In our split-level home around our kitchen table that seats our family of six, we pray for Naika; bringing Naika to us from her orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti will make us “seven.” We labor to send Three Angel’s Orphanage support money each month, gather paperwork to prove our financial stability, our mental stability, the healthy tone of our home and family, that we have no criminal records attached to our fingerprints. We are pregnant with the anticipation of bringing Naika to our home, and after ten months, she arrives on U.S. pavement at the Miami airport. We wait, our unblinking eyes and our cameras fixated on double-doors with double-paned glass windows—limiting our vision. In a slow moment, we see our little two-and-a-half year old daughter delivered out of customs; she rides in a cart toting her “luggage”—a candy apple red backpack with one change of clothes in it, and the name “Rosaline” written in black marker across the top. We smile and speak softly to her, and she (with no smile written on her face) lifts her arms up to me—a request to be lifted out of the cart. I place her on my hip, the hip accustomed to carrying our other four children.
Photos of our daughter this first night together in the airport hotel in Miami prove Dr. Bryan Post’s theories on attachment. No matter my soothing tones and gentle rubbing of anti-fungal lotion on her skin. No matter the first warm bath for her and her little Haitian friend who came over on the airplane too. No matter the My Little Pony new jammies and the Pooh Bear sticker book. No matter our concern she must be hungry and the ice cream cone she hesitatingly accepts. Our expressions of joy in the pictures clearly miss her expressions of fear in the moment. Little do we know, she falls asleep quickly and easily that night in the Miami airport hotel not because we love her and she feels safe, but because her two-and-a-half year old brain is shut down and fear chemicals race through her bloodstream.
We awake the next morning in Miami, and the three of us get on a plane. We put Finding Nemo in my husband’s computer to entertain her, and a couple hours later, we land in Minneapolis. Naika on my hip, we maneuver ourselves and our luggage to our big black Yukon XL with one car seat in it—for her. My ignorance haunts me still. In my eyes, it’s our family vehicle with the car seat we have used for years. Through her eyes? A strange tangle of belts and buckles, bright colored fabric, in the back of a hollow black vehicle she has never seen. I would like to think she trusts us enough to get in the car and allow me to buckle her into this car seat apparatus. But most likely, she simply senses she has no power and no choice but to follow our lead. Stripped of everything familiar in one night, survival now requires compliance with us—her parent strangers. I buckle her in lovingly, but still–I buckle her in. Eight years later, Naika does not remember this trip—only the story we tell her.
As the years go on, well-meaning friends and acquaintances ask me, “How is Naika doing?” They smile expectantly and wait for a good report. I walk down a narrow path to answer them honestly, sharing Naika’s early days of living in an orphanage, of abandonment, of brain development that occurred apart from us, of experiences Naika had that we missed for two-and-a-half years.
“Well, she was so young. She doesn’t remember any of that, does she?” No, she cannot verbalize her memories. But her experiences and memories shape her–just like they do you, I want to say. And, they surface, like a beach ball pressed under water.
In the orphanage, she experiences hunger in a country where food is life-threateningly scarce. Our videos and pictures of Naika eating at the orphanage table teach the memory of eating with one hand and protecting her food with the other—her arm circled around her plate. By the time Naika arrives in our home, she experiences abandonment. Her birth mom, Mama Marie, visits Naika in the orphanage—each visit surely ending with a newly pricked wound of separation between mom and daughter. Naika does not remember the visits, but pictures teach the memory of Naika on her birth mom’s lap, Naika’s dark brown eyes—darkened by wondering and vacancy. Naika learns competition and scarcity in the orphanage. Visitors and relief workers bring gifts (sunglasses, fruit treats, and such). Naika and the other children clamor to get theirs—shoving toward the front, afraid they might not get any. By age two-and-a-half, my daughter’s experiences and memory train her to protect her food, to fear being left by her mother, to push to the front. Two plane flights (Port au Prince to Miami, Miami to Minneapolis) and one car ride to our home in Brookings, SD does not erase who Naika became before she came to us.
Bedtime in our home her first night, and my new daughter screams terror in my right ear while I press my body over hers and sing loud lullabies into her right ear. She cannot tell me this, but her orphanage director explains to me over the phone what bedtime looks like there. I imagine Naika missing all things familiar at bedtime each night—her friends, where she slept, a favorite spot in the room, maybe a favorite set of sheets or blanket. She gains us—her new family—and loses absolutely everything else. I try comforting Naika as I have my other children and get nowhere. She cannot tell me anything. She is two-and-a-half years old and doesn’t speak English. And so, screams and hot terrified tears on my cheek pressed up against hers with my singing lips in her ear, until she finally exhausts herself and sleeps. Night after night we go through this process, until she finally copes better with going to sleep. We create new memories about bedtime at our house; and eventually, I can simply sit on the floor in her line of sight until she feels secure enough to fall asleep.
Naika’s sadness, her fear, her trauma, her loss, and her confusion show up in her behavior. I walk down the narrow hall between the bedrooms of our home behind my new brown daughter. She bounces, jumps, and tiptoes oddly, pounding her feet into our carpet—all in the short hallway walk to my bedroom on the end right. I am losing it and I don’t know why. Why does she bother me? She is adorable. Everyone says so. She bounces and moves with jerks and abruptness unfamiliar to me. I sense disorder, imbalance. I sense her anger. Subconsciously, my observations of Naika’s terror in her new home awaken the adoptee in me, and I begin to unravel.
