Moving Mountains and Opening Hearts

Moving Mountains and Opening Hearts

I am a single woman, age 42. My journey to my two children, Ashenafi and Rahel, was unpredictable. After two years of careful thought and internal doubts, I had registered with one agency that worked with children from Ethiopia.

Before I had identified any child and while my homestudy was still underway, there were rumblings that Ethiopia was going to shut down the orphanage in question.  By the time my homestudy was complete, the center had closed. 

In frustration, I decided to opt for a local agency with a large reliable program, and worked with the China program.  The agency was wonderful, but it gnawed at me that I had left Ethiopia behind.  I kept in touch with a couple of the families struggling to locate their kids there after the orhanage had been closed -- in particular one woman in Texas, who located her baby girl in an Italian center, had her transfered to an American one and one happy day sent me an email from the Sheraton Addis Ababa.  About one month after my dossier hit China, coincidentally on my birthday, I received an email from this woman about two Ethiopian kids whose adoption had fallen through.  She had sent the message to everyone on her email list.  The kids had cousins in Vermont,  they were older, and had a living grandmother...a photo was attached.

 Well.  "It can't be ME," I thought.  "I have paperwork in China. I have a name picked out. I sent Christmas cards to all my friends advising them about a Chinese child..."  Yet I couldn't get them out of my head. I thought of them while grocery shopping, while brushing my teeth, while decorating the Christmas tree.  One day as I drove to St. Louis listening to John Hiatt, the song, "Through Your Hands" came on, containing the line: "like you wouldn't know a burning bush if it blew up in your face."  Here it is, I thought -- I'm right back when I started, having it handed to me on a beautiful platter and I'm trying to ignore it.  And on New Year's Day, I knew: these were my kids.  (I relive that moment every time I hear "Through Your Hands".  "In time, we will move mountains; it will come through your hands.")

Being single, I thought an older child suited me better.  Siblings also appeal to me, having four older brothers.  The kids have been in an orphanage for two years, and lived with their grandmother and two cousins after their parents died.  They have a lot of family history together, which I love.  It's amazing to me that had I proceeded with an Ethiopian adoption and not detoured to China, these kids would have been spoken for; their adoption didn't fall through until late November, for financial reasons on the part of the adopting family. Maybe I needed something as fascinating as China to keep me busy till they were available?  I'm not usually a big believer in fate, but this process has definitely softened me on the issue.

July 20, 2001

I received word last week that the court case was over in Ethiopia.  The

adoption is by proxy, meaning that I have granted an attorney in that country power-of-attorney to represent me in court, and the adoption is now legally final there.   Because I will be traveling to Ethiopia to obtain the visas for the children, INS will also code the adoption as final for immigration purposes.  Once we arrive in the U.S., the kids will be US citizens, courtesy of a new law which took effect last February.   NO MORE PAPERWORK. 

As part of the case in Ethiopia, the kids were assigned a date of birth; their exact date of birth is not known, though we have some idea of their ages from information learned from their grandmother in Addis Ababa and their cousins Messay and Kenedi, now living in Vermont.  I have not yet received a translation of the court decree.  Consequently,  I am now legally a mother to two children that I have never met, and for whom I do not know a birthdate.  Not what one imagines for oneself -- but I wouldn't change a thing. I am exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to adopt these children.

Thanks to tylenol pm, a neck pillow on loan from my Aunt Eileen and select beverages, I managed to sleep across most of the Atlantic...Gail, who runs the AAI Children's House in Addis, and I found each other during the stopover in Cairo; she was on her way back from the Netherlands.  After a long day of travel, the three travelling Missourians -- my close friends Joan Tanner and her husband Dan McMichael and I --  finally arrived in Addis -- much to our amazement.    Next was customs, and being herded into the area for the Hilton shuttle, all the while knowing that somewhere outside my kids were waiting. 

 We walked outside to the shuttle, and Gail appeared in the darkness to walk me over to the kids.  There, in an airport parking lot in Addis Ababa, lit by a brilliant full moon shining down through the palm trees, I met Ashenafi and Rahel.  There were immediately recognizable -- and SO quiet and shy.  Not much was said, and I was so focused on the children that I don't even recall meeting Gail's husband, Jonas.  They smiled silently on the van ride to the Hilton and through check-in.  The desk  clerk asked "Who is one family?" and I had the distinct pleasure of responding: "The three of us are a family." 

