After the first 366 seconds, the last 366 days should have been no surprise. The initial chaos, shock and fear were very good indicators of what our family would enjoy in our first year with Dawit, our 5-year-old son from Ethiopia.
After the first 366 seconds, the last 366 days should have been no surprise.
The initial chaos, shock and fear were very good indicators of what our family would enjoy in our first year with Dawit, our 5-year-old son from Ethiopia.
After years of waiting, hoping and praying, it was finally time to take custody of our son. My wife, son and I were three very jetlagged travelers who were dealing with anxiety, anticipation and emotions bigger than we could handle.
So at 5 a.m. in an Addis Ababa, we were still wide-awake talking about what the next day would bring. Our agency had told us they would bring Dawit to us between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. The typical estimates in this process had been skewing later in the window, so we weren’t too worried.
Then came a knock at the door.
My wife answered the door to find a receptionist telling us that our son is here. She was so quiet and casual. It was like she was saying, breakfast was ready.
With no time to get cameras loaded and ready, no time to get ourselves ready and no time to prepare Blake for the big moment, we threw ourselves together in yesterday’s clothes and grabbed what we could remember and lurched up the stairs to where our new son was waiting.
I’ll never forget when the local head of the agency asked Dawit if he wanted to stay with us. He shook his head no and looked at the floor.
So Blake ran back to our room and emerged with the teddy bear he had made for Dawit and some Ritz Bitz crackers filled with cheese –– at least it is cheese-colored.
The giggling teddy bear was well received, but when Dawit got his first taste of those crackers, he decided he might as well stay with these crazy people. At least there would be snacks.
Over the past year, Dawit has shown a lot of his personality and predilections. He is overcoming his fear that this situation might be as impermanent as the past several have been. He is slowly building trust that we aren’t going anywhere, and neither is he.
He has developed a strong sense of himself and has even developed the ability to pout when he doesn’t get his way. It’s annoying at times, but it is so much better than the deferential little boy who just took whatever he got because he was never allowed to make choices before. He was fed at mealtime. He ate what they offered him. He played and slept at prescribed times. When a handful of women are caring for 25-30 orphans from 4-10 years old at a given time, there just isn’t room in the schedule for preferences.
Page 2 of 2 - He has learned to have preferences as he planned his own birthday party with pizza, a Thomas the Tank Engine cake, a bouncy house and as many family members as possible in attendance. No one ever looked forward to his birthday party more than Dawit, and my wife and mother put together a perfect day for him.
Dawit’s language is also developing. He now tells me to “go faster” in the car and reminds me that “it’s too dark” if I mention going somewhere at night. He is far from fluent but he understands more of what we say and communicates pretty well himself.
I was so worried that his frustrations with the language and strange new surroundings would make him a behavioral nightmare at school. I know if you put me in a room with a bunch of people speaking French who expected me to obey their commands, I would act up. I worried that his teachers would cringe when they saw him coming and that other students would avoid him.
The opposite has been true. His preschool has been the best thing for him. Other students in his class approach him and hug him or hold hands and play with him. His happy, sweet side apparently won them over. He is a handful, but he will melt your heart with a grin. And for a kid that struggles with language, his comedic timing is pretty advanced.
I love how far he has come in the year since he first decided he would stay with our family and eat our Ritz Bitz. Sometimes I catch myself trying to imagine what Dawit the middle school student will be like.
He is no longer an Ethiopian child. He is more than that. He is not a typical American child, either. One day soon, his traditional transition will be complete.
We are still learning the lesson that his background and heritage go far deeper than the color of his skin and DNA sequence. Dawit’s emotional responses are all colored by the trauma of abandonment, the sadness of seclusion and the fear of instability. All we can do is love and guide him as well as we can this year and next year and the year after that.
His past affects his present and will probably continue to color his future. He will develop at his own pace in his own way. He is Dawit. And that is all he needs to be.