Monday, May 23, 2011

Gotcha Day

Sunday was the second anniversary of the day we met Mihiretu. In adoption circles, that's sometimes known as "Gotcha Day".

We started the day with a birthday party for Mihiretu's friend, Ephraim. I met Ephraim - and his mom, Chrissy - one September day on the playground of Mae's school. I'd recently been struck with baby fever but instead of fantasies of a growing belly or tiny pink fingers and toes, this time it had crystalized in an image of an African baby boy strapped to my chest in a Baby Bjorn. Somehow, on that fall day, the universe sent me Chrissy, with Ephraim strapped to her chest in a Baby Bjorn. The rest, I'd guess you'd say, is history.

Even though there was over a year and a half between Ephraim's homecoming and Mihiretu's, the boys ended up being just about the same age, Mihiretu actually six months Ephraim's senior. Now that they're to the stage of actually engaging with peers instead of just parallel play, their friendship has deepened. They see a lot of each other, those two. I imagine that when strangers see us at tumbling class or the park or the ice cream shop, they think that Chrissy and I are a couple and these two boys fraternal twins. Lately, we've been spending so much time together that that's almost the case.

Ephraim's party started at 10:30 but somehow the breezy spring weather, the jumpy-house, the good company and the continuing flow of food conspired to keep us (and many other guests) hanging around until well past three. The kids were all pretty strung-out on cupcakes and hours of jumping but we, along with Ephraim's family, decided to keep the party rocking. We climbed in two cars, children alternately wailing, and headed over to an Ethiopian restaurant in Berkeley to fete the Gotcha and Birthday Boys.

It was a new restaurant for us, one that had been recommended by an Ethiopian dance teacher I recently met. The place was packed. Along the window wall, there was a long table of at least thirty Ethiopians, also, it turns out, celebrating a birthday. Ethiopians, in my experience, both here and in Ethiopia itself, are initially reticent, at least to non-Ethiopians. Once, however, you can engage them in the smallest way, I've found them, for the most part, to be incredibly warm. Virtually every time we've gone to an Ethiopian restaurant with Mihiretu, and we've been to a lot of them, we end up in conversation with an employee or a patron. Often we leave with a phone number or a scrawled post-it detailing an upcoming Ethiopian festival. We've yet to meet an Ethiopian who resents our adoption, though, in situations like Sunday's, I find myself conscious of the state of Mihiretu's hair and skin. If we've got any nap or ash happening, I worry they think we don't know how to care for him. If, like yesterday, he's crawling around under the table and screeching, however joyfully, I worry they doubt our parenting skills. As we settled ourselves at the table yesterday, I felt eyes on us, friendly or unfriendly, I couldn't tell.

The food arrived and finally the reeling children settled in to eat. It was, it goes without saying, delicious. Mihiretu, as he does with Ethiopian food, was putting it away. Perhaps there's some visceral memory for him, some part of him that recalls eating this food when he was little and remembers there not being enough of it. Maybe it's just the combination of spices that spells scrumptious for him, speaks home. Whatever the reason, when we put a platter of injera in front of him, small piles of stewed lamb, pureed lentils and collard greens arranged artfully atop it, he goes to town.

Mihiretu was seated next to me and I was keeping a constant supply of ripped injera in front of him, occasionally scooping some delicacy on it for him, though mostly he helped himself. He had just swallowed an enormous mouthful when I scooped a spicy chicken stew onto the bread and put it to his mouth. He promptly spit it out.

"Dat one yucky," he proclaimed. "Weally yucky."

Then, a perplexed expression on his face, he said, "I gotta trow up."

He gagged and then a gusher of mashed food came out of his mouth like water from a fire-hose. The girls said later that it looked like someone had simply taken the beautiful food in front of us and put it in a Cuisinart. Thinking fast, I cupped my hands broadly in front of his mouth. The vomit just kept coming but somehow, as if I was wearing catcher's mitts, a reservoir of Ethiopian soup grew in my palms. Later, Eric, Ephraim's dad, eyeing my hands curiously, asked how big they were exactly. I held them up, large for a girl but no where near big enough to explain it. Whatever saint guards parents of young children was working overtime.

In quick succession, Chrissy threw napkins on Mihiretu and on the table, I dumped my goopy load on top, folded it quickly and threw it in a waiting trash can. Ben, meanwhile, had spirited Mihiretu out of his seat and been shepherded to Chrissy's car, where they found spare clothes of Ephraim's and some very convenient plastic bags for Mihiretu's soiled garments. Before I knew it, I had swiped Mihiretu's chair clean and he was once again in it, tucking in to more food. The girls, on Eric's advice, "changed the topic" and animatedly discussed their favorite cookies. In total, the crisis lasted no more than five minutes. I do believe, even with our prominent otherness, the diners surrounding us and even the wait-staff had no idea anything had happened.

Mihiretu wasn't actually ill. I'd seen this happen before, in the early days when he would gorge himself to sickness unless we took him away from the dinner table. I had thought he was past this remnant of malnourishment, but apparently not.

Later, in the car on the way home, Lana tried to spell "barf" out loud. Mae sang "B-A-R-F, B-A-R-F" as Lana howled that she, Lana, was spelling barf, not Mae. Mihiretu got into the act, shouting, "B-A" but then sputtered out not knowing how to finish.

