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, August 19, 2015


Nope, not a misspelling... You'll see.

I'll put up a "real" post very soon, I promise -- but in the meantime here's a quickie from just a couple of days ago.

Earlier this week, while the Pipsqueak was (as usual) at Grandma & Grandpa's (or, as she often says, Grandma and Papa's), Mom was doing her best to keep her little Chinese nuclear reactor granddaughter occupied when the phone rang.  It was an old friend who had News, and Mom needed to get some details from her. As the conversation grew longer, Miri started trying to get Mom's attention and was repeatedly shushed. (Miri has an internal timer that lets you talk to someone else on the phone this long before having to pay attention to her again.)

Mom was relieved when the Pipsqueak finally (apparently) gave up and stomped annoyedly into the next room where she sat down with paper & crayons. A few minutes later, she stomped back into the kitchen (where Mom was still catching up on the phone) and held up her artwork so Grandma could see it.

It wasn't a picture, it was a sign: "YOU ARE AGNORING ME!"

Mom said she laughed so hard, she almost dropped the phone.  After the call ended, Miri had specific instructions: the sign was to be kept in a safe place until Grandma died, after which she would get it back.  Mom agreed and the two of them had a good laugh.

A little while later, Mom told me about it while we were trying to coordinate events on the phone -- and suddenly burst out laughing because Miri had just held up another sign with a big smile: "YOU ARE STILL AGNIRING ME!"

Aside from the spelling glitches, I think my niece got her message across quite clearly, don't you...?

(Oh, and I've had her with me several hours every day so far this week -- the main reason I'm behind on posting here. Luckily I only had to watch Sabrina Carpenter's "Eyes Wide Open" video 7 times in a row on Monday before Miri decided on another song.)

Gotta love this kid!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Our Quiet Cousin Jon

This isn't the post I was planning, but life is what happens while you make other plans.

And sometimes... Well, sometimes the aspect of life one must deal with is the undeniable, unavoidable, and unpleasant fact that it is finite.

Our cousin Jonathan had a rare, slow moving form of what is normally a virulent, fast-moving cancer. It went undiagnosed / misdiagnosed / unnoticed for so long that the "normal" form would have left his doctors going, "Oh, so that's what was wrong..." -- but the ugly beast that took up residence in his body was an odd kind that left him time for some very important and very, very difficult decisions.

Jon chose to counterattack with everything he had, to give himself as much life as he could for as long as he could. There was some chemo, and some astonishingly drastic surgery; there were good days and not-so-good days, but the important point was that he put his all into extending life on his terms for as long as he could and succeeded beyond most people's expectations.

Jon wasn't the kind of guy you'd expect to be growling and snarling in a fight, chest-bumping with other fighters, talking about how he was gonna beat this thing no matter what. He was the quiet guy who kinda sorta faded into the background, the one at the party you were never sure was still there or had already left until you saw him through the crowd, the quiet wallflower with a hidden but wicked good sense of humor. He was one of those rare lawyers who chose that field not because it was a great way to make money (which he never had much of), but because, "justice, justice shalt thou pursue" really, truly meant something to him.

But he chose to meet his terrible disease head-on, to fight it on an even field and tackle it in his own, quiet way.

Jon was a husband and a father. His wife was known by family & friends as something of a force of nature, one of those two-legged dervishes who whirls so fast that one is never sure if it was her or a small tornado that just passed by. She established a semi-(in)famous business in DC, and Jon was often a quiet presence behind the counter while she was the public face of the business. After her sudden, shocking death, Jon kept the store open for as long as he was able, making sure it provided an income to its employees and service to the community to the greatest (shrinking) extent possible, then presided over its sad, quiet demise.

