This morning brought some testing. Jelena was doing her best to find every annoying sound and movement, and repeating it ad nauseum. I was having a really difficult time letting her push the limits. I kept saying, “I love you, but this? Fooooooy!!(one of her favorite expressions). I guess we passed the test because she finally giggled and snuggled into me. This was after about two hours, on and off. I will not stop loving her.

Today we finally made our way downtown Chicago. We took a super rad Isaak Family Van driving tour. Did I mention it was really super duper cold? Hence us driving around. It was good because it allowed to see more of the city anyway.

We headed to experience the SkyDeck at the Sears Tower. Sorry, I am a lifelong Chicagoan and I cannot get used to saying “Willis Tower”. Anyway, after a bit of a wait, we made it to the top. It was a perfect day. Clear, sunny, and gorgeous. We loved seeing our beautiful city from above (the greatest city in the world). It was my first time there since they added those new “Sky Ledge” things. We waited again for our chance to stand out in a clear glass box that hovered over the streets, hanging off the edge of the building. But waiting in line with our four year old put me in a bit of a negative mood as he would just not stop whining. Then the group ahead of us, comprised of six people (three couples), decided they would take a picture for every possible combination of the people they had. At first, I thought, “Well, have patience. They are just trying to get the most out of their admission price”, but as the photos and combinations went on..and ON, I was like, good gravy, people!!! Then, as we finally moved up for our turn, the last lingering couple had the nerve to stop and ponder if they indeed HAD taken all the photos they wanted. I could not stop the “Seriously??”, that fell out of my mouth. Then they looked at me and behind us and apparently realized for the very first time that they weren’t the only people there. Anyway, we got out photos, and a nice group of young men offered to take a photo of all of us. They were very helpful. A little too helpful. When I saw one of them take a photo of us with his own camera, I was a bit put off. After they took their own photos, they hovered around where we were and I caught them looking at J a little too long for my liking. I alerted Craig and we made sure to block their view the rest of the time we were up there. Do not mess with Mama Bear.

Afterwards, we of course had to indulge in some deep dish pizza. Jelena needs to know that we live in a food loving city. A place where she can appreciate! In true J form, she ate two pieces of deep dish! She’s crazy!! Tonight, she took my Nook and found Google Translate. She brought me a beautiful translation of her thankfulness for us. She hates when I cry, but she definitely does it to me a lot!

Advertisements

Monday:

New Year’s Eve has been a bit of a dud for us for a few years now. Let’s see..how old is Cole? Eight. So, for eight years we have been super lame on NYE. Frankly, that’s okay with me. I can’t stay up as late as I used to anyway. This year, however, we had a truly miraculous offer made to us. Our fabulous neighbors said, “Hey, we’re not doing anything for NYE, so if you would like to go out, we would be happy to take have the kids come over. We just got XBox Kinect”.

So, we decided that it was the perfect opportunity to take our sweet Jelena out on a date. We take our other kids out on dates, which is one-on-one time with them, and can range from sit down dinners out, to sitting in the library and reading books.

We took her out to a stir fry place so she could just pick her own food without us trying to explain a menu to her. We had a great time watching the grillers work their magic. The food was delicious and she, of course, ate plenty of it. We all relished the time to just be with her and not have to parent our other kids. We got back home and had her listen to some music and give us her opinion (we’re working on putting together some music for an MP3 player), and watched the New Year’s festivities on tv. Our neighbors said they would keep the kids as long as we wanted and offered to put them down to sleep, so we took our time picking them up. We just enjoyed her. We had a great conversation and we really feel she is trusting us more and more. She shared a lot more again and we are loving watching her blossom as she fills up on love.

New Year's Eve Date!

New Year’s Eve Date!

I Loooove you!!

I Loooove you!!

Sunday

:

Wow. Wow. Wow. What an amazing day! Through our neighbor, we heard that a local church had their services translated in Russian. Russian speaking folk can grab some earpiece headphones and a receiver, and a translator sits in a “green room” listening to the service and translating to the receivers. So we planned to attend, so that she could feel a part of the service and not have me furiously typing and mis-typing into the iPad translator.

We pulled in and saw a man directing traffic. His name tag read, “Yuri”. We took a chance and after we parked, we approached him and asked if he spoke Russian. Indeed, he did. He welcomed J in Russian and then directed us where to go to find the translation devices. Already she had a smile on her face.

We brought the kids upstairs to the kids area. We dropped off Myles in his room and the woman working there spoke Russian. More talking and more smiles.

We sat in the service and I was overcome with emotion. Watching her listen and understand was too much happy for me to handle without my eyes leaking. God’s presence there that morning was undeniable. The message was great, timely and inspiring with a healthy dose of conviction. J really enjoyed being able to understand what was being said,

After the service, we went looking for Alex, who was the one translating. We found him and discovered Alex to be a passionate man who was delighted to talk with us and ask lots of questions. I asked if the church had any materials in Russian since they serve so many in their congregation. He said, yes, and asked if she had a Bible. She claims she does but that is was back home in Latvia. Who knows if that’s accurate. He brought us up to his office, and unwrapped a shrink-wrapped Russian Bible, wrote her a note inside, and gave it to J. I was so happy! I cried a lot that morning and I know Jelena was probably thinking what a loon I was. I told her, “You might as well get used to it. I cry A LOT”.

We went back downstairs and were introduced to several Russian families who were so warm and wonderful. They all chatted with her and it was great to hear her voice and the ease of her speaking. These people were so nice and welcoming, I was convicted of my own tendencies. Am I this welcoming to new people? Do I practically shine with the love of Christ when I speak to people? This was the experience we had. One of the men said to me, “Her Russian is flawless! She needs to hang out with my daughters and teach them to speak as beautifully as she does!”.

We found Craig and the kids again and they were talking with Yuri and his wife. Remember the nice woman in Myles’ classroom that spoke Russian? Turns out, that was Yuri’s wife. Amazing. These wonderful people invited us to their home for lunch. We happily accepted and we had a such a wonderful time. They have three kids so ours and theirs mixed well and were playing like lifelong friends by the time we left. J chatted happily in Russian, and we were grateful for a deeper conversation with the translation available. We learned more of her story, and while my heart was heavy with the pain she has experienced, I was able to tell her how sorry I was that she went through what she did. That it wasn’t okay how her life went. That is wasn’t her fault, she was just a child. I don’t know if she had heard these words before, or if she did, and hearing them again made them more true to her. Either way, we took home as deeper bond and love for this girl, and her hugs have become a bit longer and sweeter.

I cannot say enough how this beautiful family touched our hearts. We felt so comfortable and at ease with them. The fact that all three kids started screeching and whining almost immediately when we got into the car didn’t even ruin the fantastic day. J asked if we were going back to the same church next week and we assured her that we would. A huge smile and a little bounce was her response.

We are continually amazed at how God has been blessing us through this, and we pray that J sees what a beautiful girl she is, that she has value and worth, and that she is fiercely loved by her Heavenly Father. For a girl who has experienced people failing her time and time and time again, it can be a hard lesson to learn, to be able to trust that God will not fail her. I was able to tell her, “I am sorry for what you have experienced, but I am also so happy that God has brought us together”.

A down day, and we needed it. We said goodbye to Craig’s parents last night, and today we had nothing on the schedule and no one to entertain. With Jelena still here, it honestly felt like we were a family relaxing after the crazy busyness of Christmas.

I did some laundry, we ate leftovers, and we snuggled and watched a movie tonight. Like family.

Thursday was zoo day. I am a zoo geek. I grew up going to Brookfield Zoo, and we went often since we were members. It wasn’t a long drive, so we could decide to go on free afternoons and spend a lot of time in one area. As I got older, I would go just to sit, watch the animals, watch the people, and sometimes sketch.

Visiting Brookfield in the winter is one of my favorite things to do. Not many people choose to spend the day there in the winter, so you feel like you have the whole place to yourself. Another bonus is that many of the animals are much more active. Such was the feeling yesterday. We moved about easily and had some fantastic views of the animals. J was enthralled with all of it. Her open-mouthed staring at the lions, who were right up at the glass window, was just as fantastic to watch as the lions themselves. She was quiet and difficult to read during the dolphin show, but when it was over, she said breathlessly, “Wow!”. She exclaimed over the seals and sea lions, she loved the sheep, the reindeer, the alpacas, and the horses, she was overwhelmed by the bears and the bison….it truly was a wonderful day. I love when someone else geeks out as much as I do over seeing all of these amazing animals.

We went out for dinner and I ordered for her because she was a bit overwhelmed. I chose from the list of specials and got her a dish with steak, pasta, and vegetables. I figured from her eating history, she could handle a big meal. That girl cleaned her plate. Then she ate dessert. Then we went home and she ate an avocado. Oh my word. Where does she put it all??

Today we went to the Harlem Globetrotters game. I haven’t been to one of these spectacles since I was in junior high. It was fantastic. The kids loved it and we were all awestruck at the talent of these players. We laughed and cheered, and enjoyed all of their antics. The game started out with a slam dunk from one of the players, and as he hung on to the hoop, he flipped himself over off of the rim. Both Cole and Caroline had their jaws on the floor. There were many exclamations of “Whoah!”, “Did you see that?”, “That was awesome!!”, and “Bahahahahaha!!”, from the two of them. While I noticed Jelena smiling and laughing, I also noticed a lot of quiet moments with her just watching and showing no expression. It wasn’t until we got outside and back into the car that she heaved a big sigh and said, “Wow! So nice! I like this very much!”.

She again ate a ton of food for dinner, and she is now snuggled in her bed, snoozing blissfully. Sounds good to me, I’m off!

657

Being silly with Grandma's wheelchair.

Being silly with Grandma’s wheelchair.

Globetrotters Shenanigans

Globetrotters Shenanigans

Firstly, I am frustrated that our desktop is still “in the shop”, so I cannot post good pictures here. They will come, I promise. **See new photo!! ****

Today was a great day. We all slept in, thank goodness, and were in much better spirits than at the end of the day yesterday. I was interested in checking out the new Cirque du Soleil movie (or Cirque des Olé, as my son called it), since it seemed like there was minimal dialogue and it got a “PG” rating. I double-checked a Christian movie review, just to see what the content was, and that I wasn’t taking this girl to a story with sex or other borderline inappropriate things in it. It got a good review from the site so we went. My two oldest kids joined us so it was a full family outing. There were two lines of dialogue and the rest was pure performance. I love this kind of theatric spectacle so I loved the movie. J loved it too. I was overwhelmed at the strength of the acrobats, the beauty of their movements, and the amazing costumes. My kids loved it too, so we all enjoyed ourselves. And we all understood it. It was nice to have an hour and half where all of us understood what was happening 100% of the time.

For whatever reason, she was more talkative than usual when we got home. We had some great conversations and I can feel the trust continue to grow.

We had our “fancy” Christmas dinner tonight. Rib roast, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. There was plenty of everything, and Jelena ate well. She had seconds of potatoes and meat, and thirds of broccoli. As we cleared the table, she had ore broccoli. Then we ate dessert (fruitcake and ice cream), and she had both offerings. As we cleared that, she decided she wanted to have an avocado. I think she has a hole in her stomach! The most amazing thing, though, was how she ate the avocado. She cut off the top, scraped the meat out of the top with a small spoon. Then she took the same small spoon and began to eat the meat out of the skin like it was a bowl. She ate around the pit, and kept peeling back the skin as she went. It was very entertaining to watch.

My bedtime hugs are getting bigger and longer each night. I love it. I even love the hard stuff, because it brings us even closer after we work through it. I wish this kind of experience for all of you. Ask me abut hosting for the summer. It will change you.

THIS is how you eat an avocado, people!

THIS is how you eat an avocado, people!

I am so exhausted!! I was awoken by three very excited kids, and as much as I love the magic of Christmas morning, I really wasn’t feeling so magical this morning. :-/ Wake up was a bit early for my liking.

Yesterday was a big day. Christmas Eve brought a big emotional breakthrough. This is the second Christmas without my mother so the arrival of Christmas Eve brought on some emotions that I wasn’t totally prepared for. I had to take some time to myself to allow the grief to wash over me again. After I pulled myself together, I sat on J’s bed and thought more about this incredible girl. She came in and sat down with me. We didn’t have any translation tools with us for this, so our communication was basic, but we were able to understand one another. To protect her story and her privacy, I won’t get into specifics, but I will say that this girl has had so much hurt in her life and she has built some very strong walls to protect herself. Friends, children deserve to be part of a family. I know that not everyone is called to adopt, but I want you to take some time right now to think about your family. If you have children, I want you to imagine them growing up without you or any loving family to look after them, to care for them, to protect them. If you don’t have children, surely your were a child once. Imagine your years growing up without those things. If you do not find this unacceptable, I would be terribly and horribly surprised. Kids are growing up without a family to love them and to make them feel safe. It’s happening here and it’s happening across the globe. Kids. Deserve. Families.

As J and I talked, I could not stop my tears. But my vulnerability proved to be a catalyst for connection. It was truly a blessing.

My father arrived yesterday as well and he of course, was excited to meet J. He spent as many years as I have in Latvia so his love for the country and its people is just as strong as mine.

The early start to our Christmas Day was less than ideal but the enthusiasm from the kids was contagious. Gift opening was a delight as usual. There was much squealing and giddiness. Poor J was the typical teenager and would rather have slept a few hours longer. I think she was quite overwhelmed with all of the gifts, but she took it in stride and was so sweet in her gratitude.

The rest of the day was rough as we battled our fatigue and the never-ending energy of the kids, but we made it. J helped me prepare dinner, which was just a simple lasagna, and I am realizing how nice it is to have some help in the kitchen. My brothers called while I was prepping, and she took over everything with a willing heart.

What can I say? She’s amazing.

It's EARLY.

It’s EARLY.

Present wrapping took precedence over blog posting last night. I literally had none of the gifts wrapped and I didn’t want to do it all tonight.

Yesterday was her first visit to our church. When she does attend church, she goes to an Orthodox Church, so ours was very different from what she is used to. Our Christmas program was yesterday also so the experience was a bit more “spectacle” than normal. She seemed to like it though and as tears rolled down my cheeks as I sang “O Holy Night”, she looked at me with concern, but I was able to pantomime that they were happy tears.

We came home and enjoyed some leftovers of pizza and boiled up some pierogi. She ate well that meal, both things she really likes. I started some crockpot chili and had to head out to finish shopping for J, so I was on my own. While I was gone (and miserable with the holiday shopping crowds), she played Wii with the kids and Craig. I returned two hours later, and still not done. Oh well. One less thing.

After we enjoyed some delicious chili, we headed to my in-laws’ hotel for some swimming. We had a great time. Like most Latvians I know, J loved to swim. She was so sweet playing with the kids, catching them as they jumped into the pool, and tossing our Perry the Platypus ball around. But I think the hot tub was the big hit with her. She loves hot water and I’ve caught her just standing at the sink letting the hot water run over her hands as she smiled blissfully saying, “Hooooooot!!”. The things we take for granted.

The kids all fell into bed after their swim time and I sent out our required weekly report and started wrapping gifts while watching, “Christmas Vacation”. It may have been nearly midnight when I quit, but I was definitely in the Christmas spirit!

Thank you, Lord, for this incredible opportunity to serve you by serving this amazing girl.

20121224-091645.jpg

20121224-091710.jpg

Craig’s parents arrived today for Christmas. They welcomed J with open and loving arms. Again, as she was with us at first, she was quiet and subdued. I think it worried my in-laws a bit, but we assured them that she would warm up.

In the early afternoon, J and I headed to the mall. On the Saturday before Christmas. There were approximately 8 gazillion people there. We were there to find her a swimsuit, since we have access to the pool at the hotel where my in-laws are staying. Normally, I detest the mall at Christmas, but today was different. I found a fantastic shopping partner. My mom and I used to shop together, and we’d get distracted by many things, and today that happened with us. We ended up buying some new pants, and three tops before we found the bathing suits. I tried on some things too and made her laugh with my ridiculous model poses. As we combed through the limited selection of bathing suits, I grabbed some options, trying to guess her size. As I contemplated, I said aloud, “Hmmm, well, you have big boobs..”, and out of all the things she understood me say in English, THAT was one. She busted a gut laughing and there we were standing in amongst the bathing suits laughing our heads off. And did I mention that soon after, I accidentally grabbed a female mannequin by the chest? More hysterical laughter. The rest of our trip was so sweet, as we strolled through the mall fighting the crowds and enjoying each other.

When we got home, my father-in-law had us laughing at his Latvian pronunciation. He was a great sport, and I’m sure it was his strategy to break down some walls. When they left to return to their hotel, he said, “Stand up! I’m going to give you a hug!”. Good job, Dad.

But the best part of the day, was getting our first official “I love you”. I think I need to frame it.

20121222-205407.jpg

Overall, we had a great a day. I have learned that like many teenagers, J is not much of a morning person. She is very quiet and I wonder about the strides made the days before, and if I had only imagined them. But as the day progresses, she becomes much more talkative and willing to try things.

Today we had a thrilling adventure to the kids’ elementary school. I volunteer with both of their classes every Friday, and today, J accompanied me. Cole and Caroline were both stoked to be able to show her off to their friends. As Caroline’s class filed into the classroom while we were waiting in the hallway, one of her friends “whispered”, “I didn’t know you had a sister!”. Caroline was so proud. Before we left, Jelena received a huge, squeeze-the-life-out-of-you hug. Both the principal and assistant principal made a point to come and meet her, and shared that they had heard from both Cole and Caroline how awesome she is.

After our school adventure, we headed to the optometrist. We realized that this whole experience would be interesting with the language barrier, and the doctor told us that one of the women that works there speaks Russian. It was definitely one of those “Are you kidding me?” moments. I guess at this point, I shouldn’t be surprised by the amazing ways that God has been working in all of this. At the same time, I DON’T want to stop being surprised, because it’s totally awesome!

We discovered she has a slight astigmatism, and needs glasses for reading. She hates glasses. “No no no no no no”, she kept whining with a pout, and I finally put a hand on her hand, looked her in the eyes, and said, “They’re only for reading, you don’t need them all the time, so stop complaining.” She looked at me, cocked her head, sighed, and said, “Okay”.

We were starving by the time we were done, so we went next door to Noodles and Company. Thanks to the suggestion of a fellow host mother, I went to the front and asked for a picture menu. Success! No more desperate attempts to translate and do sign language. She looked and pointed. Hooray! Have I mentioned that she is completely in love with ice? She loves putting it into her drink, she loves shaking the cup and hearing it clink around, she loves eating it….I feel like if it were summer, she would bathe in it.

After we got home, she helped me put garland on the stairway banister. It wasn’t a very glamorous activity, but she was smiling and seemed to really love helping. After the kids got home, they jumped into playtime with her. As they giggled and shrieked, out of her mouth came English! My favorites were:
* “Come here, small boy!”
* “Where you think you are going?”
* “Please get off my leg! Oooff!”
The kids were right on the ball and yelled, “J, you’re speaking English!”. Indeed she was. There was something about the affirmation of children, that boosted her confidence.

Our love is growing. This girl is amazing.