To say that Sunshine dreamed of being here is a bit of an understatement. She asked me within the first half hour of meeting her over Christmas about New York City. She talked about it constantly—almost to the point of frustration. But it was also really clear to me that this was something that she didn’t think would ever happen to her; that wishes and dreams don’t really ever come true.
For that and many other reasons, it became my goal to get her here. I know not everyone will understand it, but this city became more than just a desire—it became a turning point in our relationship. When she was with us over Christmas, in exasperation I asked her if it was more important to come back for the summer with our family or to come to New York. She thought about it seriously, and finally told me that she wanted to come back to us because we are a good family. I knew then that we had become *her* family. I know the cost that was for her to choose me, and what love and trust it exhibited. And with this being possibly the last time she will be with us in the United States, I wanted to show her that sometimes wishes can come true, and sometimes dreams can become reality.
Of course, sometimes the reality doesn’t always measure up to the dream.
New York City smells like poop. And sometimes pee also.
Seeing this place, the vastness of it, the variety that is here—hearing Russian on the street, wandering through Chinatown, being packed in like sardines on a rush hour subway—these things she could not have envisioned. These things are not the New York you see on TV. And I know she was surprised by the energy of it all. She was ready to make plans for a move here five hours into our first day of activities.
But at the same time, real life doesn’t stop happening. Having a 17 year old tell me that I am stupid and no good because I panicked and loudly yelled for my wandering 9 year old in a crowded Times Square store does not naturally lead to me respond in grace-filled ways. Nor does the fact that said 9 year old continually argues with me and won’t stop touching, running, or wandering…and he continues to do it until I am at the end of my patience and I speak sharply to him (over and over). Nor does it help that when I apologize, the 17 year old takes this as the cue to enumerate more of my failures, recasting the day as a miserable forced starvation march.
And so we ended the day with a teenager saying “whatever” a lot and reminding me multiple times that I didn’t buy her that one thing she wanted, and a Little Man weeping and asking why I hate him.
Oh, children. If you only knew how much I held back because I love you both so much. If only you could only understand that my haughty sarcasm was my own defense system against your cutting words. If you could only take a moment, you would understand how disappointed I am in myself at how I respond.
But I have learned that my responses are not caused by others. These children do not always remember that. They both respond out of raw, inexperienced places. My job isn’t to get their sympathy and understanding so that we can all get along better. My job is to love them enough to see past my own wronged sensibilities in order to help them with theirs. In doing that, hopefully the understanding and compassion will come.
And so I ended the night with a crying little boy, reassuring him that he is, indeed, loved, but his embarrassment was a small price to pay for his safety. I told him my fears and my frustrations and how they motivated my actions…honestly, and without the added sarcasm. It was clear that he was an overwrought boy in need of some attention and cuddles, so I gave them gladly.
And I came out into the quiet of this cozy apartment we are staying in and I thought of how Sunshine is much the same, but also caught somewhere between childhood and adulthood. This is the first teenager I have ever raised. I often feel unmoored and unprepared. I don’t always know if what I am seeing is the result of culture shock, the reverberations of being a child of hard places, or simply the human nature of adolescence. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I have a teenager who rockets from the age of 17 to 3 to 28 and back again in the course of an interaction. It is an upside down, topsy-turvy world.
I need to remember that one of the things about our life together is that the rhythms of this place are like a song written in the off-beat. It is a beautiful thing. But when you are living in it, you can choose to focus on the things that are wrong, or you can choose to marvel in the harmonies that dissonance creates.
There were times when Sunshine’s criticisms stung and frustrated me. The city was too ugly, or the destination too far, or not what she was expecting. When two men started singing in the subway, she was disdainful and declared that such stupidity would never happen in her country. I know that this isn’t true, as she herself has posted videos of buskers singing near her home. But the next day, the same thing happened, and she cheerily bopped to the music, declaring such things “so cool.” This sort of thing can become maddening, especially when they happen 150 times a day.
But I know this is her defense mechanism. Show disdain and disgust because it’s safer. Everything that is new is wrong. How silly of me to think that this wouldn’t be magnified a thousand fold in a city like this one.
And then I think about what an amazing thing it is for her to express joy at all. How brave of her to come here with me, to a strange, scary, new place, overwhelming in its culture and language. How much she must trust me to lead her well on this adventure.
Her dissonance is not really derision coupled with moments of pleasure. It’s love sprinkled with fear.
And now I have a choice. I can choose to listen to the exasperating behavior of these two children and add my own to the mix, or I can instead listen to the melody that we make as each of our personalities experience this time together. I am the one who sets the tone of the memories that are built. Today, it went a good bit sharp.
So I work to correct the wrongs done, the errant behavior, the heart attitudes. Good thing that these two wonderful beings are willing to work alongside me. Good thing that I get another day to try again. Good thing there is grace. Good thing I don’t have to be perfect. Good thing mercies are new every morning.
And so I will listen to the beautiful melody we make as we walk together in the reality that happens when dreams come true.