They had one child, a boy who is truly the combination of the best of both parents. Over the years we have watched him grow into the kind of man one can only hope one's son grows up to become, highly independent and self-contained while simultaneously being caring, empathic, and connected, a brilliant mind tempered by true, non-feigned humility. Not too long ago, he helped his father scatter his mother's ashes in the land of her birth, meeting her family for the first time as the two of them were immediately welcomed as long-lost close relatives by cousins and grandparents previously unimagined, some of whom could only communicate through bilingual interpreters.

I won't go into details of how Jon's lawyering helped me in a time of need, but he did it just to help his cousin Brian and for the satisfaction of de-sliming his profession a bit (and if memory serves, neither requested nor received much more payment than that for his insanely important services). He also had a great relationship with the Pipsqueak. He celebrated a couple of his birthdays with her, and he happily let her "force" him into wearing one of those silly pointed cardboard hats, and blowing out his candles & cutting his cake the way she told him to, and sharing what was on his plate when smiling little fingers aimed a fork in that direction instead of at her own plate.

When it became obvious to Jon that he had delayed the inevitable as long as his body would allow, he gathered his strength for a last trip back to his old haunts scattered around California and what I think he considered his real hometown of Klamath Falls. True to form, when he only had enough strength to sit in his hotel room and have friends come to him instead of his being able to see them in their homes, he would apologize to them for the inconvenience as if it was his choice.

This is a large family, so (even though Jon only has one son) Jon was not an only child by any means;  his sister and brothers decided everyone should get together near the end of this month at Jon's house for a celebration of his life, one last big sharing of stories and jokes before the family's numbers were diminished.  Mom told his sister she wasn't sure Jon would make it that long, but sometimes we choose to err on the optimistic side of things so a late August date was set.

In July, when part of the New York branch of the family made their annual trip south to spend our folks' birthdays here, Jon was unable to join us for more than a short time one evening.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, his son mentioned that things might not be going quite as well as we'd hoped, so our folks and I spent a little time at the house, quietly shocked at how much thinner and weaker Jon had become in just a few weeks. He was already on hospice, but a steady flow of neighbors with foods he could still eat and a sense of humor about the whole thing was keeping him going. (He made a point of showing us the Lego Homer Simpson mezuzah he'd been sent, holding it up for me to take a photo.)

We did a little (just a little!) snooping, and AJ quickly discovered Jon's social worker for hospice was an old colleague, so word was passed that this guy deserved some special treatment -- and word came back that he was so appreciative, such a nice guy, and so concerned at being a burden to the social worker or hospice nurse that no such request was necessary because it came naturally in his case.

Then came the text message from his son saying Jon was telling his siblings that maybe they should visit "sooner rather than later."  AJ and I headed over this past Saturday, and the four of us had a pleasant time reminiscing about this & that. My sister and I were quietly shocked at how weak Jon had become, how thin, how gray; his already-quiet voice had been even quieter when I'd visited just a week earlier with our folks, but now it was often barely a whisper, and Jon had to stop frequently to catch his breath or just close his eyes & rest. There was something different in his eyes that day; no one said anything out loud, but he knew it was time, and he was ready.

I wasn't at work too long Thursday evening when my cell phone rang, the Caller ID showing the name of our cousin in New York. He said he'd just gotten home from work and found an email from Jon's sister saying he'd passed earlier that afternoon. I went down the hall to tell AJ, arriving at her office just in time for her to have picked up the phone to talk to Mom, so I wound up giving her the news as well. I called our cousin (Jon's sister had already come in to help him and was at the house) and she told me he'd had a really good day, with pleasant visits from both the social worker and hospice nurse; he'd eaten something for the first time in 24 hours, and even managed to walk around the living room a couple of times (with help) before getting ready for a bath. He'd gotten into a nice, hot tub (she added he was wearing boxers so his dignity was intact despite needing some help), brushed his teeth... and leaned back to rest...

...and finally, in his usual quiet, dignified way -- with just a touch of humor, sitting of all places in a bathtub -- accepted the inevitable that his body no longer had the energy to fight.

