Monday, May 21, 2012

Hell Week

In college, the week before finals was called "hell week." During that week you sprint for the finish line. Presentations are due, papers are submitted, and a quarter's worth of notes are reviewed. I have now affectionately nicknamed our first week home after adoption as "hell week." But the reasons are the opposite. It's the start of the marathon but at a sprinting pace . There is no end in sight. The intensity is overwhelming. The emotions are so high that the pain can be felt physically. I remember literally looking at the ground because I could physically feel my soul collapsed to the ground but I didn't have a free minute to let my body join my heart. 

There we were in the Spokane airport parking lot. We were more fried from sleep deprivation than I had ever known possible. And I was trying to wrestle a 7 year old onto her booster chair. She had never worn a seatbelt before and she certainly had no idea what that doohickey was sitting in her seat. She kept moving the booster out of the way and I kept moving it back. Her English wasn't very good yet so naturally I just kept saying louder and slower "sit here, ssiitt  hheerree, SIT HERE, SSIITT HHEERREE." The poor girl wanted so badly to please me and no clue what I was talking about! Then I wrestled 4 sets of seat belts onto kids who didn't even know how to how to anticipate where that belt was going to go.

The jet lag wasn't helping. We weren't sleeping. We could barely get through the day. The children all wanted to go to school that Monday. We had been home for 36 hours... we had woken up at 2am... and we hadn't figured out who had pants and who had shoes that fit. 

I spent two days just trying to figure out what clothes belonged to which kid. At first I stacked all the hand-me-down clothes in the middle of the room and had them start trying things on to figure out what fit and what didn't. That turned into a mass free for all. Kids were grabbing clothes, throwing clothes in no sort of order as to what fit and what didn't, taking clothes that another kid had already claimed, and trying to defend their stash. It all ended in "stop stop STOP STOP EVERYbody STOP! Mommy messed up. It's not your fault but stop, put it down, just walk away, everyone downstairs." I spent the next 2 days, one at a time, having kids try on every item of clothing. They didn't know what fit. They tried to claim things that were ridiculously short or 3 sizes too big. They tried to throw things that did fit into the "no" pile. They argued with me about what fit. I was exhausted to the core and we were debating over whether or not capris were appropriate for snowy weather. 

In the end we got through all the clothes. Sarah and Ryan were so excited about their *new* shoes that they made Josh take a picture of them wearing each and every pair.

Our 3 bedroom townhouse had shrunk overnight. We had seen a house earlier that fall that we both liked that was much bigger. We knew that if we were going to move, that we needed to make the decision before enrolling the kids in school. So we made the decision and made an offer... on another house... because our lives had apparently gotten boring for a minute and a half so we had to tackle yet another hurdle.

We found out that in order to enroll in school, we would have to have the kids vaccinations in order. So on Monday I begged and pleaded and got us an appointment for all four kids together that Wednesday. We didn't warn them. Instead we ambushed them. We told them that we were going out to do what we needed to do in order to get them in school. The first step an eye test. The problem was that Sarah and Ryan couldn't do the letters. So they had pictures available for kids too young to do letters. But they didn't know the words for the pictures. Half the pictures were of objects they had never seen before in their lives. When Sarah couldn't complete the eye exam, I told the nurse that I wasn't sure it was really an eye issue but likely a language issue and that we would just keep an eye on it but that I wasn't too worried. Sarah didn't understand what we were saying. We had told her that we had to do this to get them in school. She was near tears. "No school Mommy? I no school?" When I realized that I had set her up for this misunderstanding, I felt horrible. I told her that she would go to school but I'm sure that she wasn't confident. I'm sure she questioned her understanding. She wanted so desperately to go to school for the first time. 

