Officially a Mom to a Teen

Officially a Mom to a Teen

Trysten Zachary turned 13 almost a month ago ( I have this newly acquired belief that as my kids get older the days go quicker-no idea how it’s been a month already).

Tman has this thing about smiling in pictures now. By that I mean he doesn’t do it. He actually has a really wonderful smile-the sides pull tight and all of his teeth show-but for now only those of us able to make him laugh will see it. #teens

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Or if you give him a frosting covered cookie. Then you’ll get a good college try of a smile.

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The weekend of his birthday we had planned a birthday sleepover for him but I realized we had a few work engagements that we couldn’t get out of. True to his nature-he accepted the new reality with no complaints.

In a lot of ways Trysten is just like every other 13-year-old experiencing multiple realities. I can see in one minute the young boy I’ve known for over a decade-goofy, kind, gentle and the next minute he’s all young man-deepening voice, shrugging off my affection, deep into texting. But once in awhile he combines who he has been with who he is becoming and I find those glimpses of my son to be really extraordinary. (Snapchat. I love it. Hit me up: tesileagh)

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Thirteen is a weird age, right? Because daily I can see Trysten becoming a man. Any baby fat he’s ever had is now gone. His shoulders that used to come straight up from his hips are now broad, revealing not baby muscle fibers but the beginnings of man muscle fibers. For a few brief months last year we shared shoes but now his feet are roughly 3 sizes larger than mine. And he refuses to stop growing. In a matter of days he’ll be 5’6″-eye to eye with me.

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And the sense of humor on this kid. Zach had volunteered our oldest 3 to help work the Y’s annual fundraiser. They were thrilled, as I’m sure you can imagine. Thankfully Trysten has learned from his mom to express his feelings in sarcastic form-preferably on social media so others might share in his misfortune. (Screenshot taken from his Snapchat story.)

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I took a picture of him with Hagrid on his lap a few weeks ago and said, “Man, you just look like America right now. Straight ‘Murica.” His response: “Yeah but I’m missing a gun.” Which is hilarious because it’s true. #americalovesguns

Anywho…

Trysten had chosen to go plant based with Zach and me even as he went out into the world (we are 100% plant based at home but the kids can choose when we go out to eat or at friends’s houses) but decided to go all in for his birthday. Donuts, Buffalo Wild Wings and ice cream for his birthday meals. No matter how old he is I do believe he will always have a soft spot for sweets.

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A few weeks after his birthday he was able to have his birthday sleepover. I just really enjoy all of his friends. It’s incredible to me that I can see little bits of Trysten in all of them. Maybe that’s why I okayed having what felt like all of the 7th grade boys over. They spent most of the daylight hours playing basketball and all of the dark hours playing hide and seek through camp.

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Here’s the thing you guys. I think sometimes parents of teens find it so difficult because we remember them as little angels, right? I can still vividly remember when Trysten and I were about to cross the street one day and he stopped me, holding out his hand saying, “Mom! You forgot to hold my hand!” I still remember that boy. And, needless to say, he no longer asks to hold my hand. Ever.

But I am relentlessly excited to meet the young man walking up the steps each morning. Because he’s his own person. I can no longer compare him to the little boy who was just an extension of me for so many years. Maybe that’s where so many struggles with parents and teens come from-we still assume they are a part of us and we’ve wrapped our identities so strongly with theirs so that when they react in a way that we wouldn’t or that causes concern we are too quick to cut them down. It scares us because who are without them at our hip?

Untangling our identities from our kids is tricky business. But doing it with a teenager is a little easier because they show us in not so subtle ways that their actions don’t have a whole lot to do with us, which has actually always been true but parents are supes good at seeing only what they want to see and not what actually is aren’t we?

I’m all of a month into this parenting teens gig so in no way do I assume I have it nailed but I have been able to realize the few times when Trysten and I have had arguments it’s because I was inadvertently expecting him to react in a way the boy who had no autonomy would have reacted instead of reacting to the boyman who was in front of me-trying to figure out how to honor his mom but also honor his heart at the same time.

Gone are the days when he saw me and ran to jump into my arms or the days when he was always smiling and giggling. But they’ve been replaced by a young man that I can have serious discussions with about race, sex, politics and the world. One is not necessarily better than the other-they are both incredibly awesome in their own very distinct ways.

Trysten was born when I was just 20 so in many ways we’ve grown up together. Truth be told I practice a lot of my parenting on him-some of it fails, some of it goes ok. And he’s always weathered it extremely well. I don’t know what to do with my kids in terms of cell phones or girls but if the past has taught me anything about Trysten it’s that he’ll forgive me when I mess up and patiently wait as I figure out where I stand on an issue.

Happy birthday, Trysten Zachary. Love you more than you can possibly imagine.

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Female friendships and the power they have at making you forget you’ve got broken ribs (and pneumonia).

Female friendships and the power they have at making you forget you’ve got broken ribs (and pneumonia).

There is currently a stranger in my house. This very sweet woman came with her husband to care for me while I’m on forced bedrest due to the very unpleasant combination of pneumonia/cracked ribs. I hear the woman scrubbing my toilet, God bless her, while her husband shovels our front steps. She’s singing to herself, undoubtedly to distract for the godforsaken things she has witnessed in and around our toilets (boys. Bless), and I’m stifling tears of gratitude.

These strangers are caring for me because a few of my friends sprang into action when they heard I was sick. They live in other parts of the country-Colorado, Seattle, Portland-and yet they managed to show me their love. This time in the form of an older woman who is not only cleaning and doing laundry but also brought over dinner.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been carried by women I love. I’m reminded of the text I sent just a few weeks prior, “It’s been 7 years, I don’t think he loves me. I’m so scared he never will.” And the immediate response, “Being taken for granted is not the same as not being loved. He loves you. He just doesn’t connect his actions to your feelings to the overall meaning of it all. Love continues to be work, every single day.” When you’re in the emotional isolation chamber sometimes it just takes an outstretched hand with similar scars beneath the door to remind you that you aren’t alone and that no matter what you’ve done or how badly you’ve messed up they will be there. Not with a hand to point fingers and judge but a hand to offer a cup of coffee and a kleenex instead.

