Making weeds into flowers

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Guardians of Sorrow

Brady the beagle was only eight years old when we unexpectedly had to have him put down. He woke up late one night shaking his head incessantly. I could see that his face was slightly swollen, but decided to wait out the few hours until morning to take him to the vet. It seemed to be some sort of allergic reaction, maybe a bug bite. He was given Benadryl and sent home.

That night, a Saturday—because all animal emergencies seem to happen when only exorbitant after-hours care is available—he developed serious gastrointestinal problems. The next few days resulted in one futile attempt after another to get him well. After almost a week of veterinarian head scratching, it was determined that he had weak kidneys, and all the inflictions and medications were more than his little organs could handle. The most humane thing was to let him go.

The vet spoke kindly and softly as he worked.  The process was gentle, quiet, and methodical—as my heart split open with grief. The guttural sobbing that followed came from as deep a place of hurt as seems humanly possible. I not only grieved Brady, but my dad who passed the summer before, my dog, Emerson, whose loss Brady had been the welcome heart mender for, and layers and layers of scratched open sadness.

I began to ponder why the death of a pet is so uniquely lacerating. More than once I have heard people say, “I cried harder when my dog died than when I lost my mom.” Or, “My cat died ten years ago, and I’m still not over it.”

Our fur-wrapped friends willingly offer unconditional love and unencumbered relationship. Pasts are forgotten, the future is not analyzed—now is all there is. No wonder grieving a pet is so searing. After all, that soft head is the one that soaked up countless number of tears—the nose that sniffed, the eyes that wondered, the head that tilted, and the ears that heard the stories, the railing, the fears.

They are the guardians of our sorrows and champions of consolation. And when they leave their posts, the unwatched gates fly open and the despair of decades spills through.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Party

Recently, I had a party.  It was a big one. If you’re wondering why you weren’t invited I’ll tell you that, although the party was huge, the guest list was small. My husband came for a short time before going to work. My oldest daughter was invited but it really wasn’t her kind of thing. My mom had other plans.

I served mostly sour foods. There were balloons everywhere, all popped; and a large pool for diving, swimming, or wallowing. The pool was full of self—self-pity, self-doubt, and self-loathing. There was also a very shallow wading pool for self-esteem but I didn’t spend much time there. Most enticing, was the petty-fountain, dripping with free flowing whys, hows, and whats. I sat with my popped balloons, sour snacks, and pity pool making the most of every minute.

I dove into the pool thinking about how a year ago my husband lost his job of twenty-five years when the theatre program he had built from the ground up was reduced to nothing. Angry that one year later, the company I had given my time and heart to had closed. Ruminating over money owed to me that would easily see us through until I find work but will not be paid. Frustrated over the mistake I made in filing for unemployment insurance that will delay a check coming for another two weeks.

I swam through pain and sorrow about my youngest daughter and our perpetually fragile relationship. I trudged to the deep end, and wallowed in the possibility of losing our house, how to buy groceries, or put gas in the cars. And what about the world falling apart all around us—corrupt cops and cop killers, Facebook rants, and terrorists?

I dragged myself out of the pool, and picked up some “petty-fors” to dip in the fountain. Why could no one stay at my party? Why am I always short on money? How is it that I have energy to clean every room in the house but mine? What’s the city ordinance on the possession of dust bunnies? Why do I have jowls, and none of my friends do? Why have select facial hair follicles gone rogue? Why me? Why? How? What?

On Sunday, I got to spend time with my long time friend, Jean. I invited her to my party and she accepted. She even brought a few of her own sour snacks and popped balloons. She swam by my side in the pool, sampled the nasty food, and took a turn dipping “whys” in the petty fountain. We talked, we laughed, we cried; and then took a short walk.

As we walked, Jean commented, “You know, Satan loves to attack us through our children.” I stopped in my tracks. “But God has access to their hearts.”

There was the crux of it. All the other struggles are just logistics, life challenges that can and will be overcome. But our children are at the tender nucleus of our souls—our Achilles’ heels that cannot be controlled or forgotten—only loved and covered in prayer. Of all my recent trials, the one with my precious daughter had caused me to plan and execute a party like none before. Satan wants us to live in self-doubt and pity—and I complied.

Once I succumbed to that darkness, the bog of depression began to suck me in like quicksand. But God sent my cherished friend to say just the right things at just the right time. There was such comfort in those words. Remembering that I am really not in control. That Satan targets our vulnerabilities, that God is even more interested in my daughter’s wellbeing than I am; AND has complete access to her heart.

