to Brandon (the man I was set on marrying after the first date), he didn’t shoot down the idea, but he was more interested in DIY kids—preferably a boy and a girl.

A decade after Emily left my childhood home, I became a mother for the first time. Micah was the most beautiful, sweet-tempered, red-headed cherub, and I was in love. I was also experiencing increasingly severe food allergies that sometimes lead to anaphylaxis. Most of the time, I could ignore the brief shadows of death that would occasionally cross my path and enjoy my son. Ignoring my illness became impossible nearly three years later, after the birth of my daughter.

melissa with husband and first born son
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

My symptoms exacerbated into a wild storm that swept me up and nearly killed me—many times over. At times, I couldn’t tolerate any food or even water. My body reacted violently to everyday items and particles by touching them and breathing them in. Eventually, I couldn’t leave the house without wearing two masks—sometimes gloves—and even then I would nearly always have a reaction while out and about. And this was before COVID-19 made masks and gloves fashionable. (In May of 2014, I traveled with my mom to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota where I was diagnosed with a rare illness called mast cell activation syndrome, for which there is no cure.)

Early on in the disease, I stopped taking birth control because I reacted to the hormones. In September 2012, I discovered a severe allergy to *ahem* latex. And by early 2013, marital intimacy, in general, grew increasingly dangerous. We were left with limited options.

Barring a miracle, I would be stuck with mast cell disease for the rest of my life, so we opted against celibacy. Pregnancy was too dangerous to risk. The child and I both could die. I hated the remaining option. It felt so final, and I believed that God would one day heal me. When that happened, I would want more children. Nevertheless, Brandon had the necessary procedure in the summer of 2013, and I died a little on the inside. With an illness like mast cell, I wouldn’t be able to foster or adopt either. All hope of growing our family died.

melissa with mask on
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

Finding Healing

In February 2014, Brandon took our family to Branson, Missouri for a scenic getaway and break from routine. I spent a lot of time that week reading and talking to God. One morning as I soaked in a hot detox bath, I was reading the book, Kisses From Katie, a book about a young single woman who was a missionary in Uganda and her journey of raising 13 orphaned girls as a single mom.

Tears streamed down my face as I turned page after page in holy awe. I set the book aside to pray and respond to whatever the Spirit was doing in my heart. ‘Heal me, and I’ll go anywhere and do anything for you,’ I told Jesus.

I could almost feel him smile, and then these quiet words whispered through my spirit—’All of your children are conceived in the Ozarks.’

mother with both biological children
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

It would have been accurate to say that both of my children had been conceived in the Ozarks. (Sorry if that’s TMI.) But God had said ‘all are.’ I didn’t know what it meant. I couldn’t become pregnant again, circumstances as they were. What I would come to later understand is that Kisses from Katie had initiated a conversation. God had spoken. I responded with a vow. In return, he made a promise.

Not only did that promise allude to more children, a seeming impossibility, but it also foreshadowed healing, at least in part. Truly, something was conceived that day—in my mind and spirit—but it needed lots of time, work, and healing encounters with God before it came to the point of birth.

After 12 long years of debilitating illness, God began healing me of mast cell activation syndrome following a powerful encounter with him in November of 2015. (You can read more about that in my memoir, The Road to Jubilee.) The healing took place over several months. As soon as I was well enough, I dove headlong into various ministries out of gratitude to God and all he had done for me.

When my sister, Hannah, began helping women recover from drug addiction, abuse, and poverty, I took on a supportive role. Sometimes moms need someone to care for their children while they go to rehab. It was these children, one little girl in particular, who changed Brandon’s views on fostering.

Embarking on Our Foster Journey

In January 2019, when one of my friends shared an invite to an orientation to foster care at the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home (through which my parents had fostered in 1997), I asked Brandon to meet me there, promising a meal at our favorite Tex Mex restaurant after the meeting. When the presentation ended, he shocked my socks off by engaging the speaker in conversation, asking a series of interested questions. He wanted to know what he could do to make up trainings if he had to work. Things like that. And then I heard him mention the child my sister had most recently fostered, and he said, ‘To know there are children out there like her who need a safe place to stay for a while, how can I ignore that?’ I almost swooned.

family photo looking up at camera
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

After a few days of processing, he decided we would sign up for the month of all-day Saturday trainings. He would only miss one of the eight sessions for work. Most of the time, we enjoyed training. We liked our class. The day we went around the room to discuss our thoughts about adoption, Brandon’s answer nearly made me fall out of my chair. ‘Oh, I’ve been looking at The Heart Gallery,’ he announced. (The Heart Gallery is a photo gallery of children who are waiting to be adopted.)

He hadn’t told me that. When it was my turn to share, I said, ‘Well, he’s a few steps ahead of me. I’m here for the moms. I want to care for their kids as long as it takes for them to get in a good place. I’m open to adoption. I figure it will eventually come up if we do this long enough. When it does, I’ll be there for the child in my care.’

