The lady on the bus said it best.
We had landed at LAX airport last Thursday on our way home from China, and we had exactly two hours and 20 minutes to process through customs, clear immigration, proclaim our newest superhero a U.S. citizen and recheck the five suitcases our three walking children grabbed while we transported six carry-on bags and a 3-year-old in an Ergo back through security, all before our next flight boarded.
Only the first airport employee directed us to Terminal 6, which we forced our children, one with broken sandals, another with blistered feet, to sprint toward on two to six hours of sleep carrying book bags nearly half their size, only to discover upon arrival at Terminal 6 that our connecting flight was actually now leaving out of Terminal 3.
In 20 minutes.
An entire bus ride and a whole new security line away.
As we squeezed all our belongings and panting, panicked children onto the airport shuttle that we prayed would somehow get us to our gate on time (by a miracle of God, it did), the lady sitting across from us looked us up and down and took in the hot mess that was our traveling team.
Super-Spouse’s back side was drenched from sprinting from terminal to terminal with three overloaded book bags and half a child. Superhero 4 was wiggling and struggling from his place in the Ergo and, because we didn’t have time to stop and change a diaper, had just peed through his diaper onto his pants. And onto me. Superhero 2’s feet were bleeding from the sandals that had given him blisters, and Superhero 1, the Type A time-keeping Nazi who frets if he’s not in the school pick-up line at least 10 minutes before it actually begins, was tearing up as he kept repeating over and over, “We’re never going to make it. We’re never going to make it.” All while Superman kept trying to fall asleep on his book bag.
Trying to momentarily de-stress, I sat down for two seconds with our superhero strapped to my chest and took a whiff of myself, hoping the new scent of perspiration would somehow cover the odor of the entire cup of coffee Superhero 4 had spilled on me during his two hours of thrashing-about sleep on our 13-hour flight from Guangzhou to L.A. But alas, I now just smelled like one of those gyms that keeps Keurigs in the back and thinks it’s a cool kid coffee bar.
With a side shot of urine.
That’s when the woman across from us counted our matching black t-shirts and saw that all six of these pitifully put together people probably belonged together.
“You’ve sure got your hands full,” she said, smiling that "thank God it’s not me” smile I know so well from my days of toddler temper tantrums in the commissary check-out line.
And that, my friend, I do.
Traveling with six people for 25 hours over 12 time zones with a 3-year-old who doesn’t speak English, met our family two weeks ago and has never been on a plane before is no joke.
But what’s even more fun is getting all six of those jet-lagged people on the right time zone … with T minus three days until the first day of school … while returning to the land of markers-are-for-wall-coloring 3-year-old glory.
We arrived home on Friday morning to the most beautiful handmade wreaths and lovely Chinese welcome signs and a counter full of gifts and a room full of balloons. Our fridge was filled with groceries delivered, sorted and organized by not just one surprise guest but by two. And our house, which had been professionally cleaned while we were away as a gift from a dear friend, sparkled like it never had before.
Dinner was prepped and made and waiting for us in the fridge, and we were nearly crying as we took in the gestures of lavish love that so many friends and family members had surprised us with in our absence.
Then some of us DID begin crying because we were just. That. Tired.
For two weeks in China, these boys who had been the best of big brothers were the essence of angels. They used their nice words, traveled like champs, welcomed their brother with enthusiasm and love and even used their best manners as we ate with new friends who asked us to try jellyfish and snail and duck liver and squid.
They never learned how to use their inside voices inside hotel walls, but four out of five ain’t bad.
As we watched these boys we hardly recognized sharing their books and offering help carrying bags for their brothers and offering to change diapers and teaming up to walk their new brother around, Super-Spouse and I just kept poking ourselves.
“That’s it,” we kept saying. “We are using our lifetime quota of good days right here in China. It’s done. When we get back, you know all H-E-double-hockey-sticks is going to break lose. We’re using every good card in our deck here.”
And apparently we did.
As the boys who had been saints for two full weeks in China dropped their bags to the ground, they immediately began bickering and fighting and grabbing and hitting and melting down before our eyes as their new brother, who didn’t understand why we’d just stayed up through the night his time, completely came undone, all while the still-packed bags and the 5.2 million loads of nasty, rain-soaked laundry stared at us just waiting to be done.
