A Letter to my Son on his Seventh Gotcha Day

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To Tariku on his Gotcha Day-

I always love your Gotcha Day (remember when you used to call it your Cha Cha Day?), because it’s a chance for me to reflect on that pivotal trip to Africa daddy and I took seven years ago, when we first held you in our arms. I can still smell that unique combination of coffee and frankincense and popcorn that permeates the dwellings in Ethiopia. I can hear the cries of children echoing down the marble staircase of the care center. I remember climbing that staircase and walking into a nursery with a whole gang of babies cooing and playing on blankets strewn in the middle of the floor. You sat in the very center of the room in your little blue chair and I recognized your sweet face immediately. I remember the strong, caring arms of the woman who first handed you to me and called me, “Mama.” I can still feel how feather-light you were in your orange jumper, with your precious, soft arms and your skinny spaghetti legs.

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If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never know that moment’s equal.

You made me a mother. You came to us and our hearts grew and grew, as our entire carefully planned life exploded and then reassembled itself in the most astounding way.

Your third tooth fell out this morning- one of the big ones in the front. You woke and it finally landed in your hand. Most of your friends have lost more teeth than you by now. That tooth hung on by a thread sideways for weeks, making you look like you were wearing novelty store hillbilly teeth. It made me think of how things don’t often come easily for you. You have worked hard to become the kind, polite, caring, delightful kid you are today. Things like behaving in a restaurant, sharing, calming your body down, and re-setting when you have big feelings have all been hard-won achievements for you.

I have watched you try and try. I have watched you fail and get up and ask for a do-over and try yet again. Over the years, I have seen the toddler who couldn’t stop pulling the dog’s tail grow into a boy who confidently grooms and rides a thousand pound horse. I have seen the toddler who threw crayons in frustration become a passionate artist, spending hours creating a whole world of crazy characters you made up all on your own.

You helped your dad and me tremendously when Big Baby J. came to stay with us for a short time. When he woke up frightened and disoriented, you lay next to him and made faces until he laughed. You were often the only one who could get a smile out of him. It was surprising to you how annoying babies can be, but you just rolled your eyes and smiled and through it all you never stopped being gentle and patient.

So much of this last year was about preparing to grow our little family. You have been begging for a brother for years, but I don’t think you expected how long and rocky a road it would be. I worried about how you would face the uncertainty involved in adopting through the foster care system. When Bright Eves finally did show up, I worried you’d be disappointed, because he struggled with the transition to our home and rejected your affection at first. I worried that his dysregulated behavior, including the dreaded car screaming, would set back your own progress. I worried we’d have less special time to spend together. As you know, mommy worries a lot. I should know better by now. You are all the evidence I need to have faith.

One of the greatest gifts of Bright Eyes joining our family is that I’ve gotten to know you in new ways, and the more I get to know you the more I’m impressed by your wonderful tenacity and your enormous heart. You got upset at first when Bright Eyes wasn’t being all that fun, but you never stopped figuring out ways to connect with him. If one interaction didn’t work, you tried another. At first, he screamed in protest when you hugged him, so now you’ve started asking him first if it’s okay. Little by little, he’s beginning to say yes. Yes, it’s okay to hug me. Yes, I trust you, big brother. Because you’ve showed him that he’s safe. That is a really special and important thing to do for someone.

When he got pneumonia and we had to take him to the hospital, you wouldn’t leave his side. You didn’t utter one complaint, even though we were there for hours on Christmas.

Our family has become closer than ever, as together we face the hard times as well as the fun ones. When your little brother screams now, you simply stick earplugs in your ears and go on with your day.

Whenever you do a trick on the trampoline, or jump off a diving board, or do a cool dance, you say, “Did you see me? Did you see me, mama?” You’re always eager for an audience. I have never met a person you couldn’t make laugh.

I see you, my son. I am looking and I see you. I learn from your strength and joy and kindness every day. I am so proud of you. I can’t wait to see what this next year brings.