 Our room is on the 8th floor, a view of the city never seen by the kids. We stand on the balcony, looking at the mountains that line the city, the gleaming white moon, and the steam rising off the Hilton's thermal pool in the shape of a cross. 

 After almost two hours together, they are whispering to each other, but now and then, in a hushed tone, one will want me to look at something and say that magic word, "Mama."  They have pajamas on, and are watching tv, putting off bedtime which is already late.   At one point as I unpack, I hear them whisper, "Mama," and look up to see the two of them slowly walking towards me, each holding a bag of cracker snacks I had given them, wanting me to share.   They go to bed without a whimper, and sleep soundly throughout the night. 

When walking near a road (sidewalks are nonexistent or consist of broken jagged cement pieces jutting from muddy sections when a sidewalk used to exist), I am acutely aware that my purse contains a camera worth more than the average annual income.  Curious eyes peer into mine, but I sense no resentment or hostility.   People are friendly and courteous, with a gentle, calm manner.  It is a fascinating culture, and an ancient one. 

 The kids are so much more than I could have imagined.  Intelligence shows in their eyes; they are both curious and eager to learn, even when  clearly stumped and at a loss to communicate.  Their deep desire not to disappoint me is both obvious and extremely moving.  They display no attitude (at least not yet).  So far they have shed no tears, never raised a voice, and, even while dismayed by some of my directions  --like not to wear underwear under one's swimming suit -- have not disobeyed.   I guess this is what people refer to as the "honeymoon" phase of an adoption.   They fold their clothes, try new and unwelcome foods, and make their beds with military precision.  Rahel insisted on making my bed as well, and when I first attempted to assist her, gently dmonished me, "Mama, NO."   

 All of this would be disconcerting if they did not also love to play, display  hysical affection by holding my hand or wrapping an arm around me, and laughing hysterically at slapstick jokes, showing two of the most amazing smiles I've ever seen.  Both are extremely grateful for everything -- and anything -- they are given.  I have rationed the items that I've brought for the, giving them only one a day so as to not  overwhelm them. They absolutely love their new walkmen, but also share a meaningful relationship with their watches, wearing them with pride.

I gave Rahel a doll last night that a friend sent along, which I noticed her holding tightly in her arms as she fell asleep.  Ashenafi received a new pair of sandals this morning, which I demonstrated to his amusement were too big for me. 

 Rahel is initially much more reserved than I anticapated with adults, but is clearly the little mother to all smaller children -- the kids from the Children's House run up to her, and hold tightly while she puts a protective arm around them, even while walking.  Ashenafi is extremely even-tempered with a dazzling smile and an infectious giggle.  He is totally at ease and tries to be so self-sufficient, while the girls (Rahel and Brooke & Marta Little) play together -- until one of them calls him insistently in a sweet high-pitched voice: "Ah-shen-aff-feeeeeeee!" Rahel is more likely to speak to me, with an ever so quiet "mama" or more recently mom", often accompanied by a gentle touch on my arm with one finger.  Ashenafi does not usually call me.  His affection is shown in his eyes and laughter.  Rahel is definitely moodier, but even her moods fall within relatively narrow parameters. 

There is a strong feeling among many people in the adoption community that by some miracle, you end up with child you were meant to have.   In my case, I feel extremely fortunate.  I cannot imagine two kids more suited to me with whom to share the adventure of the challenging days and years ahead, particularly the trying first year with all its communication and culture frustrations.  I have read much and have tried to mentally and pyschologically prepare for the worst -- the child's despair and anger that can come from an inability to communicate, the disturbing physical behaviors often associated with years in an orphanage, or even how frightening and lonely it can seem to one day wake up and have two

strangers living with you for whom you do not feel an immediate motherly bond --  but Ashenafi and Rahel seem extraordinarily capable of rolling with the changes and in turn put me at ease.   While I know they are in fact strangers to me, they do not  feel that way at all -- an irrational response for which I remain grateful.  It feels very natural and comfortable to have them with me -- a feeling that perpetually surprises me. 

