My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Emotional Memory (Present-Day, Not A Look Back)

(Note: This post is kind of personal, and maybe a bit of a downer.)

Some time back (probably a few years, now) I read an article about "emotional memory," a type of essentially subconscious memory that had no locational or situational details but in which a strong emotion was imprinted in a way similar to how memories of people and events are imprinted.  I haven't followed up on it, but I remember(!) there being some pretty good arguments in favor.

Fast-forward to yesterday.

We're in Maryland, and life here has been as thoroughly disrupted by the pandemic as you might imagine.  Of all the closings, delays, postponements, etc., the one that has had the greatest personal impact on the Pipsqueak was the closing of all schools in the state as the beginning of last week. This means no public school, no Chinese Dance program on Saturdays, and the closure of SBA so no dance classes or dance team rehearsals.  Things being the way they are, the result is that Miri has been with Grandma & Grandpa from relatively early in the morning until sometimes as late as 10:00pm in the evening every weekday.

We knew this wasn't the greatest of all possible arrangements but really didn't have any choice.  We're a close family, and Miri loves her Grandma & Grandpa a great deal (and they are absolutely crazy about her), but it means the very sudden cutting off of almost all physical activity, the loss of first-hand interaction with friends, and basically being a not-quite-11-year-old stuck with only older adults 24x7. Yes, she's able to do schoolwork (we scraped up enough cash to get her a Chromebook "just in case" literally hours before the school closure was announced), and the BFFs all use FaceTime and texting to gossip & chat, but none of that is really a good replacement for personal contact. As for the dance... well, Miri has always been in motion (witness her dancing her way down the aisles in the supermarket when she comes shopping with me, or just standing in the kitchen & going through the moves of onr or another dance routine to the music in her head) and we're doing what we can, but she hasn't been this sedentary since she was in the SWI in China.

Outwardly, Miri seemed okay... but I'm a firm believer in the saying, "Still waters run deep" and we all know how very true that is with her.  Sure enough, on Monday I got a couple of joking-but-desperate texts from her about really wanting to talk to me & how unhappy she was beginning to feel, so I promised her we'd spend some time & take one of our long-missed walks together so we could talk.  After taking care of a few unexpected errands & such yesterday (including an absolutely infuriating bit of legerdemain on the part of Express Scripts basically screwing over my parents, yet another story), Miri and I set out from Mom & Dad's house for a walk through the neighborhood.

We hadn't even cleared the front yard before she was off & running about how much she missed all the things she used to do every day, and how much more she missed spending time with her friends. We wove in & out of related subjects, but she kept coming back to feeling lonely because she's the only kid in the immediate family (all our cousins in her generation live at least a very long drive, if not a plane ride, away). This kept coming up in various forms until she suddenly burst into tears...

"Mommy told me that when I was still a baby in China and when you first picked me up I used to hug myself because I didn't have anybody, and I feel that way again now!"

We had to stop walking and I held her 'til she calmed down enough to resume walking (this happened a 2nd time a few minutes later) and she continued talking about how she had been so lonely and so isolated in China, with no one really there when she needed someone to comfort her, and how this was beginning to feel the same.  Some of what she said had to come from things we'd spoken about with her as she grew up, but there were feelings she spoke about that had to be coming from some deep-seated memories of loneliness.

Emotional memories.

A resurgence of the feeling of being lonely and isolated and having to be self-dependent, even at times she was not physically alone.  She talked about knowing how much we love her and how she knows and strongly feels she is as much a part of this family as anyone else, but she kept returning to how this was making her feel lonely and isolated "again," and how hard it was for her to deal with the feelings that she didn't think she would ever be feeling.

I did a lot more listening than talking for much of our walk (almost an hour) and told her that while we all knew this was hard on her, I doubted that any of us had realized just how deep the feelings of loneliness went or how painful they were for her.  When I apologized she just said, "I know, it's okay" (and began crying again), and said that it was hard for her to put her feelings into words... but kept going back to the theme of isolation and loneliness.

Later that evening, AJ & I had an extended FaceTime session (with the Pipsqueak kibitzing and occasionally joining in) and tried to come up with some ways of handling the situation to minimize Miri's feelings of isolation.  A big part of the problem is that AJ works in healthcare -- there are very few of moms who can take on Miri as an extra daughter for 12+ hours a day, but the real kicker is that many are (understandably!) worried about possible contact with something that AJ may have unknowingly brought home from her facility that could then be passed on to their families.  I'll be hosting Miri at my place a few days on & off, and AJ is going to start taking occasional days off so they can spend time together at home...

...but now we realize, underneath it all, there is an imprinted memory of wanting physical contact, a little bit of personal one-on-one time with both parent figures and peers, of needing comforting and having none. We all clearly remember the sight of the Pipsqueak obviously retreating into herself, sticking a thumb in her mouth and wrapping the other arm around herself like a little bird trying to hide its head under its wing.  It was heartbreaking to see (Mom has often said she knew things were going to be OK only after we stopped seeing that behavior), and just as heartbreaking to realize that in some ways she's still doing that internally.

I still remember Miri's first night with us in China; her crib was between our beds in the hotel room and around 2:30am she woke up and her whimpering woke us.  She & I happened to be facing each other so I reached out and stroked her hand and spoke to her quietly; she got the most shocked expression on her face I could remember seeing on a child that young, then looked at my hand stroking hers, looked back at me, and immediately quieted down, falling back asleep within moments.  She didn't remember that, but it's obvious that the impact and the associated emotions are still with her.

The frightening reality of all that has been stopped, pushed aside, lost, or forbidden due to the current pandemic is teaching everyone just how important it is to have the freedom to share, to be with others, to be part of something larger... and of how powerfully negative it is when we are isolated.  Most of us (and by "us" I mean the vast majority of people) take for granted the links we have with other people but for some folks those links cannot be taken for granted.

My niece keeps teaching me lessons about the world & how to view it, and just did it again.  As strong as familial bonds may be, for an adoptee there is going to be an emotional memory -- perhaps buried deep and barely remembered, perhaps near the surface and raw -- of what it is like to have an empty space early in life for the rest of us is (usually) filled, of the most powerful form of enforced aloneness being a daily reality.

If you are an older adoptee, please make sure you stay connected with your families and friends as much as you can during these times that seem hell-bent on making everyone feel isolated and alone. And if you're an adoptive parent, pay attention to things your kids say about loneliness, about lacking, about missing people. They may not have all the words they need to tell you that this is a place they've been before that they never wanted (or expected) to have to return to.

Stay clean, stay healthy... and make sure you stay connected. None of us should be completely alone, but some of us already know that feeling far too well.

PS - A couple of hours ago the two-week school closure was extended to almost the end of next month.