Love,

Mama

meandT

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L.A. Sunday Funday

us n muralWe had a crazy fun family day on Sunday, inspired by The Industry’s Hopscotch Opera, which Scott and I were lucky enough to experience the day before. Hopscotch is performed entirely in cars that drive around L.A., and at various sites at which the cars stop. Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket if you can. It’s remarkable. The city  itself is an integral thread in the fabric of the story, and we walked away pumped to explore more of this magical, maddening place we call home.

Tariku’s passion for visual art has really been blossoming lately, and he constantly draws dinosaurs and sea monsters and knights and dragons. He is obsessed with drawing the Phoenix, which seems like a particularly poignant symbol for a boy who has come so far.

us muralsSo Scott and I decided that we’d all go see the downtown murals, and then design our own to “paint” (with chalk) on the walls in our backyard.

It was a blast! We wandered the Downtown Arts District and gaped at the mind-blowing street art, then settled in at Wurstkuche to munch their outstanding sausages and fries (yum!), while we drew our design plans. We then took the plans home and executed them. Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with some pumpkin pie we had picked up at The Pie Hole.

The experience gave us a chance to educate Tariku about the history and culture of street art, which was thrilling to him, because it’s essentially the Robin Hood story, but with art. We also talked about color, composition, and how we choose our content.

Most importantly for us, we discussed how art is positive way to express our feelings- especially the ones that are bubbling up and need to get out of us! Tariku probably said is best: “It’s better than screaming and yelling!”

Amen to that.

I can’t extol enough the virtues of project-based learning. Or of a stroll through the Downtown Arts District.

Look at that proud face.

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Cyborg Dinosaur Island

Tariku wrote, directed, starred in, and scored (with a little help) this movie. All the percussion you hear is him playing! We’ve been working on it on and off for a year now. It’s definitely had its challenging moments, but overall the experience was such a blast, not to mention a terrific family experience with Project Based Learning.

It’s about two rival cyborg dinosaur brothers, who find connection and redemption through rock and roll. I love the message of using art to creatively express difficult emotions.

Hope you enjoy watching it as much as we enjoyed making it! Let us know what you think!

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When Big Baby J. Came To Stay

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As many of you know, Scott and I are in the process of adopting through LA County DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services). As of a few weeks ago, we’ve got our stamp of approval, so we’re officially certified and ready to do this thing!

We got a call last week that there was a six-month-old baby in need of respite care, which is when a child needs an emergency place to stay for a few days. We had not remotely expressed interest in doing respite care, but there is a crisis-level need in LA County for foster parents, and so they called us anyway.

My first response was: no way! I’m super busy and also that sounds really hard and also…ummmm…also nothing. So I called Scott, fully expecting that he would say, no way! No luck. And then we talked to Tariku, to see how he’d feel about it. You see where this is going, right?

And that was how we wound up with Big Baby J.

Big Baby J. had the best chunky baby thighs you’ve ever seen in your life, and the deepest, brightest, most gorgeous eyes. He had a funny off-kilter smile and sweet dimply cheeks. He had us all laughing and laughing.

Tariku was remarkable with him. He fed him and played with him and helped bathe and dress him. He was even kind and funny when the baby woke him at 4am. His exact words were, “Dude! Can he just whine a little quieter?”

I talked to Tariku’s teacher daily, and watched closely for any signs that he was having a hard time. His teacher told me that he actually had his best week yet since school started, and that he was communicating in a very matter-of-fact and enthusiastic way about Baby J.

As for me, I decided that I was going to love this baby with everything I had for the short time he was here. I put away the to-do list. I lay with him on the bed for hours. We banged Tariku’s old toy drums on the living room floor. I looked him in the eye as much as possible and held him on my chest while he drifted off to sleep.

I figured- 3 days, right? We know from the very beginning that we’re giving him back, so how hard could it be?

It was very hard. I spent the whole last morning with him pretty much just crying into his hair. I handed him back, held my head up, and I told him I hoped I would see him again one day.

