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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Cava's Story

For homework, Cava was asked to write a realistic story. Originally, he was writing about our trip to Disney World. Being a literalist, he began writing about our trip down to stopping to get gas and buy snacks. In fact, he had written the entire front of a wide-ruled sheet of paper and had not even gotten to Florida yet. I stopped him and explained to him what a story was and gave him suggestions. Cava being Cava, he decided to scrap the Disney story and write one about Ukraine. This surprised me since he's never written about his time there.

Here is what he wrote:

Cava woke up and got dressed in his nice clothes.  "Don't get your clothes messy," the care giver told him. "You want to look nice for the family coming to visit you today."  Cava was nervous and excited because no one had ever come to visit him before.

It felt like forever for the time to come when he would meet this family. When it was time, another boy came to get him. He took him to the office. Now Cava was very scared. What if he said or did something wrong? What if they didn't like him?

He opened the door and saw the family. They looked nice and happy. He wanted to be happy, too. They brought him toys. He had never had a toy before. It was a truck and Legos. They sat with him on the floor and played with him and his new toys. After awhile, Cava was asked if he wanted to be a part of their family. "Yes," Cava said. He wanted to be in a family most of all.

Now in his story, Cava had to change his name because the story wasn't supposed to be about him. It's difficult for our very literal-minded son to write an imagined story about an imagined child. Still, I am so happy that he did choose to write about this moment in his life. Once more, I see the healing process taking place. I also love this story for the insight it gives us about what he was thinking, feeling, and going through the day we met him. I cherish every glimpse I get into his past and this story will definitely be going in his life-book.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


I must admit that when I saw the trailer for this film, I cringed. Paddington was a charming children's book that I loved and, like many of those, I feared that this had been turned into yet another awful adaptation of a beloved classic (i.e. The Cat in The Hat). Rotten Tomatoes has the film at a 98% in terms of positive film reviews, which is higher than many of the films nominated for best picture  for an Oscar this year. Still, I went in wary but found myself charmed by this movie about an orphan bear who is taken in by the Brown family.

When he first gets to their brownstone in Notting Hill, we find that the family is disconnected from each other. Each in their own room and their own little world. From the moment she first saw this little bear in Paddington Station, Mrs. Brown (played beautifully by Sally Hawkins) has felt a small connection to him. While Paddington has literally lost his family, she, in her own way, has too.

A family and being in a new place is all strange and unfamiliar territory for Paddington. He makes a lot of mistakes and struggles to fit in with these humans, just as they don't know what to make of him. The eldest daughter, who, herself, is trying to fit in at a new school. She doesn't want this "strange" bear in their family because she thinks they are "weird" enough.

Unlike many family films, this one cares about its characters and shows that there are more to all of us beneath the surface, as shown in the father's storyline (played by Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame). He, like the father in Mary Poppins, goes through a transformation that shows how deeply he really does love his family. His character is not the typical movie father, but all of his struggles are out of a genuine concern for his family's well-being. But he will have to learn, as Mrs. Bird tells him, "This family needs that bear as much as that bear needs you." This line is true for any adoptive family about their adoptive child . . .

. . . because, ultimately, this film is about adoption.  Just as in adoption, the family's life becomes a mixture of chaos and joy. I, like Mr. Brown, wanted my family's life to just return to "normal" after Cava's arrival. Like Paddington, Cava put our house in sixes and sevens and upset the routine of our days, but, like the Browns, our routines needed upsetting so that it could be filled with more love and joy than it had ever been before. Cava was our little brown bear who opened our family up to so many new experiences and people that we never would have had or met without him. As Mr. Brown says, "It doesn't matter if someone comes from halfway round the world, if you love them, they are family." This hit straight to my adoptive father's heart because of how true it really is. In so many ways, our family, like the Browns, have grown closer and stronger because of him being a part of us.  

