Sunday, January 23, 2011

It Will Be Okay, It Will Be Okay

This week, after days of near-zero temperatures and an evil wind, all the heating pipes in our badly built house froze, then thawed, then burst -- then leaked -- then poured. Buckets of urine-colored water poured from the living room ceiling in multiple places; thick rusty sludge dripped from the ceiling of TK's room and my room. We follow the plumbers' advice and cheerfully place buckets everywhere -- until I notice the rusty drips on TK's white bedspread and burst into tears.

Why did I bring my Ethiopian daughter to live in Juneau, Alaska? It's dark here, and cold, and everything either mildews or molds apart into soggy, saturated pieces. The wind howls outside, and the sidewalks are so icy it's safer to drive to the store than to walk. We live indoor lives in this town; venturing outside is a production of hats and gloves and rainboots and raingear that some of my neighbors seem to find endearing, but that I find tedious. Now outside is inside, running in rivulets and waterfalls from cracks in the ceiling. No escape from the water.

While the plumbers tromp mud up and down the stairs, I stand in TK's room and sob in great gasping breaths, the tears streaming down my face. . . until I feel a little hand patting my hip. I look down. TK is patiently mopping up the drips from the ceiling with a dish towel while she pats me reassuringly with her other hand and shakes her head wisely: "Don't worry about it, now. It's going to be okay. It is going to be okay!"

Two days later, when half of the living room ceiling collapses from water saturation in a thunderous boom (while I watch from the couch, where I lie sick with the stomach flu), I chant TK's reassurance like a prayer. It's going to be okay, it's going to be okay. Don't worry about it, now!

We move her birthday party to a friend's house -- a sweet, sweet friend who decorates doorways and chairs with purple streamers and balloons, planned party games, and bought prizes just so it will feel festive and warm and DRY. How many times does TK smile at me -- as she dishes up the huckleberry ice cream for everyone, as she plays pin-the-tail-on-the-hamster, as she demonstrates dance moves for everyone -- in that reassuring, wise way?

Aren't I the one who should be reassuring HER?

That sweet little person. Today, we decide to begin a new birthday ritual: to watch the videos the adoption agency (Children's Home Society) gave us when we left Ethiopia two and a half years ago. One is an interview of TK's birth father, including footage of the tukul in which she was born and the land that surrounds it. The other is a video account of her three months at the orphanage -- and our first few days together. For an hour, we watch those videos. I push pause when TK asks me to -- because she wants to know why people aren't wearing shoes in the Ethiopian countryside, because she wants to look at the tukul for awhile, because she wants to hear her birth father pronounce her name again. This is the first time TK has ever seen these videos. We talk, and talk -- and laugh at her toddling self, at the way her laugh looks the same on her baby self as it does on her 4-year-old self. She cuddles on my lap. Above us: the gaping hole in the living room ceiling.

What is calamity, really? Broken pipes and a hole in a ceiling in a rambling three-bedroom house in a good, safe neighborhood in a good, safe town with electricity and free public schooling (and shoes) hardly qualifies. Do I forget sometimes? Do I forget to be grateful for shoes, for shelter, for the safety of my body and the education of my child? Yesterday, I was annoyed the grocery store didn't have kale. Tonight, I was grateful for every bite I ate.

What separates us -- those of us here (even in leaky houses) and there in Ethiopia -- is not the grace of any deity, or a reward for any work, but chance. I celebrate my daughter's birthday with her and feel overwhelmed with gratitude -- and with sorrow, because her birth mother, Amarech, died and did not get to know the wonder that is Mitike, because Mitike is growing up so far from her home country and culture and birth family. And I worry: can I give her the life I so want to give her? The life her birth family hoped she would have?

After lunch, TK snuggles into her warm (and dry) bed with me, ready for a nap. I've just told her a story and sung her a song. She's got one arm around Purple Bear and one arm around me. I gaze at her. I cannot believe how much I love this child. My heart aches with it.

And then I remember to be grateful for that: with love, it WILL be okay, even if the world literally crumbles down all around us.