Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A New Way to Eat Broccoli

Last week I learned a new way to eat broccoli. It was Grilled Cheese Night: my wife prepared sandwiches, tomato soup, and  tatter tots. She threw broccoli in to appease her conscience, harassed by the arbitrary food pyramid and modern-day obsession with diet. After our dinnertime blessing, we started to chow.
Grilled Cheese Night means triangular cuts and leftover crusts. My daughters each devour the greasy, buttery center, and throw me the scraps. Thus I eat a sandwich and a half, while my jealous dog looms by the table.

Grilled Cheese Night also means tomato soup. The girls dip their sandwich into the bowl, cover it with warm bisque, and take a satisfying bite. They never finish their whole bowl of soup; it is purely for dipping. I, on the other hand, lick the sides of the bowl until every hint of tomato has vanished.

Grilled Cheese Night has rhythms and routines, habits and patterns. In fact, our whole life has rhythms and routines, habits and patterns. Every family is a food pyramid, and as arbitrary as our lines of demarcation may be, we have a way of doing family meals and movie nights, pool trips and bedtimes, holidays and weekends. Every family develops its portion sizes, traditions, and number of servings.
And we live neatly within these lines, until we face a change. Perhaps the family meal is upset by a gluten allergy (Bye, bye, Pizza) or diabetes (Bye, bye, Cake). Perhaps it is altered by a son's departure for college (Go Bucks!) or a daughter's evening work schedule. Death and divorce can change the family pyramid, just as sports' schedules, shifts in the season, or a new birth can disrupt the routine.

Adoption has rearranged our family pyramid. A month ago we added a beautiful boy to our tidy family of four. He has changed the way we sleep and grocery shop, gather and worship, swim and play. We added a seat at the head of the table to accommodate him. From there he can meet eyes with any one of us without turning. He can mimic our table manners. He can watch us eat.

Last week was his introduction to Grilled Cheese Night. He picked at his sandwich and tater tots, but left his tomato soup and broccoli untouched. Saying "Sensi does not like vegetables" is an understatement. He disdains them, pushing them away with his head turned, lips curled, and brow furrowed.

But we do not let our children off the hook so easily. The food pyramid has spoken.

"Try a bite of broccoli, Sensi."

"Try some of soup, Sensi."

"It's good for you, Sensi. Have a taste."

Finally, one of my daughters chimed in. "The soup is really good. You can dip your sandwich in it." She grabs a corner of her grilled cheese and models.
Sensi's eyes lit up. He seemed to understand. He reached toward his plate, but instead of grabbing bread, he picked up a piece of broccoli and dipped it in his soup. He pulled the red-drenched stalk to his lips and gingerly licked it. We laughed. Sensi dipped again and offered a bite to my wife.

A new way to eat broccoli was born. A new rhythm and routine was added to Grilled Cheese Night.

And so it is in this post-adoption journey. Week by week we're learning new habits and patterns. Day by day we're drawing new lines in our family pyramid. Meal by meal, we're eating and feeling satisfied (Mark 6:42).

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Proud Father of Three

While I continue to get my feet wet as the father of a son, I am no novice to parenting. For a decade I have given my time, energy, and wisdom to two lovely daughters. They bear my image and likeness, with the added blessing of their mother's eyes and kind soul. Claire and Margot have accepted their role of older sisters remarkably.

For the past five years, Liz and I have talked openly, honestly, and regularly about adoption with the girls. We discussed adoption and its difficult adjustments at the dinner table, on walks to school, and at bedtime as we prayed. Adoption became central to their vocabulary.

Margot the Younger anticipated Sensi's arrival. "I'm going to teach him to annoy Claire," she promised. "Then she'll be outnumbered." Nevertheless, Claire, too, voiced her excitement to have a little brother.

Their visit with Sensi in the orphanage only peaked their hopes. Three visits did not satisfy them. "I want to see him again," Claire said on the fourth day.

"He's so cute," Margot repeated.
After returning home, we continued to talk with the girls about the upcoming adjustment. We warned them against running through the house naked. We prepared them for a few months of limited visitors and travels. They hoped this meant exemptions from school and church. They swore an oath to keep their clothes on.

