Seven days ’til China: Chaos, panic and horrible cats

You know how I’ve been all calm and stuff about going to China and becoming a mom again? Yeah. We leave in a week and I’m FREAKING OUT.

There’s the little issue of my house. As I mentioned yesterday, we’re having new hardwoods put in one room, can lights going in in our crypt-like basement family room, painting in said family room, and built-ins for the same room, so that we can, nine months after we moved in, completely unpack.

This is my downstairs room, with fans running. I should mention that this house is about 18 months old.
This is my downstairs room, with fans running. I should mention that this house is about 18 months old.

Hardwood guy gets here this morning after flaking on Monday, rips up the carpet and calls me in. The subfloor is wet, from my most recent pet-stain-removal effort. He can’t put hardwoods on a wet subfloor, so he brings in two fans to run overnight. We also discover little patches of black mold, which I immediately want to scrub with bleach (except that I’m out of bleach).

“Don’t even bother,” he assures me. “There’s this product called Killz and it’s an anti-bacterial. It kills everything. I’ll just roll it over the spots tomorrow.” He goes on to tell me that this product is often used in dilapidated houses where the previous owner was perhaps a heavy smoker, or a crazy cat lady.

Awesome. These are apparently my people.

While this was going on, the electricians came, and installed the six can lights and a dimmer. Indeed, that room looks decidedly less funereal, but in order to get past the duct work, they had to cut out five additional holes. Or I think that’s what they said. I kind of stopped listening when I saw the five extra holes.

Deep, cleansing breaths.
Why yes, those are holes in my ceiling.

ANYway. On the kid front, I’ve been torturing myself about preschools for Kid X. I have two choices: First, there’s the rather sterile Montessori that I visited a few weeks ago. It was sparkling clean, beautiful facility where no fun seemed to be happening. Still, their schedule works for me — two days, 8:45-3. I could go back to doing freelance, or even do a part-time job somewhere. They also have a two-week summer school thing, so X could start getting acclimated.

Or, there’s the sweet preschool that’s about a 1-minute walk from my house. The teachers are warm and nurturing and it’s in a house, so it’s a little cramped. But the stuff the kids were doing the day I visited looked super fun — lots of options with clay and dress-up and awesome toys. However, it’s a co-op, and I’d need to volunteer once a month. Also, the school year starts later. And, it’s only 9-11:30 am, although there’s an option to extend to 2:00.

You’re probably catching the strong sense that I want some semblance of “me time” once we become the parents of two. Yes. That is true. I could make excuses and say that I didn’t become a mom until I was in my late 30s, so “me time” was all I had (I’m thinking maybe this shouldn’t be in quotes). And, that I’ve gotten used to having time now that Bini’s in school. But really, I just remember that I had a really hard time adjusting from having full-on me time to having none when Bini came home. I got used to it, but it was a rough re-entry.

My cats' bowls, defiantly full. Little shitheads.
My cats’ bowls, defiantly full. Little shitheads.

OK, non-sequitur of the day: My cats are on a hunger strike. We bought this food one night because the fancy pet store that sells their goddamned Royal Canin was closed, and they hate it. It’s three weeks later and they still stand next to their full bowls and yowl. This is not a battle I’m going to fight right now. You win, horrible cats.

Other non-sequitur (kind of): I like to vacuum. I’ve been popping Rescue Remedy pastilles like an addict today, but after I got a look at our growing to-do list tonight, I went and got the Dyson. I vacuumed the areas of my downstairs that aren’t covered in drop cloths and hardwood flooring. I vacuumed even though there will be more people tramping through my house tomorrow. It calms me, vacuuming. I wonder if I can get my hands on a vacuum in China.


Nine days ’til China; sleep until 10

In nine days, we’ll board a plane to Beijing. Five days after that, we take custody of our new son, and our lives change forever.

I’m scared.

I’m happy, of course. Thrilled, in fact. But I’m also scared. I won’t just have one child anymore. One child, I realize, is a relative breeze. Right now, nine days before Beijing, I have only one little person to look after, one person to get packed off to school, to do homework with, to drive to basketball practice. I have free time, which I spend doing freelance work, or walking my dogs, or cleaning my house, or going to Barre3,  or seeing friends. It’s nice. And it’s all going to change.

