George visits Lake Michigan for our first cold beach trip in 2008.

Today the Meisenheimers joined thousands of other Michiganders in a bizarre regional phenomenon. Michiganders go to the beach in June.

June weather is cold. Not warm.

But this is our sixth Michigan summer, and we have learned that Michiganders do summer right. If you only have three months when it cannot possibly probably won’t snow, you learn to soak in every moment of lukewarm weather.

Yes, today all four Meisenheimers went to the beach on a day when the air temperature and the water temperature only added up to 135. The sand was slightly warm, the water was ice cold, but we did our duty. We hoola-hooped in the surf, we built sand castles, we walked along the beach, and one of us even went under water. It was five hours of bliss. Watching our six-year-old shriek and giggle in the waves, guiding our two-year-old to explore the beach for the first time*, laughing with my husband as we tried to hoop in the water, listening to Lake Michigan and to all the people having fun—this cold beach day is a regional quirk that I am happy to enjoy.

I’m thankful.

But I’m not thankful for the sunshine, the lake, the sand toys, the flip flops, the salty snacks, the breeze, the sunglasses, the water, the park, or our rockstar parking place.

I’m thankful that whether the perfect Saturday comes together or not,

these three people that walk around me and sit in my car and eat my food,

these three beautifully different voices that drive me bonkers on any given day,

these three pieces of my heart,

are my family.

And whether we became a family because we happened to be at the top of a waiting list, or whether we found each other because God hand-picked us to be together, it doesn’t matter. The miraculous thing is not whether God made it sunny today just for us or whether we got a great parking spot or whether we have the perfect day at the beach or whether we were carefully selected to be a forever family. The miraculous thing is that we all love each other. Four people from all over the world in one family and we find love every day.

I am thankful for that.

 

 

*Mabel had been to the beach during the first month of her life here in the U.S., but she never left her towel. Last year, she was afraid of sand and water.

Can you see the little person?

Last Mother’s Day was rough, my friends.

I was in Ethiopia, consoling a tiny girl over another loss, another change in caretakers, another new language. Last Mother’s Day my little baby was robbed of the people who loved her at her second orphanage. Last Mother’s Day all three of us, Mom, Dad, and brother, were witnesses to grief beyond our informed expectations.

Oh, boy. Did she grieve.

I felt sorry for myself last Mother’s Day. I felt sorry for myself when I turned 32 two days later and we were too shell-shocked to do anything fun. I felt sorry for myself that everyone asked about how Mabel was doing, but nobody asked what our trip to Ethiopia was like.

I love to answer questions. Sometimes people just don’t ask the right questions. For example, nobody has ever asked me what Mabel did when she first came into our home. It’s fascinating, really.

After two days of travel, crying on airplanes, suffering through new foods, seat belts, we set her down in a suburban home and let go. She looked around for a second. She saw a toy on the floor. Then another, then another. She picked up the toys. She made a pile. She went back and forth and back and forth collecting toys and putting them in a pile. Have you ever watched a bird gather straw to build a nest? Her pile grew and grew. She wasn’t quite frantic, but she was not at ease. This was her first experience with abundance. Enough. Extra. Plenty. Excess.

Mother’s Day week was interesting. But hard.

Mabel and I share a row on Ethiopian airlines. This is one of the quieter moments.

She clung to me, but she didn’t know me. She needed me in the room in order to fall asleep, but nothing I could say or do would ease her pain. Selfless friends brought meals and we surfaced from our underworld of grief-sharing to enjoy just a taste of normalcy. She picked up a new language like a master linguist, but there were no words to convince her that the food supply was safe, or that Mom and Dad would not leave her alone, or that there weren’t more changes in her future.

I think she spent the first few months wondering when the nightmare of abandonment would end.

She cried in her sleep constantly.

My 32nd birthday was rough, my friends.

Now I am turning 33. Sunday is Mother’s Day. Things are better. We cook for ourselves (sometimes). She doesn’t make piles of toys around here anymore. We can close the fridge without two hours of sobbing. She can sleep peacefully, knowing that Mommy and Daddy will be back. She can identify our family as Mom, Dad, George and Mabel. She has mixed up Ethiopia and everything she knows here and cannot distinguish much in her memory right now. She is starting to share her feelings, although that is coming very slowly.

This Mother’s Day I remember the grief, I bask in the healing, and I am relieved that in this painful process we continue to find restoration and growth in all four of us.

Happy Mother’s Day to those of you in the trenches of grief. Next year may or may not be better, but it will be different.

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Last year I wrote this little thought when I was thinking about submitting daily devotionals to a popular magazine. I changed my mind, so now I share this with you:

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

–Zora Neale Hurston

I left the playroom to throw some clothes into the washer. Just steps away from my two-year-old, I listened for her voice as she played with her dollies…

She came home to us from Ethiopia already a toddler, so we have spent every waking moment within a few feet of each other, working on our bond. Mabel has known no other caretaker on this side of the Atlantic, besides my husband and me. We do everything together. Everything. 

