I remember when my four older kids were babies. People would ask, “How old is s/he?”, and I would respond with the number of days or weeks or months. Eventually, my babies became toddlers, and my answer changed from the number of weeks or months to the number of years.
The same happened when Cheeky joined our family. At first, I would say, “she has been with us for a week…..a month…..ten months.”
Now, as we pass the two and a half year mark and approach her tenth birthday, the question of how long Cheeky has been part of our family comes less frequently. Though she still has an accent, it is subtle, her once orphan-short hair long.
She has become less Chinese foster child and more American kid. Her mannerisms, speech patterns, reactions and even her way of carrying herself have changed, mimicking closely her siblings, me and my husband.
She has, in fact, adapted and evolved from Little White (Her foster family’s name for her) into Cheeky McCoy, the girl who forever belongs to a mother, father, brothers and sister. A girl who dances and sings. Who learns. Who grows.
I have adapted and evolved, too, becoming less the protective mother bear and more just Mom. We have slowly synchronized our steps, matched the rhythm of our hearts, becoming mother and daughter in the soft and subtle way of always family rather than the loud and noticeable way of the newly formed.
And, so, as happened when Sassy reached her tenth birthday last year, Cheeky approached me to ask about having her ears pierced. Now, ear piercing is a rite of passage in our house that occurs when a child reaches the ripe old age of ten or a maturity level that allows for that child to care for her ears after they are pierced. Sassy was plenty capable of doing that well before her tenth birthday. Cheeky…
My sweet oblivious little darling.
As her tenth birthday approaches, she still needs to be reminded to brush her teeth, wear a hat in the sun, listen to me instead of the television. She lives in her daydreams, singing softly as we walk through grocery stores or hike the trail near our house. I still hold her hand when we’re in the mall or crossing the street. I must remind her constantly not to engage in long conversations with perfect strangers.
How she survived in Chongqing, China, for seven and a half years, I will never know.
Or, maybe, I do. She is, after all, independent, smart, confident and very capable. Though she has told me stories of the (many) times she got lost while on outings with her China family, she has also told me that she always managed to find her way home (except for one time when China Dad finally found her after what Cheeky describes as a very long time. Shudder). While she is very young for a child of nearly ten, she is also quite mature. She does her school work and her chores without complaint, and she does both very well. She is nearly on grade level in all subject. Quite a feat for a child who didn’t speak English two and a half years ago. She is one of the most focused and accomplished girl in her ballet class, and she has come the farthest in her technique in the shortest amount of time.
For my Cheeky?
From the moment she approached me about this thing…this finite measure of growing up… I have been telling myself she is not ready. A child who can’t remember to brush her teeth will not be able to take care of pierced ears. Right? But, as the big day approaches and the gifts are bought, the cake planned, I must admit that perhaps Cheeky is not the one who isn’t ready. After all, it is an easy enough thing for me to help care for her ears. I will simply be part of that the same way I have been part of so many pivotal moments in Cheeky’s life. As a matter of fact, I have already decided, unbeknownst to her, that she will get the coveted earrings. I know she’ll be over the moon with happiness when she finds out.
I am not quite so keen.
Truth be told, the thought of my little Cheeky being all grown up sits less easily on my heart than the thought of my Sassy girl growing away.
I have been thinking long and hard about this. At first, I thought that it was simply Cheeky’s youngness that made me feel this way. Because of her time in the orphanage, she is more like a seven-year-old than a ten-year-old. Still, I am beginning to see that this issue of earrings and growing up is one of heart.
It clings to these early days with Cheeky so much more fiercely than it did with my other children. As she matures, I find myself thinking….but, I have only had her as my ‘baby’ for such a short time. I am not ready to give that up. While I do not spend my days mourning what I missed, I do have moments when I wish that Cheeky had been mine from the very beginning.
That is the bittersweet truth of older child adoption. We cannot ever go back to the beginning of our children’s lives. We can only build from the moment of meeting onward into forever. I have found, in the past two and a half years, that there is something very special and unique about planting an older child into the heart and home. There is a softness and a strength that grows from the fertile soil of compassion and respect. If we allow it to, it will bloom into the most powerful kind of family-love.
That, at least, is the case with my relationship with my youngest daughter.
And, so, I will let Cheeky get her earrings, and I will not tell her that I am not ready for her to grow up. Instead, I will keep pouring out my respect for the person she is, my compassion for what she has missed and, most importantly, my love. I will watch as she slowly unfurls the wings that will one day fly her away, and I will rejoice that I am a part of the process that has taken her from what she was and is carrying her into what she will be.
That, my friends, is what happens when you bring an older child into your heart, and I would not trade it for the world.
Happy birthday a little early, my darling Cheeky-girl!