Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Our Summer Getaway

After working ten + years to build our family, it's recently been on my heart...a feeling of the Holy Spirit whispering, "You've worked hard to build this family, now go make memories."

And that we did. Last Thursday, we packed up the car (enough for two weeks, it seems) and we drove across the state to the west coast for some fun and family bonding time on the beach for the weekend.

It was so needed...

The kids joyously embraced the journey. They packed their suitcases together. They bonded over plans of childish mischief. The most important part was that they bonded. Miss Lulu seemed to grasp the concept of "vacation" somewhat as we attempted to communicate our plans. At the end of every explanation, she replied, "Home-uh?" And we would reassure her that home was, indeed, at the end of our journey.

I can't say that our drive over was uneventful, thanks to torrential Florida downpours that terrify me. Poor Jimmy. That's all I can say. When we arrived in Fort Myers, we were hungry and in desperate need of something to erase the stress of the ride, so we made our way into the town center and found a cool spot to decompress (which equals beer, and in my case a margarita or two) and some late lunch. The timing was perfect since check-in was at 3:00. We made it to our hotel right on time.

The kids loved exploring the new weekend digs--a cozy two bedroom unit with a kitchen and living area plus a nice patio. Joey even said that he would like for us to live there.

We hit the pool first, much to mom's desire to head beachside. Kids will be kids. But we made a deal for sunset to take place at the beach, and the family stayed true to that. A beautiful swarm of dragonflies escorted us to the beach. There were a hundred of them. It was quite heartwarming given that Jimmy's mother LOVED dragonflies and they remind us of her presence. Sadly, I have no pictures of the amazing and colorful sunset that evening, but boy did we have fun soaking in Mother's Nature's pool. And the littles, as I suspected, thoroughly enjoyed digging in the sand together...teamwork at its finest.

The next morning, we decided to hit the beach first. I had successfully convinced the kids that searching for seashells was as much fun as hunting for treasure. We found a live baby sea star! Jimmy and I discovered, through the day, a fear of the water in Joey and uncovered that he's watched a few television shows about sharks--enough to keep him out of the water. This too shall pass, I'm sure (or I hope!) Madi and I noticed a wispy cloud formation over us that looked like an angel. It hung out for about an hour.

I went back to the room mid-morning to grab a few things and went to check the time in the kitchen. The microwave read 2:22. I knew it was wrong (it was actually 11:09 a.m.) but it was too coincidental (friends who know our adoption story and how Ephesians 2:22 became our adoption verse will understand). I should've snapped a picture but the lighting wasn't right, and once I pressed a button in an attempt to increase the brightness, it was gone. Crazy. I headed back to the beach in awe. When I got back, I found Daddy down in the sand with the kids digging their way to China. Not kidding. Jimmy had practically dug a sink hole in the earth. The kids were stoked. And thankfully no one fell in!  

We heard thunder after a while and decided that it was time to head up to the room. As we made our way, we couldn't help but notice the rainbow formation in the clouds. It felt like another beautiful sign of the "Built Together" day it was shaping up to be. 


We took in a game of Left, Right, Center played with Skittles. Charlie was the big winner but, in typical kind-hearted fashion, shared the pot with his siblings.

You might remember the "Petro Princesses" who've showered our children with special surprise packages dating back to Daniel's hospital stay. I've blogged about them before. Well, the Prince of the house paid us a visit for dinner Saturday night. It was such a treat to spend time with him and for the kids to meet him too. Lulu loved Uncle Tim instantly.

Tim was able to tackle the impossible and successfully snap a desperately wanted family photo of all of us--finally together--and wearing our Built Together adoption fundraising shirts. 

We made it just in time because then the rain came down, so we headed back up to the room for a painting project and visiting.




Then we had some bubble fun on the patio. It was such a perfect day.

The week of our trip, I'd reached out to a long time friend from Ohio knowing that they have a vacation home in Fort Myers (but not knowing the exact location). Jimmy went to college with her hubby. And it turned out they were there in town and only seven minutes away! These friends? Y'all...we were engaged at their wedding. Yes, they were selfless enough to allow us to share their special day with us. That was twenty-five years ago. And this weekend? We were reconnected with them in such a beautiful way. We got to hang out with their family and they finally got to meet ours.



The boys loved having "big kids" to hang out with. And Madi got to go on a jet ski for the first time. She was terrified at first (and maybe I was slightly nervous, too) but I knew she was in good capable hands with Daddy. They were gone for a while and her facial expression was priceless when they got back. She thoroughly loved it.

After soaking in hours of sun and fun, we headed back to our place to eat dinner and hit the sack. The kids were wiped out. Of course the vacation wouldn't be complete without some sort of sheer craziness, and that came in the form of a fire alarm just as we were all in our pj's and ready for bed. It took me several screams to wake up Madi, who was already passed out from the events of the day. Fun, fun...definitely something to remember!

