Last month, I spent ten days with my three sisters and our mother. Just the five of us. No kids. Cheeky was quite worried about who would cook dinner, do the laundry, clean her new ear piercing, drive her to dance while I was gone.
In the weeks before I left, she asked me dozens of questions about those things. I always answered, and I tried to do it patiently. After all, the questions she really wanted to ask were ones she couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Will you come back?
What will happen to me if you don’t?
Though she never spoke them, I could hear those words as I got on the plane and flew to Maryland. My first night there, I called home. Cheeky asked about my day. She also asked when I would be home.
“Next Friday,” I responded, even though I had already answered the question many, many, many times.
“What time will you be home?” she asked, and I mentally rolled my eyes, because I had answered that question many times, too.
“Not until late,” I said. “Maybe eleven o’clock.”
“Oh, then I’ll be in bed, and I won’t see you until Saturday.” She sounded truly disappointed about it, and I gave her a blithe and easy answer.
“Don’t worry. I’ll come in and give you a kiss goodnight when I get home.”
“Even if I’m asleep?” she asked.
“I promise,” I said, and then I didn’t give the conversation another thought.
Two days later, my sisters, mother and I boarded a cruise ship and headed for Bermuda. Our first night on the ship, we went to one of those rather cheesy cruise ship shows. It wasn’t bad, really, but I was tired, and I found myself watching the people who were watching the show rather than actually watching the show. There were couples and families. Young people. Elderly people. Groups. A few people who seemed to be alone.
And, then, there was……them.
A man and woman about my age. They were obviously a couple, but that night, they weren’t sitting side by side. A man was sitting between them. A few years older or younger than the woman, he had thinning hair and a round face. I think he may have had Down syndrome, but I’m not sure. He’d fallen asleep, his head on the woman’s shoulder, his mouth slack. As I watched, she patted his hand, the gesture tender and sweet.
I saw them together several times during the next five days. I noticed them not because of the man’s obvious differences, but because there was never a time when the woman was not holding his hand, touching his arm, gently urging him this way or that. It seemed as if all of her love for him was contained in those sweet and tender gestures.
Seeing them reminded me of the way it is with Cheeky. She is a physically demonstrative child. She loves to give hugs and to receive them. When we are together, she leans against my shoulder or touches my arm or kisses my cheek. I know that she didn’t hug or kiss her foster parents. Nor did they ever hug or kiss her. She’s told me that often. No hugs. No kisses. No birthday parties. No presents. She was like a dormant seed, waiting for sunlight and water and warmth so that she could sprout.
Here, each of those things that she did not have before is a celebration of family. Something to be cherished and enjoyed and repeated over and over again. Is it any wonder, then, that she craves those things so desperately?
All during my flight home, I thought about that man and woman. About those gentle touches. About Cheeky and how she needs the same thing.
When I arrived home, she was sound asleep, her arms wrapped around the hideous doll that she loves so much.
I leaned down and kissed her cheek. She never woke, but somehow she knew that I was there. She let the doll go, her arms wrapping tightly around me. Even asleep, she clung as if I were her everything. And, you know what, friends? She never let go. That is the thing I will always remember about the moment. Sound asleep, her arms stayed tight, and I finally had to unwind them and wrap them back around her doll.
That hug said so much more than Cheeky’s words ever will. Her lifeline, her anchor, the star around which her world orbits, that is who I am to my youngest child.
Since that moment and that hug, I have thought about how important it is to keep her reality in mind when I am dealing with my daughter. To not let time diminish the truth that Cheeky lives every day. Two weeks ago, I blogged about how her past has become our family’s past. Those seven years that she lived without us has become part of the story that we tell about us. In telling it and embracing it, though, I can’t ever lose sight of how it impacts my relationship with my daughter. At ten, she needs me much more than my other children did at the same age. Her past has made her hungry for assurance about the things that my other kids would never think to question – my love, support, sincere affection.
Who am I to put a time limit on that need? To say, “Today will be the day when she no longer needs to be reassured” ?
Only Cheeky will know when the deed is done, the bond complete, the relationship assured.
In that sleepy silent hug, she told me something that I needed to hear: I hold her heart in the palm of my hand. It is a gift that has been given to me, and I can only suppose that God felt I was worthy of it. Some days, I think that I am not. Some days, when she is particularly needy and I am particularly tired, I think that I should be doing more, being better, working harder to nourish and to nurture, because she just needs that so much.
Still and all, I carry it gently, that heart of hers. Because, she deserves no less than that.
Bless her heart. That’s a great reminder for all of us. Thanks so much!
Thank you so for the reminder that our children need us. Really, really need us. It’s far too easy to desire some personal space and quiet time over those deep rooted needs when we don’t think about it that way.
Absolutely beautiful Shirlee.
Over seven years home with our Tongginator, and still I needed this reminder. Thank you.
OK, first, the cruise. With your Mom and sisters. How wonderful!
For Cheeky, bless her heart. Wrapping her arms around you in her sleep. I have a little girl who does that too.
It puzzles me to hear how different their foster experiences were though. Our guy was hugged all the time. When we met back with foster parents in February, he ran to her and she to him and they embraced. She hugged him so hard, she picked him up off the floor. They embraced in 2010 when we met them, and it was obvious it wasn’t scripted.
He has needed our hugs from day one too, but for a while he resisted mine b/c he wasn’t ready to give me his heart (for fear I think he was breaking away from hers). Once he realized he could love us both, he softened. He is very lovable and loving.
Thank you for sharing this story. Very moving and deeply rooted.
leslie, I think it is not a matter of foster care, but of the parent who is providing it. Cheeky was loved dearly, but there were no overt physical demonstrations of that. Even when we met them at the hotel, she did not throw herself into their arms and they did not reach to hug her. I didn’t think anything about it, and I don’t think she ever felt the absence of those things until she met us. You can’t long for what you don’t know. You can’t really miss it either. And, as I have said often…she was and is dearly loved by them. There are all different styles of parenting, and parenting differently than someone else does not mean less love. I admire and appreciate everything Cheeky’s China family did for her. They loved her into who she is…with our without hugs and kisses!
Very insightful post! A great point that needs reminding. Thank you!
Oh, I so needed this reminder to be gentle with Li’l E’s heart. In this season of great upheaval and change in our home, when The Boss and I are some days barely making it through the changes we are trying to navigate, Li’l E has been experiencing some anxieties that are sometimes difficult to be patient with. Thank you for the loving slap upside the head. 🙂 Beautifully written, too, I must say. So poignant.