Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Loss of Meaningful Things

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I find it when I am cleaning out my closet -- the Noah's Ark mirror from Charlotte. I remember now. I hid it here a year-and-a-half ago. Away from Lia, so she couldn't throw it at the wall. Or at me.
It was my favorite gift from the adoption shower. A baby-blue frame makes up the sky. The mirror, a circle centered in the rich blue, is the sun. Two giraffes, two elephants, two lions, in soft yellows and grays, stare out over the edge of the boat. The puffy cloud above says the storm has passed, the catastrophe averted. At the water's edge, a dove turns to play the music box: You Are My Sunshine.

And I feel like yelling to Noah, presumably hanging out in the cabin behind the animals, "Heads up, Noah! What about us? We are up to our necks in muddy water!"

When my daughter came into my life, she showed all my friends her new belongings. "Mi cama!" she pointed with glee to her bed. She pushed her toothbrush at people until they came up with a compliment, "Oh, what a pretty red it is!" Lia blushed with pride. Her toys, her clothes, even her soap, were all sources of unfamiliar ownership. This mirror was a favorite for her too.

I showed her how to turn the dove, how to make the music play. She watched her own smile in the mirror as she listened. In those very early days, I'd hear the click-click-click of the dove winding up, then the gentle song ringing out from her room several times a day. I'd peek in to see her lying on her back in her bed, arms straight up, holding the mirror above her face. It was magic.

I doubt she had ever seen a music box, or owned anything at all in Guatemala. Her reactions make me wonder what her life was like in her first three years, the years before me. You can conclude certain things from her behavior, the therapist says.

When Lia steps out of the tub she cries desperately, "I'm cold, I'm cold! Mama! I'm cold!" This, despite the toasty warm temperature of the bathroom, the three towels, and my arms that surround her every time, without exception.

When she is agitated, moving at full speed, crashing into walls, she cries, "I'm hungry! Mama, I'm hungry!" Even after a favorite meal of beans, rice, and avocados. I hold her hands and look into her eyes. "When you were really little, you must have been hungry a lot. It must have felt really scary," I explain, trying to create logic for this disordered, beautiful child.

In the first few weeks after Lia came, she made pretend fires on the family room floor. Squatting, she stirred the contents of an invisible pot, and served me. She moved her clenched fist from a plastic bowl to her mouth and nodded. Eat, she gestured.

Whenever she saw a police officer, she shouted "Policia!" She locked her arms in machine gun position and shook them while she clenched her teeth, "Chee, chee, chee, chee!"

More than once, she tied up the baby doll with string, then sauntered across the room to apply pretend eye shadow with her finger tips and primp her hair. She ordered me to be the baby and to cry. Sometimes the police would come, sirens screeching from her mouth, taking away the mommy while she directed me, the baby, to scream.

Now if I say "no," or "I can't," or "not now" her rage is so all-encompassing that she explodes into violence. "You're bad! I hate you! I hate you," Lia yells while she hits, kicks, and throws things. As her mother, I'm told, I am a trauma trigger. When Lia feels the combination of my love and my limits, the wiring in her brain spills directly into panic and then rage. The word "no" embodies the rejection of her entire being.

I am told to stay calm and non-punitive, as Lia is trying to recreate the anger and abandonment she is familiar with. So I stand there, backed into a wall, intercepting her hands as they thrash at me, moving my feet as she stomps. "I can't let you hurt me," I say. I remind myself she is only six; she is dissociated; this is not personal. But with every swing I stop, every kick I avert, I feel I'm being maimed.

One day, she was in her room for biting my knee, creating a purple circle in my flesh with her teeth. Why did she bite me? I don't remember now. Possibly, I told her she needed to wash her hands for dinner, or to put her toys away, or maybe that it was time to go to bed. I heard familiar thuds against the door--socks, shoes, markers being hurled in anger. It was when I heard a bigger crash that I came in. The mirror, glass and ceramic, was lying face down by the door, amazingly unbroken. Lia's eyes were wild with rage. 
          
My rule is, you throw it, you lose it. There is logic to this, but sometimes it feels like horrible punishment. Sometimes Lia loses meaningful things in this way. But the potential for sharp edges and blood from the mirror was more than I could risk.

So I took the mirror while she slept. She never asked me where it went.
I love this child. I love her so much it turns my stomach inside out and brings me to tears. I didn't know, when I adopted, that I would find myself imagining her history, see her crawling the rubbled streets of Guatemala, squatting in the dirt next to her teenage mother who cooked over a fire. I didn't know I would picture her cold and hungry, crying with arms outstretched while nobody came.

But something more happened, something I don't want to imagine. The images come anyway. I imagine the mami, and the one-room shack in which she lived with Lia. Lia, alert to every detail, lay swaddled in the corner, out of the way. I imagine men, rough, brutal men whom Lia's mami sold her body to. She was beaten, bloodied, screaming--a scene so terrible that the misogynistic Guatemalan police intervened. They took everyone involved. The mami, the men. But they left the baby, restrained in a wrap, screaming. Lia.

I look into the mirror, the sun surrounded by warm blue sky, and water fills my eyes as I remember receiving this gift. And I remember giving it to Lia, watching her eyes glitter with pride and astonishment. When will I give it back to her? Maybe someday when the rages that bring her to violence stop. What if that day doesn't come? It is more than I can bring myself to imagine.

I turn the dove three times and let go. It dives into the waves, then circles up to face the sun, then dives again. And I think, this song, tinkling like a lullaby, is a lie. The irony clobbers me like the fists of my daughter. There is no sunshine here. Then I swallow the self-pity in my throat because I love her, and maybe someday she'll know the words to this song. And, in my fantasy, she'll think of me.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

You make me happy when skies are grey.

You'll never know how much I love you.

Please don't take my sunshine away.


Allison Shores is the single mother to Lia.


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