Playing For Keeps -A brother and sister kind of story (part 1)

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).

FullSizeRender-5The 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.

10:30

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.

img_4251We 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.

FullSizeRender-2In 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)

Erased Faces

Eddie was all jazzed up, ready to go burn the turf at the district-wide track meet after school today. He had been going to track practice and running his soccer drills with his soccer team for weeks now. This was for real. So we pulled up to the school hosting the event and it was abuzz with parents, coaches, kids in their school colors, strollers, leashed dogs swarming all over the track and field. One coach was yelling through a megaphone but getting through to no-one. To be fair, the ‘mega’ part of the phone was pretty chintzy. It was the quintessential unorganized, haphazard elementary school event. Everyone was excited – kids running around “warming up” while parents were either trying to figure out what the heck was going on or chit-chatting amongst themselves.

Eddie decided to warm up at the standing long jump where a pack of old friends and acquaintances were doing the same. But something felt a bit off. I noticed that kids would try to nudge and say hello, but he just stared off into the distance waiting his turn. And then, Sue grabbed my attention with her general naughtiness and I had to chase her down. A few moments later, away from the standing long jump, I saw Eddie make his way toward another side of the field. (Look a squirrel…nope, just Sue running off again on her fat toddler legs.) I looked up again, after I caught my “squirrel” and noticed that Eddie was surrounded by a group of familiar kids from his old school and a parent. He had his back turned to the parent (who I have known as an acquaintance for a few years), staring off somewhere….I don’t know. Then my stomach dropped. Something was off, there was no smiling and  no “happy to see you again” gestures. Everyone seemed troubled and tense. We saw it at the same time and my husband and I darted over in the same split second to try to figure out what was going on.

As we circled around, I overheard a little girl that Eddie had an enormous crush on say, “…what do you MEAN you don’t remember who I am? We sat together at lunch every day last year!” That is what her words said, but her tone meant – “Wasn’t I important enough for you to remember me even though we haven’t seen each other for a while?” She was hurt. The group thought he was just being a jerk. And I wasn’t prepared for this. I never am in these situations. The father was trying to coax something polite out of Eddie. But all Eddie knew was that he was surrounded by people he had never seen before in his life. And these strangers had expectations of him he could not fulfill. He knew he should know, but nothing was coming to him. I could see his embarrassment and uncertainty.

So I had to speak up, he really really wasn’t trying to be rude or hurt anybody. But hurt, confused and upset they were. Rightfully so.

Stop for a second: imagine walking up to a friend (or even in our case sometimes – a relative) you have known for years, spent meaningful time with, or even shared your every day life with. You spot the person after a prolonged absence and run up to say hello, glad to see them…only to find he or she has no idea who you are. It would be very difficult to believe. I mean shoot, our brains are wired to be able to remember every face we ever see. We may forget their names or where we know them from, but it is rare that people actually forget faces. Not so for Eddie. Everything from his side of their friendship has vanished.

Blank. Dark. Empty. Nothing. Nada.

Anyway, I had to speak up so his old flame would know. I didn’t even know what to say. So I did the best I could, something like, “Oh honey, it isn’t you. He really doesn’t remember you. [Eddie walks away to another part of the field] His brain cannot remember people or places if he doesn’t see you every day. He can’t help it. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy being your friend when you were with him every day.” How in the world to help her understand? I felt terrible. I sounded so unnatural and unoriginal. Her father is a nice man and we talked some more for a while and he was as understanding as he could be under the weirdness of it all. I could see the effort to grasp what I could possibly be talking about but she was just as confused as she initially was. I pray she understood he was not trying to be mean to her.

But I wonder…if her face and their shared experiences are erased from his memory, are they still friends? Can that chasm be bridged? It is so complicated. Friendships are complicated. What does it really mean to BE friends. If he does not return the affection, the memories, the commonalities of the past between them, then where the heck does that leave her? These things don’t really occur to you until there is a sudden void. It is all gone BETWEEN them. She still has those things but they no longer share it. No recognition – she is not reflected in his averted gaze anymore.

And my heart broke for them both and it leaves a pit in my stomach. The FIRST girl he had a crush on, he will never remember. These are things we are supposed to carry with us into adulthood. Things to wax nostalgic about when he runs into her sometime in his late 20s. Or something like that. For her, this friend she cared for and laughed with (and AT, believe me!), is gone. But not GONE, gone. Not dead. Its so bizarre even trying to explain it. This is not the first or last time someone has been or will be hurt because Eddie forgets a person he truly cared about. They will have to start over. And over again.

