My last two evenings in Latvia were different than the rest. I got to spend them with Sunshine and her friends. I got to mom-barrass Sunshine at her new job (at a souvenir shop) and have her choose presents for my family back home. I got to see her room, and her friends’ rooms, and the space she inhabits when she is not with me. I got to spend a night out with a bunch of goofy teenagers, loitering at a fast-food place, listening to them tease one another, and being the butt of the joke, too.
I got to be the mom of a girl I love. I got to do what so many other parents do every day…for a moment. I got to have a room filled up with lounging teens and laughter and all things sixteen and seventeen. I got to speak to them, touch them, laugh with them, remind them to be wise. I got to be the cool mom.
I don’t know how to do this, with all the cell phones and the hanging out. I don’t know how to be cool. Don’t they know how awkward I am? Don’t they know I’m clueless? Don’t they know that I am just as insecure as they are? Don’t they know I worry that who I am might be a disappointment to them?
But they don’t. They don’t worry that such thoughts might be in my head. All they knew is that Sunshine’s mom was there and she was crazy and cool and funny and wonderful. They all wanted to see my tattoo. They asked about the stories she told and if they were really true. They already loved me. And I didn’t even know.
That thought was rather overwhelming.
The girl in the middle of the picture above needed to have a family, she said. Her story was so sad. She needed to learn to be open. She needed to know the love that Sunshine had experienced. She needed to heal. And so, when someone offered me some scholarship money I wasn’t eligible for and told me to use it as I pleased, I bet it all on her.
The boys in the photo were Sunshine’s, too. The older boy needed a dad to show him how to be a man. The younger boy…well, Sunshine just adores him. Watches out for him. Find him a mama, she said. He needs a mama. And in her mind, if she told me to do it, it was done. I couldn’t let her down. And so, I found myself in the last 24 hours before matching ended, writing and rewriting their bio, collecting pledges if only someone would host these boys, telling everyone I could about those sweet faces.
And they were all hosted. They all found the family they needed. They found American homes. They are simply dripping with the joy that this past summer has given them. They had messages for home, pictures to show, stories to tell me. They have the perfect mamas for them, the best families. And I have come to care deeply for those families as well.
But I only championed them because I love her. My acts were not for myself, and were actually quite unremarkable. I was just one in hundreds of people who championed children, who put their money down to raise up a home for another child. I did what I did because I care about Sunshine. And she cares about these people, so of course I wanted to help them. It was yet another way for me to invest in her life and our relationship. She is the only one who knows what I did, and even she doesn’t know the full story. All she knows is that I helped them, but I never told her how.
I didn’t expect that this work meant that they would find their way into my heart, too. I didn’t expect to be in theirs; they don’t even know me. I didn’t expect meeting them would feel so much like coming home.
They were all there, waiting for me, lingering around me. They each eagerly took their turn in the spotlight as I photographed their rooms for their American families. It was obvious the day had been spent cleaning for my arrival. None of them went away. They followed behind in a pack; they sat on beds and desks and anything they could find. This must be what it is like to parent a teen. This must be what my role is now, and I was thrilled to embrace it.
I can’t believe I got to sit in that place, just absorbing these kids. There wasn’t anything brilliant that happened. We ate, we laughed, we Skyped America, we lived in that space together. And one by one, they opened up themselves to me. I was allowed to ask the hard questions. I was allowed to shoot them looks of disapproval and say things like “make good choices” so that they laughed…and listened a little bit. I saw pictures of bio moms who had broken them. I heard stories of girls they were sweet on. I listened as they whispered their fears to me.
I love these dear ones. I cried when I left that first night, the ache of not seeing them again weighing on me. Had I said enough? Had I listened well? Had I told them loudly enough how precious they are?
I was so thankful for a second evening with many of them. Nothing special, just lots of hanging out, making fun of my stupid American ways, giggling about cute boys and wearing cologne for pretty girls, taking selfie after selfie. A teen is a teen is a teen in any world. Cell phones and bunny ears, giggles and good natured ribbing: I don’t need a translator for that.
But they are also more than teens. They are orphans without a family. They have become family to one another.
I understand this. I have family like that, too. People who have walked this with me and understand my soul better than many to whom I am blood-related. People who know with a look the importance of a moment. People who know what I am to them, too, and that we don’t need to explain it to anyone else.
Maybe we aren’t all that different, these dear ones and I. Maybe I am part of their family now, too. Maybe I have really come to another home I didn’t know was waiting for me.
I think I have.