Category Archives: survival

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.

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Show Us Some Mercy–3rd in a series

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The chaplain directed me back to the “Consult Room” where my husband and young daughters were waiting. I knew this place well. The room had an aura about it. It is reserved for families who are in crisis, who have decisions to make, or devastating news to process. It is where families huddle, gather their resources, and call clergy, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. It is a sacred place where the profane must at times be uttered… it is a room of hope, of despair, of grief and disbelief. I had been in this room many times to greet a family, and prepare them for what they were about to encounter. The lighting is subdued, and boxes of tissues are on the tables. There was a telephone book, a phone, a couple of sofas and some chairs. The irony that my family now gathered in this room, and I was now making the most undesirable telephone calls in my life struck me with a bitter blow. Again, the random nature of tragedy makes us all feel vulnerable. Someone, a loving co-worker, came and took LiLi, age 10, and JaneGrace, 6, for snacks. My girls were familiar with this hospital. It was “Mommy’s hospital.” They had been here many times with me… JaneGrace was introduced to the staff a few days after we returned home from China. It was at the nursing station where I took the call from my husband that we had been matched with a beautiful Chinese baby girl. My co-workers had celebrated with me as our family walked through LiLi’s adoption process, and were there for support as her disabilities became more apparent. This staff knew my family and me well, and was just as dumbstruck as I was at this tragic turn of events.
The calls to my sisters went as expected. It was about 8:00 pm mountain- time and both of my sisters lived in the eastern time zone, making it near bedtime in their respective cities. I called my eldest sister first. Her husband answered. I explained to him the sequence of events in my nurse’s voice… this was my place of comfort in a situation such as this. I had made these types of calls to so many folks over the years. I knew how to do it, how to begin the call, how to keep my voice steady and calm, how to pause to give them time to process the information and formulate questions. The questions coming from my brother-in-law were difficult to answer, and I kept my answers brief and succinct. Yes, I was sure. No, there is absolutely nothing we can do, the ventilator is keeping her alive right now, and I’m praying she can make it through the night. Her brain is filled with blood… Yes, I want you here. Yes, please come, we can’t do this by ourselves. He put my sister on the phone and I hope I never have to deliver this kind of news to her again. She collapsed, he had to help her up, she screamed, she screamed again… No, it can’t be… Paula! Are you sure? No, no, no! I am so sorry, I didn’t mean for this to happen, please forgive me-
And the next call to my younger sister went similarly. She had been on the phone with my mom about an hour before the fall. Her husband had been the one to pick Mom up and bring her to Orlando to catch the flight. There were plans for her to spend a few days with them after the return trip home. Our lives had turned upside down. This call was surreal, like someone else was making the call and I was an observer. I learned later that as I spilled out this nightmare to my younger sister’s husband, he began his characteristic pacing of the house while we were on the phone. This behavior did not stir up any concern in my sister, and it gave her husband and I the advantage of being able to keep her in blissful ignorance for a few more agonizing minutes until he could fully grasp what had transpired in my home. Her reaction was much like my elder sister’s, and having to do this twice in the span of twenty minutes or so was depleting my emotional and psychological reserves. As I reflect back on the first few hours that followed Mom’s accident, I am certain that it was God, and only God, that met me face to face and carried me through, enabling me to carry on.
Many phone calls ensued over the next hour or so, back and forth, calls to and from my Mom’s surviving siblings, explaining more about the severity of the injury, that all of her protective reflexes were gone, that she couldn’t feel pain, that it was only the ventilator and now blood pressure support medications that were keeping her alive. My sisters, their husbands, and my elder sister’s two daughters all made arrangements to fly to Colorado first thing the following morning, we all wanted to be with Mom as she passed from this life to the next. Ironically, although she wouldn’t be flying home to Florida on Tuesday, November 7th, 2006, she would be flying home, to her eternal home, to heaven. The front door to our new home where we had lived for only a year became a symbolic place of passage for my mother.
I did make the decision to take my daughters into the trauma room to see Mom. Their exposure to this event began without my permission…it was a terrible twist of fate that placed them in the position of being exposed to an event that would soon rock LiLi’s world. The cogwheels in her brain had already begun to turn backwards. We carried our little JaneGrace into see her Nannie. Now, as a twelve-year-old, she recalls her grandmother looking quite small in the middle of the big white room with all of the tubes attached to her. She took one look, then declared to no one in particular, “Someone get me out…of…here.” Quite intuitive for a six-year-old, she had clearly conveyed what all of us were thinking.