The speaker chuckled and said, ‘It sounds like the two of you have a lot to talk about.’ The class laughed. We did talk. We watched Instant Family together. I checked out The Heart Gallery and cried because I couldn’t adopt all the teenagers. In the end, we agreed God would show us what he wanted us to do. We couldn’t plan it. We could only recognize it when the time came.

Our certification process took almost a year, which gave our family much-needed time to address our selfishness and fears. One day, not far in the future, some unknown miniature human would sweep in and wreak havoc on our perfect, privileged little lives. We liked our family as it was. Things were good and predictable, and we were about to burn it all down. The wait gave me time to lay down my love of sleep and alone time and fear of another health collapse. It gave God time to speak to Micah who was the most skeptical of the four of us and prepare him to embrace the idea of a family mission and new way of life.

mother and father with adopted daughter
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

It was the week of Thanksgiving 2019 before the first call came. My beating heart went still as the worker explained the situation, which was beyond my current capabilities. With tears in my eyes, I choked out, ‘I want to say ‘yes’, but I can’t. I can’t give this baby what he needs at this time. I’m so sorry.’

My heart wrenched as I hung up. Over the next several days, I received calls for two more baby boys and had to say ‘no’ both times. I’d signed up for foster care to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ was the only word coming out of my mouth. But God knew what was coming.

Foster Baby Comes Home

On December 19, 2019, my phone rang not five minutes after I sat down with a cup of coffee to edit my memoir, The Road to Jubilee. The caseworker seemed thrilled to hear my voice. She explained she had a newborn girl who was leaving the hospital in a couple of hours and needed a home. A giggle bubbled out of my throat, tears sprang to my eyes, and finally—’YES!’

I hung up, squealing. Sara who had been listening to the whole thing was bouncing up and down. Micah didn’t know what to think. I called Brandon and was met with silence—panicked silence—which made reality set in. We had a lot to do and no baby things!

mother with adopted daughter in arms
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

We had a couple of hours to rearrange furniture and adjust to the idea of a newborn when the case worker arrived and placed a tiny baby girl in my arms. Breathless, I stared in wonder, almost oblivious to the bags of baby gear the ladies hauled in. Words were spoken. Important words. Weighty words. Information I needed to absorb. Papers. Papers I needed to read. But for a moment, in some sacred space outside of time, little else existed besides me, this baby girl, and the God who had planted her in my home and heart and fulfilled his promise.

She stirred—either at the sound of my voice or the blessing it spoke. The Spirit of God hovered and danced around us, releasing his essence into the air. I returned to earth long enough to thank the workers for all the practical items they had bought. We were set for a few days. She squirmed for her bottle. The moment she latched, my heart erupted. I laughed, and tears sprang from my eyes, splattering our cheeks.

The euphoria I felt reminded me of what it had been like to hold Micah and Sara for the first time. I hadn’t expected that. I hadn’t expected Mama-love at first sight. But there it was, pumping through the chambers of my heart, streaming through my entire being. Brandon and Sara were impatient for their turn. We passed her around, exchanging wide-eyed, watery glances. None of us could stop ourselves. Self-protection wasn’t an option. We couldn’t hold any part of our hearts back. They were gone, irretrievable. It took Micah a little longer, but in a couple of weeks, she had wrapped him around her baby-est of baby fingers.

biological sister with foster sister
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

Foster care is a lot like a rose garden. Even with lots of care and patience, there will be thorns, but no one should allow those thorns to forego the planting. The roses are gorgeous and fragrant, surprising and full of life-giving joy. As with every child, these children are worth the wait and effort. They are worth the pin-pricks from the thorns.

We adopted Abigail Diane Keaster on December 7, 2021, and yes—we’re still smitten. Today, Micah is the best big brother. While we are sorry for the loss of her biological family, we are grateful for the opportunity to be her forever family.

adoption of foster daughter
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

We don’t know what the future holds for the boys who are with us now, but we will love them with our whole selves until the decisions are made by every party. We will work hard to make sure they know that they belong, they are precious, and they are significant. We hope to do that for every child who lives in our home for any amount of time.

It’s a busy life as a mother of five, but oh so blessed. I wouldn’t trade it for all the sleep, ease, and alone time in the world. Our sacrifices seem insignificant in light of the coming harvest. And that perspective only comes through faith, process, and waiting. I’ve seen it before with Emily. I will see it again.”

headshot of melissa
Courtesy of Melissa Keaster

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Melissa Keaster of Farmerville, Louisiana. You can follow her journey on  Instagram, Facebook, their website, and books; The Road to Jubilee and Eleora. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribeto our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more stories like this:

‘Placement needed after all, kids are on the way. We’ll be there in 20 minutes.’: Couple shares foster care journey with sibling sets, teens, reunifications

‘The whole exchange took 2 minutes, but my life would be marked by this moment forever.’: Single mom shares unexpected foster care adoption of baby girl

‘In a year and a half, our family of 2 grew to 6.’: Couple share foster care adoption story, premature triplet birth after infertility

‘They chose us. They’re coming in two hours!’: Couple shares unexpected sibling adoption from foster care

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