Monday, May 31, 2010

Children Who Never Lived with Me

Up until now, I have described on the pages of this blog my real children, i.e. those I gave birth to—Lizzie, Noelle, Shane, and Doah—and those who popped into my house, family, and heart and stayed for years—Blaine, Ksenya, and Shura. There have been, as well, four more who call me “Mom”—two boys and two girls—who have never slept at my house. In fact, two have never been in my American home although all have been in one or another of my homes. All are Middle Easterners: two from Iraq, one from Jordan, and one from Bahrain. Among them are two Christians and two Muslims; of the latter, one is Sunni and one Shia—definitely a balanced set. All are Arabs. All have a biological mother, and all needed me at some point (seemingly, still do) as their emotional/psychological mother. Below, in brief, are their stories.

Shem. I have watched Shem, a fresh-faced, Christian Iraqi whose real mother is in Europe and about whose father I know absolutely nothing, mature from a gangly and awkward, but brilliant, young college student into a fully fleshed-out, good-looking young man. He first showed up in my writing class at the Jordanian branch of the America university for which I worked as dean and chief academic officer, as well as, for 18 months, as chief administration officer. The only student to get an A+ in my class (I set high standards), he graduated summa cum laude from the university with a 4.0 average, the only student on any campus to achieve this academic feat. Afterward, I interacted with him frequently in his capacity as work-study student, assisting the librarian, whom I had brought out of retirement in Montana to Jordan to help establish a respectable library. Shem learned library science rapidly under her tutelage. He went on to work in registration, admissions, and many other areas of the university, and through it all, his mother being absent, he would come to me for advice, first for academic advice, later for personal and emotional advice. I don’t know when he started calling me “Mom,” but at some point the relationship did take on many aspects of a parent-child bond. When I left, he became depressed and decided to drop out of the university, but I was able to convince him from afar to finish what he had started and then to go on to graduate school.

Leyla. The work-study student assigned to the dean’s office when I arrived, Leyla, a Sunni Muslim student from Iraq, immediately struck me as academically and professionally competent but an emotional wreck. I soon found out why. Her family lived on Airport Road in Baghdad during the days of the worst bombings along that road. After a bombing, communications would cease, and she would not know for days whether or not her family had been affected. Many was the morning that she would walk in my door and say, “Mom, may I sit here and cry for a while?” I would shut the door, sit with her, and let her cry. There was little more that I could do for none of us had access to the kind of information she needed. Her siblings and father were not allowed exit visas by the new Baghdadi government because they were professionals (medical doctor in the case of her brother and well-known professor of psychology in the case of her father) whose skills were needed in the newly founded democracy. (Knowing what I do about the daily life there, I would hesitate to use the word democracy in any other than a nominative sense.) I kept prayer rugs in my office, one especially for Leyla since the women could use the uni’s prayer room only after the men no longer needed it, and Leyla came in 2-3 times a day around the times of the calls for prayer to pray. Not all that long ago, Leyla’s father was arrested. Some members of the Shia contingent hid a bomb in his car, and then turned him in to the police as a terrorist. It was sorted out eventually; the bomb turned out to be fake, and the guilty parties were identified. Nonetheless, these are some of the unreported daily nervous-making activities that go on in the Baghdad of today. Leyla’s mother was once allowed to come to Amman for medical treatment, and she learned about Leyla’s other mother. She said that it made her feel much easier about being separated from her daughter, knowing that she had a substitute in Amman (not that anyone can really substitute for a beloved biological mother).

