Friday, April 20, 2012

A talk with my children, and waiting


Now is a time for waiting—a homestudy application has been mailed (and a certain marital blow-out put before me. TJ is out of town, returning—to lots of changes—in a few weeks), and the Tbilisi hiring manager promises a response soon deciding the next job location. This kind of waiting reminds me of the weeks leading up to Puck’s overdue delivery. Bored with the long walks and endless phone calls, I headed to Home Depot and started constructing a table. Now I am running. Ernest, Yoshi and I have signed up for a 5K race in Reston next Saturday, and we’re getting up at 5:15 to practice. I’m trying to live up to my role as the school’s track coach, even though I don’t much care for running. I’m also trying to give the boys a chance to shine by showing them that they can complete an adult race. At 5:15 in the morning, it’s hard to tell whether I am trying to make them happy, or they are trying to make me happy, but we manage to shuffle downstairs and out the door. Concentrating on breathing and bird-chirping is the best way to clear my mind.

Tika has become a scrappy little girl this year, and now she grins with a hole where her front tooth used to be. She is at a perfect moment of sweetness, competitiveness and unguarded exploration. Now she’s an avid rope-jumper who commandeers neighborhood rope-jumping in front of our house, and her turn must be the longest. She’s a reckless tree-climber, who’s long forgotten the past broken elbow and mother’s unheeded warnings. She shakes the branch to let loose any brother trying to make his way up below her.

But Tika also crosses herself when ambulances pass, quietly repeating the Angel of Mercy. When, after much pleading, TJ and I bought her a real-life style baby-doll, she unbundled her from the package, scurried into another room, and proceeded to “deliver” the baby out from under her dress between her legs. She “nursed” that baby all afternoon.

Now Tika is re-reading The Color of Home, the story of a Somali refugee recounting an attack that drove his family to seek refuge in America. I passed her bedroom door, where dollhouse make-believe usually centers on eating and using the bathroom, and now she was pushing the dolls and cats under their dollhouse beds to hide from attacking rebels. She explained matter-of-factly that some of them weren’t going to make it.

Ernest seems to have grown out of the age of certainty and into an awkward awareness of bigger things beyond his control. Chief among them, of course, are school tests, a burden that weighs on him almost as much as his enormous backpack. Each test, he tells me, is a naked examination of his worth, and any little mistake a humiliation. I’m not sure whether I can rationally convince him to loosen up, or should wish for a few B’s to put things in perspective.

But while TJ is away, Ernest has always been my closest substitute to a husband—someone who really listens and always speaks his mind with me. Naturally, Ernie and I have talked many times about orphans and adoption. “I don’t know anything about this kind of thing,” he cautions, “but I guess I’ve gotten used to all the kids.” I had to laugh. It was Ernie, after all, who was carried on top of the big-belly that was Yoshi; Ernie who got booted from his crib; Ernie who rode in the backseat while Mom went into labor (Tika) behind the wheel; Ernie, who, while having his teeth brushed one morning suddenly got his head pressed into the sink and asked knowingly, ‘Are you pregnant again?’ (yes, that was Puck).

In fact, Ernie knows a lot more than he lets on. He thinks about orphans, too, about injustice and violence, about listening to God. We talk about the special need among older kids, kids his age, who are rarely selected for adoption. “I’m totally for this,” he reassures me, “because I know you’ve got a plan for everything.” Oh. That deflates my assurance, but I don’t let on. “Actually, I think about this kind of thing all the time. What is it like to lose everything and everyone, and be completely alone?” He’s a boy given over to worrying. “The worst part is that nobody would ask me what I wanted, and if some random strangers showed up, people wouldn’t ask what thought of them. People would just look me over and decide whether I was good enough for them.”

