Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Finding Place

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Since bringing home our fifteen month old daughter from China in June, 2001, I have fantasized about returning to her finding place and, against all odds, finding her birth family. My husband and I were fortunate enough to go to her finding place on our adoption trip and take photos of the area. We were asked to be discreet by our adoption agency’s representative. There had been issues in the past with foreigners getting themselves into trouble when found to be snooping around in areas where they weren’t authorized to be. Feeling safe from the backseat of our taxi, we had taken both photos and video footage while making our way down the partially paved and dusty Yongfu Road. The driver pulled into an empty dirt lot when we reached the address we had been given. The address was at an intersection where a smaller dirt road crossed over Yongfu. A three-stalled, cinderblock building was set back from the intersection, and it was surrounded by clay parcel of land that could have been used for a parking area had there been any cars. The stalls had aluminum, roller doors that were all closed and padlocked.  It looked like an abandoned service station, minus the gas pumps. Whatever role it had once played in this community of ill-kept apartment buildings, it appeared to be completely abandoned at the time of our visit. Of course we didn’t know exactly where JaneGrace was found at this site, all we had was the address of “Four kilometer Yongfu Road.” This was not the kind of place I had envisioned for my baby to be found. I wanted it to be in the center of a bustling market, or train station, or at the gates of a police station or orphanage.  How could I describe this place to JaneGrace? I wanted it to be reflective of a safe haven; a place that I thought worthy for a child-finding place to be; a place that I thought the birth mother should choose.  I wanted my baby to know that her birth mother did the best she could do through dire circumstances, whether or not that was the truth.

My husband and I took note of the impoverished area. The foliage that lined the main road was overgrown and strewn with weeds. There were apartment buildings that were visible from behind the foliage, and I speculated that my beloved baby had been born in one of them. They, too, were dusty and dirty like the road that led us here, and were in need of a coat of paint. I recall that the open windows to the apartments did not have screens. The concrete around the windows were stained with rust and mold from the rainwater runoff, inherent for a tropical climate such as Nanning.  I quietly grieved for the apparent poverty of this community and for the likelihood that this was where my daughter was from.  I wanted to make up something about her finding place, make it more romantic, more deserving as a place for my daughter. But in all reality, I realized that I could not protect her from this truth. She would have to grow into this truth as time and maturity allowed.

Part of my fantasy connected with the finding place also involved a revisit with our family when JaneGrace was older. I had heard of other families going to the finding spot and posting flyers with photos of their daughter and a brief message to the birth family. I envisioned myself holding up a placard that read, simply, “Thank you,” with a picture of JaneGrace with her dad and me. Yes, I envisioned many things related to her finding place.

When we signed up for our adoption agency’s heritage tour, and an opportunity to visit her city of origin unfolded, I was thrilled. Finally, I had a chance to fulfill my dreams, to share this place with my now twelve year old beloved daughter, and walk the area from which she’d been found. I wanted to wander up and down the dirt paths in between the tenements and peer into the faces of those who lived there. I wanted to look into eyes that were mirror images of my daughter’s. I wanted to hold JaneGrace’s hand, and gently introduce her to this place for which I am eternally grateful.

I was prepared for just about any scenario, except for the one we encountered.

Sometime in the last eleven years, Yongfu Road had been bulldozed and widened. Nothing was recognizable. The address of “Four kilometer Yongfu Road” which our taxi driver had readily driven us to in 2001, did not exist in 2012. I began to feel some concern when our guide began to question us as to the specifics of the address. Did we have anything more specific than the kilometer mark? What we remembered as a two lane partially paved road leading out of Nanning was now widened to six lanes, and now had a distinctive “Western” look. There were a variety of small businesses running its length, the Chinese version of strip-malls. The little cinder-block building was gone. There were some old tenements interspersed with newer apartment buildings, but it was impossible to speculate where we had been eleven years earlier.