I’m not usually so great with change. I can be pretty uptight. But I’m feeling really zen about all this. No, we didn’t have airplane tickets until four days ago, and no, I don’t yet know what we’re going to name our new son. I don’t have any idea where we’re staying in China. I’m winging it on the whole language-difference thing, too. But I do know that over-preparing and expecting the worst is a joyless way to live life. I should know — I have 44 years of experience doing it. This time, with the help of pharmaceuticals, I’m just rolling with it. That approach is much easier. I rather like it.

When we adopted Bini, I didn’t write anything down. I thought I’d be able to conjure up the sights and smells and emotions of that visit, so I didn’t document any of it. I really regret that. Because although I can pull up the memories, the details are fuzzy. I’m not going to do that again. I’m going to write, even if the posts aren’t perfect, and even if I don’t have much to say. I want to remember this.

Yesterday, I went to work out and didn’t feel one iota of guilt because Bini is 6, and, save for the constant back-talking, he’s pretty easy. Last night, Bini went to a friend’s house for a sleepover, so we had eight friends to our house to play Cards Against Humanity. We drank mojitos and laughed until nearly midnight. I’m guessing that’s our last late-night social gathering for awhile.

This morning, because our son was at said sleepover, I didn’t rise at 7, as I normally do. Well, that’s not true. I got up and let the cat out, because he was meowing repeatedly next to my left ear. Also, I was worried that the dogs might pee in their respective crates. So I got up at 7, let the animals out, and went back to bed. Until 10:15.

I haven’t done that in … well, I can’t remember. The last time I slept past 8:30 a.m., I had the flu. It felt delicious and slightly naughty to just luxuriate in my giant king-sized bed BY MYSELF. (Steve went to fetch Bini.) I suspect that sleeping in will be infrequent, at best, in two weeks time.

I just finished putting my only child to bed. The routine is that he gets a story, and then closes his eyes to try and sleep. Steve or I stay with him and read our Kindles until we’re sure he’s asleep. Bini’s been increasingly clingy since the trip to China got closer, so we’re being extra comforting. He wants to read books from when he was much younger, he lapses into baby talk. He knows everything is about to change, too, but he’s excited that he’ll be there for the whole ride. I am too.

And we said no

Exactly one month ago, I got “the call” from our adoption agency. There was a child, a three-year-old boy, that we had been matched with. Was I interested in learning more?

This was, simply put, a shock. There’s a whole process for Chinese adoptions, and we weren’t finished with a big piece of it: the dossier. Typically, the family sends off their dossier and waits for a match, and we were getting the match before the dossier. If we wanted this child, we needed to haul ass.

The dossier is the official package of stuff that a family and agency presents to the adopting government. It’s like the final term paper of international adoption. It’s got your home study, your letters of reference, your letters from the police department, affirming that you’re not felons, birth certificates, marriage certificates, financial statements, immigration approvals. I had to write a letter stating why I don’t work full time. Most of these documents need to be notarized — and God forbid the date of the letter doesn’t match the date of the notarization — and then authenticated by the issuing state’s Secretary of State. Lot of moving parts. All we had, one month ago, was our home study.

I’m going to back up for a second: In mid-June, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to adopt anymore. The move and sale of our house had turned me into a psycho, and I worried — rightly, I think — about whether I wanted to inflict myself on another child. And then, there’s the issue of my age. Everyone likes to avert their eyes and flap their hands at me when I mention this, but the fact is, I’m no kid anymore. I need my sleep. I’m not as patient as I once was. And, frankly, I want to go back to work. If I do what I did with Bini — stay home and raise him — I’ll be almost 50 when I re-enter the work force.

Steve understood. We set up a meeting with Dr. Julia Bledsoe, a UW pediatrician specializing in adoptive medicine, to talk through the list of medical correctibles that our agency was seeing. Dr. Bledsoe and her partner, Dr. Julian Davies, are experts at reviewing a child’s file, assessing the child’s needs, if any, and the impact on the family.

