Monday, December 30, 2013

December to Remember!

Prepare to be bombarded with cuteness!  Okay, as the mother of these kids, I suppose I am a little biased, but I couldn't seem to narrow down the photos I wanted to post to a reasonable number - just too many adorable moments to share.  And as I've said before, I write my blog first and foremost for my family; it serves to chronicle the memories that I want all of us to be able to look back on.  So here's what I want to remember about December...

The beginning of the month meant the beginning of our Advent activities.  
In addition to Advent, we kicked off the Christmas season by decorating our tree.  Bella is holding a special ornament given to her by a friend last year.  It says "Home for the Holidays", which was so appropriate since Bella and I arrived in Honolulu from Ukraine just 11 days before Christmas.
On December 2nd, we all attended the annual Christmas Concert performed by Bou's entire school - Kindergarten through 12th grade.  It was a beautiful night, with wonderful, classic songs of worship sung by the children in one of the most historic sites on Oahu:  Kawaiahao Church.  The first Christian church built on the island, it was constructed of over 14,000 coral slabs and was dedicated in 1842. 
(This is actually the photo from last year's concert, because I can't find the one from this year's concert at the moment - oops).  

Then came Buddy's preschool Christmas Concert.  It was the first time he has gone on a stage and participated in any kind of event, so I wasn't sure how it would go.  He did a GREAT job and we were so proud of him.  His favorite song was "Go Tell it on the Mountain".
Due to the services that she needs, Bella goes to a public school, and sadly they didn't have a Christmas program.  However, we caught plenty of other fun moments with her on camera.  Like seeing snow...Hawaiian style.  What is that, you might ask?  Well, it's the kind that falls (or rather is blasted by a blower strategically placed inside a giant Christmas tree) from within the cool confines of the mall, much to the excitement of all the young kids there.  And of course, it's not really snow, it's some sort of bubble-like stuff.  Hey, we do the best we can.  But check out Bella's face - she loved it!  Huge smiles.

 And then there was this completely adorable baby.  Bou came home from school with an antler headband one day - a gift from a classmate.  It's the sort of thing I generally won't buy, but let me tell you, if only I'd known how cute it would look on my babies, I might have gotten one a long time ago!  As we were walking through the grocery store, Bou decided to stick in on Bear, and the oohing and ahhing commenced.  I couldn't resist snapping a couple of pics.  He looks quite pleased with himself too, I think ;).

The Christmas hula performances are always a highlight of our season.  This year's featured songs were "Born is the King"  and "Lord You're Beautiful".  Bella and Bou are now both attending hula classes, and though Bella can only do the movements very slowly and with one hand, she enjoys the music and the other students in the class so much.  She got all dressed up for the Christmas Eve performance, but only wanted to sit on the front row with mama and watch.  However, if you watch this video, you can hear her little exclamations of "Woo!" throughout, catch glimpses of her, and see her yell "Good job everybody!" at the very end.

And one more video - Bella is the shortest dancer in the front row. 

Everyone in our family except for Bear was sick at some point during the week of Christmas.  Our family has never gotten hit by anything like that before, and while I would have definitely preferred NOT to have everyone ill, it did make us all slow down and consequently enjoy the happy moments more.  Here is one semi-happy moment:  the night-before-Christmas pajama picture :).  It was day three of Buddy being sick, and this was about the best face I could get!
Christmas morning was slow paced and relaxing.  After taking their time opening gifts, the kids enjoyed playing, talking to their grandparents on the phone, and making some homemade cinnamon rolls.

