Cross Posted to my personal blog
On Monday, June 22, 2009, Cheeky made the journey of a lifetime. She left the apartment she’d lived in for four years, got in a taxi and traveled to meet her new parents. Meanwhile, I was traveling, too. Riding in a car, talking to our guide and my husband, terrified of what was about to happen.
Two lives. Completely separate. About to converge.
Would it work?
We’re closing in on a year since that day, and so much has happened in that time. Cheeky’s hair has grown, her tiny little arms have filled out, she has gained balance and a certain amount of grace. She has learned English, clung to Mandarin, begun to read.
She’s learned a lot, my cheeky girl, but I’ve have learned more.
At least that’s what I was thinking a few nights ago as I watched her walk into ballet rehearsal, her finally-long-enough hair scraped back into a bun, a huge smile on her face. I didn’t want to let her go, you see. I wanted to walk her in, make sure she knew where to sit, hold her hand for a few minutes as dozens and dozens of other kids poured into the room. But she didn’t need me, and I backed off and let her go. The same is true of her mad dash along the sidewalk in South Hill. The neighborhood is old, the pavement rutted and dangerous for someone with poor vision, but my kids wanted to run down a hill, and I couldn’t say no. I watched Cheeky take off after her brothers and sister, and my heart was in my throat. “Be careful, Cheeky!” I wanted to shout. “Look out! There’s a crack in the pavement. The sidewalk is uneven. Slow down, slow down, slow down!”
I desperately wanted to say all those things, but I kept them bottled up, and I watched her run, her spindly arms akimbo, her legs pumping harder than they could have when we’d first met.
Because that is one of the things I’ve learned from being Cheeky’s mom – the best gift I can give her is my confidence. I wanted, you see, to protect her when we first met. Even before that day, I planned how I would help her navigate her new world. I worried about what she would see or not see, I thought of how I would help her. And then I met her. There she was, walking toward me with ice cream in hand, her face filled with determination and spunk. This was not a shy and retiring child. This was not the wobbly, nearly blind kid I’d imagined. This was a full-out energized bunny, and she had no intention of stopping to let me help her find her way.
That energy, that verve was a shock to my system. My husband and I looked at each other, and I could see my surprise reflected in his eyes. This was the terrified child? This was the little girl who would need weeks and months, maybe even years to adjust? As I watched her jump from one bed to another in the the hotel room, I realized that she didn’t need me to protect her. She needed me to believe in her.
And so I have. I have let her climb six foot walls unaided. I have let her run in the bright sunlight unencumbered by long sleeves and bulky, skin-shielding clothes. I have slathered her with sunscreen and sent her over to a friend’s pool with her brothers and sister, and I have refused (nearly) to worry that she’ll fail to see the edge of the pool and fall in. I have refused to shield her from the stares and questions, just as I have refused to allow others to pity or baby her. Allowed myself to pity or baby her.
What is there, after all, to pity? Why baby a confident eight year old?
That is another thing I’ve learned in the past months – my daughter will not ever be defined by her ‘special need’ or her adoption. She is, quite simply, a little girl who wants (like all of us) to be loved and accepted. When we first arrived home, I felt this need to answer questions and to inform. When people commented on her hair or her eyes or her Asian features, I’d often fall into teacher mode. There was nothing wrong with that, but I’ve grown since then. I’ve matured. After all these months, I realize that it is okay to let the compliments hang in the air, to allow the speaker to keep wondering. People who are truly curious, who are interested in adoption, who want to know more about albinism will ask me direct questions that I don’t mind answering. But those who simply throw idle compliments in the air (Wow! She has the whitest hair I’ve ever seen. It’s beautiful), I just let those comments hang there and respond with a simple thank you. That, I think, honors Cheeky more than constantly providing unasked for answers.
Which is another thing I’ve learned. Parenting a child with a visible special need means being open to public scrutiny. In many ways, it makes us public property. Our family, our history, our reasons for adopting are things people are even more curious about because of our daughter’s noticeable differences. At first, the stares bothered me. I wanted to hide my daughter from the world, refuse to let others look at her with that…Oh my gosh! She’s one of those albinos..look. I wrote an entire post on my daughter NOT being a circus sideshow act.
And she is not.
And that is what I have learned. People can’t help their curiosity, and my daughter needs to know that. Most people are simply curious, and that curiosity is an innate human trait. By refusing to be defensive or to take offense, I will teach my daughter that being different is something to be celebrated rather than mourned. We are all different, and that is a good thing. That has become my mantra.