My twenty-two year old birth mom and birth dad were both in the delivery room (unusual for 1970, I’ve been told). My birth mom held me–my mom told me as part of my adoption story. But then what? Who did she hand me to when she let me go? Who fed me? Did I scream terror and cry hot tears while a stranger tried to comfort me? I recognize Naika’s grief and fear more than I realize at the time, and my grief, my loss, and my memories begin to surface.
I know the story well because my parents have told it to me since the beginning—every day since they brought me home. I am chosen. I am special. I am adopted. And I never remember not knowing. A few months before my birth, my mom and dad receive a phone call from the adoption agency. My mom rushes in with an outfit she picked for this very occasion—the day they will take me home as their daughter—a one week old little baby girl. She dresses me anew. I am their baby now. They hold me, cuddle me, breathe in my smell, as I breathe in theirs. They smell differently than the foster mom who cared for me from day three to day seven. Who was she? And, she smells differently from the nurses who held me in the nursery at the hospital. Who were they? And they smell and sound differently (each one of them) than my birth mom who carried me in her tummy for forty weeks. Where did she go? I would ask these questions, but I am seven days old. And so my parents hold me, their baby, as I wonder and adjust to yet another change. Do they look into my baby face and see the “blank slate” the social worker tells them I am, or do they see the grief, loss, confusion I cannot express? Why does writing about this make me tired and make my head float? I want gum, ice to chomp, coffee, chocolate, ibuprofen, a drink, chips, something.
Early on (for the first few years), Naika hoards trash, wrappers, remainders of candy bars she discovers she doesn’t like after one bite, a hard-boiled egg yolk because she only likes the whites, broken crayons, Barbies with jagged cut hair she must now hide, crumpled paper with scribbles, chewed gum (something we told her she could not have without asking), and more. Here, under her bed and tucked in corners of her bedroom, lies my daughter’s pre-verbal memories of loss, of chaos—and evidence of how she feels about it. Angry. Ashamed. Frightened.
About six years since coming to us from Haiti, on a sun-filled spring Friday for her first track meet, Naika sprints at the sound of the track gun. She runs to win. She must win. It is scary to be slow and last in an orphanage. In our kitchen, Naika says things to me like, “I am almost taller than you,” “I am the oldest in our family,” and “Someday I’ll be the tallest.” It is scary to be small and weak in an orphanage. At home, Naika’s eyes follow her favorites—sour cream and cheddar cheese chips, watermelon, knock-off Uggs, gum, refried beans to make bean burritos. She trusts herself to find and get what she needs most. I fix her favorites, and she eats heartily–to the point of being too full and uncomfortable, just in case. We stand in the grocery aisle at Hy-Vee checking out groceries; the clerk offers her a choice of maybe eight different flavors of suckers. It takes her an abnormally long time to pick because when choosing one flavor, she then loses all the others forever. She does not like the feeling of losing—even if she cannot narrate a memory to explain why.
Naika is a fourth grader now, and she has been in our family for eight years. This day, I drive to pick her up from school. She sees both me and my car, but I have to go around the block and come back to get her in that same spot. She watches my car begin to leave—without her. She panics. I see it in her face. Mostly, I don’t like that the adoptee in me recognizes that feeling—the panic of not being noticed, not being seen, and being left behind. On a Sunday morning flurry of our family getting ready for church, I (the 40 year old adoptee, married into this family for 20 years) experience the same. My husband’s detests being late for anything—especially for church. I rush around the house, offering breakfast to the children, tidying up everywhere, showering and trying to meet the expectation of all of us going together on time. My husband gets himself ready, expresses frustration that we are already late, and leaves our bathroom. I rush to pull myself together, grab mascara that I can put on in the car, run down the stairs to the door leading to the garage, and find my husband and children gone. He took them all. Deep in my gut, I ache.
Bringing Naika into our home stirs the adoptee in me. I see her brown little body running around our house and realize: I am her. She is my memory. Strange awakenings begin happening in me, and inconvenient awakenings: a panic attack in Sam’s Club while pushing my cart, three trips into the emergency room for fear I have a brain tumor and want to be checked over, sleeplessness, anxiety driving me, and an awakening to know whose genes I carry. One middle of the night, I startle out of sleep with a “ping” released deep in the middle of my brain. I grab my husband. I am frightened, I feel lost and abandoned, panicked, and I am being separated from my birth mother in that moment. This night, a memory buried deep under, now surfaces. I seek help for this new me by visiting my doctor. He listens carefully, and suggests I am experiencing the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Isn’t that for soldiers who deal with bombs going off?” He replies, “You had a bomb go off in your house.”
Naika and I carry memory in our bodies, not always our words. We carry early memories in our behaviors, not our narrative. Naika carries some of my memory for me. I do not remember my experiences as a little baby growing in my birth mom’s womb, separated from her shortly after delivery, held by nurses, sent to a foster home, and then arriving to my parents’ gentle loving care; but, I get a glimpse of the effects of such disruptions as I watch my daughter. Each of us shaped by memories we cannot recall, but nonetheless.