Friday, August 26, 2016

After the storm

I'm not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the awkward line of bonding and attachment, it did. I looked at this child, who just months ago was a complete stranger and realized I couldn't imagine life without her.

I'm not sure how it is for other adoptive families, but for me, creating a familial bond with someone who we had received custody over literally ten minutes after meeting her for the first time and almost a dozen years after she was born, was anything but natural.

I remember driving home from the airport after landing in Boise, my newest daughter climbing the walls of the minivan- delirious from exhaustion and anxiety from the long flight. My children, who had waited at the arrival gate excitedly with balloons and banners now watched her anxiously, unsure of who or what we had just brought home from China. She gruffly muttered a bluestreak of frustration as she yanked on her seatbelt, looking out the window at what was now be her home. She looked anything but excited.

I remember staring out the window sullenly at the gray afternoon in early March. We were finally home with the daughter whome we had fought for for a year and half, literally shedding blood, sweat and tears for- and all I felt was an overwhelming sense of loss, like someone or something had just died.

What was wrong with me? I should have been ecstatic but all I wanted to do was go back in time to the day I first felt the stirrings that adoption was part of our path and choose the other way- like the Choose-Your-Own Adventure books I used to read when I was a kid. Except this wasn't the path I would have ended the book on.

The next few days were like having an awkward relative in the house that was there to stay. I can barely remember the daze of those first few weeks, hung over with jet lag and the fear of wondering if the robotic voice of Google Translate would forever echo the walls of our home. I hated that voice and what it represented- the concrete barrier that stood immovably between me and my new daughter.

Yes, something had died. My former life of relative simplicity was gone forever and I ached for it more than I ever thought I would. My sweet little family of seven was now an awkward family of eight.

How I wish I could go back to the terrified woman I was 5 1/2 months ago, and tell her to trust- trust that it would all be worth it. Not just in a far and distant time, but soon. I would tell her not to underestimate the power of Him whose errand we were on. I would remind her that the greatest of God's miracles were not raising the dead or calming the seas, but the changing of hearts. And how my heart would change.

I would tell that terrified woman a few things that might get her through another day- that within 5 short months her daughter's health would stabilize and the craziness of surgeries and endless visits to specialists would soon subside. She would learn English quickly, astounding everyone around her. Her younger sisters- especially little Beasty- would adore her, and everyone who met her would fall in love with her. She would become my most reliable helper in the home and she would learn to love hugs. She would teach my other children a thing or two about obedience and hard work. She would eagerly call me mama and seek me out each night for a bedtime hug. Her self-protective walls of stoicism would eventually come down and she'd tearfully look to us for comfort when she was sad or lonely. But most of all, I would tell that terrified woman that the day would come when my heart would swell with love when I think of my little girl.

But these things won't come cheaply, I would add. They'll be won- each and everyone of them through painful persistence, awkwardness, and prayer. Lots of awkwardness and lots of prayer. I would tell that woman from 5 1/2 months ago that there will be plenty more days ahead when I will wish we had never done this. It will be the hardest thing I've ever done. That any of us have ever done. But I would tell her to remember that all anger is born of grief. All of it, and most of it cuts more deeply than anything I could ever imagine. I would tell her that some of her biological children will lash out in anger as well as they also grieve the life they lost and the perceived loss of a mother. There would be slamming doors and angry tears, and one child would even try to run away. But to take them in my arms and try to love them the best I could in my own imperfect way. And then the walls- the ugly ones we had all put up to protect ourselves- would begin to crumble one by one.

But, trust. I would tell her to trust in those undeniable promptings that led them to her and, most of all, to keep going. I would remind her what Gordon B. Hinckley said, "that what appears today to be a sacrifice will prove instead to be the greatest investment you will ever make."

I watched Hengxin sit at the counter for two hours on Monday afternoon, intently working on an essay her teacher had given her to complete after her first day of school. Hunched over her tiny composition notebook she carefully tried to describe, in broken English, what the first day of school felt like to her: scared, anxious, excited. After two hours, she proudly showed me the full page she had written. I was so proud of my little girl. Yes, the day would soon come when my feathers would fluff over her accomplishments like the proud mother hen I am towards my biological children. I would tell that woman that I would soon be able to take this little girl in my arms and not feel like I was hugging a stranger.

