Tonight we were all at the dinner table, celebrating Josiah’s Gotcha Day anniversary. Rose and Grace throughout the day have wished our little guy “Happy Gotcha Day!” with hugs and smiles, and though he doesn’t really know what the excitement is about, Josiah appreciated the attention and was glad to steal the show.
After dinner, Mark pulled out the computer so that we could all view pictures and video clips from one year ago today. This has become our Gotcha Day tradition . . . conversation and memories of our first hours, days, and weeks together, along with a celebratory outing or dessert or gift.
So Mark set the computer on the slideshow feature, and together we began to view pictures of the events one year ago. Our travel to Henan – Josiah Fuzi’s birth province. The fabulous buffet breakfast in the hotel. Meeting other families and our agency’s guides. And then – the video of our much anticipated first encounter with Pu Fuzi.
The screen showed a scared and timid little one year old, lost in winter layers, cowering in the arms of his caregiver, expressionless as he is passed to my arms. Only his darting eyes and quivering bottom lip betray his uncertainty and fear.
As I watched the video, I was struck by the contrast between the timid one-year old on the screen, and the happy little guy who was sitting before me in his booster seat.
Josiah was intrigued by the video, and before too long the motion on the screen captured his attention.
“MomMom!” he shouted with a grin, pointing to me and then to the screen. “Dada!” “RoRo!” “GaeGae!” He eagerly called us all out by name, happily reaching out to the images on the computer screen. We all affirmed him, touched and pleased to see his excitement. I realized then that he hadn’t seen this video before, and for the girls, it had been many many months.
I felt so emotional watching his reaction. “Just a year ago we were all strangers,” I thought to myself, “and now here he is! He’s confident in knowing we are ‘his people.’ He seems so settled and sure in his place with us!” Not one to miss such a precious scene, I grabbed for my phone, and began taping his reaction to this first meeting.
The scene ran on . . . the screen showing a timid Fuzi in my arms. I am holding him while asking caregivers questions. “How long have you all been on the road?” “Has he had lunch? Do you think he is hungry?” Rose and Grace cautiously and gently approach, with proud big sister grins, gently offering toys and snacks. Mark stands back and observes, patiently waiting his turn to hold our new son.
As the scene unfolds on the computer, I turned back to our jovial 2-year old. He was captivated by the screen. He seemed so interested and curious, watching quietly and very seriously. Mark and I exchanged a glance, both of us wondering what was going on in Josiah’s young mind. He continued to watch intently, but after some time he started to look concerned. Mark noticed and began to stroke his hair to assure him. Josiah continued to watch, but then his demeanor visibly changed. His bottom lip began to quiver . . . his face, his countenance, his whine . . . it’s something I don’t remember seeing. At least not for quite some time. He seemed so unsettled. And sad. “No no. . .” he whined, while at the same time craning his neck so that he could see the screen.
We stopped the video early, and instead looked through some photographs of our early days together. But Josiah wanted to be held, and didn’t seem excited to watch anymore. Not even the offer of dessert brought the predictable smile and excitement.
As I reflect, I’m not sure what to make of it all. Perhaps he was just mirroring the emotions of the younger version of himself he saw on the video. While that’s a simple explanation, and a reasonable possibility, his emotional response seemed to go beyond that. And as I think about our evening, I am reminded of something I read recently in a book on adoption. The book discusses the power early memories have in serving as triggers in the life of an adoptive child, bringing back emotions associated with early trauma.
“. . . figuring out the source of a memory trigger requires some detective work, predicated on the parent’s belief in the implicit memories of infants and young children and a willingness to honor those early experiences as real . . .”
The author goes on to provide examples of research which reveal that for some children a particular smell may serve as a reminder that brings grief. For other children, the trigger might be a particular neighborhood, or a certain time of year. For these types of implicit memories, it may require some detective work on the part of the adoptive parent to discover what triggers are there, and to then help the child navigate their emotions. Of course, in the situation I described, there is not much detective work required in determining the source of the memory trigger for our little Josiah.
Without any preparation, or any smaller steps leading up to the event, we had him watch the video of himself, timid and afraid, being transferred from orphanage caregivers into our arms. That’s a fairly explicit trigger.
I suppose I should have known that.
But I didn’t see it coming. Perhaps because he’s so young. Perhaps because he’s not yet verbal. Perhaps because I see the scene from the happy momma’s perspective, and not from the perspective of a frightened child experiencing major loss and traumatic transition. (loss of people, language, culture, environment, food, # of layers of clothing . . . you name it)
I will always view the pain inherent in adoption through a lens which trusts that healing and wholeness can come, despite (through?) the loss. However, I hope next time I’ll be more prepared to walk alongside for the grief which is a part my childrens’ stories as well.
Gotcha Day still ended well. Very well. This photo was taken later in the evening, and he was all smiles and charm – his usual self. So thankful for our chubby, jovial fellow!
*I’ve learned over recent years that the phrase “Gotcha Day” may be a bit misguided, as it focuses on adoptive parents’ experience on the initial meeting (joy, fulfillment of longing, excitement) rather than the child’s experience (loss, confusion, trauma.)
(sigh) Live and learn. The term was introduced to us as we prepared for Grace’s adoption in 2005 and is now such a part of our family culture I feel it would be counter-productive to undo.