A New Extra-Curricular Activity – We’re Learning Mandarin!

For a few weeks now, our Friday afternoons have brought us a new extra-curricular activity, one about which I could not be more excited – the 3 girls and I have started learning Mandarin! One of Matt’s students, who is from China and has experience teaching Mandarin to children, asked me if I would be interested in our kids learning the language, and I responded with an enthusiastic YES!

We have tried, at times, to learn some more Mandarin, but we hadn’t found an option that was (1) a good fit for our family and (2) affordable. And now – enter Jenny, who is willing to come to our house and enter into our craziness and teach us!

While Matt and I were incredibly excited about the opportunity for some of us to start learning this language spoken in the country of birth of two of our daughters, not everyone was thrilled initially. One of the kiddos we’ve adopted is very ambivalent about all things China – and that’s absolutely fine with us. She has every right to those feelings. But we explained to her that part of our job as parents is to keep doors open for her. Someday she might want to return to China for an extended visit or even to live there. It’s possible – though improbable – that she could someday find members of her birth family still living in China. Someday she might want to be more involved in the Chinese American community here in the States. She is not now and might never be interested in any of those things – but she might change her mind as she gets older. And if she does change her mind, having some Mandarin will be an asset for her. Learning now keeps doors open for her for her future. We will never push her through any of those doors. Her life is hers to live, and those decisions are hers to make. But our job is to make sure the doors stay open, so she has the tools to make those decisions when the time comes. And now that we have gotten a few weeks into our language learning and she has started to become more comfortable with Jenny, she is warming up to the idea.

And Atticus…well, he remains uninterested and unfocused. Mostly we just set him up with something else to do while the rest of us learn 🙂 But he does deign to join us for the fun art projects Jenny brings for us to work on!

We are so thankful for this opportunity! Part of that is just getting to know Jenny more. I’m always so thankful for Chinese and Chinese American people who are willing to invest in my Chinese American daughters. As their mother, I can do a lot for them, but I will never be able to pass on to them my own firsthand accounts of living life as an Asian woman in America. It’s so special for me when they are able to have relationships with other people who can offer them something I cannot! That includes far more than language, though of course it includes language, as well.

Madeleine CaiQun and FangFang don’t really remember much Mandarin – before we started our lessons with Jenny, they knew only words that I also knew (which were very specific to toddler adoption – things like “milk” and “bed”). Their pronunciation, even now, though, is pretty good, which is so nice for them, because, honestly, at least for me, it is hard! I really have to think about the tones, in particular, because they are such an integral part of speaking Mandarin that really is not analogous to anything in English. But the current star of our little Mandarin-learning group? It’s actually Miranda! She is motivated to learn and enjoys success, and Jenny says she speaks like a native Mandarin speaker. Jenny has offered to give her extra lessons after our group times, and she eats up that extra attention! She’s already learning a lot.

And the rest of us are learning, too 🙂 This past week we started working on our first Mandarin dialogue, which the girls and I are practicing in preparation for this week’s lesson! Jenny is great at working with us where we’re at. I told her we were practicing during the week, but that was both a blessing and a curse, because we all remembered more when we practiced, but practicing meant that I had to lead our lessons, so instead of hearing a native Mandarin speaker, the kids hear my American accent! After hearing that, she made audio recordings of herself for us to use this week in our practicing 😉

I’m so thankful for this opportunity. Not only does it offer our whole family an opportunity to build a greater connection to Madeleine CaiQun’s and FangFang’s birth country and its culture, but it opens up more opportunities for all of us in general. There may be more countries that use English as an official language, but China’s population is over 1.3 billion people, and learning a language spoken by that many of our world’s people can only serve us well. I know it’s so great for kids to learn another language, and Mandarin has always been what I’ve wanted our kids to learn as part of their schooling, and I’m so, so thankful that they now have the opportunity to do that. Plus it’s another opportunity for learning for me – a challenge, for sure, but it’s one worth tackling!

Looking Back: Happy Birthday to FangFang!

I’ve gotten a bit behind on my blogging about family events, but some are too important not to come back and address 🙂 At the end of September, we celebrated FangFang’s 4th birthday! It was her first birthday home with us, and after seeing her sisters celebrate their birthdays, she was quite excited to have her own celebration!

Of course, for a 4-year-old, the gifts were a big draw 😉 One of her favorites was a book we got for her called Three Names of Me. FangFang loves all things China, and she was captivated by this opportunity to have a book that tells a story similar to her own, of a girl adopted from China.

