Monday, March 22, 2010

ET(hiopia), Phone Home

I know, I know. I left you all hanging. It wasn't intentional. That phone call came in the middle of a very busy day, and when we finished I was both emotionally exhausted and overbooked. I had no time to write a real post, but wanted to document the event.

So here's the story. I apologize in advance that it will be long: I want the details recorded somewhere. This will be nice for Steve, too, who was at work through the whole event.

Saffron has always wanted to call her Ethiopian Dad, since her first or second week in America. When he took her and Willa to the orphanage, he had Saffron memorize his cell phone number, and also put it in her school work. He told her to call when they were with a family, and let him know they were OK. But Saffron couldn't remember all the digits, and the number in her school work was lost.

She didn't think about it much, until we had called Gaetcho, our driver and friend in Ethiopia, to say HI, in Ethiopia a couple of times. Once she realized it was really possible, she then wanted to call her dad again. We first tried calling her teacher at the orphanage, whose number we had. She kept saying call back and she would have the number, but she could never get it. Then we spent a few weeks trying different numbers Saffron thought she remembered off and on, and getting a few wrong numbers in Ethiopia.

A few more weeks went by, and then Saffron started asking to call her dad again. She mostly thought of it when she remembered Little Brother, and wanted to talk to him on the phone. So, about a month ago I called Gaetcho (in Addis Ababa) with a proposal.

"Gaetcho," I said. "We can't find Ethiopia Dad" (of course I gave Gaetcho his real name). "Would you be willing to journey to Meki and try to track him down for us? If you're willing, I'd happily send you some money via Western Union to cover your expenses."

I knew Gaetcho would probably do it for free, but it's a two-hour car journey each way, and an odd request--I would never feel comfortable asking a friend on Ethiopian wages to put out that kind of gas money just to be nice.

Gaetcho, who became quite attached to the girls and our family during our long adoption process in Addis Ababa, was happy to help. He said to give him a couple weeks, and call back.

About three and a half weeks later, I was feeling really guilty that I hadn't sent Gaetcho any money. So I sat down and transferred $75 online, and called Gaetcho to let him know it was there. It was the middle of the night in Addis, so it was no surprise that Gaetcho never answered the phone.

I think first thing Saturday morning Gaetcho must have discovered all those missed calls in the middle of the night, because he seems to have gotten up and headed for Meki immediately.

Saturday afternoon, as we delivered Girl Scout cookies (feels like that's ALL I did this week!), I got a missed call from Gaetcho's number. I immediately called him back (we use, for those of you looking for a way to call Ethiopia or back), and through a very bad connection I understood that Gaetcho had been to Meki.

Meki is a very small town with one or two shops, and a few streets of run-down 'houses'. It is bigger than a village--a collection of a few huts--in that it has a sort of "main" street, and a Tuesday market day. Still it's small, and Saffron has always believed everyone in Meki knew her dad. Saffron has told us that her family lives in the cemetery, where her father guards the grounds in exchange for shelter. But Gaetcho visited five different houses and could find no one who knew where to find Ethiopia Dad. He left his mobile number with three different people, and headed back to Addis. (Though they may be desperately poor, a huge number of Ethiopians in the countryside have cell phones. They are their lifeline.)

Saturday evening Gaetcho got a call from one of the three people who put him in touch with someone (it was unclear) who knew Ethiopia Dad. Shortly after, Gaetcho either called or was called by Ethiopia Dad.

"He was very happy, and thanked me over and over for finding him, "Gaetcho said. "I think he is a good person, Emily. I think he has changed his life." Gaetcho is quite loyal to us and, I would say, a pretty shrewd judge of character. He was quite upset in Addis when Saffron told him the stories of her dad's treatment, so I was glad but surprised to hear him say this. At one point I may have thought it would be threatening to have contact with a birthparent, and especially one who really loves the girls. But now that they are here, I feel quite the opposite. I am happy for them to get to speak to their dad, and happy if he loves them and regrets the way he treated them.

So, I got out the video camera to record the event, and we called Ethiopia Dad at the number Gaetcho gave us. He answered, and we had a clearer connection than we've ever had with Ethiopia.

Saffron said (in English), "Hello? I am Tinsae!" And Ethiopia Dad began to sob. He kept repeating, over and over, "Betam! Betam! Betam! Betam!" 'Betam' means 'very,' and is even used by itself to a very emphatic 'thank you.' He thanked God for protecting them, and me for taking them, and Tinsae for calling him, and seemingly everyone he could think of. The best word I can think of to describe his reaction is overcome. He was overcome. His love for his girls was obvious, and it is easy to see why they have continued to love him, despite knowing it was wrong for him to hit them. I think I may be the only one who struggles with how to feel about all this. To Saffron and Willa, it's clear. Even when I've probed over the past several months, neither girl has every doubted his love for her. He loves them, and they love him, but they never want to live with him again. They are glad he gave them up. Saffron loves constant reassurance that she will always be in our family--that she will never go back, except for a visit. In a way, they seem to view his behavior as out of character for him--as motivated by desperation, fear, and the Wicked Stepmother.

Ethiopia Dad speaks very little English, so it was slow going. After a few minutes Saffron was able to understand all of his Amharic, but still struggled to speak back to him in Amharic. He asked things like how close is their school, do they have new brothers and sisters and what are their names, and will they come visit someday. He said he had trouble remembering Saffron's face, and wanted us to write a letter and send photos. He gave us his PO BOX (not sure if we got it right). He told us he teaches a Bible study class at the church, and says a prayer for all of us at the church every day. He said Little Brother cries for his sisters. Even Wicked Stepmother got on and said hi briefly. That was awkward. Saffron asked over and over about Little Brother because she wanted to speak to him, but he could not be roused from sleep (we called again yesterday and spoke to him).

Through pain-staking repetition and questioning, we were finally able to learn the girls' birth dates. Ethiopia Dad knew them right off, which makes it all the more frustrating to think of what we've been through over the past few months to adjust to girls much older than we were told (and that their Ethiopian records still show!), and to try and "choose" the right ages and birth dates. In fact, we had just chosen October 12, the day Saffron met us, as her third and final birthdate, and were all feeling great about it. It makes me mad now that I know for sure that these birth dates were never unknown--they were known, and they were NOT what the paperwork reported, and someone clearly lied along the way. I'm just grateful that we had not yet finished court proceedings to change their birth dates. We still have time to fix them before court.

Because Ethiopia has a very different calendar than the Gregorian one we use in the Western world, we had to translate their birth dates into our calendar. The years he gave us were unclear and varied each time Saffron translated, so I don't know that he really remembers them. We didn't get a conclusive answer on year, which reassured me once and for all that we are best to proceed according to what age fits their development best. We are using a pediatrician, dentist, and child psychologist to help us determine that. This whole frustrating and emotional age/birthday saga has taught me one thing: the biological age of your skeleton matters a lot less than your emotional age when it comes to fitting in in the world. I guess I've come to see it more as the country Ethiopians do--I'm not sure why we place such importance on tracking a person's age.

Anyday, Ethiopia Dad was very clear and undeviating when it came to the days and months of the girls' birth. After translating from the Ethiopian calendar,

Saffron's birthday is April 19.

Willa's birthday is June 15.

I asked for a few more details about Ethiopia Mom's death. Ethiopia Dad said she had no flesh, and had cancer. The paperwork says TB. I asked if she had AIDS, and he said no. After a while of talking and translating, Saffron was tired and wanted to go jump on the tramp. Willa had already talked to Ethiopia Dad, and couldn't say much (because she can speak no Amharic anymore), so mostly giggled, and had the phone impatiently grabbed away by Saffron. Neither girl ever got emotional about the phone call. I was a bit surprised. I did make Saffron translate one more question for me.

"Why?" I asked. "Why did you take the girls to the orphanage?"

In broken English, he answered, "No food, no house, no money, no thing." He added something in Amharic which Saffron translated as "He have no strong here, inside," as she pointed to her heart. Saffron added that they had "no this, only this" and grabbed the flesh on her arm, and then the bone of her wrist.

And then she said good-bye, and ran outside to jump.

Yesterday we called again, briefly, to talk to Little Brother. They were finally able to rouse him from his sleep, and like his father he cried when he heard, "I am Tinsae!" I'm sure he'll probably wonder if it was a dream. He asked if he could come to America.

Though I am very happy the girls got to talk to their Ethiopian dad and brother, I don't think we'll call again for a long time. It would be too hard on the girls, and on Little Brother. Can you imagine that little boy being dragged into his sisters world in America over and over by phone? Not fair to him. I don't think the girls will mind. I think they got what they wanted, and Saffron fulfilled the responsibility she felt to let her dad know they are OK.

And now I'm as emotionally exhausted from writing this as I was after the phone call.


Melissa said...

So did he give a year they were born so you know the age?
Interesting post.
What an adventure.

MsScreensiren said...

Thank you thank you for sharing. I'm so happy that Saffron could fulfill her promise.

Are you sending me Girls Scout cookies?

Emily said...

Because he seemed to give us a different answer for the year each time we asked, I don't think he remembers for sure. Either that or it's lost in translation. Either way, I'm satisfied we don't need to ask anymore and can set the year we think is best.

Emily said...

I really do think this phone call is VERY significant and your recording of it so thoroughly will bless all of you for many years. I was moved with emotion for Ethiopia dad who has no strong, here, and for Little Brother, and for you and for loyal Saffron and for little giggling Willa. I can't imagine the emotion spilling from Father to Daughters, from brother to sisters, and the prayers offered on all sides. This is a tale of miracles.
You are jumping hurdles like an adoption pro and I'm sure you are inspiring so many, for sure me anyway.
Wonderful post.

Sally said...

Well done Emily. That could have been so hard for you all on so many levels. Many people in your situation would probably have just let it be too difficult to obtain that phone number and make the call, thinking it the more comfortable option for themselves.
It is wonderful for the girls to know that they were not abandoned for lack of love, and that they are not forgotten by their father and brother. And he has just given them the gift of their real birthdays.

it's just lisa said...

I too am impressed with the effort you have gone through to obtain Ethiopia Dad's number. I imagine that it means the world to him to hear his daughter's voices and to know that they are well. It sounds like it helped the girls feel at peace too.

It is hard to think of what Ethiopia dad went through to give up his girls. It is hard to think of Little Brother and the siblings separated. But I thank you for sharing all of this. And my prayers are with you and your family.

amydear said...

Wow. Another amazing adventure. My friends are just starting the process of international adoption, and they are looking at Ethiopia. Of course I thought of you and Steve.

Percy2626 said...

Just curious, you don't have to answer. Hope you are feeling a bit better about "Little Brother" in Ethiopia now.

We are having our own "adoption" issues right now, So I feel some of your pain. Keep up the great work with all your kids.

Emily said...

Yes, I am feeling a bit better about Little Brother, Percy. Thanks. Though we will always be here if he is
ever orphaned, I think he is very loved. What are your adoption troubles? Do email if you want some sympathy. Good luck.