Sunday, May 10, 2015

Dear Mom,

When I was three, we were in a store and I asked if you'd buy me a stuffed puppy that I spotted on the end of an aisle.  You said you'd only buy the small one.  It was so tiny I told you I was afraid I'd lose it in my bed, so I asked if you'd please buy me the bigger one.  You did.  I kept it for years and years...until I after I went to college.  I bet you don't remember this little brown puppy who was only about 4 inches tall and had long black felt ears, but I do.  It meant something to me, mostly because you listened to me in all of my three year old logic, and heard my fear (however silly it was to a grown-up) and didn't scoff at me.

When I was five, we painted wooden oven rack pullers at Vacation Bible School.  You never actually used yours; instead it hung on the kitchen wall right beside the stove.  Even after it had faded so badly that you could barely read the word 'Mom" scrawled by my hand in red marker, it still hung there.  Likewise, you framed, FRAMED,  one of my kindergarten paintings - the one of a rainbow sandwiched between a big yellow sun and a green hillside.  I honestly can't remember if it's still hanging up today (since I don't get to come home too often), but I know it was there for many, many years.  As a young child, I thought that painting must be a masterpiece if my mother framed it.  That meant something to me too.  Remembering how special it made me feel, I recently framed my own daughter's artwork and hung it in her bathroom.  She was SO proud to see it there.

When I was on a school trip during my junior year, I bought you a wooden box that said "I love you, Mom".  You were surprised that I spent my money on a gift for you, instead of on myself.  I knew THAT meant something to you.  It must still mean something to you today, because it sits in the middle of your dresser.

You always came to my home softball games.  I didn't think much of it at the time - that's just what parents do.  But as an adult and a mother of four now, I realize that's NOT what all parents do.  I know how hard it is to juggle my schedule and fit in all of the kids' activities and attend all of the things I feel compelled to attend as their mother.  Somehow you managed to be sitting on the bleachers every time, despite the fact that you worked full time and we lived so far away from school.  You knew we'd get home late, you'd still have to make supper and take care of everyone and everything in the house.  But you did it.

Speaking of supper, practically everything we ate growing up was homemade, from scratch.  No box dinners, no frozen meals.  I wish I could do that as well as you did.  For me (and for Rob!), one of the highlights of coming home for a visit is eating your cooking. 

You didn't always agree with my choices.  I know you and daddy wanted me to attend a college closer to home.  I know you didn't want me to take an assignment in Germany after I finished nursing school.  But you knew that I wanted those things, and so you supported me.  You often told me how proud you were of me.  I distinctly remember the card you mailed to me when I was promoted to Captain in the Army.  It is tucked away safely in an album, a reminder that my accomplishments were celebrated by another.

You showed me how to treat people.  I remember how respectful you were to the elderly people we knew growing up.  I remember little ways in which you helped them.  I remember how you told me about bringing food to a young homeless man and his dog in Statesboro.  I inherited my tender heart from you.  You are the reason why there's a dog sleeping at my feet right now, after being fished out of a dumpster 15 years ago.  You are part of the reason I have a 11 year old who once knew nothing outside of orphanage walls, but now sleeps peacefully in her pink and yellow bedroom, secure in the knowledge that she matters.  Because you made me think it was okay to love with your whole heart - even at the risk of having it broken - and give people chances.  I'm not quite sure how you instilled that belief in me, but I hope that when my children are grown they can look back and say the same thing about me - that I loved them enough to make them believe that THEY can take chances, make changes, and love freely.

Happy Mother's Day.  I love you.
 (This is last year's photo.  Haven't done one this year...yet!)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Two Years Home!

It's been awhile...again.  This time it's because I just haven't had it in me to log on and write.  I have been buried under the weight of a great burden, and it has prevented me from being able to share the joy that surrounds me -  the joy that comes from my children, my blessings, my LIFE - even in the midst of trials.  I want to document Bear's first birthday, Halloween, everyday little things that bring a smile to my face when I look back and read them months and years later.  And I will document them.  I will get to it.  They will be long overdue but that's okay - they will be there waiting, prompting the children to exclaim as they read the lines and pour over the photos just as they do now, "Mom, remember this?  It was my FAVORITE!".  That's why I like to share here.  I have several reasons for writing this blog, but ultimately, it's for them.

So I have a lot of catching up to do (as usual!), but for now I will share this, because THIS simply does not deserve to wait another minute in the drafts folder.  It deserves to be revealed for what it is: God in all His glory declaring His love, mercy, and grace to the those the world has cast aside. 

Two years ago this week, Bella and I made the 30+ hour trip from Ukraine to Hawaii, and we were greeted by the rest of the family and many dear friends upon our arrival. I was exhausted from the journey, elated to be home, drenched in sweat after walking through Honolulu's open-air airport in boots / long sleeves, and never happier to grab my two year old son and hold him tight... a real whirlwind of emotions for sure. Bella had made the trip like a champ, laying across the two seats we'd purchased for her on each leg of the flight, and she landed on American soil with a huge smile on her face. It was to be a smile that has never faded - through broken bones, surgeries, emergency shunt replacements, and therapies it has persisted. Though she surely had no idea what was in store for her that night the plane touched down, or even what words like "home" and "family" truly meant, she trusted that this was going to be a better life. I have often talked with her eight year old sister about the fruits of the spirit, and tonight as I sit and think about what I'd like to tell people about Bella, that is what comes to mind. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Galations 5:22-23). Bella, you embody these traits perhaps more than any other person I know. It is difficult sometimes to imagine how someone who is so physically limited and so dependent on others can be happier than everyone around her. Being your mom for the last two years has taught me more than I could have possibly imagined. It has humbled me, stretched me, and shown me all the ways I fall short in my desires to get everything right. And in the midst of the shortcomings, the greatest lessons have been revealed: wake up every single day and pray for the things I need, praise for the things I get, don't be afraid to accept help when it is offered, don't be afraid to ask for help, don't pursue perfection but rather peace of mind, and make sure to LOVE the people you love. Every day. Thank you for being the joy you are, Bella - you touch people's lives. We love you!

Friday, September 12, 2014

And First Day of School, Take Two

Last week, I wrote about Bella's first day of school.  She began a couple of weeks before Bou and Buddy.  You can read about it HERE if you missed it. 
 Like Bella, Bou was very excited to return to class.  She was thrilled that she already knew her third grade teacher, who also attends our church.  This is Bou's fourth year at a wonderful little school that our family loves so much.
She does this thing every year where she pulls off a couple of handfuls of the tiny plumbago blooms that grow in our yard, and asks me to take a photo while she throws them in the air - what can I say, my kids are all kind of weird :).  I embrace their weirdness, as it's one of the things I love most about them! 
And finally, here's Bou in her classroom on the first day.  Her brother didn't start school until the following day; however he insisted on wearing one of his uniform shirts to drop off his sister :).
 The next day it was Buddy's turn.  It was his first day of school ever, and he was SO proud of himself. 

He bravely walked right into class, put his big boy backpack away, and kissed me goodbye.  Before I left I snapped this photo of him standing in front of the bin of dress-up hats.  It was where he chose to stand.  The Friday before class started we'd gone to an orientation appointment with his teacher, and he spotted those hats - they were all he talked about the rest of the weekend :).  He couldn't wait to try some of them on.  It's all the cute little things like that I want to remember!

Monday, September 1, 2014

What A Difference, Indeed

"Mama.  Mama!  Mama!!"

She called to me from across the room, as I stood by the door talking to her teacher.  I looked over at her, sitting at the round table with a few classmates, wearing her new red print dress, blond hair in a plumeria bow.  BEAMING.  So many things were just like last school year: same pink and purple wheelchair, same adored teacher, same friends gathered around the table.  But something was different.  She was different.  She was confident.  It nearly took my breath away for a moment.  I thought to myself, "No one would ever know."  No one would have guessed where Bella came from, how many years she spent not living, but being kept alive.  She could have been any American child at that moment; just another kid in a wheelchair with a mommy and a daddy and a school she loves.  But I know the truth, and it stops me in my tracks sometimes.

