Thursday, August 16, 2012

Winter into Spring

I always believed that the greatest gift my mother ever gave me was faith.  As a young person it was a concept but in adulthood it became very real. 

In the winter of 2004 when my mother was very, very sick she told me that she knew her time was coming but that she wanted to wait until the spring.  She believed that the harsh Midwest winters would be too much of a strain on her friends and family.  She started telling me that in early November and continued to get more and more sick.  I couldn't see how we could possibly make it to spring, I wasn't sure that we would make it to Christmas.  The doctors kept giving us the 24-48 to live conversation.  The hospice nurse had been in my house twice telling us that my mother was transitioning.  My mother died early in the morning December 27, 2004.  It was 5 degrees below zero in Chicago, there was a blizzard in Indianapolis.  A few days later while getting things ready for her funeral I thought I just felt hot because it was so overwhelming but my car said that it was 75 degrees.  I pulled my car into a parking lot, got out and it was hot, HOT in December. It stayed hot that entire week.  My mother was buried January 4, 2005 in Indianapolis and we were not wearing coats.  Once in her resting place and most everyone was on the road or in the air heading back to their homes, winter returned in the form of a severe ice storms. I was stranded in Indianapolis for two extra days because of the bad weather.

In that time I was trying to figure out how she would hold on for a few more months but God had the power to turn a Midwest winter into spring.  That was a power beyond coincidence and it wasn't magic either.  The news reports said those temps had neither been the highest high nor the lowest low, but never in history had their ever been such a drastic gap in temperatures and in was unexplainable.  I'm sure those days had different meanings for different people, weathermen tried to explain it but couldn't, and for some it had no meaning at all.  For me it was my mother's last lesson before dying; God is faithful to the end even unto death.  Death is never easy and losing a mother is something that is hard to explain but knowing for sure that she did not leave not one day before she was meant to leave allowed me to truly let her go in peace. It also showed me in the most demonstrable way that no matter how dark any day may be, my creator has the power to move mountains, heal broken hearts, and turn winter into spring.   

I believe that there is a power greater than myself, a way over every wall, and an opening in every dark place.  I can choose to focus on the darkness or put all my effort into finding the little light.  I could be angry about hardship and loss or I could choose to revel in and celebrate the fact that there is never loss without renewal. Whenever I think of those hot December and January days of 2004 moving into 2005, I smile in the knowing that no matter what happens in this life, my life is as it should be. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

More than Orphans

 I've had so many conversations over the past few years about "orphans".  When I hear people use the word orphan it sounds like something rejected, neglected, or discarded.  Saying orphan in some ways paints a tainted picture about the children rather than the situation or the condition. I choose to use orphan as a verb (if it has to be used at all) and not a noun to describe children who have done nothing but follow what the adults around them have told them. I know a lot of adoptive parents feel that God sent them to save the widows and orphans, but I don't believe that in the wisdom of his creation that God ever created an orphan.  He made every child as special as the next, the same worth, the same value, and the same opportunity.  For everyone of them he had a purpose and a plan that extends far beyond what we might be able to see.  All he needs us to see him them is His divinity and grace.   

When I look at my kids and see who they are and watch who they are becoming, I always think back to the first day that I met them.  I allowed myself to see them, to see them while I was watching.  I didn't see orphans, I saw children living, laughing, and playing.  They were interacting, negotiating, arguing, and sharing with their friends.  Sure when I walked into the gate I noticed the sparse furnishings, and the thin mattresses on the oversized bed springs.  I saw the tattered clothes that were too big or too small; a little dusty and a bit mismatched.  Standing there on the dusty lot with the playground equipment doubling as a clothes line,  I saw children.  I didn't see children waiting for a forever family.  I didn't see children who drew from me sorrow and pity, I saw children who cast against the dusty playground shined when they sang songs, tried to out dance, out skip, out run, and out shine each other.

They made me smile, they made me laugh out loud -- often.  They were kids and I couldn't help but see how wonderfully special they were.  I don't mean wonderful in the, they-will-eventually-be -my-kids kind of wonderful or the how-great-they-are-to-laugh-in-the-face-of-all-their-pain kind of way.  I don't mean wonderful in the agency pamphlet sort of way, I mean, I thought they were incredible and awesome; talented and brilliant.  My daughter was confident and bossy, her leadership ability was apparent.  She was observant and engaging.  She wasn't shy or reticent and she smiled so brightly you barely notice the half-torn shoes.  My son was fast, athletic, and sensitive.  I witnessed his brash sensitivity when he got scolded and he came and stood in front of me with that one Denzel Washington playing in Glory tear coming down.  He was decisive and strategic -- he really tickled me.  He was just a little boy playing with his friends.  He was not a label or statistic, he was an orphan. He was just a great little boy and I watched him with the eye of an eagle.

I thought to myself who made them?  Who created these amazing little wonders?  Who instilled in them the confidence, strength, and fortitude that even behind this tall blinding gates they were able to stand without shaking and look me in the eye with self-confidence and certainty?  Who had encouraged them and taught them that their situation and condition were temporary and to never give in to the despair?  I looked at them and watched them frolic across the dusty yard and wondered how they did it?  They were not orphans they were children of the Most High.  They had been parented obviously in a way that allowed them to thrive and not crumble though the things around them crumbled and were in need of repair.  How?  Who?  What extra dose of I am somebody had they been given that allowed them to stand out against the backdrop of despair and not sink down into it? These children way on the other side of the world were just like the children I grew up with in my own neighborhood, the children I had mentored over the years, the children that I eyed out my windows when I drove through the Westside of Chicago.  Those are the children that I brought to America.

I brought children who had strength, identity, purpose, focus, and an ability to love beyond all imagining.  I can't take credit for who they are and how well they are doing because the tools that they needed they had before they ever met me.  When I watched how certainly they moved and interacted with the new world around them, I did not feel worthy to parent them.  They didn't really need me to make them over. All the parts and pieces of who they were to become were there. I knew that for sure when I watched them pray with intention to a power much higher than myself, and the way they moved on with their day with every expectation that the pray they prayed would bed one.  I knew each time they patted me and told me that their God of Ethiopia was looking out for me too. I had foolishly thought that I'd have to teach them everything from how to use a fork to how to tie their shoes.  I imagined how afraid they might be in such a busy, bustling city with big building and 24-hour lights.  Please!  They took it all in stride.  They weren't wide-eyed at the sight of their new home, the downtown Chicago buildings, nor the new clothes in their closet.  Shoes, were a completely different story.

Young conservationist; I remember how they would go through my house turning out lights scolding me, "mabrite" the word for lights.  Home economist; I remember them in the market smelling fruit as they knew how to pick out what was freshest.  When they refused food, they told me "garbage" or "it's no good" they would say.  "No more this!"  These little food critics were were also able to tell me why; too sweet, too hot, too much salt, no flavor, no good! She would stand in the kitchen watching my every move checking like she was making sure that I was not adding harmful ingredients to their food.  "Cow, mommy?"  "Pig, horse?"  She would ask me while I cooked.  While I'd make something she would look in the fridge and hand me something,  a tomato or whatever she "knew" should be added to the dish.  Or maybe it was a day I reached for a stick of butter and he asked her what it might be and she knowingly said that it was "zite" or oil. I laugh and how my son use to taste all the food before he'd tel his sister it was okay to eat. He too had an eagle's eye and it was usually focused right on me. 

These little beings that others called orphans knew a great deal about the world before they ever met me.  They knew a bit about politics, a lot about God and religion, the difference in Angus steak and regular old beef with one taste, picking fresh produce, cleaning, folding, sweeping, and other chores.  My son was even an expert backseat driver who would beep his imaginary horn at slow cars in our way. I later learned that him constantly yelling "bizit" from the backseat meant to go around.  These were people, real people with hearts, spirits, and minds that were engaged.  They already had a way of seeing the world, the people in it and their place.  They were not just little blobs waiting for life to be awakened in them they were wondrous beings waiting for someone who could see their magnificence.  They had definite likes and dislikes, favorite colors, food preferences, and style.  They had so much charisma and style that one could not help but notice. These kids had a knowledge and sensibility that demanded that I step up my game to meet them at their level.  They had and have a wisdom that commands my attention.  Maybe for a brief moment I believed that I was changing their lives and I'm sure on some levels that do matter I have; I'm just not sure that I've changed them as nearly as they have enlightened and changed me.

Orphan might be an act that one does to a child, a verb.  Orphaned may be a visa designation but it is definitely not an accurate description of the children that I've been blessed to know and to  love. I honor the place within them that has no limits and pray that that I have the ability to foster that limitless possibility born to them. May I continually be granted the ability and wisdom to recognize who they are always in relationship to their creator and never their situation or circumstances.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Deciding How to Decide -- CHURCH

From the I'm Still Here Article:

I've thought through most decisions that I needed to make for them hundreds of times like church, summer activities, school, language, family introductions, friends, doctors, food, clothes sizes, shoe sizes, sleeping arrangements, and crisis plans. I thought I'd feel more anxious now, more hurried, more how-do-I-get prepared but I just feel very calm and more steady. I'm not frantic about what I will pack or making travel plans that is the easy stuff.

What did I decide to do about CHURCH?

I left a church that I had attended for four years because I did not thin that it provided that supportive type of environment that my children would need. I had started attending an AME church a couple of months before they arrived and let the minister to know about my trip and that I would return with two children. I knew a few people there but not the pastor so I was surprised that first day of church when towards the end of service he asked for us to come to the front. The problem is I had taken my kids to the bathroom and we were walking back in and as we walked past the rows of people they were asking, "Are you the lady from Ethiopia?" How did they know. "Go, go he's calling you." Then I heard the pastors voice, "Yes, Ms. Washington you and your kids come here to the front." There were about 400 people there and I led the kids to the front. He made this overwhelming speech about me adopting and how no one was every going to publicly tell my story because I did not have the wealth or fame of a Madonna or Angelina Jolie.

