"For in you the orphan finds mercy." - Hosea 14:3

Monday, October 6, 2014

Cava's Disney Dream

Long before he knew our names, Cava knew the name Walt Disney. Back in Ukraine, he watched Disney movies and, just as he did with super heroes, he felt a connection to those characters. When we adopted Cava, one of the first things he did when he got to America was to ask when were we going to Disney World. One would have thought he had won the Super Bowl. He is obsessed with Disney, so much so that anything he watches or even books he reads, he usually asks, "Is this Disney?"

Since Cava has ADHD and anxiety issues, we didn't think it was best to take him to a theme park that would be crowded with lots and lots of people because we knew he would not be able to handle it. So we waited.

As Cava progressed and time passed, Danelle and I began to plan our trip. When the Walt Disney Planning DVD came in the mail, the boys were ecstatic and watched that DVD over and over and over again to the point where I considered using it as a target for skeet shooting. One thing we realized as we planned this trip was that we could not go during a peak season, as it would be far too overwhelming for Cava to handle, so we decided we'd go in October. Normally, we are not the kind of parents to pull their kids out of school to go on a vacation, but we knew that this would also be a prime opportunity to deepen our family bonding, especially between Benjamin and Cava. Another reason we planned this trip was that Benjamin, being in high school, will be going off to college in a few years and this will probably be the last time we'll go to Disney as a family of 4 with him living at home.

Last Wednesday, we all got up at 3 am (and we didn't even have to wake up the boys) so that we could be on the road to Florida by 4 am (since it is just a little over an 8 hour drive). I must admit, the idea of such a long drive with Cava was not one I had been looking forward to. He gets very restless and irritable when it's a 4 hour drive to the beach. Before we ever set foot in our car, we stopped and prayed. One of the things I prayed for was that we would all have patience with each other. I told the boys not to view this as a drive from point A to point B, but to enjoy the ride and to see things that they've never seen before. We also made sure we had the portable DVD player for them, which they used to watch that Disney Planning DVD yet again. Danelle and I were amazed at how well the boys got along with each other. There wasn't the usual bickering and getting on each other's nerves over the smallest details. As we approached the Welcome to Florida sign, Cava was bouncing up and down in his seat, clapping, and shouting, "We're in Florida! We're in Florida!"

We arrived in Orlando shortly after lunch. We dropped off our bags at the house where we were staying, grabbed some lunch, and headed straight to Epcot, since we knew we would not need a full day to cover that park. As we drove up to the parks, Cava couldn't contain himself as he squealed with delight as he saw the Welcome To Walt Disney World sign. Despite the overcast skies and the fact that the prediction for weather for our entire trip was for rain, the Blackwells would not be deterred from having fun.

The boys even made a new friend . . .

What they enjoyed about Epcot was learning about science and exploring new cultures and foods. We let Cava pick where we ate dinner on the first night and he chose Japanese. Our only requirement for food was that they try something new, which was easier for Cava who will try new things than it was for Benjamin. 

Yet it was Benjamin who ordered the tastiest dish: Udon Noodles.

The boys loved the rides Soarin' and Test Track.

Though we were all exhausted, we stayed for the amazing Illuminations Fireworks.  

The next morning, we once again did not have to wake the boys as they were up and ready to go, especially since our Thursday was devoted entirely to the Magic Kingdom, my favorite of all the parks.  This park was crowded and we worried about how well Cava would do waiting in the lines. He is not the most patient of kids and tends to get easily frustrated and simply wants to quit, especially when one sees wait of more than 30 minutes. Before we ever got to the park, Danelle and I had made the decision that the goal would be to enjoy where we are and what we are doing and not get caught up in a mad dash to do it all. If we could tell that Cava was getting tired and frustrated, then we would simply take a break: go see one of the shows or sit down and have a snack and something to drink or let Cava play on one of the playgrounds. I don't mind sitting down and just people watching, which is something I love to do anyway, and what a great place to do it with people from all over the world there. I love hearing all of the languages being spoken and seeing these families having fun together. 

