“Soooo, how did that orphan-hosting thing go for you guys?” she asks me casually as we head across the blacktop together to collect our kids from school. “From Facebook at least, it looks like you had fun with the boy – what’s his name – Dima?”
A pang of hurt dives deep somewhere in me at the unexpected sound of his name, while simultaneously a smile breaks out across my face. I answer, “Yes, Dima.” And I’m thinking of a quick way to sum up all those feelings before we reach the picnic benches and our waiting kids, but what I think of first, immediately, is yellow. The soccer shoes. The neon yellow soccer shoes, to be exact.
“What do you want for Christmas?” My Ukrainian friend Lesya had asked this boy Dima, in their shared language, as he sat beside us in the church pew on his first day here. It was 6 days shy of Christmas. He had just flown from his orphanage in Kyiv to Munich, to Seattle, to Reno, and then driven home with us through the icy December snow. He was still shy, hesitant, and slow to smile. He spoke only 23 English words. But he knew exactly what he wanted for Christmas. “Soccer shoes,” he told her. I looked down at his teenage feet. I would never know which ones to pick, I realized. He’d have to choose his own.
When I drove him to the sporting goods store a few days later, he bounced up and down on his tiptoes in the aisle and clapped his hands at the sight of an entire wall full of every soccer shoe one could imagine. “Oh! Thank you! Thank you!” he sang, in English, before anything had even been chosen or purchased. He nibbled his fingernails anxiously as he walked up and down the wall, clearly overwhelmed by all the choices, until he saw them.
Anyone could see them. From anywhere in the store. In fact one would doubt your eye-sight if you missed them: bright, shiny, practically glowing, neon yellow Adidas. He was instantly in love. “My yellow!” He exclaimed. “I! I! I yellow!” and somehow I understood then that yellow was his most favorite color (how many yellow sweatshirts and yellow socks and yellow-striped jogging pants I sent him home with 3 weeks later, I cannot say). He snatched the display shoe off the wall and hugged it against his chest – a 14 year old boy in the middle of a sports store – unashamed. I smiled at his enthusiasm, checked the price tag, and prayed they’d have his size.
When I picture someone winning the lottery, I imagine them having the look that Dima had on his face when I put the shoes back in his hands and said, “Ok. Your yellow!” Nobody on earth could have been more elated. He jumped and whooped and laughed, and then he hugged me tight. Christmas came 3 days early right then, for both of us.
As we drove the neon yellow soccer cleats home with us, in a black Adidas box on his lap, I noticed him shuffling around in the backseat. Unzipping pockets. Unfolding his coat. He was looking for something. “Aha!” he said after a few moments, and then, “Mee-lee-ssa – you.” He held something out to me in his hands. I reached behind the seat and grabbed it without taking my eyes off the road, and felt rounded metal backings before I actually saw what it was: a small gold-winged pin that said “Alaska Airlines.” A token of the final leg of his journey here, something a flight attendant had likely given him and the other orphans he was traveling with as a souvenir. Why did he want me to see this pin? Why right now? I did not know. But I examined it for a time, turned it over in my hands, to be polite. “Nice!” I said, before passing it back to him, “I like it!”
“No, no,” he said, and gently pushed away my outstretched hand. “You. Keep. Your Merry Christmas.” And then I understood.
This child, who had shown up from halfway around the world without luggage, in stained pants 3 inches too short, shoes that hadn’t fit him for years, and a blue princess shirt turned inside-out to hide the pictures on it – this orphan boy who had no other possessions in all the world, had this: a golden airlines pin. His one, solitary possession. And he was giving it away, to me. In thankfulness for his new yellow shoes. My Merry Christmas. I have been given elaborate Christmas gifts and heartwarming holiday presents all the years of my life, but not a single one of those comes anywhere close to holding the value that this tiny little pin holds for me. When you give all you have, Someone once said, it means more than even the greatest riches of the wealthy. That’s not just a made up line, I realized then, fingers wrapped around the little pin. It’s the truest expression of love.
