Saturday, December 27, 2008

Older & Wiser

My mother-in-law is not doing well; she was admitted to the hospital on the 23rd. She’s about 2 ½ hours away from us, so getting there regularly is difficult. We had originally planned to take the whole family to see her on the 26th, but when we found out she would be in the hospital, we decided that the whole family would be too much. Our 16-year-old daughter did want to go as did our adult niece and nephew. We arrived at the hospital to find “Grandma” sedated and, though stable, not doing well. This really shook up our daughter and niece. They both had tears throughout the visit as we took turns being in the hospital room and waiting in the family waiting room.

When I first went in my mother-in-law’s room, I held her hand and commented on her long finger nails. Mine don’t grow well and I’ve had acrylic nails for the past 15 years. My mother-in-law slowly turned her head to me and, quietly and with difficulty, asked if I’d cut them for her. I carry nail clippers and a file in my purse, so my husband went to retrieve it from the waiting room. I clipped her nails, talked with her and, once in awhile, she’d respond. My daughter and niece also tried to talk with her through their tears. I felt old. Not in a creaky old-age sort of way, but in an “I’ve lived a few years; I’ve had experiences” sort of way. When my dad died, I was twenty-eight and I was totally distraught. I remember sobbing in my aunt’s arms and asking her how she managed to maintain her composure so well. She said to me, “Honey, as you get older, you just figure out how to handle these things better.” Well, here I am – older. There are both positives and negatives about growing older and, after yesterday, I believe that the ability to better handle life’s traumas is definitely a positive. It’s not a matter of being unfeeling or not caring; it’s simply a matter of learning, in some small way, to do what has to be done; to take the bumps in stride.

Friday, December 26, 2008

360 Degrees of Love

When I returned from Korea last week I was privileged to escort home a baby who was coming to meet her new family in the U.S. This trip to Korea is called a Gift Team Trip since we are supplying Christmas gifts and parties to children and adults associated with Holt International Children’s Services; as one team member pointed out, isn’t it appropriate that our final act on the Gift Team was to deliver the gift of a child?

Our journey together began at Holt Korea’s offices where the escorts (there were four on our Gift Team) met the babies and their foster mothers. While our hearts were full of joy at the role we would be playing and in anticipation of what the new families would be feeling, the reality of meeting the babies and their foster mothers was, in many ways, quite heartbreaking. The four foster mothers had spent months caring for these babies day and night. Even though they knew that their role in these children’s lives would be temporary, they still loved them and had become attached.

The woman who held the baby I was to escort was obviously full of grief. The other three women seemed more experienced and handled their sorrow with less outward emotion, but my baby’s foster mother was crying openly, even though I think she’d rather have hidden how she felt. I tried to comfort her with a gentle touch on her shoulder since language differences prevented me from telling her just how loved this baby would be. I hoped to somehow convey to her that both she and the baby would be alright; that her role in caring for this child would have a tremendous impact on the baby’s happiness and with how she would accept and bond with her new family. But all I could really do was gently touch her shoulder. Adoption is said to be part grief, part joy. For every loving family who receives a child, there is a birthmother who grieves for that same child. When a child has been in foster care, there is also a foster mother who grieves. I saw that grief at Holt Korea’s office.

As we traveled across the Pacific Ocean, I thought of the baby’s family and the great anticipation they must be feeling. I held the baby in my arms most of the trip; I slept intermittently as I tried to lie quietly so as not to disturb her as she slept against my chest. She cried quite a bit – perhaps experiencing some grief herself and I did my best to comfort her, to assure her, too, that she would be okay.

When we arrived at our final destination, tired and anxious to meet our families (my own family was waiting for me as well as the baby’s new family), I experienced such joy! First, I caught sight of my husband and four of our children – what a beautiful sight after being away for a week, then, shortly afterwards, I saw the baby’s new parents! They were easy to spot – Dad held a video camera and Mom held a sign with the baby’s Korean name written in both English and Hangul (Korea’s alphabet). I have been in those parents’ shoes and I know the level of joy and excitement they were feeling. My heart burst as I shared in this experience. I felt so privileged to hold this beautiful baby girl in my arms; I felt privileged to be part of her story; I felt privileged to have this small part in making these parents’ dream come true. I handed the baby to her mother and watched as a family was formed.

Our journey began with a foster mother’s grief; it ended with a family’s joy – we had journeyed through 360 degrees of love.