A lot of times Cava wanted to ride a ride with either Danelle or myself, so our hearts burst with joy whenever he picked to ride with Benjamin. We also knew how much this meant to Benjamin, who loves being a big brother and calls Cava his best friend.

We had an early lunch at the new Be Our Guest, which is the restaurant in Beast's castle. Out of all the places we ate in all of the parks, this one was easily our favorite. And despite having to wait in line for 30 minutes before the restaurant opened to ensure that we got inside, Cava did great. He and I stood in some shade and chatted. As we did so, he told me, "Back in Ukraine, I never thought I would ever get to be here, but here I am." There was such happiness in his voice as he said this.

In October, Disney has Mickey's Not so Spooky Halloween Party. 

The park closes at 7 pm for anyone who doesn't pay the extra fee. Kids and adults can dress up and they have special Halloween events, such as Club Villain where Cava danced with bad guys from Disney films to songs like the Cupid Shuffle and Happy. The boys also got to go trick or treating. They had a blast going from location to location because cast members would give them big handfuls of candy. After I saw there were Reese Cups involved, I got one of Disney's free trick or treat bags and joined in.

As I have said, Cava is not the most patient of kids and when I suggested we watch the Boo To You Parade that night, he didn't want to wait but said, "I'm ready to go." I kept telling him, "Trust me, Cava, you'll want to see this." He was not convinced and, although he wasn't happy, he didn't get angry or have a tantrum. Once the parade started, his whole demeanor changed: his eyes and smile got really big. 

That night, the boys had no trouble falling asleep and they were up and ready again, early the next morning to tackle Hollywood Studios. 

First on the agenda was Star Tours. The boys love the Star Wars movies, so they loved being a part of the action.

And they had to sit next to each other on the ride. Of course, all rides end in the gift shop and the boys were ready to spend their money.

I told the boys that whatever they bought, they and they alone would have to carry those items for the entire day and that neither Mommy nor I would be, especially since I was the one with the backpack full of snacks, small bottles of water, ponchos, suntan lotion, etc. I recommended that they wait until before we were leaving to buy something. Benjamin agreed right off and I was waiting for Cava to get upset. Whenever he goes in a store, he wants to buy something, anything that strikes his fancy, and, if he has money of his own, he cannot hold onto it but immediately wants to spend it. I was proud of him because he put things back and did not get upset. One of the biggest areas of trust was convincing him constantly that he would get souvenirs and that we, as his parents, would take care of him, especially when Benjamin got a t-shirt before he did.

Our next fast pass was the big one: Tower of Terror. This was the ride both boys wanted to ride the most and the one that made them both very, very nervous. Once we got into the basement of the Tower Hotel, Cava got anxious and it was obvious to me he was scared. I bent down and told him that I was nervous, too. "Hey, let's make a deal," I told him, "if you can make it through this ride, I'll give you an extra dollar to spend. If I can make it through this ride, you can give me a great big Cava hug and kiss. Deal?" I put my hand out and he shook it with, "Deal." This ended up one of his and Benjamin's favorite rides. It surprised me how much Cava loved all the rides I didn't expect him to (Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Test Track, Tower of Terror). Another of his favorites was Rock N Roll Roller-coaster. As he had with Space Mountain and Splash Mountain, this boy wanted to sit in the front car with me. I was a bit nervous since this coaster goes 0 to 60 in a split second, it has loops and corkscrews, loud Aerosmith music blaring, and it was in the dark. But this was another of Cava's favorites. He even rocked out when he got off it.

I told him, "You are one of the bravest people I know," and he just took it in stride, but he is and it has nothing to do with his riding any of these rides but because of the amazing strides he has taken in his life, especially coming from his damaged background.

One of the things Cava wanted to do most at the parks was to meet the characters. And he had his list of those he really, really wanted to meet. Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and Captain Hook were on that list, but at the very top were Chip and Dale. The smile on his face when he did was, as the commercial says, "priceless."  After I took his photo, I inquired of why he loved Chip and Dale so much. He replied, "They are crazy and get into trouble like me."

