We were approached about having a guest blogger from the author of The Fun Master: A Memoir written by Jeff Seitzer check out the book and then check out the blog article below. I was in tears after reading it, I am sure you will be as well.
Before we had our first child, my wife Janet read everything she could get her hands on about parenting and regularly shared executive summaries of her findings. While she spoke I silently wondered about all the fussing. Why in god’s name would someone spend so much effort worrying about something as ordinary as parenthood? People have been doing this for ages. Surely it cannot be that difficult?
Then our son Ethan was unexpectedly born with several life-threatening conditions, and I gave up my career to become his full-time caregiver. Parenting no longer seemed so effortless.
But I still adhered to another of my guiding principles, that everything will work out in the end. And it proved useful. Setting aside anxiety about the future helped me focus on the day-to-day of caring for a kid with serious health challenges.
There was a downside, however. Putting a positive spin on everything caused me to be a little myopic about emotional issues. I learned this the hard way while caring for our delightful younger daughter Penelope.
Before Penelope came home to us from China at the age of 18 months, Janet was again hard at work researching the challenges that might lie ahead. Of particular concern, she noted, were potential difficulties with emotional attachment. Okay, that is an important concern, I thought while she explained her findings, but more for Janet and our son Ethan, not me. I never had any trouble connecting with kids. Why would it be any different when our daughter arrived?
Surprise! I was the odd man out. When they walked through the airport security gate, Penelope was already attached to Janet, who had gone to China to complete the adoption, and she immediately fell into the lap of her new older brother Ethan, who had remained home with me out of concern for his fragile health. That she was not yet fully at ease around me was evident the following day. We were all hanging out in the backyard. First Janet, then Ethan, went inside the house, leaving me alone briefly with Penelope, who was too busy herding toy farm animals into a barn to notice them leave. After she closed the gate behind the last one, she looked up at me, glanced around for them, and then looked back at me. Her face crumpled. She closed her eyes, pointed at the house, and began to cry.
After Janet returned to work, she warmed up to me as I became her full-time caregiver. We spent our days reading, coloring, and playing in the basement and the backyard. We went to playgrounds, visited the zoo and the kids’ museum, and hung out at coffee shops and the health food store. The two of us had become inseparable companions, as Ethan and I had been at her age. There were fewer and fewer apprehensive scans of the horizon when she found herself alone with me. She glanced back at the house less frequently when I walked away with her in the stroller. Eventually, she only had eyes for me – that is, when neither Janet nor Ethan was available.
One day on the swings at the playground, I ducked under her as she swooped overhead. She squealed with delight, kicked her legs, and patted her hands on the harness. After the umpteenth pass, she called out, “Stop, Bàba!” She had been calling Ethan “Gēgē” and Janet “Māmā” (Chinese for “older brother” and “mommy,” respectively) for quite a while already. But until then she had used no name for me. Now, when I plucked her from the swing, she placed her hands on my face and pulled me close. Nose to nose, she said, “Xiè xiè Bàba,” Chinese for “Thank you, Daddy.” The tension I had been holding inside drained away. I kissed her on the forehead, awash in relief that she had begun to accept me as her father.
Two months later, we celebrated her second birthday at a new-to-us Chinese restaurant. As we walked in, Janet remarked that it reminded her of restaurants in Penelope’s area of China, from the gray cinder block walls to murky fish tanks by the kitchen and, we soon discovered, spectacular food. Most of the restaurant patrons were of Chinese descent, and were speaking Cantonese with each other. Penelope, who by then had become a regular chatterbox, grew oddly quiet as we settled at our table with the smells and sounds of southeastern China swirling around us. She did not say a word the entire evening, even to the older kids in our party eager to play with her, or the restaurant guests of all ages, even teenage boys, who came by the table to greet her in Cantonese. She remained disturbingly silent as we left the restaurant and made our way home, despite our best efforts to draw her out.
By the next evening, it was clear that Penelope and her words were on strike. Not even her beloved Gēgē could get her to speak. This went on for four days, during which time she resisted all parental efforts to convince her to use her words. “Say ‘Please Bàba,’” or “‘Toy Bàba,’” I told her, as she pointed and grunted at the toy, or bottle, or tasty chicken drumstick I dangled nearby. But she stubbornly refused.
Realizing we were losing the battle, we turned to the foster care reports for clues. As we re-read them, we noticed that the social worker from the orphanage in China made particular mention of Lì Lì’s attachment to her foster father, who took her to the park every day to play. Did the trip to the restaurant stir up memories of what she left behind? Perhaps the young men at the restaurant reminded her of that doting foster father in China, who she would have called ‘Bàba.’