“So how did it go?” she asks again, and I realize I’ve gotten lost in the memory. She’s still waiting for an answer, but how can I explain? Nobody has time to hear about yellow shoes when the teacher’s whistle is blowing and the kids tugging on their mother’s arm are saying, “Mommy, let’s go! Let’s go home!” Nobody has time to hear about the way he patiently zoomed my son around the house on his shoulders at full speed so he could “fly,” or the way he knelt in the snow and slipped his own gloves onto my daughter’s tiny freezing hands at the Grand Canyon’s edge. Eyes might glaze over if I began taking about the mornings we spent hip-to-hip at the kitchen stove, flipping pancakes (his favorite) or the evenings his head snuggled into my neck saying bedtime prayers in Ukrainian that I’ll never understand. I don’t know if the description of him playing with his very own remote-control car for 3 hours could sum up the joy of a kid who missed his childhood finding it again, even just for a moment. Or if there are any words existing which could explain the pride I felt when his yellow shoes flashed past me on the soccer field before he scored his third goal, and the field erupted in cheers, and he turned and looked at – me. The times he carried grocery bags in without being asked or the mornings I caught him doing dishes at the sink seem too small, the kisses he peppered my daughter’s head with before his plane departed seem too big, and all the dozens of moments in between seem impossible to summarize – his joy on a bicycle, his awe under the New Year’s fireworks, how he hugged the Christmas tree on Christmas morning, how fast he ran down the hill and scooped up my son in his arms when the sled crashed, the ten tangerines he ate every afternoon for lunch, belly laughs over his first whoopee cushion experience, the night he fell asleep reading his first very own Ukrainian book, how he shook when he cried in my arms the night before he had to leave. The way my heart still aches and yet rejoices at the sound of his name.
“It was so awesome,” I respond finally, and it sounds so weak, so simple, so incomplete. “It was so fun. And I really grew to love him, you know, and so did my kids, and we all learned SOOOO much…” I trail off again….the memory of my boys volunteering to sell all their Christmas presents so we could send him home with more clothes…their brand new Christmas soccer ball that they happily packed in his suitcase…the way they thank Jesus now for the simple things – a home, a family. And how he made even me a better person, when his watching eyes taught me that I CAN choose not to lose my patience with my children, even when I really want to. I was a kinder, gentler mother when he was here. Which means I can be that woman all the time. These aren’t things you admit to someone in the parking lot.
“It’s kinda like a mission trip, you know? But instead of packing your whole family up and traveling across the ocean, you bring the mission trip home, to your house. And you make a difference in someone’s life here at home, let them experience a real family and a real Christmas. But you learn the same stuff, I think, maybe?” She nods her head. I hope this makes sense to her.
“Wasn’t it hard to send him home though? I mean, with the war and everything? Don’t you just want to adopt him?”
Of course I want to adopt him. And of course I can’t. And maybe I still should try anyway. And would he change my family dynamic forever? And I don’t even know how I’m going to parent all my own kids adequately. But I love him. Is it possible to identify the exact moment we start to love someone? Because I’ve tried. I’ve re-played. I’ve guessed. All I can come up with is the end result: this child, this Ukrainian orphan boy whom I only knew for 3 1/2 weeks, has a place in my heart. Forever.
“Yeah, it was hard. Lots of things were hard about it,” I admit, “but it was worth it. It was way more amazing than it was hard. And most worthwhile things are just like that. You know, like parenting,” I say with a smile, as she loads her kids into her car.
“Well I think it’s really cool, what you guys did for him. Lucky kid,” she says, before we part. No, I want to correct her. No, it’s not really cool what we did for him – it’s really cool what HE did for US. You set out to bless someone, to love them, to show them kindness – and every time, every single instance, the gift will be returned back upon you. Smiles that warm a heart, meaning that measures deep, hugs worth their weight in gold, moments I’ll never forget, and a small golden Alaska Airlines pin. Lucky kid? Me. My Merry Christmas. I am the lucky kid, and love needs no language.
*** If you are interested in hosting an orphan child for a few weeks during Christmas or summer vacation, in learning more about the hosting program, or even just in donating to make hosting possible for someone else – please contact me! Or check out hostukraine.org for even more details ***