It's amazing how much difference a year makes. Today was Cava's first field day at school. There are so many firsts that we weren't there for that we cherish whatever ones we can have with him now. This one was no different.
What I appreciate the most about going to his school is how many people there stop me to tell me how much they love Cava, to tell me of how well he's doing, and how they are working to ensure and are rooting for his success. His ESL teacher said he had heard about Cava from last year and all that had happened at Cava's other school, so he was very nervous about having Cava as a student. He went on to say that Cava was his favorite and that there wasn't any work he gave to Cava that Cava didn't try his hardest on.
We don't take hearing these things lightly and whenever we do hear such a story or when he got the Star Student Award for "Perseverance," (talk about something that applies to soooo many areas in his life) we find ourselves tearing up. Cava's successes are hard earned for all of us and we tend to get emotional about them.
While there were only a couple of bumps in the day (Cava can be very competitive as well as hard on himself for his performance), what I took away from this field day was the joy of our son. He loves his school, he loves his teacher and the staff and all of his friends, and they love him in return. All of these things are new for Cava and it shows how much he's progressed in just a year and we cannot wait to see what the future holds as he continues to feel loved, accepted, and at peace with his surroundings and, more importantly, himself.
How do you explain the joy you feel upon holding your first child for the very first time? Or seeing them come into this world? A miracle doesn't even seem to cover it, not to mention how overused that term is when applied to the birth of a child. Yet the real miracle is watching that child grow and to see who they are growing int.
Fourteen years ago, I held Benjamin in my arms for the very first time. Long before then, he was already in my heart and I loved him. He was my son and there was a bond between him and my heart from the moment I heard Danelle was pregnant with him. That bond has only grown stronger over the years.
During that time, I have watched him lose many things, like baby teeth, and grow into others, such as his faith and his character. Over the past year, I have been proud of the way he has transitioned from only child to big brother to Cava. Sometimes I think it was harder for Benjamin, who found his love rebuffed by Cava more than Danelle or I experienced; yet despite such rejections, Benjamin continued to reach out to his younger sibling until they really were brothers. Nothing makes Danelle or I happier than to watch the two of them playing together and getting along.
As if that weren't enough, he is also navigating his way through his last year as a middle school student. Middle school is never easy and can often be harder than adjusting to high school. There have been bumps and heartaches along the way (those are never easy to watch your child go through, but those are the very things that will form his character). It was those moments that we, again, saw the strength of Benjamin's character, how he has a good heart and a real sense of compassion and justice. Something I've hopefully ingrained into him is that his choices determine his character.
I not only love my son, but I enjoy being around him, spending time with him, our conversations, or just listening to him - even when I don't understand what he's talking about, I love hearing him so passionate about something like science and technology. His mind does not work like mine and I love him for it. I thank God that Benjamin is creative in his own way and that he is bright and driven in ways that I never was.
We don't always understand each other, but, even then, we love each other. It's a coming together of left-brain Benjamin and right-brain Papa. Yet the thing that is great is that we can learn from each other's perspective. I cherish his uniqueness and the individuality that makes up his personality. It's not always easy, since his interests can so often be off the beaten path from those of his peers.
I'm proud of Benjamin. Not just because of his intelligence, but more so because of his integrity. He is learning about what real courage is: about standing up for what he believes in (even when he's the only one). The right way is not always the easy or popular way. I'm sure he won't always make the right choices, but he has to learn that when he makes mistakes, he has to own up to them, and take those consequences. It is how he faces those that will most deeply impact his conscience.
I am raising him to grow up and be a man, not a boy, as the world has far too many of those. I want him to be someone who takes responsibility for his actions and, one day, for his family. I want him to be a godly husband and father. Being a man is not about sleeping with lots of different women, but in loving one deeply, even when times are difficult and the marriage feels more like work than love. Love is not a movie moment. Love is a lifetime of small and often hard moments that are built around two people who are committed to God and to each other.
But for now, I focus on the time I still have with Benjamin at home. It's hard for me to think that my buddy will be in high school next year. Or that it won't be long before he will begin learning how to drive. Or that he's not much shorter than me (and he's only 14) and that, it won't be long, before he'll be taller. There are so many challenges, joys and heartaches, and moments when he will grow not only physically, but, more importantly, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. It's a hard time for kids growing up because they are being forced to grow up much too quickly with things they are not emotionally ready for. There is so much more thrown at them at an earlier age than when I was a kid. To prepare him, I talk to him, explain things to him (even when it's uncomfortable for both of us), pray with him, and just spend time with him. All of these will, hopefully, only help us to grow closer as a father and son.
If the first fourteen years are any indication of who Benjamin will become he will go from being an awesome kid that I proudly say, "That's my boy," to a man I can point to and say, "That's a man after God's own heart."
Benjamin, I love you more than you will ever know and more than I can ever attempt to explain in inadequate words.
For anyone who has followed our blog, you may recognize the names of Jack and Yulia Helm. They are dear friends of ours who were instrumental in helping us get our adoption off the ground and were extremely supportive of our family throughout the pre-adoption process, the adoption, and during those really hard transitional months when Cava first arrived here in the States.
Now this wonderful family is taking their own first step towards adoption by hosting a 12 year old Ukrainian girl this summer. They can use your prayers and financial support to help make this happen. If you would like to help this family, please go to the following link:
I've joked before that Cava has two levels of speaking: loud and louder. He can have a tendency to get loud. The other night, he was in Benjamin's room with my elder son and Danelle. All of a sudden I hear him yelling at them as Danelle was trying to explain something to him. I got up from reading my book and went to see what was going on. Cava was standing on Benjamin's bed and he was demonstratively and loudly talking over my wife.
"Cava," I said firmly and he stopped to look at me. "Come with me, please."
I could tell he knew he was in trouble and he slowly followed behind me. I sat him down and sat down in a chair in front of him. His expression was sheepish and his eyes would not meet mine. Calmly, I asked him, "Do you think we can't hear you?"
This was not what he was expecting to hear from me, so he looked up, "What?"
"Do you think that we can't hear you?" I repeated.
He looked confused. Wasn't he going to get into trouble?
So, I repeated the question a little differently, "Does Mommy listen to you?"
"Do I listen to you?"
"How about Benjamin?"
"Then why do you feel the need to get so loud?"
"Did you talk this loud at the boarding school?"
"Because you felt like no one was listening to you and you wanted to be heard?"
I saw recognition in his eyes that I was right.
"Cava, there aren't 20 or more kids trying to get our attention. You don't have to get loud to have us listen to you. Am I talking loudly to you now?"
"But you can hear me?"
"And if you talk to me like this, I can hear you. You don't have to yell for us to hear you - and we want to hear what you have to say. Would you like it if we talked as loudly to you as you do to us sometimes?"
"Nor do we. I promise we will listen if you just speak like we are now, okay?"
Cava speaks loudly for two reasons:
1. To be heard. He had to get the attention of one caregiver over the sounds of twenty other kids.
2. He wants to be right. For some reason, Cava thinks that if he's loud enough then he will not only be heard but he will also be right, perhaps by drowning us out.
Hopefully, as he continues to adjust to being in a family, Cava will also adjust to being heard and actually listened to. We want him to know that what he has to say is important because he is important to us. Like everything with adoption, this is all part of the slow, sometimes painful, but, ultimately, rewarding process.
Recently I had a discussion with a friend of ours who is in the adoption process and we were discussing the frustrations that come along with international adoption. As difficult as that part of the process was, I often find that all of that, as tedious and as frustrating as it could be, was so much easier than the post adoption. It has felt like, from day one, it has been all uphill. Now I'm not a mountain climber, but I know that it takes strength, endurance, and sacrifice (three things definitely needed for anyone adopting a child) to succeed in climbing a mountain.
