Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorializing What's Best Forgotten

I desperately searched for something to focus my Memorial Day thoughts on and no matter how I thought, my focus continued to drop back to none other than Bethany’s birth mother.  Bethany had a rough day and for some reason, the country of Korea kept taking an emotional center stage.

If you study the history of Korea over the last three generations, you see a country that has been traded, fought over, ravaged, and literally - offered as a sacrificial lamb to the empire of Japan.  That last offering resulted in what can only be known as the rape of Korea and that’s perhaps why historically and metaphorically, Bethany’s mom captured my heart on this day.  

I’ve often wondered what ever became of her.  She was a thirteen-year-old rape victim in a small South Korean village.  This, made worse in a culture that struggles to balance the horror of such an act with the importance of honor.  In our Western culture we can’t even begin to wrap our head around such a construct, but there – maintaining honor, it’s a real issue.  As for the city, well, I had a waiter in a Korean restaurant explain, “the village was very small and was two hours by train and by horse from Kwangju City”.  I can’t help but wonder how much of which?

She was young, violated, ashamed, and ignorant.  A sixty-year-old man takes a sacred trust and abuses it, suddenly a young girl is in trouble and she doesn’t even know it.  It wasn’t until three months later that the girl’s mother notices something unthinkable.  The girl still has no idea.  The mother is single, works in a restaurant, has other children in the home and now has to pit the word of a young girl against the word of an elder neighbor; a neighbor who denies any involvement.

Anywhere else in the world, either undeveloped or developed – the infant would likely have been terminated.  In the developed world it’s known as abortion – in the rest of the world it’s not known as anything; it just quietly happens.  Two go out, one comes back.  Who could lay blame for the decision?  Who would deny a bit of justice to a situation where the color black turns blacker with every decision – with any decision?

For a reason known only to God, the decision was made so send the girl, “two hours by train and by horse” to Kwangju City.  Again, two went out, one came back - but this time one went to America.  One was the answer to prayer, the other; continually held up in prayer.  On this Memorial Day weekend, I memorialize a young girl who had her world turned gut-wrenchingly, upside down.  I memorialize her bravery, her selflessness, and her decision to “do right” at the end of a long road of being wronged. 

On days like today when Bethany’s having a rough go of it and her bruises, painful moan and broken, bleeding fists are all I can see; I recall the tragedy that gave birth to the tragedy.   I recall that in her memory, her little girl is living in America with a family who loves her.  My Memorial Day thought had suddenly taken a turn on me and I was the one being memorialized. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Welcome Home, I Missed You

According to the little note in the bag, she had a pretty good weekend.  The bruises on her legs and arms tell me otherwise.  Black and purple marks running the circumference of her legs I assume came from the bus ride.  The big ones on the back of her arms came from elbowing the table and walls – I don’t even need to be there to tell the action.  I’ve become the family medical examiner, reviewing the evidence, determining the cause, levying the blame.  Clearly, while I was on the back porch enjoying a late evening symphony of frogs and crickets – she was struggling with some other demon.  My gentle wrap of a warm summer breeze was child’s play in comparison to her wrap of pain and abuse, aimed at removing an annoyance that I’ll likely never discover.

She was excited about being home, I could tell by the anxious breathing, the pacing, the deep, furrowed brow.  Her quick reaction to my first words followed by a two-fisted punch to the chest; later, a quick blow to the jaw; “welcome home, I missed you”.

People ask how we do it.  I simply tell them that when I swim, all those little bubbles across my body just take the frustration away.  Wash it right out of my soul to be diluted in the waters of the community pool.  That’s what I tell them anyway, what really happens is I flail about in the water till I’m so damned tired that I just don’t care anymore.  Numbness nicely masks pain and appears on the surface as genuine compassion.  Nice arrangement, I think.

A lace curtain with its slight billow from the breeze, a Towhee’s call from a nearby tree, the low buzz of a bumblebee, the mournful wail of a passing freight train a couple miles away; all of these sensations are made sweet by a simple weekend, free of the constant care of Bethany.  It’s odd when she’s gone – you realize all that beauty, missed.  Then you stop and hold your tongue because you know its not gone really; its just kinda’ been replaced. The sunrise is replaced by a grin that’s nearly as big.  The birdsong, replaced with a gentle rattling of waxed paper, the bumblebee becomes a steady, rhythmic cadence of a plastic rattle against her teeth.

