The Lily Cafe is thrilled to welcome Rob Stolzy from Skirmishes With Reality, a Father Fridays guest. Do check out his blog and give this wonderful man and father a follow. Please enjoy this lovely guest post. I know it made me quite teary eyed.
I know, and can tell you with exactitude, the very instant I became a father…
I don’t mean which particular nanosecond a fatefully victorious sperm hero ended his marathon swim from loin to egg wall. Not speaking about biological fatherhood. He’s not my biological child anyway, for I’m an adoptive parent.
And also, I don’t mean some sort of bureaucratic milestone moment when it dawned upon me that the threshold into reality had been crossed. The international adoption process was lengthy and twisty, some parts zooming by smoothly and giving us encouragement that things are as they should be, others dragging interminably and forcing us to confront the African concept of progress with forgiveness and resignation to fate. (At one point we discovered that a critical adoption minister dawdled for six months without signing a crucial release form because he had political misgivings about international adoption. Picture that: an adoption minister opposed to adoption! This cost us half a year of priceless bonding time.)
Neither do I have in mind the biography-shaking moment when we first received an email dossier of sorts, the essence of brevity, which ‘proposed’ him to us as a match ordained by the wisdom of tropical sociologists whom we never can meet. (You must envision that we were more than two years invested at this point.) Aside from a little, perhaps tiny is the better word, profile included, there was a precious picture of his 2-year-old self. A thing, a face, a soul with a piercingly direct regard, which haunted our imaginations for weeks.
My wife knew immediately, of course. This was her son — and it was an outrageous travesty that he was separated by five or six thousand miles. Meanwhile, I’m trying to introduce pragmatism into the arena… what about the medical records and so on, blah blah blah. She had already connected with him, a convening of spirits, and she recognized his little but strong being, and I had no doubting about any of this. I’m convinced there ensued within her a kind of intense emulation of the hormonal goings-on during actual physical pregnancy, except for her this period of moon-wise feminine poignancy extended something like 15 months in total rather than nine, being not alleviated until she held him.
You cannot dispute with true feminine intuition; you can only stand back supportively, in awe of it and hope to learn something of it’s workings. A woman’s constitution is different; her heart is intimately connected with her living and healing and vitality and sensing. For us men, we are more intensely inhabiting our thinking and our physical being, as a natural given. And so there is a gap between these two locations in us, exactly in the regions where the woman dwells most intently. The inward certitude afforded to her eludes us often, and we can be soothed and washed clean and educated by her being if we simply quiet down in her blessing presence, thus starting to heal this wounded fissure. But we have gifts in kind too, and can connect earth to sky as a sculpture of stability for her, though we do not know how we do so.
So we did wonderful things together during this gestation period. Creating his bedroom, studying adoptive child development, making recordings of our voices stuffed inside teddy bears to send to Africa, shopping for winter clothing for a little boy, learning to cook new things, and we even made a story booklet, with fotos of us and his new house, to be read to him by caregivers at nighttime if they please could. The last page had a wonderful picture of a jet taking off, and underneath we wrote, in French, “and we are coming soon to get you on big airplane — because we love you.” I remember one sad day when my wife was mourning something, and I sat with her. And she explained it was his infancy. She would never know him as 2 months old or 12 months old or even 24 months; and that was a lot of lost time to make up for, he developing far away without adequate lengthy regular hugs and physical warmth.
Despite all this however, I’d still have to admit to you that there was yet something theoretical or not quite real about my fatherhood. I still pursued my interests as I always had, got more deeply involved with playing music and so on. Being a parent was something in the future, something I would comprehend better later on. Though I often thought about his eyes and they lived within me, I did many many things without constant reference to anchoring a family.
