Soccer fanatic

It would be an understatement to say that our 6-year old son Ezra loves soccer. His pet fish is named “Messi” after the Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi. His favorite thing to wear is a soccer jersey. He thinks that the best possible scenario for fun is the combination of him, his brother, his father, and a soccer ball.


Seeing that Ezra has only lived with us for just a little more than a year, we know that this love of soccer can’t be wholly attributed to our prompting. It started way before we met him. Though soccer ranks somewhere around 6th place in popularity in America, it’s #1 in the world. All you have to do is take an international trip to experience this. My husband and I saw this firsthand when we traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ezra’s birth country.


Ezra was 3-years old at the time. He was shy and uncertain of these American strangers (us) who were so foreign to him in speech, appearance, and pretty much every other way. Bouncing a small soccer ball, we persuaded him to come outside to a gravel parking area near our hotel room. Once outside, I videoed Ezra timidly playing a game of catch with Brent. Then, without warning, instead of just catching and tossing, Ezra stuck out his head to make contact with the ball and bounce it back to Brent. For the next 4:37 minutes of video footage, Ezra expertly headed the ball as Brent happily realized that this was a soccer-loving, little boy.


Fast forward to present time. Ezra is on a soccer team with 5 other kids. Chanting like a cloistered monk, he prays the night before a game or practice: “Please no rain. Please no rain. Please no rain.” He cheers for his team’s victories—large or small—and empathizes with the opposing team’s defeat (which is tricky because it’s always anyone’s guess who actually wins these free-for-alls).


This past Saturday his enthusiasm may have exceeded his sportsmanship. When he stole the ball from an opponent and dribbled it down the field in an uncontested breakaway, he mockingly waved to the players as he passed them, saying: “Goodbye everyone.” Then he took a shot and hit the post. Pride goeth before a fall.


Speaking as a completely unbiased observer, Ezra is the best 6-year old soccer player in the universe. As I watch him play now, I think about the countless hours he and his Congolese friends played soccer in the dry dirt of the lots surrounding his orphanage. This was a game meant to engage a variety of ages and sizes. They only needed a soccer ball—or something homemade resembling a ball—and rocks or sticks to designate the goals. They didn’t wear fancy cleats or shin guards or uniforms. They were barefoot in hand-me-downs and the best thing they wore was the smiles on their faces.


Who’s to say if Ezra will continue to play soccer or if this is just a passing fancy? Time will tell if his love for this game will diminish and he will make room for other sports and activities in its place. What I can tell you is that his experiences playing soccer as a small child has made him the player he is today—fast, skilled, fearless. It has shaped and equipped him.


When I’m in an especially introspective mood and I think of my past, I can see how I was being prepared for my present situation. Relationships, jobs, events, heartbreaks all work together to give me a piece of what I might need now, just like Ezra’s early Congolese soccer experiences combine to create the soccer enthusiast I see each time he runs out onto the field.

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.

2016-03-29 05.39.23

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.

The Best Worst Thing

I’ve only seen Brent cry three times. The first was when he was stressed out and overwhelmed in school. The second was when our girls were born. And today was the third time.


As if our morning were scripted for a movie, just before our friend brought the orphanage director to our hotel, it started to rain. This is the rainy season (which lasts about nine months) but we hadn’t seen much rain up until today. The sky was gray and the parking lot was dimpled with muddy puddles. It was the personification of our low spirits.


While Brent went to drop off our luggage at the early check-in, I sat with the orphanage director, trying to communicate and letting her teach me some words in Lingala. I fed Ezra, we colored in a coloring book, and watched an episode of Sesame Street from the 1970’s on the iPad. Soon, they were back and it was time.


I tried so hard not to cry. I told myself this was confusing enough for our little man, so I won’t make it worse by blubbering. We sat down at the table to conduct the formalities of giving Ezra back, even though he’s ours and we’re his. As soon as we sat down, I heard Brent’s choked gasp. It was only a faint sound but I knew what it signified. We looked at each other and lost it. Our friend asked if Brent would pray but he said he couldn’t do it. Instead, our friend prayed for us and for Ezra and for all the children in the orphanage. I’ll remember his beautiful, deep voice petitioning on our behalf in a hotel room in Kinshasa for the rest of my life. Ezra sat in my lap and held hands with both of us. He rested his forehead on the table and remained still throughout the prayer even though he didn’t understand a word of it. After he had made sure Ezra was settled in the backseat and before he entered the car himself, our friend left us with three words, “God is good.”


Last night, while I was struggling to fall asleep, I whispered to Brent asking if he regretted coming. He said the good parts outweigh the bad parts. At this moment, I’m not sure that’s true. I’m hoping a little time and perspective will at least help but this is a kind of despair I can’t sort out. We’ve got hours until our flight and now I just want to be home.