I looked at the clock, my habit from many years of toddler nap-anticipating. And then I almost cried when I realized it was only 9:30 a.m. Because though it felt like 9:30 p.m. to all of us, I knew that if we didn’t stay up all day, our lives on Eastern Standard Time would be ruined forever.
So, as we played whack-a-mole waking up the children falling asleep on beds and toilets and couches and counters when all we wanted to do after snatching only two hours of sleep over the previous 48 hours was crawl into bed and collapse ourselves, we tried to decide on an outing.
I thought maybe our first outing as a family of six would be to the local splash pad, or maybe the local park. A place as wonderful and beautiful as the home our friends had just prepared for us.
As I day dreamed about the Rockwellian place that I would later tell my son was the first outing of his American life, I watched him squeal in glee as, in the period of five minutes, he attempted to play Frisbee with Granny’s china, launch scissors from the art cart, empty the contents of my entire Bible study bag onto the floor and remove the lids from the Sharpies he planned to use to redecorate my walls.
And then we took our first outing as a family of six.
To buy locks.
And more coffee.
Thank God for our first host child’s mama, who sent me a care package with a pound of Dunkin and two pounds of fudge that I may or may not have half-devoured already in my learning-how-to-parent-a-3-year-old-again, sleep-deprived stupor.
Moving from three superheroes to four honestly felt like a breeze. We’d outdone our adult-to-child ratio long ago, and it seemed so natural to add another superhero to the league. Counting to four in public didn’t even feel strange.
Moving back to 3-year-old land, though? Let’s be honest. That was a total shock to the system.
Because bringing home a 3-year-old from China is not like hanging out with a 3-year-old who has grown up inside the rules, setting and structure of your home.
Three-year-olds from China have never seen all the new and exciting toys and gadgets in this house where they’ve never lived.
They’ve rarely seen Western toilets. (Or learned that they are not built-in water tables for toddler playtime.)
And this one, after being raised by a beautiful and amazing woman who will always have a special place in my heart but was the age of a grandmother and apparently approached her foster children as such, has apparently never heard the word “no.”
Which makes discovering and exploring all those fun toys and gadgets and toilets such a joy.
After one day in the house, all three older brothers had two marks: slobber from all the kisses this special superhero lavishes upon the boys he clearly adores, and battle wounds from the hits, scratches and spits that he issued when he didn’t like being told he couldn’t color with Sharpie in his brothers’ books or launch their Lego structures down the stairs.
Keeping this busy boy who has so much love (and spit!) to give occupied and entertained with things he’s ALLOWED to play with is kind of like bottling a tornado.
Total house rearrangement. Which we had plenty of time to do when we all woke up at 2 and 3 a.m. the first night because our jet-lagged bodies just wouldn’t let us sleep anymore.
Jet lag. Evil, evil jet lag.
For our first five days home, Superhero 4 woke up every hour to two hours all night long, the beagle with the terminal condition that affects his continence barked to go out every 20 to 40 minutes and the older boys woke up for the day at 3 a.m., all while Super-Spouse faced what I swore was a parasite and lived in total gut and jet-lag nighttime misery for seven long days.
Welcome to the Land of No Sleep.
Every day, as we fell deeper and deeper in love with our smiley superhero whose faces, expressions and hilarious daytime antics keep us laughing for hours, I attempted to force the boys to stay awake until 7, and every night, they snuck away to beds and couches and even kitchen tables and nodded off around 4, begged us for sleep at 5 and were mostly knocked out by 6.
Which didn’t give us much time to perform Superman’s new hour-long nightly medical routine, which we decided would be a brilliant time to start the week we returned from China with a new superhero and major jet lag.
At one point last week, I was working on seven hours of sleep over three days while Super-Spouse lay nauseous out of his brains on the hallway floor while I tried to remember how he taught me to perform Superman’s medical procedures, and fluids and medical devices and things with Latin names I can’t pronounce spilled all over our newly-cleaned floors. Superhero 4 was bawling for Mama, Superman was crying in frustration, Superhero 2 was hanging upside down on the couch snoring and the beagle, seeing full well that my hands were tied and I was 5 seconds from a mental breakdown, was cheerfully chewing poopy diapers in the corner.
The next day, I set my alarm for 3 a.m., because to function with any sense of joy after the previous night, I knew I desperately needed some coffee, quiet time and Jesus.
