Friday, April 24, 2009

One Small Step After Another

She brought home an assignment from school and it read: My Family’s Journey West.

My daughter’s social studies teacher had been teaching the class about the hardships families endured on the Oregon trail: about rutted roads and rusty wagons, about couger, coyote, snake, bear, wolves, withering desert, disease, frigid mountains, frostbite, and of course hostile natives.

It's now your turn, the teacher wrote. She wanted to know how each of their families came to live in the West. It was time, to tell your family story … and to share a family heirloom or treasure… Bring in your essay and heirloom to share with the class. It will be fun.

Fun? I thought. Fun?! Was the Oregon trail .. fun? Is root canal .. fun?

Okay, so perhaps I was feeling just a wee-bit cranky. And a tad worn out. Worn out from the upset and worry of the past few weeks. Worn out from fighting a phantom birth mother. Worn out from fighting a horrible cold or flu I was still trying to shake.

I adore history. But now I see I love history, in part, because I didn’t have to live through it.

Of course, the teacher couldn’t have known what had been happening at home these past few weeks. So I told my daughter she had lots of choices. She could draw from any number of family stories. But she was decided. She wanted to share her story. She liked the idea of flipping the assignment on its head. She crossed out the words Family’s and West and wrote East so it read: My Journey East.

But that’s as far as she got. The notepad lay on the dining room table with its glorious title and empty page, waiting. Days passed. The weekend came and I asked her to take some time and focus. I suggested again she could write about something else, but she remained firm. I suggested she use her homecoming book (i.e. her life book) as a guide. She liked this idea and asked to sit and review it together. We sat on the couch and revisited each page, each photo, and reveled in happy moments. But when it came time to write, she fell apart and the question poured forth once more: Why did they leave me?

We set the notepad aside. I thought maybe more context would help. I tried to explain that people in China aren’t free in the way we are here. We talked about what freedom meant. We talked about the terrible penalties imposed on those exceeding the one-child quota. I told her a little of the Cultural Revolution. Of Tiananman Square. Of how dangerous it was and is to speak out against the government. We talked. We cuddled. The notepad page remained blank but I let the essay go.

The next morning, the pad sat there waiting for her on the dining room table right where she’d left it. I asked yet again if she wanted to write about something else. No, she wanted to tell her story. So I suggested she write a short, single sentence about how she came to the orphanage and leave it at that. She could focus on the journey, our becoming a family and finally -- the essay unfolded. She wrote a page and a half. All that was left was the heirloom. But she looked tired and I suggested she finish later that day.

She played long, hard, and happily with a buddy. It was good to hear laughter.

That night, as I started on dinner, she sat down again with the essay. Of all the mementoes I’d saved from our trip, she liked best the little yellow cloth sandals she’d worn the day I met her. She studied them now. They were frayed and soiled with delicate yellow leaves on the instep and tiny doll faces smiling sweetly. A pale pink rosebud clung tenaciously by a thread to the left shoe while its mate had long since vanished. The sandals had squeakers embedded in their soles to encourage one small step after another.

I don’t know what to write Mom.

She says this a lot with her homework. Mostly it means: I’m not in the mood to deal with this, Mom. Can’t you tell me what to write? We’ve joked about this. She is highly capable. (This is your homework, honey. You’re supposed to take it home, sit with it, and give it some thought. Your teacher didn’t say -- Here, take this home! Give it to your mom!)

This was no time to joke.

Think about what the shoes mean to you, honey. What do they make you think about?

Nothing. I don’t know. She was tired, resistant.

I searched for ideas and thought, Maybe its time to emphasize the happy part of her story -- as Jonna suggested.

Well… maybe you could think of the shoes as a memento of the day you started a whole new chapter of your life… with me.

She dissolved. Why did you have to say that...?

We were back again in the primordial swamp of her grief.

That’s not happy..?

No! The tears poured out. I wish you’d left me there Mom. I wish you’d never taken me from China. I wish I was back there now.

Back in the orphanage? Really..?


I wanted to argue with her, to remind her how lovely our life is, how much we have, how much I love her, how there was no future for her in the orphanage. That she couldn’t have stayed with her foster mom. But I saw she was genuinely distraught and realized I was wrestling with a demon thing, raw inconsolable pain. It defied expectations or any known form of logic. I rubbed her back, squeezed her arm weakly, and told her I was sorry. And suddenly, I was too wounded, too tired, to argue. I removed myself to the bathroom.

I was talked out. Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Maybe there’s a point where talking is no longer helpful.

We got through dinner -- I don't know how -- and spent a quiet evening. I read. She bathed. I tucked her in bed, kissed her good night, and told her I loved her.

She left for school the next morning. Alone at last, I lost it. But then, I wiped my tears, and sat down at my desk to work. I had the whole day before me. Quiet. Peaceful. Healing. I went for a long walk. Soaked in the warmth of the sun.

My brother called and offered to pick her up from after-school sewing. They’d been planning this special night for a while. Wednesday was my birthday and my daughter was dying to surprise me, to bake me a cake. Did I care about the cake? Did I need a cake? No, not really. Did I love the thought? Absolutely. And, a free day that stretched into the evening? It was rare, very rare. It hit me I needed to take more breaks. I decided, if friends asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I’d come clean: Take my child for an afternoon. Or an evening. I needed a little more breathing room. We both needed it. It was healthy.