to be continued

Show Us Some Mercy- 2nd in a series

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I knew the route to St. Anthony Central from my house like I know the back of my hand. I had Sixth Avenue memorized; every bump, every exit, every sign. I knew the length of time it took between each exit and could estimate my arrival to the hospital within a minute. This particular ride, while sitting in the front seat of an ambulance screaming down the road with my mom being worked on in the back, took seemingly forever. My mind was racing, yet time stood still. The moments at home before the ambulance arrived were already being replayed in my head, frame by frame, in slow motion. This was a living nightmare. I began to flip through the possible scenarios of different degrees of head injuries, but my gut told me this one was going to be really bad, with a devastating outcome. I was absolutely incredulous at this tragic turn of events. I had been an ER nurse for 13 years at this point in my life. I had seen tragedy, had walked others’ family members through unimaginable outcomes of senseless acts of violence, of catastrophic failure of the human body, and of random acts of nature with devastating consequences. I knew what it was like to be on the caretaker side of these events. I knew nothing about being the victim, or the loved one of a victim. This was brand new territory. It felt surreal. My turn, my family’s turn, had come.
Every few minutes I would glance over my shoulder and watch the medics as they tended to her. There wasn’t a lot for them to do. I wanted her to wake up, to move, to blink an eye, something… For every minute that she lay there lifeless, my prognosis for her became grimmer. Yes, this was a nightmare. Please, somebody, wake me up!
We drew closer to the ER, and I became aware that we would be arriving just before the evening change of shift. Thank God! I desperately wanted my day-shift co-workers to care for my mother. I knew them well. I knew the work of which they were deftly capable. We fought in the trenches daily as nurses, doctors, and ancillary personnel in an inner city level-one trauma center. We had seen and been through it all… I hungered for familiarity, expertise and comfort that I knew they would provide. All of the staff in this department, doctors, nurses, technicians, desk clerks, chaplains, volunteers, specialists, were all like extended family to me, and I knew they would care for my mother like she was one of their own. If there was any relief in these dire circumstances, it was that I knew she would be receiving the best care possible.
After what seemed like forever, the ambulance finally pulled up into the bay. I slid out  of the front seat, and followed the gurney as the crew was directed into a resuscitation room. I saw some of the staff, my friends, glance curiously at me, trying to figure out why I was there in my street clothes, following this crew into Room 2. They went to work quickly, like a well-choreographed act on my mother, and the ER physician immediately called a “Level-One” trauma response. At this point, I nearly collapsed, covered my face with my hands, and backed out of the room sobbing. I couldn’t take it any longer. Someone led me to a chair at the nursing station and sat with me as the trauma team continued their work on Mom.
She required immediate endo-tracheal intubation, which was a breathing tube that would keep her alive. The ER doc treating her was one of my favorites with whom to work. He was a no-nonsense, expertly skilled clinician with whom I could trust my mother’s life. The team collectively stabilized her, and rushed her to the cat-scanner. She remained completely unresponsive, and as I sat at the nursing station my ER doc friend came to me, reluctantly sharing that her pupils were fixed and dilated. I was numb, speechless, unblinking, trying to will myself to another dimension, another string, somewhere, anywhere but here. I had to be dreaming. People were standing around me, my co-workers, my friends; they had their hands on me, patting my back, offering me hugs, holding my hands. I looked into their eyes desperately seeking some sign of hope, and there was none. They had a bewildered look about them, equally clueless as to why something like this could happen. That is the thing about tragedy: It makes us all feel vulnerable. None of us are immune from being the victim of a random act of violence. The staff in this particular ED had seen it over and over and over again… Columbine in 1999, Platte Canyon High School hostage crisis in September 2006 just five weeks earlier, drowned babies, high school girls pulled from twisted metal in their prom dresses… we just shake our heads, do what we are trained to do, and keep moving forward, placing one foot in front of the other. We learn to cope in many different ways… pushing ourselves to the limits in endurance training, immersing ourselves in our families, living life on the edge, turning to alcohol as medicine, and sick humor, just to name a few. And now, here I was, one of their own had fallen victim. We all dreaded the day when someone we knew crossed that line from caretaker to victim. It was easier to disassociate yourself from an event when you weren’t socially or emotionally connected to an involved party. When you were connected, it was harder to let go.
Mom was now out of the cat-scanner and back in Room Two, and the ER doc and consulting neurosurgeon called me over to the radiology image screens in the ED. The images of my mother’s gravely injured skull and brain sent chills down my spine. I now knew what made those breaking sounds that had caused a knot in my gut at the precise time of her fall. Those sounds, combined with the images on the screen, have been the most difficult memories from which to escape on that dreadful day. Bottles of wine, drugs, therapy, nor all the riches in the world could help me escape from that sound and those images. That is something to which I must accommodate, with which I must live, and must practice to surrender every single day of my life. The doctors informed me that the injury was fatal, her brain was filled with blood and the pressure within her skull that was being created was inconsistent with life. There was no fix, and my mom was going to die. Just like that, when you least expect it, the door slams shut; or is flung wide open, depending on which side of heaven you reside. The time had come to make those dreaded calls to my sisters.
To be continued.