Only Superhero 4 must have discovered my evil plot to sneak my first alone time in two weeks and woke up with his trademark smile at 2:30 a.m. … 30 minutes before my early alarm.
It’s a good thing he’s stinkin’ cute.
As I stared at the toaster that morning, trying on only a few hours of sleep to remember how this strange appliance worked and lamenting the fact that it wasn’t producing for me a 17-course buffet that it delivered hot to my plate (thank you for ruining my life, Garden Hotel buffet), the early riser behind me got strangely quiet. By the time I turned around, he had dumped his entire glass of milk on his tray and on the ground, fed our beagle most of his breakfast (they’ve formed this beautiful alliance, these two, where Superhero 4 gets into everything, unrolls it and gives it to Ranger, and then Ranger graciously snatches it and chews it up under the bed) and decorated his hair. With an entire cup of yogurt. All before 3 a.m.
Which explains why in China he smelled like Chinese food and in the United States he constantly smells like spoiled milk. Or apple pie. Or whatever the glorious people who have signed up to deliver our meals bring us on a daily basis.
Because apparently, 3-year-olds smash food in their hair. And all over their bodies. And in every crevice of their high chairs. And everywhere possible that doesn’t involve a plate.
Meals from friends have been our lifesavers. I can barely cook when I’ve slept. (Superhero 1 started cooking at home mostly because he wanted to eat better than I had the ability to cook.) On two to five broken hours of sleep a night for eight days straight (God love you, Ranger, for waking me up every 20 to 40 minutes even when the other kids can finally sleep), macaroni is now out of my skill set.
So the beautiful meals that arrive hot at our door each night have saved my children from crackers and cereal and cold bread with no butter because getting to the store is not a life priority right now. Survival is.
But they’ve pretty much ruined our newest superhero’s view of eating life.
Because now, he thinks we have a meal delivery service that comes to our house and drops five-course meals with from-scratch desserts for this boy who can out-eat us all.
On Monday, when my sweet friend dropped the most delicious open-faced sandwiches and salads and homemade apple pie at our door, Superhero 4 went outside with me to greet her. After he saw her transfer the food to me, he leaned down from his place in my arms, kissed her cheek sweetly, then said, “Buh bye!”
My friend and I chatted for a few more minutes, and, clearly confused by why I needed to conversate so long with the help, Superhero 4 interrupted again with another kiss to her cheek, another “buh bye,” and this time, loud chomping noises to let her know he was ready to go eat. Followed by another firm “buh bye!”
We both nearly died.
As he’s grown in confidence inside our family, this strong-willed superhero has become more and more bold about his opinion. And recently, he’s decided that, although he really likes the other members of our team and loves wrestling with them throughout the day, he really only wants to be held by me. In order to make this super clear, he thinks it best to incessantly shout, “Mama” 23 of 24 hours a day, and to shout it especially loudly when anyone else reaches out their arms to hold him.
This, of course, is a God-given answer to bonding prayers and beautiful music to my ears!
When my ears are able to hear.
That, though, is a bit of a struggle when I’m in the shower and mouths are shouting and sweet hands are banging on the glass doors to let them in.
Or, when they’re not banging because said hands have discovered the iPhone on my vanity and they are instead taking naked pictures of me that they are also trying to send to my adoption advocacy friends who I’ve never met in person.
Hello, near-stranger. So glad you could meet my back side first.
I haven’t taken a shower alone since having four children, and everything that once took me five minutes now takes five hours. Because it either has to be done one-handed with a sweet little superhero who is sure to distract me with plenty of hugs and kisses in tow, or it has to be done when the boy who sends inappropriate texts and destroys books for hobbies is asleep.
Which is never.
I used to tackle between 25 and 35 tasks a day on my calendar.
Now, I tackle two: Keep four boys alive and get three of them to and from school.
Note to boys’ teachers: Thanks so much for the 3,502,403 pieces of paperwork you sent home on the first day. Keeping those documents away from the boy who eats paperwork for breakfast and spending two hours filling them out on no sleep once he was finally asleep was a new form of parental torture that I will remember on Teacher Appreciation Day. ;)
I haven’t touched my blog or Facebook for days, and my email box and voicemail box and text box are all full because I haven’t had a spare second to even respond to family members to let them know that yes, we made it home, and yes, we are still alive. (Alive is a loose term these days. And this is your collective notice.)