The boy who said he didn't know anything has thought the whole thing through. We had a good, long silence, running our feet through cherry blossom petals and watching Tika climb the tree. She shook the branches to rain more petals on top of us. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Other Biological Clock

I’m a pragmatist and an evangelist I guess.
So I have good reason to feel anxious about the next few weeks waiting for a phone call from Washington. We are moving someplace, sometime soon, who-to-where tbd. The happy dismantling of our Virginia home-base has already begun: the house is under contract, old clothes have been bagged out for donation. Ernest and Yoshi, Tika and Puck to varying extent understand: there will be a packing up, all-toys-on-deck, a trip to the airport, and an amazing new adventure, complete with little bags of peanuts. A new door is about to open.
But what worries me is that a door I meant to pass through seems to be closing quickly, and perhaps forever: adoption. It has been my long-cherished dream, my vision of my real contribution, my goal for our family to reach out to other kids living on the edge, and in turn to grow ourselves beyond this me-first imagination. Was bringing our kids to orphanages around Cambodia a marketing tactic? Maybe—I wouldn’t put myself past that. The kids, and especially Ernest, have asked me why we didn’t adopt a Khmer child, and they are certainly enthusiastic about taking a bold step to change the family.
But TJ has stalled. He has plied for time in a 10-year negotiation that hasn’t made us any richer or our household any more “stable” than when we started. Is he a Putin posing to negotiate while positioning himself to win? That’s not a nice thing to say, but my current reading puts me in this frame of mind. I have drummed up my parents, the kids, my friends, in a no-holds-barred effort to sway his views. Still he stalls.
Now I face an end-point. A homestudy must be done before anything else. An American household should exist, preferably with the would-be adoptive parents co-residing in it. Placement, follow-up, everything is geared toward doing it on American soil.
Do I give TJ an ultimatum? What am I bargaining with, except tears and time?
Does a woman ever get over the dream of being a mother? Last autumn I took a first feeble step. The church-based adoption informational session filled up quickly with graying single women in well put-together suits and mid-forties couples that pressed their hands together during the slideshow and asked questions about eligibility and timeframes with cracking voices. I listened quietly and took all the handouts, but couldn’t sign up, like everyone else, for a home interview. I left in a beat-up Volkswagon flanked by a Lexus and a Landrover.
You see, my cause is not as clear to everyone, and so my question about the dream of being a mother isn’t met with the same sympathy. When I share my vision and urgency, even with very close friends, it’s usually me who has to answer the questions. Aren’t you happy with your own children? (That one hurts the most) How will you manage? (aka, we’ll be watching, and you’d better not screw up!) Won’t this be financially difficult? (…And won’t it therefore dilute the financial and other resources that we feel are naturally more deserved by the biological children?) How will the children get enough attention? (ditto the above in other words) If you were so intent on adoption, why did you have so many children? (My brain is dead, I’m saying useless things) Why don’t you consider a more rewarding job? (again, brain-dead).
It seems we can congratulate middle-aged couples in Volvos when they pursue adoptions, but we are academically or altruistically opposed to orphaned children entering large, messy families that sleep two-to-a-bed and eat crock-pot dinners. What folks mean by their questions, and I may as well answer them flat-out, is that American parents who love their kids owe them rec rooms and American girl dolls, princess beds and basketball camps, Disney vacations and Massachusetts liberal arts colleges. And, what the hell, that’s not our family. We slice the pie thinner to feed more mouths. Our days in America over the next several years will be numbered. Our aim is to raise our children where life is education, where we live as outsiders with open minds, where we take chances to learn and help others, and where the stuff we accumulate is relationships and memories. If that means more 15-bean soup, then so be it.
But that brings me back to my question—is this the time for an ultimatum? Both my pragmatic and my evangelical sides agree that it is. Pragmatic, because I know the mechanics of family decision-making—the disproportionate effort to make something happen versus the loving alacrity with which we cope with fait accompli. Do I need to remind him that two of our four were joyful surprises? Evangelical, because marriage is an organic union. We don’t stay in love by staying the same. Instead, we challenge each other to grow and become better people, or hold on to each other to navigate a rough road that’s put in front of us. I can’t put aside this dream for fear that TJ will crack and break. Instead, I’ve got to push him to rise up to the challenge, and I know he can.