Nearly 20 years ago, my husband and I participated in a weekend-long premarital retreat. There were sessions with a variety of titles—none of which I remember—but the main focus of the weekend was one simple word: communicate. We were taught to sit knee-to-knee, gazing deeply into each other’s eyes as we take turns using “I- statements” and exhibiting “active listening.”
As someone who likes to talk out everything, posing various scenarios and hypotheses (just ask my husband…bless him), I am a big fan of communication. I love words. I love to express my thoughts. I love to find just the right words to express my thoughts. Now imagine me spending all day with a child who has no idea what the words—those carefully constructed ideas and statements—actually mean. This is my current reality with Ezra, our Congolese-born son.
For example, on the long plane ride home to the U.S. we had several misunderstandings. When the air pressure in the plane made Ezra’s ears feel like they were about to burst, I pulled out a Dum-Dum sucker. I tried to explain that swallowing might pop his ears and give him some relief from the pain. He took the offered sucker, looked at it for a second, and poked the stick end in his ear like a Q-tip.
Riding in the car offers more opportunities for me to practice my higher-level communication skills. Ezra is mad that he can’t sit in the front seat, must stay buckled while I’m driving, and has to sit in a booster seat. My attempt to enlighten him on the Tennessee seatbelt laws is inadequate as far as he’s concern. To him, it just looks like I’m being mean.
After almost three weeks of his full immersion in the English language, we have all learned a lot. When he’s especially frustrated or joyful or grouchy, I can often (but not always) use deductive reasoning—along with reading his facial cues and applying what I know from the preceding events—to figure out what in the world is wrong.
Ezra has learned out how to communicate the most basic information in a way that we can (sometimes) understand. After not owning much of anything for most of his life, he wants to know what belongs to him. He often takes me to the closet that he shares with his older brother to ask which section of hanging clothes are his and which aren’t. He does the same with the books on the bookshelf and the shoes on the shoe rack and the toys in the toy bins.
But this doesn’t end with material possessions. I tell him that he belongs to me and I belong to him. We are his libota (family) and this is his ndako (home). I clumsily butcher his beautiful language in an attempt to find the words to explain these vital details. In the end, I know that the best way for me to communicate this is not actually with words, but instead with actions—hugs and smiles and meeting his daily needs. And if I get really desperate, I may sit knee-to-knee with Ezra, gaze deeply into his eyes, and see if that helps at all.