Even our first actual in-person meeting did not confer the feeling of being a parent upon me properly. This happened as soon as 2016 dawned upon world history. On New Year’s Day we were off to the airport, flying two legs and a total of 19 hours, Montréal-Bruxelles-Ouagadougou. A little after lunch on Jan 3rd, settled into a lodging with sheltering trees and gardens, a guide accompanied us by taxi to the first meeting at the orphanage. The guide knew him, and liked him, they were ‘pals’. In fact it was he who had long months before presented Burkina Boy with the first gifts from his eventual and strangely-colored parents. It was warming to know that our child valued these gifts jealously and slept with them in his little cot area. We were shown to a waiting lobby in a kind of office building near the entrance to the orphanage compound. Holding hands. Outside a little side door through a window I could see into a broad courtyard which served as one of the play areas, and beyond were the pinkish buildings housing living and eating quarters and workers of various sorts. I expected there would be some kind of formal greeting with director type personnel and discussions about what to expect, guidelines for behavior, tips, etc. when suddenly the side door opened and the unmistakable head of Burkina Boy walked in atop a sturdy self-possessed though somewhat undernourished body, and just behind him an adult minder.
I was a bit too stunned by how unceremonious this was and lost my wits for a second. I was closest to the door; he looked right at me, assessing. He presented a collage of gusto, assertiveness, and controlled fear, as if knowing how serious this moment was. He was about to jump into my lap when he detected my surprise and it not being the emotion he was looking for, he turned his attention immediately to the next nearest adult, my wife. She, being awake, knew what to do and he was soon in her lap while I cuddled and greeted him from the side, the frequent adoption hello. They had gussied him up for the occasion. Shiny white plastic sandals, a new looking striped henley shirt. He’d been schooled for this meeting, but the real him came through at once. He spoke just little, I think “bonjour”. He was splendid, beautiful, and already an individual, his own person. No-nonsense, though we learned not long after that he loves to tease and clown around. Duly smitten I was! But I would not become his father for forty-five more minutes.
It was just a brief informal greeting. We were now to head off across the courtyard to the main building where a small room had been prepped for us to get to know each other awhile in privacy, away from any other adults. This too was deliberate adoptive protocol. Burkina Boy naturally led the way, and I emphasize naturally. He strode purposefully, connected to the ground and who he was. I watched his being move from a few steps behind, impressed. Others came and greeted him, his fellow squadron members, chanting his name as if he won the Super Bowl. Maybe a dozen kids with clamoring intelligent eyes scanned me and huddled round me as I walked, climbing my legs and checking my pockets, asking for hugs or bon-bons and cheering with joy. In a blur we were ushered past some dingy but cared after hallways, a communal eating room, and an interior courtyard to a small door. Then the three of us were alone together inside a small 8-by-8 room, with a small sofa against one wall, a little chair, and a small table against the opposing wall with a plastic box of toys underneath it. It was explained they would leave us alone for awhile.
The peace was refreshing, but the intensity was real. Things went well. We had brought peace offerings. My wife after further hugs and petting and complements about his outfit, took some orange oatmeal cookies out of her bag and gave him one. Food was a serious, serious consideration for Burkina Boy. He was strong, physically adept, but a little short and scrawny for his age, and had a distended belly as do most African adoptive toddlers. He ate it sacramentally. We took turns holding and petting him, asking how he was, telling him we were his mommy and daddy and very happy to be with him, giving little kisses, holding his hand, and slowly revealing the contents of our greeting bag. An inflatable little transparent ball with a map of the world decorating it. He loved this and watched happily as I blew it up, capped it, and handed it to him. There were little hankies, a container of apple juice, a stuffed animal puppet. His eyes were alert, and he took his time settling into things. Sometimes he cooed a phrase in his dialect, the Mooré language, though he also knew some French. His voice was pure watery music.
I moved to the floor and opened one of the stored toys, it was a kids carpet made of interlocking rubber pieces with letters and numbers you had to fit into the appropriately shaped empty places. He eagerly joined in, clearly familiar with the game. He seemed comfortable sitting on my knee partly while doing this. One issue to understand and work through with some young adoptees is their catholic touchy-feely comfort level with new adult strangers. A knock on the door and a kind worker came in bringing Burkina Boy a cup of tou, a kind of yucca porridge, with a little sweetener added, his afternoon snack. It was also subtly timed to eyeball how we were doing, acclimating to one another. All seemed well and she departed. He also received a second ‘health’ cookie at this point and some dried fruit from a sealed package from my wife. Every new package was a delightful adventure to him, and most of them were edible, just as he liked it.