And then my egocentric mother-worry my mind spiraled…how long would it take for him to forget my face if we parted for a very long time without any contact? Chances are, he will be living in my basement until death do us part, so I don’t have to worry. My friends, my family that I have not seen in person for years, I can’t fathom not knowing them – that they would be lost to me and I wouldn’t know it. I am grateful for each person I have shared some part of my life with now more than ever.

Later, as I looked on, his coach and teammates cheering him – the ones he remembers for the time being – as he won his 75 meter dash, and I couldn’t stop my aching, clenched jaw and hot tears. Because there is no such thing as a one-sided relationship. And it isn’t fair.

 

Pipe Cleaners, Cake & Fireflies

Today we celebrate Motherhood. And my day was full, over-flowing with all that is good and beautiful in my life. I even saw a REAL silver lining, brilliantly framing a dark cloud in the evening sky tonight. And every so often, throughout today’s entirety, my phone would chime with another text from another friend or family member sending their love and blessings. So, let me share with you each of my children’s Mother’s Day world. I needed this day. It was good.

Sue – We spent the morning with her birthmother, grandmother, and aunt. We parked in front of an old house that we discovered was only a 5 minute drive from our own home. I had no idea when we moved cities 2 years ago, that we managed to move into an old home only 5 minutes from her birth family! We sat on her grandmother’s couch (draped in a white sheet) in a living room with decor that hadn’t changed since before I was born. I was sitting in a time capsule. Sue reached her chubby paws into the tupperware bowls containing all the potato chips her little heart could desire. She was so happy to see her Joo-Jee (as she calls her birthmother) and “Gam-mah.” She played, she stuffed her mouth with potato chips, and sat near Joo-Jee as she took her brief cigarette breaks in the backyard while Eddie accompanied them. When they came back into the house, Sue just climbed up into an old chair in front of the window, sunlight bouncing off her golden curls, and looked around at us all like a well-contented cat. She watched from her perch all the people who love her well and either gave her life or nurtured her into a healthy, precocious toddler who can talk, walk and JUMP. As I buckled her into her carseat, Sue exclaimed “A goo’ day, Mama! A goo’ day!!” I could see it in the contented look of peace in her blue eyes and the joy in showing off her new hopping skills. It was a “goo'” morning.

Layla – We arrived later that afternoon at my mother and father in law’s home. Layla had been staying there since her over night stint at the hospital this past week. She was excited to see me and ran to hug me and hand over a tiny book she made me that told me all the reasons she loves me. And the day before, she had baked and decorated a cake that she was so excited to unveil for me. She brought it out, expectancy beaming from her face as she presented the most beautiful home-made cake I have seen in quite a while. It had a sage green layer of frosting smothered in luxurious, soft pink roses. It was almost too beautiful to eat, but I did – all three decadent layers. All evening, she would find me and hug me, squeeze me, just touch to me. It was like a continuous apology for the grief we have been through of late. She had put so much of herself into creating and choosing gifts for me. And for today, all was well with us. Today.

Eddie -Eddie had me all to himself this weekend and much of today. He loved every minute, and we even enjoyed a little mother-son date to the movies late last night. Much later than little boys should be out on a Saturday night. And all the while, “Mom, I can’t WAIT to give you the present I made. I just can’t wait!” He forgot to give it to me this morning before seeing Sue’s birth family. He forgot when we visited his grandparents. All on account of epilepsy of course. But tonight, just before he went to bed, Eddie dug it out and handed it over: Kleenex-pipe cleaner flowers stuffed into an old applesauce jar covered in dried up glue. Some of these pipe cleaners are the green sparkly kind. I mean – THIS. IS. AWESOME! All I could do was to yell in giddy excitement because what else is there to do when someone hands you kleenex, pipe cleaners and up-cycled glass jars? He was so proud of his creation. And you better believe it is supposed to go right next to birth mom & birth dad’s commemorative Fanta Bottle. Yes, indeed.

Days like today, the real silver lining clouds, the beautiful people in my life who hold me a little tighter and share the hug a little longer, text me a little more often, authentic-one-of-a-kind-creations by my children, sharing motherhood with a birthmother, phone calls from my brother, the inappropriate jokes my good friends tell that they KNOW will make me throw my head back and laugh out loud, extra kisses from my husband who looked at me from across the room a little longer today and then told me how beautiful he thinks I am – these are the fireflies that are lighting up the darkness that has overtaken this season of my life. I know it isn’t forever and they all know it, too. But they are doing what they can, when they can, to light up my world until the break of a brighter dawn. I am thankful for each firefly in my life.

