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

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To My Son on his Gotcha Day 2015

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It was T’s “Gotcha Day” last week, which is adoption-speak for the day we finally held him for the first time. I write him a letter every year, trying to preserve for him (and me) a snapshot of who he is at that moment in time. It has been six years. Six. When did that happen? The love in my heart for this kid blows my mind every day. Here is this year’s letter to my not-a-baby-anymore:

To Tariku on his Gotcha Day:

It’s a strange phrase- Gotcha Day. The way you say “gotcha” is so cute that it has overshadowed any doubt I may have had about the name. I guess I’ve never been exactly comfortable with how glib it sounds- how completely unequal to the task of describing that transformative day when we first saw your beautiful face. I will never know that day’s equal. I’ll never forget the too-thin contours of your fragile body, the understanding in your eyes alternating with confusion and skepticism. And always, that that special joy you bring to every room you’re in, the fundamental quality of yours that trumps all else.

Here is a little snapshot of you today… six years after we first met you. Nearly seven years old. How could that be?

You are a natural musician. You have been playing drums now for a couple of years already and the look on your face when you play is somehow both expressive and serene. You often give your dad and I a hard time about practicing, but, contrary to our free-spirited nature, we’re insisting. Because if we know anything, we know that it’s all about practice. Nothing worthwhile comes magically. Or rather, it is magic. But the magic only knows where to find you if you’re practicing.

Once you’re playing, you love it. You practice with your dad. When he was getting ready for this last tour, you played the entire Everything Will Be Alright in the End album front to back nearly every day with him.

You two are even improvising your own jams now. You asked me today for a neck holder for a harmonica, so you can play harp and drums at the same time. Hang tight- it’s on its way.

On Thanksgiving, you jammed with a roomful of teenagers at the LaZebnik’s house and I was awed by your confidence. Those kids adore you. You have such a big, wonderful tribe. There is so much love for you, it could blow the ceiling off the house.

You are an incredibly social kid. You are obsessed with birthdays, particularly your own. You start planning your next party about three days after the last. You make guest lists and wish lists and play lists. Don’t worry- we’re going to throw you an epic bash. Of course we will!

You hate that I limit your time staring at a screen, which is a big conflict for a lot of parents right now. I can’t wait to see how the next generation’s brains evolve, developing new ways of processing information. But with no crystal ball, how can I be sure what’s the best way to monitor your use of technology? Technology has given a lot to my life and I am as guilty as anyone of being glued to one screen or another a lot of the time. But I worry about your brain. About how the constant, distracting information barrage might impede your ability to think and feel deeply.

But I probably needn’t fret about that. You are and always have been a deep well, with a heavy history for such a little boy. Somehow you’re able to effortlessly combine that depth with your natural hilarity and mischief. You are very funny. You just mastered the “orange you glad I didn’t say banana” knock-knock joke and I doubt it will be your last.

The one thing I don’t limit is your treasured time investigating Google maps.

“What’s the biggest city in China?” you’ll call out to me as I do the laundry downstairs.

“What is the big airport in Tokyo?”

“This is where polar bears live!”

“This is the Indian Ocean!”

Lately your career ambitions as 1. Weezer drummer and 2. airplane painter, have been supplanted by your aspirations to be a medic. You are currently running a large dinosaur hospital, where the dinosaurs are bandaged with Scotch tape and toilet paper.

It is impossible to say what I am most proud of in you, but if I had to pick one thing it would be this kindness and caretaking, which doesn’t stop at dinosaurs but extends to your friends and family, too. Compassion is something that you’ve had to work on over the years. When you came to us, you were such a fierce, self-sufficient little thing; it was every man for himself. It seemed every move you made was meant to convey the sentiment: “I got this. Don’t bother, bumbling big people.” You still screech whenever anyone tries to help you with homework. But slowly you are learning to give and receive help and trust. Until very recently all the dinosaurs did was fight each other and then get shoved under the couch. Now they’re healing in your hospital.

You like math and science. You like the earth and the sea and the animals and the stars and the plants.

You still love your airplanes as much as ever. You go to the airport every Saturday and watch those giant beasts take off and land, take off and land, over and over. You never tire of it.

It is these things that captivate you these days: healing and flight. Because you, my wild and glorious boy, go straight for the miracles.

As I say to you every night before bed… I love you to the moon and back a thousand million billion times. You’re the best thing that ever happened to your dad and me. I can’t wait to see what this next year reveals to all of us.

With big crazy love always,

Mom

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T’s Fifth Cha Cha Day!

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Last year Tariku renamed his “Gotcha” Day (the anniversary of the day he was finally in our arms), “Cha Cha Day.” Which is obviously the most awesome name for any day. Woe to the mother who expresses enthusiasm for such a thing… This year the Cha Cha name was strictly verboten. But between you and me, I’m keeping it.

We threw him a small party, just a few friends and neighbors. We ate cake, moved the coffee table out of the way in the living room and danced to “What Does the Fox Say” like sixteen times. And we told the story of his adoption. A family fairy tale, woven through with sorrow but ultimately triumphant. I stole the denoument from psychologist and author Brenè Brown (with whom I’m obsessed):

You are imperfect. You are wired for struggle. You are worthy of love and belonging.

I always get reflective and nostalgic around his Cha Cha day. I wrote this poem early that morning. I suppose it is less for him, exactly, and more for the moms out there. He’d rather have a dance party than a poem at this point anyway. I thought I’d share it with you.

TO MY SON ON HIS CHA CHA DAY

Perhaps I know what other mothers do not.
Of necessity, I know that you were never
mine to begin
with that you are merely a loan
so precious that, Gollum–like, even though I have it in
hand it leaves me wracked with longing
like cherry blossom festivals or a great
song you hear at the coffee shop and can’t
rewind.

Perhaps I know too what other mothers
all know that you have always been mine
settling into my skin
long before there was even a seed
of you taking root miles from here.
These fingertips caught fire some nights for
reaching, the same that first touched your silk
cheek.

Out of nowhere you say:

I was only a baby when Jesus died on
the wooden cross. I think it was, yes
I know it was a
Tuesday. In March.
I was there.
It wasn’t my fault.

I have no idea where
you got ideas of fault
or wood
or belonging
or March
or Tuesday
or God at all.

I wake up to your vinegary breath, your hands
on my face, a
mastiff puppy’s paws, too big,
for your tectonically shifting frame
a missive from the future these
hands, that I cannot read
except to know it
ends with.
Love,

Somewhere on a red dirt road
flanked by corrugated tin lean-tos painted
blue/green like a sea that is
nowhere to be found, by waxy green leaves of false
banana trees and round huts the same color as the
ground, miles every day she walks in rubber
flip flops toward the well
and back again, red kerchief over her
braids, carrying a burden of
water, dreaming a shared
dream.