A Happy Bella
 Bear's First Christmas
 Bou's favorite book :)
 Even though Buddy was still sick, he rallied for gift-opening, then crashed afterward, in typical kid fashion.
My favorite moment:  Bou giving Bella the locket that she picked out all by herself and saved her own money to buy.  It has an 'S' on it - Bou informed me it stands for "sisters". 
Buddy's favorite moment was probably when we put the stockings on the floor for everyone to get their goodies, and a LIZARD crawled out of one of them!   From the pale color of his skin, I'd say he'd been in there awhile too.  Living in Hawaii, I have found lizards in all sorts of places (even smashed one with my bare hand in the middle of the night when I got up to close the bathroom window - AGHHH!), but finding one in the stocking was a first.  Buddy thought it was great, and temporarily abandoned gift-opening in favor of lizard-hunting.  He can be heard several times on our video saying "I just want to see the lizard!  Where'd he go?"
 It's the simplest of things that make me smile, too.  A friend dropped of a jumbo-sized tin of various popcorns for us.  Bou put the popcorn packages away, turned the lid into a cymbal for Bella, and tied string around the tin to make it a drum.  They had a great time playing "Jingle Bells" and other songs. 
And I'll leave you with a pic of my favorite gift - this little bundle of joy!  Yes, I've had him for three months now, but the new hasn't worn off yet :)

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope - Romans 15:13

Monday, December 16, 2013

I Love Boys

It's true - sweet little boys, they just tug hard at my heartstrings.  That could be because I have two of my own, and I just LOVE to watch the way my older one (age 3) plays.  When boys play, they use their whole bodies - mine doesn't sit quietly on the floor, pushing a matchbox car along with one hand.  No, he revs up the engine with a loud "VROOM-VROOM", and the car speeds across the top of the TV console, LEAPS onto the backrest of the nearby chair, then FLIES across the room before crash landing on the floor in a fiery make-believe ball.  All the while my son is LEAPING and FLYING with it, arms outspread, body rolling on the floor with the car.

Boys are fun. 

Boys make their mamas fall in love with them.  Head over heels, hopelessly, crazy in love with them.  The bond between a mama and her boy is special.

And boys are heartbreakers.  There have been at least two times in my life that I can recall preschool boys bringing me to my knees.  The first was at an orphanage in Ukraine almost two years ago.  We were in a common room where a little party was being hosted by volunteers who were also passing out Operation Christmas Child boxes.  So many children were there - some with mild special needs, but most were able to run around and dance to the music.  Still, there was an almost indescribable look of uncertainty on their faces, even as they were having fun, even as they were laughing and playing.  I call it the orphan face, because I have seen it over and over now, on the faces of many children there (and even adults who have spent their entire lives in the system).  It's a look that is void of self-confidence, full of meekness.  It is a look that says to you "I am not loved, not really.  I WANT someone to love me, but I am afraid."  Some still dare to hope, others dare not. 

This little one, THIS boy, oh how he tugged at me.  He kept peering over the chair, smiling at me.  We played peek-a-boo a little, I took photos and showed them to him.  He grinned a big grin.  He was young enough not to comprehend the gravity of his situation, not to understand what his future likely holds.  His innocence, that's what killed me.  He was too young, yet still he intrinsically understood that he wanted a mama.  Once he looked at me and asked "Mama?".   I looked at him and shook my head no.  At that moment, if the orphanage staff had said "Go ahead, take him", I would have grabbed his little hand and walked right out the front door, no questions asked.  I didn't need to know what was "wrong" with him, what landed him in this groupa at the orphanage.  I would have adopted him and brought him and been his Mama, and given him a dad, and a brother, and a sister, and a home.  And matchbox cars to drive recklessly around my living room.

The second time a little boy brought me literally to my knees was last December.  It was my own boy.  Bella and I made our way to baggage claim after 30 hours of flying, and there my family and many friends were waiting.  It had been a good journey - Bella was outstanding on all the flights!  Still, I was full of a strange mix of excitement and angst, chomping at the bit to get to my Buddy, who I hadn't seen in a few weeks.  We were the last ones off the plane.  When the group of people who'd gathered to greet us came into sight, I scanned them quickly, but all I could focus on was finding my little boy.  When he saw me, he came running up and I scooped him into my arms.  In that moment it was all I could do to contain myself.  I was so relieved that our family was together again, and so very, very thankful that my boy never has to know the loneliness and pain of growing up parentless in an orphanage; a timid little soul wandering around asking any new woman who walks through the doors, "Mama?".

 The bond between a mama and her boy is special.