It was then that I piled up the rancid food and listless balloons. I shook my head at the energy wasted on the petty fountain. Next, I drained the toxic water from the pool, aware of the real, but no longer consuming presence of the heap of debris. I allowed the pool to fill with crystal clear Living Water. I opened my arms wide, fell back into the pool and let myself float, simply float.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Cheryl Was Shot

The announcement came to me, and my 1969 junior high classmates, that Cheryl had been shot. She was walking down her street, towards her own home, when a young man—a neighbor, randomly, ruthlessly, and without provocation shot her. She had survived. Cards, flowers, gifts, and well wishes of every sort could be sent to her home address.

Our community’s sensibilities were shaken by the news. We were shocked, curious, stunned—but not numbed. I had never before heard of someone being shot for no reason. I had never thought much about anyone being shot. I don't know what kind of gun the shooter had or what happened to him. I know it was just a handgun, not a semi-automatic, or anything close to what’s used in today’s now prolific shootings.

My mom helped me select and send a card and small gift. I don’t remember what the gift was or what we decided was appropriate to say on the card. I do remember receiving a thank you note a few weeks later from Cheryl. It said, “Thank you for your kindness during my illness.” I was struck by her reference to her “illness” but, at the time, couldn’t think of a better way for her to say it.

I had a lot of trouble reconciling why this would happen to her in particular. She was a sweet natured, diligently unobtrusive girl who tried her best to blend in with the utilitarian beige desks, and modular walls. But she couldn’t blend; because she was also, what today would be termed, morbidly obese. She was easily the most overweight girl in the school, but would likely be one of several if she were attending middle school in our current millennium.

She sat behind me in Social Studies, and although I was shy, her demeanor in comparison made me look like a convivial queen of popularity. She dressed nicely, had pretty blonde hair, and a pleasant smile. We always said hi to each other and exchanged small talk, very small talk; and that was about it. When Cheryl returned, post-convalescence, our interaction resumed as if rehearsed.

In the decades since, our communities have been bombarded by images of violence—graphic depictions that appear in movies, television shows, video games, and the news. We hear and see reports of multiple shootings per week, leaving us numbed but no longer stunned.

I think about Cheryl and what she must make of all that’s currently happening in our schools, businesses, and neighborhoods. How does her unique perspective color her reactions and opinions? What must it be like to have been one of the first? It didn’t make the news; there were no copycats; just an informative announcement to update the school families—a desk left empty for several weeks in Social Studies—a polite thank you note—and an unrecognized beginning.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Five Minute Friday-Rest

A rest in musical terms means to take a breath or a break of a certain duration. That rest may last for the length of a breath or for many measures.

The break doesn't mean the song is over, it only means it is time to not participate. While resting, the musician or singer will no doubt be very aware of what the other active participants are doing.

Perhaps she will enjoy what she hears, or critique, or cringe at what she hears. But she will not be part of it. Unless she can't relinquish a feeling of responsibility or need for control. Then she will use that rest as a time to expend stressed energy.

A musical rest–a chance to breathe, a chance to listen, a chance to choose. Relinquish or micromanage?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Goodbye to Selga

Justin Bieber
It occurred to us that there might be a going away party at Selga for the girls after our court appearance. That day, we found out there would be, and that we were the hosts. After court, and our late lunch, we went to a nearby store and purchased two cakes, several bags of chips and four large bottles of Pepsi—all selected by Baiba and Agnese as desirable treats for the orphans and staff. We also brought gifts for all the children ranging from teens to the newest arrival, Anastasi. At eleven months old, she and three-year old brother, Justin had become the newest young residents of Selga.

Agnese has been very active in caring for Anastasi in the couple of weeks that she’s been there. Anastasi sleeps in a small, plain room furnished with a crib and another bed. Staff and older children all seem to take part in her care. At one point Baiba was holding her and handed her to me. Her face crumbled into anxious sobs as she longed to be back in Baiba’s familiar arms. I thought about adoptive mothers who are given their babies to hold for the first time and receive a reaction of tears and fear.

Justin bounced around with a big chubby-cheeked grin, laughing and mimicking back when people called him Justin Bieber. “Justin Bieber! Justin Bieber!” he repeated merrily. Every time I smiled at him, he grinned ear-to-ear and said, “Mama?”