My friend has made this trip to visit with her Congolese daughter twice so I asked her for her opinion before we decided to travel. “It’s the best worst thing,” she told me. I completely get it.

Our last morning

He’s spooning up his morning tea with a tiny plastic spoon. Drops cover his lap and the concrete floor of our patio. Every few “bites” he offers one to me. I take it because I have forgotten we don’t have the same germs and the same genes. Yesterday, he mimed breaking his banana in two to Brent so they could share it. He often seems concerned whether we’re getting enough to eat.


This week in Congo has been the strangest lapse of time I’ve ever known. The days move at a pace I can’t quite comprehend. They aren’t slow and monotonous but they also aren’t flying by at break-neck speed. Another adopting mom staying at our hotel mentioned she feels like she’s in a time warp. It’s difficult for her to figure out what time it is at any given moment. I can sympathize. Our flight out of Nashville seems like it happened months ago.


Today is the day we’ve been dreading since we made our plans to travel. Today Ezra returns to the orphanage.


We’ve watched as other families staying here have said their good-byes to their children. It’s so painful. Older children who have had a glimpse of an improved, alternate life, just out of their reach. Babies, some with urgent medical needs, are shuttled back to their foster homes and the parents left in the wake are devastated.


One of the greatest blessings of this week has been the fellowship with these others American mamas and papas. We’ve sat together, comparing stories, news, and tips for getting the best wifi connection. We’ve ooo-ed and awww-ed over each other’s children but from the distance of an arm’s length, respecting the roles we must fill: Only the parents give their child food. Only mama or papa should hold the child. The child should attach to these adults instead of all adults. 


There are only a few of us left this morning, so breakfast is quiet. Ezra has moved on from his tea and now he sits on the ground, pulling the colorful shoestrings through the holes in the lacing cards we brought from home. As far as he knows, this is just another morning like the three before. Oh how my heart hurts.


Since the beginning of this process, we’ve been told to be very careful when posting pictures of our African son. As this week has transpired, we’ve taken LOTS of photos and videos so it pains me not to be able to send them out to all of our friends and families who are praying so fervently for us. (If you run into us when we get back you’ll be lucky to escape a photo book or a slideshow on my phone. Consider yourself warned.) In lieu of a picture (which is worth 1,000 words, apparently), I give you my description of Ezra:


His eyelashes are the Eighth Wonder of the world (the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are nothing in comparison). They are thick and jet-black. They curl almost into a complete circle. I tried to get a good picture of them tonight while he cuddled with Brent and watched videos of himself from earlier today on the video camera. It was like trying to photograph the Grand Canyon—impossible to catch the grandeur on film.


His head is fairly flat on one side, probably a result of lying down too often as an infant. (Brent said this is common in babies everywhere and not to worry. Is there a flat-headed kids support group I can sign him up with when he gets home?) I love to rub his head. His hair is very short, almost like Brent’s whiskers if he skips a day of shaving.


He has beautiful, round ears that stick out just enough and squishy ear lobes.


His eyes are dark and expressive. Paired with his eyebrows, he can tell you he’s mad without saying a word (which is good because he doesn’t speak English).


He has a scar on his right cheek.


He’s missing his pinky-toe toenails.


He’s got a mouth-full of good-looking teeth. A few of them have some suspicious spots but overall they look great. I think he takes great pride in his teeth. He loves to brush them. He did it three times today. He always wants me to brush his tongue at the end. This is oddly comforting for me. It tells me that someone has been helping him with his dental hygiene. Yesterday he wanted to spit in the toilet. Today, after brushing his teeth and getting a big gulp of water in his mouth, he wanted to go outside, gargle, and spit in the parking lot.


Due to his distended belly—a symptom of undernourishment and fluid retention—he walks a little like George Jefferson from The Jeffersons. He has to thrust his elbows back a bit to compensate for the roundness up front and he kind of wobbles from side to side. He has a severe “outtie” belly button. Brent said it’s a hernia (have I mentioned how nice it is to travel with a pediatrician?). It looks like a pop-up thermometer in a well-done Butterball turkey. He has a tiny bottom and spindly arms and legs. At the start of the week, he moved like it was exhausting for him. After three days of proteins and vitamins and good rest, his energy has improved and his belly has already shrunk a bit. It boggles my mind and breaks my heart to think of what a lifetime of better care could do.


I know this isn’t as satisfying as a photograph, especially since it’s only about 500 words (maybe half a picture?), but I hope it fills out a few of the details for one little boy among the millions of children who need a family. He’s a unique, smart, surprising, and beautiful boy. We’re so proud to be his mama and papa.

