We love Olivia in our house, always have. When Ava was little she used to ride in a green seat attached to the front of my bike on our daily trips to the splash pad. Along the route we would always pass a tagged section of bridge. Whomever spotted the graffiti first would yell "Time Out!" in honor of Oliva getting in trouble for recreating a Jackson Pollock on the wall after visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oh precocious Olivia, pig of a thousand outfit changes, whatever will you get up to next?
So wasn't I tickled when I spotted a new Olivia down at the bookstore.
(Ava on Christmas morning in a ridiculous $5.99 set of Princess Kate-inspired jewels. New York, represent.)
This was shaping up to be the best good night reading ever! And then we got to the end of the book when Olivia started flirting with other possible future identities for herself. She could be a nurse and devote herself to caring for the sick and elderly? Go Olivia! Or maybe she could adopt all the orphans in the world? meep Or she could become a reporter and expose corporate malfeasance.
"What's an orphan?" asked Ava. An orphan is somebody without a Mommy or Daddy. "Was I an orphan?" Yes you were, and then we became a family. There was a pause. "What's corporate malfeasance?"
Olivia! You know how tired I am at the end of the day and how badly I tend to muddle emotional conversations like these and then how I ache like a darted animal at the idea of my child in confusion or pain. I'm an inept woman in many areas, none more so than when allowing those I love the space to flounder or grieve.
Ava of course knows she is adopted. We talk about Ethiopia often. She delights in the long version of the story of our first meeting, how Daddy stopped breathing before she was brought into the room and how I felt drunk on helium, and how her new parents badly got our limbs tangled up trying to change her diaper and ended up dribbled in her pee, and how she slurped down that first bottle in my arms while the three of us gaped at each other like fish and then she wailed for hours until she fell asleep with a mum mum in one hand and toy keys in the other. We tell her about meeting her uncle, who I got such an extraordinary first impression of, and who held Ava in his lap during our two hours together and wrapped the side of his blazer over the side of her head after she fell asleep so she wouldn't catch a chill. He told us that he wanted Ava to get a good education, and maybe grow up to be a famous doctor, and God willing return to Ethiopia one day to reunite with her three sisters and brother.
About a year and a half ago we clumsily introduced the idea of her siblings who God willing still live with her uncle and aunt. What information for a young child to try to incorporate into her own story. She regularly informs children she's just met at the park of their existence, looking over to me for confirmation of their ages. When her Daddy takes food off her plate without asking or throws a napkin at her head she gets very prissy and tells him "My sisters and brother would never use such bad manners at the table. They always keep their napkins on the lap and take their dishes to the sink and they always get dessert."
It took me too long probably to exhale the words birth mother and birth father to my child. I don't know why exactly, though I imagine it has something to do with my own stunted grieving around the death of my mother and the projected anxiety that Ava would then worry we would die and good God I hope not too much of it revolved around any toxic sense of envy or survivor's guilt or fear of being replaced. But then came the first time we dropped casually into the conversation the fact that Ava had an Ethiopian mother and father and that they had died and that that was sad. And she took it in but did not pursue. And we did it again a couple of times, in equally non casual casual conversations. But she never seemed able or willing to process just what that might mean until last night at the end of Olivia and the Fairy Princess.
We'd returned home from a long day of celebrating Christmas with fine friends. I'd had wine. We weren't sure which of us had farted. It was her turn to pick the book. Olivia! After I read that same dreaded page Ava happily announced "I'm an orphan!" the way a child might identify as having brown eyes or being a certain age. "Well I used to be an orphan until you and Dad got there. When did you get there?" Lucky Tim in the kitchen doing the dishes! "We got there a few weeks before your 1st birthday, which really mattered to me for some reason. Do you remember your party at Vivian's house?" I'm pathetic "But I don't understand what I did when I was 0 to 1."
Were we doing this? We were doing this. And so began in earnest what will be most important ongoing conversation of our lives.
Ava, you lived with your mother and father—we can call them your birth mother and father, your Ethiopian mother and father, or just your Mom and Dad, whatever feels right as we go along—until you were four months old. They got very sick and died. I do not know how to answer the question of whether or not you saw them die and I'm sorry for that blank and a thousand other blanks. Your sisters and brother live with your uncle and aunt. From four months until—...
My four-and-a-half year old little girl then said she was feeling very sad and that her eyes felt like crying. I agreed it was very sad and I felt like crying too, and I didn't know what she was feeling but I know how sad and confused I felt when my mother died. This all was sad but if nothing else she could always trust the safety of being sad with us.
"I am sad that my birth mother and birth father died and I'm sad that your mother died too," she cried. (For the rest of my life I will be humbled by her generosity of spirit in that moment that made room for me.) "And Yellow!" (The cat). "I am so sad that they died but you and Daddy, not my birth mother and not my birth father, but you Mom and Dad Dad, are not dead." We are not dead, I agreed, and we are not going anywhere* and isn't it lucky that we all have so many people in our lives who love us and love us well.
We lay there for a bit and then Ava told me to go on and finish the story. And then she asked for Green Eggs and Ham (not a good book) and then we had a good laugh about one day tricking Daddy into eating green eggs for breakfast. Then she fell asleep on my chest and I kissed her dear face a few dozen times. Then I found Tim in our bedroom watching a show about zombies and I gasped "Did you hear any of that?" and he said "No, what?" and then I wanted to dump the laundry basket on his head.
Ava, be a princess if you want to be one. Be a doctor if you want to be one. Be sad when you're sad. Be a goofball when you feel goofy. Be you, all of it. And never, ever wonder if you are alone in this world.
*I may have whiffed it at this point and been unable to stop the words "And I'm never going to die!" from rushing out of my pathetic mouth.