I've often made the mistake of believing that once the cloudy mists of trials pass come the sunny days of ease. But that's never the case. There will always be challenges. Always. And if the storms seem to have subsided for a while, then it's to gather strength for our next one. But I think what the past 5 1/2 months has taught me, is that no matter the darkness, no matter the discouragement, the storm clouds will pass and we'll catch glimpse of what that investment is that we're making. And it will all be worth it, not only in the end, but now.

Friday, July 22, 2016


I've been thinking a lot about them lately, especially today. The two people, who in a perfect world, would have been here today, not me. Her birth parents.

She doesn't speak of them and I've struggled to know what and when to ask more about them. At what point in our relationship do we have enough emotionally invested to pursue questions that cross into painful territory and re-open gaping wounds? I don't know.

We still know so little about her and she knows so little about us. This girl who has lived under our roof for four and a half months and whose medical and emotional care has almost completely consumed our time and energy is still very much a stranger to us- her story held hostage from us by the merciless greed of such a difficult language barrier.

And yet it was my hand that held hers as they put the gas mask over her nose to drift her off to sleep before surgery. It was my eyes that held hers as they fluttered off to sleep. It should have been their hands, their eyes- not mine.

As I sat in the waiting room, the hours ticking by, I thought of them, especially her father. For the first time I pitied them, deeply so. For the first time I allowed myself to go there- to think of the agony he must have felt that day seven years ago when he walked away and never came back. It must have been excruciating for him. Forever scarring to any father. And her mother... what did she go through? Unfathomable.

I had resented them before... angry. Now my heart hurt for them. It must have been hell. Literally. There can't be any other word to describe it. An Abrahamic test only a few will ever be so unfortunate to have to make: to choose between life and love.

But their choice gave her a chance at life, one that otherwise she certainly would have been denied of. She wouldn't have lived much longer, of that I know for sure.

Giving myself permission to forgive them was liberating- the self-imposed burden of blind and selfish judgment lifted from my shoulders. Now to move onto the work of forgiving the orphanage for the lack of care that she received, resulting in permanent aftermath that will affect her for the rest of her life. That's grace that I need to offer not for their sake, but for mine.

We seemed to have turned a corner in our relationship over the past month. After hitting an all-time low just prior to it, I can honestly say that I love this girl as though I had given birth to her myself.
Today as I watched her drift off to sleep from the anesthesia, I couldn't stop staring at her, realizing that she truly has my heart- entirely. It hasn't been an easy road to get here for either of us... far from it. There have been times when she probably would have taken a one-way ticket back to China, and days when I would probably wouldn't have objected.

But we're here now. As I sit here typing, she's listening to her favorite song, "Imperfect Child"- the song that seems to have become a sort of anthem to her. The road to get here has been one of broken hearts. But I've learned that that's what adoption is... a road of broken hearts that leads to redemption- not only the child's redemption, but that of the adoptive parents as well. Because in her, I have truly found a sense of redemption. And I pray that her birth parents will find a sense of redemption someday in knowing that their choice not only gave their daughter a chance at life, but in doing so, offered us a chance for redemption as well.

This picture, taken last night before surgery, perfectly shows Dennis and Hengxin's relationship. He has such a way with her. When I can't get through to her, he can. Certainly without his wisdom and patience, our story would be playing out very differently.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Self-Pity and Ingratitude

Yesterday I had an ample supply of self-pity. So many tiny little reasons. None of them hugely significant- just a hundred little things, all stacked on top of each other like tiny little Legos, into a huge pity pot.

And there I sat most of the evening, perched on top my Lego pity pot, a complete bear to the people who love me the most and judge me the least.


I woke up this morning feeling a little better but still, groggy from a bad night's sleep of terrible and disturbing dreams. Hengxin and I were sitting in the back of a speeding pick-up trying to flee. I could hear them in the distance, witches cursing and howling for her blood. The sound made my skin crawl. She hid her head in my shoulder, weeping and trembling in fear. I wrapped my arms around her and promised her I would give my life before ever letting anything happen to her.