Yesterday was a bit of a low day. I realized that, counting the time I was sick in Ethiopia-I’ve been mostly sick for 2 straight months. As a person who hasn’t really been sick for years I’ve been driven slightly mad by two months of foggy headedness, coughing, pain and lack of exercise. I’m sure I’m not the only one who when physically uncomfortable tends to devolve into some nightmarish emotional and spiritual discomforts as well. Feelings of ineptitude and unworthiness, reminder of all of my past mistakes. This all happens so much quicker when I’m metaphorically chained to the bed and allowed too much time in my own head.

And then a stranger shows up at my door reminding me of these women I love. And I can feel them prop me up on their shoulders, helping me place one foot in front of the other. Because they are both the most loving and sarcastic creatures, I can also hear their jokes about the ineffectiveness of my natural deodorant and the visible stains on my matching sweatpants/sweatshirt combination.

I don’t often feel brave but I’ve witnessed bravery in my friends who could choose to love a woman with more of her shit together but roll with me instead. It’s far safer to love me and encourage me from an emotional distance but these friends choose instead to jump all in and go with me, having my back in every failure and (sometimes more remarkably) every success. I don’t always feel like a good friend but I’ve witnessed true friendship in women who don’t just say they love me but show it every day in their texts, their random book recommendations, their scheduled dates to come visit or the stranger at the door with her cleaning supplies.

I think one of life’s true mercies is feeling so completely understood by someone else. The last handful of years since I stopped expecting Zach to meet all of my emotional needs and started opening up to fellow women for that have been some of the best. Zach is the greatest husband there ever was but he still will never be able to sympathize with my devastation at Alan Rickman’s death or make eye contact when the speaker in the room is saying something subliminally sexist.

I’ve no idea how I got so lucky to be friends with so many remarkable women who are moving mountains with their love but I’m so thankful I get to pick up my rock and join them. Even on days or weeks like today when I’m bedridden, the mountain gets moved because they are willing to carry one on my behalf no matter the cost to themselves.

It’s an amazing thing, to be loved as I am. If someone as busted and broken as I can be than you most certainly are. Hope you’re feeling that as strongly as I am today.

Much love,

Tesi

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2015, A Recap

2015, A Recap

What a year it’s been! WordPress sends out a yearly review of this blog and it was brought to my attention that I only blogged 25 times this year. Could that be true? That means I missed a lot of what we did this year so I wanted a place to recap 2015. It’s my blog, I can photo dump if I want to.

January 5 Ian Matthew was born and the world will never be the same. I wrote about this little bit of squishy preciousness here.

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Zach and I tried teaching Dailah to snowboard and Binyam to ski. It took multiple hours, numerous utterances of the F bomb and this one selfie of Zach flipping off the camera with a gloved finger for us to cry out uncle and literally never return.

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Dailah received a 1st place trophy for cheerleading. Even though our alarm clocks rang out at 3:45am we still managed to hoot and holler louder than anyone else.

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We had our first experience with toboggans. The hill is on the left, only 2 people the employees of the hill had ever seen crash halfway down are on the right. We assume it’s because not many things were meant to carry 2 Klipschs due to sheer head size and overall beefiness. We lived and I peed a little laughing so hard so not all was lost.

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My kids continued to eat me out of house and home. I now double a recipe if it says “serves 8” and usually the kids still eat more fruit after all of that is gone. If you hear of giveaways that feature blessing someone with groceries for a year I’d be much obliged if you would enter us. I’ll have to start working if these people continue at this pace. 😉

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Tariku and Trysten filmed a commercial for summer camp. I’m not entirely sure why anyone would use anyone other than my kids in their commercials after seeing how adorable they were. 🙂

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I helped a fitness studio start up. Though I’ve done marketing for over a decade it was fun to be able to shape the tone and “voice” of the business from the beginning. Plus I got to work with my good friend Kyle Taylor in creating the logo (thanks, Kyle!)

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We said good-bye to our first family car-the Honda Pilot. Zach got in a car accident and it was totaled. The airbag shredded the gloves he was wearing with the force of the accident-I can’t believe how fortunate we were that he was ok. Despite the fact that she had seen better days, that every part of her was dented and bruised. Despite the fact that she was perpetually dirty from living at a camp and that her bumper stickers signified a moment in time now gone, she also brought home 4 out of my 5 kids. She was the place the 7 of us were first a family and on the back of one of her seats was where Tariku decided to practice writing his name in ink. In her trunk was where we said our final good byes to Abe and Aristotle and, above all, she protected Zach on her final trek. She was a good car.

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We bought a Subaru (great car!) and soon after Zach took Trysten on a road trip with my dad, uncle and cousin to Colorado for a week of snowboarding. Zach took this picture, one of my all time favorites.

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We said good-bye to my sister’s white boxer, Leo. Leo lived with us a few times throughout his long life and I sure did love the way he took care of my sister when she lived on the east coast away from us. Once Ian was born it was as if Leo knew my sister was going to be okay so he let go. I can’t stress enough how much I love dogs and Leo was one of the good ones. Miss ya, buddy.

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We took a family trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes for spring break.

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The kids played baseball/softball which I do believe is the longest season of any sport. The older 3 tried out for All Stars and were selected. Tariku’s team made it really far and was a fun team to watch. Tomas and Trysten’s not so much. 😉

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The big 3 were all on the same team as it has been for many years mostly because Zach and I don’t want to make too much work for ourselves. So it was that they were often in the field together. In the below picture Tariku is playing short stop, Trysten was pitching and Tomas was playing catcher. It was more fun than you can possibly imagine.

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They also played a lot of soccer! (My favorite!) My parents came over for quite a few games considering they live 7 hours away. This surprises no one who knows them.

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While playing 3rd base, Tomas took a ball to the face from the hardest throwing pitcher on his team. This was soon after I posted a picture making fun of little girls wearing face masks in softball. I feel largely to blame for this injury but true to his nature Tomas was smiling the whole way through getting stitches.

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We went vegan/plant-based. More on that later.

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We had a visit from my friend Chandra and her 5 kiddos. I loved watching them play and have so much fun together. It’s weird that a few of my great friends have never met my kids except through my blog and the stories I tell when we get together so it felt ridiculously good to have Zach and my babes meet this friend of mine I always talk about.

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My good friend, Alex, brought her boy toy and dog up to camp for a weekend. She used to live at our previous camp as well so to say I miss seeing her randomly most days would be an understatement. She’s a fellow Harry Potter junkie and just overall top-notch human.

