Tuesday, January 25, 2011

After One Month with Stephen at Home

Waiting to see Santa at the mall on Christmas Eve in the morning

It was a moment to really believe in Santa, wasn't it? After all, the true St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of children, was there, as  you could see them holding hands from the very first day.
More than once I have been criticized because of how much I brag about my kids. The innate writer in me defers to the extremely proud mommy who needs to let the world know how extraordinary her children are. I used to submit articles to a homeschooling newsletter, and the editor loved my stories--but one of the subscribers complained that all those stories only showed how marvelous my family is and how marvelous kids I have. I wonder whether she had such horrible children that my totally truthful, unembellished articles bothered her so much. Another person in a Yahoo group for large families at one point said that my comments were "of a 'cocky brag' nature." That was a very short-lived online dispute, though, and we were very nice to each other in the end.

Why am I saying all that? Because I cannot address any issue without praising everything that Catherine, Gerard, and Warren are doing. I'm not trying to show off how amazing, how awesome, how exceptional the three of them are. On the contrary, it is that I cannot credit all the good outcomes to myself. No matter how very much I'd love to be able to take care of everything, time is never enough. I'm always in a rush, always anxious, always tense, always sleepy, always overwhelmed by all the paperwork piling up and up by the day. I try to supplement daytime with night time in order to see if I can get some more things done, but then I end up spending inordinate time falling asleep everywhere, in any place, at any time. Nobody can handle any problem successfully if always looking at the clock, in tears for the time being spent, and thinking how to make up for it.

For instance, now it's exactly 2:11 a.m. on Sun., 01/23/11. While I'm retouching, and adding to, this new post, Catherine is upstairs with stomach ache and still holding Stephen and trying to make him fall asleep. From the beginning, he had always had some problems with night time. When I had asked the Bulgarian airline employee who had given us her phone number to tell him about the dangers of being all covered up by both his comforter and pillow, he had told her that sometimes he had bad dreams, got scared, and liked to cover himself. At the home of a family of fellow parishioners who speak Bulgarian he had said he was concerned about thieves entering the house in the middle of the night. He said he had seen bad people trying to steal children from the orphanage. Yet, he trusted the director that she would not allow any bad person to get in. Since his arrival, almost every night Catherine and sometimes even one of the twins has been awake until after 2:00 a.m., trying to get Stephen fall asleep. To me, staying up till that time and even around the clock, with no more than a brief nap on the recliner at the beginning of the night, is not a big deal--but I wished I had two available arms to hug my youngest child and rock him to sleep instead of having to use my ten fingers on the computer keyboard. I wish I didn't feel the compulsion to be doing "something" every single moment of my life, and had more time for those "things" that never show up on paper but remain imprinted forever in one's heart. Exactly the same as when I gave a title to my blog shortly after Thomas and Nicholas' homecoming, I again feel like an observer of the true miracles that my three older children unravel in front of my eyes. I'm just the "witness." They are the actual doers, the actual instruments in God's loving design for those precious little ones He had created to be among us, in our home and our family forever. I feel like the general who looks with some guilt at his medals because of getting the credit without having been in the front line, without having advanced into mined ground, and without having had his own blood shed in the battlefield.

Now it's 5:18 a.m., and as I'm typing this, Thomas is standing by my side and squeezing himself against me. He and Nicholas came downstairs at around 4:15 a.m., but Nicholas fell asleep on the carpet as soon as he reached the bottom. Apparently, Catherine succeeded in getting Stephen asleep. I don't intend to go upstairs now and take the chance of waking him up. After dozing off on the computer keyboard for some time, when I was getting ready to go to bed, I had found two small silhouetes coming down the stairway. Yes, it sounds like it's my destination to have children who have some issues with their sleep. Stephen had had a wonderful day, as Catherine had taken him to the Bulgarian school at the Tierrasanta Community Center, and had played in the park with him for a long time, by carrying him up the climbing gym, letting him go down the slide, and repeating the sequence over and over again. Then, she had taken him to a nice restaurant, and had bought him a big, fluffy stuffed tiger, for him to hug at bedtime. Well, it sounds like Stephen prefers real living beings instead. For the very first time, he had gone to bed at a more reasonble time--only to wake up around 2:00 a.m. Even with Catherine and me there, he had been visibly distressed, throwing himself from his bed or hiding his face in the comforter in order to cry and cry. After a short while, I came downstairs, and Catherine stayed with him.

I do feel badly for accepting so much help from my older children--but the bright side to that is that their enormous help, far from holding them back in their determination and dreams, seems to keep on prompting them into even larger and farther-reaching personal and professional goals--all of them of an ultimately altruistic nature after all.

In plain words, although five of my six children are stilll minors, the reality is that I have only three who need to be taken care of--and I do have three older ones always willing to provide unconditional, unlimited help.

Everything can be sumarized by saying that we all love Stephen with all our hearts, and he loves us back. He has a very quick temper, but after a bad moment, full of "no" and "gnama" (phonetic translation for "I don't want to") utterings, his cuddly nature always prevails. He can be very angry at one point, but always goes back to his very playful and loving self really soon.

The most difficult challenge to overcome is the language barrier--and it's getting easier by the day. That may not be such big of a problem for people who don't care so much about that power words have--but that's not at all the case with us. Stephen is extremely verbal, and so are we. There are so many things we'd like to be telling each other, and we cannot. Even speaking two different languages, we still have the hope that somehow we'll make each other understand. And quite often we do, mainly when it's a topic that calls for strong emotions--those that can be spoken with no words. We do understand each other when it comes to caring, sorrow, hope, and love. He's a very bright child, and is very concerned about the need to communicate. His attention span is rather short, though, but he has an obviously above-average IQ as well as an  excellent memory to make up for his drifting attention.

Stephen is extremely boyish, dreaming about being a super-hero and fighting the bad guys. Yet, he also covers us up with kisses. I'd say that at this point his bond to Catherine, Gerard, and Warren is even stronger than his bond to me. If I try to make him listen to an ESL video on the computer, he'd play randomly with absolutely every key on the keyboard. Instead, he can watch Bakugan or Power Rangers on the computer sitting on Gerard's or Warren's lap, without touching one single key, and kissing them over and over again. 

The twins have been happily and lovingly putting up with many "orphanage behaviors" without one single complaint. They have been spit on their faces, hit in their groins, and bitten on their arms and legs--and faces as well. Actually, except for spitting, which is not really happening any longer,  the blows and bites typically have been bad 'pranks' rather than really upset behaviors. About Thomas and Nicholas, some people seemed to have trouble believing that the truly maladaptive behaviors ended after three weeks of being at home. Well, it happened again--and again, Catherine and the twins were God's almost miraculous instruments to effect an almost miraculous change.

Stephen likes to be the center of attention--and he does draw attention upon himself. Even from the back seat in the van, with sliding door windows that cannot be opened, he tries to say "thank you" to the employee handing in the food at any fast-food restaurant's drive-thru. When I meet with clients at home, he shows up crawling on the floor to say hello.

That brings me to a totally new dimension about how disability can, and should, be handled--to a much nobler and more matter-of-factly extent than I could have even considered possible. Without any real disability, an having had the most privileged and pampered childhood any child could even have, I guess I always felt much worse about myself for being unable to run faster or jump higher and for having been too overprotected than Stephen feels for being a paraplegic and knowing that when he was one year old he had "other parents" who "had left" him in the end.  When I met him for the first time during Trip No. 1 in August, in the light of how very boyish and self-assured he was, I thought he'd have a hard time accepting help from his new older siblings--and never imagined that he'd rather be dragging his legs on the carpet than using his wheelchair. I was totally wrong. Stephen's acceptance of his physical limitations arrive to the point of taking the initiative and being the one to call for one of my older children to come and help me with what he knows I'm not strong enough to do by myself. He thanks us for any help received, and even kisses us for it. He initiates interaction with anyone, and doesn't mind anyone seeing him dragging himself on the floor. Actually, when he starts doing what in martial arts is called shoulder rolls, he becomes extremely fast. He plays 'doggie' under the table--and the make-believe includes sniffing, biting, and cuddling like a real puppy. It's obvious that from very early age he already came to terms with his physical challenge, and is determined not to allow it to be in the way of his sociable nature, his loving disposition, and his self-esteem.

