On a Snowy Presidents’ Day….

Penelope woke up before the sun again this morning. As usual, the first words out of her mouth were: “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” She hopped into our room as giddy as a spider monkey with a tennis racket much to the sleepy chagrin of Bernadette and I.

In my daze, I told her that in 10 years she is going to want to sleep until noon, and that’s when I am going to start the family tradition of the “Saturday Morning Let’s Vacuum the Upstairs Hallway Party.” She liked the idea. You all are now my witness to that.

I think Presidents’ Day has confused Penelope a bit. When I told her why I wasn’t going to work at the office today, she grew very excited and I could not understand why. Then I realized she thought I had said “Presents Day.” I then told her that we celebrate today because it’s near Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (That’s the president she knows. Well, she also knows George W. Bush, but thinks his name is “Jackass.”)

Her face lit up like a Christmas tree, and she began clapping and laughing and begging us to take her downstairs. She started babbling a bit, and it took me a few moments to get the gist of her words.

I had to explain to her that Presidents’ Day was different from the last holiday we celebrated. But she understands now that Lincoln did not come to the house last night and leave presents in the library. Although,  when we later clomped down the stairs for breakfast, I saw her cast a hopeful glance through the library doors. Fortunately this little kid bounces back quickly and the promise of a cheese stick and Mickey Mouse revived her spirits.

Maybe today her and I will swing past the local Borders to find a children’s book on Abraham Lincoln. I would imagine such a book exists. Yes? It’s not like I’m seeking “The Adventures of Millard Fillmore.”

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Miracle Worker at the Chinese Buffet

I met a miracle worker at a buffet table. Her name is Sun Lu, and she is the driving force of the Waiting Child adoption program in China. Since the program began she has helped match hundreds of special needs children with families in the United States. She is the woman largely responsible for bringing Penelope into our lives.

For those of you who don’t know the story, Penelope was born in southern China in the spring of 2007. Perhaps because of her cleft lip or her parents’ poverty or the country’s rules on child bearing, Penelope was abandoned near an intersection when she was two weeks old, her birth date printed on a slip of paper pinned to her blanket. She was quickly discovered and taken to a nearby police station. The police ran an advertisement in the abandoned babies’ section of the local newspaper, but the parents did not step forward. She then entered China’s adoption system and doctors repaired the cleft lip. (They did an amazing job too.)

She spent a little time in an orphanage, and then with a foster family. I understand they were an older couple, and I wish I could have met them because they obviously loved our little girl very much. Penelope would not be as special as she is without the attention, care and love her foster parents so unselfishly gave to her. Penelope’s file eventually came into the hands of Sun Lu, who forwarded it to Homeland Adoption Services. Then, one Sunday morning in March of 2009, Pam from Homeland called to tell us we had been matched.

I’ll save the story of that Sunday for another day. Shortly afterwards, several photographs of our future daughter were emailed to us. Bern and I looked into the sparkling happy eyes of this little girl and knew she had been loved without reservation. We looked at the photos, and I wished I could hold her right then.

Sometimes people are shocked when they hear the story of Penelope’s abandonment. “How can a mother do that? She must not love her child!” I couldn’t disagree more. I cannot imagine the difficult circumstances that confronted that woman who left her child in a place where she’d quickly be found.

I think loving someone so much sometimes means having to let them go, trusting in God and in the innate goodness that dwells in us all. This mother wanted her daughter to have a better life and in the ultimate act of love did what she did. And, I feel I have an obligation to that nameless, faceless woman to do everything I can to give this little girl a good home and a good life. I thank her every day for the great gift and great responsibility she has given us.

And I am equally grateful to China’s adoption program, Sun Lu and everyone at Homeland Adoption Services for their roles in bringing Penelope home.

That evening, I leaned against that buffet table watching as all the adopted Chinese girls were herded together for a photograph. And, I marveled at the power of one person to make such an astounding, life-changing difference in so many lives.

Penelope playing badminton in the backyard on her birthday.