We did not, however, prepare them for kind of reception they might receive from their new brother once he arrived home. For the first week, he mostly snubbed them. He shot an occasional glance in their direction or laughed at them from a distance. But meaningful engagement with his sisters was limited.

Then came the water guns. On his second weekend with us, Sensi grabbed a hose and sprayed the girls. They fought back with water guns. Sopping and laughing, the siblings connected.

Since then, their interaction has improved. For the record, Sensi needed no mentor in obnoxious behavior. He is a little boy. He puts every doorbell and light switch to use in pestering others. He stands in front of the television when the family watches a movie.

However, it is more accurate to call Sensi playful than annoying. He and his sisters throw flower pedals at one another on the way to school. They swap (gentle) punches while driving in the back seat of the car. To date no one has been seriously injured.

If the girls are jealous of the attention Sensi has drawn, they have hidden it well. Perhaps they were helped by our many conversations. Perhaps they were aided by our many friends and family members who have shown them special attention. Folks have brought them gifts, spoiled them with sweets, asked about their feelings, and accepted their introverted responses.

No, I detect little jealously from the girls. They are simply wrestling with the growing pains of The Adjustment. I heard it one night from Margot after Sensi went to bed. "I miss just the four of us," Margot said. Liz and I understood the sentiment.

Another time, I caught a trace from Claire. She commented, "Sensi's a rock star." Her subtext implied: "We are not."
For that I am glad. I prefer my two, beautiful girls, who live in the background, who bear my image, who have their mother's eyes and kind soul.  They treat their brother with patient affection and make their father proud.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Family Meals and Daily Progress

I won the bet: Sensi ate lunch with the whole family on Sunday per my guess. This was a small feat, commemorating the start of his second week with his forever family. My wife bought me a Take Five as a prize.

Family meal: Check. We're making progress. Next step: College.

Liz and I would be lying if we said we don't salivate over the idea of an empty nest. And we would be deceived if we didn't acknowledge that may not happen. In addition to the growing number of children who return home after college, we face the possibility of Sensi requiring care into adulthood. Wisely, we limit our look down that long road ahead.

Our boy is biologically eight years old. Physically, he resembles a six-year old. Emotionally, I slate him between two and three. Now ask yourself this: What do you get when a toddler can reach the knife block and turn the dials on the oven? (See answer below.) Wisely, we limit our son's alone time in the kitchen.

Sensi's host of problems goes beyond the "shame core" of abandonment and loss (where his mother died and father lived in poverty). He brings more than the emotional deficits of five years in an orphanage (where they loved him as well as they could). His brain is underdeveloped from hypothyroidism. His cognition and hearing are delayed. His legs drag and hands jerk, as if operated by an inattentive puppeteer. And Sensi remains mute, whether selectively or by virtue of physical defect, we do not know.
When we consider the complex issues, we cannot help take life slowly, limit long-term plans, and celebrate small victories. A family dinner calls for a parade. But since crowds terrify our son, we'll opt for seconds on dessert.

Quite frankly, the day-to-day existence relieves some pressure. In a culture where many elementary schools are going the way of STEM and helping second graders plot their career path in engineering, it's nice to think about Monday. In a country where we face the horrifying prospect of four years of Hilary or Trump, Tuesday (unless it's Election Tuesday) sounds like a breeze. In a time where technologies continue to invade our lives and feign intelligence, Wednesday's worries do not seem so grim.

Our detour from The Long Road Ahead may become an on ramp to Strength for the Day.

Jesus taught his disciples to tame anxiety by trusting him for daily supply. "Seek first God's kingdom. Don't worry about tomorrow" (Matthew 6:33-34). His brother James made a similar remark: "Don't brag about next year's plans, but remember the Lord numbers your days" (James 4:13-16).

