Monday, 12 June 2017

There's A Little Boy From Chile...

I remember my husband first telling me about Carlos. We were already two years into our second adoption process and the plan was to adopt another child from Sri Lanka but Sri Lanka had stopped international adoptions indefinitely at this point so we knew that likely we could wait five more years, seven more years...we had no idea.

One day my husband came home from work and said that he had read about a little boy in Chile who was two and needed a family quickly because he had numerous special needs and would benefit from being cared for in a family setting. At this point, we read that he couldn't walk yet, couldn't move much at all, couldn't speak, and needed a lot of help. But we also read that he was a happy boy who loved people and loved to hear music and be read to and that he loved cars.

As we have so often done in our lives, we changed course and applied for special permission to adopt Carlos.  Almost a year later we were on our way.

How odd to think that three years ago, we spent May and June 2014 in Chile completing the adoption process that would allow us to welcome Carlos Jesus to our family.

We flew over the Andes and touched down in Santiago, on a chilly winter morning. I remember how tired we were after flying those 17 hours (plus 6 waiting in Paris) with four year old William.

An old man named Max who wore a panama hat met us at the airport and took us to an apartment high up on the 24th floor of a building in Nuñoa and later that night, after I'd slept a bit, I stood on the balcony, looked down at the blazing city lights shining in the bluish darkness and then out toward the shape of the Andes in the distance and thought how unusual that I felt so immediately at home there. I like "strange" places, I do well in the unknown I am not expected to know.

The following weeks were unpredictable, filled with meetings with lawyers, child services, and other officials. At one point, a psychologist came to us for surprise visits over the course of three days and spent time observing us and our family interactions.

We traveled back and forth between Santiago, Viña del Mar, Rengo, La Serene and several towns in the Valle del Elqui. It was a time filled with complex emotions. An important distinction to make is that an adoption journey is not "traveling". Although there are many amazing experiences, the focus is often on simply surviving the challenges each day brings.

It was also around this time that William's more troubling signs of autism began to manifest, due in part to the unpredictable nature of both the trip and the sudden arrival of a toddler who was now immediately his brother. It was a bewildering time because we didn't know then William was autistic and we believed the regression and outbursts we were experiencing were caused by the emotional turmoil (and trauma) of adopting Carlos. Spending six weeks in Chile, visiting different officials almost daily, and no day being predictable, as well as suddenly having a noisy toddler in the family who none of us could communicate with would be a difficult transition for any child, let alone an autistic child.  Also there was the issue of visiting the orphanage that brought up a lot of anger and pain in William because for three days we had to return Carlos there in the evening after spending the day with him. Those nights were filled with screaming, raging and fear for William because he couldn't comprehend why we said Carlos was his brother and yet we had to give him back to the orphanage. He began to fear we would do the same to him.

As for Carlos, although he was a happy boy with a constant huge smile right from the start, he didn't know or understand us either. We couldn't speak Spanish and he couldn't speak at all. From the time he was newborn, he had been very ill so had spent his first years belonging to no one, alone in a hospital (born with several illnesses and has various special needs) and then later an orphanage. He had no concept of what a family was or what purpose having a mother served. There were many surprising, almost unbelievable, things about Carlos.

Aside from going from building to car (back and forth between orphanage and hospital) he had never been outside before. At the age of almost three, he had never played in a garden or at a park. He had never been on a walk. He had never been on a visit to the shops, to church, to the beach.

I remember the first day we cared for him, I tried to spoon feed him small pieces of banana and again and again the banana fell out of his mouth. I wondered if he was being defiant or stubborn but after a few tries I saw he actually didn't know how to chew food. I had to move his jaw and show him how to eat a banana. We learned later he had only eaten baby food from jars up until that point.

The magnitude of the experiences he had not had was hard to grasp fully.

They told us that his favorite activities were lying on the floor which was cement (often for hours until it got too cold and he had to be moved) or climbing onto a chair and staring out the window. As if those were usual "favorite activities" for a boy almost three.

However he was well cared for at the orphanage but it is strange to think that there are many experiences from his first years of which we know nothing.