Lead stomach in Leadville

The inevitable happened in Leadville, Colorado earlier this year. I was walking along the main street in the city with the highest elevation above sea level in North America when I heard a gurgling noise, a distinct splat and a startled yelp from Bernadette.

Penelope had succumbed to altitude sickness: The orange, Grape Nuts, egg, and granola bar our daughter had eaten for breakfast beat a hasty retreat from the bottomless pit of her belly. During the drive to Leadville, Penelope fussed and screamed in the car, but we took this as a sign of her being tired, not a warning that it was Sayonara cereal time.

To make matters worse,  Bern was carrying Penelope in the back pack, which meant she was now wearing Penelope’s breakfast like a bad hat.

The episode was remarkable to me for two reasons. First, we had recently celebrated our sixth-month anniversary with our daughter and except for a minor incident involving  too many blueberries on an empty stomach, she hadn’t vomited yet. So far, she has endured a 15-hour plane ride from Beijing to Newark, and exposure to other young children carrying unfamiliar germs, and devoured vast quantities of offerings from the seven seas, an organic farm and nearby restaurants with barely a belch.

The second surprise was this: Penelope’s vomiting failed to set off a bizarre chain reaction. I can visualize it in slow motion: Bernadette diving her head into the nearest trash can while Penelope holds on to the backpack for dear life; me reeling before collapsing to my knees and retching in the gutter; my college friend Dina  looking down on the whole mess, puzzled and wondering why she ever invited us out to Denver.

One of the many things that terrify me as a parent is knowing little kids can do some really disgusting things. They jam their fingers inside their nostrils and pull out green goo the size of  a marble. They crap three times their weight in one sitting. They find a week-old hunk of cheese mashed between the couch cushions and think it’s a perfectly appropriate mid-afternoon snack.

I know little kids can do disgusting things because I used to do them all the time. When I felt sick as a child, I would climb the stairs, walk into my parents’ room, announce my illness and then proceed to throw up all over the throw rug. Never mind that my bedroom was next door to the bathroom. Maybe I thought the odds I’d get to stay home from school improved if my Mom had to scrub the floor that night. Regardless, the problem was that seeing myself sick only made me more sick.

If I could barely stomach my own illness, I sure as well couldn’t handle someone else’s. And that meant college would prove challenging  because I would witness classmates overindulging on Saturday night and paying for it Sunday morning. At times I hear the prayers of those who didn’t make it to church bouncing off the ceramic tiles in the men’s room, and pause for a moment wondering whether I could stomach what would surely be an ugly scene.*

So I always figured I was the wrong person to ask for help if you got sick. The few times Bern has been ill since our marriage, I’ve done the concerned husband thing: planted myself firmly about two feet from the partially closed bathroom door and asked if she wants a glass of water. I thought when Penelope gets sick, I’d say to Bern, “Why don’t you go clean her up and I’ll . . . ah . . . who’s thirsty?” But when Penelope foiled my strategy by not only getting sick but also using Bern as a target, I had to think fast.

I volunteered to run into the nearest luncheonette to grab some napkins. Hey, at least I was standing on my own two feet and not rolling around in the gutter.

I always knew I had it in me . I just never suspected I could keep it there.

*Just for the record, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy one or two or 10 adult beverages on a given night while in college. But somehow I was pretty good about not crossing that point of no return between just feeling fuzzy headed the next morning and wanting to cut my head off and tossing it down the trash chute.

{This blog entry has been sitting around for a while collecting cyber-mold. Maybe I just didn’t have the stomach to publish it!}

Toddler vs. Food

Lately, I’ve become addicted to the TV program “Man Vs. Food” on the Travel Channel. In case you’ve never seen MvF, during each episode the paunchy host visits restaurants that specialize in serving single portions of food capable of feeding the island of Madagascar. I watch in stunned amazement as someone tries to devour a stack of 13-inch pancakes or a 7 1/2 pound “Sasquatch Burger” the size of a monster-truck tire.

