My two oldest children, Leila and Eddie, have had a unique relationship from the very beginning. Leila was 2 when we began the adoption process to bring Eddie home from Liberia. We prepped her tender heart during the entire process by talking about bringing a brother home, praying for him every night at bedtime, and we let her help us decorate his room. She even chose part of his name. He kept the name his birthparents gave him but Leila added to it from one of her favorite preschool songs that thankfully also happens to be my father’s name (remember, Eddie isn’t actually my son’s name).
The time had finally arrived. So, we drove the 2 hours to the airport, stopping for a very special dinner at one of our favorite German restaurants as a last supper with Leila before her little brother arrived. Afterward, we checked into our hotel and headed to the airport. I brought lollipops to win him over because we had no idea how this was going to pan out -A little African boy just getting off the airplane and leaving the airport with strange white people who speak a language he doesn’t understand might cause a traumatic scene. You just never know.
9:00 pm…We were ready, waiting in the airport and thankfully there was a little play area to keep Leila occupied. So we waited and waited.
10:00 came and went.
Then 10:40…I started to panic as groups of people had come through from vacated flights and I didn’t see any blond 20-something young ladies with a little African child in the crowds. There was no way I could leave that airport without a brother for Leila!
11:00 pm…There! I saw the top of his head bobbing up and down as he tripped along through the terminal withe a blond haired young woman holding his hand. I just knew in a half second HE was my son. With a yelp and his lollipop clutched tight in my fist – I ran to my boy. I couldn’t have forced my feet to walk if I tried. I dropped to my knees and searched his dark eyes with long curling lashes. I unfurled the wrapper on his lollipop and offered it to him. I don’t remember what I said while I gently spoke, I just remember him. He spotted her as she approached and then Eddie limped a few quick steps to Leila, bent forward and threw his arms around her in a big awkward hug and he squeaked a big “Duh-Dah!!!!” right in her ear. Eddie embraced Leila first.
I wish I could say they just fell together into an easy exchange. That is for fairytales. They were two strangers thrown together with no common history, culture, or language whatsoever. Leila found it difficult to adjust to who Eddie really was. She had specific and as yet unmet expectations of him that he couldn’t deliver. She wanted Eddie to immediately be that confidante she could tell all her 3 year old secrets to. Well, he wasn’t that by any stretch – at first. He was a loud, rambunctious, energetic, wild clueless little boy of very few words or manners. His main goal those first 6 months was to eat everything in sight as he was horribly malnourished. But he was a lighthearted, happy guy just looking for a fun time.
We had to find a way to help them establish their relationship, so it was up to us to give them the tools to build it. I made it a point to have them engage in play activities they could do together successfully. I noticed that they both enjoyed water play – so they took an inexplicable number of baths together each day for a while. That was just in the beginning, of course.
Play is a universal language. This, I discovered while studying in India. I had the opportunity to play with a big group of children whose parents were migrant workers in Southern India – They taught us college students how to play their version of tag and we taught them how to give high-fives. I will never forget it – there was something about the fun that bridged an enormous language and cultural chasm. And this was the glue we used to fuse Leila and Eddie into a brother and sister. It was a long process that eventually worked but I think much of the success was due to the fact that mom and dad were involved in the play, facilitating the action. We could wean ourselves out, but our participation was crucial in the beginning stages. It is true what they say – the family that PLAYS together, STAYS together.
They needed each other. Leila taught Eddie some of the ropes of being a kid in the United States. He mimicked what she did and some of what she said while they played. Language was difficult for him, learning anything new at all was difficult and we couldn’t understand why (Much later on, we would discover that he had epilepsy and intellectual disability, which were stunting the learning process).
Through his joyful and charismatic nature, Eddie taught Leila how to have fun and how to be a lighthearted child. She was a somber, overly sensitive little girl holding the weight of the world on her tiny 3 year old shoulders (Now we know her mental health issues were probably gearing up even back then.) She needed someone to take the focus off herself.
In time, Leila and Eddie developed an uncommon bond. They balanced each other’s needs because they were so different and each child had much to offer the other. It was sweet and it was fun to watch them. They could play together for hours and rarely came to find me, crying or fighting. They took care of each other. It wasn’t perfect but the strength in their relationship was such that even all the frustrations of Eddie’s learning difficulties were not enough to hinder their love for each other during this time.
After four years, it all but unraveled as Eddie’s epilepsy and Leila’s mental health problems collided…
For part 2 of this story, click here – Playing For Keeps – A brother and sister kind of story (part 2)