Monday, June 30, 2014

Adoption & The Perfect Child

Adoption is not about getting the perfect child but getting the child God has for you.

This is not an easy fact for some to come to grips with. So often when we go into the process of adoption we have a mental picture of what we want, perhaps even an internal list of what we want in a child. I know I had one. As we did our home study, my wife and I answered what we were and weren't willing to adopt in a child, in regards to their mental, physical, and health attributes. Certainly, foremost in my mind, was the question:

And my answer was a resounding: GIRL!!!

Needless to say, when we met with the SDA and our options were very limited and none of the viable options were a girl, I was disappointed and dejected when I left their office. I was not one of those people who knew instantly when I saw a photo that a specific child was my child. When we drove from Kyiv to the small town where Cava's boarding school was, I wrestled with the image of the child I had in my mind to the reality of the one I would be meeting. The two were not at all the same and, internally, I kept asking God, "Why?" 

Even as we met Cava for the first time, I remember how I felt no connection to this child who so desperately needed love and a family. I sat on the floor and played with him with the toys we'd brought him. I felt sorry for him, but my sympathy did not extend to wanting to adopt him. When we were asked, "Do you wish to adopt him?" I was startled and frightened. How could I answer that question so quickly when we'd just met him? I didn't say that, but, instead asked if our family could go outside the director's office and talk about it. God moved through my son Benjamin and my wife who were both sure that this was our son. If they had not said "YES" I know that I wouldn't have. 

As we spent time with Cava, I still didn't bond with him. 


Because I was still clinging to that child I had in my head, that imaginary, nonexistent child that I wanted to adopt and not this real child who needed us. For me it was a real struggle, of not only letting go of what I wanted but trusting God for what he had for us. Trust is not easy for me and never has been. 

For anyone who's read this blog before might know, it was one day at the boarding school and Cava had climbed up onto one of the bunk-beds in our room and wanted me to catch him. I did, swung him around like a plane, and then held him in my arms like baby. He looked so happy and it was obvious that he deeply needed to be held and loved that at that moment I knew he was my son. 

But he was not and is not the "perfect" child. No child is, but adopted children bring with them their own set of struggles and wounds that will begin to manifest themselves in ways that will challenge the adoptive parents to their limits. I once saw the question, "When your adopted child doesn't fit seamlessly into your life, what do you do?" This is not an easy question to answer. These children are in pain, struggling with being unwanted and unloved. Their stories are painful and full of loss. They may come from neglect or abuse. They may or may not know their parents but they do know they were given up for whatever reason and for any child this is a hard reality to comprehend. 

We adopt these children and bring them home. It takes more than prayers and love to heal them. Sometimes it's not a day by day thing, but a moment by moment one. And there can be moments when it feels like everything is falling apart. What can often make it harder are people outside our families who seem to think that this child should just get over it and be like every other child (this can be especially true of schools). There are days filled with setbacks, frustrations, and sometimes defeat. They can bring chaos that feels more destructive than a tornado or hurricane, leaving behind more than just broken household items. But all of this stems from their hurts and fears and their struggling to feel at peace. When one is in the middle of just such a moment, it can often be hard to see this behavior as a child's acting out because they are hurting. Outbursts, anger, tantrums, and complete breakdowns are often part of this process.

One thing we as adoptive parents have to do is to get past the action to the reason behind the action. This is far from easy and it has tested my patience and my sanity some days. Yet, during those moments that I do, and I allowed Cava to express the anguish and hurt that was in his heart, that was when small steps towards healing really began. 

Yes, he has broken things and he has raged against us. 

There has been aggression both physically and verbally from him. But it is sometimes only through those actions that he could communicate because he had not been taught otherwise. He acted non-verbally because he couldn't say what he wanted to say verbally. I had to get past "me" and see that all of this was not about me but about him. He was telling me that he was scared and he only knew how to respond through chaos. He was his own Thing One and Thing Two running chaotically through our house, upsetting our day, and our "perfect" family. Once more I had to let go of perfection and focus on the child God had given us. 

God gave us Cava not only because Cava needed us but because we needed him. He is part of our family. 

There have been no quick fixes or instant answers. It is a slow and often painful process but through all of pain we have become a stronger and closer family. Through heartbreaks we have often found the greatest break-throughs. 

We have slowly been replacing the poor self-images Cava has had of himself with one of being loved, wanted, and needed. This requires constant reinforcement and the realization that there will always be setbacks but those are not defeats but another moment to grow and to show not only our love to this child, but, more importantly the unconditional love of God. 

For those considering adoption, let go of the idea of adopting the "perfect" child and allow yourself to love the child God has for you. It won't always be easy, but it will always be rewarding. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

An Artist's Point Of View

"All children all are artists. The problem is how to remain an
artist once he grows up."
- Pablo Picasso

It's interesting that I had to have the exact same conversation with Cava today that I had with Benjamin when he was in elementary school.

Earlier in the day yesterday, we went to the library and Cava checked out a book on how to draw birds and butterflies. He started off very excited about drawing birds.

As he made each attempt, he became frustrated and then angry that his bird didn't look exactly like the one in the book.

When I went to calm him down, I was impressed with how good his was and I encouraged him to keep trying.

In the end, no matter how much encouragement I gave him, he crumpled his paper with, "I can't do it!" So I did what I had done with Benjamin, I took three of my art books off the shelf.

One was of the work of Picasso, one was of Matisse's, and one was of Chagall's.

I told him how all three artists lived at the same time, knew each other, and were friends. Then we looked at each artist's work and I asked him, "Does his work look like his friends'?"

"No way!" Cava exclaimed.

"No they don't. And do you now why?"

He shook his head.

"Because each one of them saw the world differently. Each one drew and painted differently. But none of them are wrong because only they could have created what they did. I couldn't have and you couldn't have. And we shouldn't. Do you know why?"

He shook his head again.

"Because God created each of us differently and because of that, we see the world differently. I can't draw the same bird that you draw. And you can't draw the same bird that I draw. But that's great, because then we have two new and unique and different pictures of the same bird. And none of them are wrong."

Out of the three, Cava's favorite was Matisse with his bold use of colors and shapes. He was especially fond of his cut-outs.

Since he loved the cut-outs so much, I asked him, "Would you like to make one of your own?"

Cava was thrilled at the idea. 

We got out our construction paper, scissors, and glue sticks and set to creating our own masterpieces. There was only one guideline: you could only use your own imagination to create from. Everything was possible. Nothing was wrong. Be free to create whatever you wanted with whatever shapes and colors you chose. 

As soon as all the materials were on the table, Cava set to work. He was drawing and cutting and gluing feverishly. When he was done, he proudly showed me his work, "Look Papa." 

"I love it," I told him. "What do you call your picture?"

"Horse Flying In The Sky," he replied and immediately he hung it on the Blackwell Gallery Refrigerator along with his fish and his lady bug.

As I was cutting out my shapes, he would look over at mine and ask, "What's that?" 

"Just wait," I told him, "and when I'm done you can tell me what it is."  

When I finished my cut-out artwork, I held it up for Cava to look at it and I asked, "Well? What do you think it is?"

"A mommy or papa loving their child," he answered.

"Exactly right."

"Do you know who inspired my work?"


"Yes, you and Benjamin.  Do you know why?"

"Because you love us?"

"Exactly, and because you are two masterpieces in your own right."
Something I have tried to foster in both my kids is their creativity. Benjamin grew up in a home that encouraged him to use his imagination whether through crafts, going to museums, exposing him to different types of art, music, and film, or by taking him to the theater. Now I am doing the same thing with Cava. 

To help him, I am trying to provide the tools for him to create with: construction paper, glue, scissors, crayons, markers, paint, and the space to use these in and not worry about the mess he's making. When we studied good insects, I let him borrow my camera so he could go outside and take pictures of the ones he found. 

I encourage him to not be bound to other people's examples but to create what he sees and how he sees it. I encourage his curiosity because that will help inspire his creativity (something that was never encouraged or nurtured in him back in Ukraine). The more I allow him to create and encourage his creations, the more his confidence will build. This means I have to keep repeating that only he can draw or paint or create the works that he does. No one else in the world or in the history of the world can create what he creates. His works are totally unique and special.

We also talk about art, whether it's the ones we're working on or the ones we see in books or at museums. I ask him what he thinks, about what he likes or doesn't like about a piece, and to tell me how he would have done a work differently. 

All of these will help him not only creatively, but emotionally and psychologically because, by doing so, I'm telling him, "You're important. Your ideas matter. You matter. You are special." Whether or not he turns out to be an artist doesn't matter, what does matter is that he realizes his life is extraordinary.  And that is one important lesson to learn!

Monday, June 16, 2014

On Being A Father

Yesterday was Father's Day and it's a day I enjoy far more than my birthday and not just because it doesn't mean I've added another year to my age. I love being a father. I remember the first time I held each of my sons: one when he was born and the other when he was eight. In both cases, a strong bond of connection was made and I had the very same thought, "This child is mine."

Being a father means more than being a provider. To be a father means to be a teacher and a role model, which is not an easy task. Their eyes are always watching you and they pay far more attention to your actions than they do your words. In my head, I am Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby all rolled into one full of humor and deep insights, but, most likely, I'm neither but find myself faking it as I go along, hoping less to share my mind as I am to not losing it. Sometimes I think the boys are playing tag team to see who can push me over the crazy cliff. There are times I am not the calm voice of wisdom, but the one who yells, often in frustration or I am the one who threatens punishment like some Old Testament prophet warning that the end is near.

So, when I find myself on the ragged-end of irritation and quickly approaching bursting into bombastic threats of punishment and doom, I have to do what I often tell the boys to do, walk away, take deep breaths and count. If that doesn't work, pray. Parenting requires a lot of prayer. And it requires them seeing me pray. Often I feel like my prayer life swings between either "help me, help me, help me" or "thank you, thank you, thank you," but it needs to be so much fuller and richer than that. Prayers need to focus on more than my immediate needs and the kids need to see that. They need to see me praying for the needs of others, including their needs. And I do pray for them and I pray with them every day.

Fatherhood means you'll blow it sometimes. And you will have to go to your children and say, "I'm sorry."

Not easy words, but necessary ones. This requires being honest with them.

Just like there are times they have questions, not easy questions but often questions that cannot be answered by popping off whatever happens to pass through my head, but taking the time to reflect on what they're asking, considering and really thinking out my answer before replying in a way that they can understand, depending on their level of maturity (though I never talk down to either of them) or, sometimes, admitting quite frankly, "I don't know the answer to that question." This can often lead to open discussions with my kids where we both learn something about each other.

I love talking and listening to both of my sons. We laugh together and, there are times, we cry together. Both are equally important. I love being with them and spending time with them. They can be a delight and a joy. There are times when all I do is thank God for them. And, on the flip side, there are other times I just pray that a band of gypsies will pass by.

Sometimes being a father is overwhelming and I feel unqualified for the task, but it's in this sense of inner helplessness that I pray and I strive to become qualified to be the man these boys see as "Papa."

Being a father is not a job, but a privilege.

Not that being a father to two boys isn't work, but it's work with a purpose.  One of the greatest investments in my life has nothing to do with stocks and bonds, but in a much greater future: Benjamin and Cava's.

As we were walking through Target, Cava grabbed me in a hug and said, "I love you, Papa."

"I love you, too, Cava," I smiled and paused before asking, "Why do you love me?"

"Because you're my teacher," he replied.

This answer not only melted my heart, but it got to the heart of what my role as a father is. And the funny thing is, while I'm teaching them, I'm teaching myself, and they are teaching me, and, ultimately, God is teaching me. I am learning patience, humility, humor, to not always plan but to allow life to happen because it can be so much more amazing that way, that I cannot solve every problem they have and to let them make mistakes on their own because that helps to shape who they will become, to stop and enjoy the moment because those moments will be gone in all but memory and I want to have those memories, to be playful, to shower them with affection, and to encourage them in their endeavors as they strive to decide who they want to become. As I'm teaching them, I am becoming a better parent and a better person.

Every night, I go into each of their rooms while they are sleeping, kiss them on the head, and silently thank God that I am a father.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Our Own Summer School

It's amazing the differences between my two boys. One of the greatest is their attitude towards school. Cava cries when school ends for the summer and Benjamin cries when it begins in fall. To make the transition into summer easier this year, I have decided to make it more structured for Cava. We will plan our activities (I am going through the lists of summer movies at our local theater, events at the Schiele, events at our local library, etcetera) and making a calendar so that we know what we will be doing and it gives them incentive to do things like clean their rooms and read as well as get them excited about any upcoming activities.

Paula Jeanne was kind enough to recommend a series that teachers had recommended to her called Summer Bridge Activities.

What I like about this book is that it covers not only reading, spelling, math, but also works on physical fitness and learning how to be flexible both physically, mentally, and in dealing with problems in life. One of the first lessons we had we shared about a situation where something didn't go our way and how we dealt with that and what would be the best way to deal with that situation. At the end of each lesson, he earns a star sticker, which is big for him because he used to get stickers or stamps each day in school if he had a good day.

He also started off by having to write three goals that he wants to reach by the end of the summer and, if he reaches those goals, he gets stickers for those as well as a certificate of achievement. When he saw this, Cava got very excited.

There are opportunities for us to incorporate outdoor learning, science experiments, and social studies lessons, as well as flash cards. 

To go along with this workbook, his teacher suggested that I work with Cava on doing crafts because that was where he often got most frustrated in school. "I can't do it," he would often say in defeat because he's a perfectionist and gives up if what he's doing isn't up to what he thinks it should be. For our first craft, we decided to have him make a fish out of construction paper because I thought it would be a good simple place to start and, over the summer, we could work up to more elaborate crafts depending on how he progressed.

I found instructions online for creating a construction paper fish just to give me a guideline, but Cava kept wanting to run to the computer to look at it so he could make his just like the one online. Part of the lesson was for him to not rely on other people's work but to create his own. I turned the computer off and said, "Cava, there is no right or wrong way to do this craft. I want you to create your own fish, not recreate somebody else's. Today, we will make our fish our own way." At first he was very reluctant but I kept encouraging him to just do it his way. "Cava, your fish will be unique from any others because you made it. And it doesn't have to be perfect because nothing is. In fact, we will celebrate the imperfections of our craft because it's those imperfections that make it like no other." 

After awhile, Cava got into it. He stopped worrying about cutting his scales to look like mine and he even stopped looking at what I was doing when I created my fish. This was a big step for him. 

I gotta' admit, I loved hearing him say the words, "I did it!"  He was so proud of his fish. We even displayed ours on the Blackwell Refrigerator Gallery:

That is the whole point of our summer school: to build Cava's confidence. I want him to be able to say, "I did it" to so many things that challenge him so that come next school year, he will be ready with the skills to help him succeed even more than he did last year. I know he can do it, but I want to instill in him the knowledge that he can do it.  This is not just knowledge of the brain, but also of the heart. Cava is gifted, he just needs to be shown how to unwrap that gift and use it to his full potential. He is an amazing kid and I cannot wait to see him continue to blossom over the summer.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Summer Begins For The Boys

Yesterday was the last day of school for Cava, so now the boys are both officially ready for summer. While Cava was sad to leave his teacher, Ms. Davis, and second grade behind, I will help him transition into summer more easily by making summer a bit more structured like school. One of the new rules of summer is that both of them have to read before they can go anywhere or do anything. To help with this, we went by our public library and signed both boys up for their summer reading program.

The children's librarians are always happy to see Cava and they loved the excitement he had (he was literally bouncing up and down) as they explained the reading program and all the activities they will be having for kids this summer. He also greeted all of the librarians with, "Happy summer's day," which they loved and repeated back to him. Once they were both registered, we set about finding a stack of books for each. Cava loves series books (he and I are currently reading Peter and the Starcatchers together), but he's begun reading The Buddy Files and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series on his own, so he got the ones he needed to read for that series. He and I also got some books by Patricia Polacco, one of our favorite authors.

Along with the library, we went to another of our favorite places: The Schiele Museum. Normally, the boys (especially Cava) rush through the museum in a matter of minutes, but to put an end to the whiz-bang approach they have, I decided we were going to play some games that were also educational. First, I used the Schiele's own scavenger hunt and we split up into teams to see who could finish first (to prove that you found each one, you had to take a selfie in front of the answer to each clue). Benjamin went on his own and Cava and I teamed up together. Even though we didn't beat Benjamin, Cava and I had a blast trying to figure out the clues and taking photos of each other.

Before we entered the museum, I also told them that each of us was to learn three new facts that we didn't know before. This meant that they had to stop and take the time to actually read the plaques next to the exhibits and not just stop briefly, look quickly, and then dart off to the next. The new fact that was all of our favorites was the one we read about caribou, but also applies to deer, and that is that their hair is hollow like a straw so that it makes it easier for them to cross rivers.

In each of the different rooms of the museum, I told them to find three (three is the magic number) things that they had never noticed before and they delighted in showing off their finds. Cava won by finding something none of us had ever noticed before - a necklace made from claws. 

As much as they took to the prairie dogs, one of them took to Cava as well. He even began jumping to get his attention.

Another game I created for the boys to play was that one of them would stay in the room with the dioramas and find something hidden in them, then they would call the other two back in to try and find it. Whoever found the hidden item first, got to go next. They loved this and we played that for twenty minutes and they might have kept on playing except we had to go to the planetarium for their 11:00 am showing.

What I loved most was spending time with my sons and watching their enthusiasm and, even more so, them getting along with each other.

On the car ride home, the boys were both talking about their favorite things that we saw and what we did. You would've thought they'd never been to the Schiele before. Certainly it's the first time I've been with both of them and spending almost two hours there. It was definitely an awesome first day to our summer together. I cannot wait to see what the rest of the summer holds in store for us.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

Cava's First Award

For anyone who has read our blog knows, Cava has come a long way since last year. This time last year, Cava had been expelled from his previous school and now, a year later, he was getting his first award at school. This was huge for all of us, but especially for Cava. He has grown up thinking he was stupid, bad, and not worthy of anything. Now he found himself getting an award at school or, as he put it, a "reward."  Ever since he got the invitation for us letting us know he would be getting an award, Cava has been bouncing off the walls excited about getting his first one. "What do you think it will be?" he kept asking me.

Today, we found out. Our little Ukrainian got the Citizenship Award. This award is an all-around award for not only how he's doing scholastically, but that he is also friendly, encouraging, helpful, and strives to do his best. When they announced his name for this award, we were overwhelmed by the cheers and by hearing other people yell, "YES!" Cava's school has embraced, rooted for, and loved our son. How much difference that makes in his life has been proven by how different this year has been for him from last year.

One of the biggest reasons for Cava's success this year has been his teacher, Ms. Davis. She has been patient, loving, encouraging, and understanding. She has been motherly to Cava and she was exactly what he needed in a teacher. We cannot overemphasize how truly thankful and blessed we are that she was Cava's teacher. Nor can we tell you how much gratitude we have for his school.

Needless to say, our eyes were filled with tears of absolute joy.

Cava is an amazing kid who is only beginning to see this about himself. He told me that he never thought he was worth anything in Ukraine, but here in America, he knows that he is good and loved.

Although his teacher, his school, and us have played a key part in Cava's transformation, he is the biggest reason he is not the same kid. Cava loved his teacher and his school. He worked really, really hard: not only at his schoolwork but in becoming a better kid. As others loved him, he has begun to love himself. For the first time, he told us the other morning that he doesn't want to be a superhero that he is happy being Cava.

Cava is not the same kid he was a year ago. It has been bumpy but all of those bumps are worth it to see how much he has healed and how far he has come. This award meant so much more to us because we know exactly what it has taken a boy from a small village in Ukraine to getting a Citizenship Award and medal with its American flag on it.

Cava, we love you so much and are so proud of who you are and who you are becoming.