Something Cava loves to do is draw. This is something I have heartily encouraged in him and worked on his overcoming his perfectionism, in that he gets easily upset and defeated if his doesn't look exactly like the one he's trying to draw. The first souvenir he bought with his money was a book that showed you how to draw classic Disney and Pixar characters. So, because of his love of drawing, we decided to sit in on an animator's class where they teach you how to draw one of the Disney characters. Our class got the task of drawing Mickey Mouse. 

Because I know how hard he can be on himself, I sat next to him. Sure enough, this was one of the few difficult moments he had the entire trip. As soon as he thought his Mickey wasn't as good as the one the professional was drawing, I heard him mutter, "I hate this!" I leaned over to him and encouraged him to keep going and I pointed out the strong points of his work in progress. Although we were only in the drawing class for fifteen minutes, it was a struggle to get Cava to complete his drawing. He did and, when we came out, he was upset. I looked at his and told him, "This one is better than the last Mickey you drew at home, isn't it?"

"Yes," he reluctantly agreed.

"So that means you've gotten better, right?"


"Then why are you upset? That means you're learning." 

"But it doesn't look like that teacher's," he said, his eyes filling with tears and his voice cracking with hurt.

"Yes, but he has been drawing for years and even went to school to learn how to draw. He also teaches this class so don't you think he should be able to draw Mickey better than us?"  He agreed and I told him, "Cava, you haven't been drawing all that long. You keep getting better and better. Your drawings at your age are better than mine. And, though I have been drawing for years, I have a hard time copying someone else's drawing."  We sat for a moment and I just reminded him that he is an amazing kid and that what I love about his drawing is that it wasn't like anybody else's in that class. Once I got him to come around by teasing him and telling him that if he keeps getting mad because his latest drawing is better than his last, how mad was he going to get when it was better than that teacher's? Then I pretended to get really angry and throw a mock tantrum. He laughed and all was fine again. Cava is having to learn that he doesn't have to be perfect and that he can make mistakes and still be loved and accepted.

Heading over to the Pixar area of the park, we decided to try and wait in the 45 minute line for Toy Story Mania. Once inside the line, I had to take a photo of Cava in front of the Candy Land mural on one of the walls. This reminded me of when he first got here because Candy Land was the first game I played with Cava and that he loved playing over and over again.

This 45 minute line turned into an hour and twenty minute line since they had problems with the ride. We were closer to the front of the line and had already waited 30 minutes when this happened, so we were reluctant to get out of line. I expected him to get angry but, other than a few grumbles of, "I don't want to ride this anymore," he was fine. It helped that I had brought my iPod and let him watch Phineas and Ferb while we waited. As I have said, Cava impressed me with how well he handled waiting in lines. Most were only for 10 - 25 minutes, but even the longer waits (7 Dwarfs' Mine Ride, Pirates of the Caribbean) he might have complained a little, but what kid wouldn't - or many adults for that matter. I joked that Disney is the only vacation where one spends most of it in lines.

After leaving Hollywood Studios, which became Benjamin's favorite park, we went home early so that we could rest and the boys could swim in the pool at the house. Once more, we, as their parents, loved hearing their laughter and seeing how well they played together.

Our last day and our last park was on Satuday. This was Animal Kingdom. 

Cava loves animals. All animals, especially wild ones and birds. Our first Fast Pass for the day was Kilamanjaro Safari. And that boy was ready to see some animals. His head was looking all over the place for them and, when he spotted one, even if it was a duck, he exclaimed in excitement, "Look! Look!"

Here are few of the ones we saw:

Giraffes, which we learned make bleating sounds like sheep . . .

Elephants . . .

Lions, which we learned spend most of the day, about 18 hours, sleeping. If you added books, coffee, and chocolate to that life, I would say it was ideal!

Rhinos . . .

And so many, many others because we knew that the animals are fed early in the morning and that we needed to ride the safari tour first so that we could see them.

For lunch, we ate Indian food and Cava made some duck friends by feeding them some of his pita wrap.

After lunch, we then tackled Everest Expedition, a 199" tall roller-coaster that races upward and backwards. 

As with most of these type of rides, Cava wanted to ride in the front car. This became another of the boys' favorite rides.

After conquering Everest and getting wet on Kali River Rapids, we slowed our pace down to walk the Maharajah Jungle Trek. There we got to see even more animals up close: tigers, Komodo Dragons, bats, and, to Cava's delight, lots and lots of birds. There were everything from Asian Fairy-Bluebirds to Moluccan King Parrots. Cava stopped each time he spotted a new one or to pose for a picture.

Next stop was Dino Land. Once more, we loved seeing Cava and Benjamin bond. They would walk ahead of us, Cava holding Benjamin's hand, and talk and laugh. This alone made the trip and all of the money that it cost worth it. 

We finished our visit to Animal Kingdom with Festival of the Lion King. We had seen this show back when Benjamin was four on our last visit to the Disney Parks. Benjamin had told Cava all about how he was picked to get up and do the elephant noise and Cava desperately wanted to be picked this time. He sat beside me and, for the first time I had seen him at any of the parks, he began to rock anxiously. There was a forced smile on his face and when I asked him why, he answered, "I want to look cute so they will pick me." This made Danelle and I very nervous because we were worried about how he would react if he didn't get picked. Sure enough, the show started and he didn't. I could tell he was upset but he held it together. This was another huge step for him because he doesn't deal with disappointment well. Also because I knew he wanted to be picked because Benjamin had been and he is all about having what his brother has and for everything to be fair and equal. So I was very proud of how he handled himself and I loved seeing him laugh at the antics of the men playing the acrobatic monkeys. 

Other than a Mickey Mouse baseball cap with ears, a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, all Cava really wanted wasn't a toy, but a photo album. When he finally found one he wanted, he was so happy because he would have one to put his pictures in from the trip to show others, especially at school. 

When Sunday came, the day we were leaving, neither of the boys wanted to get up and we had to wake both of them. Cava didn't want to eat and he was irritable. He snapped at anyone who tried to talk to him. Then, he sat down on our bed, and wept. "I don't want to leave my Disney," he sobbed. I comforted him and told him that all of us were sad to be leaving, but that it was a good thing because it meant we had a great time. I told him we would have many more great times at other places. 

I was definitely melancholy driving home. Benjamin is getting older and will be off to college in a few years. I was aware of that throughout the trip and I loved it when he would hold my hand or hug me or when he would say, "I love you, Papa," or thank me for taking us to Disney. 

There can be many reasons for why people don't like Disney, the cost being one of them, but I would not take back any of that money for the experience we had, the memories we made, or the deeper bonds our family made there. For those reasons, it really was the happiest place on Earth for the Blackwells' vacation. For that, I want to thank Bill and Evelyn Nasworthy for their generosity in letting us stay in their lovely home. Because of them, this trip was possible for us. Thank you both, you cannot know how much it truly meant to us.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cava's Diorama

Like any parent of an elementary school student, I am less than thrilled when my child comes home assigned to do a project that they are clearly incapable of doing by themselves because it involves more skill sets than they have yet acquired. Such was the case when Cava came home telling me he had to create a land forms and bodies of water diorama.

Now this task was one where I had to take a deep breath, say a prayer and tell myself, "Remain calm and be patient" since I was working with a 9 year old with ADHD, anxiety issues, and a need to have everything turn out perfect so that he can get the approval of his teacher and peers.

The landforms and water diorama had to include 9 landforms (volcano, mountain, canyon, valley, plateau, plain, island, hill and coast) as well as 6 bodies of water (lake, river, marsh, sea, ocean, and glaciers). And all of this had to be in one box. No stress.

