Sunday, January 25, 2009

Auke Rec, Juneau, Alaska -- January 18

ME: Where are the whales, TK? I don't see them.

TK: I don't know, Mommy.

ME: They must be underwater. Where are they?

TK, pointing up: THERE they are, Mommy!

ME: Where?

TK: Up in the air! Whales up there, Mommy! Whales up there!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Open the Door: Mitike's 2nd Birthday

On the morning of January 22, which is legally and officially Mitike's second birthday, my sweet daughter wanders to the top of the stairs in her brown and pink polka-dotted pajamas, like she does every morning, and calls out, "Mommy! All done sleeping!"

I rush up the stairs and sweep her up in my arms. "Happy birthday, sweet girl!"

Her eyes widen. We've been talking about her birthday for a few days -- she's been chanting, "'itike's birthday comin'!" and singing the "Happy Birthday" song, waiting as patiently as a toddler can wait. "Mommy," she whispers, "'itike's birthday, open the door?"

That's TK's way of asking if something is beginning, of course, but the writer in me couldn't help but savor the phrase. Open the door. Just five months ago, TK, I pushed open the door to an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and searched a dim-lit playroom for your face, which I'd only seen in two photographs. A week later, Ali opened the door to our house in Juneau, Alaska -- exactly half a world away from Ethiopia -- and you squirmed out of my arms and ran inside, as if you knew what "home" meant already. Open the door.

"Mommy!" TK's voice brings me back to this moment. "Balloons!" I smile. We've reached the bottom of the stairs, and TK's just glimpsed the balloons Tim and Katie filled and then hid under a blanket to surprise her on her birthday. TK leans down and pulls the blanket away, then claps her hands in utter joy. Balloons, balloons! She reaches for the purple one, and I start singing: "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear TK. . ."

But pause a moment. Let TK play with her purple balloon and come into the kitchen with me -- I need more coffee. The truth is, this isn't really her birthday. This is a date the translators at the Addis Ababa office recorded on her orphanage paperwork -- it's a date converted from the Ethiopian calendar one her birth father provided. Here is one of the many questions I did not ask Abose but which I wish I had in that mere half hour we got to meet: When was Mitike born? I'm certain he did not possess a calendar, or a concept of time -- he was struggling to feed himself and his family; his wife was sick; his thoughts were blurred by desperation. Two years later, he had to make a guess when the orphanage people asked him, "When was she born?" "Taerr," he must have replied, which is the Ethiopian month which begins on our Jan. 9 and ends on our Feb. 8. A guess.

Watch TK now. She is batting the purple balloon up in the air, laughing with her mouth wide open. "Lookit, Mommy! Lookit! Silly balloon!" She's clearly older than two. The pediatrician shakes her head, smiling: TK has all her teeth, she hits all the benchmarks for fine and gross motor skills, she is developing language at an amazing rate; she's either a genius or she's two and a half -- maybe three.

This makes me sad. I forget sometimes that TK's only been with us for five months; I feel I've known her her whole life. But because I haven't -- because she came to me carrying a green-brown country with round huts, goat herds, tall leafy false banana plants, a weary man with smiling eyes, 5:30 a.m. chants, wavering music, "Salaam!", and berbere spice -- I desperately want to know exactly how old she is. I want to know if it was the rainy or the dry season when she was born. I want to know which birds her birth mother might have heard when she woke in the tukul after labor. I want to know what farming task her birth father completed before he entered the tukul to find a new baby had joined his family.

I want to know how many days TK knew before she knew me.

Last week, our friends Topaz and Colin visited us with their month-old baby in tow, and -- as we watched TK run joyfully from living room to kitchen and back again -- Colin asked me when I started to think of her as my daughter. He said it was automatic for him, watching the baby grow in Topaz's body, witnessing the birth. I was startled -- not by Colin's good question, but by my own answer: when I opened Mitike's photo in my email on May 22, she was my daughter. She had been my daughter for her life, which did not mean she had not also been (and continues to be) the daughter of a woman named Amarech, whom I will never know. It simply meant that when I saw her photograph, I knew her already. That I loved her already.

And here she is now, proudly helping me balance the tray of cupcakes we made as we walk through the door of her preschool. The cupcakes are frosted in Technicolor, then sprinkled liberally with pink and purple sugar. TK has dressed herself completely in purple for her birthday day, and she beams her wide and beautiful smile when her teachers call out birthday greetings to her. I store away my sadness. I cannot know everything. I missed her first two years; now I miss these hours when she is at preschool and I am at work. What matters is this incredible little person, my brimming love for her, and the U.S. Embassy-recognized fact that today, January 22, is her birthday.