I could feel my frustration begin to mount as we drove up and down the road with our guide and our driver, desperately searching for anything that remotely reminded us of the place we had been eleven years earlier. Why, in my simple-minded head, I thought this place would not change in eleven years, frustrated me even more.  As my emotions began to swirl, I had to remind myself that this particular day was about JaneGrace, not about me and my expectations. I did sense some anxiety from JaneGrace, although she is the stoic type. Getting her to express her feelings is akin to coaxing a security “leak” from the pentagon. She is tough. I geared down my emotional roller coaster, finally, out of a much over-due respect for her needs. My husband and I had discussed revisiting her finding place with her on many occasions to try to anticipate the feeling that may emerge, but this scenario had not entered our minds. I was caught totally unprepared. Again, I felt I needed to shield her from my disappointment that the place I had longed to visit with her was destroyed. It no longer existed. Eleven years of my dreams and fantasies around locating her birth family were not to be fulfilled this day.

What I did walk away with after that disappointing day, is the realization that each of these adopted girls’ stories is uniquely hers. No matter what kind of serendipitous story we hear from another adopted girl, on how visiting her finding spot yielded a precious piece to the puzzle that makes up her early life, we cannot recreate a piece from that puzzle and force it into our daughter’s. Each story must unfold on its own accord, in its own time, and of its own device. Like a delicate blossom, its petals will open at exactly the right time, within an environment that nurtured the precise mix of elements required to produce perfection in God’s eyes. This is my take-home message: my daughter’s story is of God. I had hoped to uncover an artifact from her past to help her discover from where she came and it wasn’t to be. JaneGrace was a trooper, and acted as if it didn’t bother her, but again, she is the “Pentagon.”

I am ashamed to report that the next day, without our guide to assist and without seeking JaneGrace’s approval; my husband and I hired a taxi, and again drove up and down Yongfu Road trying to find the place that no longer existed. We were searching for the needle in a haystack.  JaneGrace sent us a not-so-discreet message of her disapproval by completely disengaging from the activity by pulling out her DSi electronic games device and immersing herself in virtual play. The day was unbearably hot and muggy, and we wasted our time in a futile search for something that we were convinced had been destroyed, instead of visiting other places in Nanning that would have been of greater cultural value for our family.

The next day we heard from two other families who were on our tour whose “finding place” search had yielded vastly different and positive results. Both families reported that they had learned, or at least had gained access to, information that revealed the identity of the birth families for each child. I couldn’t help but feel a little envious.  It was after hearing these stories, that I knew I had to “let go,” and begin the work of surrendering this process to JaneGrace and her future dreams and aspirations. Thankfully, after the futile time spent searching for her finding spot, we were able to connect with JaneGrace’s foster Grandmother through the dedicated detective work of our Chinese guide, and spent two precious hours visiting with her and her extended family, sharing stories and photos about the remarkable child who continues to grace all of our lives. She fostered JaneGrace from the time she was seven months old, to the time we adopted her at fourteen months of age. Her love for JaneGrace has reached through time to the present, when her hugs and smiles upon seeing her for the first time in eleven years demonstrates the impact of her early nurturing of our daughter. We are grateful for the heart of this woman.

My advice to any adoptive family that has a plan to visit their child’s “finding spot” or to any adoptive family seeking to uncover pieces of the mystery of their child’s early beginnings is this: be prepared for any outcome, and make sure you are engaging your child on what their hopes and dreams are surrounding this potentially traumatic revelation. There are many good resources out there for preparing for such a discovery.  There are also resources available to guard you against such a discovery. Not all finding place visits yield positive information. This decision should be child-centered, taking all possible outcomes into consideration. The journey is theirs for the taking.

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On Humility

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The topic was humility; not a stretch for a Friday night meeting in Alcoholics Anonymous. The focus was on Step Seven of the program’s twelve steps. In AA’s book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions the word humility is mentioned thirty-one times. I know this because my sponsor made me count it. A walk down the road of humility reveals a constant awareness of one’s pride, and pride can be lethal for an alcoholic.

