Every Bitter Thing

Rereading an old post tonight and feeling long overdue for writing the happy ending to what began as a not so happy story.  A note to self, a letter of gratitude to God, a reminder that not everything goes sideways, a stone on the alter.



About a week ago, my family and I were in the middle of what has become a shameful Delgado tradition.  We were all (5) jammed into our little black truck parked by the ocean breakers lining the water on a small peninsula we call the Island, eating McDonald’s for lunch.  Sometimes, all the effort of cooking and putting on bibs and jamming kids into booster chairs and then wiping the mess down after IS NOT WORTH it people.  Thus this frequently repeated scenario.  Our three kids jammed happily in the back wolfing down french fries and shooting juice boxes all over themselves, H jammed in the middle looking like Alice in Wonderland after she grew to the size of a tree inside a tiny house (and usually trying to beg, borrow or steal the happy meal prize that the smaller ones got).  And in the middle of this not so domestic bliss, with a half eaten empanada in my hand, I asked my husband casually “didn’t we get the littles right around this time last year?”  I think he grunted.  I’m sure he didn’t really know.  H agreed emphatically that yes, yes we did and I realized a little ashamed that it was EXACTLY a year ago, and so it looks like this fancy McDonald’s lunch on the edge of the ocean was a celebration, after all.  And that about sums it up.  After so many years of waiting and wanting, of H asking when would she EVER have a sibling (The answer: just wait 10 years), she is a year into having two and we forgot to remember.  And like all good oldest siblings, she has regretted it many times and asked to send them back more than once.  Which feels about right.  Even my husband turned to me on the late cross country drive out to get them a year ago and asked “doesn’t two seem like too many more?”  And I laughed then (or snorted?) and I laugh now, because hello, A.) not the time to ask that question (and I repeat) and B.) are you KIDDING? A twofer?  I was raised on raiding the Fred Meyers cereal isle when it was on sale two for one, because that was the only time mom was ever agreeing to Kix, and getting up at the ass crack of dawn the day after Thanksgiving for their spectacular sock sale.  I got up before the sun for SOCKS people. Do you THINK  I would look down on such a spectacular deal as two KIDS after 10 year of wanting them? A boy AND a girl?!!! It’s the dream grab bag!  These babes are my happily ever after, the kit to my Kat, the peas to my pod; whatever else cheesy thing you can think of, they ARE.  They complete us, even if H doesn’t agree (it IS a tight squeeze back there.  Can’t blame you sweet pea).  And I probably should have shouted it from the rooftops, or at least mailed out the announcement I had an Etsy artist come up with the minute I knew they would be mine.  Of course I didn’t, because, well-you know.  I have three kids now.  And two of them are little munchkins who follow me around like ducklings all day.  I can’t poop alone, so I sure the heck am not getting much of anything else accomplished besides the laundry these days.  And part of me feels it is my cynical duty as a previously professional bitter sister to say that adoption is hard, adopting older(ish) children is hard, little kids are hard, family integration is hard, keep your expectations real and all that.  But ooh man people, happily ever after may mean McDonald’s on the side of the road in a truck, but it is achievable. My happily ever after looks like glorious chubby cheeks and Moana eyes and sausage link arms, surprisingly auburn hair and long long eyelashes and squishy soft skin and dimples, beautifully divided between two tiny people with inexhaustible hugs and lots and lots funny.  It is more than I dared to wish for.

Just tonight, my 14 year old gave the ducklings permission to visit her room, and volunteered to read them their bedtime stories.  These are the magical moments that I thought would never happen in our little family.  And they are usually sandwiched between a lot of yelling and crying and accusations of so and so giving mean dirt looks or pinching so and so, and that kind of business. But those are part of the magic moments also, because they are proof that siblings by adoption are still siblings after all.  They will laugh one day together about how it was dad’s idea of a special occasion to eat McDonald’s in the car on the side of the road.  And about how S always cried and Isa always jumped around like a bunny screaming with glee and H always made mean looks and gave secret pinches but also read bedtime stories and wrestled, and remember how Isa would sit on her head and H would laugh so hard she couldn’t move her off?  It is the stuff of being a family.