Which brings me to the final and most important thing I’ve learned. Before changing the parameters for our adoption, I had big dreams about my newest daughter. She would be dark haired and dark eyed. She would be younger than five but older than three. I would teach her to read and to write and to love. I would embrace her in a way she probably had never been embraced before, my arms wrapping around her and claiming her as my daughter even as she learned what having a mother meant.
But somehow that vision changed. My soul opened to a child like Cheeky in the same way a Morning Glory opens to dawn. One part slowly unfurling, and then another and another, until I was bathing in this new idea, this bright and wonderful thought.
That first step of faith was the most difficult, and after that, I simply went along for the ride, watching as God showed me in no uncertain terms that He would honor and bless my timid and tiny faith.
Since then, I have adapted to life as Cheeky’s mother. I have adapted to being a mother to five. I have adapted to the new vision of my family that came with the new vision of my daughter.
And that is the big thing I have learned. It has never been Cheeky’s job to come into our home and adapt to us. It has always been my job and my joy to adapt to her.
Last night, China Mom Skyped us. It has been several months since she’s asked to do so, and I was eager to let Cheeky speak with her China family. Though Cheeky has worked hard to maintain her Mandarin, most of the conversations she has in the language are about school things and kid things, not big things like adoption. In preparation for the meeting, Cheeky wanted her hair washed and dried and then she ran to her room to put on a pretty dress, and when China Mom finally appeared on the computer screen, Cheeky trembled with joy.
This, you see, is her mother. This woman far away in another country in another home with another child standing close to her side.
That is not to say that I am not also her mother. It is simply to say that China Mom’s arms were the first to truly hold my daughter. It was China Mom’s scent and voice and smile that Cheeky first opened to. It was China Mom who taught Cheeky to walk, to talk, to sing.
To believe in love and in forever.
That is something I never expected. It was never part of my vision and my dream.
Yet, here it is and has been for nearly a year. An entire family that we are part of. That we must be part of.
At one point in the hour long conversation, Cheeky could not think of the right Mandarin words to say. Her face got very red and tears slid down her cheeks. My heart shattered into a million pieces as I was helpless to give her the words she needed.
“What is that word, Mommy?” She said, looking at me as if I held all answers to all problems in my hands.
“I don’t know, sweetie.” I replied. “But I will help you find out.”
And so I emailed China Mom and told her Cheeky’s struggles. China Mom was not nearly as distraught as our daughter. She has been here before, you see. She has seen the bond of language disappear. Usually, she has told me, within three months the children are no longer able to speak Mandarin at all. Our daughter is an exception, but her Mandarin has holes.
And my poor dear Cheeky knows it.
Eventually, the conversation went on, and Cheeky seemed fine. But when I tucked her into bed last night, she was quiet.
“You are sad,” I said, not bothering to give her a choice about it. “Tell me why?”
“I don’t know.” She said, and I knew she did not want to hurt me.
“Let me tell you what I think.” I offered. “I think that you are sad because you miss China Mom. I think you are sad because you didn’t have all the words you wanted to say all that you wanted to her. I think you are sad because you worry that means the love you have for her and the love she has for you will go away.”
And Cheeky began to cry with deep mournful sobs that nearly robbed me of breath, and then she climbed into my lap and her tears soaked my shirt as she pressed her face against my chest.
I waited until the tears slowed, and then I cupped her face in my hand, and I looked into her clear blue eyes. I wanted to tell her not to be sad, but she is sad and I don’t want her to hide it.
Instead, I said, “Cheeky, I know it is hard for you. I know how much you love China Mom, and I know how much she loves you. I am so happy that you love each other. I know it is hard to not have all the words you want, but those words are not gone forever. Even if they were, there is something that requires no words. Do you know what that is?”
And she shook her head, and the tears started again.
“It is love, Cheeky. Love requires no words. It is action and feeling all mixed up together. It is two people who are connected no matter what language they speak.”
“Like you and me when I first came home?” She said, and I knew she understood.
“Yep. Just like that.” I said, and she smiled and climbed into my lap again.
And we stayed like that for a long time, me and the daughter I share with another mother. Two people who did not know each other a year and one day ago, but who are now mother and daughter. Both of us learning and adapting and mourning and rejoicing. Together.