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 31, 2016

Shadow Child, Ghost Child

This isn't one of my usual posts. This post is a train-of-thought essay about an aspect of adoption that periodically waves hello from the back of my mind but that I don't remember seeing any real mention of elsewhere... so here are some not entirely stray thoughts from yours truly to (perhaps) get some conversation started.

It's not uncommon for children to have imaginary friends, or for adults to occasionally have a verbal exchange with someone who isn't actually physically present. (Dude, you talkin' 'bout me?) It's common practice for individuals practicing a speech or presentation to visualize their audience, for lonely travelers to imagine their family at the dinner table with them, for people under duress to ask long-gone loved ones and advisors for guidance in difficult times.

Families involved in the adoption process are familiar with something very similar. Picture this: you've successfully completed reams of paperwork, survived having the details of your life and your loved ones' lives picked through by strangers, worked your way through fees and notarizations and fees and filings and fees and reviews and more fees, perhaps even completed the nursery... and now all you can do is wait.

Wait, and imagine what the child will be like.

"Hold on a second," I hear you say. "How is that different from the experience of any expectant parent, adoptive or pregnant?

Anyone waiting to become a parent via any method is going to (or should!) wonder & worry about the life they're about to add to their family. However, when you're adopting, you also have to worry about the entire process being derailed because a sheet of paper has gone missing, a single signature on a single page was forgotten, or the date on one form is different from the date on another form; because politics dictate slowing or stopping the process, charges of corruption are made, or a judge is in a bad mood; or because a parent who may live a few blocks away or on the opposite side of the planet changed their mind at the last minute (or, in some cases, up to a full year after the child has joined the adoptive family). There is likely no way to monitor or influence the health of mother and fetus. There is no baby bump to watch slowly grow, to marvel over, to lay hands on to feel the kicks and rolls happening inside. And then there is possibly the greatest difference of all: adoptive parents have no way to know if they will have to wait for months... or years.

While caught in The Wait, you are bonding with a child who is not there, a child who (in our case) is as far away as is possible without leaving the planet. We were not able to follow the progress of a pregnancy because at no time during the adoption process could we ask who the mother was; we didn't even have any way to know where, in one of the world's largest and most geographically diverse nations, that particular mother and child were located. There was no slowly expanding belly to admire, no happy exclamations about feeling a tiny kick, no late-night runs to the 24-hour convenience store for pickles and ice cream.

So we waited as the years passed. While we waited, we shopped. While we waited, we slowly turned a spare bedroom into a nursery. While we waited, we planned for contingencies and quietly panicked over reports of poisonous water, poisonous food, and poisonous air at different locations in China.

And while we waited, we developed strong emotional bonds with a child we all knew might not have even been born yet. (At least we knew it would be a girl!)  We had many discussions about what "the baby" or "the child" might look like and how our individual schedules would change so she would have plenty of time to bond with AJ.  We worried about IF the child would bond with AJ.  We worried about how traumatic it would be for the child (we would look, sound, even smell different from absolutely every other human being she knew -- and that's without the terrible loss suffered by children who had been in foster care and would thus be torn away from any family they had already come to know and perhaps truly love).  We wondered if she would still accept us as her family as she grew and realized none of us looked like her.  And somewhere in there we found time to also worry about most of the things any expectant family would worry about.

For us, The Wait lasted roughly five years but our lives began to revolve around "the child" before the first year had passed... a child who was not actually there.

A shadow child.

As time went on, the shadow influenced (sometimes determined) decisions about housing, finances, vacations, careers, and health care. She affected and subtly changed our view of the world, connected us closely with people we were unlikely to have otherwise met or spent time with, and placed constraints on use of personal time in a way similar to what she would in our post-Gotcha Day lives.

To some degree, most expectant families live with a shadow child... but human biology limits the shadow's lifespan to no more than nine months (frequently less). Our shadow child lived with us for almost five years.

Sometimes she was "Ladybug" or "Biscuit" and sometimes she was just "the baby," but for almost five years there was an invisible child in my family who was more real than any imaginary friend, visualized audience, or long-lost ancestor could be. We bought gifts for her, wondered when her birthday was, worried about her health, dreamed about her future, discussed how we would address issues with her, bonded with her, began slowly falling in love with her.  We talked about what kind of parenting issues might come up based on if her personality was like this or like that. We wondered if she would be a tomboy or a girlie girl or something in between; if she would be allergic to AJ's cats; if she would be introverted or extroverted; how quickly she would adjust to the change in food & environment; and what kinds of activities we could share with her.