I was spoiled rotten today. And I am so thankful for it. I looked over at my sister in law tonight and sighed jokingly, “I wish it were Mother’s Day, every day.” To which she quickly replied, “Yeah, but then the world would fall apart.” Yes, it would. So tomorrow, I will go back to it refreshed and try again to hold the world together for my beautiful, loving, thoughtful, goofy, in-process, healing children.

 

The music in my bones

seasons of frustration
take their toll within a
shell-shocked phantom limb
i can’t win and neither can i lose
just running circles round
things i’d rather choose
so tired of wondering
can’t wait to stop the waiting

sometimes, these prayers bounce right back
and the logic makes no sense
has my heart really missed the mark
did I color the wrong lens?
desert sand cracks my skin
and hangs my soul to dry
living water trickles slow
but great floods fill the sky

some things most dear to me
slipped through my fingers long ago
old mistakes are traded for
the music in my bones
oh, I let the song in my soul fly
but an ache traps the melody,
it vanishes in smoke

 

_______________________________________________________________

 

In response to the Daily Post Prompt “Music

In the last several years, I have had to put many of my personal interests and talents on hold as my time is given over to caring for 3 children with special needs. But the flip side is that I am a classically trained vocalist and I can easily catch a brief but genuine escape when I sing, losing myself to the melody. And when the song ends, its back to the daily grind and some of the ache of today returns. So sometimes, I just try to keep singing through the day – If it is socially acceptable. And sometimes when it isn’t.

Cuttin’ a rug in the shoe department

Oh, Sue.

We were told our brand new foster daughter would only stay for a few months and that minimal commitment seemed like something we could handle for a while. We didn’t want to get too attached so we just gave her cuddles and did the perfunctory tasks of caring for an infant. But its funny because one day, I looked into those bottomless blue eyes after changing her diaper and realized that I had accidentally fallen in love. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. Weeks of diaper changing turned into months, months melted into years. And now, she is becoming ours forever. Someday soon.

Since coming to us, every ounce of heartache we have endured with the medical issues of our other children, Sue has brought joy in full measure. Even in her late blooming development, when Sue couldn’t move her body much from lack of muscle tone, her facial muscles were in perfect order, smiling and bringing light back into our hearts. The days I wanted to give up, I found her in her crib after a nap, arms outstretched with her smile just as wide, saying, “Hold you, Mama!!” And she wrapped her arms around my neck while patting my back and lifted me out of despair. If she weren’t here, who would do that in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon?

She balances it all out. For each of us. A few weeks ago, we found ourselves fretting over some tough choices (we thankfully didn’t have to make) for Layla. As we sat on the couch, my husband turned on some electronica. I looked over to see Sue hastily lining up all her stuffed animals on the couch. Oh, how cute. And then she started to dance. I mean, she threw her arms in the air then dropped it like it’s hot – DANCING! On her way back up (after dropping’ it, of course) she shouted over the loud music in her most elated voice, “Elmo, I danthing, Elmo!! I danthing!!!!” She desperately needed him to know – this was her moment. And our woes were forgotten for a time. And don’t get me started on the fact that it wasn’t that long ago that she couldn’t even walk.

This girl is larger than life. And the stronger she gets, the more confidence she has. Thank goodness for all the therapies she has to help her there. So, her little shimmy in the living room went public a few days ago. My husband took her to the mall one evening because it was raining and it is a good spot to walk the toddler. She REALLY likes to walk. Maybe it is because it took her so long to learn. He didn’t get far because wouldn’t you know it, they were playing some sweet beat in the Nordstrom shoe department. Sue wasted no time at all letting herself go. And GO she did. Right between the MAC makeup counter and the shoe department near the entrance to the mall, she was busting’ a move again with all the gusto a two year old is capable of. And every time, she loses herself in to the beat – she can’t hold still. At first, people just walked by and smiled like they always do. Everyone thinks she is cute. But then, the longer she kept at it, dancing her heart out, the more people just stopped to watch. And then they were cheering her on, and before you knew it, she had a circle of people just standing there, not shopping…but watching her. And she ate it up. The more they watched her, the bigger the circle, the longer she danced. For 20 minutes. It wasn’t just us this time – she made a whole crowd in a department store smile and laugh. She started her own flash mob. Oh, the tips she could have collected had there been a hat next to her on the floor.

