A lifetime of babies

Joan and Jim Islam have found a place in their hearts for more than 70 foster babies

The Islams get together almost every Sunday for dinner and family. From left top row Theresa, James, Joel, Tuti Ariet, Katie and Jeff. Second row from left, Jim, Jason, Donna with Abigail, four months, Tori, 5, Nan with Melissa, six months, Jillian Ariet, 4, Julie Ariet with Josie, two-weeks-old, John Michael Perlette, 10, and Joan. Bottom row from left, Jarrett, 13, Shannon, 11, and Jessica, 3, Levi, 3, Beverly, 11, and last but not least Joshua Islam age seven.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 1:41 a.m.
Ask Joan Islam about her babies, and she'll immediately want to show you her bulletin board - with its row after row of little ones.
"Aren't they neat," she says, more matter-of-factly than as a question. "People come along and say all babies look alike - I don't think so."
And she should know. Because, in addition to caring for five children of her own, Joan and husband, Jim, have been foster parents to more than 70 babies while volunteering for the Children's Home Society. They were recently presented the R. David Thomas Child Advocate Award for their nearly 25 years of service.
"At the drop of a hat, Joan would go to a hospital to pick up a baby," said Shelley Katz, executive director of the society. "I've known her to go to the hospital for days and days and days to rock a premature baby that wasn't ready to come home yet because it was addicted to cocaine."
During a time of year when people think about giving, the Islams could offer some lessons. Only these days it's not as easy. Joan is battling cancer. Mentally she seems upbeat, but physically she appears weary. A walker and cane help her get around. She no longer has the strength to do what she loves.
"I miss my babies," she says. This comes from a woman with 15 grandchildren - three born this year.
"What kills me is that they're just so cuddly, and I want to pick them up and walk some place, and I can't do that," she says.
And in more than an hour of conversation, that's as close as she gets to a complaint.
When it comes to babies, she can't get enough.
"In our first seven years of marriage, we had five kids, and from our first one, she was comfortable," says Jim. "When her girlfriends had babies, they'd call her with questions."
"I'm a baby person," she admits with a laugh.
Sitting on a couch facing a Christmas tree surrounded by presents, the Islams talk enthusiastically about the gift-giving that's taken place in their living room, only these gifts were wrapped in blankets and diapers.
Joan said in the early years, foster parents weren't permitted to meet the parents to be. She says she always wanted to be a fly on the wall for those occasions, and then she finally got her chance. One day she was asked if she'd mind if the parents came to her home to pick up a child. And one led to another and another. While she says she loved them, and even got attached to the children in her care, letting go wasn't a problem.
"I didn't find it hard because the people who were getting them were so out-of-their minds happy," she says.
"It really is fantastic when they walk in that first time and see that baby, it's unbelievable," Jim adds. "These are people who for the most part couldn't have kids."
And on many of those occasions Joan would conduct an impromptu version of Motherhood 101, passing on tips on diapering, feeding, napping, burping and all those other skills so vital for new parents. From an outsider's perspective it might look like she was always giving, giving, giving. Joan doesn't see it that way, but then she also thinks midnight feedings aren't that big of a deal.
"It's fun, it's not like a chore," she says. "When a baby smiles at you, that's all you need."
As they sit next to each other on the couch, Joan and Jim frequently finish the sentence the other starts. It's a familiarity developed over nearly 40 years. She says they were introduced at a drive-in restaurant in Detroit that reminds her of the high school hangout in TV's "Happy Days."
"Talk about love at first sight, that's what it was for me, but I was a shy kid," says Jim, casting a glance at the other end of the couch.
He recalls that Joan was actually dating one of his friends. When it came time for her to attend a round of graduation parties, the friend had to work, so he asked his trusted buddy to stand in.
"And I moved right in," he says rolling his eyes as a blush that's been around since that day in 1960 fills his face. "I just can't believe I did that."
This month, they'll celebrate their 39th anniversary. Jim is still learning about his wife. He says at one time in his life he felt a tinge of jealousy over the babies. Then two years ago he went to the doctor to have his heart checked out and his next stop was the operating room for five bypasses, the same kind of surgery his mother didn't survive.
"I don't think I understood her love until I got sick. When I was recovering from my heart surgery, she treated me like a baby," he says. "The realization came to me that's she's a caregiver, that's who she is."
But now she's on the receiving end of the care. Receiving doesn't come as easily as giving.
"She doesn't like people doing for her. She's fiercely independent," says Jim.
Cancer didn't gradually steal her health, it ambushed her. It was Easter weekend of 2001 while attending a family picnic, she became disoriented and was taken to the hospital, where she had a seizure. A stroke was suspected, but instead doctors found cancer.
"It came on me without a symptom in the world," she says.
Doctors diagnosed a form of lung cancer that usually affects non-smokers, which was an added surprise for Joan, who is a former smoker. It had already spread to her brain, her bones, everywhere. It's also a type of cancer she knows well; a relative had died from it two months after he was diagnosed.
"I feel very lucky I've had as much time as I've had," she says.
Luck may seem like a strange word, but that time has allowed her to meet and hold the three newest grandbabies and to enjoy nearly two years of gathering on Sunday nights for family dinners, a tradition that cancer hasn't stopped.
The extra time also means riding the emotional roller coaster that comes with the disease. The week she met the newest Islam family member was also the week she learned that her cancer was again on the move and a new round of chemotherapy would be coming.
"It's living a day at a time," says Jim. Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com

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