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Tariku offered to hold my hand for the first time. On Facebook I wrote this to mark the occasion:

Last Thursday after his baseball game, one in which he got a minor injury, I asked him if he ever just wished I was there. To comfort him, give him a hug, make it better. No, he says, sometimes I wish the animals were there though.
I told him how when we first adopted him that used to kill me-that he would never let me hug him or snuggle him, not even hold his hand. I told him now I realize it’s not that he doesn’t see me as his mom but that he really just doesn’t like physical touch so I didn’t take it personally anymore (and that I never really should have).
Then on Saturday while walking around camp, with tween girls in swimsuits everywhere, he told me I could hold his hand.
My relationship with Tariku continues to be a reminder that the most beautiful things in life are often the result of a lot of hard work and sweat/tear equity. It’s also a reminder that the culmination of that hard work can sometimes be in something as relatively unremarkable as an outstretched hand and an offer.

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Leslie and Jake finally got a dog! Though I think Leslie is still on the fence about Daffy she hasn’t gotten to the good stuff yet where Daffy is no longer chewing everything and is instead comforting my nephews or niece when they are sick or sad. Hang on, Leslie, you’re almost there!

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My nephew Caden John was born!! On my birthday! Which happens to be my mom’s birthday too! He’s a smiley little man and I love him so. I wrote more about him here.

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We played more rounds of basketball in the front yard/court than ever before. We even talked grandparents and dogs into playing along too sometimes.

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The kids finished their last day of 6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd grades respectively.

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Doozie competed in Regionals for cheerleading where they took home 1st again.

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I continue to do the marketing for my brother’s Chiropractic business, Dawson Chiropractic near Des Moines, Iowa. I do it mostly for the free adjustments but also because he is genuinely the best chiropractor to which I’ve ever been. Oh and because it forces my little brother to talk to me on a regular basis, a perhaps not naturally occurring thing for a quiet dude like him 😉

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While at an orthopedic appointment for Binyam our car was broken into and stuff was stolen (also, weirdly, the thieves tried on every pair of my sunglasses but didn’t take any. It took me a good while to put them back on my face after imagining some weirdo trying them on. Also made me seriously question my style that they didn’t deem any of them worth stealing. But that’s neither here nor there.) I called the police and then about 5 minutes later called Jimmy John’s since we hadn’t eaten lunch and it was well past 2pm. Jimmy John’s arrived first which was hilarious to us all.

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Zach started seriously training for triathlons and I continued to take hundreds of pictures of my pets. Zach is on the left swimming in the lake while Hagrid and I kayaked next to him-keeping him safe and looking adorable in the process.

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All of the Klipschs came to visit-even Kait straight from the NYC. I continue to be beside myself with gratitude that I count Zach’s siblings and significant others as some of my greatest friends. And time spent with my remarkable niece and nephews is always exactly what I need.

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My 5 all went to Camp Eberhart for a week and had a ridiculously good time. Trysten got to go in the bigger kids cabin where they stay up a little later and hang with the older girls cabin over campfires. I pretended to be all cool as a cucumber but there were def a few nights when I drove past “on my way home” just to see what was what.

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A few weeks later Dailah was off to cheer camp. It was her first time at an overnight camp that her dad wasn’t in charge of and at which we didn’t live. Despite her smile here she actually hated it-coming home with bruises and bumps covering her legs from being dropped and thrown around (as fliers are, obviously). Soon after spending $250 on this camp she decided cheerleading wasn’t for her and asked if she could not try out for the coming year. This perfectly sums up the personality she was born into by nature of being her father’s daughter.

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Tomas’s face was used for marketing purposes. This makes sense because of all of my kids his face best translates constant joy-which is what you get when you send your kids to camp, obvs.

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We let the kids sign up for tackle football for the first time. I held off for as long as I could on account of me loving their healthy knee joints and beautiful, developing brains. I’m still hoping they choose cross country or soccer over football but now at least I know it’s possible for all of us to survive football season.

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My sister and I got another matching tattoo (we both have the purple cross on my sister’s foot, along with our mom, from when I turned 18). This time we got the two “d”s. Before marriage our maiden name was “Dawson” and in high school sports we were called “the double Ds” not due to mammary size, clearly. She and I are polar opposites in so many ways but I love her like no one else. That veiny arm would be mine. Gorg.

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I got a selfie stick. I don’t always use it but when I do everyone loves it. 😉

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My parents took us all to Adventureland-an outdoor roller coaster and water park. It never disappoints, especially now that the kids are old enough to go on all the rides by themselves if they want to.

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Then my parents took my kids for a long weekend while I flew off to Colorado and Zach stayed in Michigan to work. I spent Thursday-Sunday with my blogamiga friends for the 5th year in a row. There is just no way to tell you how much these women mean to me. Mothering can be really quite lonely despite having little ones in your business all day e’ry day. Adoption parenting adds another layer that can add to the loneliness, particularly if it’s an adoption of a child from a different race. Sometimes there are just too many things that are specific to that where other friends just can’t possibly understand because they haven’t been there. These women though? They’ve been there. And they are better women, better mothers, nicer people, bigger hippies and funnier than I am. So I basically spent 4 straight days stealing all of their knowledge and then claiming it as my own when I got back. I love them more than they can possibly know.

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Upon my return my parents took us all to the Iowa State Fair. If you love fried food, the smell of animal shit and people watching, then the Iowa State Fair is a must see. It’s ranked as the #1 state fair in the country and with good reason-I really do love it.

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We took a family trip to National Bridge State Park. Despite Tomas’s look of confusion we had a tremendous time together.

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Zach and his good friend, Isaac, participated in two olympic sized triathlons: the Three Rivers, Mi and the Chicago Tri. It’s always good fun watching the two of these old friends together and I tend to get all the feels when I’m watching people I love compete in feats of strength.

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I left Binyam home alone, on accident, for 20 minutes-marking this as the first time I’ve ever left a kid anywhere on accident. I knew he was going to be ok when I got home (he’s 9-years-old for goodness sake and Zach was literally working a few hundred feet away) but I still felt like total crap. Until we pulled into the drive and saw him sitting on the front steps looking ridiculous presh with his soccer stuff ready. He had no doubts I was coming back to get him-I love that about him.

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I celebrated 13 years of marriage to this guy. Even in my darkest moments he’s been my harvester of light, what a lucky thing it is to be his wife.

