Saturday morning, and we bustle loudly to wake Qiao Qiao. But in the end, it requires going in and telling her it’s time to get up. Once she knows it’s her duty she is straight upright in bed, though her eyes are still closed. This is one strong girl. She stays there for a bit, waking up, and I see sadness on her face. I think the unfamiliar, the unknown, the hard work of the day of acclimating ahead of her, are being felt.
Saturdays are a cartoon morning for us and the older two are happily ensconced on the couch when she walks in, still carefully avoiding the cats, and snuggles up between them. When I bring in her big fluffy comforter and cover her, as I do all the kids on TV mornings, she beams. Now it’s breakfast time, in front of the tv, and this too is a special treat. I serve them strawberries and kiwis and clementines with muffins and she takes nearly an hour to finish hers, still waking up, and watching. The kiwi are a new taste but she likes them.
Now it’s clean up time, time to get dressed. I offer her two choices of clothing, and for the first time she picks one. The Hello Kitty dress with silky skirt wins. After some clean up time it’s out to jump on the trampoline, scooter in the driveway and play with the cash register. It’s a non-stop stream of laughter and commands given in merry childs Mandarin. She seems to really be struggling with the language gap though, using the same two words, two of the words we understand, in Mandarin, over and over and over – even when they don’t really fit. She says “don’t have” and “finished” constantly. It’s sad to watch, like she is trying so hard to break through in language with us, but keeps hitting a ceiling. I remind David and the kids to keep speaking full english sentences to her, just simple ones, with gestures. To talk as if she understands, so that she will understand. We ignore some of the chaotic talking, letting it extinct, while increasing our English use and play with her.
After a while we head to our new local playground where she spins and swings and climbs to her hearts content, after making sure Mama does it first. David introduces her to basketball, where she is a terrible ball thrower, but very enthusiastic. I leave my phone somewhere and she runs to bring it to me, teasing me by holding it behind her back. As I reach for it, it is dropped, shattering on the concrete. Her face, a web of feelings. Somehow the moment makes me want to cry. Not about the phone (I am not a “stuff” person) but about the shattering of so many things in our lives over the last weeks. The phone, representing so much I have been feeling in my heart. So much new joy, yes. But also new pain. My heart also a web of feelings. I see her relief though, as I simply say “uh-oh” and put the phone away. Nothing else to say, especially to a girl with no English.
We eat burgers and hot dogs for lunch, fast and easy. At home, friends are arriving. One from Singapore, but of Chinese heritage, whose Mandarin is very good. She and our other friend sit down and play memory with us. Qiao Qiao is shy at first, but warms up quickly as the competitive spirit kicks in. She has been resisting speaking to anyone fluent in Mandarin, perhaps still trying to fly under the radar through lack of communication – sometimes not talking is a safe place to be. But it’s such a great experience for me, listening to Mirimba talking simply, as an Auntie, during the game. She uses the simple lingo of playing. “My turn”, “your turn”, “you tricked me!” And I gain new phrases, new words, I build on the foundation I am working with. Although I may have gained only a word or phrase or two it’s pure gold. It’s so good to hear Qiao Qiao speaking full sentences and being understood. My heart hurts for her in the language gap. I choose not to feel guilty, but I do feel sad.
No sooner have they left than Denny comes, equipped with a full bag of baking goods. Denny is a new friend in our life, but a god-sent one. He wants to just hang out and do life. And Denny is nothing if not full of life. There is talking and laughing and playing and funny voices and flour everywhere and gooey hands attacking each other and Qiao Qiao getting in the mix of all of it, feeling totally safe with Denny. He is the first person outside of our family that she has really bonded with. She steals his hat and teases him in rapid Mandarin, telling him that it has gone outside. The best thing about Denny is that he puts his full heart into playing along.
Meanwhile Qiao Qiao and I are playing up a storm as Denny and the other two cook and dance together. I have seen her fingering a beautiful tulle dance costume I hung in her closet, a remnant of a past ballet show Naomi performed in. But when I ask her if she’d like to put it on she furiously shakes her head no. I can tell she is afraid to try – afraid of the wonder and the beauty. I insist, mom-like, that she is going to wear it and she insists that she will, if I will put a dress on too. So we slide that ballerina costume up over her beautiful brown skin and I put on an old sequined dress that doesn’t fit in all the wrong places. And we dance together and jump on the trampoline together and she lets me take her pictures. Beauty personified.
When cookies come out of the oven, we all eat the gooey goodness, tasting like heaven on this transition day. Juliana has brought Chinese food for dinner and we polish that off outside on the back deck with Denny, talking and enjoying each other. Paul and Stephanie show up with beer and sangria supplies, to give us a quick hug and let us know they are praying. These little drive by visits are amazing – so much more cheering than you can imagine. I feel safe, warm, held in their embrace. Held in community. Held by unshakable love so that I can be unshakable love to this little family of mine, to this one little girl who is worth it all.
Now swords emerge from the dress up box in the garage and Ava is fighting, big tulle skirt and all. If I could only share one image to tell you the character of my daughter; it would be her in her strappy tulle ballerina costume with full skirt, play-cutting the arms and legs off of Denny in the garage on a starlit evening. It would be her scootering hard down the driveway, in the same dress, yelling “Ayiii”, as she does. My heart aches with her beauty, the beauty of God, held in her small body. So wondrous it is impossible to describe.
It is bedtime and she asks to use the bathtub instead of the shower. As David and Denny wash dishes and talk, she explores the tub toys, Quinn’s old ones he still sometimes uses. She closes the shower curtain tight and tells me “bye bye”, code for “I need some space mama.” I hear her chattering Mandarin to her toys until she calls me, to teach her to empty the water from the tub and to wrap her tightly in her towel and kiss her head, as I always do. I put lotion on her dry skin and we sit on the bed and she wants me to massage her feet and legs longer, insisting on more. Now we climb into bed, read our books and turn out the light. I ask if I should stay or leave and she says strongly that I should stay. As we cuddle up in bed she lays her whole body over mine, claiming me. It’s not enough to be side by side, it’s as if she wants to get inside my skin, to become part of me. It’s a womb moment for us, us becoming one, despite our DNA differences. Love really can do that.
I wish to stay there forever, but as her breathing slows and she falls limp against me, I slide out from under her, to recount the beauty of the day with David, side by side in our bed. To pray over the house together. To sleep as deeply as I possibly can, until it begins all over again, tomorrow.