For almost five years.

And then, suddenly, she was gone.

On Monday, May 10th, 2010, AJ received a phone call telling her she had been matched with a little girl, followed by an email with three tiny photographs attached... and the shadow child melted away unnoticed. All those whatifs, iwondwers, and doyouthinks that made up her form and image were replaced with the solid reality of a little girl who liked sleeping in bed beside her new mommy and who did a wonderful job of peeing aaaalll the way down from her new uncle's armpit to his foot without it bothering him for more than a moment.

The happiness of being matched, the excitement of preparing for & engaging in travel halfway around the world, and the indescribable emotions of the moment a 13-month-old baby girl was placed in my sister's arms for the first time (on Dad's 80th birthday, just two days before Mom's 76th) meant there was no mourning. The shadow child had been a placeholder, a bookmark that would let us return to pages in life's story and fill in fact where there had been only conjecture. And that's really how it's supposed to be. My niece is not a shadow or a figment of imagination -- she is a real, flesh-and-blood bundle of amazing.

And yet, much to my surprise, the shadow has not vanished completely.

Every now and then -- when I watch the occasional gotcha day video on YouTube or hear the occasional joking, "You got a good one!" --  I'll catch myself ticking off the differences between my beloved niece and the most frequently imagined aspects of the shadow who had lived in our homes for so many years. There is no actual list, and it is not a competitive "this is better than that would've been, but that would've been nice to have" kind of comparison...  It is just a realization that even with this wonderful little girl (finally) in our family, we had in a sense lost another, one who had simultaneously never actually existed and yet in many ways ruled our lives as much as Miri has from Gotcha Day onward.

In short, the shadow has become the ghost of someone who never actually lived.  There's the occasional thought of how much this is like what I had imagined or how different that is from what I imagined, all while the faceless image of an anonymous little girl floats through my mind. I can't (don't want to!) imagine life without the Pipsqueak but somehow, every now and then, that little ghost materializes just long enough to make her presence known before fading away again for an indeterminate time.

So... anybody else out there remember your shadow child, or encounter their ghost?

Friday, August 26, 2016

Catching Up: A Not-Necessarily-Adoption-Related Post

This post isn't really about the Pipsqueak & her family's adventures... Just some photos I came across and wanted to share.

We've had some wild-crazy weather 'round these parts lately... as in monsoon-style rainstorms, flash flooding, multiple lightning strikes, intense three-digit heat (or heat indexes), and so on. The kind of stuff that used to happen maybe once or twice a year seems to be on more of a monthly basis, if not more frequently.

Back in 1970, for our last trip Stateside after living in Chile, we came via ship instead of flying. During a stop in Guayaquil, we had gone for a walk and on the way back to the ship it started raining and I swear the drops were as big as golf balls. Fast-forward to March 19th of this year, and...

That's not snow; those big speed-blurred blobs are raindrops. I didn't know if I should take a photo, run for cover, or head outside in a swimsuit!

Back in the early 1970s, the homeowners' association in our neighborhood cut a deal with a local nursery for cut-rate prices on flowering cherry trees. (The developer had simply scraped everything in sight off the base layer of clay when construction began, and the entire place had a barren look to it.) Although a number of homeowners declined to participate in the mass purchase, many along the main street through the neighborhood did and the result in subsequent years has been a spectacular display of white and pale pink cherry blossoms every spring. Unfortunately, the trees are beginning to show their age (some have died outright) so the display is becoming a little more sparse each year, but I got some nice shots from our folks' yard:

As i said, the display is slowly thinning out each year (and these shots were taken a few days past peak), but it's still a beautiful sight to walk & drive through.

