This is a story, not about my family (I have told our story so often, in so many venues), but about another adoptive mother's experience following a keynote presentation I made. Her letter to me was incredibly affirming and beautiful…
"I wanted to let you know that I spent quite a few hours this weekend transcribing your closing speech from the NACAC conference. I suppose I could have written to you for a printed copy but there is real value in listening - really listening - to words with such life-changing import as yours. I've laughed over the same jokes and cried over the same stories about 6 or 7 times over the past two days.
I hope I'm not intruding by writing you this. Please know it comes from the gratitude for the lives you have touched.
When the child of someone we care about is lost, it is as if our own child, too, has been lost. We stand at the brink of this pit of bottomless grief and look down upon it. We suffer because a young life is gone, because people that we care for are suffering, and because we know that this same tragedy could happen to any one of us, at any time. If we are lucky, if we are very lucky, some beauty, some meaning comes from it all. And you have created just that by sharing your grief and your wisdom with us all. During his life, you honoured Melvin in so many ways by striving to understand him, to connect with him, to let him know he always had a place with you. You also honoured Melvin and continue to do so by helping people who have kids who have suffered as Melvin suffered, by helping those parents to hold on with hope, and humour, and by offering a clear acknowledgement of all our trials.
You helped me at a meeting in Ottawa one year when I came to you, so burnt out from my own parenting trials. I was touched to learn how much our boys had in common. My son was also 2, maybe 2 1/2, when he came to us. My son and Melvin are only two years apart in age. My son, too, has trouble showing love. He connects to inanimate objects with greater ease than he connects with his parents. And yet luckily, somehow, after having made so very many mistakes, over the years I began to accept him for who he really is, and to, as you wisely said in your speech, see the love, as he is willing to show it.
You said in your speech: So if you want kids to be attached to you, you just got to let them be attached to you in their own way, in their own time, and no matter what they do you have to interpret it as a way for them trying to get towards love.
My beautiful, handsome, funny, musical 19 year-old son won't let me kiss him, and if I want to touch him, I have to do it quickly, roughly, a good-old-boy slap on the shoulder, never lingeringly or tenderly. He can't sit still for conversation. He shouts a lot. He has ADHD, an intellectual disability, and probably ODD - but the ODD exists only inside the house, and only with us. He has trouble understanding the emotional needs of other people. He's afraid of failure and afraid of success, and is so ashamed of his intellectual disability that he often chooses to live in fantasy as for him, it's a nicer place to be. He's a whirlwind of activity that centers very much upon his very strong and immediate wants and needs. If I want to hear him say 'I love you' to me, I have to find a playful way to bribe him. I don't like to coerce affection, but I do want to place reminders with him that reciprocal love is something he can give, too.
I came home today from being gone for a few hours and my son greeted me at the door with his favourite teddy bear. It's huge, old, heavy, stinky thing that I made over 20 years ago as a gift for my dad. Everyone in the house resents this darned thing as it's often being shoved in our faces. The bear says rude things to us and is always breaking things (or at least my son says it's the bear). In a small house with a family of six, it takes up much coveted space. I have to sew this darned thing at least every month as the bear has become my son's friend’s mascot and they take it with them every where. It gets torn. And stinkier. If I wash it one more time, the bear will disintegrate.
Today, when I got home from being out, all the kids were up and none had seen me before I'd left, but it was the bear that greeted me. The bear with my son behind him, of course. It was the bear that asked me where I'd been. There are 3 securely attached children in the house and not one of them got up to greet me. Just the bear. I was allowed to kiss the bear good morning. The bear was happy, my son was happy, and in loving that darned, stinky, in-the-way bear I showed my son that I love him, too.
It's his way of being attached. Of trying to get towards love.
What is a lesson from your family's adoption experience that could be life changing for all families?
Above all else, we need to change our definition of a "successful" adoption. Success is measured in terms of relationship, commitment and shared love, experience, wonder. It is not dependent on achievement as measured by society at large.