We went into the exam room and waited for the doctor. Each minute that passed was more torturous than the next. Their fear was real and consuming. When the doctor came in, they whimpered in unison every time he reached for something or turned slightly. With every movement, they assumed that he was getting ready to jab them with a needle. Then the dreaded vaccination time. They needed 8 shots... each! 4 in each leg. One at a time, I held them down. I laid across their chest, positioned my head to avoid a head butt, used my hands to hold their arms down, and repeated over and over "shhhh, its ok, I love you, I love you, its okay." One nurse held their legs down while a second nurse did the poking. They screamed like they were watching someone being murdered right in front of them. And I am not exaggerating. I have no idea how they screamed that loud because I was smashing all the air out of them by laying across them. 8 shots, one by one, then on to the next kid, 4 times. People tell me all the time "oh yes my kids cried too." Yeah! Let me tell you... this is NOT the same. 

Then we were told that we would need to re-do their HIV, HepA, HepB, etc, etc tests. As Josh and I discussed with the doctor in the lobby whether or not to do it that day and get it over with or stretch it out into another day, I started to cry. Either choice felt so horrible. Every part of me broke. We went home. The kids could barely move. They were in so much pain. I remember the kids all being around the table and Josh in the kitchen. And I just sat on the couch crying and crying. I couldn't stop. I must have sat there crying for 20 minutes or more.  

After a couple hours at home, we headed out to deal with the blood draw. We went to a local PAML location. Again, we ambushed the kids. As soon as they realized what was up, they all started crying. The technician was the most merciless person I have ever seen. She snarled "they will have to sit still, I can't do this if you can't control them." The kids were scared. Coming back another day wasn't going to change anything. We had to do this. I understand that you have to be able to hit a vein in order to be able to do the draw. And I understand that you have to avoid endangering the technician from a stick. But she never tried to help. She did nothing to calm them down. I pleaded with the kids, explaining that moving around would make it hurt more. JoAni and Sylvia did well. While they cried, they did hold still and we got it over with. Josh was out trying to console the other 3 while I did the restraining so I was so thankful that the older 2 did so well as I could not have restrained JoAni if she had chosen to truly fight me. She is just too strong. Sarah and Ryan didn't do as well. I needed Josh's help. He came and used one hand to lock their shoulder in place and the other to hold their wrist out, all while trying to position his grasp so as to allow the blood flow. While he did this, I did the full body wrap with my legs and arms wrapped around their little bodies.

After 3 hours at the doctor's office and an hour doing blood draws, we went home for a post placement visit. That's right! Just an hour or two after it all, just 4 days after getting home, our social worker showed up to evaluate our new family. The kids could barely walk from all the shots. Their elbows were all wrapped up from the blood draws. Ryan would just stand up and then cry when he needed to go to the bathroom. They barely ate any dinner and I specifically remember it being something that they really liked. Ryan was the first to fall asleep, shortly after the social worker arrived. I picked him up and told her that I was putting him to bed. She needed to see their rooms so I told her to follow me. Clothes were scattered all around their rooms. It was a disaster area. And I didn't apologize. We were beaten down and weary. We were home. We were safe. 

This is the edited version because I don't even remember it all anymore. I think I have blocked it from my memory. But writing this has brought back little waves of those raw-rock-bottom-exhaustion, on-your-knees-pleading-for-God pain, sinking-in-the-middle-of-the-ocean feelings of fear and inadequacy. When those waves of emotional memory hit, I can barely breathe. It was only by the grace of God and the support of others (which I will write about later) that we made it through those first days.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Long Trek Home

It was finally time to head home. We flew home on our originally booked flight, 5 weeks and 6 days after we left the U.S. Our agency told us that leaving on your original flight, without having to change plans and re-book tickets, is rather rare. We bathed and packed up. The kids were so very excited.

We left our hotel at about 6pm. It took about 2 hours bumping along roads worn down by the torrential rains of the rainy season. The station wagon we were in was taking on roads that appeared to be straight out of a Jeep commercial. The back was full of our luggage so the back seat/bench was filled with me and all 4 kids while Josh rode up front. Ryan was on my lap and I quickly learned that you have to carefully position your head so as to avoid a headbutt with each giant natural speed bump. 

Our driver knew the streets of Kampala backwards and forwards. He took us on plenty of short cuts. We drove down roads lined with rows of small houses made from corregated tin. I kept seeing images of movies where people were being smuggled out of the country. Why did we get to jet away to a "better" life and all those people we drove past didn't? One day I was talking with one of our drivers about the U.S. vs Uganda. He said that he loved his country but if a plane landed tomorrow that would take anyone and everyone that wanted to go to the U.S., that no one would be left in Uganda. We talked about the fact that the U.S. is not perfect and there are poor people. But we agreed that the defining difference is opportunity. Not everyone who works hard in the U.S. achieves their dreams, but there is a lot more opportunity to do so.

When we got in the area of the airport, the kids asked every 2 minutes where the airplanes were. They had never seen one before. The driver finally promised, in Lugandan, to tell them when he saw one. We got to the airport with about 4 hours until departure (it's not too safe to travel after dark in Uganda and we didn't want to take any chances of missing our flight). We were so early that we couldn't even check in. So we waited in a waiting room for foreigners. We never saw the waiting room for Ugandans. I would have guessed that it was not as nice. Foreigners always got preferential treatment. We spent our last bit of shillings at the little cafe stand. 

Finally it was time to check in. We had 2 full carts of luggage to push. Thankfully we had opted to only do backpacks for carry-ons. We had planned ahead and brought a carry-on for each kid. They LOVED their backpacks. We gave them to them about 3 or so weeks early. Let's just say that we had to institute a "no backpacks at the dinner table" rule. The backpacks were a huge help as I had told the kids that they would be totally responsible for their own stuff. We purposely didn't pack much in them knowing that they would have coats they wanted to take off and other things that they would want us to carry for them that we would have to tell them "no put it in your backpack." We simply couldn't handle juggling junk on top of everything else. 

Thankfully I thought to keep a copy of the court decree with us. But I failed to make a copy. So I was allowed into the terminal in order to walk to the far end to make a copy. I was told that I owed 200 shillings. I told the guy that I would come back with the money. I returned, handed over the papers, and informed Josh that we owed 200 (about 8 cents) shillings for the copy. He reminded me that we had spent all of our shillings and didn't have any dollars with us. A very kind American man behind us tapped me on the shoulder and slipped me a 500 shilling note as we waited for our "all clear" to enter the terminal. Later we would cross paths with him at which point I gave him his 300 shillings change and thanked him. 

We went into the terminal and then into another secured area where our plane would board from. However there was no bathroom in that area. 4 kids, 0 bathrooms, you do the math! The security guard got annoyed with my frequent trips in and out and told us no more. Another American told us "he can't say that, you just do what you need to." My thought was that I wasn't going to test it and risk missing our flight, even if it was just a slim chance.

The kids were SO very excited. Looking out the window at the airplanes, they weren't even sure what they were looking at. I had to clarify what was part of the plane and what was the food cart unloading and what was the luggage ramp. They stood at the window looking at the airplane for over 1 hour. Sarah kept bouncing up and down, over and over and over and over. 

Our flight was scheduled to depart after midnight. At that point we had been awake for 18 hours! As the departure time got closer we realized they weren't going to have the traditional early boarding for parents with young children and those needing extra time. So we figured out where the front of the line was. By then at least 50 people had lined up. We walked to the front, cut in front of everyone, and sat down. We didn't explain ourselves, we were too exhausted. But I think our reason was pretty clear, even to perfect strangers. They didn't say a single word. In fact, they backed up and gave us room.

Upon boarding the plane, I spotted a toothbrush and a teeny tiny toothpaste for each person. I almost cried! Oh to have a clean toothbrush! (For those who don't know me personally, I put my toothbrush(es) through the dishwasher every day. You wouldn't eat off the same fork for a week without washing it, would you?!) I was sitting in between Ryan and Sarah while Josh was directly in front of me with Sylvia and JoAni on either side of him. EVERYthing was new. We showed them how to put on their seatbelts. We tried to answer their 10,000 questions about everything they were seeing. We explained that they each had their very own remote AND they were allowed to press the buttons! I started hearing a sound. I was looking all around when I realized that Ryan was pressing the flight attendant button over and over. Ooops! Ok, not THAT button Ryan!