I scoop her up into my arms and kiss the soft place beneath her ear. "Happy birthday, my beautiful girl," I murmur. She wraps her little arms around my neck. "Happy bir'day, 'itike, beautiful mommy," she whispers back, and then happily squirms down to the floor, where she runs toward the other kids, toward a day of cupcakes and singing and the color purple. Toward a day of being two years old -- the door open wide.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mama Work Airplane

Mitike is smart -- a boast I feel I can make only because she's not biologically mine. When I carefully explain to her that Mama has to go back to work and that TK is going to start school, but not until AFTER Nana and Gerry come on the airplane to visit, she nods, a concentrated frown on her face.

"Mama work?"

"Yes, and TK's going to go to school."

"After Nana-Gerry airplane -- up in the air?"


She nods, then pauses to take another bite of her bagel. "Mama work airplane?"

Okay, she is only two -- she can't understand everything. What she did begin to absorb this week, though, is that she and Mama have entered a new phase -- a phase in which Mama is suddenly dressed up in the mornings, with earrings and a necklace on -- a phase in which Mama is rushing out the door to her car when TK is still in her pajamas. She knows I go to a place called "work"; she knows I'm gone until after her nap. But because of the sweet presence of my mom and step-dad this week, TK doesn't yet know that her own days will be utterly changed from the slow, easy rhythm of the past four months -- that from 7:45-3:45 every Monday through Friday, she will now snack, play, eat, read, nap, and go to the potty with twenty other toddlers at the Juneau Puddle-Jumpers Day Care.

In an effort to stay positive, I call her daycare "TK's school". For a month, we've visited for an hour or two each day, and she's loved it. It's a bright, colorful, loving, safe daycare. My mom and step-dad confirmed that when they visited the place with her. But still I feel worried.

I watch as TK bounds happily through the daycare's door, packs her coat into her little cubby, and runs to join the 2-year-old group in the day's lesson. I stand back, nursing my sadness. I want our months of coffee shop dates, sledding runs, coloring at the kitchen table, splashing in puddles, yelling "Come on, Birdie!" to the seagulls at the harbor, cuddling at naptime, Bob Marley dance parties, cooking lessons, hide-and-go-seek games. I don't want to give her up. I want to melt onto the floor like she does when she's sad -- refuse to get up until someone tells me I don't have to go back to work, until someone says I can keep being a stay-at-home mom.

TK, on the other hand, runs back to me to ask, "Mama, come back?" and when I say of course I will, she waves at me and then turns back to building blocks with Ms. Charm and her small learning center group of 2-year-olds.

And anyway, though I wondered what TK was doing all day with my mom and Gerry this week, I never worried. As I circulated my classroom, bending to help students, my mind kept drifting to the way I knew Gerry was probably lifting TK high to touch the ceiling, the way my mom was probably cuddling her close, the way Gerry was probably allowing her to scribble on his hands with markers, the way Mom was probably letting her stick stickers all over her sweater. If only Nana and Gerry lived in Juneau.

I know TK will be entertained at daycare, that she will learn new things. My worry about daycare is more about influence. Two days ago, TK whined for the first time, "My toy!" to Tim -- a phrase she could only have learned in daycare. Yesterday, she said "Go away!" to Katie. I don't think she learned the way she said that phrase from my singsongy "Rain, rain go away. . ." The word "mine" has crept into her otherwise sweet vocabulary, and she's begun to grab for things again -- a habit I thought I'd convinced her to break.

This is my weight to carry about daycare for my beloved little girl: that she would learn more about becoming a good person if she had my one-on-one influence all day; that she would feel more secure being nurtured by her mother all day; that four months was not enough time. I know the social benefits of daycare, the reality that I HAVE to work for financial reasons, the gift long and open summers are to parents who are teachers like Ali and I are. But every utterance of "mine", every tantrum when she melts onto the floor in histrionic sadness will make me worry again.

My mom reminded me this week that TK is more than smart: she's also resilient, confident, strong-minded, and happy-spirited. The little girl who rides at the front of the long blue sled, gets a spray of cold snow in her face, and shouts, "Again!" will survive the challenges of daycare. The small person who looks confidently up at adults and invites them to sit -- "Bum!" -- and then promptly offers them imaginary tea and imaginary bowls of soup will emerge from the influence of the mine-sayers and the grabbers fairly unscathed. The silly child who points at the drawing of the moose in Harold and the Purple Crayon and shouts, "Porcupine!" will retain her personality in the midst of the crowd.

I know all these things. I know, too, that Nana and Gerry have their lives to live in Iowa, and that daycare is a necessary reality, whether I welcome it or not. Maybe it's ME I'm most worried about. When I came home Monday afternoon -- after the longest stretch TK and I had been away from each other since we met four and a half months ago in Ethiopia -- I swept her up into my arms and held her close, savoring the softness of her warm cheek, the sweet strength of her little arms around my neck.

"Were you okay when Mama went to work?" I murmured into her hair.

She patted my back in soothing circles with her little hand, just like I do to comfort her when she wakes from a nightmare in the night. Then she pulled back and looked at me with concern, her little brow furrowed. "Mama okay work?" she asked.

I suppose that's the real question.