The next morning, Lulu and I woke early and headed to the beach for a last-minute visit before check out. The whole drive back, Lulu repeatedly asked, "Home?" and we repeatedly confirmed her greatest desire--to go home. When we finally hit the nest, these kids (all of us, maybe) faced a little post-vaca emotional breakdown. But mostly the flood of tears came from Lulu, who was just obviously so relieved to come back to the place she's come to know and love so much in these couple of months--her home. And our summer getaway was the perfect family experience to show her that we always come back...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Two Months in...

I stand in awe of all the progress that's transpired around here in just one month since my last Lulu update. As I reflect upon my initial post about Lulu's transition...just WOW...she's come so far! I'm not saying that things are perfect in our home because Lord knows we have so many more mountains to climb, and we are still very much "in the trenches" at times, but I am acknowledging all the good. That's one of the blessings of transparently sharing "the hard," I believe, is being able to openly rejoice in God's goodness through the positive change that transpires in the lives of these children when given unconditional love and a lot of prayers from faithful friends.

Lulu's transition, overall, has improved so much. When we met our little girl in China, one of the ways she seemed to "cope" looked more like hyperactivity. She wouldn't get visibly upset, really, but her grief manifested in a spin-out-of-control fashion. While she still shows this behavior sometimes in unknown and unpredictable scenarios, Lulu has become a more relaxed and calm person. She's still a "busybody" by nature, but the difference is clear. I think Jimmy and I are much calmer now, too, having more of an idea what makes our daughter tick and a better understanding of her behavior patterns.

There are two "H" words that have made a big difference in our world. The first one is "Help." Once Lulu mastered this word and it's meaning, much of her frustration went by the wayside because she could cry out for something and see how we would quickly respond to assist her when she chooses to use her words. The other "H" word that's been a world-changer...HOME. Once Lulu learned that the word matches this familiar place where we land everyday--this place where we take comfort together, she can now give us the word "home" instead of being out somewhere and having a complete meltdown because she couldn't express the simple concept of wanting to go home. It's resulted in huge improvement.

Another tremendous blessing came from our sister-friend, Kerry, who teaches and specializes in communication for children with special needs. She came to our rescue one day with an arsenal of communication tools including a feelings chart, and "first/then" chart, and most importantly a daily schedule that can visually show Lulu what her day will look like. They've really served as a lifeline in tough times.

In just a month, Lulu's co-sleeping has already transitioned a bit. She now falls asleep on her twin-sized mattress by the foot of our bed and without the full-on battle that used to take place to get her understand it was bedtime. It was war, y'all. We kinda loosened the reigns in this area and tried not to be so rigid. Thankfully, summer has allowed us to be more flexible. Now Lulu willingly complies and knows that all of us are doing the same thing. Most of the time, she sleeps through the night on her bed, and then sometimes she makes her way up into our bed. That's just fine for now. We can see her independence growing!

And in some ways, she's regressed (temporarily). It's normal for adopted children to innately try to "redo" the baby-hood that they missed out on. We are completely indulging her in every aspect of this process knowing that it will only benefit her development and emotional attachment. She's a very big (and heavy) baby! Lulu bounces back and forth in calling me "Mama" and testing out "Mommy" since that's what the other kids call me. Whichever name it is, it can be heard ringing through our home about a thousand times a day.

As usual, we've assigned some affectionate nicknames to our newest family member. Since she has a bit of a lisp, she refers to herself as "Wu Wu." So, of course, we started calling her that, too, which then morphed into "Woozer." It might be a China thing (actually I think so because I vaguely remember Joseph doing this too) but she calls Madi "Madi-ah" and Charlie is "Charlie-ah," so Madi calls her sister, "Lulu-ah." Most recently, Lulu's been calling herself "Mei Mei," which means "Little Sister" in Chinese. I kinda like it so it might stick for Mama.

This girl is our prayer leader at meal time! She never forgets to say grace and will not be content until she knows everyone at the table is ready (especially the boys, lol) and participating. In fact, sometimes we'll say grace more than once at the table with her in charge! Lulu still has a hearty appetite and prefers good foods. When given the choice, she'll usually pick something healthy over something that's not. Kudos to her orphanage for that. I still believe nutrition has played a key part of her physical and mental development.

There's still some separation anxiety from Mama but that's to be expected, and we are addressing it in small doses. I have managed, in the past few weeks, to leave her in Jimmy's care for an errand or a short time away without any tears! I always give her plenty of warning that I'm leaving to prepare her. This is major since the first couple of times I left without her resulted in complete meltdowns, and in one case she cried for almost two hours until I got home...heartbreaking, but now she is slowly learning that "Mommy comes back," and it's very rewarding to watch her trust build. Just today she, by choice, stayed back at Bubba and Grandpa's house with the boys while I took Madi to a doctor's appointment. I was gone almost three hours and she didn't cry at all. She did ask for me, and Bubba did a little countdown for her, but no tears.

Lulu loves to play. She's rough and tumble one minute and playing dress-up the next. She's still super-helpful with everything and has a big cheerful personality. Lulu's not a pushover by any stretch, and she's not afraid to let you know it. But inside, she clearly has a beautiful loving heart. She'll kiss her siblings and look after them. She'll also tell on them in a hot second, especially if she's not getting her way. Stinker.

