It is a new year and so it’s time to choose another “One Word” for the year. Last year’s word was “Release.” I have really contemplated this for a couple of months and I couldn’t really think of anything that hit me. Then today I was sending something out at a FedEx location where you can also rent mailboxes, make photocopies, and buy cards/office supplies. They often have little trinkets for sale with Christian messages and encouragement. Most of the time I ignore it. Then I saw these little pocket angels.
The words “Courage” and “Trust” leaped out at me. This year, instead of “One Word,” I have two. And boy do I need these words. A recurring theme in my life for many years was the need for courage, or spiritually speaking “fortitude.” Technically speaking, fortitude is more than just courage, but I will take the courage first and maybe someday work myself up to fortitude.Trust is another theme that has been predominantly featured in my life over the past few months both spiritual trust and emotional trust. This year I plan to explore both of these words more and how I can increase their predominance in my life.
It is National Adoption Awareness Month. Rather than talking more about the challenges of adopting children with medical and emotional special needs, I want to talk about a few things that pertain to most internationally adopted children. As I have mentioned before, here, here, and here, my four children were all adopted from China and all adopted either in late toddlerhood or early school-aged years. When I first became an adoptive mother, I was very anxious that Oldest understand that I believed he was genuinely loved by his birth parents. I knew something of his “finding” place and while I will never share the details on this blog (because it’s his story and only his to tell), and it led me to believe that his “abandonment” was more a reflection of political pressures rather than a decision made from lack of caring or of insensitivity. However, I made a HUGE rookie, adoptive mom mistake. For the first year anniversary of being a family, I wrote a story, and in that story I conjured up a dream of who his parents were, where they might have lived, and the life circumstances that led them to make the decision that they could not parent him. I have since learned that we should never create a back story for our children but rather answer their questions honestly sharing about the political climate, the poverty, and the reasons why birth parents sometimes are not able to raise their birth children. Even as recent as two or three years ago, some of the fictional back story I created was tangled up in his mind as truth causing both of us to have to travel down the path of trauma and loss.
Why is this relevant today? Because Oldest is in seventh grade and they are learning all about reproduction, cells splitting and dividing, DNA, and where human babies derive their various facial, physical, and emotional attributes, and it has been emotionally painful for him. He doesn’t talk about the loss of his birth family or even foster family, whom he lived with from ages 11 months to 4 years. He had made a certain peace with the uncertainty of his life. He knows I am his “real mom,” the mom who let him throw up all over her, twice, when he had the croup at age 4.5 yrs old. Then the discussions began in science class. The kids were asked what their parents felt or earliest memories parents have of them when they were born. He came home that day and said he couldn’t participate because he didn’t know. Then they had another discussion about what were they like as a baby, were they fussy, were they happy, etc and he said he stayed silent. Then last Friday he came home and told me they were talking about which parent gave them their eye color, hair color, height, and all things DNA. I asked him, “What did you do? Did you just sit there quietly again.” He said, “Yea, and I put my head down and cried.” Well, you can just imagine how that pained my heart, and made me wonder, a bit peevishly, “Can’t we tackle this subject in a more sensitive way, like maybe take out the specific references to parents and make it more general?” And I thought the Family Tree project a couple of years ago was a mine field! Fortunately with that project, he didn’t dwell on his birth family and instead focused on his family tree as it has been changed and as it exists now.
I hate that my son, my normally stoic son, put his head down and cried. I know he thinks about the losses of kinship in his life because we talk openly about it as any adoptive family would do (or should do). But it’s one thing to discuss those losses in the safety of family, but another thing entirely to have those losses accentuated by being unable to participate in a class discussion. Now, the reality is that probably most if not all of his classmates were completely oblivious to the fact that he was not participating or even was upset. The feeling of being left out was entirely in his emotions.