In addition to being drawn in by gifts, the promise of getting to choose her favorite meal and dessert was quite exciting for FangFang! She requested a pink cake with pink frosting, and we were happy to oblige.

She wanted “bear candles,” and Matt bought some gummy bears…and then impaled them on the candles(!) to create “bear candles.” I thought it was a little bit creepy, but FangFang approved 🙂

She is simply delighted to have attention and to receive love from friends and family, and she very much enjoyed everything about her day. Celebrating it made me think back to last year, when she was still in China, and the poor child broke her arm on her birthday, but still, her joy shone through!

And she remains very much that same child today – so full of joy in any and every circumstance – but most especially when given attention and treats 😉 It’s amazing to me how much changes and how much stays the same in the space of a year. In the space of a year, this girl had switched primary languages, transitioned from her foster home to her family, and moved from one country to another. Her life looked so different, and yet you can see, in her photos, her shining through. To me it is a testament to the quality of the foster home where she lived that her personality and joy were so evident there, and we’re glad she has brought them into our home and family, as well.

It is a blessing to have her home and part of our family, and we were so glad to be able to celebrate her birthday with her!

One Year with FangFang

This week we celebrated one year of life with FangFang! It has been quite a year. She was not a fan of us (of me, in particular) at first, and candy was my biggest ally.

But even on that first trip, in China, we saw glimpses of the joy that we now know permeates her heart and soul.

These first kisses were so precious to me.

And she warmed up to Matt pretty quickly once we were home 🙂

It has been quite a year since then. We’ve traveled to Omaha 4 times for 1 clinic visit and 3 surgeries…and we hope not to head back until the middle of next year!

While FangFang still uses butt-scooting as her primary form of mobility at home, she’s also learned to crawl and stand and even cruises on the couch! And, after some fighting with the insurance company, she got her first wheelchair for increased mobility in public places.

And beyond all these skills, we’ve grown as a family. Any time a new person joins a family, all of the family dynamics change, and it takes time to make those adjustments. We’re still figuring out all of these relationships ourselves and coaching our children through them – I expect that will remain true forever 🙂 But it feels like every member of the family is more settled, and we’ve grown into pretty stable, positive places!

FangFang was excited to celebrate being part of the family for a whole year, and we were happy to go along with her requests for Chinese food and ice cream 🙂 FangFang is passionate about all things China, but really, one thing everyone in the family can agree on is Chinese food! Atticus had a hard time leaving the park Matt had taken the kids to visit that afternoon, and Madeleine CaiQun comforted him by telling him, “It’s okay, Atticus, we’re going to have Chinese food for dinner!”

FangFang, you are a true source of joy, and we are so glad you are home and part of our family <3

 

a week of anniversaries

In a way that I’d never have predicted, the middle week of February has become one of great significance in our family’s story.

This Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of the shocking death of Matt’s older sister, Denya. Her daughters, in a gesture of which she would have been proud, chose to celebrate her life this week by asking Facebook friends to share their happy memories of her. It was fun to read of her love and laughter as experienced by other friends and family, too, but we definitely miss her. I miss her always encouraging Facebook and blog comments, her support for every new venture we pursued, her wise parenting advise, and, of course, the times spent hanging out together in her kitchen, enjoying and chatting about life together.

Yesterday was actually the one-year anniversary of our receiving pre-approval (PA) to adopt FangFang. We didn’t post about it far and wide on Facebook or anywhere else at that time – largely because we were en route to New York for Denya’s funeral, and we hadn’t yet told all of our close friends and family about our pursuit of adopting her. But still, as we drove on, snow-covered roads bringing us ever closer to the reality of the loss of our sister and friend, we celebrated the news that a new life would be joining our family, a precious girl we knew primarily through these pictures.

Our next milestone is today – the one year anniversary of Matt’s heart attack. One year ago today, after attending the calling hours for Denya, we were all resting in our hotel room when Matt suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. With our children looking on, I called 9-1-1, and our reality quickly transitioned from this

to this.

Matt’s heart attack has been a defining moment in our lives, one that, like having our first child, divides all of time into “before” and “after.”

Post heart-attack life is different than pre-heart-attack life. We have a radically different diet, eating almost exclusively low-sodium, plant-centered, pescetarian foods. Exercise is no longer viewed as a luxury to be pursued “once things settle down” but as a necessity, essential to sustaining life. We’ve become convinced that we cannot allow others’ desires to govern our lives – saying “no” has life-giving power. And beyond the practical changes we have made, we see life differently. Our default assumption is no longer that we are virtually guaranteed to have long, healthy lives together. The statistics for survival after cardiac arrest are sobering. My hope and prayer is that Matt and I will have many more years together – and I dream of what our future may look like – but we can no longer pretend that death is a far away specter of which we need only think once we are retired empty-nesters. Matt shared some of his thoughts on this day and that reality here. And the truth is that it is a source of some anxiety for me. We’re doing all we can to live healthily, though – and that’s all we can do. Beyond that, the calls for us are the same as those for anyone else – we seek to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. We fumble toward one another, seeking to love and care for each other well, to honor our marriage vows. We pursue growth as parents and do what we can to encourage and pray for our kiddos to grow into thoughtful adults who will pursue God, be thoughtful and understanding, and fight for what’s right in the world around them. We look for ways to engage with the community and the world around us.

Life this week, while in many ways haunted by these anniversaries, has, for the most part, been simply normal. We’ve read books, learned about math, coached kids through resolvoing squabbles, played outside, eaten meals, done laundry and dishes, and relaxed with an episode of the West Wing or a game of Yahtzee after the kids have gone to bed.

And we look forward to the last of this week’s anniversaries. Tomorrow 4 years will have passed since the day Madeleine CaiQun joined our family.

This sweet girl has brought so much joy to our family – so many snuggles, so many good conversations, so much laughter. And so tomorrow we will eat Chinese food – noodles and dumplings, in honor of her province and the foods she loves so much – and celebrate.

This week is such a strange mix of reminders of life and death, of mourning and celebrations. We press on and pray that we can act honorably in the midst of it all.

Omaha and Beyond

Our trip to Omaha last week was amazing. We knew going into adopting FangFang that the medical care necessary for a child with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) would be significant. What a blessing to be able to see a specialist in every single related area all at once!

We arrived on Tuesday night and checked in at Rainbow House, which is right down the street from Omaha’s Children’s Hospital and is where most of the families getting treatment for kids with OI stay. We’d heard good things about it…and there were some good things…but actually our experience there was awful and ended up having repercussions that extended days (and dollars) beyond our stay. That’s all I’m going to say about that now, but we were pretty disappointed.

However, our experience at the hospital itself was great. It would be impossible for me to recommend the OI clinic in Omaha more highly!

Matt took Miranda, Mei Mei, and Atticus out for some adventures on Wednesday morning, and FangFang and I headed to the hospital. First up for her was a dexa scan, which measures bone density.

IMG_5023

Her bone density z-score actually came back at -5, which means the density of her bones is 5 standard deviations below the mean value for children her age – that is a huge difference.

We also did a bunch of x-rays – partly as a baseline, partly to give us more information about a recommended course of treatment now. I was really pleased – everyone was so helpful and easy to work with. I wanted an x-ray of her right humerus, as it had broken last September and felt a little off to me, but that wasn’t included in the standard list of initial x-rays, so the radiology nurses called right away to get an order from the OI clinic for that, so we could do it all at once.

FangFang and I had some time to kill in between appointments so hung out in the cafeteria for a while, about which she was pleased!

IMG_5031
You mean I can choose any snack I want, Mom?!?!

Next up was audiology. She clearly did not share their view that their attempt to look in her ear was a “no ouchie” situation, and after that she was pretty uninterested in their attempts to engage her further. We were able to measure that her ear drums do move, which is a good sign, and we’ll just leave the rest for next year.

Then we were free for the afternoon! Matt and Atticus went back to Rainbow House for naptime, and all 3 of the girls and I went to the hospital playroom for a play date! The online community of OI moms is so incredible, and 3 of us moms had discussed ahead of time the possibility of getting our girls, all with OI, all home from China within the last couple months, together. It was so cool to connect in person!

IMG_5038

The kiddos had fun playing, and we mamas got to chat, which was so nice!

Xiao (on the left) and FangFang were actually both at Agape Family Life House together in China, so they were reconnecting here for the first time since they were adopted! At first they seemed to have some cognitive dissonance seeing each other again in a totally new environment, but as our time went on, they warmed up to each other and were interacting really sweetly.

photo by Xiao's mama, Heather, of Snapshot Photography
photo by Xiao’s mama, Heather, of Snapshot Photography

It was so good to see. FangFang continued to ask about Xiao throughout our time in Omaha. We were so thankful it worked out for us to reunite these two, and we hope they can continue to enjoy this relationship in the years to come!

That evening we were able to reconnect with an old friend from our days in Chicagoland, who is now a professor at a nearby university, and we enjoyed a dinner out with him and his family.