When he came to London, Paddington had a small note attached to him for someone to "please look after this bear" and the filmmakers clearly have. This film is absolutely delightful, warm, and full of heart, It's a treat for the whole family.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Reflecting On Two Years

When Benjamin was born, I remember quite clearly that feeling I had when they were checking he and Danelle out of the hospital so that we could go home. It was a feeling of being overwhelmed and thinking, "Are they crazy??? Don't they know that we don't know what we're doing???"

We didn't.

At all.

That was exactly the same feeling I had when Danelle and Cava were flying home from Ukraine two years ago. I felt that same mixture of excitement and worry. An eight year old boy who spoke no English was coming to live with us. Forever. There was no turning back now.

Did I mention he spoke no English?

Or that I really didn't speak Ukrainian other than a few small phrases and words?

It was a good thing that I didn't fully realize the upheaval our house would be in for awhile as we adjusted to this new dynamic to our family. Now I had read numerous books about adoption, about attachment disorders, about all that can happen to families who adopt internationally, but none of those really and truly prepared me for what was about to happen to us. And, at first, I felt like we were drowning and just trying to tread water to stay above water as the huge waves crashed down over us. To say it was hard was an understatement. The books don't tell you all about the exhaustion: about how you wake up tired and go to bed tired and stay tired throughout the entire day. They don't tell you that you might be so tired that you pour orange juice on your cereal instead of milk and then wonder why it tasted funny.

When he first got here, we weren't sure we could do this, that we would ever be a "normal" family again, but now, two years later we are a new kind of normal. We aren't dealing with the survival mode of those earlier days. The chaos of transition are gone and Cava is learning what it means to be loved unconditionally. This is something that is totally alien to him. He is discovering that just because we may be disappointed in his behavior or his making a bad choice that it does not mean we love him less and that our love for him does not fluctuate depending on how he acts.

That first year was filled with scars for all of us, but now we have climbed out of the rubble of that year and now we are no longer in the period where it felt like everything was being torn down around us and we are rebuilding in a better way than before.

Was it hard?


Does it get better?

Thank God, YES!!!!

But we also realize that it will always be hard because we are dealing with a child who has deeper hurts and grief and struggles than we will ever have.

No matter how many books we read or how many families we know who've adopted, we were ill-equipped and learned early on that it was going to take a lot of patience, mistakes, prayer, tears, and love to get all of us through it. And we have. And we still do.

That season of fear and feeling constantly overwhelmed subsides and we watch as this child goes from what, at times, appears to be animalistic anger to a child who comes up, hugs you, and says with a big smile on his face, "I love you." And you know that, no matter how bad those early days were, you could not imagine your life without this child.

After Cava first got here, Danelle and I struggled daily with burnout and constant exhaustion. At times, I will admit, we were resentful and angry and at others just defeated and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.  What our family was learning was that healing doesn't come easy. Healing is hard work and it comes at a price.

Now, at two years in, we see the true beauty of adoption. Cava feels love and acceptance, not only from us, but from so many people around us. Many of the places we go now are filled with people who love him and are rooting from him (school, church, the library, even the places where Danelle and I work).

This brokenhearted child is growing in health, in height, and in heart. He is a good kid and so much of the success of his growth is due solely to his wanting to. Cava has a good heart. He wants to do better.

We have learned a lot in two years. Things like 1-600As and dossiers are replaced with 504 plans and IEPs.

We have learned that we are stronger than we thought we were and have come to rely on God far more than we ever did before.

We have learned that adoption is not only hard and complicated, but that all of the struggles and hardships are worth it when your child makes even the smallest of breakthroughs. You watch as this child begins to see himself differently and that there is hope. You see that God is faithful and that He was there during the worst of it. His hand never left you and that He is truly making all things new in our family on a moment to moment basis.

And adoption is a moment to moment process.

Early on, it was too hard to go day by day, and we could only look at the moment, the here and now. Adoption is hard, but it is also joyous. It is filled with moments of deep hurts and momentous hurrahs.

But when I reflect on the last two years, it is filled mostly with memories of joy and love. I am amazed every time I look at Cava because of how much he has changed in this short period of time. He looks healthy and happy and full of life and love.

A game he and I have played many, many times is one called, "I love you the most because . . ."  Essentially we tell each other that we love them the most and then give a reason why. It was a fun way to instill in Cava that he was loved and give him reasons why. It was also a way for him to learn to express back his love for us.

Over the last two years, there have been so many reasons as to why I love Cava. Here are just a few:

I love him for his great, big Cava smile.

I love for his ability to just suddenly burst out into dancing for no reason other than he felt like dancing.

I love him for his attempt to sing a song, even when he doesn't know the lyrics.

I love him for his moments of unbridled joy and enthusiasm.

I love Cava for his appreciation of small things, like seeing a flower bloom or getting hand-me-down clothes from friends.

I love Cava for his good heart.

I love Cava for his hugs. He gives great hugs. Even other people now ask for "Cava hugs."

I love Cava for his bursts of laughter, even when I have no clue why he found something funny.

I love Cava when he tries to tell a joke, particularly knock-knock jokes, which only make me laugh because he is laughing at his own joke. An example. "Knock, knock."  "Who's there?" "Chicken."  "Chicken who?" Then he begins clucking very loudly. This is followed by him laughing and saying, "That's so funny."

I love that when I read to Cava, he comes over and lays his head against my chest.

I love that he greets me in the mornings with a hug and a, "Good morning, Papa."

I love the joy I feel when I see him coming out of school in the afternoons when I pick him up.

I love that not only has Cava changed, but he's changed us.

I love Cava because he is my child, my son.  And I love him more than I ever imagined I would.

I love that I would not have changed any of this for the world and that I cannot wait to see what our third year together has in store for all of us.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Puzzles, Legos, Minecraft, & ADHD

When we first met Cava in Ukraine, he would come to the small room we had at his boarding school. One night, he found our travel version of Blokus. This hyper boy who was constantly climbing the bunk-beds and doing flips off them, stopped and spent an hour working with the different shaped pieces until all of them were on the board. Is it any wonder then that he loved doing puzzles and has done around 75 of them since he has arrived here almost two years ago. He went from doing small 24 piece puzzles to doing puzzles that are over a 1,000 pieces. He got two Ravensburger 1,000 piece puzzles for Christmas. 

He also got quite a few Lego sets.  

Cava loves Legos. Much for the same reason that he loves doing puzzles and they are very similar in that he has to figure out which piece goes where to build something. Cava is someone who likes having instructions to follow. Since he didn't have any toys back in Ukraine, he doesn't really know how to play with them. With Legos, he doesn't have to play, he just has to build according to how the pictured instructions show him to. (He struggles if I ask him to take his Legos and just build from his imagination. This is something I wrote about in Learning From Legos. Here is a link to that post:

While Cava can get frustrated and upset whenever he finds building with his Legos too difficult, we are working on him taking breaks and walking away to do something else for awhile and then returning to the Legos when he's calmed down. 

I love that he comes to me when he needs help. I grew up loving to build with Legos and I enjoy seeing this love for Legos grow in Cava. It's something that we can share together just as he and Danelle work together on puzzles.

What I like about Legos is that they not only work on Cava's motor skills, but also hold his attention for hours, causing him to focus and develop his thinking skills. He likes that this kind of play is very structured. Like his puzzles, Legos are a way for Cava to work through and persist at a task until its completed. This is great since Cava has ADHD and this provides a way for him to focus on one thing for hours. It also helps build his self-confidence as he builds more complicated sets with more and more pieces, just like with his puzzles. He got so caught up in building with his Legos that he had finished all of the new sets he got by the end of his Christmas break.

Something else that Cava loves that helps him with his ADHD is Minecraft. This is a free-form design tool that requires planning and good organizational skills. It develops his focus and his imagination at the same time. He has to build the world with everything from shelter to equipment. In an article on the website LearningWorks for Kids entitled "Minecraft, Executive Functioning and ADHD," the author of the piece wrote:

"Using the game as an educational tool for children with ADHD can help reinforce and practice key cognitive thinking skills with which these children commonly struggle with — all within the fun world of Minecraft. All this week, we’ll be sharing specific ways to use Minecraft to help kids with ADHD, offering structured projects to try with your child. Each project will target a specific thinking skill, with detailed guidance on exactly how to exercise it during gameplay."

Another bonus to Cava playing Minecraft is that, unlike with Legos, I have no idea how to do anything in that world, so he has to ask his older brother. This has become another way that the two of them have bonded. I love seeing the two of them sitting at the family computer, working together, as Cava delights in what he is either building or tearing down at the moment. 

Puzzles, Legos, and Minecraft have all required Cava to focus, to work at a task, to figure out how to overcome problems, and to not give up until he has finished what he was working on. I have loved seeing how excited he's been to show off a newly completed puzzle, or a Lego creation, or what he's built on Minecraft. And I really love seeing the sense of pride and accomplishment that he has when he's done. They also help foster creativity and imagination in him. These are all things he desperately needed, so for as long as he enjoys doing these activities, I will continue to encourage his love of them because I love seeing what they give him.

To read the full article on Minecraft, here is a link to LearningWorks' site:

Monday, December 29, 2014

Becoming A Blackwell

On this day, two years ago, our family went to a court in Ukraine to make Cava our son. All of us were extremely nervous about going before a judge, as we had heard stories of how detailed, difficult, and personal the questions could be. All of us wanted desperately for Cava to become a part of our family, but this entire adoption hinged on his answer. We could offer him a home and a family and a new life, but if he told the judge, "No," that he didn't want to be adopted by us, then it would be over and we would have to leave heartbroken and without him.

But he didn't.

He said, "Yes." And that simple, three-lettered answer changed all of our lives.

Cava said that, more than anything, he wanted a family and to be in a family. Still, it is one thing to want something and it is something else to become part of a family. He had no idea of what this really entailed and, to some extent, we did not know what adopting a child into our family was truly going to be like. Adoption is living a life that is not about expectation, but about dealing with life on a day to day, often moment by moment basis. When we opened our home and heart to Cava, this meant accepting the vulnerability that comes with loving an adopted child and all of the hurts and pains that come along with it. And that first year was very bumpy, very emotional, and, ultimately, bonded our family more deeply together.

But with those hurts and sorrows also comes great joy. To see a child, whose eyes were once deadened and empty, become filled with life and delight is a miracle. To watch love begin to transform a child, so that they can not only learn to love his newly adopted family, but also, more importantly, themselves. To see themselves as not only loved, but lovable. It is to know that, while you weren't there for a lot of firsts, there are so many new firsts that you will experience with them. I will never forget that moment when Cava first arrived here in the States, got into our car to go home, and as we rode down the highway, he rolled down his window and yelled out, "I love America!" And he would. Of course, he would say many, many more times that he wanted to return to Ukraine long before he really ever got a love for the place he was now.

His second Christmas with us has just passed and the enthusiasm he has for all of it is infectious. He loves the lights and the sounds (I love how he sings along to Christmas carols even when he doesn't know all the words). He didn't have any of this before and all of it is new and filled with wonder for him. This Christmas, he began to learn about giving to others (through the shoe boxes of Operation Christmas Child). I love how, when we went to the Christmas program at our church, as the nativity story unfolded before him, he leaned over to me and whispered, "Papa, that's what you taught me about."

I love that his enthusiasm for getting new super hero pajamas can be the same as when we went to Walt Disney World.  He is full of boundless enthusiasm and still thrills over spotting a bird. I notice that I have become more aware of birds and butterflies and squirrels because of him. He has taught me to appreciate the little things and to see even the smallest of victories as moments of pure celebration.

