This is a story about four girls, an old canoe, a sunny day, and a south wind on Lake Superior. It’s also a story about happiness and risk, ignorance and gratitude, and the ambivalence we feel as parents, especially adoptive parents, when other people try to help us.
On this particular day, about ten years ago, my daughter Jhosy and her three friends strapped on life jackets, and enlisted a friendly passer-by and his son to help them lug our ancient and very heavy aluminum canoe to the beach. Their plan was to paddle in shallow water back and forth in front of our house on Lake Superior. It was calm, sunny, and a little breezy. This made me really happy — to see these girls put down their nail polish for five minutes and do something physical. That Jhosy was the ringleader was even better. It was as if she had decided to own our lifestyle a little bit. A little remarkable, hence the photo.
They set off. I watched for a while and then became engaged in a conversation with new neighbors who were planning to build a house just west of us. It was probably 10 or 15 minutes before I turned to see that the four girls and their canoe were nearly at the end of the breakwater and moving steadily out to sea. The little breeze was now a significant south wind, essentially blowing them farther out in the lake no matter how hard they tried to stay close to shore.
My other neighbor was already on his porch, binoculars in hand. “I called the Coast Guard Auxilliary,” he said. “They’re ready to go get them if it looks like they can’t get back.” He kept studying their situation through the binoculars. He had called for rescue. I couldn’t believe it, resenting that he had taken this step without asking me. “They’ll be fine,” I said. “They can paddle back.” I didn’t believe a word of it.
I had let them go out with a south wind. This had happened before years earlier when I nearly let one of my sons float off to Canada in an inflatable raft because I wasn’t paying attention to the south wind. That time a man on the beach chastised me and I puffed up with indignation. Here it had happened again – but this time it was with four girls in an old canoe. Four girls who would panic and capsize and be bobbing all over the place – thank God for the life jackets.
Now my neighbor and I were standing on the beach along with a thin crowd of onlookers who all wondered aloud if the people in the canoe could stop its journey across the world’s biggest inland lake. And then gradually, we saw it. The canoe turned and slowly headed to shore. With three girls in it.
And one girl in the water. She was towing the canoe while the others paddled. It was the other Nica girl in the canoe, Tricia, whose daily swim team practice convinced her she could swim the distance and pull the canoe. Unbeknownst to us, while we were on the beach wringing our hands and calling the Coast Guard and resenting having the Coast Guard called, these four 14-year olds decided to solve their own problem.
To me, this little episode is an allegory for adoptive parenting — wanting kids to be happy, not wanting to see trouble, denying trouble when other people point it out, resenting the genuine concern of others, and being frozen with indecision a lot of the time. It is also an ad for resilience and strength – the young girl who slipped in the water to pull the canoe back and the other three girls who trusted her.
Adoptive parents often seem to me to be hyper-sensitive to the interest or caring shown by others – almost as if we think that any sign of uncertainty means that we’re not real parents. I saw that in myself that day in my reaction to my kind neighbor looking out for my kids – getting my back up, thinking it was none of his business that my girls were in potentially very serious trouble.
I guess what I’m saying is this — if we buy the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, we need to make sure our adopted kids are part of the village and have a little gratitude when other people see problems we can’t. It’s taken a really long time for me to figure this out.