After ten more minutes our guide stepped in. He was a well-meaning tall strong guy from the northern parts of Burkina Faso, devoted to doing uplifting social work for children. Like most Africans, he was naturally community minded and thus thought nothing of bringing in a little girl called Jamila for a quick visit. She lived in the same orphanage, was familiar with our Burkina Boy, and was also scheduled to meet her adoptive parents from Canada within two months. She was about one year older. I was sitting on the floor next to my son, so at eye level, when this happened. I witnessed something brave, beautiful, and revealing at this instant. His eyes watered instantly, in silence. A tear formed slow but sure and rolled down his sturdy cheekbone. I grasped at once what he was feeling. This sweet, sensitive, perceptive child feared that the girl had been ushered into the room as a potential alternative for us to consider bringing home with us. That was his worldview, his perception. Savior mommies and daddies came from far away every so often to be caregivers just for one of them, for one lucky one, to dedicate their hugs and bedrooms and voices and food just for them, forever. And even at his young age he knew not all of his friends would get mommies and daddies. When they came, it was a terrifying pass/fail test. Barely three years old, fretting about whether he was good enough! My wife saw at once too. I took him gently to me, kissed away a tear, and placed my hand atop his shaved head, voice to his hear. I told him in this moment, we are his daddy and his mommy, nobody else’s — and it would be this way forever. In bad French, but his eyes knew. We belonged to him and would always take care of him. My wife dealt with the guide, explaining how important it was that he depart with Jamila immediately.
This was was the single moment I became Burkina Boy’s father, and knew it. As though an unseen force assisted me, looming nearby lovingly, lending me unlimited capacity for grace and compassion in that instant — beyond any of my normal abilities I’d been previously familiar with. I would do anything to protect this boy. To instruct him, to soothe him, to feed him, to understand him. Theory fell away from me like a caterpillar’s cocoon shell, and I knew what true fatherhood felt like and tasted like. We bonded in this; love revealed as action, as willingness, as the gift of attention. As without duration.
We stayed another hour or two. For a long time I played soccer with him in the hallway using the world globe ball. He already possessed a wicked kick, and was gleefully game. I knew this was a rare thing for him: one-on-one adult play. Next day mid-morning we returned to the orphanage and brought him to the rented villa for the entire day and evening, sharing all our meals with him. We had two mosquito netted beds which he loved climbing into and out of. He rapidly learned what the refrigerator was. I remember vividly his first can of sardines — a brilliant idea of my wife to bring along a half dozen of these. Watching him eat made me want to eschew implements forever and use my fingers too. He ate with infinite gusto and care, wiping his fingers assiduously along the bottom of the empty tin in order to collect and ingest all of the oils. Then, once satisfied he’d emptied the container he immediately uttered his favorite word: “encore”. So we gave him a second. We watched him poop in his accustomed manner, running with purpose to a spittoon-like object against the wall near the bed — we had up till that moment been curious as to the object’s utility. He lowered his trousers and crouched over it, then looked around for toilet paper. I carried him around the hotel grounds on my shoulders, investigating every tree and following every lizard. The staff seemed in love with him, though he caused them plenty more cleanup work than usual. Every day the kindly gardener brought him some fruit. He spotted a miniature djembe drum for sale by the vendor at the compound’s walls, and wanted it with a passion. Apparently he’d seen drummers visit the orphanage for special occasions.
Dropping him off at that last night, we explained we’d be back in the morning, and he seemed to have complete faith in this. Next day was it… in our care forever. We lingered about the orphanage in the morning, extended goodbyes to his friends and caregivers. He was the celebrity for the day, no doubt about it. We gave him a little elephant backpack with some of his new important things and he wore it as a trophy. I could not avoid sympathizing with the feelings of the remaining children, though they exhibited honest joy for him. He led us out when the final gate opened, a good ten yards ahead of us, walking down the trail, into the wider world of the rest of his life, fearless, without a clue about what adventures lay around the next corner. About one week later, the three of us flew home. As so many friends told me before hand, my life was completely and irrevocably different. I was soon promoted from father to daddy.
Thank you so much, Rob, for sharing your journey! Happy Father’s Day!