I watched aghast as Cava, in his anger, kicked my bookshelf so hard that it wobbled enough to cause a statue to fall and shatter on the floor. Now it should not come as a surprise to anyone that I'm extremely sentimental. This wasn't just any statue but one that I had bought for Danelle for Valentine's Day back when we were still dating. I remember going with my Mom to Atherton Mills in Charlotte to look for just the right gift for Danelle. So when that statue shattered on the floor, I was crushed. It had already been a hard week with Cava to begin with and this had been one of those days where I got a call at work from his school to come and pick him up early.
Even though I knew you weren't supposed to do this, I said, as calmly as I could, "Cava go on. You need to leave me alone now." I know you shouldn't send a child who's been an orphan away from you but I just couldn't deal with him at that moment. Instead, I got a broom and dustpan to sweep the pieces up. As I did, I felt crushed, not only for the loss of this gift I'd given my wife, but because this had fallen into a series of set-backs we have been facing with Cava.
In terms of years, Cava is eight. In terms of his emotional and psychological development, he's a toddler in his terrible twos. Like a two year old, he asserts himself to try and get control by being defiant and by telling us and his teachers in an emphatic voice, "NO!"
Back when I taught adult literacy, I had one male student who was in his late twenties. We met at the library one night a week. It didn't take long to discover that he didn't really want to come but was being made to by his wife. Teaching him was a struggle because he had long since convinced himself that he could not read. While we were taking a break from the book I was teaching him from, I asked him, "How did you graduate from school and not know how to read?" He told me that whenever he knew the teacher was going to be calling on him to read aloud, he would cause a disturbance that would get him sent to the principal's office. For years he did this and still got passed along from grade to grade. Not wanting to admit his inability to read, he acted out.
One afternoon, while I was helping Cava with his homework, he became frustrated and angry. "No homework," he shouted and crossed his arms. Even though I knew the answer, I asked him, "Cava, are you mad?"
"Why are you mad?"
He would neither look at me nor answer me.
"Cava," I told him, "you can do this. You are a very smart boy."
"No! Not smart!" He then put his head down on the table.
"Yes, you are. Mommy thinks so. I think so. Your teachers think so."
He shook his head.
"Cava, I know this must be very hard for you, but that doesn't mean you're not smart. Look at me, please."
Reluctantly, he did.
"Cava you are very, very smart. If you weren't, you couldn't do those puzzles you love to do."
He takes great pride in his ability to put puzzles together. So much of his self-esteem is tied to being able to do puzzles and he is especially proud when he put together a 500 piece butterflies puzzle and the 300 piece Mickey Mouse puzzle, which is in this photo:
He smiled when I told him he was smart for doing those puzzles, but he did not believe me when it came to doing schoolwork.
"Cava, you lived 8 years in Ukraine. For 8 years, you spoke, read, and wrote in Ukrainian."
"No. Russian." (This was a switch, normally he says he doesn't speak Russian that he speaks Ukrainian).
"Okay, then, Russian. You spoke, read, wrote and thought in Russian for 8 years. Cava, you've only been here two months. I'm amazed at how much you have already learned in that short time. You are smart. Very, very smart." Wanting him to reiterate this, I said, "Cava is very smart. What is Cava?"
"Smart," he repeated.
His self-esteem is like a house of cards in that it takes others to build it and, when no one is paying attention, it all collapses.
Every morning, on the way to school now, I try to reiterate this by cheering, "Cava is so, very, very, very smart!" Then asking, "What is Cava?"
"Smart," he shouts.
"That's right! Cava is smart!"
One night, we could hear Cava still rocking himself in his bed long after he normally falls asleep. I got up from the couch, went into the room, and put my hand on his back. He stopped. "Cava, would you like me to rock you to sleep?"
He turned over and looked at me. "Da."
I picked him up and cradled him. Sitting on the edge of his bed, I rocked him back and forth like we were in a rocking chair. He laid there in my arms, his head rested next to my heart, and closed his eyes. I watched as he fell asleep, but my heart broke for him. He was a baby who went un-rocked and, through this neglect, like many orphans, became a self-soother by rocking himself to sleep each night. I couldn't help but wonder what his room was like in the boarding school with 5 other boys rocking themselves to sleep. It saddened me to think that Cava, as a baby, was not held lovingly by his mother. He was not told, "It's all right, sweetie, mommy's here." No one told him that they were there to keep him safe and that he was loved. So, while he could rock himself to sleep each night, he could not tell himself the world was okay and that he was loved. He did not have a mother or father there to comfort him and reiterate again and again that he was important, that he was loved, that he wast theirs.
Holding him, I could not help but think of that shattered statue on the floor. That is my son. He is broken and desperately needs Danelle and I to be there for him to love him. He needs to understand that we will always be there for him no matter what and that he is not going to be shuffled off to another orphanage like he's been in the past.
Cava is still grieving and will often tell us he's sad. He's sad because, despite telling us he likes here better than Ukraine, he misses his friends and being able to communicate more easily.
Danelle and I strive to booster his self-esteem. We encourage him with positive feedback about work he's done in school or when he makes his bed (A drill sergeant would praise his bed making skills!), or his accomplishments (like eating all of his dinner or helping fix dinner or helping clean up after). Or, with dinner, we sometimes let him pick out items for us to fix for a particular meal.
We tell him constantly that we love him, as well as shower him with affection.
Both Danelle and I make sure to spend time with him. Just as we did with Benjamin, we make sure that Cava understands that we enjoy being with him.
Another important thing we do to help him, is to let him express his emotions (both positive and negative). I also try to find out why he is mad or sad. This is how I found out about how he didn't think he was smart or that he missed his friends back at the boarding school. It's also how I discovered that he now preferred being here to being in Ukraine. We are also working to teach him that he can express negative emotions without having to resort to being aggressive (i.e.: kicking, throwing things, temper tantrums).
By building his confidence, we are helping him not only adjust but to feel secure in his surroundings. We want him to feel like he belongs and fits in. And he longs to fit in, so much so that he wants glasses because I wear reading glasses, and Danelle and Benjamin wear glasses. He even puts ours on because he wants to be like us. He'll put mine or Danelle's or Benjamin's and then tell us that he is whoever's glasses he's wearing. But his not having glasses of his own, in his mind, means he's not treated equally and that he is different.
I take hope that we are not doing this alone, either. I take hope that not only does God help us, but that He can also help heal Cava. As Psalm 34:18 tells us, "The Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." Or Psalm 147:3, "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." And Cava has them.
There is a billboard about Vets who've returned from war and it says, "Some wounds can't be seen." When I saw that, I immediately thought of Cava. Like a soldier back from war, Cava's neurological and chemical make-up is the same as the soldier's with post-traumatic stress disorder. Like that soldier, it will take time to heal Cava and we trust that through love, prayer and patience he will be and that we will be a better and stronger family for this journey God has prepared for us.