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The kids started another year of school. It’s already been a trying year in many ways so I’m just constantly praying we get through it with our grace and sense of humor still intact.

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We talked our good friends the Korandas into coming on one of the busiest athletic weekends of the year. Declan Zachary handled it like a champ and I was a smitten kitten getting so much time with him, his mommy and daddy.

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I had the distinct honor and pleasure at being asked to be Ian’s Godmother. Until he has questions about God I am assuming my role is to just spoil him with chocolate, candy and more kisses than he could ever want. I take this very seriously.

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Zach and I tried acri-yoga after watching a few videos that looked easy enough. This is as far as we got before Zach told me I was about to expose my breast. This wouldn’t normally be cause for concern but since Trysten was capturing this glorious moment, Zach thought he would save poor Tman a year’s worth of therapy and just stop. The idea crossed my mind to put on a bra but I kind of have a strict policy about not doing that while at home so we scrapped the idea altogether. Maybe 2016.

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Zach taught the oldest 3 to shave. Since both Zach and I are legit at growing facial hair-it’s no wonder Trysten already had a decent amount at 12. (Truth is he was born with it. Zach’s first words to me when Trysten entered the world from the womb were, “He has your sideburns!” Bless) Now if someone could actually get them to wear deodorant every day I would feel a lot better about their future prospects.

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Trysten and Tomas went out for the middle school cross country team. They worked hard all season and both did really well. I could genuinely care less how they rank as long as they give it their all when they are out there and they did that-it was a fun season!

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The Jake and Leslie Klipschs, Isaac and Papa Frank came up for a weekend where the men went off to the Notre Dame game and I got 7 uninterrupted hours talking with Leslie. The next day we took everyone to the Notre Dame campus. Watching these cousins together is just too much of all the good things.

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We went trick-or-treating with the Dawson and Klipsch cousins as well as the Smitty besties. It was the first year my kids, Oliver and Eli and the Smittys went off by themselves to tour the neighborhood when the adults got too cold. I got to go with my niece Landry and listen as every. single. house told her she was the cutest they had seen all day. It’s true-she’s 100% ridiculously cute.

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We celebrated my brother-in-law Frank’s birthday with his adults only party again this year. Zach and I went as Doc Brown and Marty McFly and the birthday boy went as his own spirit animal. See if you can tell what the other Klipschs were…

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I also talked all of the Dawson side into coming this year too! My brother was a legit Wolverine and my sister-in-law as Steve Bartman went over super well in a house full of Cub fans.

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My father-in-law was elected as Davenport, Iowa’s new Mayor! I was so happy we could be there and the kids could watch the whole process unfold that night. He will undoubtedly be the best Mayor that city has ever seen. Grateful as always that I married into that crazy group of justice seekers and public servers.

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I got to work with Leslie on our 7th Water Party together. I’m so proud of how she’s taken over since my move to Michigan and made it bigger and better than ever before. This year the event raised over $35,000. That is beyond my comprehension as I so vividly remember the first year sitting up at midnight counting the $10,000 in cash with Zach. I am grateful for every penny then and every penny now. We have the most generous friends and family of anyone I’ve ever known. I always go through Leslie withdrawals after the event because I’m so used to spending an insane amount of time talking and texting with her leading up to the Water Party. I’m just really lucky to count her as a best friend.

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Not sure if you heard this or not but we all went to Ethiopia. 🙂 I’m ready to go back.

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Barbara Streisand and Hagrid just continued to be off the charts adorable on the daily.

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We had such a fun time cheering on our Iowa Hawkeyes this season! Though they lost to our current state, we are excited to see them dominate the Rose Bowl tomorrow!

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The bigs had their band performance (Trysten on drums, Tomas on trumpet) and the littles had their Holiday music concert. Binyam had a speaking part for the first and probable last time of his life. He went as Harry Potter and was nervous as hell. I was beaming and crying and waving like the fanatic I am. Proud mama heart burst moment for sure.

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Just before leaving for Ethiopia Trysten tried out for the 7th grade boys basketball team and made it. They went on to become conference champions. Man were they a fun team to watch.

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Trysten and Tomas had their first semi-formal middle school dance. Tomas was true to his nature and asked his girlfriend what color of dress she was wearing so that he could match her. He could be found trailing a few feet behind her wherever she went. Trysten was true to his nature and translated loosely “semi-formal” by wearing basketball pants and a t-shirt until I begged him to at least wear jeans and something that didn’t stink of puberty and hard work. He and a few of his buds went stag with plans to tear up the dance floor seeings they had no ladies to tether them down.

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While the older 2 were at the dance, the younger 3 were painting snowmen for the elementary PTA. Dailah took her job seriously, as she always does when it comes to creative outlets, and the other two were mostly there for the cookies.

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Dailah chopped off her hair. She told me she was ready for an adventure and had read about donating hair to kids with cancer who lose theirs. I asked her on the way to the appointment if she was nervous, “Nope just excited! You’ve got to think about the worst that can happen and if it’s not death or lots and lots of pain then there’s no reason to be nervous!” I love that about her.

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On Christmas Eve the kids made a fort that took up the entire “fun room” for the second year in a row. This one had separate rooms and everything. Christmas continues to feel so magical with these kiddos. As they get older I appreciate even more how close they all are and how often they want to be around just each other. My most common prayer is probably that they continue to be best friends throughout their lives.

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We had a truly great Christmas both here and in Iowa celebrating with grandparents, aunts/uncles and cousins. So much so that I didn’t take very many pictures. 🙂

While Trysten fights off the pneumonia that has been plaguing me for the last few months (I legit broke a few ribs coughing so hard. My cough is mostly gone but the pain in my ribs is redic. Avoid that at all costs.) the other 4 are at Winter Camp at Camp Eberhart.

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I think after writing the post about being lonely some might think I don’t like living here but it’s even more obvious after looking through the pictures of the year that my life here is full of goodness. I think if nothing else, the moments when I’m lonely only make it super obvious that overall our time here has been overwhelmingly happy and great. This year has been one full of growth for all 7 of us and with that will surely come some growing pains in every sense of the phrase. But at the end of the day I get to kiss the 5 sweetest, kindest, funniest most beautiful children in all of the world and cuddle in next to the funniest, most loyal husband out there. What more could I possibly ask for?