Resilience as a survival mechanism is readily apparent in his cheerful demeanor. If you saw him on the street or in a grocery store you would think he was the happiest kid in the world. All the children behave this way when we’re at Selga. There is lots of smiling, showing off, and asking to be picked up. It makes me wonder if they develop a habit of looking happy and agreeable in the hopes that someone will want to take them home.

On this visit, and the last, one little girl named, Megia wanted me to pick her up repeatedly. The first time I did so at the party, she put her arms around me and squeezed with all her might.

Another little girl, probably five or six years old, with a dark complexion, large brown eyes, and long black lashes just got back from a hospital stay. Baiba asked Marite what she was in the hospital for and she replied, “For mental. She have a lot of psychological problems.”

The Party
The common area echoed with the voices of the children and staff as they all gathered around the treat-filled table. There was much excitement about yo-yos, colorful pens, flavored lip balm, and super balls from America. Hair bands for the girls, and a sleeper and new bottle for Anastasi were placed in the guardianship of the staff for use as needed later.

Marite said a few words mentioning that Baiba was not much older than Anastasi when she came to the children’s home.  Then she gave Baiba and Agnese a framed picture of the workers at Selga. She asked if we would like to say something. David responded that we would, smoothly indicating to me that I should speak. I thanked them for taking care of the girls and acknowledged that a happy day for us was a sad day for them.

Yankee Go Home
Peers and little ones gathered around the girls to say their goodbyes. Marite told us that one young man, who has grown up with Baiba and Agnese wouldn’t come out of his room because he was too sad to come to the party. We took lots of photos and video while young and old alike gobbled down the sugary feast.

Shortly after all had been consumed, the children ran outside to play. The workers went about the business of cleaning up the party, stopping occasionally to hug the girls and express their well wishes. Marite insisted that none of us get too emotional since we’ll be back in five weeks for our final visit. She said, “Don’t cry. You go.” Then she joked, “Yankee go home! Yankee go home!”

We walked outside Selga where the incongruity of a stark institution surrounded by lush vegetation is immediately apparent. Megia tried to crawl onto my lap in the car to go along, but settled for one more hug. Justin was running around laughing and playing with the other children. We pulled away, Selga receding in the rearview mirror, certain that Baiba and Agnese had spent their last night in an orphanage.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Trip Two of Three

Return to Latvia
The now familiar fairytale-like forests came into view from my window seat on the last leg of our fifteen-hour journey back to Latvia.  Even though we’ve only been gone just under three months, the vivid green splendor of the trees here had faded some from memory. It was a welcome sight indeed as it signaled the beginning of our second of three required adoption visits. This one includes our “Gotcha Day.” The day when the adoption is final in the eyes of Latvian law.

We left on Tuesday, August 16th, traveled uneventfully, and arrived in Riga on Wednesday, August 17th.  It’s always a mind and body challenge to lose a full calendar day to hauling luggage, catching connecting flights, and trying to remain dignified while publicly sleeping sitting up. But at last we had arrived.

We stayed at the Albert Hotel, which I highly recommend if you ever find yourself in Riga. The whole motif is chalkboards, equations, and Einstein quotes. The clocks behind the reservations desk are labeled Riga Time, Past Time, Unreal Time and Relative Time. The staff speaks English, and they have a bountiful breakfast buffet included in the price.

This time we rented a car from the airport, since David is now a seasoned Latvia driver. On Thursday morning we left for Ventspils. The Gutweins loaned us their GPS, which is a good thing because we never would have made it out of the narrow streets and chaos of downtown Riga without it. The two and a half hour drive has become familiar, with thick trees lining the streets and hindering road construction every few miles.

Another Reunion
At last we arrived in Ventspils, and made our way back to Selga where Baiba and Agnese have lived since they were eighteen months and four years old respectively. We didn’t have a cell phone with us to alert them of our arrival, so we walked in the back door, went up to the fifth floor where their room is and found them in the hallway. After big hugs and a small chat in their room Baiba said, “Is anybody hungry?”

And with that, we checked into our hotel and all went to Pupedis, which was a favorite pizza spot of ours on the last trip. Latvians love pizza and are unusually creative about what they use for toppings. Agnese and I ordered a Hawaiian pizza. At the mention of this, fellow Hawaiian pizza fans are salivating at the very thought of ham, pineapple and cheese nestled on a tasty bed of red pizza sauce. This one was chicken, pineapple, cheese, and I’m pretty sure mayonnaise.

