Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Cava in Wonderland

One of my favorite books has always been Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I even have a statue of both the white rabbit and the Mad Hatter in our backyard. It's a story that has endured and is beloved by children and adults and has been made into numerous plays, movies, and other stories. Yet, I cannot help but see the story of Alice as one that reverberates for me in our new son's life.

Like Alice, Cava has been taken out of his familiar world and plopped right down into a new one that is full of rules and language that he doesn't understand. Everything must sound like gibberish to him and is even worse when he is trying to communicate to those around him who don't understand anything he's saying.  

At one point in the book, Alice questions: "I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I'm not the same, the next question is 'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!" 

Is that not what Cava must be feeling right now? Who am I? Or, like the Talking Heads sang in their song "Once In A Lifetime," he's asking, "How did I get here?" 

In her book Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child, Dr. Patty Cogen writes about how a six-year old boy who was adopted, told her, "The world turned upside down when I was adopted" or about a nine-year old girl who was adopted that said, "It was like I walked through a door, and suddenly nothing was ever the same. The door to my past was vanished forever. I was trapped. For a long time it was like I was in a dream, but I never woke up. After that, you know that anything can happen."

How unsettling must that be? Especially for a child?

Is it any wonder then that Cava is so full of anger and frustration right now? More than once he has said that he wants to go back to the boarding school in Ukraine. And why wouldn't he? For 8 years, orphanages are all he's known. And, at least there, he can be understood. With us, he struggles with simply communicating. I know too well how frustrating it is to be in a car with him, both of us are communicating, and neither of us are understanding the other. If it is hard on me, how much more so for Cava who has that 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Like Alice, he must feel as she did when she said, "I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, Sir, because I'm not myself you see." How must Cava feel when he is no longer Cava K. (his Ukrainian self) but is now Cava Blackwell. It's also why, when he is furious, he tells us that he is, "No Cava Blackwell! Cava K.!" As Dr. Patty Cogen wrote, "A child's name, and other words used frequently in association with that name, are the earliest ways a child knows who (he) is."

Having grown up in orphanages, he only knows fight or flight, so he goes to both reactions out of fear and for safety. This means he can go from an exuberant performer to an angry dictator. Both are rooted in fear and an attempt to control his circumstances. 

Whenever I try to imagine my 8 year old self in his situation, I become terrified at the notion. Knowing who I was at that age, I cannot begin to fathom what it must be like to be so uprooted. This is what I try to hold on to when he is filled with red-faced fury as I am trying to talk to him, get him to look me in the eye, and comfort him. And it's not easy. Not when he has head-butted me in the mouth, spit in my face, hit me, and writhes as if he were going through an exorcism. Yet I try to see past the actions to the motivations: fear and desperation. So I keep attempting to tell him that no matter how much he tells me, "No love you!" that it doesn't matter because I love him.

It's not easy to attempt dealing with him when he does everything but look you in the eyes and he meets your calm voice with screaming and, at times, attempts to hit you. Both Danelle and I struggle in our frustration to reassure this frightened child that he is of value, he is loved, and that he is our son. His outbursts and tantrums have taken what had been peaceful waters for the most part and brought the storm of his fears and anxieties in a vocal and physical way.

A drive from school that should only take 10 minutes, can now take 20 or more because I'm having to stop the car because he keeps unbuckling his seat-belt and is yelling and kicking and hitting the back of my seat. Once, when I stopped the car at a local grocery store on the way home, I got out of the car, opened the back driver's side door, and he flinched as if I were going to hit him. Instead, I bent down, got in and hugged him. While I did, I told him, "I am so sorry someone has hurt you. Papa never wants to hurt you. I want to keep you safe. I love you. I know this is hard for you. I can't imagine how difficult this must be. I'm sorry we don't understand you." As I'm telling Cava these things, he begins to weep into my shoulder. I don't know if he understood my words, but he clearly understood my meaning. 