I decided to try something. “Lì Lì, if you want the toy, say ‘please Daddy,’” I told her as she pointed at the object in my hand. She paused and looked at me. She turned away as if thinking it over. Finally, she turned back and said “Daddy, toy.” Asking her to call me Daddy, rather than Bàba, broke the logjam. Perhaps acknowledging that ‘Bàba’ is reserved for that special person in her life gave her the freedom to speak again, without betraying that kind man who held a special place in her heart.
The next eighteen months were blissful. The biggest bright spot of many during this happy period was how close Ethan and Penelope had become. Ethan’s love for her was boundless. Each day before he went to school, he would read to her in bed until she fell asleep again. When not in school, he deftly wove Penelope into whatever play scenario he and his friends had going. They also gladly included Penelope in their campouts on the upstairs deck, with Ethan gallantly escorting her to her room when she woke up in the middle of the night, disoriented. “My Gēgē loves me,” she said one day after he left for school. Indeed, he did.
Then, the unimaginable happened. Ethan drowned in Lake Michigan two weeks before his tenth birthday. For Janet and me, the pain was excruciating. His loss left a gaping hole in our lives that would never be filled. It felt like we had been flayed alive and were walking around without skin. The very act of breathing was painful. A friend told us of a relative who did not leave the house for an entire year after her son died; we might have done so as well if not for Penelope, who reminded us that we did not have that luxury. One day as Janet began to cry during a family walk – a regular occurrence – Penelope turned to her grandma and said “Mommy’s crying because Ethan died.” She paused, then said “But I am still here.” It was a sobering reminder for us.
Life is precarious for everyone, all the time. From one moment to the next everything can change. We busy ourselves with everyday affairs, partly because we have no choice – life is demanding and does not take no for an answer. But our activities also distract us from this cruel, ever present feature of human life. We had been insulated from it, until Ethan’s death.
Penelope, however, at age three-and-a-half, had already experienced the shattering of her world, not just once but several times. She lost her birth parents; was placed in an orphanage; lived in several foster homes, where she was loved and formed attachments, only to be moved months later; was handed over to strangers from the west who did not speak her language; and then was whisked across the globe to a place that looked, smelled, and even sounded different from her homeland. It is not surprising that she burst into tears on the drive home from the airport, looking out the window and seeing that even the trees, houses, vehicles, and the very sky looked completely alien. Finally, after becoming comfortable in her new home, she lost her beloved adopted brother and essentially, for a time, her adoptive parents, who were so wracked with grief we could barely function.
Janet and I were new to grief; Penelope already had a lot of experience with it. “Look people,” I imagined her thinking that day on the street corner, “we can get through this. The loss is overwhelming and irretrievable, that’s undeniable. But trust me, you can learn to live with it. I’ll walk you through it.”
She was right. She did not come all the way from China to have zombie parents. We had to pull ourselves together and at least go through the motions for her sake. And we did our best, hosting playdates, socializing with other parents and their kids, volunteering at school and church. Outwardly, we put up a good front. Inside, though, we were aching and not fully present for years afterwards. Even now, twelve years later, the loss reverberates through all of our lives. The loss is still there, deep inside us, and it isn’t going away. But we have learned to live with it.
Grief, I came to understand, is a burrowing animal. At first, clawing away at the surface, sending dirt and roots and worms everywhere, it is hard to miss. After a while, it is mostly underground, perhaps only its tail still visible. Eventually, there are no visible traces of the creature, that is, until something disturbs its lair and forces it to the surface.
For Penelope, that night at the Chinese restaurant was perhaps just such an event. The sights, sounds, and smells propelled her back to the world she had lost and forced her grief to the surface. After Ethan’s death, I realized that simply because four days later she was talking, laughing, and playing again did not mean that she was “over” the loss. She was coping with it, and that is an achievement, particularly for such a young child.
Penelope and I, though we had followed different paths, shared similar feelings of loss. Leaving the house on my own for the first time after Ethan’s death, for example, I experienced something like the disorientation she must have felt in the car that first day with us in Chicago. Our neighborhood appeared to me like a photographic negative drained of all color. Even the sounds of everyday life, people chatting on street corners, dogs barking, cars honking, seemed distorted, like they were coming out of a defective speaker. And that was a place we considered home. It must have been far more unsettling for her arriving here, with strangers, powerless, and in a completely unfamiliar place.
Ethan’s death was my limit case. There was no fix. I had to accept that not all problems are resolvable.
Penelope, though, showed me that it’s possible to find joy and meaning in life despite the losses we experience. Inspired by the love of those we lost, we built a new world together that reflects their loving influence and thus always keeps them with us. I am eternally grateful to her for showing me the way forward.