Sunday, November 11, 2012

November, 2012: Zola

Every so often, I turn a corner in our house and I am surprised to see the dog standing there. And by that I mean I’m not just surprised the dog is in that particular room, or surprised that the dog found yet another shoe to chew up. For a moment, I am actually surprised we have a dog.
            My family never had a dog as I grew up and neither of my parents came from families with dogs. My dad has a skittish, jumpy reaction to dogs in general, and if he visits a home with a dog, his facial reaction as the dog comes to greet him — terror mixed with false nonchalance—is usually enough to prompt the owner to put the dog away. Bill’s late mother had allergies to animals that were so severe that one evening she and the family had dinner at the home of someone with a dog and she landed in the hospital that night with a severe asthma attack.
            So two years ago, when Jacob and Liam created a PowerPoint entitled Why We Should get a Dog and did a formal presentation for Bill and me after the girls went to bed, my first reaction was no.
            While I didn’t carry the fear of my dad or the allergies of Bill’s mom, I felt that my non-desire for a dog was reason enough not to get one. With four children and one husband, I felt I had enough creatures under my care. We have no houseplants because I believe that candles are equally decorative and do not need to be watered. I explained to the boys that I was afraid the work of a dog would fall to me. We live quite near to a natural pond, I reminded them. We occasionally can see a blue heron from our kitchen window. Isn’t that wildlife enough? I also pointed out the frogs, geese, and squirrels living nearby. Why have an animal inside the house when you can admire one from afar?
            The boys were not deterred, and to my alarm, Bill took their side--  suddenly (it seemed to me) developing a robust interest in dog research and offering to be the parent sponsor of the dog. If they didn’t live up to the dog chores they as they vowed in slides four through seven, the responsibility would fall to Bill, not me, he promised.
            And so I said yes. I said yes partly because our boys had never really asked for anything substantial before; partly because their PowerPoint was compelling (slides eight and nine summarized the therapeutic benefits of dog ownership for children who have been through trauma); and partly because I did not want to be known for the rest of my life as the mom who stopped the dog ownership.
            We have had Zola, a Portuguese water dog, a little more than a year now. My dad is still afraid of her. The boys have kept their end of the bargain, impressing me with early morning walks before school, wearing reflective vests and carrying flashlights when they have to walk her before the sun rises. Zola is sweet, quiet, athletic and always seems to be teething, based on what I find destroyed on the floor when I come home from work. She has dug holes in our yard, licked away tears, and has proven to be way more interactive with the family than the blue heron ever was.
            Zola is my biggest compromise. She is the first time my boys were allowed to drive a major family decision. And that’s why sometimes, when I turn a corner in the house, I am surprised to see Zola there. She is a reminder that usually, I’m in charge. Usually, decisions start and stop with me. Usually, I have the final say in the family. But not always. And that is a good thing indeed.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

November, 2012: Adoption, what do you think, Jacob?

When Jacob, now a senior in high school, was about 12 and his sister Teenasia was six, she convinced him to let her “do” his hair. Jacob sat patiently on the floor of the family room and watched TV as little Teenasia painstakingly parted his straight, fine, brownish hair into about ten sections and secured each one close to the scalp with a tiny rubber band. Occasionally, she’d use some African American hair gel —called grease—to capture the flyaway hair for a tighter look. 

When she was done, Jacob looked ridiculous, yet both he and Teenasia were extremely pleased with her work.

Our family just celebrated the one-year anniversary of Teenasia’s adoption. Teenasia first joined our family as a one-year-old foster daughter. After a little more than a year, she was taken from our family and placed with her biological father, where she lived for about 2 1/2 years. When she was just under five, Teenasia was detained from her father’s custody and brought back to us as foster daughter. Jacob was 11 at the time. She stayed just six months until the court once again decided her father should have another chance to try to be a parent. Just a year later, when Teenasia was six, a social worker called with news that Teenasia needed emergency placement in our home—with a no-contact order on her biological father.

I will never forget telling 12-year-old Jacob that a social worker would be delivering Teenasia for what would turn out to be the final time.

“Why?” He said, tears streaming down his face. “Why are they bringing her here—just to eventually take her away again? Why are they doing that to her? To us?”

I didn’t have an answer for him. I couldn’t say that this time it would be permanent, because I had lost all trust in the system that had failed to protect Teenasia for the past five years. I couldn’t say Teenasia would be all right, because I didn’t know if she would; she had endured so much. I don’t remember what I said, or if I said anything at all. I only remember that Jacob was blurry on the other side of my tears and I was surprised that his head already came up under my chin when I hugged him.

The childhood of all four of our kids has been punctuated by the grief and loss as well as the joy and readjustment that has accompanied Teenasia’s coming and going over the past decade. Jamie’s relatively quick adoption from the same foster care system made Teenasia’s ordeal all the more bewildering.

I have no doubt that the simultaneously painful and miraculous way we have become a family has had an influence on each one of my children. But I’m not sure I could tell you exactly how they are different because of what we have gone through together. For Liam, Teenasia and Jamie, it may be too early to ask.

But Jacob, at 17, can look back at the little boy he was when first Teenasia, and then Jamie joined our family. He is old enough to recognize pieces of his worldview that may have been shifted because of his sisters. Yet, amid the rush of homework, sports and endless laundry, Jacob and I don’t often have time to discuss topics of significance. I have rarely asked Jacob the question that underlies so much of my mothering: Jacob, how has the adoption of your sisters shaped you?  But now I will.