Tuesday morning

My eyes popped opened at 4:30 this morning and there was no going back. Normally, if I wake up early, I can roll over and fall back asleep. For instance, night before last I was awoken by Brent combing through my hair like a monkey hunting for bugs in his lady monkey’s fur. I said, “What are you doing?” He didn’t answer. Instead, he pinched an invisible bug between his index finger and thumb and rolled away from me. I just shrugged my shoulders and went back to sleep. But not today.


This morning is different because we have a 3-year old sleeping in our room with us. He fell asleep last night around 7:00 and is still going strong. (My fur groomer is still sleeping, too.) The hotel loaned us a toddler bed and camo sheets. It’s just like a pack-n-play but big enough to hold a toddler mattress. We wondered how he’d adapt to sleeping without other kids and in a strange place but he’s done beautifully so far.


Part of the reason I think I woke up is because there are REALLY LOUD African birds outside our window. One feathery fellow has a mutli-note, repetitive call akin to the whippoorwill. (Disclaimer: Not much of an ornithologist, I have no idea what I’m talking about here.) Instead of calling “whip-poor-will” this African bird sounds like it’s saying “Can-we-just-skype?” If I were going to write the call musically, it would be half note, half note, quarter note, half note. I know it sounds crazy but I’ve been lying here in the growing light of morning trying to figure out what it’s saying and that’s what I’ve decided.


I don’t know why I’m compelled to tell you this. For some reason, I’m afraid I’ll try to remember what the bird said later on and I’ll draw a blank. In fact, I’m afraid all of this week will be lost in my memory bank once we get back to the U.S. Sure, we’ll have pictures and videos. I can look back at my journal and read what we did and how we felt. But what I don’t want to lose is the realness of being Ezra’s mom. I won’t be able to accurately recall how smooth his skin feels or the warmth of his body as he snuggles into my chest. I’ll still be his mom even when he’s thousands of miles away from me but it won’t be the same.


My fellas are starting to stir so I’ll sign off until I can write again tonight. Until then, pray for us.

Meet You Day

If you’re at all familiar with adoption stories, you’ve heard of “Gotcha Day.” Many families mark the day the parents brought their adopted child home and continue to celebrate it every year. In some cases like ours, the “Gotcha Day” comes after a visiting trip so the parents add the “Meet You Day” to their list of celebrations. For us, that day was today, October 6.


I started off the morning with my Daily Bible reading. I like to use the Bible set up in chronological order with 365 daily readings. For today, the reading was from—get this—Ezra 7-8. Today…of all days… When I got to the part in Ezra 8:21-23 where Ezra says, “I proclaim a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us and our children,” I was floored. I’m trying not to read too much in this passage about Ezra, the great teacher, leading the Jews out of Babylon…but come on. Brothers and sisters, can I get a witness?


A driver from our hotel and a social worker rode with us to the orphanage. If you haven’t had a chance to ride in a car on the streets of Kinshasa during rush hour, you should really look into it. It will make you pray like a saint and poop in your pants like a toddler. There’s lots of honking and careless pedestrians and driving on the sidewalk and many, many near misses. (Last night, we also saw a robot traffic light.) Our soundtrack for today’s adventure was tape mix with five or six Michael Jackson songs played on a loop. Seeing that it’s an hour-long ride, we got to hear the profoundly relevant lyric, “it don’t matter if you’re black or white” several times.


As soon as we got to the orphanage, I started scanning the yard for Ezra. I didn’t see him but I saw several adorable kiddos, younger than our fellow. We were shown into an office for a chat with the director. We stepped outside for a few minutes and when we returned to the office, he was there. I recognized him immediately. I scooped him up and held him in my lap. He snuggled in like it was something he does every day. He smiled and let me kiss his cheek. I had brought a teddy bear and a toy car, so I got those out of my bag to play with him while the adults around us chatted. Because I’m good at sharing, I let Brent take a turn holding him, too. He responded to both of us with warmth and affection. When it was time to leave, we buckled him in between us in the back seat and he fell asleep in about fifteen minutes. As he rested his head on Brent’s arm, I stared at him like I used to do with my other babies while they slept. In just the same way, I was amazed by his existence and my good fortune.


When we got to the hotel, reality set in for our little buddy. I was looking at a book with him when I suddenly saw a giant tear tumbling down his cheek. He started to whimper a bit and then, a few minutes later, he began to come undone. He struggled to be free from my arms. He cried “Mama!” and stamped his feet. His wailing and my failed attempts at consoling went on for about an hour (or a month, I can’t be sure). Not wanting him to cry alone, I joined in. I wondered: What have we done? Who are we to turn his life upside-down? Eventually, Brent held him and Ezra allowed it. His crying stopped.


