Food is a language I speak fluently. For me, food has always been the very best way for me to express love. When Nick and Olivia came home, they left absolutely everything that was familiar. They had to get accustomed to a new culture with customs, foods, and language different from the one they had always known. They were introduced to faith and its practice in a meaningful way. And they had to learn to be a part of a family.
One of the things that I can do is to create meals around dishes that are familiar to them, or that were especially memorable for them, recalling those precious good memories from the years before they came home to us. We have been eating a LOT of Bulgarian food lately because I have been compiling a collection of Bulgarian recipes that Nick and Olivia have requested. This requires converting and modifying them for the ingredients available here in the States, and testing them to further tweak for our tastes.
I’m about three-quarters through the recipes that I have collected, and I’m beginning to style and photograph each recipe. Once that is complete, I’ll start casting about for printers so that I can make them available as a complete cookbook.
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I know that the food you will eat for breakfast this morning will not nourish your body even if it does quell the pain in your stomach. I know that you will watch the other kids at school, the kids who have parents, enjoy a hot lunch while you take the trash out in payment for your cheese sandwich. I know that you will feel fortunate to have a plate of lukewarm pasta before bed – if the orphanage bully doesn’t get it first. I know that the orphanage workers are downstairs in the office taking coffee instead of watching over you. I know that if he gets your dinner, there won’t be anything to replace it.
I know that you won’t sleep tonight because the orphanage abuser prowls the hallways and bedrooms all night looking for someone to molest. And I know that the orphanage worker that is working the night shift is safely locked up in the staff bedroom with a television on so that she won’t be bothered. I know that the sounds of the other kids fighting him off – or just fighting each other – keeps you awake. I know that you haven’t had a real night’s sleep since being left in the orphanage.
I know that they don’t call the doctor when you’re feeling sick, if they ever take you at all. I know that when you’re hurt, no one comforts you or bandages your cuts. I see the huge gashes on your elbow and knee and I know it’s more than a scrape from falling off a bicycle or stone wall. I know about the self-harm that leaves your face bruised and your skin bleeding. I know that you have an infection raging inside your body that makes your stomach hurt, gives you diarrhea and the kind of bad breath that makes people stay far away from you.
I know that you are often punished for something you didn’t do. I know about the chair in the basement, and the time you and the others were stripped naked and sent outside on display for hours until it got dark. I know about the bottles full of cleaner that they spray in your face if they think you’re lying. And I know how they burn you with the electrical cord. I know about the electroshock therapy that was meted out for a broken window. I know you heard the screams of your brother, or sister, or friend. I know about all of it.
I understand why you are afraid to use the toilet in the night. I know why you crouch in a corner to relieve yourself quietly in a pile of clothing, or out of the window. I know why you are afraid to take a shower even though it means you will smell bad, so the kids at school tease you. I understand why you can’t wear a nightgown or a dress unless you also wear pants underneath it.
I know why you haven’t learned how to do more than simple addition. I know why you can’t write your own name, much less an essay, or even a sentence. I know why you gravitate to picture books. I know why you can’t even properly speak your mother tongue. I know the teachers think that you aren’t worth teaching. I know that the other kids take your books and papers from you. I know that you are so scared all of the time that you can’t think, you can’t concentrate.
I know why you can’t make friends, and why you aren’t even friends with your own brother or sister. I know why you don’t trust women – or anyone. I know why you lie and why you steal. I know why you turn on the charm. I know why you scream and rage, why you kick and bite and run away.
I know that you sit alone sometimes and wonder where your parents are, and why they left you there. I know you wonder if they’ll come back – pray they’ll come back. I know you wish someone – anyone – would come and rescue you. I know that you want a do-over. I know that you want someplace safe and clean to live, somewhere where there is always food and heat, maybe somewhere with a lock on your bedroom door. I know that you want someone to spend time with you, to tell you stories and teach you things like how to read and knit and draw… and live. I know that you want someone to tell your story to – someone who will comfort you and tell you that it’s going to be alright. I know that you want someone to MAKE IT ALRIGHT.
I know – even if you don’t – that you need to know The One Who graced you here. I know that you need to experience His mercy, His kindness, His joy, and His abundance. I know that you need a miracle in the guise of a mother and father, and brothers, and sisters, and friends. I know you need to be surrounded by people who never leave – not ever. I know that you need the gift of a new beginning, a second chance, a beautiful life.
I can’t come for you, though my heart aches to. But I promise you this: Not only will I pray for you, but I will be your voice. I will tell people everything I know about you. I will help them to see you. I will explain it all. I will tell them that you are waiting for someone just like them. I will tell them that you are worth saving. Because you are.
Nissa’s column “Let Us Sow Love” appears monthly in The Catholic Free Press. This column appeared on September 1, 2017.
The first time I saw our son and daughter is something I will never forget. Everyone remembers that day. The look in your child’s eyes, their sweet heavy warmth in your arms, the smell of their newborn head, the soft perfection of tiny fingers and toes. You are instantly, deeply in love.
The first time I saw my son and daughter there was a combination of anticipation and fear in their eyes. They would not be touched nor receive physical affection from me. They stank of a kind of filth I had never experienced with any of my other children in their dirtiest states. They were covered in scars and scabs, one of them had hands resembling someone four times his age. I was instantly, deeply repelled.
Every part of me wanted to turn around and go back to my comfortable life in America. To my ‘own’ beautiful children. I wanted to forget about this place halfway around the world and the extreme poverty – material, spiritual, emotional. I wanted to unsee, unsmell, unfeel. But God had already marked me indelibly. These were the ones he sent us to love. These were the ones he sent us to rescue. There was no escape.
I left Bulgaria numb. I felt nothing. I had no feeling of belonging, no affection. Just nothing. I wanted Him to choose someone else for us. Someone easier to love. I had no desire to go back. I was like Jonah in my desire to just walk away.
But we did go back. And were met with an epic storm for which we were wholly unprepared. One child violently acting out against me any time we were alone in a room, turning on the charm when others returned. I begged to be delivered from it. For ten days my heart pounded and ached, unable to breathe. For ten days I sobbed bitterly that I couldn’t be what she needed me to be. We went back and forth about what we should do and ultimately stayed the course. My husband reminded me that God had brought us this far; and that love wasn’t merely affection. It was doing the right thing, whatever the cost.
When we arrived home, we watched vigilantly throughout the days and nights in case the storm raged against our other children. Then the storm began to collapse inward, to consume her, and she completely shut down. And there she remained, terrified. Only Jesus can calm that sea. But she doesn’t know him. Not yet. Daily we teach her, suffering the emotional buffets alongside her, trying to shield her from further harm. Patiently. Wearily.
While her past with all its conflicts and confusion, all of its pain, assaults her heart and mind, we remain with her. The backlash cutting into us, tearing at us, our strength ebbing, on our knees.
Love doesn’t always look like moony-faced affection. Sometimes love looks tired and broken. Sometimes love looks angry or frustrated. Love is not just how we feel about someone else, it is, in its highest form, willing the good of another without counting the cost. It is dying to oneself, letting go of the need for reciprocity. It sometimes looks – and feels – an awful lot like being stripped naked, arms wide, pierced hand and foot and side, vulnerable, spat on and insulted, thorns pressed deeply into the head, breathless. And when it feels like that, you’re loving as He loved.