Show Us Some Mercy- 1st in a series

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Friday, November 3, 2006, I flew my mom out to Colorado from our family home on Florida’s east coast to spend a sweet weekend with my two daughters and me. My husband was out of town for a conference, so it made for a perfect girls’ weekend.

We were blessed with the typical Colorado fall pattern of weather: cool and dry with cobalt blue skies. We filled the weekend with fun activities. Friday after picking her up from the airport, we went to a luncheon hosted by a friend from my church. She was able to meet many of my friends with whom our family worshipped. Saturday morning we headed to a holiday bazaar at the Chinese adoption agency through which we brought our daughters home. This was a special treat for her. Both of my daughters were adopted from China, one at age fourteen months, and the second, a special needs child, was brought home two years later at the age of seven. My mother was enamored with my beautiful girls, as they were with her. It was very special for her to visit the adoption agency where our family journey began. We shopped for Chinese trinkets and gifts for the upcoming Christmas season. Saturday night I cooked one of our favorite dishes with shrimp and pasta; we shared some wine and watched a movie with the girls. I made a bubble bath for her in our gigantic tub, and had candles and music to help her relax and enjoy herself. Sunday morning we served communion together at my church. What a privilege this was, to share in serving at the Lord’s Table with my beloved mother. The weekend was truly spectacular. I am the middle of three daughters and had raised hell through my teenage years (and actually into my twenties as well…). Our family hadn’t been perfect; there were addiction issues, and my two sisters, my mom and I all suffered because of them. Mom had done the best she knew how to do in raising us, and I had turned out to be the rebel. My mom and I butted heads from the get-go, which is one of the reasons this visit had been so sweet. It seemed there was always residual tension between the two of us. This time had been different. Although my mother was 82 years old and in relatively good health, I felt as though I was finally placed into the special position of “looking after” her… holding her hand, cooking yummy food, taking care of her. It was the best time we had ever spent together, and I didn’t want it to end.

Monday after we sent the girls off to school, my mom joined me to run a few errands. She saw the emergency department where I worked, and then we headed home to drive up to the mountains with my husband, home from his conference, to enjoy lunch together at one of the large hotel-casinos in a nearby old mining town. We threw a few quarters in the slot machines just for fun, winning a few bucks. We had a blast. Afterwards, we headed back down the mountain to pick up my daughters from school and take my then six-year-old, JaneGrace, to her dance lesson. Mom was excited to see JaneGrace dance with all of her little friends and meet her dance instructor. We finally headed home to settle in for Mom’s last night with us. Little did I know it was truly to be her last night with us.

Mom went upstairs to get ready for dinner and do a little packing, for she was flying home the next morning (little did I know…) and I began scurrying around in the kitchen. Some amount of time went by, my husband was tucked into his chair in the living room and the girls were upstairs playing. I was in our pantry gathering dinner ingredients when all of a sudden I heard a horrific sound… a brief outcry, some kind of fall, something broke; it frightened me and I was immediately overcome with a sense of dread. I ran from the pantry and around the corner into our foyer area, arriving at the same time as my husband. I saw my beloved mother sprawled at the bottom of the stairs on the hardwood floor, with her legs splayed out on the last few steps. She was pale and very, very still. My first words were “She’s out cold!” as I leapt to her side, taking her head into my hands and performing a rapid assessment. My husband had glanced over as she was in mid-flight from the first landing to the foyer floor and was helpless to change the outcome, it all happened so fast. She had struck the floor with such force. My ER nursing skills took over instinctively as I cycled rapidly between daughter and nurse, my senses clumsily conveying the gravity of the situation to my brain. My next few uttered words were “Call 911,” “Clear the area for the medics,” and directing my husband outside to flag down the ambulance. This was all in between intermittent guttural wails as I was living out this unimaginable horror. While protecting my mother’s neck and keeping her airway open to ensure breaths, I slid her backwards until her entire body was off of the stairs and she was lying fully on the hardwood floor. It wasn’t until this moment that she gasped. It was the only movement and sound she made during those interminable moments while I was listening for the scream of the sirens. I realized that had been her first breath she had taken since the fall. In my terror, I had missed this crucial assessment finding.