I walked around the house, trying to shake off the eeriness of the dream. As I wandered into the kitchen, my mind went back to Monday morning. I had taken Hengxin to the grocery story with me, and asked her if she wanted to learn how to make my favorite treat: chocolate chip cookies- the kind made of mostly butter and sugar, and only a little bit of flour. With bright eyes she laughed and adamantly nodded. As I washed the cookie sheets that evening, not a cookie left to be seen, I thought of all those dirty cookie sheets represented.

An abundance of food.

Electricity for both heating an oven and cooling a house.

Clean water to drink and wash dishes with.

The joy of watching my new daughter's face as she tried a chocolate chip cookie for the first time.

Time spent building treasured memories.

So many things to be grateful for.

Leading up to Hengxin's 12th birthday, we had a difficult week- probably triggered by the significance of the day. With many of China's abandoned children, their birthdates are set by the date of abandonment since their actual birthdates are usually unknown. So, along side balloons and birthday cake, come terrible memories of a day that she remembers well. To "celebrate" the day that forever changed her life is the cruelest of ironies. It was a difficult week of angry grief for her and I was usually the target.

But when the day finally came, she put a smile on her face and handled the gathering of friends and family graciously. My brave girl. Since that difficult week, we seem to have turned a corner, a new level of trust seeming to have blossomed. She laughs more easily. She becomes frustrated less. She tries harder to speak English. She's more patient and tries harder to find ways to be helpful around the house.

So many things to be grateful for.

A firm diagnosis, with an upcoming surgery that should help control her symptoms.

A biological child who I was finally able to get through to in seeing the bigger picture of adoption.

A daughter who will remained unnamed (*cough* Mila *cough*) who is gradually trading in a few of her wild ways for humor and charisma.

A job that lets me have summers off with my children.

A sweet family friend who is living with us to help us navigate the next few months of surgeries.

A church group that has embraced my daughter with open arms.

When I think of how I felt yesterday- feeling so sorry for myself with the mounting medical bills and the losing battle I'm fighting to find time to take care of myself- I realize that when it really comes down to it, self-pity is just an unwillingness to yield to gratitude.

The proverbial cup that overfloweth, has some holes in it, and depending on the day feels like it's leaking more than it's filling. But when I take a few steps back, I realize how amazing the process really is. That my leaky cup is the one I wanted for myself but not necessarily the one God has in mind. That just beyond it- surrounding it- another cup is forming. Stronger and sturdier, and with a greater capacity to hold. And even as the leaky cup disintegrates and the greater cup builds, both continue to overflow.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The painful work of grief and love

I've really struggled with blogging lately- struggling to find the balance between honesty and over-sharing. I've started countless blog posts and then deleted them, unable to find the words. I know a lot of what I write is heavy and most people don't want the heavy version, but I feel compelled to write and to share, not for any sort of self-promotion but for understanding and compassion, mostly within myself and for my daughter. It's a lonely road that few have walked, with friends and acquaintances often keeping a weary distance. So often the talk of bonding and attachment with an older child is vague and white-washed, at times unrevealing of any sort of struggle for years following. I don't believe that does anyone any favors. I write with the intent of Hengxin being my primary reader as she gets older, and try my best to avoid writing anything that I don't think she would want disclosed. That being said, please consider yourself fully disclosed. :)


She spoke and laughed easily with her sister and as she did, she rested her hand on my knee. It was such a small gesture, but it spoke volumes. It told me how far we have come in the past three months. Just a few hours before we had been working through another dark pit of grief, and now she was smiling and relaxed. Each time, we seem to come out of it a bit better and a bit closer.

If there's one thing the last few months has taught me, it's how little I really knew about grief or about love.

Grief isn't always what many of us imagine it to be- the images of a child crying in the night or the mother sorrowing over a lost child. Perhaps it's because these images draw us in, instead of push us away, that we are more comfortable with them. These images evoke tenderness and sympathy, a yearning to comfort. But grief, I've learned, is so much more. It's at times despondence, it's blaming, it's guilt, and sometimes it's confused and angry tears. It's messy, uncomfortable, and hard for even the griever to identify. It both pushes away and yearns for closeness. It's awkward. It's painful. It's rigorous work. And there is no easy fix. 

We see pieces of that grief almost every day. Sometimes in small fragments, sometimes in icebergs. 

