I spent the afternoon with Napoleon and Wilson. I picked them up at noon, we ate lunch together at an Applebee’s and then spent some time trying to find a fun place to hang out. Since I couldn’t find anything in the first hour of driving, I decided to call home and ask my wife for some assistance. (It’s times like these when I think I might need to have an iPhone like she does). She gave us the directions to a Celebration Station, where Napoleon drove the race cars and then joined Wilson in the arcade. Sixty tokens later we were on our way back to the car and on the way to the home that will be theirs for less than forty-eight more hours.
When I tell people we are adopting two more children, bringing the child count to twelve, I usually append the information by adding, “But we’ve done this before, so we’re pretty familiar with the routine.” And that is true. There are many things we are familiar with ... the social services process, the legal process, the emotional transitions that all of us will encounter in the weeks and months ahead.
But it’s not entirely true, I was reminded today, that familiarity wins the day for adoptive parents. It is familiar, but it is always new. No families -- adoptive, foster or birth -- are alike, no children are completely similar, no experiences are entirely replicable. I made some observations this afternoon that remind me that this is one more familiar, yet new experience.
These boys exhibit a deep attachment to one another. I assumed based on what I had read and heard about them before actually meeting them that this was true, but I also know that sometimes what professionals observe to be “true,” may not eventuate. So I watch for subtler signs, and in Leon’s and Wilson’s case, it is a truth. Even though he will soon be 13 Leon does not seem to mind Wilson’s need to be physically close to him. There is a protective warmth between the two of them that warms my soul. It is protective, but does not seem exclusive. In other words, while I’m sure Leon has been parentified to some extent, he is not inappropriately fixated with his younger brother’s whereabouts. Because Wilson is too small to drive the cars or drive the bumper boats, I gave him his tokens while Leon went to the race track. I could tell almost immediately that this was uncomfortable for Wilson. He was not afraid of being with only me in the arcade, but his furtive glances disclosed the depth of his attachment to his older brother.
Claudia mentioned to me after her time spent with them alone last week (while I was in Nashville at other church-related meetings), that “these boys are crazy smart.” And they really are. While Leon was on his way to race the cars, Wilson and I counted the tokens. I gave him five extra tokens (without telling him how many). He pocketed his tokens and we set off in the arcade. The first game took two tokens, the second three tokens. And then he stopped. I said, “Aren’t you going to use some more of your tokens?” He just smiled at me and shook his head without saying anything. Then it hit me. He knew that he had used his five extra tokens, that now he and Leon each had nearly the same amount, and he intended not to do anything further without his brother at his side. Fortunately I am nearly as smart as he is, so I said, “Do you think we should go out and see how Napoleon [Wilson always calls him ”Napoleon“ in a charmingly enunciated combination of Texas drawl and Asian staccato] is doing in the race?” With a broad smile he nodded his head in the affirmative and we were quickly at the race track. I did not need to point out Leon’s location. Wilson had already spotted his yellow shirt and was watching as his brother screechingly rounded a corner.
During our car ride I heard much from Napoleon about his early experiences in life. Our initial minutes before lunch were stone quiet, and lunch was also an experience in solitude. Rather introverted myself, I chose not to push conversation. But by the time we were in the car, Leon was ready to tell me all kinds of things. Why they were unable to live with their birth parents, the racial dynamics in his middle school, even a bit of social commentary on the changes in urban life. He waxed eloquently as he described the way in which incoming Mexican immigrants were living in areas from which the newest immigrants twenty years ago (Asians, his ancestry) had vacated. In the neighborhoods he is familiar with, white flight is followed by African-American families, and when African-American families become more upwardly mobile it is Asians who take their places, and then incoming Hispanics who occupy the most basic rung. I was struck with his insight as a twelve-year-old about how all this happens.
He explained that the scars on his right cheek were the result of numerous street fights in which he had been attacked by kids of other ethnic backgrounds. He regaled me of his ability to fight as needed to protect himself, how his older brother helped him and watched out for him as much as possible. He went on to tell me about his birth grandmother, who would chase away the bullies attacking him, only to have them laugh in her non-English speaking face.
This, mind you, is a child (?) of twelve years old. But he has lived on some of the toughest streets of a major United States urban area, and he is a survivor. He is internally resilient, externally slight, and emotionally strong.
I explained to him that moving to our relatively small (55,000) community will be a big change for him. He is used to seeing many African-American and Hispanic faces, a few Asian faces, and even fewer white faces where has been living. I explained that in his new community he will see a lot of white people, very few Asians, and not that many African-American or Hispanic faces. It will be a big change, I reminded him. He simply looked at me with his trusting brown eyes, sparkling with acknowledgment and nodded his head.
Last week when they were with both Claudia and me, he told us that he intended to be an engineer. I think this might be more than an idle whim. This is one kid to watch grow up, let me tell you.
This will be a new experience in adoption. To welcome into our home kids who appear to be so emotionally healthy, internally resilient and wickedly intelligent will be a real journey. But I’m ready for it.
One more time we’re adopting kids. But it’s always a new experience.