At this point, my daughters had gathered at the top of the stairs, hearing the commotion, and wondered what was happening. Neither of their young brains could protect them from this vision at the bottom of the stairs. They both began to cry, and JaneGrace, asked me if her Nannie was dead. I assured her she was not, that I was doing everything I could to take care of her Nannie. LiLi also began to cry. The whole scene was just too much to bear. My girls adored their grandmother. We had just spent the most beautiful few days together; how could this have happened? I was supposed to put her on a plane tomorrow to head back home to Central Florida. What was I to do? I had to call my sisters… they would be so angry that this happened on my watch. This was a nightmare rapidly unfolding at the speed of light in my head. The emotions within me unfurled with the momentum of a great sail. I waited on my knees leaning over my mother’s lifeless body and cradled her head in between my hands until the ambulance and fire-truck crew arrived and took over. Her breaths were guttural, barely enough to sustain life. I could feel a faint pulse. “Oh Father God,” I cried; “Please show us some mercy.” My daughters were stricken with grief as they remained perched at the top of the stairs with a bird’s eye view of the unfolding events. I could not protect them from this event. It had happened in front of them. JaneGrace, my little sunshine face, and LiLi my special child were both witnesses to a cataclysmic event in our family’s life.

I asked the rescue crew to please take her to the emergency department at which I worked, which was St. Anthony Central in downtown Denver; a top-notched level-one trauma department. It was ironic that we had just been there a few hours earlier to show my Mom where I worked. The captain of the rescue team happily obliged… it was their predetermined destination. They stabilized her, loaded her into the back of the ambulance while I was helped into the front seat. My husband, LiLi, and JaneGrace followed in our car. I bowed my head in my hands as we drove down my residential street, with neighbors standing outside of their homes wondering what had just happened. The tragedy arrow had struck our lives, and we would never be the same, especially LiLi.
To be continued.

Dear Owl

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“Owl” has been the recipient of my journaling for years as I’ve chronicled through all of the ups and down of my life. “OWL” represents “One who listens.” It helped to imagine a wise, grandfatherly old soul to whom I could pour out my heart unabashedly and with a no-holds-barred conviction. Lately, I have been disclosing the challenges through which I’ve traveled as I’ve raised my second daughter, LiLi. This child, seven years old when we brought her home, was my second internationally adopted daughter from China. Raising LiLi has been the hardest, most guilt-ridden challenge of my life. When I was called to adopt a second child from China, I never imagined a journey like the one our family has traveled since 2003. Riddled with heartache and sprinkled with bittersweet joy, there wasn’t much time to dwell in the “Why me” sorrows. It has been revealed to me that the answer to that question is this: LiLi’s arrival into my life was the beginning of a long road toward redemption. I have a plaque in my kitchen that reads “Find a purpose in life so big it will challenge every capacity to be at your best.” LiLi was my slam-dunk. Journey with me as I recall memorable moments in our evolving story.

Call Me Crazy- On Returning Home

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Two weeks from today, we depart for our heritage tour to China.

Back in January, we were on our way home from a day trip with our two daughters  when an email popped up from our adoption agency, Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI). I opened the email to discover that the Chinese Center for Children’s Welfare and Adoption (CCCWA) had paired up with CCAI to offer a heritage tour for adoptees and their families.  The tour was, in part, being funded by a special grant from the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs, therefore the adoptees in-China travel expenses would be covered. After about a two minute discussion with my husband, we jumped on the deal. We’ve had a good laugh ever since, because although our daughters’ costs are covered for the travel in China, we’ve nearly had to take a second mortgage on the house to cover all of the unlisted expenses. The international airfare alone, for the four of us, could pay for a year of college. Oh well… so much for a free trip. If it sounds too good to be true… it probably is.