We spent the rest of the evening tiptoeing around him like we had a deer in our hotel room. No sudden movements. Everybody stay calm. We took him outside and he kicked the soccer ball like a pro. (Knox’s prayers are apparently getting through.) We played cars on the floor and watched Finding Nemo. He ate the rice and a little of the fried plantains I made for supper. We gave him a shower and slathered him up with the crème my friend Lavy told us to use. We put his jammies on him and brushed his teeth. Then, I held him again. This time, he didn’t fight me. He fell sleep in my arms while I rubbed his head.


As I type this, both of my roommates are asleep. I can hear them breathing the steady, even exhales of deep sleep. Tires are crunching the gravel in the parking lot outside our hotel room and the mini refrigerator is humming. I hear low voices speaking Lingala and French. This is a good moment, but like a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other, Ezra’s behavior has caused me to have doubts. I have gone back and forth about the prudence of this trip. It’s as if I’m plucking the petals from a daisy: He likes us. He likes us not… I don’t know what I’ll be thinking tomorrow morning or the next day. I’m pretty sure I know what I’ll be thinking Friday when we pull out and head home. What I can say is that this moment is magic. This child is loved. This prayer is answered. This moment is a gift.

Thank you, Lord. Amen.

‘Twas the night before traveling

I’ve been singing songs from the movie Annie all week and I couldn’t figure out why. I wondered if it was because I had seen the previews for the remake but that was a month ago. Then it dawned on me—we’re heading to the Congo to visit our son in the orphanage and Annie is my messed-up idea of an orphan.

Don’t get me wrong; I love that spunky, little girl with the red afro. She’s all grit and gumption. She stands up for the small (whiny friend Molly) and helpless (filthy mutt Sandy). She’s taken to Daddy Warbucks’ mansion and immediately starts to roll up her sleeves. She assumes she’s there to clean, not to take tennis lessons and lounge around in the swimming pool. She eventually scratches through Daddy Warbucks’ gruff exterior to help him realize how much he loves her and would do anything for her.

She’s an uncomplicated kid. Becoming an orphan has had very little effect on her self-esteem. In spite of Mrs. Hannigan’s seemingly lax care for the girls in the Home, she apparently fit tap dancing and singing into their curriculum so Annie is able to express herself in dance and song. It all looks so easy. That is, except for the whole ex-con Rooster chasing her up a construction crane or a railway bridge…something high and scary with blinking lights…where she dangles until Punjab, the guy from the 7-Up commercials, rescues her with his turban. (When I was a kid and Annie came on TV, I always watched that part through the holes in the brown and orange crocheted throw so I can’t be sure exactly what happened. I watched The Wizard of Oz the same way. I still haven’t watched the Wicked Witch of the West scenes in their entirety.) Other than that, it’s just meeting FDR, being on the radio, and a big, carnival, dance number finale.

What is waiting for us in the Congo will not be that simple. Living in an orphanage on the other side of the world is a 3-year old boy who knows very little about us or about the outside world. He never knew his parents or extended family. He doesn’t know about birthday cakes or Christmas trees or bedtime stories. We pray he knows what it feels to be hugged and cradled and praised. But we can be sure he knows hunger and he knows fear.

Our plan is to meet him and take him to our hotel to spend a week together. “Hey little boy who speaks no English. We’re a couple of white Americans who don’t speak Lingala and we are…brace yourself…your parents. So why don’t you jump in our van and leave behind everyone and everything you know for a few days. It’ll be cool. I promise.”

Best case scenario, at the end of the week we get to take him home to America. That’s the way it would work if not for the suspension of orphans leaving the Congo that’s been in place for over a year. Instead, we’ll bond with him, no doubt fall in love with him, and then leave a giant, bleeding chunk of our hearts in the Congo with him. We’ll board the plane like blubbering babies and cry for 24 hours. It’s not quite the Hollywood ending we’d prefer.

Maybe the “Daddy Warbucks Plan” is the best idea for us for this upcoming week after all. Maybe the best we can hope for is to take an amazing, deserving kid from a bleak situation and give him five days of fun and hugs and good food. At the end of the week, if we have to say good-bye to him, we hope there will be smiles all around, a genuine one on his face and reasonably fake ones on ours.

Heavy sigh.

Pray for us, friends. I’ll update more as the week unfolds. Until then, I’ll keep practicing my introductory greeting to my son: “Nazali mama. Nalingi yo.”

I am your mom. I love you.