I practiced what I would say for days.
My carefully picked words clunked out of my mouth, unfamiliar sounds like a rattling muffler banging against the pavement beneath a clunky car — a language unlike any of the ones I’d ever spoken.
As we drove to the airport to pick up a child from half a world away, a child we’d never met, who we were told had no forever family to call her own but would call our home her own for a month, I alternated praying and speaking over and over again my sentiments of her arrival in her language.
I didn’t know my insides would be all wound together when she walked through the airport doors because what do I know about mothering at all, let alone mothering a tween who doesn’t even speak my language?
I didn’t know when I saw her face, both anxious and apprehensive, that my words would morph into a tangled mess, but that, nonetheless, I’d know what to do. I wrapped her in a hug, the way a mother does, and carefully spoke anyway in her language.
"We are so glad you are here." We caught each other's eyes as I stumbled over my words and her lips spread into a very small smile.
No one told me that the words I stammered, slung together in broken bits, wouldn’t mean nearly as much as the fact that I tried to say them.
We practiced the same sentences for days upon days using different words and enough charades to fill an entire night’s worth of games.
She said them over and over and over, practicing her inflection and her words with me, with my husband, with our boys. Six and four-year-olds make the best teachers of new language, you know, because they aren’t afraid to burst into laughter when a word comes out wrong. Likewise, they aren’t afraid to spit out a new word in a foreign language for fear that they can’t say it.
She said the same phrases over and over like a parrot on repeat. And we’d crumple into fits of laughter over the thoughts we’d put together into English.
No one told us that laughter is the universal language. But after just a short time, no one needed to. We'd learned it on our own. ****
Stacks of presents piled beneath the tree were enough to leave two little boys and our young guest with eyes wide, lost in the excitement of Christmas morning.
We watched as they slowly unwrapped all of the gifts, marveling at different ones until the floor was bare except for a small square present for me and a small envelope addressed to “mom” and “dad” in a handwriting we were just learning to recognize.
Our oldest son had made us a beautiful decorative plate at school — a present he was quite happy to give, and one I was quite happy to receive. Not because it was anything I needed but rather because his love comes expressed with the giving of gifts. Our boys know that a small card or a handmade present communicate loves. I’d explained the same to our host daughter earlier that week as I wrapped present after present, wrote card after card.
She left the small envelope under the tree until after everyone had faded into a Christmas morning daze, and gave it to us that afternoon.
The inside of the card, written in English, expressed something we couldn’t quite make out. And when she put the words into Google translate, she burst out laughing, shaking her head “No! No! No!”
Apparently she hadn't meant to call us military seniors. And she never did get to tell us exactly what she meant; no one else could figure it out either. But really, she didn't have to. A mother's heart knows those kinds of things. ****
The days rushed into weeks. We begged them to slow down but time stands still for no man, nor a young girl who’s set to catch a long flight back to her homeland.
As the days dwindled into just a few, she picked a book to read in English before bed and snuggled next to me. “The Snow Bear” tells the story of a small bear who wakes from a long sleep only to find that his mother is gone, lost amid the snow. The little bear decides to build a bear of snow to keep him company while he waits and all of his forest friends come to his aid. But once their own mothers call them home, the little bear is left alone. The cub cuddles up against the snow bear and falls asleep. At dawn, the cub hears something, and it’s then, as we come to the final page, the final sentence, that my voice cracks and tears spill onto my cheeks.
"It's you!" he murmurs, moving closer to his mother's side. "I knew you would find me." She hugs me tight and I hug her tight right back. No one told her the translation of the story. But there's no translation needed. A mother's heart is clearly seen. A mother's heart is clearly understood.
To learn more about hosting a child, visit NewHorizonsForChildren.org.