Our hearts swell when she chooses to get closer to us, and they collapse when she raises her arms up, asking to be held by strangers. One day at the park, she befriended an older gentleman and his two large dogs. Within moments I was coaxing her out of his lap. More bonding. We need more bonding. So my husband and I don’t go on dates. We don’t hire babysitters. The grandparents aren’t allowed to hold their grandchild yet. We’re bonding.

So today as I was flinging clothes into the washer (Little girls add a LOT of laundry to the household!), I strained to hear her babble. I didn’t hear anything from the playroom so I turned to check on her.  At my feet, I found Mabel.  And two dollies and a blanket.  Curled up next to the washer, just being with me.

The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.

–Mother Theresa


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I’ve got streaming radio on right now. Mabel just caught a few words of the latest song.

“Christmas, Mommy! Christmas!”

Seven months ago Mabel joined our family. She spoke Amharic, a beautiful language from her birth country. Unlike many 20-month-olds, she already expressed herself well in her native language. Then we came along.

For the first few days in Ethiopia we heard one phrase over and over again, translated roughly to “Hey you!” Wherever we would go, she would holler “Hey, you!” to strangers. I assume she was trying to find her way back to something familiar. Hey, you! Will you take me back? Rescue me from these strange people! Hey, you! Help!

Today, she can sing her own endless version of Jingle Bells. She recognizes lights, Santa, and snow. A new world has opened up. There are a lot of Christmas words to learn! As a former Spanish teacher, I study her language development like it’s a part time job. Every word and concept she discovers is like a newly discovered country. This is an adventure. But it is also a loss. As she fills her language centers with a new language, another one is slowly slipping away. (But that is another post.)

The milestones have continued steadily for seven months.

In the beginning, she had big thoughts to communicate to us, but didn’t have the words for them:

  • I’m scared.
  • You’re scary.
  • Where’s my home?
  • Where are my nannies?
  • Will you feed me enough?
  • Am I safe?
  • I’m all alone now.

We had big thoughts for her, but didn’t have the words for them:

  • Trust us.
  • We will meet your needs.
  • We are not going anywhere.
  • You are safe.
  • We love you.

And most importantly,

  • I will be right back.
  • This will just take a minute.

Yes, I wanted my daughter to feel loved. Yes, I wanted her to know my unwavering commitment to her, but we quickly discovered that the most powerful concept that we needed to communicate was “We will not abandon you.”

We will be here. Even when you can’t see mommy (because she’s in the shower or taking care of George or taking a nap), she will never leave you. Daddy will come back upstairs. George will come home from school. Nobody is really going anywhere.

The first day that Mabel was in our custody, she started using English words. Her linguistic abilities astounded us. By the time we had our first check-in with the social worker at six weeks, she already had fifty words in her vocabulary. Now we can’t even count them anymore. Many two-year-olds have a dozen or so words, and our daughter can now hold a conversation that lasts for several minutes. But one phrase eluded her for months:

I’ll be right back.

By the time an average child has reached 20 months, she has heard “Mommy will be right back” maybe thousands of times. She may not know exactly what the words mean, but she is comforted by this. She goes into daycare, or nursery, or nap time with that phrase on her lips.

But Mabel had no idea what we were trying to say. And those phrases are abstract. “Be right back?” You can’t draw a picture of that. You have to live it, prove it, be it every day over and over and over. But Mabel just didn’t get it.

For five months of Mabel’s life, bedtime was tragic.

For five months, there would be no childcare outside of mommy and daddy.

For five months, church nursery was impossible.

For five months, Mabel clung to us, afraid to be left behind or abandoned.

Then one day in October something changed. One day she was afraid. The next day she trusted. And it was all about “Mommy be right back.” When she learned that phrase she was able to let go and nap. She was able to let go and have a babysitter. She was able to let go and go to Sunday school. She was able to let go of Mommy and find comfort in Daddy’s arms. It became her mantra.

Going to bed, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

Going to church, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

Sending us on a date, “Mommy be right back. Daddy be right back, Georgie be right back.”

I thought “Mommy loves you” or “Mommy cares for you” or “Trust Mommy” would be the most powerful concepts in our attachment arsenal, but for now, it’s “Mommy be right back.”

This Christmas, as Mabel sings carols to us, as her eyes light up when she recognizes Santa Claus in pictures, as she tries to figure out the little people in the manger scene, we are filled with tidings of comfort and joy. For a two-year-old, the Good News is about being safe, wanted, loved, fed, and never far from home.

This Christmas, her first Christmas in English, Mabel knows the Good News: Mommy will always be right back.