In this day-to-day adjustment, we weigh our son's smiles against the times we say "No." We affirm Claire and Margot, praising their kindness and inquiring about their feelings. We check a single responsibility off the list -- set up a doctor's appointment: check; write a thank you note: check; order Play-Doh Fun Factory from Amazon: check; treat for lice: check* - and expect from ourselves no more.
Meanwhile, small victories and new memories pile up. Wednesday: Sensi's first trip to the park. Thursday: Sensi's first night in his own bed. Friday: Sensi's first Happy Meal. Saturday: Sensi's first scooter ride. Yesterday: Sensi's first family meal. Today: Sensi's first Foosball game.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? As for me and my house, we'll have to wait and see.

Answer:  A hot, bloody mess.
* Yes, Liz did find lice in one of our daughter's hair last week. Impeccable timing.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Post Process Depression & The Adjustment

Liz and I are no longer in the adoption process. That four and a half year phase ended last Tuesday when I brought Sensi from the orphanage to my hotel room. By the weekend he was united with his full, forever family in the States. Our neat and tidy tribe of four added a clumsy and conspicuous fifth (hence his code name: Conspicuous Number Five).
This new phase is called "The Adjustment." It is neither neat nor tidy. We've added one more pile of soiled clothes to the basement floor. One more dirty cup and dish to the kitchen counter. One more pair of scuffed shoes to the entryway. One more wet towel to the bathtub ledge. One more unpredictable body to the ongoing family dance.

Meanwhile, food is vanishing from our refrigerator at an alarming rate (Sensi eats like a champion). Water usage has tripled in a week (Sensi flushes the toilet as a sport). Our light bulbs will flame out any day (Sensi flips them ON and OFF as a game). And although Claire and Margot have played along nicely, the focused attention they have received from Mom and Dad will forever be divided into smaller portions.

"The Adjustment" is a ledger, marked by clear losses and challenging gains.

Fortunately, Sensi's independence has smoothed "The Adjustment." He sleeps like a bear, entertains himself, clears his spot at the table, and goes to the bathroom on his own. His eats ravenously, but only after the girls have left the table. Thus, mealtimes have doubled in length, and his food is always cold. This concerns us because family dinner is a cherished time for our household.
As we try to understand the mind and mechanics of Conspicuous Number Five, we cannot distinguish what motivates him: Ethiopian culture, orphanage culture, his complex of special needs, or some combination of the four. Either way, I wish he realized that hot eggs taste better than tepid ones and our daughters will not bite.
In these first few days of "The Adjustment" my wife has cried more than once. Regret does not define her sentiment. Grief or depression (and her prevailing anxiety) better suit the situation. I can relate. While we were "in process," adoption remained a romantic ideal. Not only did it picture a spiritual reality -- God setting us into His family by the redeeming work of Jesus (Rom. 8; Eph. 1; Gal. 4) -- but it also sounded heroic. To rescue a fatherless child and give him a future and hope -- what a story. Indeed, this has all the makings of true religion (Jas. 1:27).

For four and half years we talked about adoption from the distance of 3500 miles. Such talk was theoretical and did not disturb our daily rhythms. Waiting was no picnic -- it was exhausting and expensive -- but "in process" we received sympathy, inquiries, gifts, and grant monies. Once a month the agency emailed us growth updates and pictures. In digital form, Sensi only charmed us; he was incapable of dissembling our board games or disrupting our family routines.

And last week this process ended. Without a moment to catch our breath, "The Adjustment" began. Family life ensues. Sensi is home now (praise God). The waiting is over (praise God). The adoption is complete (praise God). Now we are adjusting (God, help us!).

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Becoming American

After passing through immigration on our port of entry in Washington DC, Sensi will become an American citizen. The adoption process includes a complicated Visa application. "Newer immigration officers don't even understand it," the clerk told me at our Embassy appointment yesterday. I had just sworn all my documents were valid and true, my right hand raised high. I did not swear to understanding governmental minutiae, but I apparently not all governmental employees do either.

The clerk continued, "In about two months you'll get an envelope in the mail verifying your son's citizenship. You do not have to readopt. Congratulations."

Sensi and I concluded his Visa appointment and returned to the hotel. In a matter of days he would be a bona fide American. Thus, I've taken it as my patriotic duty and fatherly calling to immerse him in the land of the free and home brave.

