This year we celebrated Family Day, the day that Julia, Cheshire, David and I met in China. When David was alive we celebrated with presents and Chinese food but for the most part Julia had no idea what we were doing. Celebrations meant very little to her for a long time. She liked Christmas and her birthday but it was more for the presents and the birthday cake, which Cheshire made for the first two years she was home, than anything else. She had no conception of time passing, of the yearly repetition of significant days, of celebration.
If she had been a newborn when we met, none of that would have been surprising. Tiny children learn time by practice, not by rational discussion and explanation. Although I had expected to do a lot of practice when we adopted a five and a half year old, I also expected to be able to talk and explain what we did to Julia when she learned enough English. And it was hard that neither the discussion nor the yearly practice of celebrations taught her about time and the passing of days. Parents of neuro-typical children, even adopted kids, will say that their kids took a long time to figure out time and perhaps they did but Julia did not, and to some extent still does not, understand the passing of days. Of the many things about Julia that scared me, her inability to understand time has been one of the most frightening. In my mind, Julia is time challenged because of early trauma and lack of attachment. I can’t prove this idea but to me, the synapses that fire in order to count, tell time and consider distance were turned off when neglect and abuse filled her days.
Time has long been the subject of Julia’s therapy. During her intensive days, she made calendars with her therapists. She marked off days, put stickers on significant days, counted up and down to special events. Learning the days of the week was a goal for more than a year and when intensive therapy was over Julia had not quite mastered the skill. Months of the year are only a very recent acquisition and not at all rock solid yet. Now I look forward to Julia’s understanding of these big concepts. Slowly. Very slowly but they are coming. She can now answer the questions of when her birthday occurs and how old she is. She knows what season Christmas, Hanukkah, Halloween occur in, although she is shaky on Passover, the Fourth of July and Chinese New Years. She is beginning to understand that all of these days are not the same — presents on some, special food on others and being with extended family on still others. Sometimes she can even answer what today is, what yesterday was, and what tomorrow will be.
Part of Julia’s speech therapy has revolved around the wh- questions of which ‘when’ has been difficult. This summer she has written out the ‘when’ of the day–year, season, month, date, day, time of day and time. She does not use this information when she speaks or writes and I wonder if she ever will. Asking what we did yesterday or on a specific day is still almost impossible for her to answer although notable events like what we did for family day are accessible format least a day or so. She does need help to communicate the information–prompting questions or background so that what she is saying makes sense to her listener. Speaking in context remains a challenge.
Family Day has been different and harder for both of us then other celebration days. It was the day we met. In China. Nanchung. In 2006. It was not an easy day. Julia was ripped away from what she knew. She was not allowed to say good bye to the only person she loved before she left the orphanage. Her Chinese was not understandable by our facilitators and they had no idea whether they were getting through to her when they tried to explain what was happening. Mostly she was scared. Once again, handed to strangers. Two years ago, she told me that she didn’t want to celebrate family day because it made her very sad. She missed China. It was one of the first times that she demonstrated an understanding of a notable day. So for the last two years we marked the day very quietly. When she asked not to celebrate, I took it to stem from her own feelings; however, I wonder if Julia’s request had something to do with my ambivalence.
Since David died I have struggled to celebrate anything. The struggle has waned with time and the understanding that rituals and celebrations need to be remade, but my sometimes ambivalence and need to break away from rituals which have become meaningless or just too sad to me has not provided the celebration structure which Julia needs to learn. Some of my changes have surprised me. I’ve long held that the only Christmas tree was a real tree but we’ve traveled during three of the last four Christmases. I found it hard not to have a tree at all but I didn’t want a big nor did I want to leave a tree in the house with the cat and dog when we travelled. And I couldn’t bear to take out the decorations that I spent so many years collecting. For a few years, I bought very small trees that could easily be put on the back porch when it was time to travel and Julia made decorations. One year it was dinosaur versions of all of her therapists and teachers. Another year we made baking soda dinosaur cut outs, and hung them with red ribbons. Last year, I bought a small fake tree and small ornaments to hang. Had I been told five years ago that I would put up a fake tree with impersonal ornaments, I would not have believed them. And so my own crazy process of grieving and finding my sea legs again has not provided Julia which rich family traditions.
This is not necessarily bad but it is not the way I expected Julia to be raised. I struggle with feelings that she needs more than most kids to learn family and I am giving her less. And then life intervenes making even simple plans complicated.
A few weeks ago, Julia announced that she wanted to celebrate family day this year and it happened that we had a Chicago eye doctor appointment that day. The appointment, made in May, was the subject of much negotiation between two docs and me and I really didn’t expect Julia to want celebrate Family Day. So whatever we could plan to celebrate had to be fit around long car drives and a few hours of eye testing.
We drove into Chicago on Wednesday evening after Julia finished therapy at IDS. We stayed with our friend, Linde, at a loft that belonged to another friend’s parents. Linde had pizza for us (and a beer for me) when we arrived. (The loft was like something I dreamed of in my NYC days.) The next morning we had breakfast together and then went on to the Field Museum where we spent a hours with the evolution exhibits walking with dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. The eye appointment went long which was not wholly unexpected and we wound up eating McDonald’s in the car on the long ride home instead of take out Chinese at home. At home, Julia opened presents. I had made a Hogwart’s uniform for an American girl doll. Our friend, Sandra, made Julia a beautiful quilt in reds and golds and that goes with her Hogwarts dorm room and includes two blocks on which Julia’s dinosaurs are copied. Julia loved her gifts. I had expected her to love the quilt. It goes so well with her room and the dines are very cute, but the doll was a chance. I had no idea how she would react.
Ivy is one of the historic American Girl Dolls from a story about the 1970’s and it was the first of those books that Julia connected with. She liked that the character had a Chinese family who celebrated New Years. The American Girl company is headquartered near Madison and at least once a year there have a big sale. I’ve never gone because Julia has not been interested in dolls. A few years ago a friend who went found a huge pile of imperfect Ivy dolls. She messaged many friends and then bought dolls for those who wanted them. The doll’s green pants had bled a little bit, staining the dolls’ legs. On the one I got the stain is barely visible. I put the bargain doll in the back of my closet figuring that one day Julia might want it even though Julia does not have a good doll history.
One of the toys that we brought to China to give to her when we met was a baby doll with moving eyes. I am not sure whether it was the first day that we met her or the day after, but when we gave it to her she first cradled the baby doll and then when she saw the eyes open and close, she freaked out. Julia threw the doll down and started beating it with her new stuffed bear. I tried at other times to introduce a doll to her but Julia was not interested. She liked the Disney heroine barbie-type doll. She has two that she played with for a little while and will pick up now and again, but generally, she was much more interested in her dinosaurs than with human shaped dolls. Perhaps it is because she is identifying more with people these days. Perhaps it is because she read this doll’s story and the doll is Chinese. I hedged my bets by making the Hogwarts uniform, the pattern of which I stumbled upon when I was researching and searching for ideas for her bedroom.
And so, Julia opened presents. Ooh’ed and ah’ed and then I sent her off to bed. She put the quilt on top of the comforter that usually covers her bed. At least for the moment, it staying there. Ivy is living on Julia’s comfortable chair. She has asked to bring the doll to church and to school. Did she know that I would not agree? She also talked about Family Day to Marilyn, our attachment therapist, and to Linda, her speech therapist. And seems to be remembering why she got gifts.
And I, holding my breath, crossing fingers, saying a prayer, am hoping that a little more understanding has come with this special day.