Carlos has come a long way in three years. Now he is beginning to try to speak more although it is difficult for the muscles in his throat to form proper sounds. He goes on a weekly hike, yes hike!, with his preschool, often up a mountain nearby. He is very active and usually happy and loving. He tires very easily though and his muscles in his legs, arms, and hands especially, although much stronger, are still quite weak and need a lot of training. He has a tenancy to get sick easily and often struggles with respiratory issues.

He is a brave little soul and will take care of any spiders or bugs around the house without flinching. He loves people and is very friendly! He also loves to play with other children. And he loves to eat at McDonalds and to shop for new clothes! :)

He has a kind heart and often says "I take care of Mommy" or asks me with his face beaming in delight "You like Carlo, Mommy? You really really like me??" or he will say carefully as though from a script "Mommy, daddy, William, Carlo are a family."

And I think how far he has truly come. He had a rough, lonely start to life and of course, life and learning won't be without struggle for him as he grows, but he has a lot of spirit and seems to have the sort of personality that overcomes a lot. There is a real strength and resilience in him.

It hasn't always been an easy adjustment or transition and all of us have taken our own time with it but three years ago in Chile and the months that followed, a sort of frightening chaos reigned. It wasn't smooth and it wasn't at all easy. Now things have settled down and each day Carlos grows more and more into who he really is. And we learn daily to be a family. One made up of flawed individuals certainly, but Carlos has the family that the the smiling judge in Chile said he needed.

And we really, really like him. :)

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Last Time I Saw My Grandpa

The last time I saw my grandpa I was 21 years old.  Hadn't seen him since I was 12 and before that, I had just a handful of visits with him but I remembered his deep, rough voice and his laugh.  His honest kindness.  He liked to tease, he was funny.  I held him up high in my memories, I loved him without question.

He was a fascinating and unconventional man.  He owned three antique/junk shops.  I remember visiting one when I was 12. It was walking into Aladdin's cave to me.  Dust settled all over glittery things.  Beautiful ornate things.  Odd clutter.  Piles of comics and books.  Interesting jewelry.  Pieces of people's lives.

"Choose anything you want!"  he said, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, a smile on his face.  I was shy at 12.  I chose a butter dish.  An odd choice for a 12 year old but it was a thing of beauty, the dark red-purple glass shone like jewels...

But anyway, the last time I saw him, we met at a pub, The Magpie and Stump, in Banff.  He was back, briefly, from Haiti.  He was just passing through.  Couldn't stay long because the road out there, the road out there, it always called and it had a strong voice.

It was dark in the Magpie.  We sat there for hours.  Long enough for him to smoke about two packages of cigarettes.  The waitress came back every ten minutes to empty the ash tray and pour more black coffee.  He called her "sweetheart" and I could see she was charmed by him.

He'd lived in Haiti for years at this point.  Ever since the day he sold those antique shops and everything else except his car which he drove from Ontario to Florida.  Went away forever, aside from the occasional trip back home to Ontario.  Chatham to Florida to Haiti. Beautiful, dangerous Haiti.

He'd written letters about lying awake at night listening to voo doo drums in the distance.  He wrote us about finding a dead body on his doorstep.  Although he had owned the antique shops, he was a carpenter by profession, so he lived near a group of nuns and built house after house for the poor there.  Constant action, constant work, constant love.

He loved the people there.  He saw need and beauty and truth in them.  He used the money he had left and paid for collage educations for girls so that they could be nurses instead of having to work in other, far worse, professions.  He joked with the children and made friends of the adults.  Because he was authentic in the way he treated others, the people he met loved him.  He wrote story after story about the individuals he met.

My favorite was a simple one.  Nothing "huge".  Nothing like paying for a collage education or building a house but it moved me all the more for its simplicity.  He wrote about a homeless old lady who refused to live in a shelter.  She just wanted her head rubbed.  To be touched.  He wrote to me that he made time to go see her and to rub her head.  That moved me because in life, is that simple act of love not equally as great as ones we would consider greater?  He wrote about her with genuine affection:

"This little sweetheart loved to have her head rubbed.  She didn't want to live in an institution in town because all her dead friends were still in the neighborhood.  Eventually she joined them."

