December 31, 2009

Balloon Hospice

Bright has a beautiful heart.

Recently he had a cold, and I gave him a wad of toilet paper to have with him on his top bunk bed through the night. I intended the tissue to be used to wipe snot, not to bond with. But you can't keep that kid from bonding. The next morning, when the bed was made, the tissue was tossed in the trash (understandably). When bedtime came around again, and Bright realized that someone had thrown away his tissue, he cried out in anguish. I mean, the boy wept from the depths of his heart. "My tissue won't know what has happened to him, and he will be afraid without me!" he cried. Daniel and I just looked at each other, half stunned, feeling proud of this unique son of ours.

Three days ago, the gardener applied a fresh coat of white-wash to the bottom three-feet of every tree (something they do here, though no one knows why). Nothing escaped his big brush, not even "Trunk," Bright's "sitting tree." Trunk came into our lives last month when the tiny, sturdy, knobby tree, just off the brick walking path in our courtyard, became the first tree Bright ever climbed. The place where it's trunk forks provides a perfect perch for our introspective four-year-old to do his thinking. As you can imagine, Bright quickly bonded with his tree. He proclaimed that Trunk needed a steady diet of urine and therefore Bright, in caring for his tree, needed to pee on it regularly. You can see what's coming, can't you? When Bright went out to pee on, and then perch in Trunk that day, he saw with horror that his sitting tree had been slathered with white paint, still dripping into the ground around it. Severe drama ensued, and lasted for a good 30 minutes.

Now let me tell you about the balloon.

Yesterday we walked out of the back gate and under the overpass to the corner store behind our complex. We wedged our double-turned-triple stroller (we are always quite a sight) into the store, past the man curing an open pig carcass with a torch, past the 50,000 or so varieties of cigarettes, to the back of the store to buy a new baby tub because Zion had diarrhea in the old one last week when we were hit with yet another stomach virus. On our way out of the store, one of the clerks handed Bright a red balloon.

Typical of goods made in this country which are not intended for export, the balloon began losing air immediately. It survived the night, but today it looks like, according to our village-raised local friend, a cow's heart. Bright and I had a good long talk about "Balloo," which is his name, of course (boys don't typically come up with names like Herbert or Delilah for their toy friends, but rather, twin crocodiles are named "Croc" and "Odile," etc). After my rather solemn blog post the other day, I was primed to break the news to Bright that Balloo was going to die. "It is just a matter of time before all of the air is out of him," I said, "and he will be dead."

What did Bright do? He decided that if Balloo was going out, he was going to help him go out with a bang. The first thing he did was share with Balloo, in great detail, how to get into Heaven. Then he was adamant that I read Balloo the creation account, so he would know how it all began. He wanted me to set up his tent so Balloo could experience camping before he died. He told Balloo about fire (something that no boy or balloon should die without knowing), and he let him smell the (dying) Christmas carnations on t he end table. Our entire morning has centered around death, in fact, but there is a spirit of celebration in our home because of it. I am watching Bright celebrate life, through caring for an expiring friend. Bright is learning to say goodbye.

December 30, 2009


Life is complicated. This morning I received the news from a friend here that her little brother back in America has been diagnosed with colon cancer. He is scheduled to have the mass surgically removed tomorrow, after which they will have a better idea what they are up against. He is 25 years old, and has a wife.

The longer I live, and the more my sphere of friends and acquaintances grows, the more news of this type I receive. I remember as a kid hearing my parents say things like, "That was the year So-and-so's wife died," or "That was the Christmas that So-and-so had a stroke." They were just names to me, not real people, and tragedies remained something that happened in far-away places to far-away folks, like tornadoes picking up entire houses and dumping them on the other side of the state, or like winning the lottery.

But then, when I was in high school, my childhood friend and longtime neighbor was killed instantly when an SUV slid on a patch of ice, ran a stop sign and broadsided her. She was seatbelted, but her head hit her door window with a fatal force. She was on her way to a school dance.

I remember sitting at her funeral, in the overflow seating, with all of our peers, wondering exactly what kind of world I lived in. It was like the rosy veil I had been wearing as a middle-class American kid in suburbia was being pulled back, and I was seeing things for the first time.

Now, more than 10 years later, I still think about her mother, and how she wakes up every morning with a hole in her heart.My dear friend and mentor, Allison, once sat across from me at Aroma's coffee shop in Van Buren, Arkansas, while I ate a breakfast gyro, and told me something like this, "If you are going to be a wife and mother who does not live in fear, you have to be willing to lose your husband and children and still go on in faith, with life in your bones and hope in your heart." The message was, essentially, you must let them go. Your beating heart must not be wired to theirs.

Wow. I chewed my gyro and watched another piece of that rosy veil fall away.

So tonight, as my children sleep in their beds and my husband is across town, I grapple with the fact that I may never see any of them again. I could get up to cross the room and have an aneurysm and hit the floor, like my Dad's late sister did, or Brave could stop breathing in his crib, or Bright could choke on a button, or Daniel could get run over by a dump truck on his way home. Seriously, there are no guarantees.


But one. If you don't know about it, let me know. I'd be happy to tell you. I'd be happy to impart hope where there otherwise is none. That one guarantee is the reason I live way over here, because nothing...NOTHING else will last and if you tie your heart to anything else, when it goes down, you will go down with it.

Hope has one form, and peace has one name. You can bet your life on it.

December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Here's some video from our Christmas morning.

December 18, 2009

Red, White, and Who?

Before moving abroad, I was under the impression that the whole world hated Americans. Now I know that we are loved just as much as we are hated (at least in this country), and usually the feelings are simultaneous.

Daniel and I had an interesting discussion about this over lunch today (while the kids hooted like owls and ate their yogurt and bacon). We talked about how our close friendship with a Dutch couple, Robin and Tanja, has helped us see ourselves (Americans) from an outside perspective.

"We are easy to hate, and easy to love," Daniel said. I agreed.

"Who do we know like that?" I asked him. "Who do we know who embodies America? Or in other words, if America were a person, who would it be?"

We thought of someone, though I won't ever tell who it is.

He/she is headstrong and stubborn, thinks him/herself always right, makes statements of absolute truth about issues that he/she is not learned about, is immature, makes rash decisions, has many regrets, rises to every challenge, never turns down an adventure, feels very passionate about everything, talks fast and loud, is quite obnoxious, hurts many peoples feelings, steps on many toes, leaves a trail of tears, has a contagious energy, is impossible to deflate, has a good heart, would do anything for anyone, always wants to help, is always trying to learn new things and better him/self, is fiercely loyal, is a natural leader, and everyone knows who he or she is.

That is America. Some think us better than that, some think us worse, but on average, we are like a grating friend who you couldn't live without. A friend who has everything, who isn't beautiful but attracts everyone, who radiates confidence, who intimidates; who never remembers your birthday, but would die for you after only meeting you once.

December 16, 2009

Daydreams of a young mother

I am a daydreamer. I always have been. I remember in my younger days, when my parents were worried about me (as most parents are worried about their 15-year-olds), I had to answer the counselor honestly when asked if I daydreamed. Then, of course, the counselor, dressed in a flowing purple dress and smelling of lavender and aloe, would jot something down.

I let myself have a very nice daydream today (I do have control of them), in which I was an unmarried homeowner. I was fit and healthy, with long hair which was not in a pony tail, and long earrings (both things a woman with babies could never have). I had just finished my supper of roasted vegetables, fish, and fresh fruit (something that a mother could never have for supper, nor a wife of a southern country boy, unless she wanted to prepare two meals). I made myself a cup of hot tea and headed out onto my porch to watch the sun set behind the trees, and notice the way the clouds were moving, and appreciate the breeze across my face. As I drank my tea, I read the paper. When darkness came, I retreated into my sitting room, into my favorite well-worn chair, and under the glow of a warm lamp, I placed a phone call to my mother, then read from a novel until I grew tired and ambled off to my big bed, where I slept for 9 straight hours.

I will never have this life. I will always be a mother, and I will always be a southern country boy's wife. I will never be able to tattoo my back, for example, without first considering them, nor take off for a week in northern California on a moment's notice, nor decide it would be nice to legally change my name to Firefly.

Yet I am certain that if Firefly did have the above dreamed about life, she would wish she had a strong man with a tuft of chest hair between his collar bones to hold her when she is crying, and pairs of tiny butt cheeks to watch as they run dripping from the bathtub to their bedroom. She would most likely not sip her tea and read her paper without a twinge of discontentment, if not a strong pang of such, and she would daydream of a life exactly like mine.

So I am glad to be on this end of dreams fulfilled. I would rather over-live than the other way around. I am grateful for the fact that I am, at all moments, on all days, needed by several parties at once.

