When changes are coming around the pike, Selam gets sticky.

On the one hand, she needs the forewarning. She needs time to talk about the situation. She needs to come up with what will be fun and to plan for it, and to think through her worries and talk those out.  On the other hand, preparing for change is just hard for her.

She gets sticky.

She wants to sit on my lap all the time. She wants to snuggle right up next to my skin. She wants to sleep draped across my back, my breaths raising her little head in a predictable rhythm.

There is one week left of “regular” Pre-K.  After that half of her group is leaving. Most of them are staying right at the JCC, going up the hill for a summer day camp with the “big kids.” Selam isn’t 5 yet, so she isn’t eligible, and even if she were, I want her to stay in her little room with her wonderful teachers.  The summer program proves to be lots of fun and excitement as it is.  The kids will take swimming lessons 4 days a week, twice at the day camp outdoor pool, and twice indoors.  They’ll picnic at the day camp twice a week, and stay in their familiar classroom for the other three days.   With half the number of kids and the same three teachers, there will be lots of attention and lots of room.

But it’s a change, and changes come hard.  The kids that are moving to the big kid day camp are so excited they could burst. They talk about it all the time. And that gets Selam going.  Every night we have to review who is going to big kid camp and who is staying in her room. And every night we have to re-establish that none of the teachers are leaving.  Last night she held my face in her little hands and said, “promise me you won’t ever go to the big kid camp without me.”

It’s an attachment thing, maybe.  It’s just when she starts trusting the ground beneath her feet that it starts to move again, so she grabs out for the thing that seems the least likely to move.  I wish she trusted with all her heart that I would never leave, never go to the big kid camp, never die.  She’s not there yet. For now, she just hangs on to me, weighing me down so that if the winds of change were to blow, at least we’d fly away together.

I’m not going anywhere without you, baby. Never, never, never.



My car pulls into the lot and as I exit it, I see Debra, her hand to her brow, scanning the horizon. She is the self-appointed herald of the pre-K class. From her perch atop the jungle gym she shouts, “Selam! Mom!” Assured that Selam has heard her, she resumes her post.

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Flag of America Day

We need to start with this truth: when I tell Selam we’re going to do something special, she always has the same question: “what can I wear?” So when I told her we were going to go to Hartford to get her American flag, what she really wanted to know is whether or not she could wear her Sunday School shoes.

I can understand. They are very special shoes—brown patent leather (I looked long and hard for those) Mary-Janes with a buckle that has both gold and silver–and a few rhinestones, too! They never go to school (all shoes must have rubber soles for the gym) and we don’t play in them either (might get scratched up.) So we wait all week for their shiny, glossy goodness.

In addition to the shoes, Selam thought she should look like a “flag of America.” A blue and white polka dotted dress (“They look like stars!”) was paired with red tights and a red sweater. She wanted a red striped sweater, but none was to be found. She thought perhaps we could go to the store before school and get one but alas, not only are there no stores open at 7 a.m. that sell red and white striped sweaters in size 4/5, but there’s also the fact that her mother is mean. And cheap.

She was consoled when we found a hair clip that her cousins gave her last Fourth of July that was resplendent with red, white, blue and sparkles.

I sent her to school for a half day, and picked her up at noon for the hour-long drive North. After a few bites of nuggets (special!treat!), she slept for the duration of the ride.

She was still audibly snoring as we pulled onto Main Street. I’d been to USCIS twice before today. The first time I was the crazy lady wearing the collar and bearing 8.5×11 photos of the saddest looking Selam you’ve ever seen.  It was Good Friday. My clearance to adopt was extremely overdue. The courts in Ethiopia were rumored to close in June or July and I was desperate to have my application read before closing.  I chose the sad photos and held them up to the glass partition as I begged, begged, begged someone to look into my case.  Personally, I think I scared them because a week later I got a call that my form had been expedited and was done. Would I like them to mail it to me?  Um, no. I left work, got in my car and drove like the proverbial bat up to the state capitol, and waited, trembling, for that precious piece of paper. When it was in hand,I drove directly to the first Staples I could find, and faxed it to Washington state.

Those were crazy days.  I spent a lot of time faxing and overnight mailing and getting everything notarized. They recognized me at the local UPS/notarypublic/faxforafee place. Everything was so frantic and rushed and quadrupled back then.  All I did was work and adopt.

I had almost forgotten that time period. But as a different Subaru edged its nose to the good parking in the back, my heart started racing again. There was no rush, though; no race to be won, no fax machine to locate. Selam is a citizen already. This was just the very expensive receipt.

My friend had already gone through the Certificate of Citizenship drill last week, so I knew it was going to be a short and painless process. I signed her name four times: Selam Lanalee Adane Olson, by Susan K. Olson, mother. Her name looked funny in my writing.  I’ve only ever printed it before.  She won’t need this form until she’s an adult. I wonder what she’ll think, then, seeing my signature where hers should go? On her behalf, I signed the Oath of Citizenship, as well. Selam received a handshake and an American flag, which is really all that she wanted. I hesitated on the oath, to be sure. Was it right to renounce her fidelities and allegiances to Ethiopia? I mentally added the words “government of” and let it go.  Who knows what allegiances she will truly hold when she’s an adult? For now she’s American, for better or for worse.

I left that building, past the metal detectors and the white haired men with their guns.  I turned left to follow the path to the good parking, holding hands with my daughter, the one with the small American flag in her hand. I retraced the path I’d followed with the sad photos, the path I’d run with the single sheet of paper.  “We’re done, Selami, no more courthouses.  Should we get a treat?” “I want to get a treat.” “What do you want?” “I want to wear my shiny shoes all day.”

I smiled at my fully American, fully habesha daughter. Her shiny shoes flashed on dingy sidewalks as she half-skipped to the car.

At the last minute that morning, she had asked to wear her cross, an Ethiopian cross carried back from her home country by a colleague.  We had to run back into the apartment to get it, the cross we wore on special occasions—her baptism, Christmas, church. I was nervous to let her wear it at school, afraid it would end up buried in the sand table, but she was careful. When I got her at school, she loudly announced that “my meskel is still on my heart, Mommy.”

The brilliant silver of that necklace caught the afternoon light .  It bounced on her ski jacket, sending flashes of memory and tomorrow upward, toward her face, toward my heart, toward the wide new sky, toward allegiances and fidelities that she will never renounce or abjure.

We are the Truth: April 15, 2010

We are the truth.
Most international adoptions do not make the news. Most international adoptions are far too ordinary for that. They are squabbles over sandals in 40 degrees and spontaneous hugs on the playground. They are full of backseat sing-alongs and broccoli and ranch before bed. They are too many doctors and too little money and too many giggles and not enough time. They are cooking together and watching her sleep. They are times when she is the line leader, and times when I carry her heavy sleeping body in the door. Many international adoptions involve negotiations for one more book or two more bites, and holding hands over evening grace. Many international adoptive families are very, very ordinary.

I don’t know if my daughter’s life is better for my having given her the only thing I really have: myself. I know mine is–immeasurably so– for her having given me the only thing she really has. It is not always sunshine and roses. There are long, painful nights and fraught mornings too. But no matter what she might do, no matter what it takes, we are a family. I used to believe that love makes a family. I don’t believe that anymore. Love often starts a family. But persistence, grit, an ability to not take yourself so dang seriously and a willingness to let your heart explode with joy —that’s what makes a family.

We are not newsworthy. We are delightfully boring.

But we are the truth.

This is my little contribution to a campaign of adoptive parents seeking to counteract the negative press international adoption has received lately.

The day I met her

first published on October 6, 2009 on facebook

We got into Bole Airport at about 11:30 am. Customs, security, and the ride home are all a blur to me. We checked into the guest house, brought our bags up and called Ato Teklu. He agreed that we would come to the orphanage at 4 p.m….after naptime, for those not in the toddler set. There was some confusion about how we were to arrive, but once that was resolved, we were on our way. The whole ride over all I could think of was whether or not I would be any good at this.


The car pulled in and we parked behind a large van. As we were parking, I saw her. She was wearing brown knit pants and a pink sweatshirt, and was playing with some older boys. I grabbed Alex’s hand–“that’s her.” I didn’t cry. I wanted to. As I got out of the car, all the boys were yelling, “Selam’s mama. Selam’s mama!” The sea of children opened, and Selam walked through, and right past me. She went up to Zee, the interpreter that rode with us, and asked him (I’m told) why he didn’t drive in a bigger car–she pointed to the big van for emphasis. I’m not sure how he answered her. All I know is that for a brief second after that, things went very quickly. Ato Teklu greeted me, and someone pushed her forward–the children, a staff member, Ato Teklu– I don’t know. And there she was. I picked her up and said, “There you are.”


Of all the things to say, “there you are,” like she was a puppy that had been hiding in the closet, my spare sunglasses under the couch, the winter scarf I thought I lost. “There you are.”


But there she was. She liked my necklace, and played with it, while I checked her out. Her braids were fuzzy, and lunch was still on her chin. Her eyes were full moons of light and mischief and tomorrow. Around us children swirled, demanded “photos” from Alex, and wanted both of us to pick them up. They examined the car, the driver, the interpreter, asked us for cookies and stickers and rides on empty hips. We waded through the crowd. Maybe Alex stopped to play; I can’t remember. We followed Ato Teklu into the nurse’s office where they told me things about her health that I can no longer remember. She sat on my lap like she had making payments on it for months and finally owned it.


We had about an hour together that day. I gave Alex a lot of stickers, and she got sort of bum-rushed by the children in distributing them, though it bought me some minutes.


She called me mama that day. She also called me gewadegna, which means friend.


I thought.


A few days later, a guest house staff member told me that gewadegna is one of a few different words for friend. Literally, though, he said it means someone who was lost and is now found. “It makes it all together,” he said.


So there you are.


There you are.







Facebook note before taking off for Ethiopia

September 15, 2009

While I am gone–

You can breathe for the first time….

Okay, seriously, I’m leaving on a jet plane (well, a car, a train and a cab and then a plane, a car, a plane, a car, and then I’m there–to put a point on it!)

Anyway, facebook access in Addis is not the best. And honestly, even if I get online, (dialup!) I’m not sure facebook will be my top priority. But, if you want to keep up with our adventures, I invite you to check my wall. My father and sister are on facebook (why not my Mom, I ask? hmm….maybe she has more sense than the rest of us.) and they will post on my wall when they hear from us. Alex’s dear beloved spouse Brett is a facebooker, too. Although something tells me his priority might be Alex’s page. Go figure.

Anyway, the short answer to “are you going to update us while you’re abroad?” is no. The long answer is check my page. My man-of-few-words-but-many-power-tools father and looks-like-a-younger-thinner-me-supermom sister will keep you up to snuff. You might even get a guest comment from the-best-brother-in-law-ever, Tim, if you’re lucky.

I covet your prayers, of course. If you’re a petitioner, I’m asking for safety for all three of us, wisdom and compassion from the US Embassy and its staff, and that I not barf, snore or cause any international incidents. I do worry about these things. I also really really hope this child feels safe and loved by me. I cannot pray for her love. Only for her ability to accept it from me.

I pray for Alex, although I do question the sanity of a woman who agrees to travel with me and spend much of that time in an exciting country sitting in a guest house playing with the Doodle Pro. I pray also for her family that is staying at home, for her husband and 3 gorgeous kiddos. All five are sacrificing on my behalf and I just can’t think about it too much or I cry.

I pray for my family–who have supported this endeavor in literally every way possible since day one. I can’t say any more or, well, I’ll cry. But pray for them, do.

Above all, I pray for her birth family, for her mother who gave her life, but was unable to live long enough to watch her grow up. Adoption is so bittersweet. My gain is only possible by her tragic loss–their loss. I hope that somehow her mother knows that I don’t seek to replace her but just to love Selam and keep her safe and full and warm and well supplied with books and play-dough. I hope her mother knows that I already love her so much it hurts. I will honor that young woman’s legacy—the legacy of a woman born in desperate circumstances but brave enough to give her baby a name that means peace. I wish that peace, Selam, to everyone who has cared for her so far. I only hope I am equal to that task.

Talk to you all on the flip side, international incidents not withstanding. Thanks for your enthusiasm and prayers and support and laughter. I’m taking it all with me. Fortunately, these things do not count in the 15 pound carry-on bag limit!!!