Stephen can do some really dangerous stunts, such as throwing himself from his wheelchair, even with it in motion, and thowing himself from chairs and couches head first with a summersault. We did not allow him to do it, but a couple of times he tried to make it from the van seat all the way to the ground. From operating his wheelchair, Stephen's arms are really strong. He puts his head on the floor, manages to lift himself up to a handstand, and falls on his back. He says he has always done that, but still we're afraid he might hurt his neck in the process one day. We got more than one Bulgarian-speaking person talk to him about how dangerous those behaviors can be. He's always polite, always understands, and always promises--and yet his feeling of accomplishment with those stunts is too powerful to give up. I guess it's a matter of keeping on watching him, and keeping on worrying.

A couple of times Stephen took non-edible objects to his mouth--just to scare us to death. During our second visit to Knott's Berry Farm on Dec. 30, he did it with a round Bakugan toy. We got petrified. He took it out of his mouth with no problem, happy to have seen us terrified for him. I immediately called the kind Bulgarian lady who works at United Airlines, for her to talk to Stephen about choking hazards, to make him think that  anything unforeseeable can happen, and the consequences can be fatal. Moreover, up to now Nicholas has never taken any non-edible item to his mouth--but if by any chance Nicholas decides to imitate, with his poorer command of his tongue muscles, the incident may end up in a tragedy.

We had very busy schedules. Besides Christmas, the New Year, and the Epiphany, we celebrated Stephen's ninth b-day, which was his first b-day at home, on Dec. 29, with a little party at our residence. Before Christmas, he had been briefly introduced to the Junior Legion of Mary, a parochial outreach group to which the twins belong. We had an informal Christmas party at the home of the Jr. Legion of Mary's director, and Stephen acted as if he had known everyone all his life. Since late 2009, we had some free tickets to Knott's Berry Farm, valid for the 2010 calendar year, which Catherine, Gerard, and Warren had wanted to save for after Stephen's homecoming. So, we went twice to Knott's, the first time entirely for free, and the second time having to purchase only a couple of children's tickets. On Saturday, January 8, we spent most of the afternoon at the home of a family that are fellow parishioners, where the mother is from Bulgaria and speaks the language fluently. They told us about the Bulgarian School that takes place every Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the Tierrasanta Community Center. Although Stephen does not need to learn Bulgarian but English, the Bulgarian school would offer him an opportunity to meet other children with whom he could communicate. Al week long Stephen looked forward to that, and did enjoy it both times he attended. The first time Warren came along, for me to be able to find a place where to write while waiting for Stephen. Biliana, our Bulgarian friend, took both of them in her vehicle, and I followed in our van, all by myself. As already said, the second time Catherine took him to Bulgarian school and to the park.

No matter how much I dislike the public school system, Stephen's desperate need to be able to communicate in English determined me to make an appointment with the local school district. I decided to enroll Thomas and Nicholas as well. And the experience only served me to prove that I was right in not trusting public schools. In 2007 I even self-published a book on homeschooling, which I entitled, "The Wonders of Homeschooling." To start with, it took me several weeks of telephone tag to finally speak with the appropriate person. Yes, I had begun calling in late November, before my second trip to Bulgaria. In the end, on January 6 we had a very  nice meeting with a full committee of interdisciplinary professionals--only to be told as an encouraging conclusion to them, and a discouraging one to me, that it'd take them the full sixty days they are allowed to take in order to do all the testing that needed to be done prior to actual enrollment and classroom attendance. Well, in two months from now, we expect to be already settled in Rhode Island, with the homestudy for Maximilian and Philip already submitted to USCIS!!!!