Becoming American started with branding. Earlier in the week I taught Sensi the importance of designer labels. We shucked his orphanage dregs for a sleek, Adidas ClimaCool tee. He slid it over his midnight arms and beamed like a spotlight.  He traced his finger across the embroidered letters and flashed a Cheshire grin. The shirt quickly became his favorite clothing item.
Becoming American requires a fair amount of consumption. Last night Sensi ate an entire bowl of pasta and nabbed half my sandwich. Today he ate an elephant. But our temple for consumption is the Addissinia cafe, where we have made a tradition of afternoon fizzy drinks. I witness's Sensi's first soda. Every swallow of Sprite contorted his face in welcomed displeasure. The carbonation bit at his throat; sweet lemony-lime soothed his pain. 
The second day he opted for pineapple flavored Fanta from the cooler. When I took it to the bar to pop the lid, the worker questioned me. "Cold soda? For a kid? I think he like it better warm." The bartender guessed correctly. Sensi drank the 300 mL bottle in six swigs. Hence I taught him the word "savor."

The consumption theme comes in many varieties. For the past two evenings, I spoiled him with American film. Both nights we watched The Peanuts Movie on my laptop while eating Zootopia Fruit Snacks. Call it a double-feature of cartoon-driven consumption. Both viewings, Sensi laughed from start to finish.

To be fair, Sensi was becoming American long before I arrived on the scene. Disney, Adidas, and Sprte are American exports that have infiltrated the Ethiopian market. Overseen from our balcony view is a giant Coca-Cola advertisement in English, which is common tongue not only in our hotel lobby, but throughout the city. Two blocks down the road, the Edna Theater offers show times for The Jungle Book and, yes, Captain America: Civil Wars. (Can you get more American than than?) And two days ago I noticed a bumper sticker for Hillary in 2016. I guess some Ethiopians prefer American goods to American greatness.
For Sensi, becoming American goes well beyond speaking the language (if he ever speaks), sporting the brands, and consuming the goods. Becoming American for my son has to due with geography. He will live on American soil. He will attend American schools. He will have American parents and siblings. On port of entry, he receives unalienable rights.

So each day I have helped my son visualize his new geography. We have worked on this eighty-piece puzzle of our fifty-state nation to give him context for his new home. And I took it as a sign of God's good humor and outstretched hand that the final piece we fit into the puzzle the first day was the state of Indiana. The Hoosier State. Home. Where Sensi will become who God has made him to be.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Battle for Control: A Timeless Parenting Tale

I had to unplug the TV. It's magnetic pull possessed my son. So many new luxuries have greeted him in this hotel. At the orphanage I doubt Sensi had control over many light switches, telephone receivers, faucet levers or computer devices. As soon as he inhabited our deluxe-sized bedroom, he began to test the limits of his control.
Quickly my son learned how to operate the TV by remote; after numerous bouts of correction and rebellion, I hid the device. (Please God don't let me forget it's in my toiletry bag before I leave. And please God, don't let Sensi find it there.) 

Not to be rebuffed, minutes later Sensi located the manual ON/OFF switch on the side of console. He pressed it ON. 

"Please turn it OFF." 

He pressed it OFF. 

ON: again. "OFF, Sensi."

OFF: again.

At first, I offered to watch TV with him on the bed as a compromise, but given the lineup of shows, Sensi denied. He was more interested in seeing the LG logo than watching Premier Soccer League or Slugterra. (Can you blame him for this?) 
Actually, he was more interested in having control.

This need for control plays out all day. While our hotel room offers a scenic balcony view and two complimentary water bottles, it's a meager amenity for two people passing twelve hours in 200 square feet.* Even my selection of books, toys, and activities has lost its luster after eighteen rehearsals (excluding Curious George Goes Camping due to the unfortunate encounter with skunk!).
Needless to say, we've gotten a little bored. And boredom leads to bad behavior.

Whenever Sensi gets bored he shuffles to the forty-two inch* flat screen and presses ON (see above). Judging by the number of times he's pressed the button, I fear boredom has subverted bonding. 

This morning I grew tired of redirecting and denying my son. So while he was in the bathroom flushing the toilet ("Just one flush, Sensi"), I pulled the plug on the LG. Minutes later, when boredom and control collided, you can guess what happened. Yes: Sensi reached for the TV again. 