All those mental images, curtains, sound and smells from a time gone by seem to blend into a new, rich and at times painful experience.  One that opens our eyes more and more to the beauty and complexity of this little girl in this big world.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Respite Weekends

Occasionally we have what’s known as a “respite weekend”.  There’s a few days where Bethany goes and stays the weekend at “Miss Kim and Mr. Terry’s house”.

It’s a chance for us to live a normal life.  No need to chain the refrigerator door, no need to lock the window locks I’ve installed on the cupboard doors, no need to deadbolt ourselves into the house.  For a while there I had the dead-bolt locks installed backwards so we’d use the key to lock ourselves in the house.  We were never robbed and I can only assume its because even would-be criminals were puzzled by a home with the locks installed backwards. 

Its amazing how quick and easy lunch is when you don’t have to eye four corners of a room and you have two hands and a relaxed attitude with which to make a sandwich.  No floaters in your soda, no one stealing your chips, no half-eaten pickles left on your plate.

She loves the outdoors at her weekend respite and finds life on an Alpaca ranch to her liking.  Something interesting happens when she nears the pasture though; all the animals from the entire field come running at a full-tilt to exactly three-quarters length of the pasture where they abruptly stop, huddle, and begin to bleat out a bizarre, nasal-toned bleat.  They seem to be responding to some irresistible aura that can only be emanating from Bethany.  Only the youngest cria (baby Alpaca) dare come closer to the wire.  The adults all stand in a huddle and the young ones venture a few yards nearer.  Nothing is said by her, no movement, no special air – just an acute awareness by the animals that something special is afoot.

She thinks it funny – I think it’s amazing, largely because I know Bethany can’t see that far and yet she seems to know exactly what’s going on.  Bethany Doolittle, talking to the animals.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I Know "Desperate"

My wife spent nearly the entire day trying to keep Bethany from beating herself and from the looks of it, had little luck to show for it.  I put her to bed with two black eyes, a large cut over her bruised nose, swollen and bleeding knuckles.  Even as we say prayers she takes a swing at her forehead.  Dear Jesus, “ I prayed out loud, “thanks for the love you’ve shown us today – I want ask that you be with Bethany tonight and guard…” Ka-whump! Goes a fist to the head.  I’ve not figured out if this means I need to pray more, pray harder, pray differently, stop praying and start intervening… I’m not really trained in this sort of thing you know.  Even now I can hear her upstairs, crying – no, more like a wail of a mother who’s lost a child to a tragic death.  I can hear the fists pummeling and the crying and there’s nothing I can do.

And Sherry, she’s emotionally exhausted, broken-hearted, and nearly without hope.  I don’t even have to see her to know this, having put B in bed; I came down the stairs to an empty and quiet house.  This can only mean withdrawal to the bedroom and the tears that accompany.  How can I find solace and joy in such a dark occasion, knowing that even though this day’s battle is nearly over, the real war is just beginning?

I don’t know how she does it – how she’s held it together this long, why she’s even still here, still with me, still sane.  My guess is, like me – she just doesn’t know where to go.  It was said of Victor Frankl upon his release from Auschwitz in 1945, that he was so overwhelmed and unsure of what to do that he simply went back to the barracks.  I don’t know the accuracy of such a statement but I guess, true or not, it’s much the same for her, even if freed – she’d have no idea of where to go.

Tomorrow is Monday and we head back into a week as we’ve done a hundred times.  We’ll clean Bethany up in the morning, pack her on the bus and hope we don’t get a call during the day.  We’ll go to work and listen to the chatter about how the weekend was, how exhausted or refreshed everyone is, how great the game was, how awful the movie was.  I buy time with a cup of coffee and then, reluctantly, sit at my desk in near panic - unable to think, unable to do little more than stare at the screen and pray to God that the phone doesn’t ring or someone forces me to think about some organization’s “desperate issue”. 

How can I begin to convey that I know “desperate”, and I know for a fact that she was crying herself to sleep just the night before.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Five Minute's Peace

I was riding back from respite with Bethany in the car last night; it was just the two of us.  The evening was warm and the car windows were down, the sunroof open and there was soft music playing on the radio.  She laid her head on the door padding and simply let the wind blow through her hair.

We had five wonderful miles, that mop of black hair floating in and out of the open window, her gaze – straight forward, her hands neatly folded in her lap.

I’m always amazed at how such a simple moment can hold such beauty, how five quiet miles in a car can hold more promise than a day full of mindless chatter.  “Be still and know that I am God”.  That Yahweh, he sure knew what he was talking about.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

b Harmony - A New Way To Make Friends

Bethany has this uncanny ability to make new acquaintances.  She simply targets a new individual, walks right up to them, grabs their hand and goes nose-to-nose with them.  Her only utterance is a gentle yet guttural “AHH”. 

These introductions happen so fast that it’s usually done before I even know to respond.  Typically, as I peel her off the unsuspecting subject there’s this awkward moment where I have to decide if I want to explain, apologize, divert, or simply run away.  Many people are so shocked that they themselves don’t even know how to respond and honestly, we’ve learned how to read the signs and choose our responses “on-the-fly”. 

There’s the day she squeezed the stranger’s boobs, I mean – heck, what could you possibly say?  And even if you said it, whom are you targeting the response for?  Bethany certainly won’t hear the statement “honey, that’s inappropriate”, and the offended stranger - she may take some satisfaction in hearing it but it does nothing to ensure that B doesn’t repeat the behavior.  Then there’s the time that I tried to grab her hands before she connected with the boobs and I got my hands shoved onto the ladies breasts ahead of Bethany’s – try explaining that one away…

One Sunday morning in a local coffee shop she did a hard right-turn away from the counter and shot over to a table full of folks who were dressed like they’d just come from church.  Bethany immediately singled out the only bachelor in the crowd, gave him a big hug and reached into this mouth to see his teeth.  Fortunately for us, the table burst out in laughter as they’d been discussing the very fact that this bachelor was in fact a bachelor and no one understood why.  Bethany dispelled their myth of his lack of female attraction in one split second.  Saved by circumstance, both of us were – that one sure was a “win-win”.

There are other times where its not so positive, a trip to the shoe store turns into an all- out assault of a woman; in a split second, Bethany has her body-slammed up against the glass window (that one was a “flee” instance).  Another time she intentionally shoves a child down and I’m left to hear a fusillade of obscenities unleashed by an upset father. (That one was a brief apology followed by a redirect towards B with a complete dismissal of the father’s response).  Another time she knocks down a child at the fairgrounds and the child’s parent’s scream at our 19-year-old helper, demanding an explanation of “why you’d bring a little freak like that out in public anyway” and then in true American fashion, threatened to sue us.  I guess the helper handled it well, she simply gathered up B and walked away – I didn’t handle it so well when I heard of it, I cried.  Not for Bethany, but for the ignorance of the man assaulting her and for the behavior his children witnessed.

I did have an old woman come up to me once at a campground and mentioned that she’d seen me walking with her and saw some of the behavior.  She was probably in her 80’s and told me how proud she was of my efforts.  She went on to tell me that she had a “retarded son” and two other children when she was younger.  She was pregnant with her fourth child and needed bed-rest.  The physician stated that there was no way she could care for the “retarded one” and he said, “he had to go for the sake of the others”.  She explained the agony in her heart as she let go of that little hand and he lead him away.  “He died at age 40”, she said;  “those were hard years”.

I wonder what will happen one day when Bethany is finally living in a group home.  This is our dream in some ways, to “get our life back”.  To not fear or have to preplan a walk in public, to not have to explain, apologize, correct, to not have to do anything but move from point to point.  In some ways I’ll miss the humor of the awkward situations, I’ll miss the beauty of the laughter of the people who understand and find some sort of awakening in the experience.  I’ll miss the little hand that I’ve grown so accustomed to having to hold on to.  I’m sure that, like the old lady in the campground, I’ll comfort some young couple facing the same challenges with the parting comment” “those were hard years”.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

And This Was A Good Weekend

I was driving with Bethany in the convertible today, holding her shoulder with my right hand and trying to drive with the left.  She seemed intent on slamming her head through the passenger side window and to be honest, I was silently hoping that she’d succeed.  In the depths of my frustration I was secretly hoping she’d just get it over with; a simple injury delivered to just the right part of the brain, and a quiet end to her constant self-abuse.

That may seem callous of me, perhaps even uncaring and sinister and it’s the type of thinking that evil monsters who harm children think.  But frankly, its what went through my mind.  I start out with a compassionate redirect and end up screaming on the inside and occasionally on the outside as well.  I’ve tried outsmarting her by rolling the window down or pulling her closer to me, even tried hold both hands while driving – all to no avail.  If I roll the window down, she tries to rip the side view mirror off.  If I pull her closer, she tries to rip the gearshift out of the housing or jerks my arm while driving.  And if I do manage to get a hold on both of her hands she head-buts the window again.  Right back where we started.

That’s how it goes – you’ll have one day where she’s happy and delightful and then for the next month it’s anyone’s guess.  This cycle has been going on for so long that we don’t seem to be able to recover anymore and all the sound advice from “good parents” is so thin, so meager and useless.  It has the affect of a “handy-wipe” on an oil spill – the magnitude of the problem is no match for the proposed solution.  I haven’t the heart to explain anymore “you don’t understand, I can’t just fix this like that.”   Bethany was described by a neurologist as “industrial strength” and “Hints from Heloise” just won’t cut it.

  I recall when I spent four months walking across the eastern half of the United States – the idea was that if you really were tired of the journey, take a few days – hole up in a motel and see if you missed the walking.  If you did, then you’d pick up where you left off and continue.  If you had no desire to continue, then it was time to quit.  On the rare occasion that we get some time off, we find ourselves missing her but find it nearly impossible to disentangle exactly what it is that we’re missing but that’s fine, quitting isn’t really an option anyway.

Today, one of our dear friends took her for a few hours so we could go to church together.  The day seemed to be good for her and the photos we later saw brought tears to my eyes.  She’s so beautiful, so happy, and delightful in both personality and presence.  My heart was elated and yet 40 minutes later, I’m thinking the worst.  Am I the monster I spoke of earlier or is it simply a deep exhaustion?  14 years is a long time and each year with its peculiar twist makes this current year ever more effaced than the last.  I can see the wear on Sherry as well, her love for Bethany is far deeper than I can even realize.  Sherry is her advocate, her provider, defender and champion and in return, she’s become Bethany’s main target.  Target for anger, target for obsession, target for attention.  14 years has taken its toll and the emotional strain has twisted her laugh into more of a desperate cry.

To see the photos of the day, you’d believe me insane to harbor such a thought in my mind but then again, what is insanity but a different view of a situation? I find myself thinking "I love you, but I don't like you very much today".  

I pray that tomorrow is better and that God forgives me of the emotional failures of this day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Backstory of Bethany

Corrie Ten Boom, in her book “The Hiding Place” recalled a time where she and her sister were suffering from an infestation of fleas and lice.  As prisoners, it was not an uncommon affliction but for Corrie the question of “why God would have them suffer this plague” was a fair question.  Her sister casually reminded her that because of the fleas, the prison guards were leaving them alone.  Those fleas had, in fact, saved their lives – not a guard in the camp was willing to risk contracting such misery and as such kept their distance.

The idea that something so repulsive could actually be a gift was running through my mind as I sat in the kitchen, listening for the familiar “clickity-clack” as Bethany’s roller skates crossed the loose metal threshold between the wooden floors of the kitchen and the living room. As long as I heard that sound in a consistent rhythm, I knew I was safe.

When we adopted Bethany, she was just shy of a year old.  Born premature at 27 weeks to a very young girl in a remote, Asian country – Soo Bin Kim was an anomaly from the very start. Of course, you can’t see any of this in that little dossier with the paper-clipped photo they send you; cute picture of a little girl being held by a nice Korean foster mother, what could possibly be wrong in that?  We knew she had special needs and we knew some of the concerns. “Possibly blind” was one of them.  “Hearing impaired” yet another.  “Developmental delays” was the most ambiguous, delayed as in “yet to come” or delayed as in “never to come”? 

We had intentionally adopted a special-needs girl from a foreign country for any one of a hundred reasons.  For me it was the haunting memory of an airport in Latin America at 2am – the number of children carrying infants at that late hour, begging for “sucres” which at that point in time were worth about 1/36th of a US dollar.  You needn’t look far past these kids to see the reality of human trafficking, slavery, poverty – you pick the poison, any one could motivate you to want to at least do something.  Those things exist in the US as well but at least here there’s some shred of hope for redemption.  In that country and many others like it, hope is a luxury that simply doesn’t exist.  This so moved my heart to want to take “the least of these” and give them the same hope as King David gave Mephibosheth in the book of Samuel.  Grace and redemption – if I could offer a bit of that, then love would be the cornerstone in my life.

Sherry and I talked about our capacity of love for a child that‘s biologically “not our own” and the idea of not loving a child, regardless of lineage or nationality or condition was, well, laughable.  I recall the only thing we agreed on was that there was no way we could care for a special-needs child that had significant “cognitive dysfunction”, we simply didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with that sort of need and the two young boys we were already raising.  Who could have known that God had other plans?

Those “other plans” of God have a way of eventually consuming you.  What you thought were “your conditions” around “your definition” of love get completely scuttled and you end up on the wildest ride of your life and a times, simply hanging on for life.   Your friends all disappear, your hope of a vacation goes by the wayside, you never go anywhere as a couple and you eventually find yourself taking comfort in hearing the “clickety-clack” on a metal threshold simply because it signals that her mind is calm, her demeanor: social.  Its when the sound stops, that’s when the demons creep in.  A spectrum of demons with names like cerebral palsy, autism, severe mental-impairment, retinopathy, hyper-activity and host of other diagnoses that quite frankly, make this little Korean tapestry even more colorful. 

Discovering these conditions is nothing like on TV either.  There’s no quick identification of the issue, swift diagnoses by a handsome, compassionate doctor who puts your mind at ease with the answer.  It was more like, night after hopelessly long night - agonizing in the slow realization that something beyond your control and comprehension was happening.  If you were lucky, she’d sleep for more than four hours.  You finally start looking for answers among the medical professions and you find yourself like a man, disassembling a car and taking each little part to a different service station, asking the mechanic “what’s wrong”?  The answer from the medical mechanics, however, is predictable: wrap all those “little parts” in the duct tape of the medical profession: medication.

All we had were a series of bizarre and heart-wrenching behaviors, which we had to carefully speak of.  We had to learn this as well – never mention anything as a “behavior”, always mention it as a “condition”.  She runs her head through a cupboard door and you must explain the action as the “result of a medical condition”.  Insurance people have acute hearing and the word “behavior” and “denied” are synonymous.

That’s the beauty of Bethany – or Soo Bin Kim as she was know in Korea, the very thing that causes us such sorrow and pain is the thing that holds the greatest blessing.  We couldn’t see this until we officially gave up on hoping that things would be “normal”.  That realization came in the American Girl doll store in Chicago.  We walked in and saw the beautiful mother and daughter relationships that were occurring in that place, the joy and excitement, and we knew that we’d never experience this with Bethany – much worse, she’d never experience it.  No one will ever know why the two of us were standing there holding each other as we wept, unfettered by those watching us.   That “greatest blessing” comes in the form of clear vision – we can see what beauty really is, what really matters in this life and that something that holds no societal value is perhaps the most valuable artifact of that society.

Bethany, with all her challenges, has a place in the heart of God.  I’m sure he cries along with us, bleeds along with us, and sees despair, as do we.  My prayer is that, like the fleas and lice that Corrie Ten Boom had issue with, so would we as her sister did - one day see that the affliction is the very thing that gives us life.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A New "Auto-Start" Feature

I found it interesting that when I went to turn on the headlights in the MGB, the ignition engaged and the car started.  No need for the key, just make sure she’s in neutral, flip the switch and she growls to life. 

At first I thought this was happening because Bethany was in the car – not that her wiring isn’t as screwey as the car’s is, but rather that she’d reached under the dash again and pulled herself a handful of wires.  She’d done that before you know…I thought she was reaching for the warm air coming from the heater but no, she was ripping wires out from under the dash.  Suddenly I couldn’t use the turn signals and the dash lights went dark.  In true Fik fashion, rather than just patching the ripped wires I had to go and repaint the entire car, overhaul the interior vinyl and carpet, rebuild the windshield and buy a new canvas top.  Hey, if a little’s good, a lot…is a lot.  Funny thing; after all that I still had to fix the broken wires.

Now, having the engine start by simply flipping a light switch is a weird mix between surprise and delight on one hand, frustration and anger on the other.  Same thing with Bethany, flip a switch – say the “joy” switch and you get something completely different.

 For her, life must be hell and I guess the MG is a perfect metaphor for her.  I doubt the engineer of the car intended it to start that way and I know the starter doesn’t much care for the arrangement either.  Too many inputs place way too much strain on the wires, switches and gears – you can feel it in the temperature of the components.  When Bethany mis-fires, it’s the same thing; all the gears over-engage, the wires all over heat and simply put, bad things happen.  While I can replace broken components on the car – it’s not so easy with “B”.  She’s blinded herself in one eye through hitting and detached the retina in the other – multiple times.  She’s blackened eyes, arms, legs, abdomen, torn countless sets of clothes off and has broken many a heart along the way.

Somehow though, she always comes out smiling.  Just like the MG, later it starts up with the key and putters happily; so Bethany picks herself up, laughs and hollers “Prate!”  (“Prate” is Bethanese for “I’m hungry now and you need to figure out what that means”.)

The ambiguity, absurdity and surprise that this causes simply twists my mind.  I can barely comprehend the violent mental mis-fires she experiences let alone the bizarre swing back into the world of the joyous, only to drop back into sorrow. 

Perhaps that’s why she likes riding in that little car – its wiring and hers are so similar, familiar, and comforting in their complexity.