I feel like I am lifetimes behind saying the things that I have thought about this past year when the future maybe became the past already.  The first thing is the kismet of finding a book I thought I had lost 3 years prior in a secret compartment I never realized existed before in a bag I packed for the trip we took to go fetch our two newest family members.  The book is called “Every Bitter Thing is Sweet” and while I love that title, I do not agree with the sentiment.  Some bitter things are just bitter, and what you do with that can certainly make you a better person, but the process won’t be sweet.  However, on that particular day of discovery, the title was perfect, and the content of the book was uncannily relevant. The book is largely focused on the experience the author has with infertility.  And I was able to read it in the gaps of time between our visits with our kids and relate to a degree, but also recognized that the author had come to a conclusion that I had not.  She struggled with the grief of infertility and eventually she and her husband adopt, but through the process, she seems unable to believe that her children by adoption were the answer to her grief, and holds onto the belief that God will give her a biological baby.  Which I think somewhat unfortunately, actually occurs.  It is the meme which everyone who can conceive should be warned off sharing with those who can’t.  And I would like to say from personal experience that children by adoption can fill the void, scratch the itch, because they are not Pinocchio.  They are real boys and girls, not second best, not waiting to become real.  They are real sons and daughters if you can be a real mom or dad.

And that is one take away point I’d like for my imaginary biography. Another of course is that some bitter things are just bitter, but people don’t have to be.  How you meet your circumstances is a choice.  Bloom where you are planted.  Cultivate what you plant and watch it bloom.  My great grandpa was a horticulturist and we grew up spending occasional summer vacations running through the fruit orchards he planted in sunny Sacramento (California).  Many of those fruit trees had branches grafted onto them from other trees.  But the fruit off those trees were part of those trees, of course! Real apples and pears.  A glimpse into my future of real boys and girls, grafted right into our family with as much right to be there as any other branch, but giving a more interesting and in my mind, beautiful fruit.

In the decade between adopting my first child and the second two, I read many things saying that it is important not to make an only child feel like they aren’t enough, and I always appreciated the reminder. My first child was a total God given miracle, a one in a million result of chance encounters and good people creating a best outcome in a broken system.  Most kids going through foster care don’t get happy endings.  Most infertile women don’t get a baby before they learn about their condition.  It is probably fraudulent to a degree to try and empathize with women facing infertility with no babe already in arms, but I still want to come full circle with my story for women I know of that find themselves in the despair that infertility creates.  Because there is such a thing as secondary infertility and babies that die at birth and single individuals wanting children but never finding the right partner.  There are so many ways to feel the pain that childlessness brings, however it finds you. Infertility is a big loud NO when it feels like everyone around you gets an easy yes.

We live in an incredible and frightening era of medical pregnancies, which introduce a whole world of ethical considerations and expensive disappointments, and while they are an option, they are fraught with both.  Adoption is another way of building family, but adoption can also be expensive to the point of exclusion, and generates a frantic pick me contest where perfectly lovely people may sit on a waiting list for years because they don’t have enough beauty or charisma or money, or who knows what else.  My husband and I adopted in Chile, and we were incredibly blessed to have been accepted as the parents for our children the first time around, basically in competition against other couples throughout Chile that also wanted them.  Getting the call to say they were ours made me feel like I had one a Miss (South) America competition.  But it was not lost on me that our joy was bitterness for the other couples who had also gotten a call about the kids and presented their file, hoping to be picked, only to get another call that they were not.

I sat through adoption classes with a perfectly lovely couple, the husband of whom I ran into not long after coming home with the kids.  They had, to the last of my knowledge, been presented with the file of a little girl and had put themselves up as potential parents.  We met in the isle of a grocery store.  Isa was seated on the metal rack below a meat counter when I saw him.  He looked at her almost with melancholy and said with surprised “she’s so little.” I asked if they had gotten good news about their potential  little girl. He said no.  She was not the first child they had lost to a different couple.  I follow them on Facebook.  They seem more in love than a long time couple should, and take exotic trips and seem to have a full wonderful life.  But no one has picked them yet for a child.  And when you are on the inside of that kind of heartache, you know that anniversaries, celebrated as they may be, are reminders of what you don’t have try as you might.

My bitter thing is a decade hoping for a baby.  My sweet thing is turning 40 as the very grateful and proud mother of a 14 year old, 4 year old and a 2 year old.  I never did get a baby.  I got toddlers all around.  And it is sweet.  I got a husband who was perfectly happy with the first one, but let me bring home two (too many) more, even though he worried that I would regret not holding out for a baby.  He let me choose them. He trusted my choice.  He laughs at their antics and kisses them to sleep because he watched me cry in the shower too many times for too many years.  And I am healed, and I am not.  And it is bitter sweet.  I do not wish for a baby anymore.  But I do cry each and every time I watch or hear anything about childlessness or infertility.  And I always will.  Because I know and will always know exactly how it feels.  Here is the sweet caramel inside that bitter candy though.  My husband has proved to be the kind of man who can truly, madly, deeply love a child he didn’t contribute his shrimp to. Not every man can.  My husband allowed total strangers to inject themselves into our personal lives in an invasive TWO YEAR process that no one who gets drunk and pregnant in a single night can EVER understand.  He let me say yes to two kids just months after we finally got through that two year process.

My oldest daughter looks uncannily like me with a little South American brown thrown in.  I’ve had people argue with me when I have said (because it was relevant) she was adopted.  They don’t believe me.  That’s how meant to be she feels.  The sun is browning everyone up in our summer season, and she was making fun of me a few days ago for being so white.  I asked her “don’t you remember? We used to say daddy was the coffee and mommy was the milk, and you are the cafe con leche.” She didn’t, but she is.

When she was a toddler and had a delightful spell of toddler diarrhea while cutting teeth, my hands were bleeding from all the hand washing I had to do that exasperated my eczema.  At the same same time, I was working and in grad school and a single mom (with a very helpful room-mate, shout out to you Rachel;).  And I remember driving around that first miserable summer in my old volvo that would not hold freon, no matter how I charged it, so H would get a terrible heat rash on top of the diarrhea-and thinking-the more work this kid is, the more I seem to love her.  And that thought has stayed with me over more than a decade of behavioral problems and diagnosis and family drama.  We love our people not because they share some genetic code, but because of all the investment we make in them.  So if you cannot have a baby with plan B (you know, biological), I heartily suggest considering plan A (adoption).  It will not give you a tidy timeline, or a story to share about how you told your baby daddy that you were knocked up, and you will have to deal with ignorant comments from ignorant people that confuse children with wooden puppets, but I promise you that if they are terrible terrors that keep you awake and have explosive diarrhea, you will learn to love them if you are a real parent and a real child is what you long for.  And yes, you may have to swallow a bitter pill to get them.  You may have to subject yourself to infinite waiting and exasperating application processes and offensive and ridiculous questions that all the pregnant people you know never have to go through and spend money you don’t have or do have but would rather spend on a house.  But there might be a caramel center to that bitter pill.  I would not give up knowing what I know about my husband and his capacity for love and empathy to have a timeline or a genetic mini me. I would not trade any of my brown eyed babes for a baby.  They are all three my caramel centers.




Lessons from a Rabbit

My daughter longs for a few things.  More days at the beach, less days (i.e. no days) doing school, no hair brushing ever again for the rest of her life.  A Ninjago Lego set. A horse, in her room, preferably. A My Little Pony, come to life. A tiny hippo.  A sister.  As of today, a sister with allergies. (Because she watched a movie about a boy … with a sister … with allergies.) Some of her desires more realistic than others. I guess she’s no different than anyone else.

wish candlesHer birthday wish this year was to go to a baby shower and a wedding.  Read into it what you will. I expected it to come from the above mentioned list.  Just goes to show, there are other things on her mind.  I imagine that, in the same way it sometimes feels to me that the whole world is sporting a swollen belly (in the summer, to be scientific,) it must seem to her that every other child has a built in playmate.  Someone to hide from mom and dad with, someone who gets the jokes that mom and dad don’t.  Now, to be fair, we know lots o’ ladies that aren’t pregnant, and quite a few only children, so neither of these are full scale tragedies.  And I get that.  But much as I’d like to address it like I do her requests for a phone or i-pad, because “everybody else has one,” for once, I am sympathetic.

I don’t believe in only children.  I wouldn’t have picked “singleness” for mine, if I had a choice. If you have never read Anna Quindlin’s lovely essay on siblings, you ought to.  I would quote her here, but my copy is in deep storage.  (And it only costs $2. bucks on Amazon for your own copy:).  To summarize, she says something to the effect that a sibling is the best gift you ever give your kid.

Now, I have a sibling.  And I know kids don’t always see it that way.  A large percentage would happily trade their sibling for an i-pad.  Because they don’t understand the appreciating value of a sibling.  Especially a sibling who is close in age.  Yes, there is a little circle of mommy hell reserved for women who have multiples under the age of 3. (I haven’t tried it personally, of course.  But even poking it with a stick from far away, that’s a whole lot of mommy mommy mommy and sleep deprivation.  And diapers. And fingerprints on the walls.)

But bless those mommies, because they are giving their children the incredible gift of collective memory.  There is no one else in the world who is going to know the ridiculous phrase your dad made you (I mean us, of course) repeat when asking for “official permission to enter the quonset hut, sir,” and how it  made you giggle.  Who will reminisce with you about fighting over the toilet seat and the heating vent, when that luxurious warm air was growling out with a little sigh, and how it blew your nightgowns up like hot air balloons.  There is no one else who will know what you mean when you laugh about how you used to burn your heiny on the heater that was as big as the world’s first computer, warming up out of a shower on a winter morning. Or make fun of you for decades for driving against the proper lane of traffic when you crossed that bridge, until you got wedged in wonkywise. And one of you had to climb out a window.

Now, I must interrupt this ode to the pleasure of collective sibling memory by acknowledging that yes, you’re correct, maybe someone else will.  If you are lucky enough to have an incredibly intimate childhood friend that sticks around through adolescence and adulthood.  And cousins can be pretty good stand ins.  Let’s call them second siblings. They’ll know some of it, I concede.    But not all the ins and outs of mom and dad’s “isms,” not the weird rules like no unicorns allowed, no watching “Gimme a Break,” millet in the cookies and nothing good to trade at lunchtime, because mom was onto rice crackers waaaaay before Portland “got weird.”

And here’s the other benefit of collective memory.  It is the tensile fiber that holds you together with people that you would probably never pick or fall in with as friends.  It teaches children to be loyal for loyalty’s sake. Not because you both love Johnny Depp or Mumford and Sons, but because you belong to each other.  You get to use titles between yourselves no one else can claim.  I used to dress like a bag lady, before Nirvana made that cool.  (Okay, sometimes I still do, on weekends)  My sister was a prom princess and accidental cheerleader, and got picked to be the lead in plays.   You’d be hard pressed to guess we lived together, but somehow she always made me, the book obsessed bag lady, feel like the bomb.  Once I got over resenting her golden existence, (I did show my mom the door the day she brought her home) I discovered she was my favorite person.  In spite of myself.  Probably because she was so good at making me feel like her favorite person. Definitely because she is cheeky and sensitive, thoughtful and sometimes chatty, sometimes solitary, with a man’s communication patterns and in need of no one else’s affirmation.  She has secret dance moves you just wouldn’t believe, and dispenses hug therapy where it’s needed. Did I mention how she laughs? I know that’s like saying someone has beautiful eyes, but seriously.  If I had to pick one thing to hear before I die, it would be Sister laughing.  Than I know I’d meet God laughing too.

How do all those good things make themselves at home in one person? And did I mention, MY person.  You may be her friend, but you’ll never be her sister.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Sisterhood is primitive.  Which is why only children long for it.  Just as barren women long for babies. Some part of us knows we were made for it.  And the good news, if you have no sisters, is they can be made. Adoption isn’t just for babies.  It’s for anyone who cares enough to make you their own, Velveteen Rabbit style.  It won’t be pretty, and it will hurt.  But it will be real.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Children, with their funky breath and wonky toes (you say pinkies?) and friends are precious because we claim them, and love them until their fur rubs off.  Not because of who they are, contrary to the culture of child idealization.  We love our kids because of all the nights they kept us up holding their hair back while they puked, or checking their temperature 32 times, or worrying over them on the playground. They can be ugly, or stinky, weird or hyper hypos.  But if they’re ours, we’re gonna love them. And if you have a friend who will hold your hair back or stay up all night with you, who genuinely worries over you, you’re gonna love them too. If you put in the time.

velveteenrabbitI once made a psychology student redo a report she had made about our family, in which she consistently referred to our daughter’s father and myself as her “adoptive” parents.  She was young, and just learning her profession, and was not yet aware of nursery magic.  “Adoption isn’t a chronic disease” I explained to her.  “It is a fact of origin.  But our family is not defined this way.  We are her REAL parents.  Not substitutes or stand ins.  She is our REAL daughter. We don’t need subtitles.”  The nursery magic happened. Our child does not idealize us.  She sees the fur that’s been rubbed off and the loose stitching, just as we see hers.  We are her real to each other.  And the more we pay to be a family, the harder it is, the realer we become.

If there is power in disowning someone, it is only because there is greater power in owning.  I’m not talking about pimps or control freaks here.  I’m talking about the chord that wraps itself between any two people when at least one devotes themselves to the other.  It’s why people still get married.  It’s why some sibling relationships are more intimate than marriage. It’s why Samwise Gamgee followed Frodo Baggins to Mordor.  Love isn’t born out of beauty.  It grows between the cracks of brokenness and vulnerability. Because our siblings are often the first person to hear us cry in the dark and share a changing room, we trust them with the hairy stuff.  We don’t have to prove our lovableness to them. If we’re lucky, we can be that naked with a spouse or a friend.

I know that not every sibling relationship is like ours, but every sibling represents an opportunity for a closeness that cannot be duplicated in any other context.  It can be approximated, but the lining of memories from that first golden decade of childhood, with a shadow that stretches longer than any of the subsequent combined, can never be hemmed in after.

I read a funny little article recently about marriage, and how men and women bring different expectations into it.  Women want companionship, a life partner, security, and some other warm fuzzies, apparently.  According to this article, men generally want two things out of a relationship.  Drum roll…1.) sex (yes, I know you knew.  Gold star for you:) and 2.) not to be criticized.

Is this realistic? Well, that is not the topic of my little bunny trail, but it does say something about the difference between two of the most intimate relationships you can have.  If you’re trying to make a marriage work, you might take this to heart.  It certainly explains the origin of many fights.  But marriage is like all human relationships in that it won’t satisfy the deep longings of your heart.  We yearn to be loved for or in spite of our imperfections.  The truth is that our spouses will weary of them, but may be wise enough not to harp on them.  But siblings will celebrate them and make fun of them with a familial affection.  They will not refrain from criticism, because they have nothing to lose.  In the first family unit, siblings are the ones who can best recognize the “you”ness of you. And exactly because they’re not married to it, they will pull no punches.  “Remember that time you asked when the Fourth of July was?” “Are you SURE you don’t want a map.  I just don’t want you to drive to California on accident.” But when they say it, you can smile.  Because it’s not criticism.  It’s affection.  You do that stuff because YOU do that stuff. Don’t ask my sister directions.  She may know the way, she may not.  But she’ll punk you into being sure she does, and when you got lost because you listened to her, she’ll deadpan “well, you didn’t have to listen to me.” It’s the her-ness of her.  And together, we spend a lot of time analyzing that dad-ness of dad, and the mom-ness of mom.  It’s something we can only do with each other.  It drives our husbands crazy.  But sorry guys-we’re simply turning over the rocks from our home planet and admiring them together.  Even if they’re sharp or slimy. They’re native rocks. And we’re ladies.  We want the companionship of analyzing.  Yes, that’s a real thing.

When we fall in love, we want the affirmation that comes from an alien landing on our planet and admiring it’s unique qualities. Woman in particular want to feel like someone “gets” our planet.  Admiring it is not enough.  You have to understand it.  And sometimes, we’re silly enough to think the alien does get it.  But how could he? Or she? They are not from the home planet.  The seasons make no sense to them.  After some time, the beautiful rocks seem t0o abrasive, the air that once felt cool and refreshing may over time feel cold and inhospitable.  And the flowers may become increasingly recognizable as weeds.  But siblings, they are from the planet.  They will always get it.  They may not always like it, but they are citizens too.  They can read the hieroglyphs.

I watched a really remarkable film late one night based on a true story about a woman who spends 16 years getting her degree to be a lawyer, just so she can represent her brother who is serving a life sentence for murder.  In the process, she loses her husband and both her sons elect to go live with their dad. Her husband doesn’t get her attachment to her brother.  He feels displaced.  She jumps through many, many hurdles to get her brother released.  She passes through many disappointments and injustices.  One day, her boys (now older) are play fighting in the car, and one says to the other “I wouldn’t waste my whole life to help you, like mom did for uncle Kenny.” And their mother, instead of being offended at their conclusion that she had “wasted” her life, says “really? You wouldn’t?” A little part of her dying, because she hopes for more.  If you read more about this woman, you will see that what is remarkable about her is how unremarkable she is.  She loved someone, and she didn’t give up on him.  It sounds so simple, but if you’ve ever tried to be faithful for a long time through adversity, you know it is not simple.

It is my personal philosophy that if you marry a dude, you should not expect him to act like a girlfriend.  That’s what sisters and friends are for. And if you marry a girlfriend, it should be no surprise when she doesn’t speak dude. That’s what bros are for. Sometimes, we try another person’s planet, and just can’t get the hang of it. And the first impulse is to go back to ours.  If you have created an intergalactic species between yourselves, you can create a whole lot of harm following your impulse for home.  You may just have to learn to be a stranger in a strange land, waving at your planet as it twinkles in the dark.  And taking some comfort, like the little Velveteen rabbit did, that you are real.  Because somewhere else, someone loved you enough to make it so. Perhaps the alien you live with will not know every nuance of your species, but that’s okay.  Somewhere out there, someone does:)  And if they don’t, there’s always time to adopt a sister.  Or love your alien until his antennae break and his silver skin grows dull.  Just be prepared to get your heart broken a little in the process, and to put in the time.  It’s what makes you real.