And now - well, now I find my heartstrings being tugged yet again, by another little boy.  One far, far away but in a country that is part of my soul.  Though he resides in a baby house in the same city that Bella is from, I never got to meet him.  But I have friends who have spent a lot of time with him, and here's what they have to say:

 **"Ezra" is absolutely precious! He is sweet and adorable and oh so lovable!  He laughs when his toes are tickled, or when someone around him laughs or talks or sings to him. He often smiles or laughs so hard his chubby cheeks make his eyes close. He has learned to blow spit bubbles and coo. It is hard for me to tell if he is able to use his limbs normally, but he is able to move from his back to his side with little or no assistance. He has not yet learned to play with toys, but he has a very strong grip and enjoys holding my finger. I was told he can see, but not very well. I observed his eyes moving rapidly from side to side, and sometimes appearing to be looking in two different directions. In spite of this there were other times in which he appeared to be quite focused and looking right at us. He has absolutely stolen my heart, and I hope that he will find a family that can help him meet his full potential!**

Look at that big smile - when I look at his photos one word repeatedly comes to mind:  SWEET!  It was the same thing that I always thought when I saw photos of Bella.  Turns out, she is the very essence of sweetness, and I bet Ezra is too.  Photo after photo after photo of Ezra, all have one thing in common: a smile that is pure joy.  Yes, he has hydrocephalus.  So does Bella.  Yes, his head is  large.   So is Bella's.  So what?  It doesn't stop her from being bright, affectionate, playful, and downright loveable.  This tiny boy still has a chance to live a remarkable life, if given a family and proper care.  I can just see him driving little trains around a track in his bedroom, sunlight streaming through the window.  Or giving his Mama a big hug and saying "I love you".  Having her wrapped around his finger.  The bond between a Mama and her boy is special. 

Ezra is just over two years old now.  That means he has the opportunity to receive needed medical care and interventions at a much earlier age than Bella did, and that can make all the difference in the world for these children.  I can only imagine how different Bella's life would be today if she got a family SIX years earlier, at age two instead of age eight.  It makes me sad to know that she waited so long and suffered so much.  Ezra has already waited, he's already suffered.  But a family can change this for him.  HE doesn't have to wait six more years if someone has the courage to step forward and claims him now.  He has already had a shunt placed to treat his hydrocephalus, which is good news for anyone interested in adopting him.  It means that as long as the shunt functions properly, his hydrocephalus will not get any worse.

I'd also like to add that not knowing how to play with toys - as mentioned in the description above - is quite common among young orphans.  It isn't something to be alarmed by - it stems from lack of opportunity (no toys available) and lack of peer modeling (they don't see any other kids playing with toys either).  My daughter didn't know how to play with most toys, but learns quickly and loves playing now.  

Want to see a little more of "Ezra"?  Then click on this link and take a look at the video made by a volunteer, featuring this sweet baby.  You can also go HERE to read his description and take a look at his adoption grant.  He already has over $2200 in his grant that will go toward the cost of his adoption. 

If you are interested in learning more about Ezra, please leave a comment (I will not publish your comment in order to respect your privacy) and I can connect you with people who have spent time with him.  I know many families who have adopted from this region, and we can answer questions about travel, court, etc. there.  Ezra is young, he is social, he is happy.  He needs out.  I'll be honest, if I could hop on a plane and bring him home...well, I'd do it.  I would bring him into our home and make him part of our family.  His older sisters would teach him the art of snuggling and his older brother would teach him the finer points of Matchbox car-driving.  He would pile onto the couch with everyone for Friday night movies.  He would learn what being cherished feels like.  Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to adopt him.  So here is my Christmas prayer:  that a family somewhere sees this beautiful child and has their own heartstrings pulled.  I pray that Ezra receives what would likely be his first gift:  the gift of a family, of love, of a special bond with a mama. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Almost a Whole Year Home!

This is a big week for Bella - she will get to celebrate Gotcha Day on the 12th and her Homecoming on the 14th. As the dates get closer, I'm finding I am more emotional about them than I thought I'd be. I was looking through last year's photos, and decided to take a photo today and do a side-by-side comparison. Just look at her! When she came home, her legs were tightly scissored, feet were twisted, and her arms were bent and tucked tightly against her body most of the time. She couldn't raise them above her head. Her hands were clenched in tight fists most of the time too, and although she LOVED being outside, the sunlight hurt her eyes (even in the shade) for weeks. You can see the pain in the grimace on her face - I remember that day. She badly wanted to be out doing what the other kids were doing and was fighting through it. It was sad. That's what happens when you spend every single day for years on end lying in the same bed - eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom on the same mattress 12 inches away from your bed mate. You become so badly damaged that things like movement and sunshine cause pain. But God preserved her spirit, and now the rest of her is being restored to her fullest. She will never even remotely resemble most of us in terms of physical ability, but I am willing to bet most of us will never remotely resemble her in terms of joy and contentment . I am so proud of her.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent with Kids

Advent is here :) 

The season leading up to Christmas in the Church calendar is called Advent. This name has come to us through the Latin advenire meaning “coming” or “arrival,” referring to the coming or arrival of Jesus who is the“Christ” or promised Messiah. (For more about Advent, please click HERE to continue reading).

How do you celebrate the Advent Season with your young children?  A few years ago, I decided to make a conscious effort to turn my kids' attention from all the commercialism that has become associated with Christmas, and instead make sure that we are focusing DAILY on the story of Jesus' birth, as told in the Bible.  There are plenty of ways to count down the days until Christmas, from store-bought wall hangings to homemade crafts.  I thought I'd share a few of the things we've done.

My mom bought this Nativity Set for me many years ago (I think in 1996?) and it is my most cherished Christmas decor.  I found the manger to go with it when I was living in Germany.  We put up the tree and other decorations first, and save it for last.  It comes out on the first Sunday of Advent.  Bou also really looks forward to taking this out of the box, unwrapping each piece, and carefully placing it on the buffet.  

This is my fifth season of Advent projects with the kids.  Here's what we did the first year:

I don't remember where I got the idea (somewhere online, because I printed out their templates).  We cut out the 25 figures, colored them, and then I laminated them just so they would last and be able to be reused.  They've lasted through four Christmases and we will be using them again this year.  Beginning on the first day of Advent, we stick one figure on the window each day, and talk about a little part of the birth of Jesus.  By Christmas day we have a complete Nativity scene - Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, two angels, the manger, three wisemen, the shepherd, random shepherd girl and boy, three sheep, a donkey, a camel, two palm trees, five pieces of the stable, and the star.  The kids also get excited about this one, because they like to pick a piece to stick up each day.

If you wanted to get even more creative, you could cut the figures from felt and place them on a felt board.  OR, you could get a piece of posterboard and draw one part of the Nativity scene each day. There are lots of ways to do this one.

Something else we did last year - and will be doing again this year - is an Advent paper chain.  All you have to do is cut 22-28 strips of paper (depending on the length of the Advent season that particular year).

I use 12x2 sheets of scrapbook paper cut into one inch strips,

write a verse from the story of Jesus birth on each strip,

and then attach all of the strips together by taping the ends and making a chain.  

Beginning on the first day of Advent, cut off one piece of the chain and read the verse.  Cut off another piece each subsequent day, and add that verse to the story.  By Christmas day you will have the complete story of Jesus' birth.

For the verses we use Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20 (yes, that's actually 33 verses so I write two verses on one strip of paper for a few of the days).

Finally, here's another option that my friend Amy S. introduced me to:  Truth in Tinsel. 

Spend December impressing God’s Word on your kids’ heart! You’ll get 24 days of Scripture reading, ornament crafts, talking points and extension activities. Plus fun printables and templates!

This is the perfect book for kids of any age–from preschool to elementary!

This is an ebook. You will get a link to download the printable PDF after payment is complete.
- See more at:
"Spend December impressing God's word on your kids' hearts!  You'll get 24 days of Scripture reading, ornament crafts, talking points, and extension activities.  Plus fun printables and templates!  This is the perfect eBook for kids of any age - from preschool to elementary."