It was a 9 hour flight to London. It was EXHAUSTING! Going to the bathroom was a major ordeal. They didn't know how to walk on the airplane with the floor being angled and moving. The door to the bathroom kept shutting on them every time they tried to open it. I showed them to knock on the door when they wanted out. They didn't know how to flush. They didn't know how to turn on the water, get the soap, or get paper towels. Oh and did I mention that there are 4 of them?!? All the food had to be explained in terms they could understand. Mostly it consisted of us saying "meat! that meat! bread! that bread!" They wanted to eat the little sugar packets that were for the coffee... and we let them. EVERYone knew we were on that plane! At one point Josh was trying to explain the movie selection to Sylvia. He was trying to explain the Smurfs movie and I was yelling over the seats "little blue people! They're little blue people!" 

We had about 8 hours in London. We went in one elevator and they just looked at each other confused. Then we went in a glass elevator. WHEEEEE!!!!!  We took lots of rides up and down the escalators. About 4 hours in, we saw a sign that there was a play area. It was an area full of toys AND babysitters. We both sat 20 feet away, wished we could sleep, continually reassured the kids that we were right there, and just slumped over in our chairs. 

The second flight, from London to Seattle, didn't go too smoothly. Our tickets had 4 seats together and then 2 single middle seats. This made for an impossible equation. I approached the gate agent and asked if we could board early in order to get situated and asked if they could help us with the seat situation. They told us to ask a flight attendant once on board about the seats and to just come over when boarding. Next thing you know, boarding had started and we were out of luck. Once on board, I had the kids sit down in the 4 seats and asked a flight attendant for help. Right away the kids were on edge that we weren't immediately sitting with them. Now at this point we had been awake for about 34 hours. My fibromyalgia was definitely not helping. I could feel the pain throughout my body. The flight attendant responded to my request for assistance by saying "well this is going to be a little tricky because it would involve a person giving up a window or aisle seat." Looking back at it, I think he was going to continue by saying "but I'll see what I can do"... but he never got that far. That's right, I came unglued! ALL RIGHT THEN! YOU CAN TELL THAT PERSON THAT THEY CAN SHOW MY KID HOW TO BUCKLE THEIR SEAT BELT, HOW TO UNBUCKLE THEIR SEATBELT, HOW TO EAT THEIR FOOD, WHAT THEIR FOOD IS, HOW TO USE THE MOVIES, and on and on! He cut me off by agreeing to help. A very nice man agreed to give up his seat. When I said thank you he replied by saying "I have 4 grandkids, if you can adopt 4 I can change seats." So it ended well, but all of this stirred up my chronic pain. Hours later I ended up puking my guts out in a tiny airplane bathroom. 

For weeks we had been telling the kids that we would need to take 3 airplanes to get home. So it created mass confusion when we told the kids upon landing in Seattle that we were in America. For months they would refer to Seattle as America 1 and Spokane as America 2. At this point we had to pick up our luggage and re-check it in and pass through customs. This involved a bit of a distance and so we had 2 luggage carts piled up with no free hands to keep track of kids. The very last thing we wanted to do was lose track of someone, even if for a moment. So I instructed JoAni to hold onto my backpack and Sylvia to hold onto JoAni's backpack and Sarah to hold onto Sylvia's backpack and Ryan to hold onto Sarah's backpack. There we were inching along like ducklings. People literally stopped to watch. 

All along our voyage, people watched us. We were certainly a spectacle. None of the looks or questions were negative. People were just very curious. Every security checkpoint was an ordeal. JoAni's English was improving. Sylvia was understanding basic instructions. But we could barely communicate with Sarah and Ryan. They didn't understand what was happening. I would go through first. Then Josh would attempt to restrain the remaining kids, releasing one at a time, while I stood on the other side trying to wave them through. At one point either Sylvia or JoAni tripped one of the alarms so they wanded her. I wish they had waited just a moment so I could try to explain it to her. I just remember a very worried and confused look.