This past weekend I attended my brother's master's graduation ceremony and thesis presentation. His thesis was on complicated grief and melancholia. As he presented, he talked about those who were well-acquainted with grief, some enduring a lifetime of complicated grief. I thought of my little girl. She has endured more grief in the past 12 years than most will endure in a lifetime; and considering it all, how amazingly well and dignified she holds that grief. But still, it's not an easy burden for her to bear. 

We've read books and taken courses, and yet I don't think anything could have ever really prepared us to meet the grief head-on with full confidence and assurance. But it's most certainly present and I can't help but believe that grief is perhaps meant to be a part of life because it's often by traveling down the road of grief that we learn the most about ourselves.

And along with her grief, I've discovered a grief of my own, albeit only a tiny portion when held in comparison to hers. A grief for a simplicity of life that will likely never be mine. A grief for things that have resurfaced from the past. A grief that the life I once lived has been replaced with doctor's offices and waiting rooms. A grief for the woman I want to become, but who always seems out of reach.

Through it all, it has been amazing to watch love- a new love- flowering alongside the wasteland of grief.

Nor is love, I have also learned, what it had once seemed. I had once believed that love is a natural inclination for us all, something that would come easily strolling in if we simply opened the door. Of all the things I had worried about before she came home, the ability to love was not one of them.

Yet again, I have learned how wrong I was. Love has to be earned and worked for. It has to be prayed for, sought after, and then inexhaustibly nourished. It has to be shown even when- no... especially when- it's not felt. I've come to more clearly understand why the Savior insisted on serving those He loved. He knew what I have only recently come to understand- that love and service are inextricably linked.

We've all had to work towards love- her, perhaps, more than any of the rest of us. Sympathy and affection, while wonderful elements of human emotion that often propel us towards things like adoption, are not the same as love. They may drive us to action, but are woefully inadequate in navigating the mountains and valleys of a long-term relationship.

Almost daily people ask how things are going with our growing family. I always hesitate, looking for an answer. Do I tell them what I think they want to hear? That everything is wonderful? That our house is bursting at the seams with joy? That it's not as hard as people told us it would be?

Or do they really want to know, I wonder? That it's hard... like, really hard sometimes? That I've never done anything harder or doubted my abilities more? 

But then I want to tell them not to feel sorry for us because hard is okay... because these are the things that make the good days seem even better, and these are the things that make us stronger- stronger than we ever knew we could be.

This photo, though seemingly unrelated, was taken early one morning while the children slept. We had a busy day on deck, full day of doctor appointments and lab draws. I wanted desperately to remember, and perhaps carry with me, some of the serenity I felt at the moment that would so soon be gone. And it helped. We got through another day, just like we do every day, and came out stronger in the end.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Learning to Dance

A couple of weeks ago, I came to the hard realization. I need help.

I was sitting in the doctor's office listening to him tell me about Hengxin's condition and what it would mean for the rest of her life. My head was spinning with implications. So much has happened and so much is still yet to come. The endless doctor visits, the mounting medical bills, thinking of all the other areas in my life that are suffering and neglected, feelings of guilt... it was all crashing in at once. All of the sudden I felt like I was floating- but with weights pounding in my head. My ears started ringing, and my fingers and lips were tingling. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon in a deep fog, tears coming several times throughout the day. After dinner, I withdrew into my room and fell into a deep sleep for several hours. I awoke to a darkened house. The kids were in bed and the house was quiet except for the sound of Dennis feeding the dog and closing up for the night.

"I need help, Dennis. I can't keep doing this on my own," I told him as we sat in the darkened dining room. I had said this in the past, but this time I meant in a way I never had before.

In every way, Dennis is my better half. I could never ask for him to be more. I'm beginning to think that he's quite possibly the inspiration for the romantic hero in Nicholas Sparks' books- as well as MacGyver, Spiderman, and the Hulk, all rolled into one. He gives everything he has, exhausting himself trying to help in anyway he can; but because of the reality that he needs to hold a full-time job to support the family, the heaviest part of handling Hengxin's medical issues has landed with me.

I don't know what I've been trying to prove for so long or why I thought I had to do it all. Maybe to prove to all the naysayers and everyone who warned me that this would be hard that I could pull it all off seamlessly- that we could emerge unscathed. But that's just not the case. We were never meant to be islands, and what we think are circling sharks are actually lifeboats, just waiting for us to say the words, "I need help."

So, I started getting that help in different areas of my life. None of this to get a better life, but simply to help clean off my looking glass, and to allow myself to see the beautiful life that I already have.

I once heard the relationship between a parent and a child described as an intricate dance: two people learning to move and sway in sync with each other. When child cries out, mom steps forward to comfort. When mom uses that tone of voice, child steps back knowing she means business. It's an ebb and flow of sorts as they learn to anticipate and react to each other's subtleties, each rhythm unique to each parent and child. With my biological children, that dance began when they were in the womb. By the time they were born, we had already been dancing for nine months. 

With Hengxin, that dance began just two and a half months ago. Dennis pointed out the other night, that we still know so little about her. What was her life like in the orphanage? What else does she remember about her birth family? What's going on in her mind behind those beautiful almond-shaped eyes? We have so much making up to do... so much lost time.

That day in the doctor's office, she shut down again as the interpreter told her some of the medical things that were coming down the pipe for her. She rolled over on the exam bed so she wouldn't have to look at us, and the tears began to flow. As I moved towards her to comfort her, the interpreter, a Chinese woman we have come to love and trust, advised that I give her space and back off.

For a split second I was torn. She knows Hengxin's birth culture better than I do. Hengxin was not taught to display or react to emotional gestures the way I do. Maybe she was right. I hesitated, wondering if I should listen to someone, who in many ways, probably knows more about my daughter than I do.

"Screw it," I thought. That's not how I dance. I went over and hugged her and stroked her head. "Things will get easier. This has been hard, but you have been strong," I told her. I knew she didn't understand what I was saying, but I needed her to know that when she cried, mom would come.

And I'm learning to dance as well... to the reality of my new life- one that involves a lot of jumping between lifeboats and remembering that the music was not given to us so we could dance alone. Nor were we meant to dance with gritted teeth and white-knuckles, but to embrace the music for what it is: crazy, messy, and unpredictable; but intricate and amazing, and full of beauty.

And what a beautiful little dancer my girl is turning out to be.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

She called me "mama"

There's something about being exhausted that makes me want to sit down and write, I think to try to sort it all out. We've been in doctor's offices and waiting rooms all day. Aside from two thyroid scans, we were evaluated for the worst double ear infection I've ever seen, and an arm fractured in two places from four-wheeling- all for Hengxin. Poor girl! Trying to keep Mila contained and acting semi-human for that long was a task of Biblical proportions in itself- like trying to feed Cheerios to a cross between a wet cat and T-Rex. So yes, I'm tired and my nerves are raw.

The other day someone said to me, "You're a strong person. I don't think I could ever do what you're doing. I'm just not that type of person."

I was embarassed. If I have ever made it seem like I am "that type of person," then I have been unintentionally but terribly deceiving, because "that type of person" is certainly not me. Sure, I have my moments, but that's all they are... moments. And sometimes, when I'm in a good place, those moments are longer and closer together, but usually they're sporadic and unpredictable. Hopefully some day those moments will all string together and I will in fact become "that person," but that woman is still light years away.

My children will tell you that I've taught them lots of things: how to say "thank you" and to respect all life, from the tiny ant to the huge oak tree. They've learned tolerance, tidyness, and how to work hard. They've learned that true beauty comes only within- that anything else is superficial and fleeting.

But I've also taught them other things- many of them not so stellar. I've taught them that 8:30pm is the witching hour when moms turn into momsters. They've heard me say (and then repeated) a few four-letter words. And I've taught them - no, shown them- that people can be selfish, short-sighted, and impulsive.

In the few years that they'll live under my roof, my children will see both the best and the worst of human nature, all from the same person- their mother.

On Tuesday Hengxin called me "mama" for the first time. She said it casually, without even looking up, as she called for me to help her with an English assignment.

I answered equally non-chalantly, but inside my heart wanted to burst. She called me mama! I had been waiting and wondering how long it would take. Two months and two days.

I think of the vulnerability it took for her to call me mother. So recently I was nothing more than a complete stranger. What if she called out for me and I scolded her that I was not her mama? What if I told her I was only a mama to my biological children? What if I hadn't answered? I can only imagine. It would have been crushing. But once again, my brave girl stepped up to the plate and took a risk, and I was amazed by her.

But man... I sure hope she knows that she's not getting a fairy godmother version of a mama- that I'm just a 34 year-old kid, still trying to get my crap together. That everyday I pray for the strength to do and to be what I'm utterly incapable of being on my own. As Mother's Day approaches this year, I'm grateful for the greatest gift I've ever been given: the beautiful little souls God gifted me that have helped me so clearly unearth both my short-comings and my potential.

But I guess that's both the beauty and the beast of motherhood. We will never- can never- be everything we should, and somehow these amazing little people still love us and call us mama.

Friday, April 22, 2016

It never should have been this way

It's really a remarkable thing to watch. Watching her learn to love and trust again, watching her blossom right before our eyes, watching her take risks and push herself- it's incredible. She is remarkable. Truly. But I can't help watch her and think that it never should have been this way. She should have never been here in the first place. She should have never had to cry herself to sleep in an orphanage, wondering why her father left her on a street corner that day and never came back. She should never have to be haunted with the fading memory of her mother's face. She should never have to wonder why she was the only one, and why her siblings were spared. She should have never been taken to a strange land with unfamiliar people. I am often told how fortunate she is to be with us, but I don't think I'll ever be able to agree with that statement. If she had gotten out of life what she deserved- what she was rightfully entitled to- she'd never be here today.

It's impossible to quantify the leaps and bounds we take each day with her. It's like having an 11 year-old newborn, but on warp speed: the first taste of peanut butter, the first sip of apple juice, her first time riding a bike, getting her ears pierced, coaxing her into a swimming suit for the first time, teaching her to say "thank you." Last night before bed she gave me her first real hug- the kind where she holds on a little longer and leans her head against my chest. Every day there is another "first."

I love watching her push the boundaries on her comfort zone with me too. Today I saw it as she groggily emerged from her bedroom and climbed into my bed to catch 5 more minutes of sleep, just like my other kids do when morning comes too soon. Another first. Each tiny first seems like a huge milestone.

A few weeks ago I sensed that our restrictive cocooning period was wearing on her. I feared that perhaps it would start taking the opposite effect if I carried on with it much longer. We toured the local elementary school with an interpreter and she eagerly told me she wanted to start school. Now! I hadn't planned on enrolling her until the fall, but she emphatically told me she was ready. So exactly one month after coming home, she began half days at school. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the courage it has taken her to do the things she's done over the past two months, none with the guarantee of ease or success, but all almost entirely with enthusiasm and cheerfulness,

She is astounding. Truly. She has no reason to believe that we won't betray her, that everything here isn't temporary too, just like everything else in her life used to be before we came along. She has no reason to trust us and yet somehow she does... implicitly. How she has managed to maintain a level of trust in the frailty of the human spirit alive for so many years is beyond me.

It has been one of the most incredible things I've ever seen but, like anything else that's built to last, has also had its challenges. We have moments of being tired of each other. Her new siblings get under her skin sometimes, and her heart aches for the ability to speak freely, without the confines of a language barrier... and sometimes we all just want to go back to the way things used to be when things were simpler. But like in every relationship, each challenge is part of a greater whole- a greater overall wellness. Because without these challenges, our relationship would lack roots- it would lack any depth. It's the very moments of wanting to give up, but not giving up, that help her to realize that we are here to stay, come rainbow or thunderstorm.

Yesterday evening I got a wonderful phone call from her endocrinologist- a diagnosis! Thankfully, of all the possible diagnoses that had been thrown our way, this one is the most reassuring. It's interesting how when the other possibilities are so daunting, a person can breathe a sigh of relief when they're told that all their child will need is a couple of major surgeries and life-long management and medication. But that, I can handle! The other prospects... not so much. We still have a long road ahead, but at least now that road has direction.

And so here we are, almost two months after meeting for the first time, and Dennis and I both agree that she's not the same girl we met that day in the Civil Affairs office. Her eyes are brighter and she's come alive in a different way. She's a sister, a daughter, and an integral part of a family- none of these for the first time- but now forever.