Lulu's still loves the camera and the camera loves her. She adores seeing her own pictures after I take them...she's funny. And her favorite activity is still swimming. She's becoming the little fishy that a Florida girl should, and loves to "hold court" at our community pool, as our friend Lisa would say.


So, thankfully, the family tree continues to blossom in glorious ways. I've had friends who've expressed an interest in adoption down the line and have also expressed concern in how it could negatively affect their family dynamics. I am not going to sit here and type that it's all unicorns and rainbows in our house. It is hard sometimes, and we dig deep. But I can tell you that there are moments of beauty that make it ALL worth it...every single bit of angst. The most beautiful testimony in our family is in the heart of our Madi. She was the most resistant of our children to the idea of another adoption. In fact, she was downright angry when it was first presented and grieved over our choice. It broke our hearts, and Jimmy and I prayed for our daughter's heart and prayed for God to be glorified over all this. And guess who's bonded the most with Lulu? Yep. Sister Madi and Lulu have an amazing relationship. I'm serious. I could cry over how good it is. She's always had a kind heart, but Madi has gained a sense of compassion that we didn't see before. She seems to understand (as best she can) what Lulu's been through and is aware of the obstacles she faces. She also sees what a fighter Lulu is, and she'll protect her little sis in a flash. There have been times that Madi's come to Lulu's aid in the midst of a full-on tantrum, and there have been instances where Madi has even stood up for Lulu and given me advice on how a behavioral situation should be handled in her opinion. Madi smiles a mile-wide when she sees Lulu enter a room, and she truly enjoys teaching her new things. Madi is patient, and she is loving.


So, has this fifth adoption messed up our family dynamic? Nope. Not at all. But it has changed us in ways that have made us all stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones. And I believe it's brought us all closer to understanding how Jesus loves us unconditionally, even through the hard times, and how we must do the same. To witness true transformation in a person is such a blessing. There's a whole list of "firsts" happening here on a weekly basis, but I'll save those for another post. To God be the Glory.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Bible Camp 2016

I struggle to find the words to explain what a blessing our Bible Camp at St. Vincent Ferrer is to our family each year. The timing, and theme, are ALWAYS so apropos and heavenly. I love it more than words can say.

First of all, I cannot believe that one of our kids just aged out as a camper. I started volunteering for bible camp in 2007 when Madi was only two years old. And next year, at eleven, she'll no longer be a camper. But I do, thankfully, have high hopes to have her as a helper in my group, which will be an exciting new mother/daughter chapter for us and certainly something to look forward to! 

This year's theme was Angels, and it was a privilege to be a group leader for the littles (Charlie, Joey, and Lulu). All the kids totally embraced the camp each day, but seeing Lulu in bible camp for the first time was such an extra-special blessing, and I am thankful that I got a front-row seat at watching her partake in every bit of it. She played the games and thoroughly enjoyed them so much. I credit one of the games in teaching her how to count to ten!

Lulu, of course, cleaned her snack plate like a champ. Charlie got a taste of marshmallow fluff for the first time, and let's just say our son was smitten.

The kids made such fun crafts, and our friend Jules was there as a helper in our group which made it even better. One of our favorite crafts was when the theme was about Daniel and his Protector Angel. They made a lion mask that day, and Lulu ran into the bathroom four times to see herself in the mirror. She LOVED it. Another favorite craft of hers was a crown they decorated. Again, she ran into the bathroom numerous times to check herself out and tried to drag Charlie in there with her. So precious to see the joy of things through her eyes...

On Wednesday, our theme was Comforter angels. In Bible lesson the kids played a three-legged race game about being comforter angels to each other by showing support and walking together--the way our guardian angels walk beside us. Well, Charlie and Lulu were partnered up together. I was a little nervous about how Lulu would do with their legs tied together (her strong one, no less), but they did GREAT. And they worked together so well! Of course they did. Charlie's the sweetest, kindest boy in the world, so he didn't care less about going fast, and they made it back without tripping up once. It was a proud Mommy moment (as you can see in the background, lol).

To wrap up the week, the kids took a walk to the Adoration Chapel. One might think, "Really? Taking 18 six-year-olds to the Adoration Chapel...are you people CRAZY?" They were perfect angels, all of them. They were quiet as mice and showed amazing reverence as we spent a few minutes in the presence of Jesus. It was beautiful and we were so proud of them! When we returned, Mrs. Socha gave them each a miraculous medal and pin to keep. 

The following week, we joined friends at Son Life Lutheran Church Bible Camp, which was new to us, and it was also an amazing experience. Since their enrollment was age-based, Joseph ended up in a different group than Charlie and Lulu, and it was interesting that he was really happy about it. I think he simply embraced the feeling of being "the older brother" which doesn't happen often since they're kinda like twins. I pretty much tagged along with Lulu that week since it was all so new to her, and Madi was with one of her best buds which made her happy. It was yet another wonderful experience, and in addition to Lulu's love of singing songs, she also experienced her first petting zoo! I seriously can't love bible camps enough and adored seeing how the kids grew in their faith over those couple of weeks.