So many people speak of what a great job Danelle and I are doing, but I have to correct them and say, "No, if Cava hadn't wanted this, if he hadn't wanted to change, then we wouldn't have gotten to where we are now." Cava has a good heart and he is learning that, even when he makes bad choices, our love for him doesn't change. Our love for him doesn't fluctuate depending on his behavior and this is something that is as foreign to him as English first was. It is slowly sinking in, but, like all of it, this is a slow process.

Cava has widened our eyes. We are not just an American family. Part of our dynamic and our make-up is now Ukrainian. That country now has a hold on our hearts, just as the United States does. We pray for his native country daily. We have embraced its culture, its heritage, its food, and have tried to incorporate these things into our celebrations and traditions. We are now connected to two worlds.

Adoption is a special, sacrificial and selfless gift of love. It gives us a new awareness of God's love for us.

I just recently did our annual report for the Ukrainian Embassy. I was amazed, as I began to write about the last year, at just how far Cava really has come in such a short period of time. He has made such huge strides in so many areas and he really isn't the same child that arrived here two years ago on January 19th. God has done a great work in him, in us, and through him. So many people have embraced this little boy from Ukraine in a way none of us could have ever imagined.

Cava loves Spider-man and he was surprised when I told him that he was braver than any super-hero. I told him how brave he was to agree to leave everything he had ever known to come to a new country and be part of a family. I told him, "You may not be where you want to be, but you are not where you once were. You have come so far and I'm so proud of the boy you are. I only hope that I can become worthy to be the Papa you deserve."

Cava has been a gift.

Over Christmas, my father asked me, "Knowing what you know now, would you still do it?"

My answer was an emphatic, "YES!"

Adoption is not easy. It's about becoming a family and all of us relearning what the really means. It is getting past the pretty pictures of what a family looks like on a Facebook page to what a family really is: the nitty-gritty, daily struggles and moments that, while hard, are what create stronger bonds of attachment. It is about how tears often lead to breakthroughs. It is about how tears can also be full of so much love and joy for those moments when your adopted child has success. I will never forget how, when Cava received the Citizenship Award at school last year, the school cheered for him and, it was through their cheers, I saw how much others loved and rooted for him. Tears of joys streamed down my cheeks. It was one of the proudest moments of my life because I knew what it not only took him to get there, but what it took our whole family to reach that moment. And it was a moment of hope that there would be more such moments in all of our future. It showed me how much bigger adoption was than just our immediate family.

Cava is my son. I take great delight in telling others this. He is as part of me as Danelle or Benjamin.

He has come a long way in two years and he has a long way to go, but I am just thankful to God that He has chosen our family to be a part of this sweet, wonderful, miraculous boy's life.

What I love is not just how much Cava has changed, but how much he has changed us.

Selfie taken by Cava of he and Benjamin on the way to court (12/29/12).

Selfie Cava took of he and his brother two years later at home.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Dark Matter Of Love

Masha is an eleven year old girl who grew up in an orphanage in Russia. Along with twin boys, Marcel and Vadim, she is adopted by the Diaz family. This 2012 documentary deals with the very first year of how not only these children, who've never known a family or how to be in one, adjust to a new life in a new family and a new country, but how the Diaz family relearns how to be a family with adopted children. It does not take them long to learn the reality of bonding and the attachment issues that come with children who've spent their lives in the orphanage system. This is a journey that is far more difficult and heartbreaking than they family had imagined. The Diaz family hired two of the leading developmental psychologists, including Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia School of Medicine Dr. Robert Martin, to help them navigate these new struggles using scientific discoveries used in a world-renowned therapy program.

While this is not an easy film to watch, I highly recommend it for any family considering international adoption or for those families who have adopted. 

As Karyn Purvis has written, "Adoptive parents become the biological parents through connection. We change their biology."

For those who have Netflix, this film can currently be streamed. 

Here's the official link to the film:

Here's a trailer for the film:

Here's a link for support:

Wednesday, December 24, 2014