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.

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…And The Livin’ Is Easy

Bernadette and I have joined a social club. I’m not sure what I’m doing in a social club, except to say that I was unable to find any anti-social clubs in the area. And, even if I did, I suspect it would host few events and the two or three people who actually attended them wouldn’t talk to one another. When pondering this decision, a famous line from Groucho Marx twirls  in my mind: “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”

The group is actually a pool and hunting club. I worried before joining that the two activities are co-mingled. I imagined heads bobbing up and down in sparkling pristine waters and children frolicking at play, while hunters ringed the hillsides shooting at them. My concerns were quickly allayed: Swimming in summer, hunting in winter. I’m not much of a hunter, and I do not own a gun. I do own a fabulous set of steak knives, but doubt the deer of our beloved woodlands have much to fear from me chasing after them with my trusty Henkels. Come to think of it, my experience in handling firearms is limited to filling a clown’s mouth with water when the carnival comes to town.

So, needless to say, I’ll be spending most of my time at the pool. I’m grateful we joined because the pool is absolutely gorgeous, and the weather this summer has been brutal. Most summers we have a few hot days, but this year heat and its best buddy humidity have propped their feet up on the coffee table, grabbed a bowl of chips and decided to stick around for a while. Unfortunately, our air conditioner decided to make them feel at home by blowing hot air. At least the air conditioner will be useful come December.

Penelope adores swimming with a wild abandon that, as a parent, is both wonderful and terrifying. She loves playing blind man’s bluff with girls her age and Ninja with some older boys. She also enjoys Marco Polo; unfortunately, whenever she hears “Marco” she will respond, even if she’s not playing. One afternoon she was yelling “Polo” from the picnic tables.

She tries to dive by cupping her hands above her head and jumping belly first into the water. She is dying to touch the bottom of the pool and to jump from the diving board.

When Penelope and I arrive at the pool I marvel at how many friends she has made. As we hurry down the grassy hill toward the pool, I can often hear some child’s voice shout “Penelope!” or “Penelope’s here!” It reminds me of Norm walking into Cheers.

Then, wearing her bright yellow floatie, she’ll jump in the pool. With her head bobbing in and out of the water, she’ll swim toward a group of laughing children.

I lean against the cyclone fence and take it all in. The children splashing and playing games. The adults chatting; dark sunglasses hiding smiling eyes. A beach ball flutters across the buoys that divide the shallow end of the pool from the deep. The colors here are so crisp and vibrant: the shimmering blue water, the deep green leaves of the trees as they sway below billowing white clouds. I am convinced it’s impossible to feel unhappy at a pool.

Well, until somebody pees in it.

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!}

Discover the dream?

The dogs were taking me for a walk the other day when I stopped at the mailbox. Our mailbox, which sits across the road from our home, is rather oversized and resembles a dog house perched precariously atop a pole.  I think my wife actually mistook it for one because she once suggested I sleep in it. I forget what I did to warrant that, but I’m sure it wasn’t good.

I generally bypass the mailbox when walking the dogs. My beagles have no sense of direction, so carrying an armload of mail and dragging them along usually results in a paper trail of letters and catalogs strewn up the driveway. It’s also a little dangerous: One dog likes to attack horse trailers, and what exactly she’d do if she ever caught one God only knows. The other needs only the whiff of a shadow of a possum that lumbered through our neighborhood three weeks ago to dart off on its trail. Also, on days when I stop, the mail will include a box so  large that Carol Merrill should be standing in front of it. (OK, why can I remember the model’s name from “Let’s Make a Deal” circa 1972, but not where I put my damn car keys?)

As a gust of wind whooshed me up the driveway, a large snow-white envelope caught my attention. My first surprise was that it’s addressed to Penelope; the second was who it’s from.

I corralled the dogs into the house and dropped the mail on the kitchen island. My wife is currently on  a detox diet, which means that, by default, I am too. Not that she’s forcing me onto her diet, but I’d feel bad slurping up a giant plate of penne vodka while she’s nibbling on brown rice and broccoli. On this day, she’s stirring a big pot of hot and sour tofu cabbage soup.

Once a friend learned “we” were on this diet and asked if I’d lost anything. “Only my will to live,” I told her.