If you’ve read any of my past blog posts, you may remember that husband, David is a very picky eater. He had ordered a ham, sausage, and cheese pizza, imagining Italian sausage, of course, and the usual red pizza sauce as well. I casually mentioned later on that I thought there might have been mayonnaise on my pizza, and he replied, with quiet distaste and disbelief, that he thought he had detected both ketchup and mayonnaise on his. Condiments of any kind are his mortal enemies, second only to fiendish vegetables, and there was nothing Italian about the sausage. But he hadn’t said a word or made a grimace. I think he didn’t want anything to spoil our first meal reunited with the girls.

Before arriving, we had been told that our little guesthouse was not available for this trip and we would be staying in the quaint B&B we had stayed in our first night of the first trip. We were disappointed because the two-bedroom room was very small with the tiniest bathroom imaginable. It was hard to picture how we were going to manage with two appearance-conscious teenage girls, one middle-aged woman in need of daily repair, and poor David, the only man.

Agnese had heard about this arrangement and took matters into her own hands. She somehow insisted with someone somewhere along the way that we needed separate rooms right next to each other so we would each have our own baths. She got this done for the same price that one large room for four was going to cost. Well done, Agnese! Immediately much of our stress over logistics was alleviated. Our room is cozy and charming and the shower actually has doors that close, which is a real luxury.

The mood among all four of us started out very reserved. David and I are keenly aware that this is the part of the process that is the hardest on Baiba and Agnese. They are excited to come to America, but right now they only feel a strong sense of loss. For the last few weeks they have been giving things away, cleaning the only room they’ve known since they were small, and saying goodbye to treasured friends and long time orphanage caregivers. We told them that we knew they would have plans with friends in the evenings and that was fine with us.

Gotcha Day
Today was the big day. I had trouble sleeping last night, not only for obvious reasons, but also because our hotel is located on a very busy street. It’s warm enough that we need to keep our window open which let’s in a lot of light and traffic noise. I woke up early in the morning with that feeling you get when you know you’re coming down with a cold, so I downed some Airborne and went back to sleep for a couple of weird-dream filled hours.

We met the girls at 9:00 a.m. for breakfast, and the mood was still subdued. It’s funny because everyone asks if we’re excited, and if the girls are excited; and on some level we are. But after all this time, it’s a very different kind of excitement than I thought it would be. It’s not like expectant children on Christmas morning, because it’s much more life altering than that. It’s not like waiting to meet up with a cherished loved one or friend you haven’t seen in a long time, because our relationship is too undeveloped.

It’s more like planting a garden, not with seeds, but with almost fully- grown plants. The gardener eagerly anticipates what the garden will look like, if all goes well, but doesn’t know what it will actually yield under his care. Newly transplanted flowers always droop a little at first. There’s work to be done and things to be learned about the nurturing needs of the plants. It’s a protected excitement.

After breakfast, we got ready to go to court. We rode quietly in the car, not to Children’s Court, but to the official courthouse this time. Daina, our Latvian attorney, was there to meet us. She asked me if I was nervous. I have to admit that up until that moment I hadn’t felt very nervous at all, but once it was suggested I should be, I thought I’d better be; so I was.

Our interpreter, a different one this time, arrived just in the nick of time. She was clearly flustered. Instead of being in an office with chairs pulled around a table, we were in a courtroom complete with benches, a criminal box, and a podium to address the judge. Instead of several warm, friendly ladies, there was one woman assisting a somewhat tired and grumpy looking man. He was large and imposing with a beard growing in. If he were cast in a movie, he would play himself.

And Latvia?
The judge had each of us stand and tell him our adoption story. Our interpreter seemed to have trouble keeping up, and she spoke very quietly, so we missed quite a bit of what transpired. Suddenly the attorney was whispering how I should answer a question I hadn’t known was asked. It was a little nerve-wracking.

He asked me what we had in mind for the immediate future of the girls. I told him they would go to school and if they wanted to go on to college we would help them with that. He said, “And Latvia?”

I responded that we would come back to see their sister and friends. To which he responded, “For visits?”

I knew what he was getting at. The youth in Latvia are leaving in droves because the economy is so bad. There is very little opportunity to find work of any kind. The fact that the young workforce is leaving is not helping their country. He heaved a sigh when I responded, “Yes.”