After getting over the sticker shock for this tour, we began to marvel at the opportunities this adventure would bring. Todd and I remember quite well both of our adoption trips. The first one, bringing home our then fourteen month old, consisted of the most sweet, memorable days of my life. I became a first-time mother on foreign soil, to the most beautiful baby I could ever imagine. Room 902 in the Majestic Hotel in Nanning, Guangxi, P.R.C. was my birthing room. This was the room where the orphanage nannies delivered my baby into my arms, and where, approximately fifteen minutes later, she promptly puked all over me from the wailing and crying that ensued. But vomiting aside, it was the most beautiful, magical two weeks of which I could have dreamed. I knew at the San Francisco airport, as we waited to board the Singapore Air 747 bound for Hong Kong, that we were embarking on an adventure.  The crew for the jumbo-jet drew a collective gasp from the would-be passengers as they rode the escalator down to the boarding area. We quickly figured out that these exquisitely beautiful Asian women wearing brightly colored sarongs were to be our flight attendants. My husband knew from that moment on that he was going to enjoy that trip a great deal. He thought he had died and gone to heaven. The service and food throughout the twelve hour flight was impeccable.

On our next adoption trip, post 9/11, to bring LiLi home, things were different. We flew on an American carrier with an older, tired, burnt out flight crew that just wanted to get where we were going. Service was an afterthought. The flights for this current heritage tour have been booked on Korean Air, and we have hopes that the Asian influence on the service will be, once more, memorable.

Yes, both of those adoption trips are seared into our minds, nearly every moment; but not into the minds of our little daughters. When we traveled to bring LiLi home, JaneGrace was just a few months past three. Her big memory of that trip was greeting her new big sister under the porte-cochere of our Taiyuan Hotel with a big hug and “I love you.” My big memory of JaneGrace was of our new little family standing in the airport in Shanghai on departure day and her asking me, with the most serious tone she could muster… “so… what are we going to do with LiLi?” To be honest, I was asking myself the same thing. We all boarded the flight and flew from Shanghai to Tokyo and from Tokyo to Seattle. LiLi sat directly behind me and next to my sister on the nine hour leg, where she never slept and kicked the back of my seat the entire journey.  I was nearing the crazy zone as we circled Seattle, preparing to land. LiLi finally fell asleep as the big jet hit the runway. Had I not been so exhausted, I could have drop-kicked her off of the plane.

LiLi’s memory of the adoption trip is fuzzy, although she has recalled not liking me very much. I must add the feeling was mutual. That’s not to say I didn’t try. I do recall sitting on the floor in the hotel room in front of a wall-length mirror with LiLi in front of me and my legs crossed around her. We sat there peering at our images. I had read in an adoption prep book that this was a helpful tool to promote bonding. The typical child coming out of an orphanage has not seen themselves very often in a mirror. So here I was with poor LiLi, sitting in front of this mirror, neither of us understanding the other, and wondering what to do. I would hug her and kiss her, and smile, and she just sat there, wondering what this giant white woman was going to do to her next.  She thought I smelled odd, looked odder, and could we please just get downstairs to the buffet?

The hotel buffets bring to mind another memory from our two weeks in China finalizing LiLi’s adoption. The girl ate more food than a grown man. If watching beautiful Asian flight attendants on our twelve hour international flight was heaven to my husband; LiLi’s idea of heaven was an “all you can eat” Chinese buffet in China.  Her little belly stuck out like a basketball after devouring platefuls of food. She thought this new life was going to be okay after all, and maybe I wasn’t so bad. However, her digestive system took a beating as islets of sluggish cells secreting digestive enzymes were slowly being called into action. One particular night, as we were out eating again, and doing a little sightseeing, LiLi indicated she had to go to the bathroom. We scampered into the public restrooms that were nothing more than holes in the ground,  were as nasty as you can imagine, and weren’t outfitted with toilet paper. Neither was I. The floors of the public restrooms were littered with all sorts of bodily excretions, and I had to help LiLi squat over one of the holes, take aim, and deliver. I squatted in front of her and held her hands to keep her from touching the filth beneath our feet. After what seemed like an eternity of the great exodus, I realized I had nothing with which to clean her bottom. Oh my. Frantically searching through my pocketbook revealed the only paper I could come up with:  the wrapper from a candy bar. We used it. I don’t remember if we ate the candy bar first or just tossed it down the dark hole. Of course public restrooms have no facilities for washing your hands either. Hoo boy.

