Wednesday, December 26, 2012


This Christmas, our fourth with T, was unexpectedly peaceful. In fact, at the end of the evening last night, T came into the living room and gave me a hug. "Thank you for a good day today," he said. "I love you." A small thing but a marked contrast to years past, when T just wasn't ready to let the happy feelings flow.

I'm often struck that T, like other traumatized kids I've known, seems most uncomfortable with happiness, of all life's strong emotions. I think happiness strikes him as very risky - to be happy, or to reach out to another person with affection, is to balance on a very fine point, one where the gale force of disappointment might easily knock him over. And to be grateful, even for a small thing, is to expose need and want, and often causes him to feel that someone has gained power over him--a dangerous thing. So for these reasons, Christmas has been a bit difficult, an entire season that demands happiness and gratitude.

But not this year. I believe adoption was much more significant to him that I ever realized. It took us three years of navigating the court system to finalize his adoption, which we did just about eleven months ago. By the time we crossed the finish line, I have to admit, I mostly felt like it was a non-event. The children's welfare system in Los Angeles drew the whole thing out for so long for no particular reason save bureaucratic ineptitude that the little piece of paper making it official just ceased to feel like a goal worth having, particularly as they only forced it through on the eve of his 18th birthday.

But on the day his adoption finalized last winter, I saw a smile on his face during the final court hearing that belied his superficial nonchalance. And this Christmas, due to his advancing maturity, but also, I suspect, to the security of adoption, he was at ease in a way I haven't seen him on any holiday occasion before. This year is the first one where he elected to stay home with us for the whole holiday. In the past, by his choice, we've taken him to see his cousins with whom he lived when he was young, and we were okay with that. But this year, early on, he let us know that he'd decided to stay home for the whole holiday. He even weighed in on the foods he thought he'd like to eat, and proposed seeing a movie on Christmas Day. When he opened his gifts, he said "thank you" in a natural way.

He also made arrangements for us to visit his younger brother. In the past, we made such arrangements for him, and he got through these visits as if he were holding his breath the whole time. This year, he initiated the process, which was fairly convoluted, and required various permissions, due to his brother's circumstances. What's more, the visit had a different tone. T was visibly uncomfortable, sad, and awkward, but he allowed himself to be those things. I could hear the emotion in his voice while he struggled to make conversation, and at some point, he gave me the mournful eyes that mean "Can we wrap this up now?" So there was pain, but he managed the pain; in years past, instead of letting the pain surface, he's often become agitated, bossy, and bullying. This year, he seemed able to let himself feel the grief without turning it to rage. And his brother, because he wasn't being ribbed and roughed up by T this time, got a chance to speak for himself and to show us that he's doing well, and becoming his own person.

I love to see T mastering the art of defining what is comfortable and tolerable for him. It is so hard for any young adult to learn how to be appropriately assertive, more so, young adults who as children had little opportunity to develop a sense of personal power and deservingness. Self-assertion takes so much trust, that other people may be reasonable and willing to grant what you ask, and so much self-knowledge, to understand what you want in the first place. Because I've been his parent, I understand now that family is, at its best, an incubator for those capabilities. The shape of our Christmas holiday this year bore the imprint of his stated needs and preferences, and that made it more magical indeed.

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