He pressed ON. Nothing.

He pressed ON again. Still nothing.

He shot me a look of quiet confusion.  "It's not working?" I replied. "Weird."

Sensi and I have bonded. We have also battled. Our brief confrontations have revolved around control. In his new-found freedom, he wants to manage everything. Buttons and lights have undeniable allure. But I am the dad, and I deny him, even if I cannot control him.

This pattern does not surprise me. At the root of all sin is the need to control. Throughout this adoption process, God has reminded me how illusory my control is. The global orphan epidemic and childhood trauma are outside my control. Court dates and waiting periods are outside my control. Government officials, both international and all-American, are outside my control. Air fares and flight delays are outside my control.

I would be a fool to assume too much control simply because the adoption process has reached its final stage. Now begins the arduous labor of parenting, where Liz and I shape another freethinking, self-willed being into maturity. Bonding and battles (with intermittent boredom) will continue as we each vie for control. Our four days in 200 square feet* is but a prelude.

What I can control is my trust in God and patience for His unfolding. I can control my purity of heart and compassion toward my children. And, yes, in the meantime, I can unplug a television.

*Ethiopia uses a metric system, so the hotel may not concur that their TV is 42-inches and room 200-square feet. I write with an inherent American bias.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

I Was an Unexpected Visitor

They did not know I was coming to the orphanage today. It explains the absence of red carpet and confused greeting I received from Sister Camille. "You're coming for Sensi? No one told us."

"I was afraid of that," I replied.

Communication between my agency and the orphanage had gone cold. I had experienced a lag in email responses myself, as of late. "They've been so responsive up until now," I told Liz last week. "But this is when we need them the most."

Sister Camille stood before me, shaking her head. "I was beginning to wonder about Sensi. What's happening? Did they find TB or something else? We've heard nothing."

"Well, he passed his medical exam," I assured her. "And I said I would be here Tuesday because we have an embassy appointment tomorrow."

"Praise God," she said, tracing a cross from her forehead to chest to shoulders.

Sensi, of course, was not prepared to see me. Since the orphanage workers did not have prior notice, they could not tell him, "Your daddy is coming." So I was an unexpected visitor.

After a moment of commiseration, I asked, "What do we know? I just showed up. I don't know anything." I needed information about Sensi's paperwork, medications, daily schedules, diet, and how to keep his skin from drying out.

The Sister and I hatched a plan. I would wait in the sitting room, listening to rain pummel metal rooftops, while she made arrangements. She summoned Sensi and called the local lead for my adoption agency. She gathered baby oil (for his scalp) and meds (for his thyroid).

Ten minutes later Sensi appeared. So did Sister Luthgarde. "I didn't know you were coming," she said. This, apparently, was a refrain for the day. When two ladies from my agency arrived within the hour, carrying a copy of the court decree and a file of medical tests, they echoed the sentiment: "No one told us you were coming."

Sensi never said a thing, but that is his nature. I may have been an unexpected visitor to him, but he showed little sign of shyness. In fact, he quickly reflected a level of comfort and warmth. When I read him a book, he turned the pages. When I drew a picture, he added a scribble with his pen. When I crawled to the floor and pushed a miniature monster truck (an oxymoron, no doubt) in his direction, he laughed and sent it rushing back.

This boy looked similar to the one I adopted five weeks ago, but he acted drastically different. Whereas before he was braced, today he was buoyant. We laughed and joked, explored elevators and balconies, read books and colored pages, built Legos and ate cake. When he tried on a new outfit, he beamed with pride, even shuffling his feet in a modest dance.

The day was not without stretches of boredom and difficulty. We flitted from activity to activity, as if he were a bumblebee or three-year old boy. He touched every screen, manipulated every switch, messed with the phone, and stuck his hand down the toilet (after several flushes). I constantly redirected, reaffirmed, and reminded myself this was the same boy I met a month ago.

His lively, humorous, and ornery nature were not what I had expected. But my expectations were formed by a few hours in a formal setting. Perhaps, you get a better impression of someone when you come to them as more than a visitor. Today I came as a father to bring him home.