By the time we landed in Spokane we had been awake for about 58 hours. Once we got home and got the kids in bed it was late at night and 60 hours of being awake. We were nearly delirious with exhaustion... and we all woke up at 2am! Josh and I tried to force ourselves to sleep more but it didn't work. By 4am the whole house was up.

I had imagined our trip home a thousand times. I thought that when the first plane finally took off, that I would cry with joy that we had made it, but I didn't. We were too busy attending to 4 very overwhelmed kids. And it didn't feel safe to celebrate yet. I thought I would cry when we landed in the U.S., but I didn't. Too busy and not safe yet. I thought I would cry when we successfully passed through immigration in the U.S., but I didn't. I thought I would cry when we landed in Spokane, home sweet home, but I didn't. I thought I would cry when they were all tucked into their beds for the first time, but I didn't. It was such an extremely overwhelming trek home. I was and am so thankful that we made it. The entire travel experience, including the 6 weeks in Uganda, was extremely intense. And as extreme as it was, I am just glad that we made it through. We survived. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Time to Say Goodbye

The day before we were to leave Uganda, we set out to say goodbye. We made the long, smog filled, trek from Kampala to Jinja. We were in the roach coach again. The vehicle that was infested with cockroaches. If a crumb hit the floor, the roaches came running. Per the kids' request, we brought 2 bunches of bananas to the orphanage with us. When I went to grab for them, I had forgotten about those nasty bugs until I saw one darting between the bananas. I'll admit, I was a weenie. I got one of our kids to grab them which they did without noticing my reason. Yuck!

When we arrived at the orphanage, it was too early and our kids' friends were still at school. So we went to lunch and came back. We took lots of pictures. Finally we told our kids that it was time to say goodbye. Our kids especially miss their oldest friend. She showed them the ropes about life at the orphanage. They played games with her and teased her with games of keep-away. After our girls, the next child in age would be about 5+ years younger than her. They worry about how she is doing.

Then we headed to Mukono, the town that their grandmother lives in. Throughout Uganda we saw people walking between cars in traffic with buckets of fried grasshoppers. Our kids were always drooling over them. At a stop on the way to Mukono, a man went by the car with his bucket of grasshoppers for sale. The kids asked if they could take some to their Grandmother. I motioned to the guy that we would buy a little tin of them. Now let me say, at that point I had a splitting headache and felt pretty sick. I looked away, probably talking to one of the kids, and when I looked back, he had reached through the window to deliver my purchase. There, about 8 inches from my face, was an open tin of about 50 or so grasshoppers. I started furiously shaking my head "no" and making "mmmm-mm-mm-MMMM" noises. The poor guy was standing there looking so confused! He had a look on his face like "you crazy American, you just asked for these." I motioned for one of the kids to grab the tray and I think he figured it out at that point. Not trusting the kids not to dump them, he pulled his arm back, put a lid on the tray, and handed it back to one of the kids. 

We spent time together as one family. We all plopped down on the floor along side Grandmother's mattress on the floor. That white sheet looking thing is her mosquito net (critical to the defense of malaria) which was attached to the wall and rigged to make a tent  like structure at night. The kids showed us all around the house, the rabbit hutch, and the (outdoor) kitchen. There was one moment that took place that was especially important to me. I was interacting with Grandmother. She was particularly focused in on me. My theory is that in Uganda, having a mother is critical to your survival while having a father is less central to the family structure (due to so many Dads not being present). There was a moment when I was holding her hand and there was no one to translate. I didn't really think much before doing so, but I kissed her hand. I wanted to show her our love and respect. And I wanted to make a promise to her that we would take good care of her beloved little ones. That was the only way I could show her without words. And then she kissed my hand. It felt like a hand off, like she was saying "they're yours now, you have my blessing." And as quickly as it happened, it was over.