First, I found our box. It measured 18" x 23". I cut off the sides and reinforced the bottom of the box.

We got out all our craft supplies: acrylic paints, piper cleaners, paint brushes, streamers, glue, construction paper, air dry clay, glitter, cotton balls, sand, and reindeer moss (Who can forget the reindeer moss?).

After Cava and I decided on what the layout was going to be, he set to painting his diorama.

While Cava enjoyed painting, he began to get frustrated working with the clay. "I can't do it," he repeated again and again, to which I pointed out all that he has been able to do when he gets out of his own way, as he can be his own worst enemy. "I can't do it," is a phrase that is not allowed in our house. I keep reminding him that, with all things new, it's not that he can't do it, it's just that he hasn't learned the techniques on how to do it yet, but that he will and that I was working on this with him.

Here he is once we'd made our clay volcano and island. We used pipe cleaners and red streamer for lava and green streamers for palm trees. It was his big brother Benjamin who came up with the idea for using the pipe cleaners. Along with the volcano and island, he made the canyon that went on both sides of the river that leads to the ocean, three mountains with valleys in-between, a lake, a marsh, and a hill. 

Each time we started something new, he'd immediately say, "Papa, you do it."

"No. Cava, this is your project and I am here to help you. You won't get any sense of accomplishment if I do it." 

We would take each step slowly and I became his cheerleader encouraging him on with, "You can do it."  If he became too frustrated, I'd declare it, "Break time!" and we would stop for awhile and I'd tell him, "We'll work on your project some more later."  Usually, he would go do something for a short period of time before finding me and saying, "I'm ready to work on it some more."

"Okay," I'd reply and we would do some more work.  Once we'd painted the sky, he set to work gluing on the cotton-ball clouds. I let him put the clouds wherever he wanted to.

When he was done with that, he moved on to writing the little cards that told what each land form and body of water was. Once more, he told me, "Papa, you do it. My handwriting's too messy." 

I declined with, "And it will never get better unless you practice." He would write out each one and show it to me. If he'd written it neatly, I'd tell him, "Okay, now we can cut it out and make a sign." (Our signs were the small cards taped to a toothpick and then stuck in the clay).

Once he'd written all of them and we'd made them into small signs, we placed them in their appropriate spots in the diorama.

After we'd painted the small pieces of clay that were noticeable in certain areas (such as the bodies of water), Cava and I looked through magazines (good-bye Smithsonian and wildlife magazines) to cut out photos of different land forms and bodies of water to glue on the outside of the box.

After he'd finished gluing all the photos where he wanted them, he posed for a picture of him with his work.

Here's the finished inside of the diorama:

What I do love about school-assigned projects is the time I get to spend with Cava. While we work on the task at hand, his mind is preoccupied so he will usually talk to me about his past in Ukraine. Some of the memories are sweet, some give us a glimpse into his daily life, and some are quite painful and heartbreaking for us, as his parents, to hear. 

Cava will be graded 60% on the diorama and 40% for presenting it in front of the class, including answering the teacher's questions. This part concerns me as he tends to get flustered whenever he has to speak because he is very aware that he doesn't talk like other kids (as other kids have so cruelly pointed out to him). I worked with him on telling how he made the diorama and on what each landform and body of water was. He had difficulty remembering it all, but I told him to just do his best.

When I helped him take his project in to school, we had to sit in the lobby and wait for the bell to ring to take it back to his classroom. As we sat there, I held the diorama in my lap. Anyone who passed by stopped to look at and admire his diorama. I could tell Cava was proud of his work because he would tell each one of them, "It's mine." This was exactly why I wanted him to do most of the work on it so that he could have this sense of accomplishment.

Today was the day he presented his diorama and I was nervous and prayed throughout the day for him. Because he'd asked me to and because I didn't want to wait until he got out of school to find out how he did, I had lunch with him. As always, he beamed a big Cava smile when he saw me as his class walked to the lunchroom. 

"Hey buddy, how'd your presentation go?"