The eBook is a downloadable PDF and costs $7.99, but I think it's well worth the cost (it was $3.99 back when we bought it, but I'd pay for it again).  We haven't done this one for the last couple of years because honestly, the crafts are a little more time-consuming and I try to pick an activity that I feel we can successfully complete each year.  I will say though that my daughter had so much fun making the crafts that go with the Scripture readings!  We still have the PDF and I'm sure we will do it again one of these years.  Obviously, we don't do all of these every year - it's nice to have a little selection of activities and choose the one that seems like it will be the best fit for a particular season.

What do you like to do for Advent? 

Monday, November 11, 2013


I forgot to post Halloween pics!  Rather than write much here, I'll just let the photos speak for themselves.  We all had a great time trick-or-treating with our friends.  Every year all the kids and grown-ups alike wear costumes.  Of course it was Bella's first Halloween, so initially she had no clue about how it all works (she was, however, extremely excited about being a princess!).  By the time it was over and I put her to bed though, she had the hang of it and asked me hopefully, "Mom, and Halloween again tomorrow?"  :)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Another Perspective - From My Husband

Last night I had a bad headache.  I was tired and ready to go to bed, but my husband stopped me.  He'd been sitting at his computer for awhile, and I assumed he was writing a chapter for a textbook he's working on or something.  He said "In just a minute can you read something for me?"  I asked "Is it long?" thinking of those chapters.  He again asked me to wait, as he was almost done.  I sat down and this is what I saw on the screen:  a blog post, written entirely by my husband, dotted with photos he took himself on his iPhone over the past year.  I was floored.  Never have we talked about him contributing a post to my blog - never.  Heck, I don't even contribute to my blog that often!  I figure he's far too busy with work to even think about something like that.  I was wrong though, and he had some things on his mind that he wanted to share.  I am so very proud of him for caring enough to take the time to express his feelings in a public forum.  I love you, Rob - thank you for believing in God, and in me.

**Today (November 3rd) was Orphan Sunday, and also the one year anniversary of the day my family traveled to Ukraine for the purpose of adopting Bella.  I’m always pestering my wife to write a blog update because as writing and photography go, I think they are excellent.  And as Bella’s story goes, I find my wife’s posts fascinating.  But really for me, the updates help keep everything in perspective and reaffirm that what we’ve done is a good thing for Bella, for my wife and me, and for our whole family.  So I figure it’s about time I write a blog post from the spouse’s perspective (re: the perspective of the one who did NOT have the idea of adopting a special needs child from a former Soviet bloc country).  It took awhile for me to come around to the idea and I had hoped numerous times that my wife would abandon this idea.  But she never did and eventually I came on board (more on that later).

Just four days before we traveled to Ukraine, I was scheduled to return from my fifth deployment in support of either Operation Iraqi or Enduring Freedom. There was a lot of worry between my wife and me because redeployments never go as planned and there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it home before we were supposed to leave for the adoption.  There is too much planning and paperwork that went into the adoption and the redeployment to detail, but suffice to say it was a small miracle that it all got done in time.  After a lot of last minute paperwork, waiting in terminals, and obtaining much-needed signatures of approval, we were off to the other side of the world.  My wife and I took it as a good sign that things had gone relatively well so far.

 At the airport in Munich, Germany

On the train somewhere in Ukraine

I don’t remember how many hours we flew, how many stops we made, or how many different modes of transportation we took before we arrived in Bella’s orphanage town.  But I do remember that we left the balmy tropical paradise of Hawaii and the next thing I knew we were walking under grey skies, bracing ourselves against biting wind, and living in Soviet era housing with its hallmark poorly lit corriders.  Even after just having gotten back from Afghanistan, the living conditions seemed dismal - but perhaps I was just looking for something else to worry about.  The first song I heard when we arrived in Ukraine was Carly Rae Jespen’s “Call Me Maybe”, which was the subject of a running joke among my team members in Afghanistan, so I also took as a good sign. 