Of this I have no doubt: there is just something about this little girl. Most people are mesmerized by Sue. Her smile and (just slightly maniacal) laugh is simply infectious. People who don’t care for small children are taken by her. And they do anything they can to win her love and affection. They can’t help themselves. She has that “Why, of course you love me!!” aura about her. And so they do. Sometimes I look at her and I think to myself, “How in the world do WE have YOU in our lives? Why are we so lucky?”

It was Sue herself that somehow snapped her birthmother out of a 14 year long funk to try to put her life together. And she worked so hard and is still doing the best she can! Sue, who can make Layla smile on her most difficult day wading through mental illness. Any silly story of Sue can melt the tension between her birthmother and I in a heartbeat. And we can laugh together. It is Sue who has stolen her big brother, Eddie’s heart and she thinks he is her own wonderful playful pet who happily does her bidding. This may be a problem someday since she will have all the smarts and will bend his will to hers with her naughty schemes. Yes, she is very naughty and already very schemy. But I love her for it.

She has saved my sanity. Her light, her loving spirit, her lisp, the way she calls me “mama,” her wobbly dance gyrations, and her thumb-sucking ways have buoyed my soul through some dark tunnels. And I believe that there is so much more of this ahead and it isn’t just for me. People often tell me how lucky she is to have us as foster parents. I don’t know what to say to that. Because what SHE has given ME and what she has brought into our family is beyond the power of words. She is a gift, and God was incredibly generous to me. He knew how much I would need her in my life – because she makes me laugh. Laughter is truly the best medicine for any ache. And for all those who need a smile, especially her loving birthmother, I will gladly share her.

Watch out for random public dance parties. She is probably responsible.

 

Blogging conundrums (it’s hard)

I knew it. I knew this would happen: put together my blog site (kind of) and then try to think of things to write about and then, I would sit there and stare at all the poetry and musings I have ever written and gotten onto my computer and come up with _________.

This is why I never ever tried to blog in all the years people have been asking me to share the experiences that our family encounters. I just don’t have the discipline to sit and stare at my computer every day. Frankly, I don’t have time! I don’t know if I will be able to keep up with myself. My writing comes in fits and spurts. So I might write 7 pieces of poetry and 3 pieces of prose in a week and then I can’t find anything to write about for 3 months. This is a problem for a blogger.

Another reason I didn’t blog before now, is because I was terrified. Putting my craft out there makes me want to run away and pee my pants. I often squeeze my eyes shut tight, heart racing in my chest and I hit “send” or “post” as fast as I can. I have a mini panic attack. I mentioned “heavy stuff”…well, the last thing someone needs when they are down or hurting or muddling through is for others to criticize or tell you that what you have experienced is false. Or just in your head. The comments sections can be so brutal. Who needs that?

I also didn’t blog because when the blogging craze began, people who were blogging about their counter culture experiences and getting flack for it from the dominant culture (i.e. friends, family, acquaintances), they griped about the flack. I didn’t want to do that, even though I felt the same frustrations and misunderstandings just as deeply. Blogging culture has evolved quite a bit since then!

So what exactly is counter culture in my life?

I studied social justice in India when Layla (my oldest daughter) was just 2 years old. It was my experiences with the poorest of the poor mothers and their children that rocked my world. It was there that I understood my mission was to find ways to support women and children in my own community. Ten years later, I am still on this same path.

We decided to adopt a little boy from Liberia. My son chose his pen-name to be that of his biological father: Eddie. As a result, we are now a multi-racial family. I am a white mom who never experienced the vulgarity and brutality of racist words & attitudes until he came into my life. And now, what you say to hurt him, hurts me. It hurts all of us.

And we are a foster family. Sue (or “Thue” according to our 2 year old with a thweet little lithp) has been in our family since we picked her up from the hospital when she was two days old. I thought she would be with us 3 months at the most. And now, we are on the brink of adoption! She is not the only child placed in our care from the foster system, we have had 2 others. But this is a world only other foster parents or social workers really see or understand.

Beyond that, all three of the kids have special needs. Layla has given me permission to share some of our experiences dealing with her diagnosed mental health issues. Just finding someone who would give her the medical attention she desperately needed took 4 years. Eddie has epilepsy and intellectual disabilities (formerly known as mental retardation). Getting him properly diagnosed took a scant 7 years. Sue has developmental delays and when she is no longer a ward of the state, I will be able to discuss her history more freely.

And in all of this, one thing sustains me (besides coffee and generous amounts of sugar): FAITH. I don’t know how else to do life except by completely leaning on Jesus.