Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Life's Risks

   Risks abound. A car ride. Inadequate sleep and exercise. A poor diet. Or a bad economy. Yet, we get by, confident that we'll be okay, at least for now.
   It's when we step outside life's normal routine that things can begin to feel a bit more dicey. A sky dive. A bungy jump. A trip to a lesser developed country. Or a heart-felt letter presented to an impressionable teen.
     This past Christmas, with some trepidation and tons of trust in her and God, I did the last, the recipient being my thirteen year old niece Janice. I had written the letter when she was but an infant, newly adopted and brought over to Hawaii (from Asia) by my sister Joan and her husband Aldwin. It described their lack of success in conceiving, their medical issues, and a one-time unsuccessful medical procedure. Joan's refusal to seek further medical intervention left them bereft until they pursued adoption (see related essay entitled Adoption Option.)
     The letter also described the couple's trip with my parents (Joan was recovering from a surgery at the time) to and from Korea and the immediate aftermath: The friendly fellow traveler at the airport—a Korean national—who offered to take them around during their three days before the pick-up date but who eventually became a pest due to her “Let's get together again,” persistence until they finally stopped answering their hotel telephone. The emotional meeting with the foster mother, a veteran of several foster children. The first meeting (the foster mother had discretely withdrawn) with the baby when Joan burst into tears of joy, yet the baby held firm, alert and self-composed. The harrowing taxi trip to the airport when Janice, realizing that Mom wasn't coming along and that she was being taken somewhere by a group of strangers, shrieked inconsolable, a crying jag that lasted the duration of the half-hour taxi ride plus most of the hours-long flight to Hawaii, only interrupted by short naps induced by physical and emotional exhaustion, Joan weeping joyfully and pityingly while seated on the floor beside her, comforting her and refusing (unlike the others) to take a sleep break in another section of the largely vacant plane. Janice's quick adjustment to life in Hawaii with her new family where she became happy, hungry, and even-keeled—“just fine”, so said my parents.
     The letter foresaw Janice's inclination and curiosity to one day want to learn more of her birth parents and past and that how far she goes with it is hers alone to decide. I described my father-in-law's awful experiences when tracking down his birth mother and the way he suffered and self-destructed as a result. (His birth father's identity and whereabouts remained vague and untraceable.)
     But the overarching tone of the letter was one of love, and although I envisioned presenting it to Janice upon her reaching adulthood or her late teen years, possibly as she struggled through identity issues virtually all adolescents sooner or later face, I changed my mind because of her family's recent ten-day trip to Korea with other adoptee children from the same adoption agency. No one explained to me the impetus for the trip, but I reasoned that obviously Janice must have expressed interest. (Joan said she'd planned nothing for the trip, which suggested it wasn't her initiative; my brother-in-law is a go-along type. Joan said that they were “playing it by ear” whether or not to visit Janice's foster mom but were counseled against it by an agency worker because it takes lots of preparation for something like that, at which point Joan dropped the idea.)
     Deanne was very concerned that Janice might take the letter the wrong way (as was I, but to a lesser extent), and perhaps that Joan and Aldwin might hold it against me if things went poorly. But I felt that this was between Janice and me—I didn't want to have to or believe it necessary to filter the letter through Joan or Aldwin because as parents, they are personally vested in the outcome whereas I have a certain detached perspective that perhaps allows me to focus better on what's potentially best for Janice. And her parents and I surely agree that we all want what's best for her. And once she reaches eighteen she can and will do what she sets her mind to anyway.
     Christmas Eve I raised with Joan, Miley Cyrus's music video awards show performance. I had read about its raunchy simulated sex acts, the skanky outfit she wore, and the shocked reactions from fans who bemoaned what had become of their once sweet, innocent child. Janice had been a big fan of hers from her Hannah Montana days and had an autographed copy of one of her earlier posters. Joan said her performance was no big deal—no worse than any of the other stars'—and that the backlash was identical to the flack Brittany Spears took the first time she broke out of her sweet, innocent childhood mode.
     Janice interrupted and asked which performance?
     I said, well, I don't know if you saw it.
     She said I saw all of them, which one?
     I looked at Joan who had walked away and said the VMA show.
     Janice smiled and said, “I saw some, but when she started doing some weird stuff, I walked out of the room.”
     I held an arm out to hug her, she came to me, and I said, “Good for you. You know what to do.”
     She said, “My friend watched it over and over again. She tried to get me to watch it but I told her I don't want to.”
     I again praised her for her good judgment.
     Later, she, my kids, and my brother's son had a nice time together outside on the balcony decorating a prefabricated ginger-bread house. When the kids were eating dinner that night on the same balcony table, I took a break from the adult table inside and stood around and talked with Janice and the others and found her to be a fine and engaging girl. However, when she mentioned stressing out over exams and taking awhile to calm down so she could think, I counseled her to concentrate more on having fun—straight A's all the time shouldn't be the top priority at her age.
     With the letter, I enclosed a cover letter saying to discuss with me before reading and if she wants to stop reading, to return it to me for safekeeping until a later date.
     Christmas afternoon she looked at me, letter in hand, in the midst of the present-opening festivities. I had been thinking maybe I should sit in a separate room with her, Joan, and Aldwin while she read it, but instead I asked, “You know the facts of life, right?”
     She said, “Huh?”
     I said, “You know where babies come from?” She nodded. “And how they are made?” She nodded again. “Then go ahead.”
     Joan said, “Sheesh, this letter... I wonder...” but she laughed as she said it.
     Janice sat quiet, hunched over as she read the twelve-plus pages, intent and serious, while I continued to shoot photos, stay engaged, and check on her from a distance from time to time.
     I relived Joan's tearful joys and Janice's childhood ordeal and sorrows as she turned the pages and her eyes began to glisten and redden. Later, she left the room, and when she returned, her mood was somber and her eyes were puffy and red. She reclined into the folds of Joan's arms—a rare display of public affection. I went over and whispered, “If you like, you can share the letter with Mommy.”
     She said, “Thank you for the letter, she knows what's in it already.”
     I thought a moment and said, “She might have forgotten some. I forgot a lot and only remembered after I reread it.”
     It was a big change from a year ago when Janice had danced about the room exuberant over her new acquisitions: fluorescent soccer shoes, a soccer ball, electronic devises, fashionable clothes, dress shoes, and a pair of flip flops. And I felt good for having done the right thing.

(To Joan, Aldwin, or Janice if you are reading this: I love you all dearly.)

No comments:

Post a Comment