The day we were to visit Bella’s orphanage finally arrived.  As the man in my family, I put on a calm and brave face, ready to protect my wife and Bou should anything happen, although looking back I can’t imagine what that would have been.  Before we met Bella, we were invited to watch a play by some of the other children of the orphanage.  I didn’t understand a thing they were saying because it was in a different language but I remember thinking that this orphanage was doing what it could for these children, but it wasn’t much.  There just weren’t any resources even if there were willing souls. After the play ended, the children marched out and suddenly one of the girls jumped out of line to give me a hug.  The caregivers looked on with empty smiles.  In the middle of an Eastern European country, it was clear that the Asian man was here to give one of the other children a new home and a family, but couldn’t do so for all the children.

When we went to meet Bella, I remember steeling myself for seeing what I knew would be a sickly child.  But at first I didn’t see her enlarged skull, her malnourished body, or her withered legs that wouldn’t move.  All I saw was her genuine smile upon meeting Bou and me, and upon seeing my wife again. All I heard was her joyous voice, words spoken so clearly and intelligently in Russian.  I remember thinking if one only heard Bella, they would never know she had any disability.  But after a few minutes, it was clear how physically neglected she was.  She could barely hold the juice we gave her, barely turn the pages of a book we brought her, and she couldn’t move her legs at all. 

Moreover, she got tired very quickly.  Though her spirit was willing, she physically had a long way to go. I listened intently as the orphanage nurse read her medical history and our translator put it into English.  I asked a few questions but knew they didn’t have the answers. As a physician I wanted to examine her and try to gather as much information as I could about her disabilities; but we didn’t dare do anything that might upset Bella or the orphanage directors.  We needed to show that we were a loving family who was going to accept Bella just as she was.  My wife had heard too many stories about adoptions that weren’t completed because either the older adoptees or the orphanage directors were not on board with the adoptive parents.

I wasn’t too worried about it though because we quickly discovered that we had a secret weapon, our daughter Bou.  The orphanage workers took to her immediately and so did Bella.  In fact getting to know Bella was much easier with Bou there.  They got along great from the moment they met and I think Bella was at ease with us right away because she already had a friend in Bou.  They started calling each other sister from day one.  

My wife has already blogged about the adventures she had getting Bella through the courts and government agencies in Ukraine, so I won't go into that.  My job during that time was to get our other two children back home so they wouldn’t miss too much school.    

When we were finally united as a family a few weeks later, the real adventure was just beginning.  And the past year has had its ups and downs.

What I really have struggled with personally and had the most tribulation about was where I fit into all of this and what the purpose was.  I’ve often thought about why I agreed to adopt an older special needs child from the other side of the world.  The best answer I can give is that I believe in God, I believe in my wife, and I believe that no matter what Bella’s future holds, she is someone who, just like all of the world’s orphans, deserves a chance.  I have a good job and I doubt my family will ever lack for food, clothing or a roof over their heads.   My work is stable and my career is advancing nicely.  I’ll never break par on the golf course but I enjoy a few hours of chasing after the little white ball.   I get to play tennis once a week, even though I’ll never win the club championship.  I own a house two blocks from the beach and I don’t have a car payment.  My family and friends have proven they will be here time and again if I ever need them.  So what else did I really need and what was I going to do with all that I had?

I wish I could tell you it was my life’s dream to adopt internationally or that I heard God’s calling and had an epiphany, but I can’t.  I wish I could tell you that I will help Bella get into an Ivy League school or that our love and better medical care will fix all of her ailments.  But I can’t do that either.  What I can tell you is that I’ve given up imposing my expectations on this journey.  Some things Bella does better than she should be able to and other things are frustrating for her and us.   Sometimes she exceeds our expectations and other times, I am left baffled. I don’t know where this path will take us but what I’ve learned is that it isn’t our story; it’s Bella’s.  She has been great for our family.  We will provide all that we can and we will give her every opportunity, but where it takes all of us is up to God.  And along the way, I will try to do what Bella does - just smile and do my best.  No matter what, she always tries to do what we ask and she always does it with a smile.  In the end, and as with all of my children, that's all I can really ask for.**