One of the ways in which I help my children have a “beginning” is to talk about their adoption stories. Even as the years go on, they never tire of hearing about them. In fact, one way I know they are trying to process how they feel about their identity is they will ask me, “tell me the story Mommy about when you first adopted me,” or “what was I like Mama when you first adopted me back when I was just a ‘baby?'” “Baby” being a relative term here to them because anyone under the age of six or seven years old are “babies” to them. Remember, none of them were younger than three years old at adoption, and Youngest Son was almost seven years old. So I tell them the stories once again, and I tell them what they were like that first day, those first weeks, and months. I tell them whether they were bossy, or silly, or whether they were scared, lonely, or frightened. I tell them about how I thought they had the biggest, chocolatey-est brown eyes I have ever seen (Oldest Son), or how they had eyes that were so watchful, looking out at the world to take in every aspect of every moment (Youngest Son). I tell him how from the beginning he radiated a mischievous joy that would always bring us comfort in difficult times (Middle Son) or how she had the creamiest skin and delicately fine features of a beautiful flower (Daughter). I don’t know where Oldest gets his broad shoulders or knee caps the size of softballs. I don’t know where Middle Son’s innate athletic ability and comedic timing come from. I don’t know from whom my daughter inherits the song that is ever in her heart and on her lips, or her innate musicality. And I don’t know where Youngest Son got his incredibly deep analytical mind. Someone’s DNA gave them those things along with all their physical attributes, but we will never know who. I just get to nurture them and see them blossom along life’s way.
I’d like to be able to reframe that discussion in science class to leave the facts to the facts of DNA, cells, recessive and dominant genes, but to include the facts of nurture as well. I don’t know what that looks like right now but I sure would like to work a plan with the teachers and administrators. I know for a fact that there are four children in the fourth grade at the school who are all adopted. There is one kinship guardianship as well. Discussing DNA, inheritance of genes and attributes, may be painful if not outright impossible for these children. And there will be others who come through the school in the future because adoption is very much a reality in our culture.
With Oldest, I often remark how much he’s like his Baba, his “real” dad, my late husband. In some ways, they are two peas in a pod. He’s always reading and enjoys books just like My Love. He has a creative mind just like his Baba. He love the Mass and the Eucharist, and loves to serve in the Church, just like his Baba. He has a sensitive and caring heart just like his Baba. And yes, he’s even like a bull in a china shop blundering into walls and people alike because he doesn’t always know where his limbs and torso are in relation to other people or objects. Just like his Baba.
~ The Reluctant Widow
I haven’t posted a lot on the blog lately because a) I haven’t much to say that is uplifting or enlightening, b) I am not on speaking terms with God so I feel pretty angry, and when I am angry, I can’t write or be creative, and finally c) I haven’t been able to articulate the frustration that I feel over the ways in which people think they are “helping.” Now, after a bit of a ruckus with a family member, I think I have some solid thoughts and hopefully insightful words.
Most days I feel as though My Love has been gone for years, ages and ages, when in reality it’s been less than 2.5 years. But the last six months have been devastating both to my health and well-being as well as my spiritual well-being. It’s been a weird roller coaster ride of feeling so incredibly angry with God and my late husband for being left with this huge mess to clean up (I wrote about my struggles with parenting four children, two with Reactive Attachment Disorder), and then I feel so incredibly sad that I struggle to remember the really great times we had as a couple and as a family. I struggle to remember that he was a good man, a good husband, and a good father. The daily struggles that make life the hardest are the struggles which I think are difficult for every widow(er), and especially those still raising children. Here are some things I would like you to understand.