Dr. Bledsoe, Steve and I spent an hour going through this long list of birth defects and crossing out the ones that felt like too much for our family. It was a highly distasteful task, but she was firm: You have to choose a child that works for your family. There are people who adopt the children with cerebral palsy, the ones missing arms. You do yourself and your other child an injustice if you take on more than you can handle, just because you feel guilty. So, we came up with a list of things we could handle: Unilateral cleft lip and palate. Club foot. Strabismus. Minor heart defects. Missing or malformed digits. Mild liver damage. We emailed this list to our adoption coordinator and settled in for a six-to-seven month wait.

We got the call about this little boy a week later.

It was hard to be objective when I saw his pictures. He had such a smile, and a glint behind his eyes that reminded me of Bini. He was on the smaller side, and he had been been brought to the orphanage as an infant with “liver damage.” We sent the files off to Dr. Bledsoe and arranged an early morning call. She felt that the file was incomplete, and wrote a letter asking the Chinese orphanage for more information, particularly about his liver levels. We went back and forth for a month, and while that was happening, we worked like slaves to get our paperwork ready. We expedited our vital documents, spending hundreds of dollars to do so. We were serious about adopting this little guy, and we were hopeful that this last round of blood tests would give us the answers we needed to move forward.

On Wednesday, I was walking down Boylston Street with friends, waiting to do one of those goofy duck tours, when our adoption coordinator called with the retested liver functions, per our request. This was it.

I looked at the test results, and my heart just crashed to my feet. His elevated liver levels, which we’d hoped would come down, had not. I forwarded the file to Dr. Bledsoe and waited. We got the return e-mail while sitting at the California Pizza Kitchen at the Prudential Center. This little boy had a significant special need, one impossible to diagnose without a liver specialist. I looked at Steve and he looked at me. I ordered a margarita. He ordered a beer. And after lunch, I called our coordinator and said no.

I said no to a child. I said no to a little boy who I’d already — against my better judgment — picked out names for. I’d already pictured him in my house, cuddled up next to Bini, hearing a story about Superman, or whoever the superhero du jour might be. I had already pictured taking him to Music Together, and to the park. I was ready to teach him English and be his advocate. I was ready. But we said no, like he was a dessert choice on a menu. It makes me sick, this process.

I posted my angst on a closed Facebook page for other parents doing what we’re doing and got lots of support. “You will know when you find the child right for you,” was the upshot. But that just seems so fundamentally wrong to me. If I had birthed this child, would I have said no? Would I have passed him along to the next family? To make matters worse, this little guy’s profile went out in the adoption agency’s newsletter yesterday, a featured child. When I saw his picture, I thought: That’s my son.

“This little boy has a significant special need. It is really unusual,” is what Dr. Bledsoe wrote in her assessment. I keep thinking about that. I suppose, intellectually, we did the right thing. This need wasn’t one of the ones on our list. So, we say no. It’s very cut and dried. Except when it’s not. Except when you can’t stop thinking about a little face, an impish grin, and those eyes.

There’s a ghost in my house

Green chair
This is where the ghost sits.

Around Halloween last year, Bini decided there was a ghost in the house. But rather than be afraid of the ghost, he wanted to engage with it. Or rather, he wanted me to engage with it. So, while he hid under a blanket on my lap, I was supposed to talk to it.

“What should I say?” I whispered to the lump on my lap.

“Tell him about me!” Bini hissed back.

The ghost sat in our green chair, across from the sofa in our living room. The ghost wasn’t supposed to know that Bini was there, so I lied about his whereabouts. I told the ghost that Bini was in kindergarten, that he was doing really well, that he played soccer. I told the ghost what Bini’s favorite foods were, who his best friends were, and which TV shows he preferred. If Bini showed himself, I got to tickle him. I know. Weird game. But it went on for a couple of weeks and then, mercifully, went away. I was running out of things to say to the ghost.

Yesterday, I was walking the horde of neighborhood children up to school. Timmy, Bini’s friend, told us that his parents were going to San Francisco for the weekend.

“My mom and dad lived there, for like, 20 or 30 years, or something,” said Bini.

“And you’re adopted,” said Timmy.

“I know that!” Bini snarled.

I’ve read tons of adoption books and articles, I’ve been to the support groups and trawled online forums. I knew this moment was coming, but when it did, I panicked. I said something in a fake bright voice like, “That’s right, he’s adopted!” but by then the horde was busy trying to kick moss off the sidewalk.

Bini hung back a bit and I could tell that he was trying not to cry. I sent the kids on ahead and talked to him for a few minutes. He was mad at Timmy. He was sad. He felt different. So I walked with him, hand in hand, until we got to the roundabout where parents drop off their kids. He told me he was OK from there, and as he ran for the doors, he looked back a few times to wave. When he opened the door, I blew him a kiss, and he blew one back.

That afternoon, when he got home from school, he went to the sofa. “I want to play ghost again.”

It had been awhile, so I had a lot of things to tell the ghost — we’d been to California, to Portland, to Sun Peaks. Bini was reading. Bini had learned to ski. Bini was still playing soccer, but he had leveled up, to the “Skills Institute.” I told the ghost that Bini had gone to a sock hop and that he was doing drama after school on Fridays.

“Tell him I miss my birth mom,” Bini whispered, from under the blanket.

“Bini really misses his birth mom,” I said. “I know he thinks about her every day, all the time, and that he wishes he could see her. And he misses his birth dad, too,” I looked at the empty green chair. “Maybe if you see them, you can tell them that.”

Bini pushed the blanket off his head and turned to face me. “I love you, Mom,” he said, very seriously. He kissed my cheek and hugged me, hard. Bini thinks kissing is gross and shrieks in horror every time I try to plant one. So this was kind of a big deal.

Maybe I knew all along that the ghost was a proxy for Bini’s birth parents. But until yesterday, I didn’t realize what an honor it was that he had chosen me to communicate with them.

Do I believe in fate? No. Actually, yes.

Bini and his cousin, Malcolm, who was born 12 hours before we got "the call" about our son.
Bini and his cousin, Malcolm, who was born 12 hours before we got “the call” about our son.

I’m not a religious person. I usually don’t believe in fate, or “signs.” You make your own luck, the chips fall where they may. Things are random.

Except when they’re not.

Almost five years ago, I was down in the Bay Area for my then sister-in-law’s baby shower. Steve and I didn’t have Bini yet, but we were at the top of “the list,” waiting for the call that would come any day.

The day before the shower, my then sister-in-law went into labor. The baby was six weeks early, so they did everything they could to stop labor, but it was no use. Little Malcolm Robert Mellone was on his way. He was born, at Kaiser Oakland, at 10:12 p.m. on March 1, 2009. I got to see him, as he was whisked into the NICU, and again the next day, before my flight left for Seattle.

We’d taken too long with our visit, and were running late to the airport. Everyone in the car — my mom, my dad and me — were pissed off at each other. It had been a tense, but joyous 24 hours. Sometimes families act stupid during tense and joyous times.

Anyway, it was pouring out and my dad was piloting the car down Howe and up Piedmont toward 580 when my phone rang. Back then, I was a reporter and got lots of calls from PR flacks. When I saw an area code — 651 — that I didn’t recognize, I thought it was one of those calls, but picked up anyway.

It was our adoption agency. They had a child for us. Was it a good time to talk?

My mom, sitting in the front seat, somehow knew from the change in my voice what was going on. She started to cry. I got the information about our soon-to-be son over the phone and after I hung up, I said, “I’m a mom,” to no one in particular. My parents were grandparents again, just 12 hours after Malcolm’s birth.

I don’t know what to call that. Coincidence? Fate? God? It sure felt like something divine was guiding that timing of events, and last week, something like that happened again.

Last Thursday, Steve and I went to the foster care orientation session at the Department of Social and Health Services in Bellevue. Even though our plan was foster-to-adopt, the orientation and subsequent training is required by the state. The place was jam-packed, and one of the first things the organizer asked us was how many were on the foster-to-adopt track. Almost everyone raised their hand.