Today those words seem even more prophetic. He talked about the road ahead for me and my children and again told the congregation to embrace us and that we would need them because in the world at large, single black mothers who crossed the waters to adopt in Ethiopia would be well kept secret. He said like anything else our experience would just lay in the shadow of the "great white hope" phenomenon. He promised me that day that they would support us as a family. I looked down at my kids who had turned towards the crowd and were waving at the smiling strangers. It was a unique experience and then he asked for a special prayer over us. After church that day people came and literally and figuratively encircled us. I kept watching my children who spoke no English; I watched how warmly they returned greetings to all who greeted them. They didn't shy away or show fear but somehow figured out they were very special. Was that evidence of an attachment issue, being too friendly with strangers? I didn't know but I was a stranger to them as well, a stranger with papers that I but they did not sign. No, I thought, this gathering of brown-faced well wishers just didn't seem threatening but familiar to them. I can't tell you how I could tell but I knew. The people around them knew as well and they asked polite questions about how to interact with my children, nothing at all about their adoption story.

Over these three years I've learned that seems to be a definite cultural marker; the way that white and black strangers interact with my kids. I watched those first months how people would ask how they were but always, always they spoke directly to my kids and each week remarked about their new word acquisition. I watched the weeks that we sat too close to the speakers and my son would cover his ears from the loud booming music. Did he have a sensory issue, I wondered and then thought I must have one too because it's also too loud for me. When people sang songs and the words appeared on the big screen ahead, though they couldn't read I'd point to it and move my finger along with the words and they understood it went along with what was being sung. Within a couple of weeks they too would point to the screen moving their fingers with the words. They began to rock from side to side with the music and my son had learned to shout, "Amen" with everyone else. He knew that word already from Ethiopia, but the day he surprised me was when he yelled out, "Preach, preacher," like had heard others do. I knew then that they were fully engaged.

My children sat through the two or more hour service each week, alternately sitting, drawing, or scribbling on paper but they were quiet and attentive from the beginning. My children had attended church regularly in Ethiopia, they were use to sitting and being quiet. When able my daughter would ask me why we sang in church more than we prayed, why we ate before church when she had been use to fasting so that she could take communion. My son with no English words sat in his seat and acted out the entire crucifixion from carrying the cross over his shoulders to nailing his hands and feet and then hanging his head to die. I was shocked watching him and tried to get him to stop stretching out his and on the cross but he wanted me to know that he knew where he was and understood the significance. FAITH, something that it was evident had been instilled in my children and something that we shared.

Within months they were going to children's church services without me, without incident except for the little girl who scratched my son intentionally one Sunday. Within about six months they were in the Christmas pageant, my daughter would listen to me repeat her Christmas part and she was able to deliver the words through the thickness of her accent without showing fear in front of the audience. They were invited to join the sign-singing choir and learned to sign the English words they weren't yet could at speaking. It proved to help their speech tremendously even though that was not the intent.

The sign singing choir of children do a public tour of nursing homes and a youth correctional facility two or three times a year. I drove in my car behind the bus on that first tour not sure how they would handle riding alone with 20 other kids and several adults on the bus. That first tour in April following their June arrival moved me profoundly. I watched these little kids in a nursing home with elderly people in wheel chairs and different states of health and thought of how fearful I'd always been of old people. I cautiously stood on the sideline ready to swoop my kids up if they felt uncomfortable but what I say was so moving. My son went right up into the face of a woman in a wheel chair and signed the songs for her as though she was his personal audience. But the one that really got me was when we went to the girls youth correctional facility and I saw all those hopeless young faces, it instantly took me back months to my time in Ethiopia. You could see how life had already worn their young lives down and I watched my children, singing and singing as though they'd done it all their lives.

I had to move to the back of the room to get in the corner to avert my eyes so that they could not see the tears streaming down my face. No one could possibly understand what it felt like to see my children, children who had no shoes or clothes to call their own a few short months earlier witnessing through song a testimony of hope. I couldn't stop my tears from flowing, in that moment I knew what ever happened if they who had been counted out could lovingly, gracefully, fearlessly get right in the faces of these girls and look them dead in the eyes and sign hope, that I would always do the same for them -- my kids. Words will never convey what it was like to see. They have even sat on a dais with the other kids for the National Convention of Interdenominational Clergy. This was a convention of over 100o ministers from every faith and our sign singer were chosen to perform. Watching my kids on that big jumbo tron screen still gives me chills.

So, church was one of my first and best decisions. We joined this church exactly one week after my kids landed in Ethiopia. Today at that church they are still warmly and affectionately welcomed. They sing in the kids choir, my son sings solos, my daughter dances on the church dance team. They love that place and the people in it and any day that I say we are not going they instantly become disappointed. I think going to that place and seeing 400-500 people who look like them and affirm them as been powerful.

I mentioned once to a lady that I'd been asked by some adoptive parents why I thought my children were doing so well. She told me to tell them it is because I found my children a village and all the villagers were working together for their good. At the same time we also attended the church attached to their school, it was not the same warm feeling. So, that's what I will tell you our children need a village of people who truly care for them not in symbolic or superficial ways but in sincere, demonstrable ways.

Original Court Date: April 18, 2009
Final Court Date: May 18, 2009
[607 total days & 165 days w/IAN]