And I always have my daydreams.

December 15, 2009

Its Chirmas Time in the City

You've got Santa in the mall, we've got "Merry Chirmas." To their credit, it is quite a leap and they are trying awfully hard.

December 13, 2009

What really matters

To those of you who envied our 4-day potty training "success" with Zion, you can take a deep breath now. It failed. We have officially joined the ranks of parents suffering from fecal frustration, and we are learning that our first child and his soaring 3-day success at 2 1/2 years old was quite the exception. Our second child is just like your kid, pooping his pants and caring nothing about it. I apologize fully to anyone who was made to feel for a second that Daniel and I have any answers. Alas, we have none.

It feels darn good to say that, actually.

After weeks of beating our heads up against a wall, we finally gave in. We thought he was potty trained at first, but actually we were just putting him on the potty every 2 hours to pee and he was just holding his poop until he could hold it no longer, then unloading it in the warm, familiar surroundings of his pants. Then he stopped peeing on the potty, too. He's not ready. He has no motivation. He will not pee for treats. He will not poop for gifts. He doesn't even have the cognitive ability to understand such things. Our "big boy" is still a baby, and you know what, that's ok.

So we took the potty chart down from the bathroom wall and trashed it. I picked up his little Wall-E undies from the bathroom floor, soaked through with pee, and threw them in the wash for the last time. We put a diaper on him, for the first time since this all began, and he giggled and said, "Ooohh...diaper." We looked at each other and realized, as he ran off to play with his brother, that he has no idea that he was ever "potty trained" in the first place. He never was. I asked Daniel how he felt. "Relieved," he said. I, on the other hand, felt like a failure. I felt miserable. I felt defeated. I started to cry.

But then I looked into the hallway, and Zion was bouncing around in front of his baby brother, carrying his stuffed dog, Spinner, under one arm and his pink stuffed bear, Baby, under the other, hooting like and owl and saying, "I dancing like a doggy." How could I cry? How could I feel anything at that moment but gratefulness and joy? What really mattered was there, dancing and kicking and laughing.

And now we are free to focus on real issues, like issues of his heart, and we are free to enjoy Zion again, instead of being mad at him all the time. He will go to the bathroom in the potty when he is ready, when the motivation is coming from within him, not from within me. Until that day, we will change the nastiest diapers known to man, in a once-again relaxed and happy home.

"Cherish every moment," older parents are always telling us younger ones. "They have the rest of their lives to walk, to poop in toilets, to eat salad and read." It feels good to heed some advice every now and then.

December 08, 2009

What we eat

The other day, Daniel was on the phone with his sister, Kerry. She was talking about what she will cook for us in America this summer on our first home leave. As she was looking through recipes, however, she said she realized that maybe we wouldn't even like the same foods that we liked before. Maybe our tastes had completely changed.

There is some truth to that, I think, though I will be sighing uncontrollably when I sink my teeth into a Chick-Fil-A sandwich, and I will be in seventh heaven as I tear into a plate of crab legs at Red Lobster. Some things, however, no longer appeal to me. Velveeta cheese, for example, has lost its luster (quite literally). I have no desire to unwrap a gelatinous hostess cupcake, or pop in a toaster strudel, or heat up a Stoeffers lasagna. The thought of anything pre-made kind of makes my stomach cramp.

Since having the baby in June, we have eaten almost exclusively from the indigenous fair. Our diet consists of obscene amounts of rice, mounds of vegetables, small bits of pork, chicken, and beef, peanut oil, MSG, soy sauce, dried red peppers, yogurt, and warm water. The kids drink the milk (which we can't stand) and apple juice. Daniel drinks coke now like its going out of style. I drink hot strawberry tea with sugar, particularly in the morning. Neither one of us can remember what it was like to drink cold water. I wouldn't want to anymore. Chopsticks feel as comfortable in our hands as a comb or a toothbrush or a cell phone. We had Thanksgiving dinner last month, complete with sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, corn casserole, mashed potatoes, white yeast rolls, chocolate pie, macaroni and cheese, Turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry salad, and sweet tea. Sound good? Oh, it was, but I had the worst gut ache for a day and a half afterward. My body was in shock.

Oh, I almost forgot, every-other evening I add white and wheat flour, salt, sugar, oil, water, and yeast to my bread machine and set the timer to ensure warm, fresh bread for breakfast in the morning. Wal-Mart bread? I can barely remember eating it.