Then it was the girls’ turn to talk. Our soft-spoken interpreter made it just about impossible to know what they said. Agnese, usually the more emotionally reserved of the two, cried a little as she explained to him that she couldn’t honestly say she loves us as parents yet, but she does feel a connection to us.

This was not surprising, nor hurtful to hear. Our tremendous feeling of love for them has come from being unexpectedly cast in a divine plot. We know they like us, and we are hopeful that they will grow to love us. I think most mothers of newborns must feel an instant sense of love, but the baby is probably initially only responding to being dependent. Baiba spoke much longer than Agnese did, and had her emotions well in check. She told a long story about our coming to Selga, and their visit to America, and our long wait for the adoption. She appeared very confident.

The judge dismissed us at noon and said he would announce his verdict at 2:00. We felt like it ought to be in the bag after all the hoops we had jumped, and I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d be mulling over for two hours while we killed time.

The courthouse is right near an open-air market. Baiba was dying for some blueberries so we purchased a container of blueberries for her, and raspberries for Agnese. We strolled around munching on the fresh fruit and pondering our future. Then we joined our lawyer and Marite, the orphanage director, at a nearby coffee shop, and had something to drink.

The Verdict
Two o’ clock finally arrived. Daina met us at the door, pointed to the courtroom, and in her Latvian dialect said, “We can go.”

I repeated, “We can go?” and wondered why I suddenly had a Latvian dialect too. I guess as actors, David and I just have a tendency to pick up what we’re hearing.

As we waited for the judge, Daina said that when he arrived we should stand and remain standing as he read the verdict. I had never thought of it as a verdict before, more like a decision; which is a verdict but friendlier.

The tall, somber judge entered and began speaking fluidly and quickly. Our mediocre interpreter didn’t have a chance. At one point Daina leaned forward and whispered, “Don’t worry about what he is saying.”

It was about then that the judge asked the interpreter why she wasn’t interpreting, and she began again. When the rambling verdict was all over, the judge, without another look in our direction, turned and walked out of the room. Everyone was smiling, so we assumed it had gone as we had hoped. Daina confirmed that it was approved, and congratulated us on having two new daughters. It was from that point on all four of us began to behave more like ourselves. The sense of reserve in all of us began to melt away. The girls started giggling in the car again and the subject of lunch was introduced.

As the temperature dropped, and rain began to fall, Agnese pointed out how we had previously determined this was a sign of good luck, since it rained on our wedding day, on our first adoption court date, and now on August 19, 2011; our Gotcha Day. We drove to an outdoor restaurant covered in a large canopy. The restaurant provided blankets for us to wrap around our shoulders as we ordered and ate lunch with Agnese Rose and Baiba Rose Payne.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Loss and Gain

We recently attended a wedding and ran into some friends of ours—a young couple with two small children, a boy and a girl. It worked out great since they were the only other guests we knew and vice versa. This convenient happenstance allowed all of us to have people to dine and converse with at the reception. 

It was a festive reception with wonderful Mexican food and a mariachi band. Not far into the festivities the little girl began to cry. She had somehow hurt herself, but between the volume of the music and her tearful delivery of information, her mother really wasn’t sure exactly what had happened. It made no difference to her. She placed her sobbing daughter on her lap and began to rock and comfort her. She gently kissed her, spoke words of understanding in her ear and stroked her head, all the while lovingly holding the little girl close to herself. Very quickly the child surrendered to the pacification of her mother’s touch, and all was right with the world again.

I watched and thought about all the hours of adoption training that warned us of feelings of loss—feelings the adopted child will have, and feelings adoptive parents have. A quiet sort of sadness surfaced as I recognized the mutual loss my daughters and I share. I will never hold a tiny little Baiba or Agnese on my lap and kiss their heads to make it better, and they will never experience a mothering moment quite like that.

I look at the handful of photos of them as toddlers and little girls that we’re lucky enough to have, and long to know how it would have felt to hold them, smell their hair and hear the rhythm of their breathing as they slept. I can almost imagine it.

Loss is a funny thing. It’s something we have to recognize and validate, but it’s not a healthy place to live. I know I’ll have more feelings like this as time goes on, and the girls eventually will have to deal with a great sense of loss as the reality of living in a new culture takes hold. However, I pray that we will all primarily celebrate the sense of gain in this new family of ours. I’ll have my own unique maternal experiences. No tiny heads to kiss but emerging butterflies that I’m privileged to watch take flight. What a gift.