Sea Change

I have an app on my phone that sends me a “Word of the Day” every morning around 8:00 am. For the most part, I’m already familiar with about half of the words, and the other half are completely new to me.

 

It’s thanks to this app that I now know that a fais-dodo is a country dance party and quaquaversal is an adjective which means “sloping downward from the center in all directions.” I haven’t been able to use these newfound vocabulary words in regular conversation yet, but it might happen. If I’m ever invited to a country dance party on the top of a steep hill, I’ll be ready with my small-talk icebreaker.

 

Several weeks ago my phone alerted me to the word sea change. I love words, especially ones that conjure up evocative images, so this one caught my attention. The definition read: “any major transformation or alteration; a transformation brought about by the sea.”

 

With the devastating hurricanes and flooding we’ve seen recently, there’s no further explanation required when describing the change which can be wrought by the sea. It can be complete and overwhelming.

 

Along with words, I also love a good story, and nothing much beats a story of major transformation. There’s fictional ones like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or the selfish prince in Beauty and the Beast. These characters go from jerks who seem to have no redeemable qualities to kind and unselfish men. But you can’t skip what happens in between—the sea that brings the sea change.

 

The Apostle Paul is the ultimate example of transformation in the Bible. When my husband read the story of Paul’s conversion to our 6-year old last night, our son asked, “God made him blind?” We had to answer yes—God took Paul’s sight as he walked along the road, on his way to persecute more Christians. If not for the blinding light and appearance of the risen Jesus, would Paul have made a complete 180 to defend and spread the word of Christ instead of looking for ways to stifle it?

 

I want to believe that anyone is capable of experiencing a major transformation. I want to use my Holy Spirit Goggles to see people for what they could be and not just what they seem to be.

 

And I want to personally and daily experience the transformation Paul wrote about in the Book of Romans when he urged his readers to “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”

 

It’s easy to ask God to make sea changes in me while I’m standing on dry ground but more remarkable to ask for it while I’m up to my knees in rising seawater. I want to have the faith to ask Him to change me despite of what it might cost.

5 Month Update

Ever since our Congolese-born son came home to America almost 5 months ago, we frequently hear the same question from friends and family: “How is Ezra doing?” Depending on the situation, sometimes our answers are brief and sometimes we have time to go into more detail. The following is me going into more detail:

He wakes up every day around 6:15 and tiptoes into our room. (At first our mornings were punctuated with the sound of him throwing doors open and slamming doors shut. Fortunately, we’ve communicated the importance of a quiet house when most of its occupants are still asleep.) If my husband and I are both already up, then he goes with us to the kitchen to start his breakfast. If one of us is still in bed, he’ll snuggle in for a few minutes.

For breakfast, it’s not unusual for him to eat a bowl of cereal (Alphabet cereal is his favorite. He calls it “A-B-C-D”), a couple of ham rolls, and a fried egg. Often he’ll wash it all down with a cup of hot tea. This kid can put the food away! It always makes me think of a page in the Richard Scarry book Best Word Book Ever. There’s a bear who eats a whole page full of breakfast foods: waffles, pancakes, toast, cereal, etc. That’s our boy.

He’s not necessarily a picky eater but he doesn’t like everything I make for him to eat, especially my attempts at cooking Congolese cuisine. If I offer him something he likes he’ll say, “Mama, I love-ee dis!” and if he doesn’t like it he’ll frown and say, “Mama, I no love-ee dis.”

After the big brother and big sisters are off to school and Daddy (which, by the way, is what he’s now calling Brent instead of Papa and it’s possibly the sweetest thing ever) is off to work, then Ezra and I are ready for some Mommy-Ezra time.

I’m pretty sure I never played with my older three kids as much as I play with him. Partly it’s because the others were close enough in age that they always had each other as playmates. And partly it’s because I feel a lot of guilt saying no to that face when he says, “Mama play ball-ee?” We usually spend a good half an hour or so playing some kind of ball in the basement: soccer, football (mainly an excuse to say “hike” and to tackle each other), basketball (with laundry baskets on opposite walls). He gets frustrated with me because I don’t play the same way as Knox and Brent so I can eventually steer him toward some other activity. Am I throwing the games to get out of playing ball? No! How dare you insinuate that!

My particular favorite activities involve drawing roads on the driveway with sidewalk chalk for his Matchbox cars and making houses out of cardboard boxes and other things we find in the recycling bin for his grab-bag shoebox full of Little People, plastic animals, and Lego characters. He has an extraordinary imagination. He can take any object and make it come alive in his hands. One day he spent more than an hour making two refrigerator magnets—one of Mickey Mouse and one of Winnie-the-Pooh—have some sort of epic battle on the kitchen table. I had no idea how much animosity existed between those two characters!

After he’s had a big lunch and played a little bit longer, we start the process of the afternoon nap. It involves some mandatory bathroom time, no less than three picture books, and an acoustic guitar CD I used to play for my kindergarten class when I was a teacher.