My fascination, I believe, stems first from my love of discovering local eateries that break the chain of homogeneous restaurants one finds scattered around every truck-stop interstate exit from Trenton to Tucamcari. The show also draws upon memories of college days when several dorm-room buddies and I attempted to drive a Fritsch’s Big-Boy bankrupt by gorging on its all-you-can-eat midnight buffet. That failed effort culminated with me lying on the frozen ground in a farmer’s field watching wisps of my breath swirl amongst the stars as I groaned prayers for a quick death to God, Buddha and the Galloping Gourmet.

But perhaps my interest is rooted in my ceaseless wonder at how much food Penelope can pack away. After all, on a daily basis I have a front-row dining-room seat to Toddler vs. Food.

Most mornings Penelope greets Bernadette and I by standing in her doorway yelling “Hi Mama! Hi Papa!  Hungry! Hungry!” Bern and I now employ a lightning round of “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” to decide who’s getting out of bed first. (In case you want to settle disputes this way, it’s: Scissors cuts paper; paper covers rock; rock crushes lizard; lizard poisons Spock; Spock smashes scissors;  scissors decapitates lizard; lizard eats paper; paper disproves Spock; Spock vaporizes rock; rock smashes scissors. Credit Sam Kass and Karen Bryla for inventing Rock, Paper, Lizard, Scissors, Spock in 1998.)

Since paper disproves Spock, on this particular Saturday I stumble downstairs as Penelope scampers besides me. She charges toward the refrigerator, throws open  the door and digs into a drawer for a cheese stick. A bowl of Cheerios and some blackberries or apple slices will follow, sometimes before the coffee pot beeps joyously from the kitchen counter. Penelope will clamor for “Nemo Snacks” — gummy fruit snacks shaped like fish from the Disney cartoon — but those are afternoon treats since we don’t allow her to eat candy before noon. (The no-candy-before-noon rule was strictly adhered to in my parents’ house when I was growing up, and one I abide by to this day. Since my Mom didn’t have a no-drinking-before noon rule . . . well, let’s just say it made college that much more entertaining.)

Later we all hop in the car and drive to Buckingham Friends Meeting to attend a memorial service for Dr. Christian Hansen, a truly remarkable man. I encourage you to check out his free e-book autobiography In The Name of the Children and consider donating to the American Friends Service Committee. Chris, a pediatrician by vocation, spent his life helping the world’s neediest children. His book also discusses his experiences meeting Dr. Martin Luther King and participating in the Meredith March in June 1966.

After the service, Penelope chows down on some blackberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, seared tuna, roast beef, orzo salad and a brownie for dessert. By the time she’s nestled back in her car seat for the ride home, she’s clamoring for those Nemo snacks. But since she just finished grazing at the buffet table, we decide to give her jaws a break. You’d think with all this eating that Penelope would resemble a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, but she’s quite thin. In fact, she’s a tall skinny kid; our doctor tells us she’s in the 95th percentile height wise for her age. I have started to wonder if she’s Yao Ming’s love child.

Penelope has also impressed us with the variety of foods she will eat. The other night after dinner, she pronounced the white clam pizza positively “mm-yummy.” We’ve watched her devour mussels, tofu, bok choy, artichokes, calamari and quinoa — not in one sitting, of course. On our last trip to the supermarket she cheered when she spotted the broccoli. Recently we visited friends in Denver — I’ll be writing about that soon — and I was sorely tempted to see if Penelope would eat Rocky Mountain oysters, but Bern nixed that idea. (“You’re not feeding our child bull balls!”)

Bern and I are thrilled that she’ll try just about anything. Now, we’re just waiting for that call from the Travel Channel.

{Note: So, where the hell was I? For those of you with whom I haven’t spoken, I’ve been busy collaborating with several other members of my community’s historical society on a book that will be published later this year. I hope you will consider checking that book out once it’s published. A portion of the profits from those books sold by the historical society will go to our organization. The book will also be available at area Barnes & Noble’s, Borders, etc. and will be available online.}