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

The Runway in Addis Ababa

AddisWe have been flying for 17 hours. Cramped, dried out and restless, muscles aching and emotionally depleted, we are finally landing at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I’m hungry for the sight of this country to which I’m suddenly deeply connected. I look out of my window, just past the wing of the plane. The grass is lush and green at the end of the rainy season, and goats and a donkey are grazing inside the fences along the runway. The plane touches down and powerful brakes slow our progress. To my surprised dismay, I cannot control the tears that overflow onto my cheeks and I catch a sob in my hand. This was Maya’s home; the soil she was born to, and now I’m here for her new sister. I look at my sister, Maya’s mother. She is crying too. We are in Africa.

We don’t realize it, but we are arriving on Ethiopian New Year’s Eve. We stand in line in the nearly deserted airport, waiting for our luggage to appear. Amharic, the Ethiopian language, ripples and flows around us, a bubbling and shushing sound with a glottal hesitation, a quick intake of breath which seems to be the sound for “do you understand what I mean?”, a signal for those conversing to indicate shared understanding. Amharic’s 250 characters, in contrast to our paltry 26 letters, make it one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Any English we hear is so heavily accented it sounds like its own foreign language. Barefoot men on a pilgrimage, dressed in elaborately embroidered silk robes and white skull caps, lounge majestically on the floor against their bags while they wait for their flight. We pay for our tourist visa with an American $20 bill as carefully instructed beforehand, show our passports, and wait patiently while the women behind the table handwrite our visas. My passport with my Ethiopian visas written in blue ink is now one of my most treasured possessions. We change our money for an enormous handful of Ethiopian birr. Seventeen to the dollar. Another perfunctory scan – terrorism apparently is not a high probability in this impoverished nation – and we struggle out to the lobby. There is no one there to meet us. We are the only white people left in the airport.

We decide to wait, as African time is sometimes a fluid and casual thing, and the one pay phone we can find is a mystery to us. Its instructions are in Amharic, and it is not entirely clear how to dial a number. At any rate, we have no coins yet. After an hour, we decide we should try to contact someone, and looking around, totally out of our element, decide to go to the tourism booth to ask for assistance. The handsome young man is very polite. We explain our predicament and he offers to make some calls for us. We become his project on a day when I suspect business is slow in this deserted airport, and he has not much else to do. Shira digs through her enormous folder of adoption paperwork and gives him three phone numbers. The first two numbers are disconnected. We are a bit dismayed, but after nearly two years of waiting, we feel certain anything can be righted. We are here for Lidiya, and she is waiting for us. The third number, the number for the guest house where we are to stay, works. We aren’t expected until next week. Never mind, someone will come to pick us up, and the guest house will be ready.

While we wait, we are given tourism brochures to read. A chair is instantly moved out of the kiosk so there is room for the two of us to sit with all our luggage. Not safe to let it sit outside the kiosk. Our handsome young savior – all Ethiopian men are extraordinarily handsome, and the women beautiful – stands, asking us questions about where we are from, and we have a halting conversation, with him apologizing profusely for his very good English. He earns his pay as he advises us on the things we must see while we are in Addis. His cell phone rings. Someone has arrived for us. He insists on escorting us to the parking lot and takes all our luggage for us. We discover later he doesn’t trust the people who are meeting us and he wants to see them for himself, making sure we will be alright. It strikes us both that this kind of care for foreign strangers would be completely out of the ordinary in our “advanced” country.

Wagayehu, the proprietor of the guest house, welcomes us with open arms. We know him from our previous trip. He tells us we are in time to walk outside the steel hyena fence, the gate minded by a silent man dressed in Biblical robes, down the road to a restaurant to get our dinner. He then invites us to join him and Zmed, his housekeeper, for the New Year’s Eve bonfire after we return. In the driveway of the house, we gather after dark. He tells us he is so glad we are here to celebrate the Gregorian New Year with them, and this makes us feel at home. Our parents have always done the same for friends and acquaintances on holidays. Tonight karma returns Galen and Deanna’s hospitality to their two daughters a continent away. The bonfire is lit, to celebrate the end of the rainy season when roads, even in this enormous city, are awash in mud and potholes, and roads in the country are impassable. But the wood is damp, which is no surprise, so Zmed throws a tin full of gasoline on the pile, and the resulting blaze makes us all cheer and clap. Wagayehu and Zmed sing a traditional song, somewhat shyly, then we all listen. We can hear the enormous crowd celebrating in Meskele Square, the nexus of all the major roads in Addis Ababa. Maya’s Ethiopian name is Meskele, and her parents have kept it as her middle name. It is eerily appropriate to hear the chanting and singing of thousands of Ethiopians from her namesake square, which means “cross” in Amharic. I send my own prayer up into the dark: Maya Meskele, I love you so much, little brown girl of this country, this continent, and we are here now for your sister.

Our friend, Abey Abera, is once again our driver. Without him we would be lost. He is tour guide, translator, macchiato provider, and price negotiator. He tells us that before we arrived, Wagayehu slaughtered a sheep and two chickens in the driveway for the New Year’s Day feast. We are sorry to have missed that. Fresh sheep skins, minus the heads, with legs still attached, are spread out on the highway median for sale or barter. The head of the sheep, a New Year’s gift for the friendly family dog, lays in the front yard this morning, well-chewed. Nothing goes to waste in this country. We buy sweet grass to strew on the floor, to make the house fresh and welcoming for the New Year, and coffee, always coffee, and flowers whose petals decorate the floor as well. Zmed, her long hair, usually braided and coiled on her head, let loose and shiny down her back, provincial tattoos lining her jaw, is dressed in her festive clothing. Irridescent celery-colored silk with gold embroidery. She is transformed. And then Lidiya arrives. She begins to cry immediately and wants nothing to do with these two white women who she doesn’t know. We talk softly to her, Shira holds her new daughter, we stroke her fuzzy head with the little bit of hair she has done up in tiny ponytails. She quiets, and becomes wary and watchful. Lidiya, sweet girl, on this festival day we are here for you, and we already love you.

We eat our dinner, complex spicy flavors, the sour injera, the velvety dark red doro wot, big chunks of sheep and chicken put on our plates first as honored guests, and Ethiopian red wine. Wagayehu is concerned we will be put off by the serving of wine and the Ethiopian reverence for coffee, which is the blood of this country. He explains that another adoptive family stayed with them, and refused all wine and coffee. They explained to him that they couldn’t partake, wouldn’t partake, and then, triumphantly, “Because we are Christians.” He recounts how he told them, so was he, and he drank both coffee and wine. In the face of such generosity, their rudeness astonishes us. He, even now, can’t quite believe it. An enormous circular bread, flecked with black nigella seeds and baked in banana leaves, is cut and offered. The platter is passed to Lidiya. She solemnly takes a gigantic piece of bread, and carefully takes a bite, her enormous black eyes looking out at all of us over the golden crust. We all laugh, and Wagayehu’s daughter-in-law makes crooning sounds and speaks to her in Amharic. We see Lidiya relax and she enjoys her bread.

Lidiya footWhen everyone has gone, and the house is dark and quiet, it is just us and Lidiya. She is resigned that we are all she has right now. She falls asleep on Shira’s lap, covered with a blanket belonging to Maya that Shira brought from home. We are alone with our baby. Even in adoption there is that moment after “birth” when the primal mother inspects her baby, taking loving inventory, committing each swirl of hair and earfold to memory. Our eyes take her in, little hands and fingers, feet and toes, her mouth frowning as she sleeps, her black eyebrows and impossibly long and luxurious eyelashes. We don’t talk. We just look. And we pat her back, and touch her hands, and rub her foot. We tell her the only way we can that we are here for her; that we have already loved her for months.

LidiyaThe next morning, we open our eyes, and she is standing in her crib beside our bed. She absently plays with her fingers in a little gesture of worry. She gazes at us with eyes that don’t blink. Considering and wondering. The bravery of this little girl, barely a year old, is heartbreaking, and I feel grief for her and the painful wrench we bring, along with our love and our suitcases, that will take her from everything she is and everything she knows.

The rest of the week is taken up with embassy appointments, chasing a document that is suddenly missing from the adoption file, experiencing the food and the drink, and sightseeing that we may never be able to do again. Our intent is to return when the girls are older, but Ethiopian politics is always in flux, and it’s not a given that that will be possible. We take hundreds of photographs, and buy gifts to be given to the girls on birthdays in the coming years. We drink it in and learn as much as we can, because we will be the living link to Ethiopia for Maya and for Lidiya. We will be the source of their story, and their history, imperfect, but loving, and we have to do our best. We buy paintings by Ethiopian artists in which Maya now swears she can see the nannies that took care of her when she was in Ethiopia before Mommy and Daddy came to get her.

I think Abey trusts us and trusts that we love Addis Ababa. One night, just after dark, while waiting for a tiny silver bracelet to be engraved with an Ethiopian name, he takes us down a dark alley in the fading daylight. A sloping walkway crowded with people, no more than 3 feet across, lined on either side with kiosks right up against each other, filled with books, shoes, cooking utensils, clothing, food, and other household essentials. I think to myself, this feels real and pure. This is undiluted Africa. We are the only white faces. There is no English spoken. Merchants call out to customers, shouting prices and advertising sales. We walk down the rough cobbled walkway. We are an easy target and hopelessly conspicuous. For once, we are the minority, just as Maya and Lidiya will be in the life we are making for them. Countless dark eyes follow us down the path. I find out later from Shira, that Abey warned a young man away from grabbing my purse with a clipped Amharic word and a stern look. He melted away into the crowd.

At week’s end, we are ready to leave. Lidiya is legally ours, and has an Ethiopian passport all her own with a photo that is all huge watchful eyes. A lilliputian representative of her dynamic country. Abey arrives to drive us to the airport. While he loads our luggage, we say our goodbyes. We all know this is most likely the last time we will see each other. Lidiya knows that something is distressing us all. She is fussing and reaching toward Zmed, who has been her mother this week. She begins to cry in earnest as we hug and kiss Wagayehu and Zmed. We are indescribably sad at this permanent leave-taking. As Abey backs the car up, I look forward, and Wagayehu, this former military man, a decorated war hero, a 4-star general in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian army, who spent seven years imprisoned when the regime changed but won’t talk about it, stands in the roadway, waving farewell with both hands over his head. Lidiya is screaming, and reaching out to those brown faces she knows. Her heart is breaking, and her grief and fear and anger tear at us. Tears stream down my face and Shira’s too. Lidiya, Lidiya, we love you and we are here for you, but what are we doing to you in the process?

We go through the scanners at the airport. We negotiate a line in which we are moved farther and farther back as Ethiopians, seeing that we are two white women taking one of their own children from them, push into line ahead of us, and ignore our protests. White adoptive parents are not heroes in this country. I understand their anger. We finally board the plane, and our departure is delayed. The polish is now off this trip, and we are anxious about the next 27 hours of travel, unaware yet that it will stretch to 37 hours, with a little girl who doesn’t really like us and who has not once been really happy with us in the week we’ve had her. Shira holds her and bounces her and sings to her and offers her a blanket to cuddle. We feed her ginger cookies to keep her happy.

Finally we are taxiing down the runway. Lidiya is belted in on Shira’s lap. We are flying her away from the one home she knows, and taking her to another we have made for her. Another home where there is a little brown sister waiting with a Daddy, a Nana and a Papa, cousins, and aunts and uncles. Her sister is the only one who looks like her, but we, all of us, already love her with a fierce encompassing love. She doesn’t know any of this. All she knows is the two of us with our pale pink faces, and our ginger cookies that she accepts with a little smile. She takes a piece out of her mouth and offers it to me. Sharing with me. A milestone. I happily take it and eat that sweetest little piece of wet cookie, and my heart aches and instantly melts. I thank her and kiss her smooth warm cheek. This sweet strong brown baby girl, watchful, careful, and cautious, looks into our eyes, and decides for herself that this might be alright. She snuggles down into the arms of her new mother, and smiles at me over her arm. Lidiya, we have come so far for you, to make you ours. I think though, that you have made us yours. All of us are wholly yours. Yours and Maya’s. The plane gains speed, and lifts off up into the dark African sky.

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Maya