Maha. I introduced Maha a while ago on my Blest Atheist blog when her brother was arrested on trumped-up charges and beaten by the police in Bahrain, where Maha’s family lives in a small town considerably south of the only real city, Manama, where Maha works. The king, a Sunni Muslim and a patriarch of the Al-Khalifa family, eventually pardoned Maha’s brother and 18 other accused teens, all Shia. (Maha and Leyla have the same, but reverse, problem: Leyla is Sunni in a Shia-governed country, and Maha is Shia in a Sunni-governed country. In both cases, palpable hatred of the other colors enforcement of regulations and interactions of people and officials. It did not even help that Maha’s family directly descends from the Prophet Mohammed.) We all thought that the matter of Maha’s brother and his friends had been resolved by the King’s pardon, but in recent days, since the court dropped the case rather than exonerating the teens, the prosecutor has appealed the entire matter. (Who would have thought a pardon could be appealed!) It would be laughable—they are accused of killing a policeman who had died of natural causes six months earlier, but in Bahrain, where there is no rule of law, nothing is laughable, and Maha’s brother was beaten every day for nearly a year, almost blinding him and forcing an unfounded confession from him and the others to stop the beatings, before the King granted a pardon. Maha comes to me on a regular basis through Skype mostly when she needs emotional support over issues such as her brother’s troubles (I worry with her; it is an egregious situation, but since God moved the King once perhaps God will move the government next) and job advice. I cannot remember when or how she began calling me “Mom” or treating me like a mother, but it was a number of years ago. I do not visit Bahrain these days as often as I visit Jordan, but I do get there occasionally, and she has visited me in California. Three years ago, when Maha’s biological mother was ill, Maha asked me to come to her younger sister’s school’s Open House, which is different from American school open houses. In Bahrain, an Open House is where parent and child meet with each of the teachers, the child receives his/her grade for the semester, and the parent gets to talk with the teacher about the child’s progress. (I think American schools could use this model to advantage.) Maha and I went with Miriam, Maha’s sister, and I was accepted in loco parentis. I guess that legitimizes the “mom” label!

Yahyah. I met Yahyah later and in the USA. A transplanted Jordanian married to an American, he was working for me several layers down the chain of command. A few months after I began working at our organization, I, along with several of our supervisors and Yahyah, attended a conference in Jordan. Yahyah’s family invited us to lunch and embraced us in pure Jordanian fashion—with dish after dish and long conversation, lasting into the early evening. As the sun began to set, the supervisors, who had looked forward to seeing the Dead Sea, located not far from YahYah’s house, considered that their chances for doing so were quickly disappearing together with the light, and became nervous. Dessert and tea had not yet been served, however, and walking out before then would be violation of a cultural norm. Yahyah understood the situation. I suggested that he take the supervisors to the Dead Sea and Donnie, who was still living in Jordan at the time and had joined us, and I, who could speak enough Arabic to manage informal conversations, would stay for cake and tea and talk to his parents. The deal was done, and I found myself one-on-one with his mother, who brought out the baby books, showed me the wedding pictures, and talked non-stop about all those things that proud mothers in any country talk about. Then she broke down. She told me that she deeply worried about Yahyah in “dangerous America” (my, how those stereotypes persist—we, in turn, after all, consider the Middle East dangerous). I promised her that I would be his American mother. Relieved, she thanked me, hugged me, and smiled. When we finally left a couple of hours later, she thanked me again, hugging and kissing me in Jordanian family/friend fashion. From that point, Yahyah became “ibni” (my son) and I became “Omy” (Mom) in communications and beyond. He comes to me for professional and family advice and celebrates our family events with us, as we celebrate his with him—birthdays, the arrival of his brother in the USA, the birth of his baby. We also take planned outings. He is as much a part of our family as if he were one of the birth kids. Yahyah told me that his mother has been much calmer about his being in the USA since that day of our first conversation. I have been back to Yahyah’s house from time to time, and his mother always greets me like a sister. I guess the family connection was glued the day I fell asleep on the couch while talking to his father. I was quite embarrassed about fatigue—it had been a difficult and busy several days—overtaking me in that manner, but Yahyah’s parents were delighted. There falling asleep is not a culture faux pas but a sign that one considers that s/he is among family. I am.

And so in this way, although Donnie and I are almost, hopefully soon, past the childbearing capacity, the Mahlou clan grows, blessed now by children of several nationalities and grandchildren who remarkably blend the best that happens when East meets West and North meets South.

