Last week we trimmed our Christmas tree. Memories from years past placed on a tall and remarkably odd shaped tree (it’s like one of those pumpkins you’d pick to carve that has a nearly flat backside, but it’s “good side” is fine) while sipping hot-cocoa and listening to Mariah sing “All I want for Christmas is You.”
The kids unpacked the ornaments and hung them wherever they wanted (I did my best not to rearrange their placements — but there are a few branches laying low from the burden of multiple preschool craft projects). I picked out my favorites and put them out of reach — the two Chris and I received the first Christmas we were married, the pewter bell that says “peace,” the beach chair strung with lights from the OBX, the ones Chris and I made when we were kids (that I put next to each other), and the most sentimental of all: the little mouse my mom made when I was young, a small grey face with a beaded nose and big round ears peeking out from a red piece of fabric tucked into half a walnut shell.
“Did we do a tree last year?” my oldest daughter asked.
“No,” I said. “I just put up the little fake one last year.” We didn’t put up a real tree. We didn’t do cookies. Or cards.
We left for China on December 7th and didn’t return until the 22nd. Before the trip, I was so wrapped up in getting everything ready, the typical Christmas-y things weren’t a priority.
“Doing Christmas” was just too much.
A year later, four kids help hang new ornaments: symbolic red infinity knots and a “happy family” ball — it’s one piece of wood, carved into multiple circles nested within each other, each sphere symbolizing a generation of a family — a wooden doll in traditional dress from Viv’s province, and a small red cushioned square embroidered with a two pandas.
It’s hard to believe we were buying these ornaments exactly one year ago, half way across the world.
Folding tables lined the backyard of the house I grew up in. Extended family and friends brought side dishes, in that mid-western way they do: cheesy potatoes in a 9×13 pyrex, broccoli bacon salad in a tupperware bowl bigger than the circle of your arms, veggie trays with homemade sour cream dips.
We were in Ohio on Nadia’s first birthday. My dad and step-mom welcomed whoever we wanted to invite over for a backyard barbeque. It was an easy way for to say hello to extended family, for them to see the now-one-year-old baby, for all of us to connect and enjoy the pleasant June day.
I put Nadia in a second-hand navy and white polka dot outfit topped with a beret she wouldn’t keep on. She smiled big for pictures, her top gum swollen from two new teeth breaking through.
I smiled too.
I couldn’t believe a year had passed since becoming a mother — where in one moment she was inside of me, and then next, in my arms. That the crying and the nursing and the worry and the insecurity over naps and nighttime sleep and if I’d ever ever ever lay in bed for longer than a 2 hour stretch before being needed again was behind us.
At a year, I was less amazed by the passage of time and the growth of my child, and more overwhelmed with a profound sense of relief.
Of course, that she made it, that we did the frightening work all new parents face in that first year — we kept her alive.
Yet more than anything, more than keeping my baby breathing, I was relieved I made it.
I was still here. I survived.
In those previous twelve months, there were so many moments, hours, days of desperation new motherhood brings — that we all know about but don’t like to talk of too much — times where all I could do was cry or fret or search for some explanation why my child wasn’t doing what the books said. When I thought I might be swallowed up whole by insecurity or exhaustion.
And after a year, I was also relieved our marriage recovered from this 6 pound blessing that, for a long time, felt an awful lot like a small intruder purposed to damage into our previously easy relationship: a dynamic shift we knew was possible, even probable, but never anticipated the extent of her effects on us.
I was happy she was a year old. If we made it through this first year, odds were that the she was likely to survive the rest.
And so was I.
This week, we celebrated Viv’s “Gotcha” day — the day we met her. The day that, in one moment, she walked away from her foster mom and into my arms. The day she forever became a part of our family.
She wasn’t ours. Then, she was. With one step, she went from an idea, to tangible. One hand offering her. The other hand taking.
I’ve lived every minute since then, the good and the hard. Yet somehow, in some way, a year later, it all feels very fast and surreal. It’s as if I was on a boat on rough waters for a few months, and even though I’m on dry land now, I’m still feeling the effects of the waves.
On our year anniversary of becoming a family of six, we ate dumplings and looked through pictures of our time in China. We watched a video of that day: Viv’s in a blue and red plaid coat, sitting on my lap. I’m crying and smiling. A year later, I can see hope mixed with fear on my face — the inevitable uncertainty of a new mom.
After a year of being her mother, I can also read her look: she’s hesitant, unsure.
A year seems like a long time when it starts. Yet somehow you end up on at the end.
Whether you are a year out of a birth, a death, a diagnosis, a move, whatever the big change is — a year is an inevitable marker, a closure of sorts, as if with the earth completing its circle around the sun and the date returning to you again, it is simultaneously the same and different.
You relive moments of the past, hanging them on the branches of your memory.
Yet you’re here, in the present. In a different place emotionally and physically.
You’ve made it around.
It feels like a relief. You’ve survived. And it’s worth celebrating.