We haven't had much time, but before she left for home later in the evening, AJ and I discussed what to tell the Pipsqueak. She knew Jon, and genuinely liked him, and remembers who he was in relation to other family members.  AJ has reached out to some friends & colleagues with expertise in the area of helping children understand & deal with death, but the basic decision was that she'd speak with Miri about it and let her know Jon had died.  The poor kid's already had her share of exposure just in the past few months, with at least two classmates losing close family members during the regular school year and then one of the little boys in her summer camp group telling her he wanted to die so he could visit his grandma in heaven... Trying to hide what's happened, especially with so many cousins normally scattered across two continents all suddenly appearing out of the woodwork, really isn't an option any more. Our biggest fear isn't so much how she'll react to Jon's loss, but how she'll apply it to our folks' slowly-increasing health issues (which she's already reacting to with real concern). We'll have to work our way through this with her and see how it pans out, but at least we know we'll have some help & support.

Thank you, Jon, for all your help... and thank you for showing us how it should be done. Godspeed.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Independence Day 2015

Okay, so I'm skipping back & forth on the calendar... Sorry about that, just lemme get on with it and no one gets hurt.

July 4th was going to be different this year; my good friends M&S (who finally tied the knot on Pi Day this year, featuring that number prominently in many ways, in a private ceremony officiated by S's two gorgeous and amazingly intelligent grown daughters - mazel tov, youse guys!) ...anyway, my good friends M&S -- who also include the rest of us crazies as friends -- both won tickets in a raffle at work for coveted spots at DOL in downtown DC to see the fireworks... and immediately turned around and said, "We have five extra tickets, why don't you all come down and join us for the fireworks?"

We haven't seen the big National Independence Day Celebration on the Mall downtown in person for many years; our last trip was pre-China and ended with a long, soggy, tired slog through a rainstorm through DC until we finally found a Metro station with just enough space for us to squeeze onto the platform, only to find out that they'd decided to start the fireworks show anyway sometime around the moment we first set foot on homeward-bound train. Up 'til then July 4th always included a trip into DC for the festivities. It was a lot easier when Dad still worked; we'd drive down to State, then pile out of the car with all our stuff while Dad used his ID to park in the garage under the building, and we'd walk to Constitution Gardens and spread out our blankets for the evening. Once Dad retired from State, we used various methods involving Metro and/or our car, but it began to get much more difficult with all the post-9/11 security checks and somehow the crowds kept getting bigger & more difficult to deal with... so that long, wet, rainy night was the last. We quickly discovered that we could easily get nice spots and a really good show on the UM College Park Campus, so that was "it" until this year.

Or so it seemed. The closer we got to the holiday, the more issues seemed to pop up, the more questions there were, the worse the weather forecast became, and everything seemed to be getting steadily more complicated. By the time the 3rd rolled around, I needed a little mood booster... and got an unexpected bit of help from the country club adjacent to my neighborhood.

I was sitting in the living room around 9pm when there was a loud explosion outside. I froze on the couch, remembering how the last time I'd heard that sound it was followed shortly by nearly a dozen emergency vehicles zooming down my street, but shortly afterwards there was another, and then another... and I realized I was hearing fireworks. I grabbed my camera and ran out my front door, and sure enough there were fireworks a-poppin' just over the row of houses between me and the club.

I was leaning against the streetlamp across from my house shooting photos for a good 20 minutes, during which a couple of cars stopped in the middle of the road and we all just watched the show until I could hear the post-finale cheers of the club's membership. I was still wondering if we'd be able to get to see any fireworks on the 4th proper, but went to bed that night feeling OK since I'd at least been able to see part of a show that evening.

The 4th dawned gray and rainy, but the weather began clearing early enough (but just a few minutes) for the organizers of the Independence Day events in our folks' neighborhood to decide they'd go ahead with everything as planned.

