At a class for aspiring foster parents, Douglas and Debra Ferrie were told "protect your heart."
That adage stands for the delicate balance foster parents must strike, caring for children whose own parents are unable to but doing so with the ever-looming prospect that the children could be returned to their biological families.
But when half-siblings Alexis and Aaden, then 11 months and 2 years old, respectively, arrived at their Mount Washington home nearly three years ago, the Ferries struggled to heed the advice. Ms. Ferrie -- who acknowledged she is so vulnerable she could "fall in love with a grasshopper in the backyard" -- was attached to the children less than 20 minutes after they arrived at her doorstep. Mr. Ferrie remained guarded and "standoffish," but soon the pair had hooked him, too. Within a week, they called him "Daddy," and would wrap their tiny arms around his legs to beckon him to pick them up.
"How can you protect your heart?" he said. "You got these two little innocent children, [and] when they look up at you they call you Mommy and Daddy."
On Thursday, the Ferries celebrated their third Thanksgiving together with the children, but it's their first as an official family. Ms. Ferrie, 48, and Mr. Ferrie, 47, finalized their adoption of Alexis and Aaden in January. It's an occasion that's meaningful in some ways but ordinary in others.
The couple marked Thanksgiving this year in the same way they did many others, elbow-to-elbow with nearly two dozen relatives at their cozy home. Alexis, now a precocious 3-year-old girl, donned a magenta dress with sparkles and showed off her Disney-themed bedroom, where the walls are adorned with decals of her favorite characters. Aaden, a shy but comedic 4-year-old boy, played Wii and roughhoused as the family prepared a gargantuan feast that included two turkeys, a half-dozen desserts and an assortment of sides.
"This year doesn't seem much different, even though we know it is," Ms. Ferrie said. That's because the children have long felt like their own, even before the arrangement was blessed by the courts.
But at this time last year, the couple were still engaged in a monthslong legal process to adopt the children. The distant prospect that the children could be taken away from them hovered. Sometimes Ms. Ferrie would fret that a small mistake -- like a speeding ticket -- would derail the process.
"Last Thanksgiving, I was wondering, 'How long is this going to take?' " she said. "Now it's official. They're mine. ... They're here permanently, forever and ever and ever."
The Ferries married in 1997 and planned to have children of their own. But after a dozen years of agonizing and expensive fertility treatments, and after losing four pregnancies, the couple gave up. Mr. Ferrie, the technical director of the echocardiography lab at Allegheny General Hospital, had come to accept that they would be childless, and that the couple would just dote on nieces and nephews.
But a few years later, Ms. Ferrie learned that a co-worker was fostering her 2-year-old cousin through Auberle, a multifaceted social service agency for children based in McKeesport. The co-worker was hoping Ms. Ferrie and her husband could take in a teenage relative whom Auberle was also looking to place.
When Ms. Ferrie contacted Auberle, the agency had already found a family for the teenager. But Auberle asked her if she would want to foster other children, and soon Mr. and Ms. Ferrie found themselves in foster parenting classes. After their first class, Ms. Ferrie recalled, the couple headed to a bar and over drinks wondered if they were kidding themselves. They were then in their mid-40s. Would they have the energy to care for young children? Mr. Ferrie fretted that his wife would not be able to handle losing the children if they were ultimately reunited with their biological families.
"I kept telling her, 'Are you going to be able to handle this?' " he said.
The goal at Auberle for all foster children is reunification with biological parents and, if that's not possible, permanency, said Jeanne Burger, Auberle's foster care manager.
"It really is difficult," she said. "You're taking care of these kids and loving these kids and sometimes the kids go home."
About 16 or 20 children are ultimately adopted by foster parents like the Ferries through Auberle, she said.
The call came in February 2011, the day after the Steelers lost the Super Bowl, that Auberle was looking to place a 2-year-old and his younger half-sister. The house was hurriedly prepared for their arrival with the help of relatives. Rooms were cleared, furniture was assembled. The children arrived Feb. 25 of that year, doubling the size of the Ferrie household in just a day.
The first months were difficult. Aaden, then 2, had difficulty speaking and was frequently upset. Alexis was underweight.
But the Ferries' new life -- now centered around two little children -- quickly took shape. Aaden saw a developmental therapist, and Alexis gained weight. The Ferries were settling into a new routine as parents, but it was not without the anxiety that the foster children could be taken away from them and returned to their biological families.
On Jan. 25 of this year, a Common Pleas Court judge finalized the adoption in Downtown. The family celebrated with a massive party in April with 200 people, renting out Sullivan Hall in Mount Washington.
This might not have been the path the Ferries had originally imagined -- becoming parents to two children who were not their own while they were in their 40s. But the experience, they said, has been far more rewarding -- and challenging -- than they ever could have anticipated.
"To me, it seems like they've always been there," Mr. Ferrie said. "It doesn't feel any different that we went out and adopted them.
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.