Note: I have not included pictures because the "children" are sensitive about their pictures being seen in the West.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Stalked by the Stoned

I have been mugged on three occasions in three cities and three countries, the kind of cultural immersion that one does not particularly seek out. Worse than being mugged, though, where the attackers want only your money, is being stalked, where those nearly stepping on your heels could be after your life. Lizzie and I experienced this in Arlington, Virginia one Saturday as we were walking home from the metro station. Three strapping and obviously stoned men walking behind us on a suburban street devoid of pedestrians began marching in step and chanting in unison, “You’re going to die.” Continuing in the same measured tread we had used from the metro station, I gave no indication to Lizzie that I was concerned about the stalkers behind us who were very rapidly drawing nearer. At the same time, my mind was casting about for a safe ending to our situation. Fortunately, on the next block I recognized the home of a man whom I did not know but who always waved to me as I walked in the mornings to the metro station. Trusting that he would help us, I pushed open the gate, saying to Lizzie, “Ah, here we are!”

We walked up to the door and rang the bell. The three stoned men leaned against a tree, watching. No one was home! Becoming as calm as the ocean on a windless day (my typical reaction to dangerous situations), I quickly conceived another ruse.

“Right!” I said to Lizzie, hopefully loudly enough for the three not-so-well-intentioned musketeers to hear. “He said he would be working on his bicycle in the back.”

Lizzie and I walked around to the back of the house, as our trio of stalkers watched. Once we were out of sight, I turned to Lizzie and whispered urgently, “Run!” We scampered home along the back alleys, like rabbits running from hunters.

Recalling this incident, I have to wonder how an 11-year-old had the presence of mind and spirit to show no concern as three burly and unruly men threatened to kill us at every step they took. As for me, I had some extra adrenaline coursing through my veins, but I never believed that we would be killed. I felt protected, but at the time I would not have been willing to put a name to the source of protection.

Perhaps an explanation of what really happened that Saturday afternoon can be found in the Book of Privy Counseling, where the author was likely speaking about someone like a Good Samaritan — and being a Good Samaritan had been part of my life since childhood:
…[any such individual]…will certainly be protected from the onslaught of his enemies within and without, by the gracious goodness of God himself. He need not marshall his own defenses, for with faithfulness befitting his goodness, God will unfailingly protect those who, absorbed in the business of his love, have forgotten concern for themselves. Yet is it surprising that they are so wonderfully secure?
During the stalking, I felt very little fear. What I felt instead was a near-tranquil calmness that let me take advantage of our fortuitous coming upon a known house and the knowledge of the back alleys. At some deep level, I must have known that we were protected.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The NT As Smart Aleck

From time to time Shane jokingly complains to me about Nathaniel's precocity and how it shows up. Most of it is centered around the NT (intuitive thinker in the Jungian scheme of personality types): the budding scientist type. (Briefly, the NT analyzes everything, looking for flaws in logic. Intellectual challenge is fun for the NT and takes precedence in the NT's play activities over physical games. Math and the laws of nature intrigue the NT like nothing else can. The fuel for the analysis, examination of logic, and playing at experimentation is generally provided through the reading that NTs do -- and they all do a lot of it. The are voracious, if not promiscuous, readers.) Each time that Shane comments about the NT nature of his son, the "complaints" bring back a host of images from Shane's own childhood.

Shane was a little NT nearly from birth. The first indication came when he read me a book at the age of 23 months. Astonishingly, he was still not walking, perhaps because every time he stood up, Noelle who was paraplegic, a year older, and his size, would pull him down with the words, “No, no, Nanie, get hurt,” and just perhaps because he was too busy teaching himself to read. Ironically, Donnie and I had begun to think that Shane might be retarded, given his slow physical development. His intellectual prowess, however, became increasingly clearer with passing months. At the age of 2½, sitting in the grocery cart at the checkout counter, he looked at the change that had been given to Donnie and piped up with “wrong change.” Sure enough, he was correct.

“Excuse me,” Donnie said to the clerk. “My baby says you made a mistake.”

Shortly after that, when Shane was approaching three years of age, I conducted an experiment with Noelle and him on conservation of number, a Piagetan concept I was studying in graduate school. Conservation of number is a concrete understanding that Piaget’s own children reached at age 7 and most children reach at that age or a little bit later. There are several ways to test for it. I used two different tests. The first was with coins, and the second was with water.

First, I laid out two rows of ten pennies. One row I spread out more than the other row. “Which row has more pennies?” I asked. Sure enough, 4-year-old Noelle, told me that the spread-out row had more pennies. Clearly, she had not reached conservation of number, where one would understand that the number of pennies can be constant while the space they occupy can change.

I turned to tiny Shane. “Which row has more pennies?” I asked.

To my surprise, he responded, “Let me count.” He counted each row carefully, then pronounced, “They are the same.”

So, I changed the rows, squishing together the long row and lengthening the short
row, so that what was the short row before was now the long row. “OK,” I said, “now which row has the most pennies?”

Shane looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “Mommmmmeeee,” he intoned incredulously, “they are the same pennies!” Ah, dumb Mommy! He had reached conservation of number. When? I don’t know, but definitely before the age of three, confirming the a comment made by my sister-in-law, who was an elementary school teacher, that while everyone’s attention, family and teachers, was captivated by Lizzie’s skipping first grade and outperforming kids older than she, it was Shane who had the truly remarkable intellectual gifts. (She was right. Lizzie ultimately also skipped seventh grade, as well, graduating at 16, but Shane skipped four grades and was ready for college at 12, waiting until he had body hair – his criterion for enrollment – to begin college.)

A couple of months after my experiment, Shane entered the University of Pittsburgh nursery school, which had a stellar reputation. He attended for only one day. At the end of the day, the director grabbed me. “Do you know that your son reads?” She asked.

“Oh, yes,” I responded. “He has been reading for over a year. He taught himself, so I cannot tell you anything much more than that he can read all of the young children's books that we have.”

“Well, then,” she continued. “Do you know that he can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and do fractions?”

There I was stuck. I had not known all that. Thinking about the grocery store incident, I replied lamely, “Well, I know he can get the correct change.”

The director counseled us to enroll Shane in first grade in the university laboratory elementary school, and so we did. I have pictures of the little tyke stretching to reach the doorknob to enter the schoolhouse. He was small for his age to begin with. None of the desks fit him, but he did not seem to care. He liked his schoolwork, and he seemed to get along with his classmates.

Bit by bit, I began to see my sister-in-law’s characterization of Shane as accurate. Mostly little things reinforced that characterization. For example, Shane and I would take the bus home from the university – a full 30 miles – at the end of the day. One day, we were sitting beside a chatty elderly lad when Shane happened to look out the window. “It’s dark out,” he commented.”

“Oh, yes, sweetie,” said the little old lady. “Didn’t you see the sun going down when we crossed the bridge?”

Shane stared at her, probably trying to figure out whether or not she was serious since at that age he took everything literally. Finally, he decided she needed some education. “Oh, no, lady,” he said. “The sun did not go anywhere. We just turned away from it.” Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the slackened jaw of one very surprised little old lady!

It was fire, though, that made me realize how much of an NT Shane was (and still is). The first fire demolished our bathroom. Ten-year-old Shane had started it. He explained very rationally how it had all happened. He had wanted to determine whether quantity of paraffin or the shape it was in caused a greater rate of burn. So, he made two candles, one short and fat and one tall and thin and planned to see which burned up the fastest. Unfortunately, he got them too close to the bathroom curtains. After a lecture by the fire department chief and me (plus what should have been the fright of a fire although he himself very calmly called 9-1-1) and my subsequent hiding of all matches, he had learned his lesson, I thought. I was wrong. Where he found more matches, I do not know. However, he managed to find some, climb out on the roof, and drop burning objects onto the lawn. When I grabbed him by the ear over that one, he explained that he was just experimenting (again, sigh!). “Newton posited,” he told me, “that two objects will fall at the same rate regardless of mass. However, would that hold true in all circumstances? If, for example, one were to be on fire, would not thermal uplift retard the rate of fall for that object?” Ack! I think parents of adult NT children are lucky to have survived their children’s childhoods!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Maine Women

I am a Mainiac, a product of rural Maine. All Mainiacs are taught the principles of rugged individualism although many may never have read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance," that describes us. For some reason, Maine women have the reputation of being even more ruggedly individual and self-reliant than Maine men as the following anecdote sent to me by my brother, Keith, who still lives in Maine, indicates:

Three men were sitting together bragging about the obedience and care-taking of their wives. Each strove to show the other that he had given his new wife duties that were greater in number and more complex in difficulty than those of the other men.

The first man had married a woman from Arizona. “I told her that I expect her to do all the dishes and all the cleaning,” he said. “Well, it took a couple days, but on the third day when I came home from work, the dishes were done, and house was spotless.”

The second man had married a woman from Louisiana. He smiled. “That’s small potatoes. I told my wife the same thing. I also told her that she had to do all the cooking, as well. Like you, on the first day I didn’t see anything. The second day, though, things were better, and when I came home on the third day, the house was spic-and-span, the dishes were clean and in the cupboard, and on the table was a marvelously delicious supper of blackened catfish and vegetables.”

The third man had married a woman from Maine. He began his tale. “I told my new wife that her duties include cleaning galore—the house, the dishes, everything. I also told her that I wanted the lawn mowed, the laundry washed, and hot meals every day.” The other men allowed as to that being considerably more than they had asked of their wives.

The third man continued, “On the first day, I didn't see anything. On the second day, I didn't see anything, either. By the third day, though, most of the swelling had gone down, and I could see a little bit out of my right eye, just enough to fix myself something to eat, load the dishwasher, and call a landscaper.”
I suppose the best comment on that poem is the one that my brother made when he sent it to me. "Gotta love those Maine women," he wrote.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

And Life Goes On - In Pictures

While we struggle to cope with the bad news attacks that plague Noelle these days and the waves and troughs of hope in terms of Nikolina being able to walk some day, life goes on. Nathaniel, who saw his eighth birthday on Christmas Day, is just four years away from being declared totally cured from the kidney problem that plagued him all his first year, ending in five surgeries around his first birthday. (Gee, that first year is really difficult for Shane and Lemony and their kids, first Nathaniel whose urine had to be collected externally for his entire first year and then Nikolina who spent four months in intensive care). Nathaniel is now a curious, bright little boy, so active that the doctor keeps telling his parents to feed him more because he burns off every calorie.

Nathaniel's latest "thing" is t-ball/baseball. Not that he is any good at it. The smallest (but far from the youngest) kid on the team, he valiantly whacks away at the T until the ball tumbles off and inches slowly away, causing both catcher and pitcher to take a run at it, while Nathaniel watches until the coach tells him to "Run to first base; hurry." It is fun to watch our budding scientist try out the sports thing. Those games and laughs provide wonderful balast to what would otherwise be perhaps too much stress. With laughter, stress ebbs toward being merely an ongoing annoyance.

Here are some more pictures of our valiant ball player:

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Bouleversée is the most onamotopaeic word I know for being overwhelmed. French for overwhelmed, it also implies being rolled over, turned over, distressed, and so forth. For those of you know French, you will notice that I made this adjective feminine. (One can do that with French.) That is because it is Noelle who is overwhelmed.

Just exactly five months after Ray had his combined stroke and heart attack that essentially killed him and resulted in the decision to pull the plug a week later, based on no brain activity following those incidents, Noelle's best friend, Tater, died. Tater was a very special friend because Noelle and she were college classmates a few years ago in San Diego. She was even more special because Noelle and she were the only two students at the time who had to deal with the demands of their spina bifida defects as well as struggling with their studies. They both survived and thrived in college. Then Tater married Marco and flew off to Florida.