Bright is not a big fan of rice, so we fix him a small amount with butter just to fill him up. He likes the vegetables well enough, but his favorite is the meat, specifically "toothpick beef," pictured here in the Styrofoam carry-out box. It is spicy and salty and fun to eat. He requests it every time.

Also pictured here, for your enjoyment, is Brave after his first meal. Carrots. Some things are universal.

December 04, 2009

Looking in at each other

What are we all doing, anyway? These "blogs?" Who came up with the name "blog" in the first place? Does anyone know? What an ugly name!

We are the first generation of "bloggers" (again, so ugly I hate even calling myself one). We have no idea where all of this is going. Will the words last forever, preserved in cyberspace until the end of the age? Most of us are spending small fortunes getting them printed into books, because we don't trust technology, but even they have an uncertain future. Will our great great grandchildren keep libraries of "blog books" from the generations that have gone before them? Will my children's grandchildren really want to read every word of my life?

And who are we writing for? Are we really writing for the generations to come? Or are we writing to impress our friends? Or to see how many "comments" we can drum up? Or maybe, as in my case, I hope, we are writing for ourselves.

I have recently come to understand that there are people who follow blogs of people they have never even met, for no other reason than they feel a connection to that person. Ordinary people now have "fans," cheering them on in their every day endeavors. Cheering them on as people. So peculiar. So new to human history.

Case in point: here I am, blogging, and here you are, reading it.

The one very good thing about blogging - the one thing that redeems it from simply being a poor stewardship of time - is that the audience holds the blogger accountable. I can't tell you how many journals I have burned over the years, for FEAR that my children's grandchildren would read it. Private journals become a place to slander, to covet, to indulge in self-hatred, depression, remorse, etc. When the furious, or hurt, or sometimes (though never in my case) drunk blogger sits down to write, the 2 or 3 people who might read it force boundaries into the equation. Very nice for future generations, I think.

Blog on.

December 02, 2009

Year After Year

We have now decorated two Christmas trees since we last trod on American soil. It felt weird to pull out our Christmas decorations this year, like my parents always did, as if we have lived in the same house for 25 years. I remember one year my dad lost his glasses after we decorated the tree and he offered something like $20 to the person who found them. No one ever did, and he had to get new glasses. The next year, when we pulled down the decorations box, we found the glasses down in the bottom among the garland that we never used.

Christmas here is something like Christmas in the States, but also very different. This tree, for example, is potted, roots and all, in a pot with soil in our living room. We got it from a landscaping company that sells trees to be planted outdoors, not beside end tables. I'm sure these people think we are nuts. But you know, a potted tree is actually quite brilliant. No falling needles, no straightening and screwing the trunk into a tree stand, no excessive watering. When you are done with it, you simply donate it to someone who wants a cedar tree.

We bought our tree skirt from a ministry in town called Hearts and Hands, which employs deaf people who would otherwise not find a job. They do beautiful work. Our strings of lights, in the true style of the culture here, have 15 different blinking settings from which to choose. Our ornaments were carefully transplanted from our old life in America, and none of them suffered any damage in the journey. Hanging near the top of the tree, below the highest bow, is the engraved metal ornament that my 5th grade best friend, Teresa, gave me for Christmas almost 20 years ago. I am the furthest thing from a pack rat - to the point of throwing away things I shouldn't, like pennies - but I have kept every Christmas ornament I have ever received, and each year it is wrapped carefully in a paper towel and put away for next Christmas.

There are other things about Christmas here that could be summed up in the phrase, "Close, but no cigar." Family, for example, is simply not present. There are no aunts or uncles, no heavily perfumed second-cousins in heavy wool coats kicking the snow off their galoshes at the door. The people who are around us are nice enough, and we love them plenty, but they are not family. We try to have a meal together, for example, but we all have different expectations. I expect herb stuffing and buttered squash, she expects sweet potatoes, he expects chocolate pie, he expects pumpkin pie, she expects apple pie, he expects sausage balls, I expect date-filled cookies, the list goes on and on. We all eat our delicious yet comprised meal gratefully, while secretly we are each a little put off that the person sitting next to us is our friend's husband and not our little brother, who we haven't seen in 17 months.

Then, when I am having a particularly rough day, such as today, I sit down to nurse my baby on the couch and look up to see the teapot ornament my mom gave me when I was in college - and I am reminded that the miles can't take away everything. Some things endure year after year.