He corrected wrongs where he could.  He wrote of how many people died of starvation.

"This man is a resident at the homeless shelter.  Here he is enjoying a snack.  When I returned he had died --- of starvation.  I checked through the town and made arrangements for the Sisters of Charity to provide food for the remaining 8 crippled residents.  So for the past three years now, no one has died of starvation.  This cost 45 US dollars a month."

There were countless such stories that he described in his forthright yet humble way.  These letters and stories made me want to go to Haiti and work with him.  At 14, it was my strongest wish.  Instead I went to Catholic boarding school and read the history books he sent me and the letters he wrote.  I studied the photos he sent and dreamed of a "bigger" life.

However I never went to Haiti and years passed before I saw him again.

The last time I saw my grandpa, we sat across a dark wood table from one another.  The Magpie was dim and the steady stream of smoke from his cigarettes made my eyes burn and his conversation made my head spin.  He was a brilliant man and he wanted to talk.  Well, not talk, he wanted to argue.  He was intensely intelligent, often argumentative, self-educated, a prolific writer of fascinating letters and an avid reader.  He enjoyed playing the devil's advocate.  He was good man with a good heart but he wasn't really an "easy" man.

The oldest son of Icelandic immigrants.  A hard worker all his life.  A man at home in unusual places with unusual people.

He made unconventional choices.  He cared deeply and intensely for the poor, for criminals, for the marginalized.  He was a man at ease when at work, when providing for those who couldn't provide for themselves.

I could have been wrong but that last time I saw my grandpa, I thought I heard anger running through his words.  Anger at injustice, anger at the world we live in.  Anger at some of us having everything and some having nothing.  An anger that wanted to understand how this could be so.

His sense of humor was wry.  He wanted to engage.  But he was talking to the wrong person.

I wanted to know him.  To ask him more about so many things he had written to me about in his ten page letters.  I thought he might want to get to know me as well.  Looking back, he probably did want to know me.  But he wanted to know me through verbal combat.  It's safe to say, he didn't fit the traditional, cozy grandpa stereotype.

I remember him challenging me on where I got my information about various things from.  Asking me from across the table, "Do you even read books?  And come on, don't just tell me you read fiction!"  I could hear the disdain for "fiction" in his voice.  I sat there bewildered and answered that I read all the time.

I felt like every question he asked me was an attack.  Now I understand it's just the way he spoke, the way he connected with people.  He liked a challenge, he liked to question everything and he enjoyed making comfortable people uncomfortable.  He delighted in a mind that could logically argue, defend it's point of view, but I've never been like that.

After a few hours, he gave me the last hug he ever gave me and drove off into the mountains.  I cried on and off for days.  I didn't know what to make of him.  I was sorry we had had such a terrible and upsetting visit.  He later told my mom it had been a fantastic visit. :)  When I heard that I remember feeling angry with him but now, it makes me smile that while I found our visit stressful and confrontational, he enjoyed it.  I'm glad that to him, our last visit was "fantastic".

I think William, my grandfather, was a good man with an authentically good heart and soul.  He was extraordinarily gentle and caring with those he met in Haiti.  I think he was also searching all his life for something he already possessed without knowing he possessed it.

His whole life, if one were to write it, would make a fascinating story.  These few paragraphs are only my poor and incomplete description of our last meeting and some of the history that went before it.  I can't possibly claim to understand him and I know I don't have a full picture of his life.  I have only little glimpses.  Bright memories full of sunshine and dust.  An inherited love for "old" things.  I have words written in faded ink on paper and on the back of pictures.

But then again,, all we ever have of someone else is our own filtered impressions and they may differ greatly in comparison to someone elses but the things I write about him are how I perceived him.

Below is my favorite photo of him.

"My dance troupe.  When we were building the little house for a man and his family, we hauled the stone from the river about 200 yards away.  The children would climb on the truck to go to the river but coming back, there was no room for them so I would dance with them all the way to the building site.  The little girl on my right made up a song about dancing with grand pere which all the kids sang as we danced, much to the amusement of the neighbors."

His heart was in Haiti.  He left a legacy of good there...

(I have written more about him here: