So How Are the Kids? Part 2

Addie. Poor Addie. I don’t think she had any idea the implications of her actions when she told me that she was six years old in the orphanage and now she was four years old. But her bone age and her teeth confirmed it. The youngest she could possibly be is 5 1/2.  She could be as old as 8.

I think Addie would have been forever happy in her 3-year-old classroom at preschool, where she was not only designated princess, but something of a boss as well, as she had more than her fair share of fights. Though her motor skills fit right in, she was bigger and more manipulative than the others. To be bumped up into Kindergarten where she is woefully behind in all respects just wasn’t very easy for her.

Addie is the sole sanguine extrovert in a household of OCD introverts. She is generally good-natured and easily distractible. She doesn’t have any mental anguish over wearing shoes on the correct feet, wearing clothes right side out, leaving the bathroom without her dress tucked up into her panties, or getting food at dinnertime exactly in her mouth. Those are minor and unimportant details. There is fun to be had, somewhere! She loves to sing — but only the vowels, not consonants, and the actual tune is simply not conditional to her expression of joy. She chatters endlessly about a variety of subjects, and is the source of much laughter. She’s careful to say “Thank you, mommy,” at meals, with new toys, new clothes, and even putting toothpaste on her toothbrush.

It’s been hard to figure out what Addie really likes to do because she likes to do whatever Palmer is doing. Eventually, we figured out from her preschool teacher that she liked Barbie dolls and horses, but mostly, she likes one of whatever Palmer is playing with. Anything that lights up, makes noise, or moves fits the bill. Her poor motor skills have made Lego almost impossible for her until the last few weeks.

Addie’s eventual diagnosis from all of her medical testing came down to heavy metal poisoning. Her lead levels were high when she came home, so I’ve assumed that it’s lead, but that’s not necessarily the case — it may be other toxic metals. The heavy metal deposits scattered throughout her bones are surely not good for the rest of her body either. Her motor skill deficits (She’s three years behind in fine motor skills.) are likely a result of the poisoning, and her lack of progress in this area still concerns me. In spite of working with her daily, she can barely cut food with a fork, get food in her mouth, button clothing, or write letters. If lead poisoning is the cause, the neurologic deficits lead causes are permanent. At this point, we just don’t know. And we may never know.

Addie is much more snuggly than Palmer. She and I have snuggle and story time every evening, but she’s snuggly with pretty much everyone. More than once, we’ve caught her snuggling the leg of a stranger while in crowds or standing in line. Affection does not equal bonding, and while I think she likes us, she rarely makes genuine eye contact up close. She’s just not ready yet. She also is still learning to distinguish appropriate ways to get affection, and from whom.

Adoption experts say that happy compliant children start to go a little crazy 2-3 months after coming home when they feel safe enough to no longer be happy or compliant. This occurred around the same time that she was skipping grades, and I was almost dying. She has so little control over her life, but she has managed to control three areas:

1. Language.

2. Learning.

3. Urination.

According to Ken, Addie speaks even better French than Palmer, so her delay in speaking English has been confounding. She is so very verbal, but only in Lingala and a little in French. She easily parrots what others are saying, but parroting has not equaled learning. She knows about 60 words, mostly just nouns like: dog, airplane, baby, etc. but very little in the category of “useful” information. I know for a time that Palmer told her not to speak English, but in the last 2 months, he has started telling her to speak English, to no avail. She is happy just speaking Lingala to her brother, who functions like a parent to her, while eating the food we give her, wearing the clothes we provide, and playing with toys we’ve given her.

Not speaking English is something she can control. We can’t MAKE her speak English, although we have restricted Lingala at the dinner table and in the van. After all, it’s rude to speak another language in the company of others who don’t speak it. We’ve tried separating them as much as possible, but it results in her not speaking at all. When I have been alone with her and absolutely forbidden her to speak Lingala to me, she has been able to speak much more English than I expected. But at this point, it’s a punishment for her to have to speak in English. Unfortunately, attachment and bonding occur in the same area of the brain as shared language, so she literally cannot attach to us without speaking English. So yes, we are diligent in pushing English-speaking on her.

Addie’s learning has been extremely inconsistent. One day she’ll know all of her letters, numbers, and colors, and the next day, she won’t. When I took her for English Learner’s testing to determine services, she scored 1/81. She would have scored 10 points just for writing her name, which she can do. She basically just became uncooperative, and the teacher came out of her testing room and told me that she didn’t belong in Kindergarten. Unfortunately, because she is almost 7, we don’t really have a choice. In our school system, children cannot be more than one year off their actual grade level. Her Kindergarten teacher wrote me a note the first week, saying that she can’t count objects, which she has been doing for 3 months. I also got more than one note about her fighting with other students. In parent-teacher conference, the teacher was shocked that Addie had ever identified the numbers 1-10. While other kids in her class are learning to read, she has been relegated to gluing craft sticks to paper, and scribbling on blank sheets. We’ve determined that the demonstration of her knowledge and to whom is one thing that she can control, and if she’s nervous or doesn’t want to cooperate, she pretends she doesn’t know. One can imagine that this makes intelligence testing and determination nearly impossible, even if she were speaking English.

The most frustrating thing with Addie’s control issues are her bladder issues. She is a spiteful pee-er. When she’s mad at us, she’ll pee in her pants, or on furniture. Before school went on break, she was peeing her pants up to every 20 minutes but only when she was at home. She was dry at school, at church, and with babysitters. But when Ken and I were home with her, she was almost constantly wetting her pants. I finally just had to put her in pull-ups, even for school — not because she would wet her pants at school, but because she would wet her pants on the way home. We even took family pictures with her in pull ups so we wouldn’t have wet pants commemorating our Christmas together. She seems just as happy to wear pull-ups — at least she doesn’t have to get up to go to the bathroom!

If my lungs weren’t going to kill me, she may.

So our happy little 4-year-old has turned out to be a possibly mentally disabled (or just manipulative), non-English-speaking 6-year-old spiteful pee-er. What is her prognosis? No idea. After over 4 months without even as much as a conversation with our chatty daughter, we’re discouraged. We meet with a team of educational professionals, therapists, and counselors once the new school year starts to see if we can come up with a plan, but since she has been unwilling to demonstrate what she is really capable of, I’m not even sure we can come up with a good plan.

Sigh.

I hope it’s just a matter of time before the games stop, and we realize who our daughter really is. We will love whoever she is, if we can only figure it out! So we wait for her to feel safe, to stop feeling the need to control, and to stop pretending to be someone she’s not. We are thankful that while she figures it out that she is generally good natured and funny, and someday we hope she’ll trust us enough to let us be her parents.

So there it is. That’s how the kids are doing. I never would have imagined that after 4 months that we would have so little communication with our kids. It’s almost like they have continued to just be their own family living under our roof. But they are still in survival mode, just like we are. We hope that in the new year, we’ll be able to do more than just survive. We hope to become a family!

So How Are the Kids?

We’ve been home for over 4 months now. In some ways, the kids have progressed in ways far greater than expected, mostly due to the fact that they are at least 2 years older than we were told, and in some ways, progress has been slow. They have been through not only the loss of their family, country, and culture, but even the classrooms they had adjusted to for 6 weeks. Medical appointments every week and unwelcome popularity have made things difficult for them as well. They’ve had a tough road.

Palmer first.

Palmer is adjusting to 1st grade, but the transition has been hard. In four months, going from not recognizing letters and numbers to reading and doing math is a HUGE adjustment. He is taking spelling tests, but his teacher is counting his words correct if he spells sounds correctly, but we’ll be transitioning to full spelling tests in the new year. (That silent “e” is hard!) He underwent some special testing of intelligence from an EL professor from Vanderbilt, and he is very intelligent once language is taken out of the equation. He thinks more like a second grader or older, but we’re not anxious to have him skip another grade.  And because he is within a year of his actual age’s grade, we don’t have to skip him any more. But we are all confident that given enough time, he will excel in school in English.

Palmer is also making solid strides at learning language. Once we told him we didn’t care how old he was, and that we would give him a bicycle once he was speaking English, he started making steady progress. He can communicate just about anything he needs to, and seems to understand everything we say to him. He speaks in very basic sentences in present tense, but past and future tense is hard. Frankly, English is hard!

Palmer’s fear of church has subsided. Tantrums on Sunday, before or after church, are largely gone, and he is starting to relax and play with other kids. He likes carrying his Bible to church, and looks forward to seeing friends.

Palmer is quite the prankster and has a fabulous sense of humor. Please note the funny face glasses that he picked out for Ken for Christmas! Because his language isn’t very developed, his humor is primarily physical comedy, but he’s beginning to understand sarcasm. He will often come out of his room with his underwear on his head, his pants on his arms, and his shirt as shorts, and jump out with a “Raaaaaah!” I’ve been playing a version of “Elf on a Shelf” with his Buzz Lightyear and Woody the Cowboy toys and he thinks it’s hilarious.

He loves Legos, and is getting better at figuring out complex designs. If something around the house is broken, chances are, he can fix it. He is a very analytical thinker, which will be what gets him through this transition to American culture.

His favorite things to do are: walking the dogs with Ken in the morning, watching movies, and playing soccer. Ken comments that were it not for his size, he could make any high school soccer team. He is good, even by third world standards.

He’ll be playing Upward basketball this winter and Upward soccer in the spring. We hope he can work on teamwork, friendship, and communication skills with kids his own age.

He is very much an adult at the ripe age of 8 in many ways. He sees himself as Addie’s parent in many ways, and still directs much of her behavior.  He resents being told what to do, to the point that he has screamed for an hour when Ken fast forwarded through a chapter of a movie. The more toys he has, the more entitled he feels, and will burst into tears or pout  and be completely uncooperative when asked to put one down to eat dinner. He cannot be distracted out of his tantrums. This all makes it difficult to do fun things with him like take him to the zoo, amusement park rides, or playgrounds. It always ends in a tantrum or uncooperative pouting. We didn’t take him to any stores except Home Depot until December because he cannot take no for an answer.

Palmer is not physically affectionate at all, but he will accept affection. One day last week, I told him how proud I was of him and kissed the top of his fuzzy head, and his arms reached out to start to hug me, but he caught himself, and put his arms robotically back down at his side. He’s just not ready yet. (BTW, this is why it makes me furious when people try to make Palmer hug them. He doesn’t even hug ME!)

Sigh. Maybe someday.

We understand that given the amount of grief he has in his life, that this is to be expected. As an adult, I can comprehend what’s going on, and I have a rough four months. He doesn’t have the ability to see beyond his current circumstances and the people he misses in Africa. We know he is grieving, but it still doesn’t make his behavior easy to deal with. It still hurts that I have never had a hug or kiss from my son, or even a decent conversation. While he is my son legally, it’s hard to feel a parental bond without much common language or reciprocal physical touch.

It’s been said that for the first 6 months of international adoption, it often feels like you’re just babysitting someone else’s kids. That’s where we’re at. He’s a great kid, especially when we can avoid triggering his tantrums, and we are growing to love him very much. We eagerly anticipate the day when he lets us “in” and can feel free to love us back. He has to give us permission to be his parents, and that has yet to come.

Tomorrow: Addie.

Where I’ve Been

When last I wrote, I was in the throes of trying to get to December 1st. I almost didn’t make it, literally.

The week after Thanksgiving, I caught a nasty strep that nearly caused me to go into respiratory failure, twice. The first time was IN the doctor’s office, and since it was the allergist office, they had the necessary equipment to keep me from dying. After getting a load of medications to open my airways, I begged the NP to keep me functioning that week because I had accreditation going on at work, and I rather like my job and wanted to keep it.

Having been through her fair share of accreditation processes, she gave me twice the dose of steroids than we typically give even the worst patients, a massive dose of antibiotics, and was kind enough not to admit me to the hospital. I went back to work that day, trying to avoid people because I was still contagious, and I went back the next. In the midst of the that day, someone’s perfume or something in the air ducts triggered my lungs. I called Ken to come and get me because I knew it was too serious for me to drive. Other faculty and students came to my aid, and fortunately gathered together enough medicines to keep me alive in spite of my bluish tinge (which is usually the last thing that happens before I lose consciousness and my airways close).

Now, of course, after nearly dying twice in two days, which is probably more exhausting than it seems, of course I was able to rest and relax. Of course not! Ken had Upward Sports sign ups in the evenings that week, so I had to take care of the kids. Not only fixing dinner, doing baths, story time and the like, but the new massive amount of homework that the kids now have.

Yes, it was also the week that the kids skipped grades.

Palmer was coming home with 2-4 hours of homework. Not because it was really that much for an English-speaking child, but because he doesn’t speak English or read, his homework requires 100% supervision and parent involvement. Addie has such poor fine motor skills, she can’t complete her tasks at school, and what she doesn’t do, her teacher sends home. So every night, we try to help her improve her skills (remember the OT says she has the motor skills of a 3-year-old) cutting, coloring, writing and even just sitting still. I was getting notes home from her teacher almost every day about her lack of behavioral control and motor skills. So she works for 2 hours in the evenings as well.

Did I mention I had almost died twice in the midst of all this?

The day after I almost died the second time was the accreditation site visit. I took my nebulizer to work with me and smoked it like a peace pipe in between interviews and the frantic scurry to pull whatever documents they wanted. And I taught class in the midst of it all, and arranged guest lecturers for my former boss’s class — oh yes, remember that my boss was diagnosed with a brain tumor and suddenly retired 3 weeks before accreditation. He had been a part of the program for somewhere around 30 years, so he knew everything about the program. His presence is missed in many ways.

I made it through accreditation week still breathing, and found that the next week was prospective student interviews, and since I was now back to working full-time, I was leading an interview team, teaching on lunch breaks, and trying to get the rest of my job done in spare moments, followed by running home and starting the homework parade with Palmer and Addie.

I was in sad shape. Such sad shape that my poor busy PA students started making meals for our family in spite of it being the week before finals. Our family surely would have starved otherwise. I have never seen students take care of a professor like that. I am blessed that our program is indeed like a family.

At the end of interviews, I found that there were massive amounts of information and reports to be compiled before the end of the year. And I had to write and grade finals, coordinate the rest of the grades for the program, grade research presentations for the second year PA students, and on and on and on.

December 1st was just a mirage. All the things I had put aside to get to December 1st came tumbling down around me in a heaping to-do list.

Then came the Christmas party list. In the first 17 days of December, we had: One preschool/Kindergarten party, one kids party, one college work party, one youth ministry volunteer party, one staff/board party, one college student party, one neighborhood Christmas party, one staff Christmas party, one college ministry party, one children’s church program, one adult church program, one youth church program, one school program. Every evening was either an activity, or making up for the fact that we were out the night before. Thirteen events in seventeen days. On top of the two hours of homework every night.

And of course I still wasn’t well. (I’ve now been sick for over 12 weeks straight.)  The NP started wondering why I have no immune system. So we took advantage of our already-paid $5000 deductible, and I had a slew of immune studies, a chest CT, a sinus CT. There were some interesting findings which open up some new treatment options for me, but in the end, essentially I’m sick because I’m exhausted. We all are.

So that’s where I’ve been: in survival mode.