- Grief is debilitating. Grief really hurts, especially grief that has been delayed or relatively ignored. I know from talking with other widows I am not the only one with sleep issues. Mine have become chronic. At first it’s just the empty spot in the bed next to me each night. I missed the rhythm of his breathing, and even the snoring or the way the CPAP machine made it sound like Darth Vader was sleeping next to me. Those sounds, the fact that if I woke up from a nightmare or with a worry, I could reach over, touch his body, and the world felt safe. Now that safety is gone. I lie awake late into the night worrying about how I am going to help my middle son learn to make accommodations for dyslexia so he can feel confident and successful in school. I worry about my oldest son, whether he’s taking on too much responsibility and how to help him lighten up to be a kid. I worry about my daughter, who sadly has been quite emotionally damaged from events and circumstances in her young life. As has my youngest son been damaged by early trauma., how knowing about that trauma, knowing the steps to work toward healing but being unable to fully implement them on my own, and feeling as though I have let us all down because it’s too hard for just me. I worry about finances. I budgeted for a certain amount of time to stay home and get things settled with the kids, and with me, but that time has long since past. We are fine so far, but it constantly niggles in the back of my mind, “I should get a job.” Then I worry about how my kids will continue the life they have of friendships, sports, and scouts, if I have a job. How do I get them all where they need to go? So I worry, I don’t sleep, and now because of constant sleep deprivation has become weight gain, brain fog, and Fibromyalgia. When I went to the chiropractor last week for the first time in a couple years due to a sciatica flare-up, they had me mark on the sheet of paper where it hurts. There were little “X marks the spot” all over my body because it’s the truth. I could have circled the whole body. Grief hurts.
- Grief comes in waves, not all at once and then you are over it. Just like the waves crash upon the shore and then recede away, and how with the changing tides the waves come further up the shore or are further way from it, so with grief. I can go weeks sometimes where life is humming along, nose to the grindstone and we are working our way through life, and then something happens to trigger another wave of grief. Everyone in my life, whether they say it out loud or communicate the message non-verbally, thinks I should be beyond the intense grief by now. I get the impatient “well, this is your life now so you just have to deal with it,” whether spoken or unspoken. But grief doesn’t work that way. Last week I had called a friend because her son was coming to our house for a sleepover on Saturday and I wanted to finalize the arrangements. She called me back on her way home from the hospital. Her sister-in-law had just had a massive heart attack and died. She was in her early 50’s, seemingly healthy and in good shape, and now her brother-in-law was a widower. I was glad she called me, and I was glad to be able to listen to her in that shocking time, but I have been weeping every day since that call. It brought another wave of grief as I relived those last moments in my mind watching My Love as his heart beat slower and slower until it stopped. He was gone. Just gone. Just like that our love, our marriage, and our life was over. To hear of another human being experiencing that moment is heartbreaking.
- Don’t rush widows(ers) in those first few days, weeks, and months after their spouse’s death. Some of the emotions I have had to process recently is resentment. Resentment at being rushed. My husband died on a Tuesday and the priest that married us was out-of-town, but I wanted him there to concelebrate the Funeral Mass, even though he was no longer our parish priest. It would have meant waiting until Monday or Tuesday of the next week, but my husband’s sisters, brother, and their spouses were all in town by Wednesday. They wanted the funeral to be Friday so they could travel back home on Sunday to get back to work. My daughter’s birthday was Saturday, “let’s get the funeral over so she can have her special day and not have the funeral hanging over our heads” they rationalized to me. But that meant I had only three days to plan the funeral, no time to breathe, no time to really think, no real time to weep, and Monseignor was not going to be there. A couple of months later, some relatives wanted to visit, to help me pack up his office and give away his things. I wasn’t ready, it was too soon, but “this is when we can come, if you want our help, this is when we are available” I was told. So I let them come. It was too soon. No, I did not give away, or put away for the future, anything that I wouldn’t have done later, but it was too soon for me emotionally. It felt like I was just erasing him out of our existence although it’s taken me two years to realize that is what it felt like. Don’t rush someone to go through the closet or belongings of their loved ones. When they are ready, they will do it, and then if you are available to help, offer your help.
- You can never, ever, know what it is like to live my life. Ever. This is true for every person on this planet. So rather than offering the help you “think” I need, why don’t you ask me what I really need. Yes, it is really fun to have lunch dates, dinners out, and Lord knows, I can go days without any substantive adult conversation (talking to the school secretary does not count). However, it’s not what I really need. I need you to listen to me even if what I am saying I have said before multiple times. Listen, don’t try to fix. The help I need probably looks like coming over and helping me clean my living room of the kids’ clutter again, or helping me fold and put away the four loads of laundry that have been sitting in baskets for five days, or keeping me company while I try to rid my bedroom of kid clutter and things that I have put aside “to figure out what I am going to do with this” later, so my room is a space of calm and refuge for me. And yes, I might need you to do these things for me time, after time, after time for a while because I have four very busy kids, with emotional special needs, who can literally suck the life and time out of me when they are in my presence. I may get a hot meal on the table every night and I may get the laundry clean but yes, sometimes it’s just that little bit too much to then have to clean the kitchen up and put things away even though I am “home all day so what do you do with your time.” Some weeks are better than others. You may think “at some point you need to get your act together because I don’t want to be doing this with you all the time” (which I have been told after only the second time I call a relative for help), but that time hasn’t come yet. I still feel hobbled by grief and life’s circumstances. So just help me and reserve your judgement for someone else please, because I don’t need to add your judgements of me to the list of things that I already beat myself up about sucking at in life.
Whether you realize it or not, there really isn’t a timeline for grief. It takes it’s own path, and comes and goes as it pleases. It isn’t convenient for you or for a widow(er). I know it won’t last forever, and probably if I would have the time to hunker down under the covers for several weeks weeping for all that is lost, I might be able to move beyond it. Or maybe not. I remember a widow of fifteen years telling me a few months after my husband died, “You need to realize that it’s going to be at least five years before you feel ‘normal’ again, and that ‘normal’ won’t be the way you were but the new normal you have become” and I remember looking at her horrified and saying “God, I hope it doesn’t take that long!” I don’t know how long it will take because I have never done this before. I still think to myself, “God, I hope it’s not going to take much longer!”
~ The Reluctant Widow
This is a tribute to my Aunt Meg who is in the last hours of her life. It’s a eulogy of sorts. I know she’s not gone yet, but I wanted to write this now because once she has left this earth, I fear I will be too overcome with grief to give her the tribute she deserves.
Aunt Meg actually. Meg is my aunt, though I never really called her “Aunt Meg.” It’s not because she was born with Down Syndrome and so therefore less worthy of the title “Aunt.” It’s because she was only five years older than me and our relationship was more like that of an older sister-younger sister, or friend. I can’t really remember exactly when I realized that Meg was different from others, different from me. I was probably in first or second grade. Before that, she was just Meg. Meg, who played with me when I visited my grandparents home. Meg who pulled my first tooth out because somehow we thought it would be a good idea for my 5 yr old self to place a jump rope in my mouth and play tug-of-war with her. I remember going to the Ringling Bros circus with my grandparents, Meg, and my cousin, Barrie Michelle. We all fell asleep in the back seat of the car on the way home.
When Meg entered what we now call the “tween” years, she did seem a bit more withdrawn from us. She would spend hours in her room alone, venturing out for big glasses of Coke, or to show us her latest “homework.” Homework was what Meg called her writing. It could rarely be recognized as any coherent writing, mostly a jumble of letters and occasional words, but she would tell us about them. A lot of them involved stories about Tom Seaver, he favorite pitcher for the NY Mets, and her crush. Meg had a huge box of crayons, hundreds of crayons, and she would share them and her coloring books with me and my two sisters. Sometimes when we would arrive at Grandpa and Grandma’s, she and Grandpa would be out. Grandma didn’t like to grocery shop, so that was something she and Grandpa would do together. They had their routine. They would go to ShopRite for some things, to A&P for others, and occasionally to the Grand Union for other things. Saturday and Sunday mornings, Grandpa would go out to both bakeries in town to get “bakery.” He had certain things he liked to get at The Viking Bakery and other things that he would only get at Three Crowns bakery. I remember Meg being his companion on those trips a lot of times too.
Meg was obsessed with Tom Seaver of the NY Mets. Later, she was “in love” with Eric Estrada. She loved Snoopy. She loved the American flag and would salute it whenever she saw one even if that flag was on the shirt she was wearing. Eating a meal with her whether it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner, would require having plenty of ketchup on hand. She loved ketchup on most anything. She also drank a lot of Coca-Cola. I think she influenced my preference for Coke products over Pepsi products, so imagine my horror when Meg changed her loyalty to Pepsi. Unthinkable!
I can’t quite capture her voice in writing because it was unique, probably mostly unintelligible to all those except those who were family, but she had this way of talking to the people she really loved. She was a very big teaser. To grandpa she would often affect this exasperated tone, today she would have probably learned to roll her eyes at him and say “oh Dad,” like he was the biggest silly in the whole world. She would affect the same for Grandma. To her sister, Marianne, she took up calling her “Fats” some time in Marianne’s 30’s. Marianne wasn’t fat but like a lot of women she had her struggles with the scale. Sometimes that number on the scale was lower than other times, but Meg would mercilessly tease her calling her “Fats.”
Most of the time she didn’t tease her nieces and nephews, but definitely in her adulthood she developed some sass and that she would turn loose on us. Although I don’t remember that sass in my younger years, I think it developed sometime after she went to live in “New House.” When Meg became an adult, she went to live in a group home with other women with Down Syndrome. That home became “New House.” She visited my grandparents’ home frequently and that was home. Maybe it was being around those other women but Meg certainly picked up a sassy attitude. Not sassy in a talk-back kind of way, but sassy in the mischievous, got the world by it’s tail kind of way. One specific incident I remember so vividly involved Meg, a dress, my husband and her sass. She was in Tulsa for the 4th of July holiday. Aunt Marianne was here too and they were visiting at Aunt Lisa’s house. Aunt Marianne had taken Meg shopping and Meg insisted on getting a dress that was way too small, and way too short. She proudly modeled it for us, her curvy body stuffed into the dress quite like a sausage casing. But she put that dress on, worked the room, then proceeded to try to perform a lap dance on my husband. The whole time she had the sassiest, most mischievous grin on her face, and she was laughing. I looked at her in mock consternation and said, “You can’t have him. He’s mine.” She laughed, walked away, and flipped her hair over her shoulder. My poor husband was so embarrassed but the rest of us were filled with laughter. And, I felt like I had finally entered the club of those she will tease. She was pretending to try to steal my husband.
The most important thing I want to convey about Meg is how she loved. She loved unconditionally. She didn’t really know how to love any other way. That is the gift of Down Syndrome. Love is just love for love’s sake. As with most people I imagine, there were a lot of times when I didn’t feel special, I didn’t feel good enough, I felt that I had to earn love or I might lose it, but with Meg, it was never that way. After I became an adult, moved away from NJ and so only saw her once or twice a year, I would look forward to seeing Meg with great anticipation. Meg had this way about her. I bet if you polled every family member, you would hear them say they thought that they were Meg’s favorite. I know I did. I felt like I was “the favorite” niece because when I would attend family events after an absence of six months or a year, I would walk in the room, Meg’s eyes would find me, then she would light up with a big smile, run-walk over to me to say “Kimmie!” while giving me the biggest and best hug ever. Then, she would talk to me about her outfit she was wearing, the latest homework she was doing, or the fabulous vacation she had just taken with the women at “New House.” I felt so loved and so very special in those reunions. Those moments are what I most cherish about my aunt, and they are what I will miss the most.
Lastly, to Meg, I just want to say this: I know you are up there in Heaven with Grandma, Grandpa, Auntie Marianne, and my My Love, and you are having a blast I am sure. But just remember, he’s is still mine.
I wrote this story while we were waiting for our oldest son’s Travel Approval to arrive from China. Today he turns 13, a teenager. How did this happen. When we first “met” him, he was a handsome little two-year old with a precocious grin. Every once in a while, I see that grin and though the face has filled out, and his chin isn’t quite so defined, I still see that boy in my man-child. His name has been changed to keep it anonymous.
Waiting for Our Boy
We first met our oldest through Holt International’s child sponsorship program. We had signed up as sponsors in 2002 because our niece was adopted from China through Holt. We requested to sponsor a girl from China, any age. We were matched with three girls in very quick succession. When the third girl, Hua, was adopted in July 2003, we were sent a picture of a lively little boy, Jin Zhenfei. Zhenfei was 2 years old at the time. We thought, because of some of the wording in the letter, that he had a family but was not living with them at the time and was in foster care. He was so cute, he captured our hearts immediately. We had started to think about adoption as a way to start our family and naturally had been thinking about China. We said to ourselves, “Too bad we can’t adopt Zhenfei. He’s our boy.”
