Look In Her Eyes

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Her eyes are the deep brown of the Ethiopian coffee that runs through her veins with all the strength and sustenance that coffee is for that country. Deep wells of love and pain, sass and longing and empathy, with the unconscious knowledge of centuries of custom and tradition. She is firmly tied to those villages, that country, that continent. And she lives here in a new white world with her adoptive parents, centuries younger than the muscle memory in her DNA that she hasn’t yet consciously tapped into. When she was a toddler, adjusting to new life in this country, there was Ethiopian music playing in the house. She began to dance in that Pennsylvania living room with a distinctive tilt and swivel of her head that was distinctly Ethiopian. How could she know, if the lesson wasn’t already woven into all of her muscles and embedded in the deepest recesses of her young brain? It lay dormant, waiting for the stimulus that sparks all Ethiopian children to dance, to sing, to laugh with the same inflections, the same muscular twitches and flows that all those people before them, receding into the shadows of time beyond recording have danced and sung. It was miraculous. A moment of stillness and significance and deep cultural truth for those who will see it.

How can you adopt a child, especially from another country or continent, and not want them to know their beginnings and their heritage? At the same time, you help them assimilate into their adoptive culture with all the nuance and strengths and shortcomings that are part of that complicated package. Sometimes they look different from those in their new world, sometimes they feel different. Often one has everything to do with the other.

People, meaning well, say “She’s so lucky.” But really, she isn’t. Her eyes sometimes betray her grief; a grief she can’t yet name. She has always, from the very first, not even a year old, felt loss deeply and it colors every day and night for her. It is  helping her to frame the context for that loss that is the sacred charge of her adoptive parents. When she was a year old, Max, the gentle orange tiger cat, died. It was hard for everyone in this family that loves their pets like family. Weeks later, she sat alone on the couch, her beautiful soft fuzzy head, her giant black eyes brimming over with tears that traced two glittering silent paths down her warm brown cheeks. Her mother asked her to tell the reason for her sadness. “Max got sick….Max died.” Max was gone. Max left her. Like a mother. Like a father. Like grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins. Like the air spiced with eucalyptus, the rich red berbere spice cooked into the food that was in the breast milk that briefly nourished her, like smoke from the fire that cooked the food, like the coffee beans ground in the stone mortar and boiled over burning charcoal until it rendered up its velvety essence, drunk with a piece of cold butter floated in the top and barely processed gray sugar crystals dissolved in it.

It weighs on her young heart that she doesn’t know, and probably never will know her African mother. Or father. Or grandparents. She sharply corrects her Ethiopian sister, when she talks about her African parents and grandparents, a wishful family she has constructed in her mind to connect herself, a tool for belonging and to make sense of this transcontinental shift in being, “No! Momma and Daddy are your mother and father. Nana and Papa and Grandma and Grandpa are your grandparents.” There is no arguing with her. She talks of going to Ethiopia for a visit the day after school ends, so her Momma can ask some questions, to find her African mother. Testimony to the trust she has in her Momma to take care of things. She assures her, after they find her mother, “I will stay with her for a couple of days, but then I’ll be back,” so she doesn’t hurt her feelings. Her little heart so hugely loving and sensitive to the hurt her longing to know might cause at 7 years old.

We have a life of plenty. Even the poorest of us have more than most of the people that populate this planet. It is hard to quiet our minds and our lives to hear what is elemental inside us over the din of acquisition, consumerism, television. But there are things that we all carry within us. Fear. Grief. Love. Longing. Commonalities we share with all other human beings regardless of place or color or culture. We must quiet ourselves and our privileged thoughts and emotions to imagine, to empathize, to acknowledge that we don’t know or own it all, and a young girl longs for a lost life she doesn’t consciously remember, but she knows it is an inseparable part of her. My instinct would be to try to cover up the bruises of that life; to try to smooth over and to erase the pain.To try to make myself enough for this little one’s longings. Her mother invites her to talk about it. She tells her, “I think about your African mother too. All the time.” That is selfless parenting at its best.

We are the lucky ones, but at what cost? There are times when our love for her seems almost selfish because she brings so much joy to us. And we worry. Is this love we have for her enough? That is the big and hard question. Because love her we do. With heart and soul and mind. And as she grows up, a brown girl in a white family that loves her without question or reserve, will that sustain her? When she comes to know on a personal level the feelings of the racially ignorant, the suspicions of the narrow-minded, the thoughtless stubbornness of some of the family who revere the confederate flag and don’t understand what all the fuss is about, will she still feel the enormous well of love we feel for her and her little sister? Will it strengthen her sufficiently?  Will it be enough? There is no easy resolution or clear answer. It just has to be. It has to be enough to be the steady anchor to sustain her seeking. To buoy her up when she feels the weight of her adopted world on top of her. It has to be enough. It is all we have.

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Photograph by Tracy J. Cole

2 thoughts on “Look In Her Eyes

  1. This is so beautifully written and so spot on. I found your site while researching (for my MSS graduate studies at Bryn Mawr) about how to help your adopted child remain connected to their culture. I have an eight year old adopted from Ethiopia. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    1. Ashana, thank you so much!! And thank you for following my blog. There is another earlier piece you might also like — “the Runway in Addis Ababa”– about my trip to Ethiopia to get the little sister. These two little ones are my heart.

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