Monday, December 15, 2008

So Many Tears

This Gift Team trip is, as I’ve said, not a vacation; it is joyful, but it is emotionally draining. There have been so many tears this week. I started out crying before I’d even left home! I read through the schedule and, in anticipation, I had tears running down my cheeks. I wasn’t off-base; there has been a lot of tissue used this week. One woman said that she has a special pocket in her purse to stuff the used tissue so that she can empty it into the garbage every evening.

Yesterday, we visited an unwed mothers’ shelter and, after a small party and a lot of laughter, there was time to sit quietly as a group in order to let the young women ask us, adoptees, parents of birth children and adoptive parents, questions that are tugging at their hearts. Many of the young women were crying; they are making a monumental decision: to try to parent their child or to relinquish it for adoption. I think their tears were tears of sadness and grief at the enormity of this decision. As we all sat quietly on the floor waiting to see if any of the young women would have the courage to speak, many of them rubbed their bellies. It was a clear sign that, even before birth, they love their babies and are trying to take care of them. Finally one young woman spoke up, then another. The theme of the questions was “will my baby be loved”. As we parents and adoptees tried to answer their questions, we also shed tears – tears of joy when we told of our love, tears of gratitude when we tried to explain how much we honor our own or our children’s birthmothers, tears of sadness as we saw how hard this process is for these young women. So many tears, so many types of tears; sometimes the same tears come from so many sources.

When we finally left the shelter, I asked our team leader, with hope, if this process is therapeutic for the young women and he assured me that it is; that it helps them in part of the process they must go through to make the decisions they must make. Then, I realized that it was also therapeutic for me as well. I would so love to be able to reassure my children’s birthmothers that their children are, in fact, loved; that they are growing up to be wonderful, caring and loved individuals. However, I know that I will probably never have the opportunity to say these things to any of them directly, but I could say it to these women; I could attempt to reassure them. My hope is that there were other adoptive parents sharing their own stories of love when our children’s birthmothers were making this decision. My hope is that they had an opportunity to shed tears like this; that they had the chance to gain some reassurance.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Let Your Heart Rest

Normally, when I am ready to write, my head is spinning with ideas and, by the time I sit in front of the computer, my thoughts are pretty well organized and ready to be put on paper. Yesterday morning I woke up to an empty brain. I knew there should be so much to write about from the previous day’s trip to a children’s home. It was a wonderful day full of joy and happiness, but my brain couldn’t grasp the emotions and formulate them into thoughts. I set up my computer, logged on and then stared at the blank screen – nothing came. I mentioned this at breakfast and one of the other team members who is a holistic nurse, said this to me (I’m paraphrasing here and I hope I get it right): There are people who experience life with their heads and people who experience life with their hearts. (I’m definitely a heart person.) Sometimes when our hearts are full, it’s difficult for the head to get a grasp of the experience. Sometimes we just need to let our hearts rest and absorb.

Yesterday, Sunday, was a day of sightseeing and learning about Korean culture. As one team member said, “No tears today,” – nothing emotional, no children waiting for families, no simple gifts, no overwhelming love – just sightseeing. This trip is not a vacation; there is no relaxing time by the pool or luxurious hours to sleep in. We are up before dawn and back to the hotel well after dark. The schedule is hectic and the events are emotion-filled. I think my heart did need a rest. I think I’d hit an emotional wall and I wonder at how many other times in my life I’ve reached a similar point and haven’t figured out what I need to do. I love the analogy of the heart resting; sometimes we just need to take some time to regroup.

Yesterday I let my heart rest.

Pass It On Update

On November 28th I wrote about "passing it on" or "random acts of kindness". Since that time, my little red Camry and I have taken opportunities to do just that. Then, yesterday my husband took our children to the movies and the ticket girl said, "My manager told me to let one family in free today and you are that lucky family." Wow! Full circle. Pass it on!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Folks, This is Why I do This

During the holiday season in the United States, most of us are running around feeling a little crazy as we try to do everything for everybody to make this year the perfect holiday. Yesterday I experienced the perfect holiday. Yesterday our gift team visited Holt’s Ilsan Town, a hillside community located about 45 minutes NW of Seoul. This community was built by Harry Holt and currently houses approximately 300 mentally and physically handicapped children and adults. These people live at Ilsan in residential homes with housemothers, not in care facilities with a rotating staff. At Ilsan each person is a member of the family; each person does what she can, according to her abilities, to help as part of the family. At Ilsan, each person’s talents are drawn out and encouraged. Our visit is part of the residents’ main Christmas festivities. Yesterday was their Christmas. We delivered a Santa bag full of gifts to each home, one simple gift for each person, and then we participated in the annual Christmas party held in the gymnasium.

