Gotcha

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3628e74410cef8316a75ca354bc5f3e4.jpgThe July day was sweltering in a small city in China the day we adopted our daughter. But the large hotel conference room was chilly as my husband and I entered it to the sounds of babies crying. The rest of our adoption group were there with babies in arms as a small woman with tears in her eyes approached us and handed us a little girl, almost one year old. The baby began to wail as she realized her caretaker from the orphanage was handing her over to total strangers. I was crying too and trying to say “I love you” in Mandarin. My husband was videotaping the whole affair, but he forgot to take the lens cap off the camera. So all we have to commemorate the moment is the audio of lots of crying.

Adoptive parents refer to this day as their child’s “Gotcha” day. Many have parties not only to celebrate their child’s birth, but also that fateful day when their precious child came into their lives. My daughter’s Gotcha day was this week, and it always brings me back to memories of China in the heat of the summer.

For days our new daughter appeared shell-shocked as she adjusted to two new people who looked, sounded, and even smelled different. I carried her in a Snugli through parks, museums, temples, and other sights as our guide showed us the land in which she was born. All the babies in the group were about to turn one, so the guide arranged a little birthday celebration at our hotel. The candle on the cake was shaped like a lotus flower, and it opened slowly when it was lit.

One morning as I fed our baby congee, the traditional breakfast of most Chinese, she looked up at me and gave me the most heartwarming smile. I knew we had crossed a threshold. As we packed our suitcases to leave for home, she started to become animated and engaged, giving us an impish smile as she removed articles of clothing I’d just packed.

The flight back to the U.S. was rough. It was an overnight to L.A. and was widely known as “the baby flight” because it usually held a number of families returning home after adopting their children. Our daughter was inconsolable. She had gotten sick and was on antibiotics, but I’m sure her ears or sinuses must have been hurting. I was dazed and sleep-deprived when we finally landed and went through immigration, thus making our new daughter a U.S. citizen. My husband claims that I scared a celebrity by leering at her while we waited for our luggage at baggage claim.

Once home, we awaited the return of our older children, who had been staying with my husband’s family. Their noisy arrival threw our baby off for a while, but she soon adjusted to three doting older siblings and an extended family who all loved her instantly.

Today our daughter is a thriving teenager, and it seems a distant memory thinking about the forlorn little girl we pledged to care for and never abandon during our swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China. When people adopt a child, particularly from overseas, well-wishers often comment on how lucky the child is. But we were the lucky ones – blessed with our beautiful, infuriating, fabulous daughter, who we couldn’t have loved any more if I had given birth to her.

Daughter, I’m so glad we “gotcha”!

 

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A Life Well Lived

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IMG_1148Yesterday my beloved aunt Mary was laid to rest after 94 years of a life well lived. The chapel where her funeral was held was filled to capacity with family members, friends, and Aunt Mary’s many caregivers who had come to know her during her last 10 years spent in a nursing home.

Aunt Mary was always a favorite of mine because I was her godchild and namesake. Her presence was always a benign and pleasant one. She seemed to take raising a large family in her stride, and I don’t ever remember seeing her sullen or angry. Aunt Mary was intelligent. Even after a stroke had left her with partial paralysis, she became known for playing Scrabble regularly at the nursing home. She loved music, my cousin once told me, especially opera. And when I visited her, Aunt Mary could regale me with all the doings of her massive extended family. Above all, Aunt Mary was kind. She gave time in service to the church and community. But at the end of the day, what she lived for was to care for her family.

I had mixed emotions as I watched Aunt Mary’s many children, grandchildren, and great-children say goodbye. Whether escorting her casket into and out of the chapel, reading aloud from Scripture, or processing up the aisle to place individual white roses in an arrangement on the altar, her loved ones were clearly shaken and grieving. Even her son-in-law, who in Mary’s last years was a big presence in her life, could barely read  the comforting words of our faith without choking up.

It was so very clear to me that Aunt Mary was beloved. And I wondered, will people mourn my loss some day with such heartfelt love? Will my children and my children’s children miss me so deeply?

A few days ago, I received a text from an old friend. She had seen an obituary for my aunt in the newspaper and had found it jarring since Aunt Mary and I had the same first and last name before I got married. Thinking about my possible death had caused my friend to reach out and affirm her affection for me, and we agreed to see each other soon.

What does it mean to lead a life well lived? In a word, love. Love is what Aunt Mary showered on everyone she met. Love is what helped her endure hardship and loss, including the untimely death of a son. And love is what went with her yesterday and what will live on in the hearts of all those who were privileged to be part of her life.