Her uncle picked her up. They went and bought ingredients. Then he watched while she baked the cake on her own. Me? I took myself out for a simple, blissfully quiet dinner. By the time I arrived home, the two were sitting on the living room couch, waiting. My daughter was smiling broadly, bursting with excitement, with joy.

Happy Birthday Mom!

The cake was gorgeous and we served up three huge portions.

Two days later, again with the aid of her uncle, my daughter surprised me with breakfast in bed, a bagel, coffee, and fresh squeezed juice.

Happy Birthday Mom!

So now, it’s official. I’ve left an entire decade behind and started in on a new one. I turned 50 this week. Good friends with kind hearts (and poor vision?) say, No! Can’t be possible? You can’t be 50. No Way!

In my head, I think: Way. Oh, way, way, way, way, way, way….


k2 said...

Happy Birthday! And, Hello!

I'm Karen. I saw your post on the RCC mailing list and have been reading your blog. I'm usually a chronic lurker and rarely comment, but it seemed polite to at least introduce myself.

I'm also an adoptive mom. My husband and I adopted twins from China in 2005. They're still very young and just beginning to grasp the whole idea of adoption, so I'm sorry to say that I have no brilliant insights to offer. At least, not yet.

Sarah said...

I just read your post at RCC and came over here to your blog. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have read back through almost all your posts and I so appreciate your insight and humor and fine writing. I have two daughters from China. A 6.5 yo form Hubei and 8.5 yo old from Guangdong. My older daughter is also very sensitive and intuitive as yours is. She isn't having the same fears right now but has many questions and feelings of sadness about her birthmother. Reading your story is very enlightening. Thanks again!

Cornelia said...

I saw your post at RCC and visited your blog. There is rarely a blog I find interesting to read. Yours though is different, I started with one of your entries and have been reading them all. Your are a fantastic writer and I appreciate your sincerity and good humor. Thank you so much for sharing your story.
We have a daughter from China, she will be 4 in June. She is proud to be chinese and so far has not asked too many questions about here whereabouts. I will answer her questions when she is ready to ask. Reading your blog helps me to prepare myself with all that is to come.
I just read 2 books that I can recommend. One is the story of a single mom with her adopted daughter returning to live in China for 3 month: "Wuhu Diary" by Emily Prager. The other book is called the "The Diary of Ma Yan". It's the story of a 13 year old girl living in rural china and wanting to stay in school. She writes a diary, which her mother gives to a french journalist visiting the town...your daughter may find the book interesting.
I will keep checking your blog. Thanks again for sharing your story!

Mama Dog said...

I'm humbled, grateful and frankly, flabbergasted (oh too fun -- flummoxed and flabbergasted!) Thanks to the three of you and everyone who has emailed me recently. I so appreciate your stopping by, the sincere words of support, the birthday wishes, the reading suggestions, and each of you sharing your stories. I only recently started writing this blog and even more recently found the courage to share it more broadly. What a wonderful thing it is to find kindred spirits, to be able to share the journey. Thank you, thank you!

Tammi S said...

Well, a very happy birthday wish to you! I, too, am hitting a milestone year this year...a 'half way' mark at 45. Christ, I remember thinking my mother was SO OLD when she was 45.

I just had to write, now that I am all caught up with your blog posts, to let you know how much I truly enjoy your blog and your writing. I am Tammi, a fellow single mom, with 2 girls adopted from China. My eldest,5 days shy of 9, is from Jiangxi, and 'the baby',6.5, is from Guangxi.

Of late I find myself worried that neither of the girls seem to be interested in the adoption related issues I now we will have. I know our time will come, just wondering when that will be.

Thank you so much for your blog. Keep writing! I'll be here!

Mama Dog said...

Hi Tammi,
Happy pending 45th! Just remember, 50 is the new 30. (I cling to that.)

Thank you so much for writing and for your kind words of encouragement. Hats off to you as a single mom of two! I'm in awe. As for your girls and their story, I'm learning every child is different. My guess is they'll let you know when the time is right for them.

dealra said...

Hello Tammi, I found your blog and just needed to drop a line to you. Your are a great writer and story teller, thank you for sharing. I have been in your shoes. I met my daughter when I was 50 (yikes) almost 7 years ago (double yikes), Leah is now 8.5 and the love of my life. I have had similar conversations with her about her birth mom and China. It's all so beautiful yet bitter sweet at times for Leah who does think about her birth mother and wants to go to China someday to meet her. Well we know better, that won't happen but we do keep her birth mom in our hearts and pray that she knows how happy and healthy Leah is. Thanks for sharing your story.
Debbie and Leah in VT
a.6/02 YangDong Guangdong

Mama Dog said...

Hi Debbie,
My name isn't Tammi but no matter. Thank you so much for taking a moment to write and also for sharing some of your story. You sum it up well. Life with our daughters is indeed both beautiful -- and bittersweet.

johnsonweider said...

This is a wonderful, honest blog! :) I should have introduced myself earlier perhaps - I've been reading through chronologically and dropping comments here and there. I found your blog through the adoptionparenting listserve. I am mom to 2 kids adopted from Russia and no stranger to conversations about grief and loss. I sometimes felt like our entire first year of adoption was dealing with those issues, and they have continued in a lesser form ever since. Lesser, because the narrative has been established. Now it gets revisited, but at least we all know the narrative. I blog about our journey at