So, after the facilitator for last night’s meeting opened up the floor for discussion, there was an awkward pause. I hate awkward pauses. This one seemed to go on interminably. I don’t like being the person to open the discussion. I need more time to formulate my response and I am not one of those brilliants who can be witty, articulate and succinct on my feet. That is why I am a writer; it gives me time to ponder. Second, listening to others’ responses first can trigger my own personal memory or experience related to the subject that may help my contribution to the meeting be more meaningful.
I finally caved in to my self-imposed speaking restrictions and began to recount a brief synopsis of my family’s heritage tour to China, from which we had just returned five days prior. As a matter of fact, this was my first meeting in 4 weeks. Between the preparations for the tour, the fifteen days out of the country, and the recovery from the very taxing jet-lag, I had missed nearly a month of meetings, and was looking forward to the hearing the experience, strength, and hope of others to help refill my own recovery “tool-box.” I thought I could relate this meeting’s topic to the apparent paradox my husband and I had observed in China. The country’s national “religion” is atheism, but her people seem quite godly and humble from an individual perspective. I relayed how they have so little in material possessions, but they demonstrate great joy in their daily lives. Here in America, we have freedom of religion, and if one looks at the surface of our culture through the media, there is an apparent lack of godly behavior and morality, and a constant search for “happiness.” I shared this thought within the constructs of our journey to China with our two adopted Chinese daughters. I also shared with the group that I was happy to be at the meeting, and I was happy to be back in America.

I immediately wished I hadn’t spoken.

A man whom I am familiar with from attending this meeting somewhat regularly (for anonymity’s sake I’ll refer to him as “Joe”) began to respond to my observations.
“The Chinese are a bunch of bastards…” and on it went: A no-less-than five minute dissertation inflected with his ethnocentric value system on the greatness of the USA and Christianity, and his extreme distaste for those who travel abroad and espouse the values of cross-cultural exchange. All of this was based not on the merits of American virtue, but rather on the evils of the Asians. He was off the chain.

I am an American. I love our soldiers. I, too, was happy to be back on American soil in my native culture following our two weeks abroad. I am a political conservative. I am a Jesus follower. I try my best to adhere to the principles and steps of AA.

Joe has a history in these meetings. He is often crass, arrogant, angry, egotistical, judgmental, and he uses objectionable language. I have noted eye-rolling and other distasteful gestures from other AAs when he speaks, but this time, there was a collective gasp in the room and many of those folks in attendance looked at me to see where the volley was heading. He struck me at my jugular.

As the hostility of his words sunk in, my expression metamorphosed from a patronizing half-cocked grin, to astonishment, and progressed to an utter failure to conceal my emotions, no matter how hard I tried to suppress them. It was like trying to sustain a flood-wall whose threshold had been breached. Blame it on the lingering jet-lag, but his words stung like they had been hurled from a sling-shot. Where was my defense? I wanted to hold it together, take it like a soldier and stand my ground; and counter with a retort that would cleverly and conclusively stall his jet, but I was paralyzed.

After at least five minutes of his verbal attack, he finally shut-up, and the guy sitting next to me rose to my defense. He is a very articulate fellow, politically correct with a non-threatening manner… but I still could not hold it together. I had to get up and walk out. I exited this meeting and through tears, blindly made my way to my car. I felt humiliated, even victimized. This was an “open” meeting, designed for AAs and their spouses, partners, seekers, whomever. Joe made a travesty of the meeting and I hoped to God that he hadn’t frightened off any newcomers. A very nice couple followed me to my car, consoled, and extended a degree of humanity toward me that, sadly, Joe would never have the aptitude to experience.

After this bitter experience, here is where I’ve landed: I feel terribly sorry for Joe. Something very awful must have happened to him in his lifetime to make him so miserable. Perhaps he has lost a son in the war. Perhaps he was abused. I know he is an alcoholic, but he is no-where near “recovered.” He is what those recovered folks “in the rooms” call a “dry drunk.” This is an alcoholic who has stopped the obsessive consumption of alcohol, but has not done the work behind changing the behaviors that motivates his or her drinking. I became resolved to pray for Joe, and not let him take up any more rent space in my head. I haven’t the room. It had been four weeks since I had been at a meeting. During these four weeks wine and beer had been passed around in front of me indiscriminately during our time abroad. I had successfully withstood the pressure to drink. I had not wanted to drink. The compulsion is gone. During these four weeks away from a meeting and out of the country, I had also experienced my one-year sobriety date. My very first birthday! I had gone to this Friday night meeting to get my one year anniversary chip, and had allowed this man to get the best of me, and rob me of the opportunity to celebrate my recovery. I left the meeting terribly hurt, wondering where the message was in all of this, and whether I would ever return.