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Happy NYE everyone. May you find peace, happiness and insurmountable joy in the coming year. Thanks for reading. Love to you.

Tesi

The Burden and the Blessing of Genetics in Adoption

I look like my mom. I have my dad’s nose and his genetic code that forces us to eat every few hours or we feel faintish like the damsels in distress in old black and white movies. But when I walk by a mirror and catch my reflection I’m always taken aback by how closely I resemble my mom. I have this image of her and me in a van we rented for a family vacation when I was around 6. This was a time before seat belts so I was sitting on her lap, facing her in the back seat. I was undoubtedly telling her a captivating story when I put my tongue between my teeth and made that fake fart sound that is all the rage with that age group. My mom belly laughed hard. So I did it again and again until she was crying happy tears and gasping for air. I’m not sure if the vivid memory of her face while laughing is what she actually looked like at the time or some combination of what I look like now and how I remember her from my youth but either way-we look and sound eerily similar when we are belly laughing.

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My most favorite thing about our trip to Ethiopia was that my boys finally got to do that too. Tariku’s special person stands exactly as he does in pictures. Exactly. When Tariku was playing soccer with his special people they played so similar. Nevermind that they’ve not played together for 7 years, all of their idiosyncrasies in the sport were the same. And their disappointment if they messed up? Identical. When Tariku’s special person put all of Tariku’s people on the same team there were always 5 identical reactions happening after any given play-either that of joy or frustration.

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Ethiopia is like every other developing nation in terms of the way dogs are treated. For the most part they are wild and often rabid, the closest they come to family pets is with regards to being a guard dog. Though even as guard dogs they are tied to a short leash and left in their cages, barking throughout the night. Not Tariku’s people though. They have an actual family dog that follows them around and helps them on the farm. When we went into the hut to enjoy lunch together the dog came too, lying at the feet of one of Tariku’s special people. Of course the one family in all of Ethiopia with a pet dog belongs to Tariku. I say “of course” because Tariku has always loved animals far beyond the average child. Obviously Zach and I have an affinity for animals as well but Tariku came to us like that, he was never scared of dogs the way every other child adopted from Ethiopia often is. Tariku loved it when we pointed out that he clearly came from a long line of animal lovers.

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We were able to get a picture of Tomas and Binyam’s special person they lost. “Look at the furrowed brow Tomas! Oh my goodness it’s yours exactly!” Tomas beamed, “It really is, isn’t it mom?” Tomas met a special person who shares his big heart and tendency for happy tears when the occasion allows-when they first saw each other both broke down in undistinguishable happy tears. When a funny story was told of Tomas I was hit by a surround sound of identical laughs from him and 2 of his special people. It made the rest of us in the hut echo their laughs as well, happy tears springing from my eyes as well.

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Binyam looks just like one of his special people who always found her way next to him. This special person knew Binyam was shy and liked to keep to himself so she never pressured affection but she would often try to catch his eye and together they would smile-an exact mirror of one another. Binyam was obsessed with the chicks at the farm and spent the entirety of our time with his special people holding at least one chick. That’s funny, one of Binyam’s people said, another special person shows a tenderness to the chicks when he’s feeling anxious too. When Binyam’s special person was saying the Kembatissa word for “anxious” her miming looked just like Binyam’s-right down to the way her eyes became twice their normal size and her mouth-pulled tightly at the sides-almost looked like she was smiling.

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We had a chance to ask their special people about the ones they have lost. What were they like? Do you see any of them in our boys? The expression on my boys’s faces at their responses always reminded me of Harry Potter’s whenever someone told Harry about looking just like his dad with his mother’s eyes. It’s been said many times over on here how big of a fan I am of the Potter series, I think I became an even bigger fan after we adopted Tariku. There’s a scene in the first book where Harry Potter finds the mirror of Erised, a mirror that shows the user his or her heart’s deepest desire. For Harry it’s his parents standing behind him looking content and pleased. Of all the things for an 11-year-old to choose and he chooses to see his parents, this is a pretty big lessen for adoptive parents if we allow it to be.

The movie "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone", (alt.: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), directed by Chris Columbus, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.  Seen here, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter gazing into he Mirror of Erised, seeing his mother, Lily Potter (played by Geraldine Somerville) and father, James Potter (played by Adrian Rawlins).  Initial world premiere (London) November 4, 2001.  Screen capture. © 2001 Warner Bros. Credit: © 2001 Warner Bros. / Flickr / Courtesy Pikturz.  Image intended only for use to help promote the film, in an editorial, non-commercial context.

In many ways the genetic code can feel a bit like a tether, reminding us of who we come from and where we are when it feels like we’re on our own floating into the nothingness. A visible marker that proves we matter to someone. But it can also be a burden, particularly for kids who have suffered trauma or loss at the hands of those carrying their genetic code. I don’t want to oversimplify the experience our boys had while connecting to their like DNA coded kin because the truth is now that my kids know from whom they received the look of their eyes or the furrow in their brow it can be a reminder at moments that are not the most ideal to process adoption related emotional issues.

For kids who are 11 or 10 or 9 being reminded when you look in the mirror of the person who caused you the most amount of pain-no matter how worthy or right the reasoning-is a really hard thing to work through. And sometimes due to the lack of maturity in their physical ages and the stunting that takes place developmentally when trauma is introduced into the equation-the manifestations of the shared genetic code are disrespectful, rude or hurtful. When those manifestations happen it’s hard to remember that they aren’t actually hiding their pain from us as adoptive parents but are indeed showing it to us in a way that speaks to their age. Though I don’t share any DNA with my boys, when they are in pain I feel it just as viscerally as if I did share their DNA and so am called to remember to respond in a loving way-no matter how annoyed or angered I am. This isn’t always easy but sometimes it’s a little less complicated for the precise reason that they look differently than I do. This difference in our physical appearance triggers the reminder of the pain so when I’m at my best, which I regret to admit is not always the case, I’m reminded of the trauma and can engage in a nurturing way.

I don’t claim our trip to Ethiopia has been a life altering thing for the boys yet, I think it’s both too soon to tell and also too early in their maturation for them to vocalize its true effects. I do know, though, that this morning in the bathroom Tariku was combing his hair when I was putting on my make up. He smiled a big smile so I asked him what he was thinking about. “Sometimes I just like to smile because I look like my special person. Sometimes in the mirror it looks like he’s smiling back at me.” I smiled back at him, “I totally get that, Tariku, when I’m having a bad day I do the same and I see Mimi Connie as well. It feels like exactly what I need some days.”