In the final words of the priest at the funeral, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21)

 

What a Hassle!

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3_730x410In my advanced middle age (read: “old”), I have come to realize that most of my time consists of avoiding hassles. I’m forever commenting about potential activities, “That seems like a hassle.”

I love that word: “hassle.” My dictionary app says that the word comes from a Southeastern United States expression meaning, “to pant, as from exertion.” Or it could derive from the British meaning: “to hack at, saw away at with a blunt blade.”

Yep. That’s how it feels when something is a hassle. Not long ago, our friends were telling us about the day spent getting their boat ready for sailing on Lake Michigan. They described a long, dirty ordeal that just seems like too much work.

Many people’s avocations seem to involve too much hassle: gardening, wood-working, restoring furniture, and most DIY household projects. And many sports are equipment-heavy and time-consuming just to prepare for: football, hockey, golf, waterskiing, snow skiing, among others.

I remember when my son started playing tackle football the summer before fifth grade. He came home with a huge bag full of equipment that I had to somehow help him assemble onto himself. A friend whose son was also starting football that year hosted a get together whose main purpose was helping each other figure out how to suit up our boys like gladiators for battle. What a hassle!

I’ve also seen fit over the years to complain about school projects with many moving parts and expeditions involving long drives, packed coolers, and other hassles. Even getting the kids ready to go to the local pool – finding their suits, packing towels and goggles, slathering sunscreen on wriggling bodies – sometimes made me weary.

On the other hand, tell me you need two dozen baked goods for the school bake sale, and I’m all over it. There will be nary a complaint about buying, assembling, and prepping ingredients for cookies, cupcakes, or other sweet treats. No exasperation at counters covered in flour and colored sprinkles. No whining about hassles.

I guess when you truly enjoy something, you have the patience and sustained interest to plough through without feeling hassled. For me, cleaning up the house and the kids after a beach expedition: hassle. But three hours on the couch reading book after book to my little ones? Pure joy.

I guess a hassle is in the eye of the beholder.

Bad News on Bingeing

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2016-11-28-1480351093-5664005-themarysue_gilmoregirls-656x353For some reason, I find summertime to be a great season for binge-watching my favorite shows. During the school year while my kids are busy with their full schedules, lounging around and watching TV seems too decadent. I try to be as productive on the home front as they are at school. But in the summer, while they oil themselves up and head to the pool, I’m happy to revisit my favorite series Gilmore Girls for the umpteenth time.

But today I read some distressing news. Studies are revealing the adverse health effects of bingeing on video content. Spending hours in front of screens can lead to vision and sleep problems, deep vein thrombosis, and obesity from all the sitting and eating. Nothing in the report was all that shocking, yet seeing it in black and white brought home to me how damaging my habit can actually be.

Ironically, summer is also when the weather is often fine and suitable for more active pursuits. I have increased the frequency and duration of my daily walks lately. And the summer sun brings cheer that makes me more energetic about household tasks.

Medical experts suggest that if you want to binge watch a show, you should get up often to take breaks, stretch, throw in a load of laundry, walk the dog. You should also prepare healthy snacks to eat while bingeing, such as cut up vegetables and air-popped popcorn. Luckily for me, I still have one child at home, so I’m regularly getting up to help her find missing items, trudge upstairs to wake her up, or do her mountains of sweaty soccer-related laundry.

My husband is fond of saying, “Sitting is the new smoking.” It’s a good reminder that as much as I’d like to hang out with Lorelai and Rory Gilmore all day, I need to be active and productive. That way, at the end of the day, I can feel tired and accomplished and feel justified in enjoying a couple of episodes of my favorite show. Those Gilmore girls aren’t going anywhere, after all.

 

Just Say No to Teenage Drinking

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Teens-Drinking-at-a-PartyThis morning’s Chicago Tribune had an article about New Trier officials’ alarm at the increase in binge drinking by their students, as reported anonymously in a survey the students complete annually to gauge teenage health and safety. As national underage drinking rates go down, New Trier’s has gone up.

Recently my teenage daughter told me she wished my husband and I were more “cool” about underage drinking. Apparently many teens’ parents tolerate and even expect a certain amount of drinking on the part of their high school kids. Many parents reason that it’s safer to have kids drink under their supervision. They feel it will lead to more responsible drinking in college.