Whenever I've talked to someone who enjoys mountaineering, they all say that it is critical to do your research before ever undertaking mountain climbing. This is also something anyone who's adopting needs to do just so that they will have realistic expectations of what raising an adopted child is like, although many of the books focus on extreme cases. Long before we ever adopted Cava, I was reading book after book on adoption so that I would understand how to parent a child who's spent his whole life in the orphanage system. These children are damaged and are suffering from wounds that can often take years to uncover. Knowing that it will not be an overnight process and that it will take more than love to heal them is critical.
They also say that successful mountain climbing is all about your mental attitude. You have to be able to assess your circumstances and make sound judgments because the choices you make are critical to your life. The same goes with parenting adopted children. We could not approach Cava in the same manner we did Benjamin. Cava had his own emotional and psychological baggage that came with spending eight years, his formative years, in orphanages. Raising him requires far more patience than our biological child. Nor could we assess him in his development in terms of Benjamin and where Benjamin was at the same age.
Like in mountain climbing, one cannot give up, though there will be many times one will feel exhausted and ready to. A child who's lived their life in orphanages are used to people giving up on them, abandoning them, and they are expecting that. The biggest shock for Cava is that we are there for him through all of his ups and downs, at his worst and his best moments. We have loved him no matter what and have told him so, even when he has rejected that love. Adoption like mountain climbing is all about endurance. Cava has to know that we are always going to be there for him no matter what. He is not climbing this mountain alone.
Nor should the parents of an adoptive child do this alone. One of the biggest blessings we have had throughout this adoption process from the beginning until now, is having a strong support group. We have others who can come along beside us who have either been through all of this or are going through all of this and can be there when we need them or when they need us. Sometimes all an adoptive parent needs is for someone to just listen and say, "You're not alone," because one can often feel that way.
For us, there was no "honeymoon" period and, at times it has been extremely stressful on all of us. But despite this stress, it has brought all of us closer together as a family. In the midst of the storms, we come together, we don't pull apart. When one is struggling, the other reaches out and helps the other along. Danelle and I tag team with the kids, both of us taking turns with each of them so that neither feels left out and both feel that they are getting their Mom and Papa's undivided attention.
Sometimes we all just need to rest and set up camp where we are and not try to push forward, as fatigue is a real danger. It also gives us time to get perspective on not just where we need to go to climb ahead but to appreciate how far we have come - and we have come a long way in just over a year. It has amazed us and those who know us to see the progress that Cava has made. He's not the same kid and he won't be. Through love, patience, and therapy, he continues to make great strides.
Cava has begun to open up to me and I cherish those moments because that means he is not only trusting me more, but it also means he's allowing himself to share what he's feeling, thinking, or what he's been through. Because these moments are ones he's entrusting with me, I have also held that trust by not putting them on this blog. Like all of us, he deserves his privacy and should not grow up thinking that his life is just fodder for a blog. I am very protective of Cava. Everything I have written and will continue to write will be with the upmost delicacy and love.
Adoption, like mountain climbing, can be both exhausting and exhilarating, but in both, it is always worth it.
Our family is not the same and I don't want it to be. Instead, I cherish each and every moment I have with my wife and both of my sons, and I celebrate every moment when we can stop, enjoy the view, and rejoice that we can continue the climb together.
Cava loves the song "Let It Go" from Frozen and sings it constantly. Whenever he hears it playing, he will run into the room and begin singing along. I could tell from how he sang it that he had a real connection with this character and I can't help but wonder how much he identifies with Elsa. Like Elsa in the film, he doesn't like being different and he hides his differences (such as speaking Ukrainian, which is something he can still do because I heard him talking in his sleep one night when I went to check on him and he was speaking in Ukrainian).