Things are going great, better than I could have even imagined. I don't know how it happened, but these are the perfect kids for me.  They are laid back and calm, tremendously independent and curious, yet with distinct differences between their two personalities.  Ashenafi is a perfectly balanced kid, no big emotional upheavals whatsoever, lots of studiously examining how things work and delighted at new discoveries.  Rahel is more of everything: more ups, more downs, more interaction, more response -- until she is overwhelmed and completely shuts down.  They are both incredibly resilient kids. 

The trip home seemed to take forever.  Our flight was late late leaving Frankfurt, and then immigration in Chicago took longer than planned, which in turn meant we missed our flight to St. Louis -- AFTER checking the luggage....and then our luggage was lost.  The kids have been such troopers, experiencing their first four plane flights in one day, not to mention the wonders of escalators and moving sidewalks at O'Hare.  It's so easy to forget what is completely new to them.  We stayed overnight at my mother's, playing basketball before falling asleep on the living room floor watching Toy Story. The luggage was delivered at noon today, and we all finally made the two hour drive to our home.   

 While at my mother's last night, we also watched the January video from my agency, featuring interviews with the older adoptable kids, including Ashenafi and Rahel.  I didn't know whether this would make them sad or homesick, but gambled that their response would be what it was: happy to see the kids at the children's center again.  They excitedly recited the names of each of their friends, and laughed hysterically at themselves, hiding their faces -- and we all soundly applauded Brooke and Marta, our Hilton buddies, now in Washington state.  

Tonight the kids are exploring their room upstairs, talking happily to each other while Ethiopian children's cd is playing downstairs.  It was priceless to watch their faces as we got closer and closer to the house; they recognized the Capitol, our church and their school from the photos I had sent to them.  They were sitting straight up in the car as we came down our street, craning to see the first glimpse of the house.  We gradually slowly headed up the steps, and then to their room.  BIG EYES. 

first day of school

Ashenafi laid motionless on his bed for the first 20 minutes here, looking silently at the room.  I went over and asked him if he liked it, and his eyes grew wide as he fiercely nodded his head.  As I stayed downstairs, giving them time together to explore their room and the house, I could hear them talking and then suddenly giggling madly with some new experience, such as a doorbell or an adjustable chair. This is an extraordinary experience. 

Tonight they were introduced to our dog Spencer, who has been renamed Bob-a-lu (easier for them to pronounce than two consonants together).  It was love at third sight, taking just a little while to get past his enormous teeth and abnormally long tongue, which tends to lick children upside the head.  They are now lying together on the floor, the dog –who speaks all languages -- their new best friend. 

Tonight the kids' cousins Messay and Kenedi called from Vermont.  They don't remember enough Amharic to communicate, and Ashenafi and Rahel couldn't talk to them in English.  It was really difficult for them, as I suspected it would be.  I talked to both of the their cousins, who sounded so happy that Ashenafi and Rahel were finally in the United States.  We are making plans to visit them in the fall.   

The kids are already in school, which began their sixth day here.  They love being around other children again.  We've had a few bumpy moments; Rahel completely shut down at a soccer practice, and a couple days when I thought I'd never find enough acceptable food for them to eat.  We are learning, together, though, and overall things are going amazingly well. Soccer was a rain-out this morning, which would have crushed Ashenafi except that he remembered it was the day to buy bicycles.  He can now ride like a champ, which Rahel continues to struggle, undefeated. I put my roller blade kneepads on her, and she added her soccer shin guards. 

At dinner tonight I got the English/Amharic dictionary out to ask them what vegetables they liked.  I looked up carrots and asked Rahel about that -- she said, "carrot, water, no" and shook her little index finger back and forth at me.  "Carrot juice?" I wondered, which elicited a look of exasperation.  "Raw?" I asked.  She looked blankly at me.  I looked up "raw" in the dictionary and pointed it out to her.  "AH, YES!" she giggled with sudden recognition on her face.  Gosh, is this ever hard sometimes, yet despite our frustrations, every day I see progress.  Today I noticed they said "thank you" and "you're welcome" to each other - in English. I've decided to treat home as a place where there is no pressure; the most important thing for now is that they learn that our home is really their home, and will be every day. 

 Rahel is turning out to a master negotiator, especially at bedtime:

"Five minutes to bedtime," I announce. 