"We haven't done it yet. After lunch."

So I would have to wait until I picked him up from school after all. Still, I enjoyed eating with my buddy in his classroom.

When it was finally time to pick Cava up, I immediately asked, "Well? How did it go?"

Giving his usual Cava answer, "Good." He told me he might have forgotten a couple of things, but I told him that I was proud of him and that he just had to do his best. Cava has come along way in less than two years. He is still struggling with retaining information, especially in his reading, because he is still trying to understand the English language and so much of what he is learning is new to him. So, I will continue to work with him on his comprehension, but I'm glad that by working with him on this project that he could see that he really can do something as complex as a landforms and bodies of water diorama. 

Each new accomplishment is another step towards him seeing himself as someone who is smart, capable, and able to do so much more than he thinks he is. Cava needs to truly realize he is an awesome and amazing kid who has learned a great deal in a short period of time and has also taught us so much as well.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Our Beach Trip 2014

Summer is almost over and we finally took some time and headed to the beach. The boys were excited and Cava constantly asked how much longer it would be before we were at the beach (he started before we even hit the highway and continued at repeated intervals along the four hour drive). Cava was thrilled because this was not only going to be his second time going to the beach here, but it was also going to be his first time ever camping. The only concern for our beach trip was that it was supposed to rain the entire time we were there.

Once we'd gotten to Granddad Bob and Evette's house, it did not take the boys long to have their swimsuits on and we were out the door to go swimming in the neighborhood pool.  Both boys love to be in the water. Having completed four weeks of swim lessons, Cava was especially proud to show off what he'd learned, both swimming and diving.

The boys were having such a great time swimming that they were even obliging to me when I asked them to stop momentarily so I could take a photo of them.

But, of course, the pool could only hold them for so long and we were up early the next morning and out on the beach before the rain was. The ocean was rough and choppy. The wind was strong and the clouds were overcast, but none of that deterred the Blackwell boys with their boogie boards.

When the waves got too rough, they moved on to building sand castles.

From there, we checked in at Huntington Beach State Park. The boys loved relaxing in the big chairs.

The chairs looked even bigger with our little Ukrainian sitting in it.

Once at our campsite, however, the relaxing stopped and the work started as we set up the tents.

Once they were up, the boys couldn't wait to get inside theirs.

But they can be still for only so long and were out playing Frisbee.

Once they were showered and dressed, we got the campfire started and began to cook the hot dogs.

Followed by some S'Mores.

To work off the hot dogs and S'mores, we played some family-style football.

After a walk around the campgrounds, we settled in and enjoyed each others company.

It was nice enjoying each other's company without the disruption of television or other intrusions. I also loved how well the boys got along with each other, even when it was just the two of them in their tent. 

The next day, we had a change of pace. For lunch we went to Aladdin's, which is a restaurant owned and run by a woman from Uzbekistan, so the food is Middle Eastern and Slavic. Cava was in his element. Borscht at the beach = one happy little Ukrainian.

He also ate bread with hummus, pilaf, and pelmeni (along with trying Danelle's stuffed cabbage, Granddad Bob's quail, and my lamb kebabs). After lunch, we enjoyed some time walking along the boardwalk at Murrell's Inlet.

On our last day at the beach, we didn't get in any swimming because of the rain, so we did what any tourist would do, we went shopping. Cava found the perfect store for him at Broadway at the Beach called Kryptonite Character Store.

Like Tom Hanks in Big, Benjamin made a wish with Zoltar. I think he was disappointed when he woke up the next morning and was not a wealthy tech mogul.

And Granddad Bob treated the boys to a ride on a simulator. 

After lunch, we packed our car, said our sad good-byes (Cava was especially heart-broken to leave), we made our way home. We did, however, make our usual stop at McLeod Farms in McBee to buys some of their peaches and their homemade peach ice cream. And to make the boys suffer through one more photo opp.

Despite the rush and the rain, we all had a great time and can't wait to return for a longer visit next year!