We were running late, so when we walked into the gymnasium the residents were already there, gathered around their family tables, Christmas music blaring from the speaker system. Housemothers, staff and dozens of volunteers milled around helping to ensure that each person was able to enjoy the party food. Volunteers maneuvered wheelchairs, helped with feeding those not able to feed themselves and provided additional company around the tables. As we entered the gymnasium, the level of excitement increased dramatically. The men at a table near me were so excited by our arrival that many were actually bouncing up and down on their stools. As I looked around the room, people would catch my eye, smile and wave enthusiastically.

Later, after the official party was over, we all prepared for a group picture: wheelchairs in front of the stage, the rest of us behind the wheelchairs or up on the stage. As I maneuvered around to get in place for the picture, random hands would reach out to touch me; people would try to get my attention, to smile at me, hug me, sometimes even to kiss me on the cheek. I realized that, in anticipation of this trip, I had been hungering for this moment, hungering to be part of this excitement, this love, this joy. I, who had helped supply the simple gifts distributed earlier, had just received the greatest gift – the gift of pure Christmas joy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bridge of Love

When we were waiting for our first Korean-born child to come home, we worried about the care she was receiving away from us. Was anybody holding her, rocking her? Was she experiencing any love? Would she be able to cuddle and love us? Well, we needn’t have worried. We quickly learned that, not only had she been held and loved, but by some standards, she was spoiled (though I don’t really believe you can spoil a baby). Contrary to our fear that she might not be receiving enough human touch, we learned that it is customary for foster mothers here to carry babies constantly. Our daughter not only welcomed our human touch, she expected to be held all of the time. She had been well-fed in both body and soul.

For the third year in a row, I am in South Korea at Christmastime as part of a Christmas Gift Team from our adoption agency, Holt International Children’s Services. Yesterday, we attended the 40th annual celebration for foster mothers who provide care here in Korea for babies waiting to go home to their adoptive families. The celebration honored women who have given five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five and thirty years of service as foster mothers as well as a handful who are retiring, having reached their 65th birthdays. I have seen these foster mothers in action. On my first trip to Korea, while I waited to meet my son, I watched as foster mothers, babies on their backs, came into the clinic waiting area. Many of them know each other and the chatter in the room was constant – and it was clear that the main topic of conversation was their babies. “See how he’s grown!” “Look at this new tooth!” “Watch her smile!” I didn’t understand the words, they were spoken in Korean, but the meaning did not require translation. Caring for these babies is not just a job, though they do it 24/7 with very little in monetary compensation; it’s obviously a passion. It’s my observation from watching the foster mothers and from hearing them speak at these luncheons, that they do this job, give their love because they see it as their part in helping these babies survive and thrive while they wait to go home to their new families – they are a bridge of love from the birth family to the adoptive family.

Two of our team members, girls ages eleven and twelve, had the opportunity yesterday to meet with their foster mothers for the first time since leaving Korea as infants. These girls had been with their foster mothers for a few short months, but the connection was obvious. The older girl, having seen her foster mother (and the entire foster family) in a different part of the room, could hardly wait to go to her. She had a small gift for her foster mom and as soon as there was a short break in the program, her mom told her that she could go ahead and take the gift to her foster mom. The girl jumped up from her seat and made her way in the crowded room to the place where her foster family waited. The girl greeted her foster mother and handed over the gift, but it wasn’t the gift in her hand that held meaning, it was the gift of the engulfing, mutual hug that showed just how much value both the children and their families put on that bridge of love.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

S. Korean Adoption

When we first adopted from Korea, I thought my husband would go to Korea to bring our daughter home, we’d finalize the adoption and that it would be that. Instead, he came home fascinated with the people and culture of S. Korea. We began trying out Korean restaurants, he took a cooking class and Korean artwork and books began to show up in our home. Several years later I made my first trip to Korea to bring home our third Korean-born child. I, too, came home fascinated.