IMG_5046

We really enjoyed that not only was this a trip to get some much needed medical care for FangFang, but we were also able to work in some fun times and connections with friends, both old and new!

Thursday was an early morning as we headed to clinic. We were given a large room (the better to house our large family!), and we settled in there. We just stayed in that same room all morning, and all of the doctors and medical professionals rotated around and came in and talked with us. It was awesome to see so many experts so quickly and easily!

First we met with Dr. Rush, the clinic director, and his team.

photo by FangFang!
photo by FangFang!

Then we saw Dr. Esposito, the world-renowned orthopedic surgeon. We also met with a social worker, a dentist, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, and several nurses.

We learned so much. We went into this already having a lot of general knowledge but lacking the medical expertise to apply what we were learning to specifically what FangFang’s care would need to be. The doctors there believe that FangFang has Type IV moderate OI, which is what we’d expected. Her right femur shows evidence of having fractured and healed multiple times in the past, and it’s significantly bowed, so it will need to be rodded. Hopefully we can do that surgery before it fractures again, but it would also be great for her bones to be slightly more dense before we attempt it, so we’ll probably wait 4-6 months. That gives this mama a bit of time to prepare for the surgery, too, and try to prepare FangFang as well as possible. We’ll also have her left femur re-rodded at that time. It broke about 8 months ago and was rodded in China, but the rod has migrated a little bit, and that will start to get uncomfortable, so Dr. Esposito is recommending that we take care of both legs at the same time.

After clinic we split up. It was great for both Matt and me to be there and be able to ask questions and meet all of these key players on FangFang’s care team, and all 4 kids did amazingly well, given the expectation that they sit in a small room reasonably quietly for over 4 hours. There were some other things we needed to take care of that afternoon, so Matt took Madeleine CaiQun and Atticus with him to tackle that, and Miranda stayed with FangFang and me at the hospital. FangFang would be getting some bloodwork and her first stateside infusion of Pamidronate, which works to strengthen her bones and help them grow in their density.

Unfortunately, FangFang is not a super easy stick, and no matter how good they are, she is not happy for anyone to be poking at her veins, so that portion of the day was a bit traumatic for her. We got the infusion going, though, and then we were free to wander the halls!

IMG_5074

They had plenty of fun toys in the infusion center, but we hadn’t had lunch yet, so we went off in search of some food. I was so thankful that Miranda had stayed with me. She really has stepped into this role of big-sister-to-3 amazingly well, looking out for FangFang and offering hugs and playfulness and protection. Any time I needed to step away to use the bathroom, I asked a nurse to keep an eye on them, but it was Miranda who really engaged with FangFang and kept her happy.

We actually spent most of the afternoon in the surgery waiting room with Xiao’s parents. It was great to get to chat with them more…and they also helped me out a few times. I joked with Heather that everyone needed a friend who could serve them even while their own daughter was in surgery!

By the end of the day, we were super ready to be done. I hadn’t realized quite how long the whole process of getting the infusion would take, and we were finally discharged that evening about 12 hours after we’d checked in to the hospital that morning. Whew! It was a long day.

Between the reports of the suspected impending ice storm and our unhappiness with things at Rainbow House, we opted to drive home that night, so Matt and the other kiddos picked us up at the hospital when we were ready to go, and away we went, arriving home around 1:00 am.

The kiddos did really, really well with the whole trip, and we were so thankful we were able to get to Omaha so quickly and get such great input from so many experts in the field about how we can best care for FangFang. It was really awesome, and we’re so thankful for that opportunity.

The days ahead are rather daunting, as Matt heads back to work today. It has been such a blessing having him home in these early days as a family of 6, enabling us to have a much smoother transition than I suspect would otherwise have happened. However, he does have to return to teaching, and I’m somewhat intimidated by the prospect of having much longer days at home by myself with all 4 kiddos! Yesterday, a day during which Matt was gone for much longer than he was regularly away for most of winter break, was also a bit rough – I had moments of feeling quite triumphant…but that feeling was quickly squashed when both littles, enamored with the novelty of having Mom put them down for their naps instead of Dad, refused to sleep, rather complicating my plan for the day. We obviously have some kinks to work out. We’ll also be beginning the process of meeting with our local specialists (a local orthopedic surgeon, a PT evaluation, an OT evaluation, a school system evaluation, etc), and we’ll have to see how all of that goes and what the effects on our lives and schedules are going to be! Please pray for us as you are able!