Noelle migrated back north to Salts in 2003, but she and Tater have kept in constant contact since then. Until today. Today it was Marco who called. At the age of 36 (no typo there; she is just two years older than Noelle), Tater has died. No reason given.

That does sometimes happen with spina bifida folks. We know that with spina bifida life is unpredictable and can even evaporate. Noelle lives on borrowed time every time she goes to bed because there is no guarantee that she will not suffocate from her lungs being squeezed ber her scoliotic back, nor any guarantee that her shunt will not stop working, forcing her into acute hydrocephalus from which she does not wake up. She had only a 50% chance of living at birth and a life expectancy of 21 years (upped with the introduction of intermittent catheterization as a daily routine).

It has been a tough 2010 for Noelle. She has been living alone for some years now, and most years have had ups and downs. She gets through the downs by looking forward to the ups. In 2010, so far, those ups are distant enough to be hard to see. First, in January, Ray died. For four (!) months after that, she was threatened with amputation of her right leg due to a serious bone infection, then two weeks ago, when she finally was scheduled for surgery, the doctor found that the infection had surprisingly (? - I am not very surprised by such things; Noelle has a Protector) subsided to the point of needing very minor surgery: placement of a pump to remove the infection. Still attached to the pump, Noelle received the phone call this morning about her friend's death. She called in tears. Noelle is more prone to laughter than to tears. With her, tears are a serious matter.

So, I am giving up Mother's Day to go to Salts and sit with Noelle through her tears. Oh, wait a minute. Isn't this exactly what being a mother is all about? Let me rephrase that sentence then. I am going to Salts to spend Mother's Day in a most appropriate manner.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Incredible Power of a Mother's Love

Today Donnie and I went to veterans' park to watch Nathaniel play baseball again. He is gaining some skill: this time he only needed to use the T once in order to hit the ball. We bought some pictures of him in his catcher's outfit, playing outfield, and attempting to hit the ball. What he is pretty good at is running, which he does joyfully.

Movement became the topic of our after-ball lunch with Lemony, Nathaniel, and Nikolina. (Shane had to go to work right after the fame finished.) When we last talked a mere two weeks ago, Shane revealed that it seemed clear that Nikolina had no feeling in her legs and was therefore paraplegic, a condition that he found acceptable, given that she is alive, cute, and even better, happy.

Since the last time we have had a chance to talk, however, 13-month Nikolina has begun an attempt to crawl -- awkward, weak, and mostly propelled by her arms, but a crawl nonetheless. Lemony has never given up on Nikolina's being able to walk even when it seemed clear that Nikolina has limited feeling and very weak legs. That is in addition to hip dysplasia which will make walking difficult. Lemony, who is at home full-time, has worked unceasingly with Nikolina, never failing in her optimism.

Since the last time we have had a chance to talk, Shane and Lemony have met with an orthopedic specialist at Stanford University Hospital. Once more, blessings are being showered on the clan of Mahlou, in support of Lemony's optimism. The doctor confirmed that it is possible that Nikolina will walk. She may need crutches but may escape the need for braces. It will take much longer for her to begin walking than for other kids because her legs were bound post-surgery for four months and the muscles did not begin to develop until after the binding was removed. That, and the spina bifida, has significantly retarded her crawling and walking, and the latter (spina bifida) is the reason for her limited sensation. But she does have some feeling, and it appears to be enough. Whatever she ends up being able to do motor-wise will be a wondrous and unexpected gift.

Right now, watching Nikolina at the table in the restaurant, we can state with certainly -- no doctor input needed -- that she is already an intelligent little girl with enormously large, deep, and knowing eyes that transfix everyone who looks at them. Weak legs, no legs, perfect legs, it does not matter. Nikolina is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with! (Like Mom Lemony!)

Ah, the power of a mother's love -- with help from Above!

Happy Mother's Day!

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