Last night I arrived at Incheon Airport in Seoul, S. Korea for my fifth visit. As I prepared for the trip I anxiously anticipated the sights, sounds and smells of this country. While still in the airport, the smell of sesame oil reached my nose. The smell of Grandma’s apple pie baking in the oven certainly evokes memories and emotions of my own childhood experience, but now my nose knows two cultural experiences. The smell of the sesame oil was comforting and exciting. It’s the smell that wafts through our home when my husband cooks Korean food; it’s the smell that greets me at the entrance of the Asian market at home; it’s the smell that permeates this country.

I am thrilled to be back in S. Korea. I am not Korean; I have my own Finnish heritage (which I’m less familiar with than I am with my children’s Korean heritage), but when we adopted our children, in many ways, we adopted their birth culture and country. Being here I feel a sense of familiarity and connection.

Know Thyself

There are things I know about myself. I know what style of clothing I like to wear and I rarely deviate from that basic style. I know how to wear my make-up and the process of putting it on is quick and easy. I know that I like to have my life and home organized and I like that being organized lets me lead a pretty busy life with relatively few stresses. I know that I want my bed to be made each morning and I revel in the beauty of a picture-perfect room. I know my likes and dislikes, my quirks and fears; you’d think I’d know that there are some things that I’m just not going to do. On December 1st I wrote about gratitude and pledged to write daily about what I’m grateful for in my day. Even though I love the idea of writing in a diary, I’ve never been faithful about keeping one. Even though I’ve tried in the past to keep a gratitude journal, I’ve never managed to do so for more than a few days. Why did I think that now, during the busiest month of the year, I would suddenly change and be a dedicated journal-keeper? The idea of keeping a gratitude journal for the benefit of creating quiet time for myself seemed so appealing. In reality, the idea of writing daily about gratitude very quickly felt like a chore and was not so appealing. There are activities that I do daily that I don’t think of as a chore: making the bed, as I said before; early morning exercise; a shower, make-up and primping. Each of these activities are part of my daily routine, they please me and help me feel good about myself. Declaring that I would write about gratitude everyday did not increase my level of gratitude because I know that inside I am a truly grateful person. Internally, I take care of my feelings of gratefulness, so putting those thoughts down on paper, did not add to my satisfaction – it was just a chore. I know that there are limits to what I will do; now I know that telling myself that I will do something that isn’t natural for me pushes those limits uncomfortably. Sometimes it’s good to push those limits when it helps us to grow, but sometimes it’s better to just respect our limits.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

As I shopped today I was grateful for comfortable shoes, prime parking spaces and Christmas music on the store loudspeakers (and the fact that nobody looked at me strangely when I walked through the mall quietly singing to myself). I'm also grateful to the pseudo-son who followed through on his promise to put away all of the decoration boxes and leftovers.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

I am grateful that I spoke with two customer service people today who actually provided customer service. I am also grateful that my husband puts up with my little nuances. Actually, everyday I am grateful that I chose him to spend my life with -- but saying that everyday would get a little sappy. I'll try to restrain myself.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Today I am grateful for my friends who allow me to rant and rave and then give me their support and uncensored opinions.

Monday, December 1, 2008

In the wake of news this morning of the tragic deaths this weekend of a family of four, friends of friends, I am grateful that my family is safe, sound and accounted for. Please use this tragedy as a reminder to equip your home with carbon monoxide detectors in addition to your smoke detectors.

Gratitude

I spent some time this past weekend catching up on my magazine reading. I’m sure it’s because of the season, but I was surprised to come across three separate articles about gratitude and happiness. I consider myself a very happy person and I certainly feel gratitude for all the blessings and joys in my life. However, even though I’ve tried, I’ve never managed to keep a gratitude journal for more than a day or two. One of the articles I read suggested keeping such a journal for at least a month with the idea that doing so might help to ease a specific issue that a person is dealing with. This article asked three women to name an issue that is a struggle; the women then kept a gratitude journal for a month and afterwards reviewed their issue to see if it had improved. Not surprisingly, all three felt better at the end of the month. Given that today is the first day of not only my favorite month, but also the busiest month, I’ve decided that I’m going to give this a try. In addition to any regular blog entries I write, I’ll also post daily what I feel especially grateful for. The issue I deal with constantly, and even more so in December, is taking time to relax, to take a breath and let the cares of the day fall off my shoulder. Just writing this blog helps me with that; I’m anxious to see if purposefully expressing gratitude daily helps get me through this month, enjoying it to the fullest.