When I tell him about Congo…

When I tell my son of his homeland, I will describe the busy Kinshasa streets—the women with enormous bags, bowls, and boxes easily perched on their heads as if they are straw hats. As they walk slowly down the road, they sell their bread and fruit from these containers. I will tell him about the storefronts—sometimes crumbling buildings, sometimes bright beach umbrellas shading wooden tables. The people sell most anything you can imagine: food, clothes, car parts, cell phone chargers. A man walks by us with a board covered with a hundred sunglasses for sale. In the heavy traffic people peddle their wares through our open car windows: folded fans, bags of water, travel sized packs of tissues. The air is full of engine exhaust, horns honking, people shouting, and the soda sellers clinking their glass bottles together to bring attention to their colorful drinks. In large intersections, there are robot traffic lights, but we are the only ones transfixed by these metal giants. The drivers and pedestrians jockey for position as they ignore lane dividers. Organized chaos.

When I tell my son of the city where he was born, I will tell him of the heat and the rain. He will know a piece of it from the summers he will spend in Tennessee, but he won’t understand the scope of its enormity and longevity. I will describe the giant avocados grown at our hotel and the tropical flowers, bursting like fireworks from the vines along the gravel walkways. I will tell him about the lizards, like the gray and orange one that visited us everyday. It would climb to the very top of the hot, tin roof and move up and down in jerky movements like it was doing push-ups.

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When I tell my son of Kinshasa, I will list the Congolese people we have met along the way—the woman who worked at the hotel who also adopted a little boy and translated for us when things got frustrating for our son; The friend who took him to the hospital when he broke his collarbone and each time he had malaria; The orphanage director who found creative ways to put food on the table for so many children; The foster mother who made sure he had what he needed and cried when she said goodbye to him.

Though I was only there for such a short time, I will try my best to explain that the homeland of my son is a broken place. It is not a place where people go to feel comfortable and live an easy life, but it is a beautiful place. It has promise. There is potential.

I will try in my own imperfect way to tell him that the Congo is a part of him. And no matter where we are born, we are all parts and pieces of good and bad, brokenness and potential. When he asks me about where he came from and who gave him birth, there will be many more questions than answers, but I will do my best. I will tell him that his Congo Mama gave him a gift, the gift of life. Then I was given the gift of being his Forever Mama. There is sadness in his story but there is also redemption. And I am grateful that we are a part of his story.

Communication

Nearly 20 years ago, my husband and I participated in a weekend-long premarital retreat. There were sessions with a variety of titles—none of which I remember—but the main focus of the weekend was one simple word: communicate. We were taught to sit knee-to-knee, gazing deeply into each other’s eyes as we take turns using “I- statements” and exhibiting “active listening.”

As someone who likes to talk out everything, posing various scenarios and hypotheses (just ask my husband…bless him), I am a big fan of communication. I love words. I love to express my thoughts. I love to find just the right words to express my thoughts. Now imagine me spending all day with a child who has no idea what the words—those carefully constructed ideas and statements—actually mean. This is my current reality with Ezra, our Congolese-born son.

For example, on the long plane ride home to the U.S. we had several misunderstandings. When the air pressure in the plane made Ezra’s ears feel like they were about to burst, I pulled out a Dum-Dum sucker. I tried to explain that swallowing might pop his ears and give him some relief from the pain. He took the offered sucker, looked at it for a second, and poked the stick end in his ear like a Q-tip.

Riding in the car offers more opportunities for me to practice my higher-level communication skills. Ezra is mad that he can’t sit in the front seat, must stay buckled while I’m driving, and has to sit in a booster seat. My attempt to enlighten him on the Tennessee seatbelt laws is inadequate as far as he’s concern. To him, it just looks like I’m being mean.

After almost three weeks of his full immersion in the English language, we have all learned a lot. When he’s especially frustrated or joyful or grouchy, I can often (but not always) use deductive reasoning—along with reading his facial cues and applying what I know from the preceding events—to figure out what in the world is wrong.

Ezra has learned out how to communicate the most basic information in a way that we can (sometimes) understand. After not owning much of anything for most of his life, he wants to know what belongs to him. He often takes me to the closet that he shares with his older brother to ask which section of hanging clothes are his and which aren’t. He does the same with the books on the bookshelf and the shoes on the shoe rack and the toys in the toy bins.

But this doesn’t end with material possessions. I tell him that he belongs to me and I belong to him. We are his libota (family) and this is his ndako (home). I clumsily butcher his beautiful language in an attempt to find the words to explain these vital details. In the end, I know that the best way for me to communicate this is not actually with words, but instead with actions—hugs and smiles and meeting his daily needs. And if I get really desperate, I may sit knee-to-knee with Ezra, gaze deeply into his eyes, and see if that helps at all.

First Weeks Home

Since we’ve been home from Africa with our adopted son, I’ve been thinking a lot about how it felt to bring home our twin daughters from the hospital almost fourteen years ago. Sure, there are a lot of differences: he’s five and can only speak the African language Lingala, and they were zero and only babbled. He’s one boy and they were two girls. I was younger with a lot more energy and now I’m well…fourteen years older.

Either way you look at it, both experiences carry certain complications and challenges. One of the challenges is to be able to remember these early days, in spite of a memory that is damaged by sleep deprivation and the occasional feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing. I didn’t fill out a “First Year” calendar for my daughters and the only journal I kept was to record their poops and pees and how much they nursed. Now I’m the mom who doesn’t know when her babies got their first tooth or rolled over. This information is lost to the ages.

With that in mind, I’m going write down some of our son’s likes and dislikes and a few of the events from our first couple of weeks together. I know I’ll be glad I did.

Ezra loves to play soccer…like a lot. It’s obvious he’s watched as much soccer as he has played it. He flops on the ground and feigns injury just as well as any professional player or Oscar-winning actor. Then he calls “P.K.” (penalty kick), walks off ten paces, and places the ball on the ground. He holds one hand in the air, makes a kissing sound (the closest he can get to whistling) and kicks the ball. If he makes a goal, he runs around celebrating and saying, “Na tye biiii!!” If he misses, he falls to the ground in utter desolation as if he just cost the Congolese national team the World Cup.

The language barrier is tricky but we’re finding ways around it. In fact, I may sign up the two of us for a mother/son Mime Camp, assuming that exists. Ezra lets me know what he wants by miming things like peeling/eating a banana, kicking a soccer ball, or sipping from a straw (this means he wants to go to Sonic). It’s an all-day game of Charades. A little girl asked me the other day how to say “cold” in Sign Language. I told her I didn’t know and I asked her why she thought I would. She said, “Well, I thought he (Ezra) only knew sign language. No? Well, how about Braille? Can you say it in Braille?”

Ezra doesn’t like milk but he loves bananas. He doesn’t care for sweets but he’s crazy about chicken. His favorite breakfast is a cup of hot tea and 2-4 slices of lipa (sandwich bread) covered with strawberry jam or mashed avocado.

He loves to dance and mess around on the piano. He found an old, overturned, metal trashcan and played it like a drum while we took turns making up songs.

He enjoys taking a bath and he will play with bath toys until the water gets cold. When we take him out of the water and towel him off, he likes to press his forehead against mine (or Brent’s if he’s the one on bath time duty) and make his hands into a tent over our faces. In the darkness between us, he whispers something in Lingala and gives me a kiss. My heart understands, so no miming required.

I could tell you about the hard parts of the past few weeks because there have been plenty—the frustrations and the eerily quiet tantrums and the wondering if I’m doing any of this right. But I want to mostly remember the good stuff—the stuff that makes us beam proudly at each other when he’s not watching and the stuff that makes Ezra Ezra.

The Language of “I Promise”

Ezra, our Congolese son, is home. It’s the thing we’ve been praying for and waiting on for nearly four years. Now that he’s home, it’s time for the real work to begin.

Often when you look at pictures of families, you see their best selves—smiles and hugs and clean shirts. What isn’t always evident is the hurt behind the eyes, and this is the reality for our son.

On the day after he came to America, we walked to the elementary school playground near our house. We were having a great time on a perfect Sunday afternoon. There was running and chasing and happy hollering. As he stood on a piece of the playground structure, I went to give him a hug but I accidentally gave him a static electricity shock instead. He recoiled from me like I had done it on purpose. Our other son went to comfort him and shocked him, too. Ezra’s eyes showed hurt and fear. No amount of “I’m so sorry!” could pacify him. He ran from us and cowered in the corner of the playground, like a frightened rabbit.

When his dad and siblings leave for work and school each morning, Ezra mourns for them. His response is to throw himself on the living room floor and weep like there’s no tomorrow. He cries, “Papa!” and “Ya-ya” (his collective word for his brother and sisters). I try to tell him that they are at work (mosala) and school (kelasi). I hold his wet cheeks in my hands and say, “I promise they will come back. I promise.” But even if I tell him this in Lingala (his native language), fully expressing the truth of their return is difficult. Him grasping this truth is even harder.

He hasn’t learned the heart language of fulfilled promises and the only way to teach him this language is with the consistency of time. How else can an orphan really know “family”? How can a child who’s known no parents since he was an infant understand how to rely on a father? How can a boy who has longed for a mother trust the embrace of a woman he barely knows?

Our plan is to wake up every morning and show him. We’ll show him that we’re trustworthy and we’re in this for keeps, no matter if he’s naughty or happy or grouchy or sick or stinky or sweet. We won’t always be as patient as we should be and we’ll misunderstand him frequently but we’ll keep trying. Missteps won’t prevent us from taking steps toward him feeling secure.

Most people who have already been where we are now say that it takes a full year to accomplish a sense of normalcy again. We waited four years to bring him home. What’s another year to make sure his heart has also completed the journey home?

Homecoming

We are thrilled to come home with Ezra today! (I say “today” although we won’t technically be home until tomorrow.) But before we arrive in the Nashville airport, we feel like we should say a couple of things about our expectations for the next several months.

Ezra has been amazing. Apart from a few totally normal tantrums, he has been super easy and fun. He hugs us and smiles frequently (unless he’s getting his picture taken with another Congolese). We couldn’t ask for a better week! But we know this is just the beginning of a big transition for him and we want to be intentional about integrating him into our home.

We are about to take the snow globe that is Ezra’s world, turn it upside-down and shake it like crazy. I feel confident that the pieces will eventually float down into a beautiful design, but in the meantime we need a little space.

So, here’s what we’re asking:

Please don’t drop by unannounced. Text one of us first to get the all-clear. If he’s having a rough day, we want to protect him and allow him to work through whatever may be going on in his mind.

It will probably be a while until we go to church. Ezra has no idea what kind of fan club awaits him there! We will have to ease him into that much love.

When you do see him, please refrain from lifting him or touching him. Talk to him and talk to Brent and me (you can even lift Brent if you’re up to it), just give Ezra a bit of distance. For a few months, Brent and I need to be the ones to bathe him, give him his food, put him to bed, and soothe him when he’s sad. We need to establish that we are his parents even though he hasn’t lived with us for five years. That is a pretty tall order and would be even more difficult if he has a bunch of adults providing the same assistance. This isn’t forever. We will gradually let in our amazing village, without whom we wouldn’t have made it this far.

If you feel like we are over-doing this “cocooning” time or if you feel like we’re not sequestering him enough, please don’t let me know. Parenting is hard no matter how your kids come to you. We will do as we have done with our other three kids and we’ll tailor our parenting to this specific, God-given, miracle of a kid.

We can’t possibly thank you all enough for all your prayers and encouraging words throughout this long journey (and it’s not over yet!). I am constantly amazed by the sheer volume of prayers that have been lifted on our behalf. I think God must’ve had to hire some extra angels to work the prayer call center for us during the last few years. “Grateful” doesn’t begin to cover how we feel about ya’ll!

Nalingi yo!

–Brent and Abby