One last thing... Jump forward to the here & now, and I have killed another camera.  AJ, the Pipsqueak and I spent last week with friends at the beach and (perhaps inevitably) despite being as careful as I could a few grains of sand got into my camera's lens mechanism. As we were pulling out of the gas station to head home late Saturday, I tried for a quick shot of the sunset through the windshield... and the camera gave me a super-blurry image, then displayed a sharp and clear "SYSTEM ERROR: FOCUS FAILURE" (like I couldn't tell!), then shut down with the lens still fully extended.  I finally found a shop that could handle Panasonic cameras (I didn't want to mail it to the official service center in Texas without an estimate)... and got a minimum estimate $10 higher than the camera's original purchase cost along with a gently and diplomatically presented lesson in what type of camera should or should not go to the beach. I really didn't have the money in my budget but I'm the type of person who cannot be without a working camera -- so my new Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS50 was delivered early Thursday and I've begun getting used to it. The ZS40 is on the shelf next to the TZ5 that was dropped one time too many and  I'm hoping to someday have enough money to say "the heck with it!" and get them both repaired. (Dude, I know hope springs eternal etc. but really...?!?)

Anyway, that's my non-adoption-related post, I've got a lot of things to catch up on after the trip so I'll "speak" with y'all again in a few days!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Catching Up: Science Share 2016_03_16

During my illustrious career as an elementary & junior high school student, I participated regularly in school science fairs. Some sort of blurred past, while others remain etched firmly in my memory. (Most notable was the huge diorama filled with hand-made plasticine dinosaurs & plants divided into geological epochs that took nearly two months of Mom pushing reminding me to complete on time; I still remember being caught totally off guard when, in the middle of my presentation, the parents of an older student asked me if the dinosaurs became extinct because Noah didn't take them aboard the ark. The next most memorable was the interactive rock & mineral display I built complete with "Can you find the calcium?" only to discover a couple of hours into the fair that someone had walked off with my only chunk of calcium.)

(Dude, you're getting off track again.)

Ahem. Well, anyway, the Pipsqueak is continuing her uncle's proud(?) tradition with her school's annual "Science Share," partnering with her BFF H on the kind of yummy experiment I wish I'd thought of myself: testing & reporting on the melting times of various types of chocolate. AJ bought the chocolates & helped them run the experiment (read: made sure they didn't burn down the house) and both moms contributed to the display, but the girls did the majority of the actual work themselves.

The big Science Share event was on March 16th, with all the displays set up in the school gym where lots (and lots and lots) of families, friends and teachers moved back & forth between various experiments. The girls set up their "Sweet Meltdown" display and then spent much of the evening wandering around, checking out the other exhibits -- so much so that we had to periodically remind the girls that at least one of them had to stay at their own display to answer visitors' questions and talk with the judges.

I spent some time wandering on my own and was really impressed with the experiments on display. Sure, there was the usual vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano and a couple of "Will It Float" experiments, but also things like checking which type of music will calm down a cat the most, what types of liquids glow when a laser beam passes through them, comparisons of the specific gravity of different drinks marketed to kids, and even one where I'm not too sure what the actual experiment was about because the math & physics involved went too far beyond anything I'd ever dealt with. (Remember, these were all done by kids in elementary school!)

Here are some photos of the event...

Making sure everything is set up properly...
Experimental results presented for all the world to see.
Mommy & Grandpa check out the crowd.
Talking to the judges of the Science Share competition.
Waiting for the awards ceremony to begin; this is only about half the crowd!
Only a few won prizes but all the kids got certificates of participation, handed out
one-by-one by the principal. Here the Pipsqueak's getting her certificate.
"Oh, no, Uncle Brian is trying to take my picture again!"
 All the families helped pack up & clean the gym after the event officially ended, and the girls had a good time just running around with their friends. (It's not every day that your entire family is visiting your school, especially at night!) As we headed down the main hallway to the exit, Miri & H simultaneously noticed photos of themselves on the board where photos of school activities are posted every week and wasted no time in pointing each other out to each other...

We all congratulated the girls on a job well done and closed out the evening with ice cream while the Pipsqueak began trying to decide what experiment she'll do for Science Share in second grade next year.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Catching Up: One More Chinese New Year Event 2016_03_12

On March 12th, our Year of the Monkey celebrations finally came to a close with the annual CCACC[1] Chinese New Year Banquet -- ironically at the same restaurant we'd recently had such a negative experience with.

There was a rousing Lion Dance, several raffles, and lots of good food. We did more than watch & eat; like last year, Miri's group was performing the dance that they had recently performed for the public at large at Lakeforest Mall (as seen in this post). They had roughly half the space they needed, but did a fine job with a complex dance in full costume resulting in lots of enthusiastic applause. (I apologize for the lack of performance photos, but they all violated the blog's picture rules.)