 Bella in the orphanage, August 2012

I know that this time last year, I had a daughter who had never been to school in all of her nine years.  She'd joined our family through international adoption just eight months earlier.  We spent most of those months getting her healthy, and making sure we were bonding as a family.  Then last August we all decided that Bella was ready for school (Bella would tell you that she was ready for school the day I met her!).  Still, in spite of her eagerness to attend, it was a big transition.  She went from spending 24 hours a day with me to spending a couple of hours in the care of strangers.  She was dependent on them to meet virtually every need during that time.  It wasn't easy for her to trust that they would be there for her - that someone at this new place would help her with eating and pottying and positioning, and most importantly, that they would keep her safe.  Bella has an immense fear of falling or being dropped.  It was hard for her to trust them in the beginning.  It was hard for ME to trust them in the beginning.

We started slow - first two hours in the morning, then three, then all the way through to lunch.  By October, Bella was attending school full time.  She loved school, absolutely loved it.  But as much as she wanted it and looked forward to it, school was still difficult for her at times.  Her teacher was great - he would send me texts and photos during the school day to let me know about both the triumphs and the struggles.  Bella would suddenly burst into tears for no apparent reason almost every day in the beginning.  He kept track of the times, the activities, the environment during these short-lived episodes but there seemed to be no consistent triggers.  We concluded it was likely just overstimulation.  She cried almost every time she went to the bathroom.  She cried if her legs or back hurt.  But she never wanted to leave school - she always wanted to stay.  It was as if she knew that even though she was scared at times and even though she didn't always know how to handle her emotions, school was something to be prized - a gift in her eyes.  Each week she became a little more confident, and I taught her to assert herself in order to make her needs and wants known.  In spite of any trials during the school day, one thing was a constant - she got on the bus with a huge smile on her face and she got off of the bus with, yes that's right, a huge smile on her face :).  Her excitement for school (and for the bus ride!) never waned.

Fast forward to this August, and the text I got from her teacher at the end of the first school day:

"Bella had a great day!!  What a difference a year makes.  Awesome!  She was so sharp today, not just with new skills but processing speed as well.  Going to be a great year!"

 Bella waiting on the bus, August 2014

Bella, you are so beautiful inside and out.  YOU are a gift to be prized.  You are the weak leading the strong.  You may still have a lot to learn, but you have even more to teach.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Five for Five

It's been such a long, long time since I've given any attention to this blog.  Five months to be exact.  I love the IDEA of blogging - journaling milestones for my loved ones to read now, and maybe for my children to look back on in the future.  It's just the reality of finding time to sit down and do it that I struggle with :).  So here is my attempt to bring you all up to speed on life at our house the last five months...

March:  Bou turned eight!  While she is strong, athletic, and competitive (poor kid got a double dose of that last trait from her parents), Bou exudes pure feminine beauty in her choices of clothing, hairstyles, decor, etc.  So it was no surprise to me that she wanted to have a real tea party for her birthday.  I tried to convince her to have it at the local tea room here in town because it would be easier for me.  I am not ashamed to admit that my parties are never Pinetrest worthy, nor do I even  attempt for them to be!  Anyway, Bou insisted that she wanted to have it at home, so I finally agreed, and gave party planning my best shot.  We moved the patio table inside to the dining room to have enough seating, dug out some some semi-matching tablecloths (well, one may have been a twin sheet from the closet!), and made a few tissue paper flowers to hang.  Bou thought is was beautiful, and that was all that mattered.  My dear friend Suzy came over to help me with the party and even brought some delicious homemade goodies.  We served Maui Mango and Strawberry Lychee teas, cute little sandwiches, scones, and more.  Then, per Bou's request we played Bingo.  All the girls seemed to have a lot of fun, and afterward they ended up playing in the yard,  squealing and laughing until their parents arrived. 