"Ten meenootes?" she implores.

"Five minutes." 

"Ten meenootes?" 

"Four minutes."

"WHAT?! Five meenootes."

"Okay, five minutes." 

Silence, soon followed by, "ten meenootes?"  

Ashenafi often looks through the book of photos from the trip, naming off all his friends.  He is not tearful or sad, instead seems to simply want to see them again.  Yilkal, a good friend of Ashenafi's who arrived in Houston about 5 months ago, is supposed to be call him this weekend.  He's going to be so surprised and happy. 

 I told the kids we'd go to St. Louis next weekend, and see grandma ("grrrrandma"). I also promised them we'd eat at an Ethiopian restaurant, at which Ashenafi's eyes lit up and Rahel looked as though she could take or leave it.  They are so unpredictable. 

The most surprising frustration to me has been how lonely I often feel during dinner, as the two of them chat merrily and no one responds to mama. I could feel my patience shortening, and decided to invite friends over several times a week to preserve my sanity.  Maybe it's because we've now spent over 25 days together, but at some point I realized they were talking to me.  Word by word, we're getting there.  Most of the time it's in amharic -- one of them will look at me and say something quite meaningfully that is utterly meaningless to me, and we'll both laugh.  And I realize it's probably what they feel like when I say things that blow right by them.  We have enough gestures and words in common to usually get the thought across by now though, and they are starting to say things mixing the two languages.  I asked if they had chicken for lunch at school, and Rahel said, "chicken idellem" (no chicken).  

 Tonight was Rahel's second soccer practice, and she looked downright dejected when I told her this as I picked them up from afterschool care. When we arrived home, she came and sat on my bed.  I said, "no soccer?" and she looked at me and then looked down. She didn't want to tell me that she didn't want to play.  So I asked, "is it ok with you if no soccer? Is that ok?" and she nodded and smiled, relieved.  

 We did some of her homework together -- she had to list favorites, like food, sport, etc.  When she got to restaurant, I realized we hadn't been to any here.  I asked, "what about the restaurant we ate at on Bole Road?" "YES!"  She wrote down the name of the establishment in Addis Ababa. 

Ashenafi and I also counted syllables in words for his reading homework. The word "syllable" was throwing him, so I asked how many beats of the drum, pounding on the table as I pronounced a word.  He'd say, "hullett" and write it down under "two".  Afterwards, we went out to eat at McDonald's.  They laughed hard when they saw themselves in the funhouse mirrors by the counters, and were trilling in amharic in public, relaxed and happy.  We were able to talk to each other at dinner -- the first time it was just the three of us and a completely effortless event.  

 To give you some idea of my life now, after I hit the grocery store with Ashenafi and Rahel (which might as well be a visit to Disneyworld, they become so energized), I decided we'd grill chicken.  "Tonight?" asked Ashenafi. "Cook outside?"  Yes, I said, tonight. He looked puzzled and then inquired, "Who is coming?"  I replied no one, it's just us, and realized that all three of us were happy about that. 

 They are overjoyed because Ashenafi caught a cat outside -- a skinny, gnarly cat that someone has been not feeding.  They were appalled that it was so thin, and pleaded, "mama, food?"  So while we grilled, the cat received a little bowl of water and a can of tuna. He was lounging on our patio table next to the leftover tuna when we went to bed. "Mama...Ashenafi and my room?" asked Rahel.  No way, baby.  "Garage?" she tried.  Nope, but that's a new word for her. I blamed Bobalu (The Dog Formerly Known As Spencer) for the cat being relegated to the great outdoors.  

 We had watched the video of "My Dog Skip" over a week ago, which led to Rahel reciting "my dog cot moonkey elephant Skeep..."  So last night when I said they better give the cat a name, Rahel immediately dubbed it "Skip."  

And so it goes. My life these days involves pop tarts and orange soda, reminders to carry the one and sound out the letters of a word, stuffed monkeys discovered under my pillow and food in the cushions of my car.

 I love it. 

The bonds between the children and I grow every day, sometimes with sudden drama but mostly with imperceptibly.  I remind myself daily that I have care, custody and control of two remarkable beings, and pray I measure up to the task.  They humble me with their humor and resilience, and goodness of heart.  Together, we move mountains.

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