Tariku said, “I hope he remembers me.”

I told him, “He may not remember you in his head but he’ll remember you in his heart.”

I’m still pretty wrecked. And I’m also happy. I’m proud of us as a family for how we said yes to something scary, and then all came together to make it happen.

What a wonderfully surprising life we have. It snuck up on us. It was never like we sat down and said: gee, I hope we get to be foster parents someday. Honestly, I’m not strong enough for this. I’m not very strong at all. I was in bed all day after Big Baby J. left, gnawing on a vat of industrial strength Maalox, because my stomach felt like I had chugged a gallon of acid.

But I think- who’s strong enough for this? The people who aren’t super-sensitive? Maybe, but why would they say yes? It’s paradoxically always going to be up to the people who are perhaps least equipped: the marshmallows, the kids who were always described derisively as “overly-sensitive” on our report cards.

I just kept looking in the mirror and telling myself: you’re strong. You’re a warrior. You can do this. This isn’t about you and what you want. This is about a baby who needs a place to stay and a lot of love. And you have all of that to offer.

I’m sure we needed Baby J. as much as Baby J. needed us.

When I was in Africa last year with Help One Now, my friend Jacob Combs  gave me this Giving Key necklace, with the word “HOPE” on it. The idea behind the necklace is that you keep it for as long as you need it, and then you pay it forward to someone you think could use the message. I liked mine so much as a piece of jewelry that I held on to it for an entire year!

This seemed like a good time to let it go. I gave the key to Baby J.’s full-time foster mom, when she came to pick him up. It’s a message I’d love to offer to all of us- parents, kids, everyone- who have a more circuitous journey than most to find the place we truly belong.

Baby J- I know you are for big, bright things here in this world. I’m blessed to have met you and held you and kissed your perfect face. I am so lucky.

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I See You

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I had a number of meaningful conversations during the Jewish New Year festivities, but my favorite was at a break-the-fast gathering, where I met a lovely woman who had spent the last year working with traumatized female veterans. Trauma- one of my favorite subjects to learn about! Of course I cornered her and asked her all about what she knew. One story in particular stuck with me. She told me about a woman everyone else had given up on, with whom she just sat in silence.

I thought about how, when Tariku is having a total freak-out and hides under the bed with his hands over his ears, I will sometimes just go and lie down on the floor next to him and not say anything. I remember when he was little and having one of his alarming tantrums, at first I would instinctively try to hug him or comfort him and he would panic and lash out. So I started sitting outside the door and waiting with him until it passed. And then little by little I began sitting in the doorway. Then I made it into the room. Sometimes he still needs to go be by himself for a while and work it out, but I’ve learned to see if there’s a little window open through which I can hold out an olive branch. If there is, I will go and sit silently with him.

My talk with the woman at the party caused me to reflect on how important it is to feel witnessed. Not just to be able to call a good friend on the phone and unload, although that’s great too! But to have your trauma and pain recognized and supported on a larger cultural level. We need simply to know: I am seen and there is a place for me here on this planet. All of me. All of my suffering and flaws and hope and humanity.

Because I am fortunate enough to have brilliant friends from different faith traditions, the week before the Jewish New Year, I found myself at a Christian Women of Faith event to hear the awesome Jen Hatmaker speak.  I heard her saying hetmessentially the same thing, with a different set of operating metaphors. Forgive my reductive paraphrasing of such a compassionate, eloquent and funny speaker, but what I heard from her was: You are seen and you are loved. Not for your accomplishments or your good behavior or your willingness to tow the line or your terrific souffles. You are seen, in all your imperfect and frightened humanity, and you are worthy of love. Period. End story.

I think a big part of all holiday rituals is simply to say to each other: I see you and we’re here together. We are all sinners; we are all in pain; we are all hungry for love and connection; we are all going to pass back into the unknown from which we came too soon. In light of all that mishigas (yiddish for “craziness”), we sit here beside one another in the presence of the divine mystery.

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