He shook his head yes and turned towards the mirror as did I, both of us smiling. Our own Mirror of Erised infusing love and support into our splintering hearts. Together we left the magical moment and went about our day, still feeling the power of our special people behind us. The burden and the blessing. Today I’m grateful for them both.

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On Raising Children of Color

Last night during Trysten’s basketball game I received a phone call from one of my babe’s teachers. I didn’t answer it as I didn’t recognize the number but she went on to leave a lengthy voice message about how bad of a day this babe of mine had had. She sounded frustrated and over him. The message was left at 6pm, it had been a long day for her.

Normally I get angry, we have consequences at home and it’s kind of over. But with this situation in particular the phone call hit me hard because there’s been a subtle boiling of rage within my cherub lately. I wasn’t sure if it was his way of dealing with impending puberty, his wrestling with the independence he feels a right to and the dependence on us that comes with being his young age-a fact for which he really dislikes-but I knew it was a matter of time before the bubbling brook became a river of rage. I could feel it more succinctly than Zach because often the rage that presents itself in signs of disrespect is directed at me. Women. It’s a thing for my guy. It was no surprise that the teacher calling was the female teacher and not the male teacher who takes up the other 50% of his day.

The truth is there was no big thing he did yesterday that warranted the phone call. I could hear in her voice that yesterday was the proverbial straw that broke her back. That 3 months of letting the small things go had led to this moment wherein she undoubtedly felt like she would do anything to get him out of her class and he felt like she hated him. I could feel the tension between the two of them at conferences and I did my best to build a bridge but the bridge was burning in my babe’s eyes and I had a feeling it was too late. When this sweet child of mine has decided he’s done with you there is no possible way to come back from that.

The male teacher of his ended up calling us last night to touch base and reassure us that we can all work together to get him back on the right track. This morning he sent a follow up text, “I just want to encourage you as well that I really do love having x in class. He has such a great sense of humor, he is so bright and does so well academically and his peers look at him as a leader. He has all the potential in the world. I know some of this can be discouraging but there is so much good here too.”

After a night tossing and turning and being equal parts overwhelmed and scared about my babe’s future that text was a salve to my soul. It still makes me cry just reading it.

The truth is I’m scared for my babe. I’m so scared that the parts in him that need to be right all of the time, that gets so personally offended when confronted with any reminder to behave better will get him killed. I’ve written before about how terrifying it can be to raise black sons and I wasn’t exaggerating. When raising a defiant, young, black man there are nights where you’ll lose sleep thinking about the ways in which he might use his obstinate nature on the wrong kind of person and the lights will be out. This is a very real possibility for my son and it sends me into a cold sweat every time I think about it.

There’s a phrase “School to prison pipeline” that surely haunts the night hours of anyone raising black youth. Children of color face harsher discipline than white children in schools and are more likely to be pushed out of school than their white peers. There is no doubt in my mind that my son did exactly what the teachers said he did, my fear is that when he gets into middle school and high school the teachers won’t know him as well as these teachers do and will punish him more harshly for doing exactly what he did yesterday-something his white peers have also done. (Go here for more information on the school to prison pipeline-the graph is all you need to see to understand the epidemic.) Though he has 2 parents who will have his back no matter what, the fact that he’s not as free to make mistakes as his oldest brother is infuriating.

Then there’s a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of our “great” country spouting lies and racist rhetoric about African-Americans. The educational system is a petri dish full of ways in which it will be a tougher road for 3 of my boys, there is no denying that. When I add one of my son’s inclination to disrespect in moments of tense conversation to the petri dish the narrow window for him to get into a great college and land a great job gets narrower. Land of opportunity my ass.

I am overwhelmed at raising my young, black sons because I have never been a boy and have never been black. Though I’m a woman, which can feel “other” in certain circles, there is no denying a good percentage of our country sees black not just as “other” but as a specific kind of threatening “other” so I’ve never felt the same weight my boys do/will. I don’t know if some of my son’s anger has to do with the heaviness of adoption related trauma or the burden of this country’s claim on his black body. Maybe it’s just pre-teen hormones or anger at a girl choosing a different boy. Odds are there’s a little bit of all of that pulsing through his beautiful veins.

What I do know is that though I can be immeasurably frustrated when he’s being disrespectful to me, his transgressions are not what I think of when I picture this boy in my mind. Because he’s also light and love. That teacher was right about all the ways in which he holds in his small body the ability to do big, beautiful things with his one big life. Even though he and I both went to bed crying last night, this morning he asked me if I needed help with anything before he went to get in the car before school. The way he treats his younger cousins is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen from a boy his age and his tenderness with animals is truly something to behold. The list continues ad infinitum and yet…

I know if the worst happens and his disrespect gets him killed the news will focus on that time in elementary when he threw a paper at his teacher and not the time that he brought in a stray cat during winter and tried to hide it in the garage to nurse it back to health. They might focus on all of the pictures I have of him half frowning-a head full of emotion swirling behind his dark eyes rather than the ones I have of him in moments uninhibited where his head is cocked to the side and his eyes are almost closed because he’s laughing so hard.

I know for those not raising brown or black sons this may sound alarmist but it’s a reality for so many people in our country. Tamir Rice wasn’t just a 12-year-old boy gunned down in his youth, he represented how easily my boys could do everything right and still die at the hands of those meant to protect him. Just as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook had all of my white friends raising white babies terrified at the thought that it could’ve been their child; the names of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald and Michael Brown haunt our nightmares because they represent a daily occurrence of black bodies being taken for no reason and with no justice. I’m just getting around to feeling it now that my sons have turned from chubby cheeked little brown boys to man-boys with facial hair and sculpted deltoids.

I didn’t sleep last night because as I was washing his bedding yesterday I was overcome with love for my son. When I pushed his sheets into the wash the smell of his hair and stale coconut oil washed over me and I just sat and cried. We’ve come a long way he and I and I’m proud in so many ways of where we are. I just don’t want my failings as a mom to get in the way of his future. I don’t want our failings as a country to handicap him in any way and I don’t want his own personal failings to be anything other than what they are for the rest of us-a stepping stone to be better and do better the next day.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color but I do know what it feels like to be a mom. I know there is no limit to what I will do to encourage him to be a better man and take ownership for the times in which he really messes up. But today the realization that it might not be enough is hitting just a little too hard. Raising a black son amidst so much fear mongering and anti-everything means that no matter how great of a kid he is-and dammit he’s one of the best-it just might not be enough. What a heartbreaking reality.