It wasn't picture perfect, our Gotcha Day. It was, in fact, unequivocally disgusting. If you'd told me before that fateful autumn day in the schoolyard that I'd be catching the projectile vomit of a small brown boy, I'm not sure I would have believed you. But, in a way, it was exactly right. I am this boy's mother. With every passing day, I love him more deeply, more firmly. And I've got some giant hands to prove it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mother's Day

We went en famille to visit my mom at her board-and-care on Mother's Day.

When we arrived, she was seated at the kitchen table finishing her dinner. The room is cheerful, a great improvement on the gloom of the assisted living facility. A large picture window framed blooming roses climbing a wooden fence, the brilliance of the May sky peeking from above. A caregiver busied herself washing dishes in the adjacent kitchen, one eye discreetly on my mother.

She didn't seem to recognize me this time, which is new. The greeting I received was similar to what she might have given a neighbor she didn't know very well, back in the days when she understood the concept of neighbor.

"Oh, hello," she said, unsmiling, unsure.

We sat around the table with her.

"Well," I said, tracing the violet on the plastic place mat in front of me. "Happy Mother's Day, Mom."

"Mother's Day?" she asked, poking at a piece of sausage with her fork.

"Yeah," I said, eyeing Mihiretu as he squirmed in Ben's lap. "It's a day to celebrate mothers." And then, in case she forgot that she was in fact a mother, "We're celebrating you and we're celebrating me today."

She eyed me skeptically. "I'm being celebrated? Well, I didn't know that." Her tone implied that the celebration had not been celebratory enough to capture her attention. My guilt suggested that if perhaps we had brought her flowers or arrived somewhere before dinnertime, it might have felt more like a party.

"Did Jean-Paul visit you? And Tracy and the boys?" I asked, knowing that they, loyal son and loyal wife of son, must of.

"Who?" she asked, folding and refolding her cloth napkin. "No, I haven't seen anyone."

We continued to sit, the kids surprisingly placid, probably uncomfortable with this forgetful old lady. It's rare I take them to see her these days. It's hard to hold up both sides of a conversation with a mother who's forgotten she's your mother when you're simultaneously trying to pull a small Ethiopian boy off the chandelier.

My mother broke the silence. She pointed a wobbly finger at Mihiretu and Lana.

I readied myself for the usual "Is he yours?"

Instead she asked, "Is that boy five?"

I gestured to Mihiretu. "Mihiretu's four," I said gently.

She shook her head. "No," she said, pointing more pointedly at Lana. "That one."

I saw that we were past her even noticing that Mihiretu was brown in a family of whiteys and felt a rock sink to the bottom of my belly.

"Well," I said carefully, "that's a girl. Her hair is short, I know that makes it confusing. That's Lana. She's seven. And this," I pulled Mihiretu onto my lap, "is Mihiretu. He's four. And that," I smiled at Mae across the table, "is Mae. She's nine."

My mom squinted at Mae. "He's nine?"

"Again," I said, "short hair-cut. He's a she and she's nine."

At this, Mihiretu made a break for it, running pell-mell into the kitchen. I saw my chance of temporary escape.

"Hey, kids," I said, collaring Mihiretu, "You want to see Grandma Margaret's room?"

The girls, also ready for a reprieve, followed me down the hall. In her room, we looked at family photos, marveled that the brightly smiling ten-year-old girl in roller skates could actually be that snowy-haired lady in the dining-room, and perused the Mother's Day card that my brother had indeed delivered earlier that day.

While we were gone, Ben later reported, he made small talk, really the only kind of talk one can make with my mom these days.

"Well," he said, revisiting the same old material, "Happy Mother's Day."

My mother returned to her dinner and said offhandedly, "Yep, we have that in common."

Ben was fingering a domino that was on the table. My mother eyed it while she chewed.

"This is really smooth," Ben said, noticing her attention. "You want to feel it?"

She cocked her head like a bird, her eyes raptly surveying the domino.

"Yes," she said decisively. "Yes, I would."

Tentatively she reached out a finger, tapped the domino and pulled her hand back quickly as if burned. She brought her eyes almost to table level and examined the domino from a safe distance.

"This red dot," she whispered thoughtfully as she pointed to a green dot on the domino, "really gets on some people!" This last she hissed vehemently, pinning Ben with her gaze.

The kids and I came back into the room and Ben, now ready for his break, rose to take the two younger ones into the backyard.

I sat and Mae, relishing a moment without sibling competition, plopped herself on my lap.

My mother smiled for the first time in the visit. "You're a good guy," she said to Mae.

I took a deep breath and gave Mae what I hoped was a comforting squeeze. "Mae's a girl," I reiterated. "Except she has a short haircut."

We all laughed. This time, apparently, it was funny.

"Oh," my mom said, wiping a tear of mirth. "I'm sorry." And to further the apology, she reached forward and gently touched Mae's hand. "You're a good guy."

"Girl," I said, sotto voce. Again, we all laughed.

My mom sighed with pleasure at the joke, looked at Mae one more time and said solemnly, "You're a good guy."

Soon it was time to go get our own Mother's Day dinner. We said our goodbyes to my mom and she watched us quizzically as we took our leave.

As the door closed behind us, I think we all, even Mihiretu, took a deep breath of the cool outside air.

I swallowed the usual cocktail of fury and grief. So sad that my mom is leaving me, memory by memory, and so mad that my mom is leaving me. The usual two-year-old piping up that if she really loved me, she'd stay. I swallowed it down because on this day, on my Mother's Day, I didn't want to feel that. I wanted to be with my kids, marvel with them over the cards they'd made me, laugh with them over our Puerto Rican dinner. For that one day, I didn't want to be sad for what I'd lost but joyful for what I'd found.