Each quarter we received an update on Zhenfei with a picture. His updates indicated he was healthy and happy. His foster-mother reported that he sometimes had a temper. Looking at his picture I could see this would be true. Our boy had a determined look about him. Every time we got our sponsorship update I would open it up, dreading that our boy was no longer “ours,” and relieved to find the latest information about him. The update in March 2004 indicated he had started school and cried the first day when his foster-mother dropped him off. In July 2004, at three, he had learned to like school and got along great with other kids. He likes to play football (soccer we assume) with his foster-father and the neighborhood children. He sings and dances when he is happy. He likes to draw and color. Once again we remarked, “Wish we could adopt Zhenfei.”
Later that month, we did start our own adoption journey. We applied to a local agency for their China program. We knew that most likely we would be adopting a girl of just under or slightly older than a year. We were thrilled! In September, my mother came to visit us for my birthday. One day she looked at Zhenfei’s picture on our refrigerator and said, “Why can’t you just adopt him?” I explained to my mother that we would love to but he was not available for adoption.
Fast forward to November 13, 2004. Our home study is complete and we are awaiting approval, the nursery is painted a lovely light green, we have a crib, our dossier documents are coming together, and we are greatly anticipating a daughter. That afternoon I received the latest issue of HI Families magazine – Holt’s monthly magazine highlighting adoption. I flipped open the magazine and it opened to the Waiting Child page. In the bottom right-hand corner was a picture of a little boy with [an American name] typed across the top. My heart almost stopped. It was our boy – Zhenfei. I looked at the description for the birth date, just to make sure it matched. Yes, it was the same. I ran into the kitchen and pulled the picture off the fridge to double-check once more. Yes, it was definitely our boy. My husband was there and I said, “Look! Its our boy. He’s available for adoption!” My husband took one look and said, “We need to call them about adopting him.” No hesitation, no doubts. We called that evening but were disappointed to find out that the person we needed to speak with was out of the office that day. She would call us the next week.
Now, any of you who have ever completed an international adoption can understand the frustration of waiting. For those of you who have not adopted internationally, the phrase “hurry up and wait” is incredibly appropriate. You hurry to get your part completed but then whoever is handling the next part has a stack of files for people just like you who want their “stuff” done. So was it really surprising to me when it was nearly a week and a half, a couple of rounds of telephone tag before we were able to speak to the Director of the Waiting Child program about adopting Zhenfei? Nope. She has lots of people she’s dealing with each day and their needs are every bit as important as mine. But I still hated the waiting.
Our talk with Holt’s Director of the Waiting Child program left mixed feelings. On the one hand, we heard more about his situation and his particular “special need.” On the other hand, she mentioned there are other families interested in him and the fact that we would be first time parents was a concern when adopting an older child. My emotions ran the gamut from desperation that we HAD to be his family, to nervousness about adopting him at almost 4-years old, to relief that if we were not chosen to adopt him that he would at least have a forever family. After a couple of weeks consideration and reviewing his medical records, we have decided he is, after all, our boy if Holt’s Waiting Child Committee chooses us to parent Zhenfei. We are first time parents and so the agency is hesitant about placing an older child with medical needs with us. There is also another family petitioning to adopt him.
In the meantime, we wait. Wait for the Waiting Child Committee to meet and decide who will be Zhenfei’s family. We have amused ourselves by discussing what we might name him. We had a list of about 15 names we liked, with meanings we thought were nice. In the end, we decided Holt had it right. The name they gave him in the magazine, a name not on our list of 15 names, was really the name meant for him.
Update (December 31, 2004)
We heard from the Waiting Child Committee on December 30, 2004 that Paul and I were chosen to be Zhenfei’s parents. I cried and cried when we were given the news. After we received the news, I posted a message on a message board I frequent, and I was overwhelmed by the response I received from people. Many had seen his picture on the Waiting Child page and had been praying for him to find a family. How awe-inspiring it was to read of the sheer numbers of people who have been praying for our son. Our son…that’s a phrase I never thought I would say. God has truly remembered.