I arrived at the elementary school that serves as the parade's starting point just a bit after the rest of the family. Mom & Dad helped sign up marchers (and riders and pedalers and skaters and...) for the parade itself while I spoke with a few family friends, took a few photos, and tried to be helpful. The Pipsqueak spent time trying to negotiate with Mommy who'd be pushing, who'd be pulling, and who'd be riding (guess who did most of the latter?) or just walking around waving a couple of small flags and generally enjoying the chaos of milling cub scouts, boy scouts, and decorated bikes / scooters / wagons / strollers / whathaveyous. The local fire company (photo above) showed up right on time to lead the parade through the neighborhood to the pool, the scout troop formed up behind them, and it was off to the pool!

I had planned to shoot photos of the parade as usual, but very quickly ran into a glitch: the only people left to clean up the mess & move tables, chairs, etc. to the pool were my folks and one of their friends (none of whom are exactly spring chickens). I helped fold things up, pick things up, and load furniture into cars, then got to drive our friend's wife's very fancy car to the pool for her -- by which time the parade had long finished and everyone was on the pool grounds. I tried hard to look like I actually belonged there while marching through the gate past the lifeguards (Dude, did you look that young when you were a lifeguard there?) And enjoyed the people-watching and the silly magic show that kept most of the kids happily engrossed for a while.

My water-baby niece insisted on going into the pool, and since this year AJ remembered to bring swimsuits for both herself and her daughter, was soon playing happily in the pool with Mommy and some of the other kids. However, since her grandparents and uncle had to stay in the muggy (and buggy) air outside the pool, we were soon headed home to try to figure out lunch. It took some discussion, and some real careful consideration of the shape everyone was in, but we made the somewhat disappointing and somewhat embarrassing decision that going into DC for the fireworks, as exciting a prospect as it might be, was simply not a good idea.  AJ & I both texted M&S (who were wonderfully gracious & understanding) and -- after still more discussion, during which AJ reminded everyone she didn't care what anyone else was doing but she WAS going to see fireworks that evening, one way or another -- we decided to return to good ol' Lot 1 at UMCP.

Once past the annual Argument Over Where To Park and the accompanying annual Disagreement Over Whether Or Not This Is Where We Sat Last Year, we were set up with our blankets, cooler, folding chairs, camera tripod, etc. etc. etc. and settled in to wait for dusk.  AJ & I walked over to the bandstand with Miri and (sort of) danced to the music a while, then rejoined our folks only for Miri to decide (after passing all the port-potties twice) that now she needed to pee so she & AJ set off back to where we'd just come from.

Married over 60 years and they still hold hands!  :-)
I futzed around with my camera & tripod a little, taking advantage of the fact that Mother Nature was providing some very nice Independence Day fireworks of her own:

Finally, as the sun truly disappeared over the horizon, there was the usual single starburst shell, the band wrapped up their performance, and all of a sudden AJ had her fireworks!

Now, if you remember my posting about last year's fireworks at UMCP, you'll recall that they had some technical difficulties that led to the show suddenly just... stopping... after three or four too many shells blew up in their launch tubes. In fact, I overheard a couple of conversations around us in which people were openly wondering if they'd have to find a different venue for future fireworks shows if things went awry again this year. Happily, there was just one real "whoops" (accompanied by a lot of comments along the lines of, "oh, no, not again!" and, "I hoped they'd get it right this year!") and the shells just kept shooting up into the sky to generate lots of oohs and aahs from the crowd.  Finally, after nearly 40 minutes of booms, bangs, pops, sizzles, and enough colors to make me think the company putting on the show was working extra-hard to make up for the previous year's major fail, the colored bursts and golden chrysanthemums segued into about a minute of solid sky-filling fire with staccato explosions that we could feel as strongly as hear, and the show closed out with a proper (and satisfying) finale.

We made amazingly good time getting home (helped, I'm sure, with the entire crowd being in a better mood than last year!) and all agreed that even without a rooftop vantage point in downtown DC, this year's Independence Day was one of the better ones in recent years.