After naptime, the rest of the day is a blur of activity. There’s pickup lines and supper preparation and team practice drop-off. When he hears the screech of the garage door opening signaling Brent’s imminent arrival, Ezra hides behind the kitchen island or just inside the door so that he can jump out and scare him. Like any sweet daddy, Brent pretends to be scared by this daily phenomenon.

He goes to sleep quickly after a shower, three more books, “The Lord’s Army” song, and some prayers. Our social worker told us that bedtime is especially important for kids like our son who, though happy, healthy, and connecting with his new family, need a release from the stress of trying to figure out what’s going on around him—What’s she saying? What’s that smell? What is expected of me? Am I doing this right?

Ezra seems to understand a lot of what we tell him. He’s always asking for me to explain pictures in a book, or the storyline in a movie, or the conversations of his siblings. But other than food-related words, he doesn’t say a lot of English words to communicate what he needs. Still, his limited English vocabulary is increasing slow but sure.

We’re already to the point where life with Ezra is routine. It’s not a life without its challenges but it doesn’t surprise me to see his face every morning peeking around the corner or hear his voice in my head before I go to bed. This person who we tried for almost four years to bring into our family is here. It’s like finally meeting your favorite celebrity and then going grocery shopping together. No big deal. Whatever. This is totally normal.

But of course it is a big deal. I love-ee dis.

Preserves

One of these days—when our kids aren’t pulling us in so many directions—I will have an amazing vegetable garden. When the month of May isn’t so “May-I-please-sit-down-for-a-minute?!” I will find the time to really get in there and get my hands dirty. My garden will have enviably rich soil in the most perfect location to receive optimal sunlight. I will water and care for my plants, nurturing them into adulthood as I examine their leaves for signs of sickness or insect invasion. They will grow beautifully and reward us with an abundance of tomatoes and beans and melons and cucumbers.

Until then, I will reminisce about the summers of my childhood. I will remember the distinct smell of freshly watered plants and the taste of a sun-warmed cherry tomato plucked and wiped on my shorts before popping it in my mouth.

I will remember the days of late summer when my grandmother and my mother canned green beans in the kitchen, their faces red from the steam. The hard work of having a vegetable garden continued throughout the summer. Preserving the abundance from the garden was unquestionable, every piece should be eaten—either by us or our neighbors, either now or later.

The shelves in the laundry room were lined with Mason jars filled to the top with summer’s bounty. The deep freezer held jars of strawberry jam and sliced peaches. Everything not eaten right away was preserved for later. By February, when the last jar of strawberry jam was scraped clean, we began to dream of visiting the U-Pick strawberry field so that we could replenish our supply.

Preserving the sweetness of summer doesn’t have to involve giant pots of boiling water and steamy glass jars. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of sunshine-y June and July in the dreary winter months of January and February? Try this: Keep a summer journal or write down what summer was like when you were a kid. Take pictures and make a photo album (not just the Facebook kind, a real one that you can hold in your hands) so that you can relive the best moments of this season. When it’s below freezing outside and the sky is filled with gray clouds, you’ll be glad you did.

Persistence

Once upon a time, there was a mom with a dirty van. She took that dirty van to a car wash, a narrow room unmanned by human employees but armed with brushes and sprayers attached to robotic limbs. Flashing lights notified the driver when to stop and when to go. It all seemed so simple but evil intent lurked in the shadowy corners.

According to the design of the facility, if the vehicle was not positioned exactly right within the crowded confines of the car wash, a sign would flash with instructions. On this particular occasion when the mom pulled in a bit on a diagonal angle, the sensors did not flash, nor did the mechanisms give her time to correct her parking, instead, all hell broke loose.

Brushes began swiveling and spinning in a mad dance. The front and back windshields were pummeled with water and soap. The woman pounded on the window, crying out to be released, but the cleansing rained on until the beating finally stopped. The woman left the car wash drenched in sweat with a side mirror dangling in defeat.

As it is so often seen with car damage incidents, there were calls to be made and claims to be filed. But no one wanted to pay for the repairs. No one wanted to take the blame for the dangling mirror. Still, the woman would not give up.

She followed the trail of calls to an executive of the company who owned the car wash. He showed little care or remorse but he did ultimately reveal that he had seen “the video of the incident” and this video was fairly irrefutable in the car wash’s liability. He also acknowledged woman’s persistence so he begrudging agreed to pay to fix the mirror.

(Though she was relieved to receive payment for the repairs, she would always be haunted with the thought of a video of the most frightening three minutes of her life floating around and possibly available for viewing. She would often scan episodes of America’s Funniest Videos looking for it.)

In spite of the frustrations, the woman persevered. But persistence isn’t always considered an admirable trait. Sometimes it’s right up there with stubbornness. Anyone with a toddler can tell you that the persistent call of “Momma, momma, momma…” can get a little old.

When Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and one of the patriarchs of the Old Testament, got the chance to meet up with God he did the unexpected in one of the more confusing episodes of the Bible—he took part in a wrestling match. Jacob wrestled God (in human form) and refused to let go. Even when the God/Man asked for release and Jacob’s hip was pulled out of place, Jacob held fast. His reason for persisting in the struggle was to receive a blessing.

The thing Jacob wanted most was the thing he had tricked from his brother with the help of some goat hair and a pot of stew. He wanted something he probably didn’t consider himself worthy of but that didn’t stop him. Years of guilt had weighed down on him. He was about to see his brother for the first time in twenty years and he was afraid of the future.

Like Jacob, sometimes we are in a place where we will wrestle with God. It may not look like Jacob’s experience—a nighttime kickboxing match. But we are called to be persistent as we wrestle for God’s blessing and understanding of His teachings. And “we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Burrito Proposal

A few years ago, my family and my sister’s family went to one of our favorite places to eat: Blue Coast Burrito. All eleven of us stood in line, waiting to tell the people on the other side of the glass sneeze guard what we wanted on our burritos so they could pile them unimaginably high with meat, cheese, and veggies but still be able to wrap them up into a snug little bundle. (Those wizards!)

In front of us in line was a couple we didn’t recognize. They appeared to have just attended Woodstock, or more logically Bonnaroo, both with long unkempt hair, bare feet, and a certain degree of intentional grubbiness. She was wearing a broomstick skirt and he was wearing a long suede vest. Using my non-verbal, mom glares/facial expressions, I instructed my children not to point or stare.

After the couple ordered their food, they set their trays on a table and the man stood on the bench of the nearby kid-sized picnic table, clearing his throat to make an announcement. My brother-in-law, an elementary school teacher who excels at quieting down groups of chatty people, shouted for everybody to listen. The man said something to the effect of, “__________ (insert the girl’s name), will you marry me?” The girl said yes and the couple went to their table to eat their supper. No big deal.

I went to congratulate the happy-ish couple. “Congratulations!” I said, “So does this restaurant have a special significance for you? Like maybe it’s where you met or where you had your first date?”

The girl looked at me matter-of-factly and said, “It’s just good, wholesome food,” and she resumed eating without even looking at her beloved betrothed. If the ten other people from my family hadn’t witnessed that proposal with me, I would’ve sworn I imagined it. Where was the fanfare? The pomp and circumstance? The fireworks? The bevy of doves released in the sky to symbolize their undying love?

If you search “marriage proposal” on YouTube you will get 1.5 million videos. I didn’t check all of them, but I’m pretty sure this particular proposal isn’t amongst them. I guess it just wasn’t exciting enough, and they forgot to get someone to film it.

Life, like marriage proposals and television series finales and new recipes, can often be disappointing. It’s easy to build up expectations beyond anything even remotely possible. The key to avoiding the nose-dive into disappointment seems to be three-pronged: Be active in ensuring happiness for yourself and others, be hopeful but flexible, and live a life of gratitude.

As I think back on the Blue Coast Burrito Couple I have to wonder how everything turned out. Although the proposal was a bit anti-climactic, maybe they’re on to something. Perhaps a low key marriage proposal and “good, wholesome food” is just the right formula for decades of wedded bliss. And I bet those burrito-wrapping wizards already knew that!

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

Rainy Season

rainy shoes

It’s Thursday morning and the rain is coming down in sheets. Our friend told us there are two seasons in the Congo—the rainy season and the dry season. This is definitely the rainy season.

We are sitting on our little porch, watching the rain and watching Ezra take pictures with the iPad. When he’s not taking (unflattering) pictures of me, he’s looking at old pictures—ones from our trip in 2014 and ones Knox and the girls took back at home. He’s watching the videos Knox made of exciting NBA and NFL Play Station games. It’s funny what entertains a five-year old.

Besides the aforementioned ball-kicking and papa-wrestling, Ezra has been busy. He has drawn a colorful squiggle on several sheets of copy paper. We’ve hid Easter eggs with the twelve plastic eggs I brought from home. We’ve found one of his favorite things to do is to imitate us. For example, I almost fell off the bed on the first day here. Ezra replayed the scene over and over, cackling like a crazy person at the end of each mini-play.

Brent and I both had a hard time sleeping last night. My brain was spinning with what needs to be done before we leave and what will happen once we’re home. I finally dozed off around 3:00 am, just about the time the rain started to fall on the metal roof above our little room. Maybe the gentle tapping of the raindrops gave me something else to think about.

We still wait for news about Ezra’s exit letter. We met with our lawyer last night. He all but promised it would be done today. I can’t think of any piece of paper I’ve ever wanted to see more than this letter. Ever since September of 2013 when the DRC government said they would stop issuing them, it’s been on my mind everyday. We appreciate all the prayers for this to finally come true!