I called Penelope over. She was standing in her play kitchen pulling from her toy oven a wooden pizza that looked more appetizing than Bern’s soup. I held up the envelope, and Penelope scampered over.

“You have mail,” I said. She cocked her head and blinked uncomprehendingly. “Really, it’s yours. Take it.”

I extended the large envelope, and she tentatively reached for it. “Me? Mail?” I reassured her. She slowly ripped small pieces of the envelope as if she were peeling an artichoke.

Finally finished, she gasped as she pulled out the contents. Her eyes widened in delight. After all, it’s not every day a  three-year-old gets a glossy magazine promoting tourism from the Nebraska Office of Economic Development. I’m not sure why the good folks at the Nebraska tourism board think my daughter is the right demographic to pitch, but I confess my marketing experience is pretty much limited to the “3 Ps.” Yet I still can’t picture toddlers booking flights to Omaha to visit the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps or even the Kool-Aid Museum (with the rather eyebrow-raising slogan “Discover the Dream”).

Penelope loves her shiny new magazine. The first night before she went to bed she left it on the family-room coffee table, pointed at it, then me, and said, “No Papa.” I got the message: Keep your stinking paws off my magazine. She scampered off to the kitchen to repeat the admonishment to Bern.

The next evening, Penelope carried her magazine upstairs and wanted it read to her before bedtime. I conjured up a tale about a mythical, magical place called “Nebraska,” where Elmo and Mr. Noodle frolic when they’re vacationing from Sesame Street. Now, the guide has become a staple in our night-time reading selection. It’s not out of the ordinary for Penelope to want me to read “Polar Express,” “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket,” and “The Nebraska Tourism Guide” before shutting out the lights.

Our daughter may not yet be able to say her full name, opting for the shortened Pelli over the mouthful of consonants and vowels we bestowed upon her. But she can say Nebraska and Omaha.

Addendum: Recently Penelope received a second packet in the mail, this from the Texas Tourism Council, and a third from Rhode Island. If this continues, she may have all 50 states memorized by kindergarten.



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.}

Holidaze

January 1, 2010

Pity our poor dog Sammi. She’s a beagle, a breed with a proud lineage that stretches back to Great Britain at a time prior to the Roman conquest. Its first mention in English literature was in 1475, and King Edward III bred beagles specifically to hunt rabbits. Nowadays, beagles sniff out drugs or bombs at airports and help detect traces of flame accelerants at suspected arson sites.

Sammi, sadly, isn’t helping make the world safe from terrorists or solving crimes. She’s busy hiding from a two year old who’s trying to force her to wear a diaper.

Santa brought Penelope several toy diapers, hoping she’d stop taking the real, and oftentimes wet, ones off herself and putting them on her teddy bear. The toy diapers seemed like a good idea, but now Penelope has advanced from stuffed animals to living ones. On her first attempt, she almost managed to swing the diaper around Sammi’s back legs. If it’s possible for a beagle’s face to express surprise, then that’s how I’d describe Sammi’s look. She jumped a few feet forward, but a persistent Penelope pounced on her tail, and implored the puzzled pooch to “nay down.” All those centuries of highly attuned hunting instincts kicked in, and Sammi scampered to the safety of another room.

Sammi wasn’t the only victim of one of Penelope’s Christmas toys this year. Earlier this week after fixing the CD player, Penelope and I were bouncing around to Rilo Kiley. Penelope grabbed a pair of toy maracas. I cradled her in one arm while I shook a tambourine with the other like I was auditioning for Josie and the Pussycats. Unfortunately, I was looking away from the Peanut when she accidentally clocked me upside the head with her maraca. Hello, head-circling stars and tweety birds!

Bernadette arrived home a few minutes later, saw the lump by my eye and asked if she needed to take me to the emergency room. After a few moments of muddled pondering, I decided I’d rather risk the cranial bleed and pull a Bill Holden than suffer the embarrassment of explaining what happened to the ER nurse.

Despite the wounds to my head and Sammi’s dignity, our first Christmas together turned out quite wonderfully. We traveled back to Buffalo to visit Bern’s family. While there I learned a few things, namely: no matter how cold you think Buffalo is in December, it’s even colder; if you give already energetic kids enough Christmas presents and sugar cookies, they can actually be in three rooms at the same time; and a coffee maker works better when you remember to place the coffee pot under it.