What does he see when he looks at the back of my seat while I'm driving? What does he hear?

This poor little boy is lashing out because it's his self-defense. He's frustrated and doesn't feel like he fits in. In her book Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, Sherrie Eldridge wrote about how anger is not uncommon with adoptees and is tied to what she calls their "primal fear of abandonment." Feeling rejected, he rejects. Feeling hurt, he wants to hurt others. When he gets so wound up, his heart races like a hummingbird's. He is a scared child.

Cava is also uncomfortable with eye contact or simply being still. He will be on the couch watching TV and he will either be bouncing up and down or trying to do somersaults on the cushions. Sometimes it is only when I sit next to him or he sits in my lap that he can be still for even a short momentary time while he watches a program or movie. And we have learned from his medical report that Cava had been on hyperactivity medicine sporadically (though it was for such short periods of time that the medicine didn't even have enough time to be effective by getting in his system). When I took him to the pediatrician for his physical, I spoke to the doctor about whether or not Cava should be on such medication but we both agreed to wait and see as it is difficult to tell if he really needs it or if all of this is simply his reacting to having to adjust in this new setting. 

As parents, Danelle and I understand this logically, though it can be very hard to keep our focus on the roots of his troubles when we are in the middle of the Cava storm. That's why we pray every morning for peace in our household: peace for Cava, peace for us as we deal with him, and peace for our family. Scripture tells us that "Perfect love casts out all fear" (1 John 4:18). This is a love that we can't give him but have to guide him towards because it's the love of Christ. 

Of course I can't help seeing how much Cava's story is like my own when it comes to God's love and grace that I so often fight against and reject?

We believe that God led us to adopting Cava, so we know that, despite this moment of chaos in our household, He will help us because "God is not the author of confusion but of peace" (1st Corinthians 14:33).  So we hold on to that and we pray constantly. 

Right now, we wake up exhausted and go to bed exhausted. There are times when I question, "What were we thinking? Everything was going so smoothly before . . . " I'm sure there are moments when Benjamin is resentful of how much time Cava is requiring of us. It's a struggle. Sure, we miss the quiet of our old routine as a family which has been upended, but to truly love someone is to love them even when they are hard to love, which is just as God loves us.

This won't be easy and I'm not sure how long the process will take, but we will keep reminding Cava that no matter how angry he gets at us, that we still love him. We want him to understand that this is a love that will not reject him or hurt him or let him go.

As I have mentioned before, I often try to reach him by telling him this: One day, Papa and Mama and Benjamin got on a plane and flew over the ocean to find you. We met with someone who showed us lots of children's photos and we saw yours. We told her, "We want to meet this boy." So someone drove us to where you were and we met you and we loved you so much that we told them, "We love this boy and want him to come be a part of our family." Then I begin to tell him all the things that I love about him. Usually my list ends with, "And I love your smile because it makes me smile." And he smiles.

It's all about connection. We are trying to forge a connection with Cava so that love is more than just a word or a feeling, but he will feel acceptance, trust, and peace.

By teaching him about love, we are, in the end, teaching him about not only being in a family but, ultimately, about God.

So despite the often drastic ups and downs, we will continue to reach out in love to Cava. I will continue to find new things to add to my list of why I love him, though I will probably always end on his smile; after all, I truly do love seeing his wonderful smile.

Thanks to all of you who continue to offer us prayers, encouragement, and support.


  1. This was your best post ever-so so beautiful.

    You and your wife are truly parents who embody Christ's love.

    I hope it encourages you to know that it is very good and healthy that Cava is grieving and, since he is very young, I hope that he learns English quickly (he should) and then a lot of the fear will alleviate simply by being able to communicate better.

    The Blackwell family will get through this and come out the other end happier, stronger, proud, and full of peace!!

    You all are in my prayers.

  2. PS.

    God Bless you for being so open and honest about all this. I KNOW you are helping many adoptive parents out there.