April:  Buddy turned four and Bear turned six months old!  This sweet boy was so happy to wake up and find a chocolate muffin and a couple of presents sitting at the breakfast table.  Later that afternoon he had his first "real" birthday party with some friends at My Gym.  He had such a great time - made my heart happy to watch him. 
 And this baby continues to bring so much joy and laughter to his siblings (and to us).  His personality is really emerging and it's fun to see how much he favors his older brother.  He is still quite the snuggler too, which makes his mama happy :)
May:   Our house addition was finally finished!  This project was in the planning stages for a long time, then under construction for about nine weeks.  We really needed an accessible bathroom for Bella, and though we tried to be creative, there was just no way to retrofit our two existing bathrooms (built in 1950) to accommodate a wheelchair.  Ultimately, we chose to add on a bathroom and bedroom.  Back when we bought our very modestly-sized house, we believed that our family of four was complete.  Now that we are a family of six, a little extra room comes in handy - but it's really the bathroom and the 36 inch doorways that have improved life for us so much, as the care providers.  I assumed that the new bedroom would be Bella's alone, that Bou would stay in the girls' old room, and the two boys would be together.  For this reason, we kept the bedroom small to keep the cost down, and made the closet about half the size of the other bedrooms.  Much to my surprise, Bou wanted to continue to share a room with her sister, so we moved the two of them over, purged lots of stuff, and were even able to fit everything into the small closet very nicely.  I love their new room, and Bella LOVES having her sister in there with her. 
The bathroom is small for an "accessible" one, but it has everything we need.

June:  It has become our annual tradition to go to Maui the day after the kids get out of school.  We normally spend the entire time at the same resort, because the kids absolutely love the pools, lazy river, rope swing, and slides there - all things water!  They couldn't care less about the room or food or anything else.  However, this year we decided to spend half of our vacation at The Royal Lahaina.  My husband's childhood friend is the hotel's marketing director, and thanks to her graciousness and hospitality our time there was memorable - so memorable that I want to write an entire post about this place a little later.  One of the highlights for the kids and me was being able to see a monk seal beach herself nearby every day, for what is called a "catastrophic molt".  The first thing the kids would do when they woke up each morning was run outside and see if she was still there.  Monk seal sightings are very rare these days, but what made this one even more special was that a SECOND very young monk seal joined the first one on the beach!  The Monk Seal Foundation volunteers who watch over the endangered animals when they are beached said that they have never seen two together on the sand, as they are loners.  The older seal clearly did not want to be bothered by the younger one, who just couldn't seem to take the hint and move on to another stretch of beach :).
July:  The month of the cast(s).  Actually, it should read "the months of the cast(s)" since the first one went on in June - but the majority of them are actually being worn in July.  Right after returning from Maui, Bella was scheduled to do six weeks of serial casting in an attempt to get her feet into a nice neutral position.  All that means is that she would go in once a week and they would remove the previous week's casts, manipulate the position of her feet a little more toward "normal", and recast them in that position for the next week.  The process would be repeated times six.  The goal is to have feet that are corrected enough to be placed into AFOs (a type of brace) and eventually get her standing.  It is a slow journey with many more steps to complete and many more factors that must fall into place to make standing a possibility.  But we are all working hard to give her every chance to accomplish that.  One of the biggest obstacles for Bella right now is that her head is so large and so heavy due to her hydrocephalus that she cannot hold it up more than a thirty seconds, let alone balance.  We are hoping that as her body grows and becomes more proportional to her head, and as she continues with therapy, that will be less of an obstacle.  

Anyway, instead of casting both feet as originally planned, she ended up in a long leg cast for a broken femur right after we returned.  As I have mentioned in the past, Bella has severe osteopenia from her years spent in the orphanage laying room.  This particular bone has also been broken several times in the past, prior to her adoption, as seen on her xrays.  So into a long leg cast she went, and we delayed serial casting for four weeks while the femur healed.  That cast came off, the bone looked great, and we moved on to the feet.  However, the left foot looks so nice at this point that the orthopedic surgeon decided it didn't need casting - yay!  We are now just serial casting the right foot.  The surgeon said there's about a 50/50 chance that the casting will be successful, given the degree of damage caused and the fact that there are bony changes present from lack of intervention.  At the end of this six weeks, Bella will have surgery to remove the hip hardware placed in last summer's surgery, and at that time they will also surgically correct her right foot if necessary.  So there you go, that's the latest on Bella's journey to health!  She gets to pick her cast color each time, and so far we've had pink, purple, and green :).  
 Sweet kid fell asleep playing with her princesses after we got home from the hospital :)

Whew, well that's it.  Hopefully from now on I can average more than one blog post every five months!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Splendid Saturday

This post is mostly for our families - Nana, Papa, Grandma, Lola, and Lolo - so that they can get a peek at some of the weekend fun that was had by their grandchildren :).  We live on the windward side of Oahu, where there is a rainy season for a couple of months during the winter.  Recently, we have had daily downpours that have made it very hard to get out and enjoy the beach.  It looked like the weather was turning around some though by the end of the week, so on Friday night Rob and I made plans to get up early and take the kids to Kailua Beach Park.  We really like going there because there is a sidewalk that goes through the park and all the way to the sand (about 20 feet from the water's edge), and let's face it, when you are pushing two strollers that is a big plus!  There is plenty of shade and the kids have a blast here.

My favorite time of the day there is early morning:  the water is usually calm, there is little to no wind, and most importantly, parking spots are still available!  So we got down there as fast as we could on Saturday morning.  I forgot my camera, but still took quite a few photos on the iPhone.  This view greeted us as we came to the top of the small grassy hill overlooking the ocean:
 Sandy, salty perfection and we practically had it all to ourselves (at least for a little while)!
There were already quite a few paddlers gearing up to go out on the water - it was so calm that I was a little envious.  I would love to have brought my stand-up paddle board, but with six people in the car there's not a lot of room for a SUP these days.  Have to save that for a day when I'm alone (in say, a couple of decades!).
While Bou and Buddy immediately ran down to the water and began spraying each other with their water squirters, I parked Bella and Bear beneath my favorite shade tree and enjoyed the view for a few minutes.  
We had to leave the beach park at about 9:30 for Bou to play tennis.  But we were having such a good morning that we decided to go BACK to the beach after tennis.  We stopped for some pizza at Bob's and since the beach park was crowded by this time, we drove around awhile searching for the ever-elusive parking spot before hitting the sand again.   Happily, I got the same spot under my favorite tree again :).  This haole's gotta have some shade!
There was plenty of time for more swimming (and you know what's funny about this pic is that Buddy was having a great time but as soon as he saw me about to snap a photo he said "I don't want my picture Taaaaken!"  So sorry, buddy, you got the wrong mama then!),
playing ball,
sibling love (for brief moments),
and just general silliness.
I just love to see the pure joy that little kids have as they sprint right into the water.
Bear hung out under the tree, and did some of this...
and this (I love his little folded hands, sweet sleeping boy).
And in case you are wondering where Bella is....well, I thought I'd share a little video of what she likes to do best at the beach:  sit in the shade beside Bear and listen to music, practicing her "hula" moves, which she can only do with her left arm but who cares.  My favorite is when she says "Mom, I watch Bear for you.  I be your good helper!"  Yes, big girl, you definitely are my good helper - such a little servant heart in spite of the limitations your body places on you. 
And finally, no day at Kailua Beach would be complete without a stop at Island Snow for shave ice.  For me it's about the flavor (cherry with ice cream in the bottom and a snow cap on top is STILL my favorite), but for the kids it's all about the rainbow colors.  Taste doesn't matter, as long as those three syrup flavors you get to choose mix together to create as many hues as possible!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Look Who's TEN!

Last year was the first time Bella ever celebrated her birthday.  She had no idea what one was, really.  Home from Ukraine just under two months, the learning curve of life was steep for her, and there were an overwhelming number of things she'd just never been exposed to (including birthday parties).  Couple that with the fact that she had a broken hip which was externally pinned, and we decided to keep the celebration small.  We invited a few friends from church over to play and eat cake.

This year, oh how things have changed :).  Every single day for WEEKS now I've heard the phrase "I so excited for my birthday!".  She understood that there would be food and cake and gifts and most importantly PEOPLE who she loves there to participate in her big day.  We kicked off the birthday weekend on Friday, when I brought treats to school for her class.
 She came home on the bus with two gifts: one from her special friend S. and one from the school bus assistant.  With the assistant's gift was a singing card, in which she'd written "Thank you for making my day every day on the bus!  You are very special to us.  Have an amazing birthday!  Much Aloha."  She included her phone number, and went on to say that if Bella would like to go on a walk with her and her golden retriever that she would be happy to take her, since she lives just down the street from us. 

On Saturday we had Bella's party at a local beach pavilion.  Almost 40 people, grown-ups and kids, came out.  Most were from our church, with a few friends from our community and even a few from the hospital where she receives her care, in the mix.  There was a lunch of hotdogs, chips, and fruit at Bella's request.  After lunch we sang Happy Birthday and had cupcakes.  There was also plenty of time for just hanging out.  She was absolutely thrilled by the whole thing (even though she got very tired after about two hours).   
Getting all set up.
Balloons - one of Bella's favorites!
Her sweet friend Ms. A, whose native language is Russian.  Bella met her the first night she arrived in America, and they have a special connection.
 Some of her little friends being crazy :)

On Saturday evening we opened her gifts at home.  She kept asking what each one was before we opened it, as if I somehow magically knew :).  I was overwhelmed with the thoughtfulness behind each gift.  It was clear that they were bought or made with careful attention to who their recipient was.  Now I do not want to give the impression that gifts are important to us - in fact, if you ask me what my kids want or need, my response is usually "Nothing!".  Being surrounded by friends who are celebrating them is gift enough.   But these presents touched my heart because as she sat surrounded by pretty bags and brightly-wrapped boxes, my girl felt special.  For almost nine years she was not made to feel special.  She was not celebrated.  She was just kept alive, after being cast aside by people who were supposed to love her and by a society who hides children like her.  And now - NOW, after all those years of neglect - to see people treat her like she IS special, well it's almost too much for words sometimes. 

Could there be a better t-shirt for Bella?  Love.
A beautiful skirt handmade with love by one of the ladies at our church who Bella adores.
After the last gift was opened, Bou proclaimed "And now a birthday hug from Bear!" before she scooped him up and laid him down next to Bella.

As touching as the gifts were, it was the cards that were most meaningful to me.  Some contained drawings or beautifully written messages of the heart from little children (I wish I could post a pic of those but they all have Bella's real name written on them, and of course I do not use my children's' real names on here).    Here's a small sampling of cards.

Written inside were messages like:

"We are so glad that God has brought you into our lives.  What a blessing you are."

"You are such a blessing to all those around you!  God Bless you."

"Thank you, Bella, for who you are!  It is such a joy to celebrate your birth.  You truly brighten the world!"

"Today you will get gifts but YOU are a gift to everyone around you, with your joy!  Thank you for embodying gratitude.  You are wonderful."

"You are a precious blessing to us Bella.  Thank you for your beautiful smiles and brave, happy spirit!"

"We love you!"

On Sunday the love continued with more cards and gifts brought to her at church, special daddy-daughter time at the tennis club (one of her favorite places), and a sweet gift from the lovely woman who caters the food there.  She remembered that it was Bella's birthday and knew that she would probably come there with her dad, so she had a little doll and card waiting for her.

Remember what I said?  Special.  She is surrounded by people who see her worth now.  The bus assistant, friends at school, church members, hospital workers, the caterer.  Bella draws people in because she exudes joy.  God has used her life to open eyes and hearts, and let me tell you it is a very humbling thing to watch.

I don't write all of this to paint some fairy-tale picture of older-child adoption.  I don't want people to think that our lives - or her life - are perfect.  They are not.  As thrilled as she was about her birthday, on the way to her party I was once-again reminded that orphanage life is not something that she has buried deep in the recesses of her mind, but rather something that lives in the shallows of her consciousness, and surfaces frequently.  We were riding along, and no one was talking (for once!) when she says something, seemingly out of the blue.  "Mom, at Dietsky Dom I all by myself.  No mother, no father, no sister, no two brothers."  I responded with empathy and reassurance, as I always try to do.  But I know by now that it wasn't out of the blue; it was triggered by the understanding of what her life is versus what her life was.  On the one hand, so happy to be celebrated, but on the other hand, wondering why she wasn't celebrated all those other years.  It is not the first time we have had this conversation, and I am sure it won't be the last.

It would be a mistake to think that Bella's life is easy.  There are quiet struggles with her past.  Moreover, she is completely dependent on us to meet her every physical need.  I am without a doubt completely dependent on God to give me the strength to meet her every physical need (and He does, each day).  She bears the physical and emotional scars of institutionalization and yet, miraculously, she chooses joy.  So I choose joy.  I choose to write about the joy, and share the joy.  Maybe later I will share the hard stuff (because there is hard stuff), but not today.  Today is all about the good stuff :).  Happy Tenth Birthday, precious Bella.  You inspire me!  God loves you, I love you, your father loves you, your sister loves you, and your two brothers love you!