And on a handful of hours of sleep each night with a 3-year-old who fills my home with joy and chaos, all personal time of any kind has completely gone out the window. (I now consider “personal time” the 10 minutes I am able to use my laptop in the front seat of my car when Superhero 4 doesn’t wake up right away on our way home from dropping the boys at school.)
The only reason adoption announcements got out to family this week is because I printed all the labels before we left for China, ordered the cards when I was jetlagged in the middle of the night in Guangzhou and Superman, who loves stamping, asked if he could adhere all the stamps, labels and return addresses and send them for me. (Family who is receiving seven upside-down return address stamps on your letters, please tell Superman what a great job he did.)
Yesterday, Super-Spouse returned from a crushing day of work. After two weeks out of the country, it seems he can’t go to work early enough in the morning to answer all his emails before the day starts. (Although he tried the day he left at 3 a.m. and put in 15 hours.)
He crawled through the door just barely over the Plague and totally exhausted, and I tried to feign the energy that vanished three block-throwing sessions, two dumped out China cabinets and four jet-lagged hours ago.
We met each other’s eyes like tonight might be the night.
For that thing we’ve been waiting for for days now.
That thing we both keep dreaming about doing together in the same bed at the same time that hasn’t happened since before we left because we had to sleep in separate hotel rooms to accommodate our six-person crew in China.
Alas, sleep didn’t come. But puking did.
All. Night. Long.
This sweet boy who had finally started sleeping in his bed for two- and three-hour stretches caught a cold that caused him to cough until he puked, and he coughed and then threw up, coughed and then threw up, coughed and begged for Mama to “bao,” then just held me tight in his tiny arms.
For hours, I held this boy as we went back and forth to the bathroom and he faced the first sickness of his non-fostered life. And for hours, his weak and vulnerable eyes looked directly into mine, seeking comfort, seeking reassurance, seeking trust that I would really take care of him, even if I hadn’t slept in an entire week.
And as he miserably reached for me and in the tiniest voice asked, “Mama, bao?” to pull him closer because we weren’t snuggled tightly enough in the toddler bed, last night, in the most unlikely place, at the most unlikely time, I feel like Superhero 4 and I solidified a bond that God had been building for two-plus weeks.
In the vomit. In the sickness. In the sleep deprivation that has been both our lives.
That’s where God did the thing most beautiful
He sealed our hearts.
I was wrapped the first moment I met his eyes.
I was melted the first time he wrapped his arms around me.
And I was undone the first time he grabbed my face, leaned his head on mine and called me “Mama.”
This superhero is beyond amazing, and I’ve been head over heels for this boy since Day 1.
But last night, I was totally overwhelmed as these ordinary, normal, totally exhausted hands had the extraordinary and holy privilege of holding this child who was an orphan on August 13 and who now is the apple of all our eyes in his weakest and most vulnerable state, vomit and all, all night long.
THESE moments — of sharing the hard and the vulnerable and of doing life together side by side and hand in hand — they make the “good life.”
So yes, bus lady traveling alone with your book and your cappuccino and your manicured nails and your full night of sleep (God bless you), my hands ARE full.
Of all the right things.
Because here tonight, from my place beside my son who is still waking himself up coughing all night and just wanted to hold my hand at 1 a.m. when I’m up writing blog posts because after a week of sleepless nights, my body just can’t sleep, my HEART is FULLER.
This isn’t a relaxing life. But it’s a RICH ONE. And when that boy or any of these boys looks into my eyes and kisses my cheeks and says to me, “Mama, bao,” and hugs a human he can for the first time in his life call “family” and know that in my arms is where he belongs, it’s WORTH IT.
It may take me eight days to write a blog post that used to take two hours, and I may never get to see the light of Facebook (or the back of my eyelids) again. (This is your official notice — these superheroes, all five of them, come first. Blogging is going on hold for as long as sleep and superheroes say so.)
But here in this place of beautiful, messy chaos, I’m meeting Jesus. I’m learning to rely on HIS strength. I’m learning to reschedule my life with HIS priorities. And in all my exhaustion, I’m experiencing the very heart of God … right in the eyes of my son.
My hands may be full, but my life — it couldn’t be fuller.