But as New Trier assistant superintendent says, “All of the research shows it doesn’t work that way.” (“New Trier officials: Binge drinking grew exponentially,” Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2019) According to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, “Adolescents who attend parties where parents supply alcohol are at increased risk for heavy episodic drinking, alcohol-related problems, and drinking and driving.” (Celia Vimont, drugfree.org, Oct. 1, 2014)

It’s difficult as a parent to take a hard line on the issue of teen drinking. Our culture is very accepting of it, popular movies depict it, and it has come to be seen almost as a rite of passage for teenagers. And teens can find ways of sneaking alcohol unbeknownst to even the most vigilant parents. Yet the research is clear. As Stevenson High School’s substance abuse prevention coordinator Cristina Cortesi states, “We know all of the studies find the number one reason kids don’t use [alcohol] is their parents.” (Tribune, March 11, 2019)

As parents, we want our children to be happy and healthy. In the short term, our teens may hate us for holding the line on teenage drinking. But we need to take the long view and realize that it is their prosperous and happy future that should be our goal.

 

Decisions, Decisions

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1-56“I’m just saying that any decision made, big or small, has an impact around the world.” This statement by Marty Byrde, the main character in the Netflix series Ozark, encapsulates the main theme of the show. Marty is an ordinary accountant whose one decision has serious repercussions for his family and for just about everyone with whom he comes into contact. Like Lake Ozark, the moody locale of the series, a placid existence can experience the ripple effects of that first pebble dropped into it.

Every day we make decisions: what to eat, what to wear, which roads to take to work. Will I exercise or sit around? Should I give a dollar to the homeless man on the corner? Sometime our decisions are momentous: Should I ask the woman I love to marry me? Should I take the job in California? Sometimes we don’t even realize we are making a life-changing choice: What will it hurt if we skip using the condom this once?

Most of us, though, go about our ordinary lives without considering that each little action  can have far-reaching consequences. Every smile, every kind word we speak to another person can influence someone’s mood and possibly affect the rest of their day. The accumulation of good habits and actions has an even greater effect on our lives, our health, and our relationships.

Of course, the reverse is also true. Small lies or cutting corners in our business dealings can add up. It’s a truism that someone who can be trusted in small things can also be trusted with the big things. The way we treat our loved ones and others in our lives also can become an accumulation of small hurts, small digs at another’s self-esteem. I think people underestimate the effects of their words on others, especially cruel or denigrating words.

The fascinating aspect of a series like Ozark is the depiction of someone not all that different from ourselves who digs himself deeper and deeper into a life he had never imagined or wanted for himself. And even though Marty Byrde acts a bit cold-blooded as he explains his philosophy about decision-making, he is descending into a moral and psychological abyss as his actions threaten to destroy the very thing he seeks to protect: his family.

 

 

Feeding the Soul

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Although I don’t really like to cook, I love to feed people. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than to set out a meal and have my friends or family members enjoy it. And while I myself have a tendency to pick at my food, I love hosting a person with a hearty appetite, one who cleans his or her plate and asks for seconds.

There’s something fundamental about meeting a human being’s need for food. Mothers the world over begin the process with their infants almost from the first moment they are born. I loved the close bonding of nursing my biological children, but I also loved bottle feeding my adopted child. In fact, one of the most frustrating parts of having young children is how difficult they can be about mealtime at certain phases of their lives. They thwart their parents need to nurture them with food.

Communal meals have been a feature of every human society from time immemorial. Families and clans have always gathered around campfires and tables to share food and companionship, to bond and feel safe and nourished. Every celebration involves food, and food is the focal point of holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, and even the Fourth of July. At my parish Bible Study, we always have a table full of treats. If someone forgets to bring them, we get downright cranky.

The joy of feeding people can extend outward to those in need. Most communities have thriving food pantries, and many have soup kitchens, places where the homeless, the underemployed, and the struggling of our society can go to receive sustenance. Of all the charitable acts I can think of, nothing comes close to the fundamental gift of nourishment through feeding people.

During the recent government shutdown, business owners and ordinary Americans opened their hearts, their wallets and their doors to furloughed workers in order to provide them groceries and hot meals. Say what you will about the divided state of our nation. When push comes to shove, Americans will step up and help each other fill our most basic human needs.

If you come to my house, chances are good that I will try to foist some kind of food on you. It gives me such pleasure to watch people enjoy the food I’ve made – or even just bought and unwrapped. As Elizabeth Berg writes in her wonderful novel The Story of Arthur Truluv, “It’s something to feed somebody who is so in need of eating. It’s something to feed somebody, period.”