So now, here we are planning to return to China to take our girls on a heritage tour of their native land. We are thrilled to return to JaneGrace’s city of birth, and tour some of the most beautiful, archeological, historical and cultural jewels of China. We will be blessed to visit with JaneGrace’s foster family and to show her the finding place. LiLi, on the other hand, has not wanted to return to China. I believe she is fearful of not being able to return home. Her memories of her life in the orphanage haunt her. Most often she doesn’t want to even talk about China. She grieves for the loss of her biological mother ,and is fearful that she is dead. Her feelings oscillate between anger and grief for her birth family. Sometimes she gets angry at Todd and me for making her wait for seven years before we “rescued” her. China represents a land of hurt, of injustice, neglect and abuse. So, call me crazy… we are taking her back. She needs to know that her country is beautiful, is filled with beautiful people, and that she was a victim of a most callous from of social injustice. I feel compelled to show her the beauties of China, to fill her mind with memories of the Great Wall, the terra cotta soldiers of Xi’an, giant pandas, and the mystique and wonder of Guilin. She needs to know that China is not to be feared, that we love her very much, and she belongs with us. She is on a journey destined by God Himself… she is a chosen child; His and ours.

854 Friends on Facebook and No One to Come to My Party

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My daughter has an acquired heart condition. She was born with a hole in her heart. Not the kind, mind you, that requires a skilled cardiothoracic surgeon to repair, but the kind in which you can dump anything, including the kitchen sink, and it still won’t be filled. This type of hole is the “black hole” of emotional ans developmental wounds.

Abandoned at birth, she was found on a dirty street corner in a bustling northern city of China at one day old. She weighed in at 5 and one half pounds. To complicate matters, she had a uni-lateral cleft lip-plate. Destined to become a social pariah, a Good Samaritan took her to the city police station after a day of care in his home. From there, she was delivered to the city’s social welfare institute.

The institutionalized years took their toll. She has shared with us that in those early years she was often cold and hungry. She cried to me one day, early on, that when she went to school, her back pack was empty. She had no supplies. This deeply frustrated her. On the floor in our Colorado kitchen, I consoled her as she grieved for that empty back pack, vowing to myself that she would never want again. On another occasion, she shared with me that the kids in the orphanage did not have breakfast, and usually only had a “bun” for lunch. This was the norm, and this was her life.

She has scars on the back of each ear. For years I thought they were cigarette burns, inflicted as a type of punishment. In time, my forensic training revealed they were more consistent with human bite marks. Some scoundrel bit my daughter’s ears to the point where the tissue has been permanently scarred. Both of her feet have a permanent outward rotational position which causes her walking gait to appear glide-like, similar to an ice skater. Once, when she was calming herself down from a tantrum, I understood why. As she sat on the floor with her knees drawn to her chest, she wrapped her arms around the outside of her legs, and firmly grasped each foot from the inside. While rocking back and forth in a trancelike state, she pulled her feet outward to a ninety degree angle and held them there, rocking to and fro. Left to her own devices in the orphanage, no stimulation, little play, rampant cold and hunger, she likely rocked herself for hours as a self-soothing activity.

Back to the present: She has a tremendous need to be accepted, I believe, more than the average 16 year old girl. She longs to be normal, to feel normal, and to be a typical student. In many ways she is a typical teenager. She loves listening to music on her I-pod touch. Her favorite food is spaghetti. She changes her hairstyle almost as many times as her outfits in the morning before departing for the school bus, always asking, “Mom, does this matching?”  My response: “Yes, this matching.” She cares greatly about her outward appearances and the perception others have of her. She dreams of being able to drive someday, and wonders what will happen to her if she is not able to accomplish this goal. She has failed her learner’s permit exam three times now. Maybe it’s because she reads at a first grade level? What are we to do? Extinguish her dream? Help her to dream realistically?

LiLi has 854 friends on Facebook… yet we still were not able to come up with a list of peers to invite to her sweet sixteen birthday.  She has created a virtual world for herself where she can play out her fantasy life. She can be the most popular girl, the most intellectual, and the girl whom everyone wants to be at their party. She takes photos of herself, stunningly beautiful photos, and changes her profile picture almost as often as she changes her hairstyle. She has befriended people half a world away whose language she doesn’t speak.  LiLi has tried to “friend” so many strangers, that Facebook deactivated this privilege because of her misuse. She became a public nuisance.

Last year my husband threw a surprise 50th birthday party for me. At this party, he mistakenly gave LiLi the job of taking photos. Anyone who knows LiLi knows how much she loves getting a camera in her hands. This particular night, she did a great job taking photos; she took over three hundred as a matter of fact. Unfortunately, 95% were of LiLi and her two friends who attended and 5% were of me and my party. It’s all about the image, pun intended. LiLi lacks a comprehensive self-identity. Seeing her own image enables her to create an identity for herself. She is putting together pieces of a puzzle. The damage of institutionalization runs deep in this child. Although she has been with us nine years, the seven years she spent in an orphanage left her scarred.  The scars may fade, but her memories of the infliction carry on.