This morning, the morning after, I awoke with a new resolve. I just returned home from my Saturday morning home group of Alcoholics Anonymous. I picked up my one-year chip amidst many hugs and cheers. The irony of Joe’s outburst was that he exemplified the complete loss of humility with a hostile takeover by pride. He doesn’t get it. Some of us are just sicker than others. Yet again, the serenity prayer has rescued me from a place of self-pity:
God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to changes the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

He Shall Comfort Those Who Mourn; 4th and last of a series

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My Mom, Anna Lee

JaneGrace’s foster Grandmother, wearing the silver pendant

Yes, my daughters had been exposed to this trauma without my permission… the least I could do at this point was offer some follow-through. What was I to do? Their grandmother had been at our home. She had just accompanied all of us to JaneGrace’s dance classes. They had walked with her up the stairs, and after a few minutes, heard the commotion, and then seen her sprawled at the bottom of the stairs. They had heard my despondent wailing alternating with anguished commands thrown at them as I cared for my mother while awaiting the ambulance… pull the trunk out of the way to make room for the medics, go outside and wave down the crew, get the dogs and put them outside…

LiLi and JaneGrace needed to see where she was, the outcome of the fall, to try to begin to understand the transition that she was about to encounter, and we were about to suffer. It was an immersion in the study of death, of crossing over, of loss. They were way too young to have to be experiencing this event, but it was out of our control. LiLi, unbeknownst to us at the time, was about to succumb to an exacerbation of post-traumatic stress disorder from yet another exposure to an event from which no soul could have offered protection. This sucked.

We waited in the ER until a bed could be found in the ICU. Mom was transferred to the neuro-surgical ICU where her vital signs would be sustained for as long as my family chose. It was only her shell that was alive. I was certain her spirit was hovering. Her “life” had exited her body. I had taken care of a young woman in this very ER who had survived from the brink of death and had experienced the beckoning “light” that survivors from near-death experiences describe. I was certain that my Mom’s spirit was hovering, even now. My husband talked me into returning home with him and the girls. We made it in through the front door and I collapsed in his arms on the steps where she had fallen. I needed a glass of wine, then felt guilty for having asked my husband to pour it for me. I was upside down. This night had been ripped out from under us. My mother had been taken in the twinkling of an eye. I couldn’t think of anything except to get back to the hospital. We got the girls tucked in, and back to St. Anthony’s I drove.

This was to be the longest night of my life. As I sat at her bedside, sleep eluded me amidst the rhythmic hum of the ventilator and the cycling of the monitoring equipment. I held her lifeless hand and marveled at how much it looked like mine; my hand was stronger and darker, but the proportions and contours were so similar. This time with her was precious. My Mom and I had rarely spent time together without some old conflict arising, but this time had been different. I had felt a deep affection toward her that I had rarely permitted myself to feel. I was always too busy being judgmental or disappointed; to feel anything else would have humanized her to a degree that my comfort zone was not ready to tolerate. It was quite complicated, this particular mother and daughter relationship. And here I was, sitting at her bedside, chosen by fate, and by God too, I suppose, for this watch. Today, before I opened up my word program to finish this piece, I read a prayer journal entry from my husband’s blog (http://beingwritewithgod.blogspot.com/) about wrestling with God. He cited the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God in an “all-nighter” and walked away from that encounter with no resolution and a limp for the rest of his life. I could relate. This night, spent at my Mom’s death-bed, would forever leave me limping. Days and weeks later, I found comfort in the activities we shared: serving communion, wonderful meals, and shopping. Two nights before the accident I had drawn a bubble bath for her, complete with music and candlelight. The day of the accident she had said to me in the car as we left St. Anthony’s hospital grounds following our visit there, “Paula, I just feel so peaceful, why do you think this is so?” My response to her had been that she had been on the receiving end of care, not having to worry about a thing, just sitting back, enjoying, and relaxing. In retrospect, in my gut, I feel like she came to Colorado for her passing. Without a doubt, I feel like it was her time to go, and that my family’s role in her passage was of divine design. I can’t wait to see her again, someday, and talk about this in greater detail.