“Well, I’m here to tell you that the state doesn’t do that,” she said firmly. The state’s mandate, which comes from the feds, is to try everything to reunite the child with its birth parent(s) or a suitable relative.

Then, she showed us a video about child abuse reporting. We saw pictures of children with burn marks on their faces, finger marks on their arms and anguish in their eyes. And I knew, without even talking to Steve, that this was not the right path for our family.

Reunification may be what the state sees as optimal, but I just don’t buy it. One social worker told us that “this isn’t about you,” and that’s fine. But I just can’t see bonding with a child, loving a child, comforting him after a nightmare and doing the hard work of parenting, only to lose him to his abusers, or to some random relative. I can’t do it. I can’t do it to Bini, who wants a sibling, a permanent sibling, so much he puts away toys and blankets for his future brother or sister. 

But if foster-to-adopt wasn’t the right choice, then what? Private adoption — a.k.a. the “Juno” route — is also fraught with risk. Other international programs, including our first choice, Ethiopia, had long waits, or required lengthy in-country stays. It felt like our options were dwindling. I didn’t sleep that night.

On Friday morning, I was sitting in front of the computer in my pajamas, researching other adoption paths when I got a message from my friend Jenn. We had made plans to go skiing that day — we’d found childcare, ditched our other responsibilities — and she was on her way. I tried to get out of it, but she wasn’t hearing it. We were going.

On the way up to Alpental, Jenn talked and listened. She played devil’s advocate. She wouldn’t let me slide into the quicksand of desperation and misery that had been engulfing me. All day, on the lift and when we’d meet mid-mountain, she kept me talking. I cried in the lodge, while I ate my bratwurst.

It was mid-afternoon when we hopped on the lift for another run, and a woman asked if she could ride up with us. On the way, I mentioned something about adoption, and she asked about it. I gave her a two-sentence answer, and she told us that she was an adoptive mom too, to a little girl from China. In fact, she’d worked with our agency, and she’d gotten a child very quickly, through WACAP’s waiting child program. Waiting children have special needs, from “minor correctibles” like cleft lip or a club foot, to more serious conditions like spina bifida and blindness. Her daughter, she explained, had a small arm, but she was athletic and smart and perfectly perfect. Normal.

We skied off the lift and Jenn and I met on the ridge. “That was weird,” I said to her.

“It was,” she agreed. “But I think it could be a sign.”

I thought so too.  China had been our first choice seven years ago — it has an established infrastructure, it is a well-oiled adoption machine. But China has many restrictions regarding adoption, and one of them was that if one or both prospective parents had ever been divorced, they needed to have been married to each other for at least five years. At the time, we didn’t qualify, so we moved on to Ethiopia, and of course, we’re thrilled with that.

But as I skied the rest of the day and talked it over with Steve that night and throughout the weekend, the waiting child scenario started to make so much sense — and we started to get really excited.

There are hundreds of adopted Chinese kids in the Seattle area, with tons of support and resources. Our friends have two daughters from China, and one of them they adopted through WACAP’s waiting child program. She had a cleft lip and palate, which was expertly repaired by the excellent surgeons at Children’s Hospital. David brought his daughter over to our house on Sunday, and while she and Bini played Ninja Turtles we talked about their process.

Steve and I aren’t naive — we know that a waiting child will need medical interventions that Bini never did. But the little girl in my house last night was beautiful and spunky and smart — and her scar is barely detectable. When they left last night, we knew this was the right fit for us, a path to parenthood that we were happy about, not resigned to.

So this morning, I called our agency to see if we qualify, and thankfully, we do. And because we’re open to a boy (girls under 2 are the most in demand) we could be matched to a child with a minor correctible — a crossed eye, a finger that didn’t form completely —  within six months of submitting our paperwork. We could have our child home by this time next year. And all because a stranger sat on a chair lift with me one snowy Friday afternoon.

Do I believe in fate? I think I do.