Ethiopia Trip-Our Second Day in the Villages

This post was written on Wednesday, November 11.

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I woke up this morning knowing I was going to make it to the villages. I had slept soundly through the night, despite sleeping most of yesterday. After careful calculations I realized I had slept 21 of the last 24 hours. My body put up a good fight and won, I’m so thankful.

This morning we were off to Tomas and Binyam’s village first. We spent the morning talking and playing soccer with his special people. Though the crowd of 200 people wasn’t there to greet us today, we had a truly beautiful time in the hut with our special people. True to our experience in Ethiopia, there was a steady stream of community members who came and sat at the doorway of the hut just to watch the ferengi (foreigners) talk with their fellow villagers. Binyam and Dailah remained fixated on the tiny chickens. Binyam, I think, because staring back at the dozens of eyes staring at him was just a little too much for my introvert. Dailah because they were simply too cute (one of T & B’s people told Dailah she should name the chicks. She named one “Cutie Patootie” and they all really loved that. )

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I loved that the special people didn’t just ask Tomas and Binyam questions but also Tariku, Dailah and Trysten. It was clear they saw no difference between the siblings and loved them because of their relation to T & B as well. It’s rarely like that in America where one of the first questions we get asked is, “But are they brothers?” about our Ethiopians, as if the fact that I called them all my kids wasn’t enough proof that they are brothers. The Ethiopians never asked if Trysten and Dailah were our biological children or how/why our family came to be. They just started calling Trysten, Dailah and Tariku “son” and “daughter” as well. What a beautiful thing that is.

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We were served roasted beans (delicious), crackers and soda. Despite my churning belly I was struck by how relaxed I was. Obviously no one in the tent save for our family, our translator and our driver spoke English but it never felt uncomfortable. It just felt really, really good to surround our boys with so many who love and pray for them every day-Ethiopian and American alike-and sometimes just sit and marvel at the miracles they truly are.

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We got to hear funny stories of Tomas and Binyam when they were younger. Both sides of the family (Ethiopian and American) loved to hear that, though so much has changed, in many ways the boys remain remarkably similar to how they were when they lived there. We have told similar stories they told with just a few different cultural variables. Some of the stuff I had worried might be adoption related with both of them turned out to be something they’ve done from the beginning. It felt so reassuring to hear details on those personality traits and think to myself, “Oh my, they’ve been doing that since they were babies, everything is going to be ok.” Very rarely with international adoption do you get to fill in holes of the adopted child’s story so I genuinely can’t tell you what it meant to do that in so many ways for Tomas-adopted at age 6 and Binaym-adopted at age 3.

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After many photos and prayers, we were off to Tariku’s special people for the afternoon.

We found out that one of Tariku’s special people had essentially told the village they weren’t allowed to hang around their hut the two days we were there. This special person didn’t want a spectacle made of the return of a beloved. It is perhaps why it felt so much like spending time with family while we were in their village.

They set up a soccer game, Tariku’s special person chose teams this time and definitely stacked one of the teams with all of Tariku’s people. Normally I would question the fairness as Tariku’s gift of excelling in sports ran rampant through his team, but it was clearly making his special person so happy so I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

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Zach and I sat on chairs with other special people to watch. Our translator walked around so it wasn’t as if we were holding conversations but there was something so universally joyful about those moments. To be watching the two worlds collide in such an ordinary way. No fanfare, no staring. It felt like a regular Wednesday in so many ways. I have to admit it was maybe my favorite time of the whole trip.

I’ve been asked if it was weird to not be able to communicate. Of course there were times when the translator was maybe in one area and we were in another that I would’ve normally started small talk with the people around me. But without the small talk, when we were able to communicate via translator our words had more purpose and more weight.

I realized that in America it’s so easy to “know” people. Maybe we small talk on a pretty regular basis, perhaps we comment on all the social media the other posts. We share the same language and perhaps we talk all the time but we don’t know each other. One of the truest gifts we received in Ethiopia was our ability to get to know our special people. When you don’t speak the same language there’s no fluff-our conversations were about the hopes, dreams and fears the other has. The stories told weren’t just silly anecdotes they were glimpses into a larger narrative about who my boys were then and how they’ve affected who they are now.

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We had some funny moments too to be sure because there was an awareness of the weirdness of the whole situation.

There’s no doubt God never intended Tariku to be with us and not with them, adoption was never part of the original plan. I think we were all aware of that in a rather profound way. But somehow we found ourselves huddled over a large plate of injera and shiro celebrating the messy, traumatic, complicated way in which we had become a family bound together by the absolute love we share for Tariku. If Tariku’s special person would’ve allowed village members in I have no doubt they would’ve recognized the common language of love in our adoring eyes and directed smiles whenever Ethiopian or American looked Tariku’s way.

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I was asked recently if it was awkward to be around Tomas, Tariku and Binyam’s special people knowing in some ways we share the same roles in their lives. In all honesty, I feel so grateful to have partners in this monumental task of raising our sons. An open international adoption is weird and inaccessible at times but when I’m feeling dark or hopeless about my abilities to raise my boys right I’m reminded of who is alongside me and I get a tremendous amount of strength from that. I feel more reassured that the boys will be okay knowing I’m not alone in raising them.

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When Zach was speaking to Tariku’s special people he said, “I just hope that I make you proud as his father with how I’m raising Tariku to love you and to love Ethiopia. I think of you often when I’m with him and just want to do right by you. Thank you for the opportunity to help raise our son.”

I thought it perfectly summed up our time spent with all of the special people. It was our way of thanking them for the gift it is to help raise our sons and to celebrate the gift in a beautiful multi-cultural, multi-lingual way.

Ethiopia Trip-On Water

Ethiopia Trip-On Water

While we were having lunch with Tariku’s special people at the hotel I started to feel my belly rumble. It had been feeling off all day but I assumed it was nerves and excitement for the day to come. I excused myself and made the long walk up 4 flights of stairs to our room where I got sick and then laid down until the dizziness passed. Over the next few hours I did this 3 more times, always trying to go join the group afterwards.