One very emotional moment happened on Sunday, Jan. 9, as Stephen was having his bath. He was complaining about something which, needless to say, I had no clue about. Then, without anyone's fault, a mess happened. I immediately asked for help in order to get what I needed to clean it up--and Stephen continued mumbling some upset tirade. That stirred something inside me, and I decided it was my turn to get upset. Hoping he would understand, I told him that I was ready to deal with the mess, that I was doing my very best, and that he had no reason to complain. I did sound upset, and he stopped complaining in no time. Yet, I felt like crying, and decided to let my tears roll down my cheeks and my lips turn downwards, while continuing cleaning up the mess. At that very moment, as Stephen noticed my distress, I could see in his face that very same first smile he had given me exactly five months before, back on August 9, 2010, after only a brief moment since my arrival with Toni to the children's home in Lukovit. It had been the very first smile he had given to his mom. I saw that very same smile again at that moment--and at some point later on during Mass, Stephen would take the initiative and hold my hand, as he had also done it during my first trip to Lukovit.

Stephen has a very strong personality, and, as already said, a very quick temper, but is not unreasonably stubborn. His attitude is a noble one, and upon realization of having done something wrong, he says "I'm sorry" and tries to make amends. Apologizing to each other is a must in our family. It took a little effort and a couple of calls to the Bulgarian airline employee the first couple of times, but now he already knows--and he does say, "I'm sorry" much more easily now. At one point, during supper, Stephen, who is a picky eater, was trying to give something he did not want to one of us--including Grandma, Mom, Catherine, Warren, or Gerard, but not Thomas or Nicholas, who were the ones who really wanted it. Thomas told him, "I love you, Stephen," but Stephen refused to reciprocate. After a moment, though, not very enthusiastically, he did tell Thomas what we wanted him to say: "I love you, Thomas." On Sunday, 01/23, only two days after that incident, over dinner I saw him giving the rest of his salad to Thomas, without anyone telling him to do so. He just spontaneoulsy wanted to make amends for what had happened two days before.

Similarly, after having told me several times on Wednesday that he wanted to be with Gerard or Warren and not with me, on Thursday he seemed to have remorse, and he tried to better show me his love. Even before that, on Wednesday evening, when I was reaching the end of my endurance, I hd told him I loved him but was getting tired of his behavior. His reply was, "Dubre (phonetically for 'O.K.). I love you. We all love you." The love reassurance, going from singular to plural, was what I had been telling him as frequently as possible since the first time I had met him in his beauriful homeland. In turn, upon realization I was getting really sad, he said that to me, as at that moment it was I who needed to be reassured of his love.

Christmas 2010. Am I too cruel by keeping them waiting for so long with pix and more pix before opening presents?

Our Christmas dinner together

Stephen's ninth birthday. with friends from the twins' Jr. Legion of Mary group and from a Bible Studies class for homeschoolers
Birthday party - a group picture. . . and Stephen is looking at Catherine, who was trying to make him smile.

At Knott's Berry Farm, Dec. 26, 2010 - No words needed.

Catherine with Thomas at Knott's

I was able to capture a big kiss.

A picture that speaks by itself.  Gerard (on the left) is missing from the picture, though.
First time at the Bulgarian school, Jan. 17, 2011. After that first time, Catherine is the one taking him--and she makes it into something really special, ending up with the park, a nice restaurant, and the mall.

A couple of Epiphany pix (Epiphany is still celebrated in most countries all over the European and American continents)

For Catherine, it's a tradition to make a gingerbread house with her younger brothers--and the number of brothers is yet to increase. This year she added some gingerbread men as well.

This would have been a perfect picture, with my mom in the background and almost everyone in--if Stephen had not decided to stick out his tongue for a prank. Cute all the same, isn't it?

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