"It's so hot up there," my husband says as he descends the stairs into our living room.
"I know," I say, not bothering to look up from my work to meet his eyes. "So hot."
We love our home, but like all homes, it is imperfect. Built in 1925, we revel in its charm. The wood detail that frames each window. The white built-in bookshelf that has held the books and framed pictures of countless families during its 91 years of life.
Then there are the things we don't relish. The singular tiny bathroom, for example. Or the fact that central, vented air conditioning simply isn't an option on our second floor.
"I opened our bedroom window," Mike says. "I think it's cooler outside than it is in there. I opened up the window in the guest room, too."
That makes me look up from my computer to stare back at him.
"The guest room," I say. "You called it 'The Guest Room.'"
The words sting a place deep inside of me, but they sting only because I know they are true.
The room, sandwiched between our bedroom and our five-year-old son Ryan's bedroom, started out as The Guest Room. Then, for 11 months, it was the place where our four-year-old foster son slept. The boy we nicknamed "BlueJay." It was BlueJay's Room.
For the almost-year we cared for BlueJay, he spent countless hours kneeling in front of the train table in that room and hundreds of nights tucked tightly under the rainbow-colored quilt.
Pieces of BlueJay, memories of all the bedtime stories Mike read to him and the songs I sang to him vibrate through that room. The sign with his name still hangs on the back of the door. The star lamp we bought for him remains dim. The hat rack we installed for him on the wall hangs empty, his many hats long since packed up and shipped off to the home of those now raising him.
These things are still there, but he is not. And he hasn't been for several months. But others have come through that room on occasion, sleeping in his bed—the bed—for a night or two. The others, they are guests.
"I've been thinking we should put away a few of the pictures of him," I tell Mike. The thought has been growing within me for weeks but it's only now that I can put a voice to it.
"Because there are as many framed pictures in this house of a child who is not ours as there are of a child who is," I say, motioning toward the table that holds the "family" photo we had professionally taken of the four of us last fall.
Nearby are the side-by-side professional photos of each boy. The picture of Ryan and BlueJay posing together in coordinating shirts on Christmas Eve, Ryan's arm slug around BlueJay's narrow shoulders. The photo of the four of us standing on a giant rock in the woods at the end of a long weekend away with friends.
"The photos will work their way out naturally," Mike says. "We'll get new family photos taken this year, and some of those will replace the old ones."
I nod, but I'm thinking how I want to take them down now anyway. Today. Right this second. Before it becomes any more obvious that in our house, BlueJay will remain frozen in time.
The picture of Ryan leaning against the wooden fence last fall is already starting to look outdated; but the picture of BlueJay doing the same does not. BlueJay is out there in this world right now growing up, getting taller, and looking every day a bit less like a little boy and a bit more like a big boy.
But in this house, he'll always be four years old. Even when he's 6 or 10 or 13 or 18.
There will be no new pictures dated by year and placed carefully in front of the old. No new pictures taken on his first day of kindergarten, middle school, high school.
There will be no laughing over the new, adult-like phrases he has learned. There will be no marveling at the fact that he can finally ride a bike or the big roller coasters at the amusement park.
Here, within these old walls, he will never grow older.
Before BlueJay left our home in March, I thought I would always want to be surrounded by these pictures and other mementos of our time with him. The coffee mug in my kitchen cabinet with the picture of Ryan and BlueJay sitting on Santa's lap. The wooden monkey BlueJay colored for me that hangs from my rearview mirror. The clay snowman he made in preschool that sits on my writing desk. The one of dozens of pictures he drew of a "ghost family" that still hangs on our refrigerator.
(I wonder why he drew so many pictures of ghost families. Could it be because of the way family has continually appeared and disappeared from his life?)
I knew we would have no contact with BlueJay once he left, a choice that was not ours to make but one we must accept. I thought maybe these things would be a way to hold on to him. But it turns out that they hold more emptiness than comfort. I can't hold on to BlueJay in any physical, meaningful way. A picture on my dresser of him laughing as the ocean waves crash over his feet during our annual beach vacation doesn't change that.
As time goes by, Mike and I are moving on. We are healing and deciding what the future might hold for our family. Ryan is moving on, starting kindergarten, and readjusting to being an only child. I have to hope and assume BlueJay is moving on, bonding with his relatives, and falling into new routines.
It is time for our house to move on, too.
It's time to allow ourselves a few small changes that reflect the simple truth: BlueJay will always be a part of our hearts, but he will not be a part of our lives.
It's time for a few less pictures. A few more mementos to be taken down and packed up. A shift in mindset, a shift in vocabulary.
It's time to start calling it The Guest Room.