Cava still missed Ukraine and his friends, and what is happening there makes him very sad. But he also realizes that his background sets him apart from all of us. He feels alone because people still have trouble understanding him speak, that he doesn't have the same experiences as his classmates, and that he struggles more at school than he perceives his classmates to be. I know from communicating with his teacher, that sadness can overtake Cava and that he can get frustrated and anxious about schoolwork he finds difficult, especially with doing crafts. When I talk to him about this, he sees things through a negative lens about himself and does truly believe that all of the other kids can do things without any problem.
One of the questions we get asked most frequently by people is, "How is Cava's English?" And it has amazed me how quickly he has acquired English, but he had to out of survival. Sink or swim method. But he still gets frustrated when he says something and someone doesn't understand what he's saying, especially if it's one of us. It is difficult to come from another country and have to learn a new language, particularly when there are cultural references, slang, and sarcasm or any type of playing with words. That is one of the reasons that Cava doesn't respond to the poetry of Shel Silverstein the way I did as a child or as Benjamin used to. It's also hard to be the only child in a class who struggles with speaking or to have people constantly asking him to speak Ukrainian. They don't understand that he doesn't want to because that would mean he was different and he doesn't want to be perceived as different. One of the reasons he misses Ukraine is that there he was like all of the other kids around him, in terms of language. Here he has to try and find the right word to say what he wants to say and often can use wrong grammar, such as "Me want . . ." Because of this, Cava can also be very literal and does not get abstract thought.
Dr. Boris Gindis writes that internationally adopted children often feel rejection by their peers because their behavior is "quirky," "odd," or "strange" to other kids their age. It is often difficult for the internationally adopted child to "acquire new social norms and skills." Certainly for Cava, it's harder because he comes from a background where he was bullied by other children and that was psychologically damaging to him and has caused him to have anxiety around other children. It's also helped reinforce his negative self-image and contributes to his loneliness. He talks about his friends at school and he tells me how much he loves his school, but still there is that feeling of isolation there.
He has come from a background of rigid routines, a turnover of caregivers, and the transfer from one institution to another. All of this helps to reinforce a sense of instability and a lack of control. He had no real possessions of his own and the few things he thought of as his, were taken from him when he left the boarding school. Dr. Gindis writes that children who grow up in orphanages "live in a 'reactive' mode, surviving one day at a time." He goes on to tell how this can create "emotional volatility" in these children. Certainly this shows itself when Cava will get so frustrated that he declares in utter defeat, "I can't do it!" And when he displays these outbursts he is aware that it only makes him stand out more from those around him.
It's obvious from the way he watches Benjamin when he has a friend over to play that Cava longs for close companionship but does not know how to have this. Whenever another child has come over to play with him, he will play with them for awhile before seeking out adult attention or just going off to be on his own to work on math worksheet or a puzzle. It's easier for him to solve those problems than the one of social interaction. Being an extremely shy and introverted bookworm, I can empathize completely as I would take a book everywhere I went so that I would have my escape, my Linus' blanket.
At home, he feels jealous that Benjamin has always been here and, as he put it, "has more stuff." I have told Cava numerous times that I wish he had have been with us from birth, but that we are thankful that we have him in our family now and that he is one of us. He has said that he feels loved here, but that he still doesn't feel like he fits in. It must be difficult to accept being in a family when one has spent so many years of one's life not having that, of suffering so much loss and rejection. Psychologists say that children feel the impact of that loss the most between the ages of 7 and 12 because they are capable of understanding the meaning of being adopted. In many ways, this puts them outside of their peers and their family members because they are set apart and are different. We try to ensure that he understands that this is a positive and not a negative, that he was chosen and desperately wanted by our family and how sad we would be without him in it.
In Frozen, in the end, Elsa was accepted and loved, especially when she could accept and love herself for who she was and did not have to hide what was in her any longer. This is what I pray will happen to Cava, too.
To read Dr. Gindis' article on "Difficulties With Socialization and Peer Interaction in Older Internationally Adopted Children," go to the following link: