Monday, August 31, 2015

In her eyes

I didn't mean to write about this.  Really.  I didn't.

I wanted it to be something I could do quietly.  To sit back a bit, to watch and marvel at the people giving up so much for this cause.  I wanted to help, in whatever small way I could, and then go home and shut it out.  Until the next time at least.

But I can't think of much else these days.  I wake up in the middle of the night with their faces before me.  Their tired eyes.  Their bright smiles.  Their tears.  Their fear and their gratefulness.

It all started with dinner.  After spending nearly the whole summer away we were excited to see our neighbors again.  To catch up on holidays and kids and life in general.

But our conversation quickly took a different direction than expected.  I imagine they felt much like I do now.  Like, while life goes on, there is little else to think about.  Little else to talk about.  Like even when you do your best to not talk about it, they're still there.  Pushing their way into your comfortable life.  Reminding you.

We knew, of course, about the refugees, moving from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, trying to get through Hungary.  Trying to get West.  To safety.

But we knew about it from articles and news and, well, Facebook mostly.  Now, though, we were hearing it first hand.  From our neighbors, who were there.  In the train station.  Spending their free time, and their not free time, doing anything they could to help.

They spoke passionately about the families they met, the things they had done, and we were completely captivated.  When they went to leave she asked.  And I'm so grateful she did.

Joel went down for the first time that night with her husband.  I waited anxiously at home.  And although it was nearly one in the morning when he got home, I didn't sleep.  I didn't ask right away.  I wanted to know, and I didn't want to know.  But eventually he told me everything.

After he laid down his head that night I stayed awake, my eyes both wide and tired, thinking about the baby.  The mama.  The kids sleeping in the park.  The dad likely forcing himself up, protecting his family, planning their next move.

And so when she asked me to come I was nervous, but I couldn't say no.

I spent about an hour wondering why I had come at all.  What could I do that wasn't already being done by the wonderful volunteers, many of whom were there nearly every day?

And then I heard some murmurings.  There's a family coming.  Small kids.

I looked up and I saw them, crossing the platform, nearly collapsing onto the hard cement floor.  The mother carried something, and it took me a minute to realize what it was.  A baby.  So small he was likely born on their journey.  Her other three children huddled close, one lying atop the family's only backpack and falling fast asleep.  

When I looked at the mom I recognized her immediately.  I had never seen her before, of course.  I had never been in her situation.  I had never known anyone who was.

And yet I knew the brokenness on her face.  I recognized the tears in her eyes.  I saw her four small children, and understood they were both a source of grief and comfort for her.  I realized that she just wanted to sit on her own, to rest, and yet she wanted them near.  I heard what she was saying, that she couldn't go any further, couldn't do it anymore, though she spoke no words.

When her youngest child whimpered beside me I saw she wanted to comfort her, but she was so tired.  So worn.  I motioned that I could pick her up, place her beside her mother, who she clearly longed for, and she nodded, patting the ground beside her.  I saw her eyes on me a few minutes later as her daughter laid on a makeshift cardboard bed, as she continued to whimper and I moved beside her, rubbing her back in small circles until she drifted off to sleep.

I noticed the gratefulness in her eyes as I sat near to her and offered to hold her baby in his small carrying basket.  I noticed how surprisingly heavy and awkward it was in my lap.  I noticed her watching him as, after a while on my lap, he started to squirm, and how anxious she was to hold him again.  How she buried her head in his neck and covered his face with kisses.  I noticed it was the first time I saw her smile. I knew what it was to feel exhausted by your children, and then to see them through someone else's eyes.  I understood that her kisses and smiles were those of a woman in love, falling deeper every moment.

It's an exhausted kind of love.  And while I don't know what horrors she's been through, or those that still may come, while I don't know what it's like not to know who will take you in, where you will live, when you will eat next, I do know that kind of love.  I know it well.

Recently Benjamin's been sick.  Sick and needy and no one or nothing will do, but Mama.  For nearly three days I could barely tear him away, even to use the bathroom.  Our only separation came in the evening, when I finally got him to bed.  And even that was short-lived.

Yesterday morning I wanted to take the big kids to church.  I needed a break from Benjamin, and secretly longed to enjoy a full service without running through the halls after him.  To sing without him pulling on my arm, to listen without him crying from the nursery.

But even with the best distractions, he wouldn't let me go.  His lip quivered and he clung to me like a tiny monkey.  He shook and sobbed and after about a 30-minute struggle, and a few tears from Mama, I finally gave in.  This wasn't going to work.  As much as I needed to be away from him, he needed to be with me more.

Sometimes it's an easy kind of love, but often it's an exhausted one.  It's a constant giving, even when it feels like there's nothing left to give.  It hurts sometimes, but it's the most real love.  The most sincere.

It's what I recognized in that mom that night.  It's how I knew her so well.  It's why she didn't need to speak a word for me to realize, at that point, she needed nothing more than a small break.  A helping hand.

And I knew that while we carried and guided four exhausted children through the train station this wasn't something she was doing to them, but for them.  Even if they didn't understand.  Even if it took absolutely everything out of her.  Even if it left her broken.

And I knew, in her situation, I would do the same.  I would be the broken one.  The tired one.  The one in need of help.  The one doing anything to keep my children safe.

I felt that night, looking in that mother's eyes, what it is to be human.  And I know it now, in a way I didn't know it just a few weeks ago.  In a way I can never go back and un-know.

I realize I'm lucky, to be born where I was.  But I also realize it's just geography.  And that, at the heart of things, in the ways that really matter, we're not so different after all.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The day I was that mom

School started yesterday, and this year I was going to be the prepared mom.  The one who gets her kids to school on time and packs their lunches the night before and leaves them only with sweet words and kisses and doesn't endlessly shout "Get in the car!" over and over all morning long.

In that spirit I decided to make some overnight oatmeal the night before Aiden's first day, to simplify our morning routine.  I pulled up Pinterest for the first time in months and started adding ingredients. The recipe called for two tablespoons sugar, which I heaped in before carrying on with the cocoa powder.  It was only after the cocoa powder that I noticed.  Sitting right next to me, lid ajar, no label, was not the sugar, but the salt.  The sugar remained pushed against the back of the counter, sealed tightly.  I sampled the liquidy mixture with my finger and nearly spat it back out.  Two tablespoons salt.  I had used two tablespoons salt!

I'm not one to waste food, though, and since most of the ingredients had already been added I attempted to locate the saltiest spots and scrape them out with a spoon.  I felt semi-successful in my efforts, so I moved on with the recipe.  This time I added three tablespoons sugar, to counteract any leftover saltiness.  Only I didn't add three tablespoons sugar, I added three more tablespoons salt.  Which of course I didn't realize until I went to taste it and unwittingly ingested my sodium intake for the year.  I did it again!  How in the world had I done it again?!

But whatever.  I made freaking calzones for the first day of school.  Calzones!  I had Aiden's inside and PE shoes already in his bag!  I had clothes laid out for all three boys.  What do these people expect?  Perfection?  Oatmeal that doesn't taste like it's been skimmed from the bottom of the ocean?

We still got to school early the next day.  Early!  Can you even imagine?  Aiden wanted to be the first one in his classroom, which of course he wasn't.  But fourth is not bad.  Not bad at all.  (Anyhow, aren't we aiming for last, or something like that?)

And so when last night rolled around I thought how nice it was to be prepared that morning.  To have lunches packed and clothes ready and hardly any yelling throughout the house.  What a great way to start the day!  I mean, I didn't do it again.  I was much too tired for that.  But I did think how nice that one day was.  I thought how it felt, for one day, to be the prepared mom.  The mom who really has her stuff together.

It felt good, for sure, but I still didn't pack lunches last night.  I didn't ready breakfast, or clothes.  I didn't prepare for the day.  I did, however, talk to my son.  I listened as he explained the moments he felt happy and the moments he felt lonely and the moments he felt somewhere in between.  We discussed the kids who had plenty of friends, and the ones who had none at all.  We challenged each other to look for the lonely ones, to be brave enough to offer friendship to someone who really needs it.

And so this morning was a bit frantic, but all three children were clothed and fed.  Bags were packed and lunches were made and, most importantly, coffee was consumed.

I'll always remember my day in the sun.  I'll know now what it feels like to pull lunch from the fridge instead of running around chopping and scrounging and generally panicking.  I'll realize what it is to flippantly pass your children their prepared outfits instead of begging them to please, for the love, just go get dressed!  I'll understand just how peaceful the morning can be.

Of course, I should have known when I mentioned to Joel that this year I was going to be prepared, that this year I would gather and pack and ready in the evenings, before school, and he laughed too fast and too long, that it was never going to happen.

But it did happen.  Once.  And I'm holding out hope that maybe, one day, it will happen again.

Until then, though, I'll be happy with the little successes.  Dinner made, and oftentimes cleaned up.  Long baby baths.  Bedtime conversations and books and an hour to relax before I can hold my eyes open no longer.

Extra kisses and hugs and love-you's as they pile into their classrooms for the day, no matter how close to total meltdown I felt just minutes before.

And the knowledge that they're so loved, if not always prepared.  After all, if love can make the world go round, perhaps it can help us survive another school year.  One crazy morning at a time.

This is an old picture, but I've given up all hope of ever getting another good first day of school photo.  So you'll probably see this one a lot.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


"I have to go into work for a few hours," he says.  

I might roll my eyes, but of course I understand.  With students arriving in just a few short days, holiday or not, I have to.  

And so he walks out the door and it's just the four of us again.  

The big boys run upstairs and their chatter streams into the kitchen, softening me.  I think, for the first time in days, what could we do together?  The thought feels good.

I open Finn's baking book and flip through.  I find the simplest recipe and prepare the ingredients.  Before I know chairs are screeching up beside me, little boys climbing up.  "What can we do?  What can we do?" they ask, and I'm not annoyed.  It surprises me, this feeling of calm.  It's been missing lately, but I don't realize until now.  This moment.

The grabbing and the reaching, the flour absolutely everywhere, they don't bother me today.  And when our cheese twists crumble instead of twist, we place them in funny patterns on the baking paper, and in 8 minutes we realize they taste just as good.  Maybe better.  

"Mom, can you build a lego city with us?"

"Yes," I say, and am surprised how easily it leaves my mouth.  "But first, coffee."  They understand.  They have to.  

I pour the milk and a few drops drizzle out.  It's not enough.

"Boys!" I call.  "I have a job for you."

"What?" they ask, suspicion lurking in their little voices.

I hand them six coins and send them to the corner store.  Their eyes light up as they skip out the gate.  A few minutes later they sprint through the door triumphantly, milk in hand, and my heart nearly bursts with the joy of them.  

I kiss their faces because I want to.  Because I know they understand face kisses more than words that are said all the time.  They can't tune out face kisses.

I make my coffee and they watch with pride as I pour the milk.  Then we sit together.  For the first time in days, I think, I want to be together.  Not doing dishes or cleaning up toys or making dinner, while they play in the background.  I let the dishes sit and the toys scatter and decide pizza for dinner isn't such a bad idea.  

We don't talk much.  But we build.  Together.  They look up at times, and with deep breaths excitedly explain their latest building project.  They make me stop my own building to pause and appreciate theirs.  And I do.

From time to time Benjamin rolls in like a baby Godzilla, and I distract him with some cuddles, or I build him a train track, and then I get back to my big boys, whose need for me isn't as apparent, but just as pressing.  And every bit as real.

When I sit back I can see the three of them, deeply involved in their own play.  And with my coffee in hand I know that right here, right now, I'm happy.  With this simple scene unfolding before me, colorful legos snapping together, intermittent "choo-choo's" from behind the couch, I'm about as happy as it gets.  

And for this moment I'm grateful.  Because I'm aware it can't stay this way.  That these moments are gifts.

I'll unwrap this gift slowly.  This lazy, peaceful day at home.  The pajamas at noon, the hot coffee in hand, the three beautiful boys longing for time with me.  

And today I'll give it to them gladly.  Because today nothing needs to be done.  Today nothing is more important than lego cities and train tracks and messy baking.  

And although I realize it can't be like this every day, I also realize that today, it can.

Monday, August 10, 2015

What I needed

In case I haven't made it clear in the past, I'm not so good with transitions.  It's easy going home, to the States.  It' like a month-long vacation with four extra hands for cooking and laundry and keeping the children alive.  It's familiar and easy and just about everyone speaks our language.

Usually we come back to Budapest, though, and I'm surprised by the feeling of home.  By my excitement to be here, in a place that we love, with people we love.  Usually it's easier than I think it's going to be.


This time it was hard.  It was hard to swallow the kids' tears after they parted with grandparents.  It was hard to make that trip again, to wake the children from a deep sleep and still have another airport, another flight, the long ride home.  The jet lag was extra hard, more than I remembered.  As soon as I finally neared sleep, Benjamin would start to stir and I knew there were hours more ahead of me.  I felt tired this time.  So tired.  I wanted life as easy as it could get, and I wasn't ready to face the hard.

So when I pulled up to the grocery store and realized I didn't have the 100 forint coin I needed to release the cart, I didn't feel like dealing with it.  My wallet was screaming with quarters and dimes and it felt right.  Like I was here, but not here.  Like I hadn't quite transitioned back.

I searched the car frantically.  There were euros, Swiss francs, every single denomination of forint, but absolutely no 100's.  I could have asked someone for the coin, I know, but I wasn't ready to face that, what with my poor Hungarian and the crippling fear that the answer could be no.

So instead I got back in the car, drove to a small store down the road, and bought a Coke and a KitKat.   As I reached in my wallet to pull out the 500 forint bill I noticed a small coin resting at the bottom.  I pulled it out and stared at it incredulously.  One hundred forint.  Right there.  Literally sitting in my wallet.

The cashier held out her hand and I pulled that 100 forint coin back as if it were made of pure gold.  I tucked it securely in the zipper part of my wallet and handed her the bill.  She handed me back another 100.  Good.  Now I had two.  Just in case.

I pulled up again to the grocery store.  I held the coin tightly in my hand as I approached the carts.  But it never left my hand because right there, right in front of me, stood a cart with the 100 forint coin still inserted.  I thought perhaps it was stuck, leading someone to give up on it, but when I gave it a small push the cart popped out, like it had just been waiting for me.

What I needed was there all along.  If I hadn't been trying so hard to take care of myself I could have looked down, or looked up, and seen that I was taken care of.  That what I needed had already been provided.

It was a small, miniscule problem, particularly in light of the huge problems people are facing every day around the world.  It was nothing, really, and I could have, and did solve it easily myself.

But I didn't need to.

It was enough to snap me out of my funk, to clear the fog a bit.  I'm feeling more grateful now.  I'm remembering what I love about this place and the people here.  I'm happy to be home.

And I'm glad that while perhaps I could go it alone, I don't have to.