On the final time, the getting sick part was so violent and lasted for far longer than the previous trips so it took my body too long to stop shaking and sweating. I lied down and fell asleep until my family joined me upstairs.

This continued for the next many hours, roughly every 45 minutes. I would doze in between but because this is a family blog I will tell you I have never been as sick as I was at that time. Never.

I didn’t have a scale there but I would assume that in the next 48 hours I would go on to lose about 10 pounds because of the combination of getting sick and lack of appetite. I’m typically right around 125 (give or take a coconut milk ice cream sandwich, obvs) so 10 pounds wasn’t insignificant. I tell you this only so you can understand that after I came out of the worst of the fog I couldn’t shake the gratefulness I felt at having 10 extra pounds to give.

As I slowly recovered Zach and I tried to figure out what it was that caused me to become so violently ill. Because he and I were eating roughly the same thing for meals we originally couldn’t come up with something that could’ve made me sick and not touched him. Then I remembered eating some fresh greens that hadn’t been cooked but had been rinsed by local water sources.

The irony that I had gotten sick from unclean water was not lost on me.

Even though I’ve been a pretty passionate clean water advocate for 7 years, being sick by unsafe water put things in a whole new perspective for me.

-What happens when these children, mothers and fathers don’t have 10 pounds to lose?

-What happens when they don’t have a support system like I had in Zach who took care of me in ways never foretold in our marriage vows? (Seriously, moment of appreciation for the man that Zach is. I am crying just thinking about his service to me.) What happens if their support system needs to work to keep the family alive or feed the family?

-What happens when they don’t have the world’s best driver leave his hotel for the night to get prescription medicine, rehydration packets and bottled tonic water?

-What happens when they don’t have access or financial resources to access those in the first place?

Well we know what happens to them don’t we? 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 in Sub-Saharan Africa is still caused by water-related disease. I don’t just know that statistic anymore, after personally suffering from water-related sickness I know that statistic. Without all the things mentioned above, I’m not sure what my survival rate would have been and I’m a grown, healthy woman.

The day after the special family trip to the hotel we were supposed to go to the villages of all 3 of my boys. I woke up that morning determined to go, regardless of how I felt. I was able to put some clothes on and walk downstairs but as soon as I smelled food I made the 4 flight trek up the stairs just in time to get sick again.

I missed the first time my boys saw their villages again because I was sick from unclean water. This is nothing when you compare it to the 44 million school days that are missed because of water-borne illness in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. Or the 64% of the families who rely on women to collect the family’s water-and will often go without when she falls ill.

Missing a day in the villages was a really big deal for me and I still haven’t quite gotten over the guilt I feel about it. That said; it becomes easier to not revel in self pity when the reality of the world water crisis is so much bigger than my few days of poor health.

Once I was able to get the strength to correspond I sent my sister (in law) Leslie a text saying essentially, “After this whole debacle I am even more passionate about the Water Party, let’s do what we can to not let this happen to anyone else.”

I’m so grateful I have a healthy outlet to channel my outrage at getting sick because of dirty water.

The Water Party is in 3 days. This year the committee working on the event is bigger and more motivated than ever to get people passionate about the water crisis. We are raising money once again to provide local people (this time in Tanzania through Empower Tanzania) jobs as well mechanics. These well mechanics will go on to fix the broken wells that are pumping out dirty water and making their families and friends sick. My favorite thing about the last few years of the party is that we’ve been creating sustainable solutions to the water crisis by providing jobs and dignity to my brothers and sisters around the world-empowering them to take the crisis into their own hands.

When I was sick Tariku’s special people went out of their way to bring me bananas. Solomon, our driver, dropped everything to get me medications. While Zach took the kids to the villages, the Ethiopian people in the Lemma hotel stopped by my room every hour to check on me and see if I needed anything-offering to go outside of the hotel for more medication if necessary. Our translator came to my room offering a ride to the hospital. Tomas and Binyam’s special people gave Zach a local herb that I was to chew that settles the belly. This bitter herb smelled terrible but worked in the short term. And the next day when I arrived at the villages, before hugging the children, these special people came to me and asked if I was better-praising God when I told them I was.

The Ethiopian people didn’t withhold love or care because I wasn’t Ethiopian; they took care of me as one of their own and did it in a way that restored dignity to me.

And I want to do the same for my Tanzanian brothers and sisters. I know there is so much pain and suffering happening right here in America but if we continue to close our borders (literally and figuratively) when the world needs us they will do the same when we need them. I’m not sure what my week in Ethiopia would’ve looked like without the care given to me willingly by Ethiopians, I truly don’t want to think about it.

So this week I’m going to celebrate that in the midst of so much terribleness in the world, on Saturday we will change mourning into dancing. We can’t change lives for everyone but we can do all we can to change the lives of as many people as possible.

You can join us, if you too are needing a little celebration. If you’re in the Davenport, Iowa area please come to the event. November 21, downtown Davenport, 3rd floor of the Redstone Building. Check out the event page on Facebook to hear how we use local vendors and artists to provide global resources. We have always believed that we can do both as Americans-support and encourage small business in America while working to end the water crisis. It’s the very best kind of 2 for 1.

If you can’t join us you can still donate. 100% of your donation goes to providing access to clean water because Leslie and I fundraise separately for the cost of the event. Go here to donate.

You can also purchase these beautiful handcrafted bracelets. Designed and crafted by local Maasai tribe artisans, these bracelets are a show stopper-I’m always getting compliments on mine when I wear it out! For just $30 you’ll be providing clean water for 2 people, what a small price to pay for fashion. Buy those here.

Maasai Bracelet

You can also enter our raffle to win a $300 purse, a $350 bottle of Opus One Wine, an authentic Maasai kanga and one of the Tanzanian bracelets. We will ship to you should you come out the victor! Enter to win here.

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We are living in a moment of time riff with violence and devastation. The only way I know how to cope is shine a little light in the darkness. It doesn’t necessarily help the people of Lebanon, France, Kenya or Nigeria but hope is contagious. I just want to plant a seed of hope this week and see how it grows over time.

Thank you for reading these blogs of our trip. Despite the sickness (or maybe because of?) I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to take our family and for the outlet this blog has provided to wade through my experience.

Much love.

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An image in Southern Ethiopia of kids swimming, bathing and collecting water from this river. Zoom in to also see the animals doing the same.