After the performance, the girls all changed out of their costumes and the real eating (and singing, and playing of games, and raffle drawings) began in earnest. Since it was a special celebration, most of the girls changed into Chinese dress instead of the usual jeans/shorts and tees.

One nice addition to the event this year was a chance for all the kids to do their own dragon dance through the restaurant with an appropriately kid-sized dragon. After a few minutes to get organized, the mini-dragon, complete with leading giant magic sphere and a comet's tail of assorted kids, marched right out of the banquet area and made the rounds of the entire (very large) restaurant. The procession was a bit of a surprise to the many other patrons, but everyone seemed to have a good time. The kids holding the dragon -- Pipsqueak included -- were especially proud and there were lots of smiles all around.

The banquet began to formally wind down, but there was one more special activity. Since it would be A Bad Idea to set of firecrackers inside the restaurant and there wasn't enough bubble wrap for everyone to jump on (try it -- it sounds just like firecrackers!), the final send-off was a balloon popping contest. All the kids had a balloon tied to one of their ankles and then tried to pop it by stomping -- leading to a higher level of chaos than I think the hosts had anticipated but which had enormous entertainment value for both the kids and everyone watching.

The  calm before the storm -- the kids are still having balloons tied to their
ankles. I was too busy laughing to get good photos of the actual stomping.
And that's how we (finally!) closed out all our Year of the Monkey celebrations!

1 - CCACC is the Chinese Culture and Community Service Center, the group that runs (among many other programs) the Chinese school Miri & many other local adoptive families' kids attend.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Just A Quickie in the Minutes In-Between

Lots going on lately, most good (for a happy change). Some medical scares came & went, some minor medical concerns are coming but so far insist on remaining minor. We had the annual visit from the Long Island branch of the family (and it really is "Long Island" and not "Lawnguyland") and that was a whole bunch o'fun. We have concert tickets for October that the Pipsqueak doesn't know about yet but was asking about a week ago, some beach time with good friends is coming up soon, and I'm slowly but surely plowing forward to stay on target to complete my coding & billing certification this year.

The problem is, there's a LOT going on, so I'm kinda sorta typing this in between doing three or four other things (at least two of them simultaneously)... So please forgive the brevity of this post, more info (and photos and silly comments, etc.) will be posted shortly!

Oh, and someone please explain to that idiot Al Trautwig how adoption, and love, and parenting, and family building all work. Thanks.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Sometimes Knowing Doesn't Help

It's been a rough week 'round these parts (and I'm only talking about the "public" items in this post).

The entire week was marked by some of the most brutally hot weather we can remember. Monday afternoon vanished into a meeting with a lawyer. Tuesday evening, AJ came out of work to find someone had sideswiped her van in the parking lot[1]. Wednesday was spent at a local hospital while Mom had a scary procedure done[2]. Thursday brought some crazy-bad afternoon storms.

And then Saturday morning I helped AJ & Miri take their little cat Dulce to the vet for the very last time.

We're one of those crazy families that gets nearly as attached to our pets as to our fellow humans, and Dulce was with us a for over 16 years. She was, in fact, the last of AJ's cats from her life before being Mommy (we lost her adopted sister Midnight just a couple of days before flying to China). She had the kind of disposition that immediately lent itself to the name "Dulce" and even adjusted to the sudden appearance of a two-footed small whirling dervish in her home.

Dulce's health began failing a little over a year ago, and my crazy sister went above & beyond the call of duty with trying to keep her happy & healthy. Dulce got special food. Dulce got special medicine. Dulce was hand-dialysed with Ringer's at home every 3-4 days. (Dude, you did mention this family is crazy.) Dulce got cuddled & coddled and even Miri treated her a little differently. All this was accompanied with slowly-increasing frequency by conversations about cost, and time, and cost, and effort, and cost... but the truth was that AJ was just not ready to let go (or to give her daughter a first-hand experience with that type of loss).