Perhaps Penelope’s favorite Christmas presents are the kitchen set, and the assorted “Melissa and Doug” wooden food items (a pizza, stir fry, cookies and vegetables) and utensils. Her manner of playing has progressed in the past few weeks, and I’m fascinated watching her development. She has shifted gears from playing predominantly for physical development of motor skills and dexterity, to emotional development with pretend play.

Up until recently, Penelope’s idea of playing was to fill a container with blocks or puzzle pieces and dump them on the floor. Now, she’s standing in front of her stove, wearing an apron and slicing wooden vegetables and cooking eggs or pizza for me.

I pause and wonder if I’ve got a future Iron Chef living under our roof. Then the daydream ends: I hear a toy mixer running in the bathroom, and I know the mixing bowl is filled with water. Time to scurry off before I’m mopping the bathroom walls.

All She Wants for Christmas . . .


December 2009

On a blustery Saturday afternoon in December, one of Santa’s elves is teaching me a lesson on crowd control. I’m standing at a break in the line at the Macy’s in New York City waiting with my nephew David for the family to catch up to us. And, being a little bored and naturally curious, I start chatting with the 20-something elf as she keeps the line moving and prevents chiselers from slipping in undetected.

She laughs and shows me the proper way to pump your arm and to gently nudge stragglers along. I swing my arms around and jump up and down with the enthusiasm of a hungry beagle catching a whiff of cheese at supper time. The elf says I’m a quick learner and should go talk to Human Resources about a job.

Unfortunately, her boss isn’t impressed, and as he lifts his weary eyes from the clipboard balanced atop his protruding stomach to voice his displeasure, I consider asking him if he’s angling for Santa’s job once he pulls the enormous candy cane out of his behind. But I refrain in deference to my new elfin friend, and the fact that the good folks at Macy’s are kind and have allowed me to wait for my family at this juncture in the line. A few moments later, the family arrives.

This is the first year I’ve ever had a reason to visit Santa at Macy’s. I remember my parents taking me to see the inebriated Santa at Tepper’s Department Store in Plainfield when I was a tyke. Then we’d race out of town before someone threw a brick through the windshield of our Dodge Dart.

Since Penelope is only two years old, Bernadette and I would probably have waited another year before visiting. But our niece and nephew have five children, several of whom are the right age for visiting Santa, so we happily tagged along.

It takes an hour before we meet Santa, but along the way, a conductor ushers us into a train, and we stroll along a winding path decorated with Christmas trees, singing bears and skaters. The presentation is stunning.

We marvel at the decorations until the moment arrives when we meet the big guy. Penelope climbs onto Santa’s lap. He asks her what she wants for Christmas, and in that moment comes the highlight of my holiday: “APPLE JUICE!!!” she cheers. Someday, my daughter is going to ask for a cell phone, or a television for her bedroom, or a car, and I will wistfully recall the day when all she wanted was apple juice.

This incident led to a lengthy conversation between Bern and I about gifts for Penelope. My point in our discussion was simply that Penelope is a typical two year old when it comes to playing. If you give her a toy in a box, she’ll take the toy out of the box and play with the box. If you give her a puzzle, she’ll dump the pieces on the floor and walk into the kitchen to ask for an orange. I understand: She’s two; that’s her job.

So, I suggested rather than empty the shelves at Target, we buy Penelope the things a two year old enjoys playing with: an empty box, a dish rag, a roll of toilet paper, maybe a broken cell phone.

Needless to say, Bern didn’t exactly love the idea. “Twenty years from now our kid is going to be in therapy because you gave her an empty box for Christmas.”

“She will not,” was my less-than-snappy reply. “I wasn’t suggesting a crappy box from the liquor store. I was thinking more about re-wrapping that box that her Little Einstein bath toys came in and giving that to her.”

“She does play with that box every time I take her down to the basement, but no you cannot give our child an empty box for Christmas,” Bern said. “Twenty years from now when she’s in therapy, it’ll be your fault.”

Some discussions you know you’re going to lose even before they begin, and I had no doubt I was losing this one. Besides, I wasn’t serious about the idea. Just wondering. So, it’s off to Toys ‘R’ Us and after being in a toy store just before Christmas, perhaps a quick detour to Super Saver Liquors on the way home.

Oh, and of course, a final stop at ShopRite for that apple juice.