Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Year Ago Today: Meeting Mitike for the First Time

August 22, 2008: My mom and I wake at 5 a.m. to the Christian Orthodox call to worship -- the waking sounds of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A half hour later, the muezzin calls the Muslims from the mosque's minaret -- the dogs start barking -- traffic noise begins -- Ethiopian pop music blares from the construction site across from our guesthouse. If I'd been a mere traveler, I'd have soaked all these sounds into my being and reveled in what the rising sun revealed: the gentle roll of distant green mountains, the cacophony of color and shape in the buildings crammed beside ours, the glimpse of a solitary man herding goats down the stone-paved street. But I had come to Ethiopia to be a mother -- to wrap my arms around a little girl whom I would meet for the first time in a few hours. My heart hammered.

August 22, 2009: I wake at 5 a.m. on a rainy morning in Juneau, Alaska, to read and write for awhile before Mitike wakes -- this is my only quiet time, my only time for reflection. I stay up late to plan my lessons and grade papers -- the day in its fullness is entirely Mitike's. I'm jealous of this time. I need it. In just under two hours, a little voice will interrupt my quiet -- "Mommy!" I need this time to reflect right now about this whirlwind year, about the impossibilities that brought me together with the beautiful little person sleeping in the next room right now.

August 22, 2008: The first day, she turned away from me and just cried -- quietly, sadly, desperately. She was 19 months old, clad in a ridiculously frilly dress, white tights and black patent leather shoes -- the orphanage nannies must have felt this was the best presentation. She sat on the carpeted orphanage floor with her legs splayed in a "V", toys gathered protectively in that space. The social worker told me gently that I needed to go slowly -- unlike the other American parents, who had been encouraged to play actively with their children (beside me, one mother tossed her new son in the air; another father pushed a truck back and forth with his new daughter). Mitike observed me from the corner of one eye and began to weep, reaching for the social worker. I sat beside her for hours, making futile efforts at connection: blowing bubbles, building legos, balancing toys on my head. The orphanage was loud -- children crying, screaming, parents over-enthusiastic at their attempts at connection. Mitike just cried -- or tried to move away. The adoption agency videotaped those initial meetings -- I've watched it only once. I look so hopelessly eager! And nothing worked. Mitike refused the connection. Later, in the guesthouse, amid the other parents' excited talk, I cried.

August 22, 2009: She's just woken -- briefly. It's 6 a.m. I rush to her -- she's crying the hiccupy cry of bad dreams, but her sadness is that Bunny has fallen from the bed and the covers have been pulled off. I move her to my bed, where she falls asleep again. Or is it possible that we are so connected now that she feels my re-creation of that first meeting in the Addis Ababa orphanage? She can't remember, but. . . Mitike's brain constantly amazes me. In her 2-year-old way, she's been working through her understanding of adoption lately -- telling the story of how she was crying in her tukul (partially true -- symbolically true) and Mommy and Nana heard her crying and came and got her in the big white airplane. This week, though, she's added a new piece to the story. "One time," she says, "you were little, Mommy, and I was your mommy, and you said, 'I need Mommy!' and I was there." Strange. . . but beautifully accurate in its own way. I didn't grow up until I was Mitike's mommy. I needed her just as much as she needed me.

In that first full day in Addis Ababa, which is a blur of raw emotion to me now (what else did our group do, after we left the orphanage -- our children still there for two more days until the embassy appointments?), I couldn't see past my worry and doubt and sadness to dinner, much less to the future. I couldn't have known that a year later, it would feel like Mitike had always been my daughter, that I had always been her mother. I couldn't have known that she would wake from sleeping to kiss me gently on the cheek and murmur, "You're my friend, Mommy." I couldn't have predicted the absolute joy of parenting her, of how amazing of a little person she is -- pointing out the color purple every time she sees it ("Purple car! Purple sweater! That lady has a purple purse!"), clapping her hands in absolute delight when we blow bubbles outside, writing notes to Nana with great seriousness and concentration, singing the "ABC" song at the top of her lungs or singing "Rain, rain go away, come back another day. If you don't, WE DON'T CARE! We will buy more UNDERWEAR!"

That first day in Addis, I just felt utterly lost. But so did Mitike. And maybe that shared darkness of confusion was the seed for this deep connection we have now. Most mornings, when Mitike wakes up, she declares, "It's LIGHT time!" She and I live in that light time now -- but there's sacredness in remembering what came before. It reminds me to cherish every moment with her now -- even as I savor these last early-morning minutes of quiet. Just a year ago, "Mommy!" never interrupted my mornings. I forget that sometimes. Come, interruption. This is the anniversary of you. . . and I am so utterly grateful.