The thing is, we all knew that Dulce was an old lady. We all knew that she lived the kind of life that a cat can only dream of. We all knew the clock was ticking more & more loudly. We knew what it meant when she began having trouble getting around, began losing her vision, stopped being able to use the litter box. And we knew what it meant when AJ oh-so-casually mentioned that she had a 7:30pm appointment with the vet for Dulce on Thursday (rescheduled for Saturday due to the weather).

AJ was going to go alone but none of us were going to let her do that... and since Yours Truly was the big softie who the little kitten butted up against & then went to sleep on when we first met her at the cat rescue lady's house, I needed to say goodbye just as much as AJ and Miri.

The Pipsqueak learned what it was all about on Saturday morning, and AJ's text included the phrase, "immediately started crying." As expected, she said it wouldn't be fair to leave her at home -- and then burst into tears again when AJ said she could come but would have to leave the room with me when the vet was ready to give Dulce the "special medicine" (AJ did not want to say "the shot" because the Pipsqueak still has a few of her own due this year). Then came the questions about what are ashes, and if she could have something to remember Dulce by, and what was Mommy going to do?

After a few more explanations, the Pipsqueak calmed down and proceeded to worry that Xuan (Dulce's feline sister) would be lonely, and that when they get a dog in three years[3] it might scare her if she was the only cat. Then, even more to her credit, she gave Mommy two big hugs to help her feel better.

The drive to the animal hospital wasn't as tough as I thought it would be -- lots to talk about, lots to see, and Miri kept up a running play-by-play on what Dulce was doing in the carrier on the seat beside her. The staff at the hospital know AJ well and were solicitous and caring, and got us all into an examination room within moments of walking in.  Miri asked if she could hold Dulce -- a somewhat unusual request -- and was rewarded with an ongoing quiet purr.

The tech handling the paperwork was in & out a couple of times, but we were given time to say our goodbyes. Another tech came in at one point, explaining that she'd met AJ many times & sold her some of the meds but had never actually met Dulce and wanted to see her while she still could. (She was obviously choosing her words carefully in front of a 7-year-old.) Eventually, AJ took Dulce and held her while signing the last of the papers, and a few minutes later the vet himself came in with a small hypodermic. We all had to explain to a very curious Pipsqueak that it was NOT a good idea to pick it up to examine it more closely... and then I had to tell Miri that she needed to say goodbye for the last time.

Miri knew what that meant and immediately began to cry, but collected herself enough to do what she needed to. I took a moment for my own goodbye and then led the Pipsqueak from the room. She collected herself and stopped crying fairly quickly, and we had an emotional discussion about how Mommy knew it was the right time to do this and how we knew that it was the best thing for Dulce. Eventually the distractions of several kittens, a puppy, and a couple of hyperactive small dogs cleared the clouds and Miri was just about to ask me when it would all be done for the second time when the exam room opened and AJ came out with the empty carrier.

Miri wanted to go back in to see Dulce again but AJ explained that since we had all said our goodbyes already, the vet had taken her into the back after she had gone to sleep. The Pipsqueak was obviously disappointed but accepted the explanation and offered to help carry things out to the car. We made a stop at a nearby ice cream stand (and had to eat in the car because another really nasty storm came rolling through), then headed to our folks' house. Mom had gotten matching inexpensive cat necklaces for both AJ & Miri, and after spending some family time we went out for an early dinner to celebrate making it through what had been a tough & scary week for us all.

We know life ending is as much a part of how the universe works as life beginning. We know AJ took advantage of all the health options available for a very sick little kitty. We know Dulce lived a long, pampered, happy, love-filled life, and we also know that it really was her time to go. We know the Pipsqueak needs to learn all this, be guided through all this, be ready for more of this. We also know that the Pipsqueak often shows a wisdom far beyond her age, and can see her processing the loss of one of "her" cats and all the associated issues.

But somehow all that knowing doesn't make it any easier.

1 - Amazingly, the guy left a note with his name & phone number... and it turned out to be one of the new Rehab therapists at the center.

2 - The result was literally the best prognosis we could've hoped for, and some very scary maybes were ruled out along the way. Thankfully, it's all good.

3 - A few months back, AJ mentioned that she thought it would be a good idea to get a dog when Miri was 10 so she wouldn't be alone in the house some afternoons. Little Miss Radar Ears heard and (as usual) remembered, so now the family plan is she gets a dog when she's 10 -- no ifs, ands, or buts.