The first glimmers of sunlight began to peek through the blinds, and I began to count the hours until my sisters, their husbands and my nieces arrived. These hours had been the most agonizing of my life. Clergy and friends drifted in and out, prayed with me, and shook their heads at the twisted turn of events, with some just remaining silent, and sitting with me. Just being there was enough. Mom’s nurse for the day came in and introduced herself. I liked her immediately. She was from Tennessee, our home state, and the geographical love of Mom’s life. She told me to sit back and be Mom’s daughter today, and to forget the nurse’s cap. She was a source of great comfort as she expertly managed Mom’s care, releasing me to the role of loved one.

Shortly after noon, the rest of the family arrived. I greeted them at the front door of the hospital, and led them into the room, while trying to prepare them for what they were going to see, if there is any such thing. We all spent the rest of the afternoon at her bedside, my daughters included as their comfort level permitted, and said our goodbyes through the tears, the grief and disbelief. A music therapist came to the bedside as well, and sang some of Mom’s favorite songs from Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and other old gospel hymns that Mom cherished. We laughed, cried, hugged, held hands, prayed and became closer than we ever imagined during that fateful afternoon. There was never an ill-word, nor an accusation uttered. I was released by my family for any of the blame for this tragedy.
At six o’clock in the evening, the nurse and the respiratory technician “pulled the tube,” thereby disconnecting her from the life-support equipment that had been keeping her alive. Her heart stopped beating six minutes later. She was gone. Her physical presence would be no more. I’ve clung to the memories of the night I spent at her bedside, holding her hand that looked like mine, many, many times.

The next several days were filled with the necessary activities of “making arrangements.” In a way, this is a good thing. It keeps one busy with “tasks” and the mandatory decision making activities that accompany sudden death. It provides a cleverly built-in diversion. We flew to Tennessee for a service and burial, then to Florida for a memorial. Both events were sweet remembrances of the impact my Mom’s simple life had made on those who loved and knew her. She was treasured by many.

I just returned from China on a heritage tour with my daughters and husband. While there, we were so blessed to be reunited with JaneGrace’s foster “Grandmother.” While Mom was with the girls and I the weekend that she passed, we went to the adoption agency that helped us bring our daughters home. They were having a Christmas and holiday bazaar, selling all sorts of trinkets that had been brought back from China. While there, I purchased two necklaces, each one exquisitely designed, sterling silver pendants. One had the Chinese characters of “Mother” and the other had “Grandmother” presented as paper-cuts on a mother of pearl backdrop. I had purchased one for me, and the other for my Mom at the bazaar, intending the “Grandmother” pendant to be her Christmas present that year. I was never able to give it to her. Shortly after her death, I placed both of the pendants on one chain, wearing them often in memory and in honor of my mother.

During this heritage tour to China, with JaneGrace’s permission, I gave the pendants to JaneGrace’s foster “Grandmother.” I didn’t plan in advance to do this, it just occurred spontaneously. The decision was reinforced as we sat in Nai Ying’s apartment, and she pulled out all of the things we had mailed to her before and shortly after JaneGrace’s placement into our family, eleven years ago. This was a woman with great sentimentality, and I was convinced that she would cherish this necklace that represented my Mom, and the last weekend of her life. The chain was a circle, much like the “red thread” tradition in Chinese culture that tied all of us together. The pendants represented the three of us; Mom, Nai Ying and me, as the primary matriarchal presence in JaneGrace’s young life. Who knows, maybe one day this necklace will make its way back to JaneGrace, carrying with it an enriched sense of history, tradition, and closure. I am certain this gesture would have pleased Mom.

Dedicated to the sweet life of Anna Lee Bullen-Breeden: Born September 16, 1924; Passed into eternal life November 7, 2006

postscript: Aurora, Colorado, I grieve with you today.