Meanderings on Attachment
“There are two seasons in Minnesota – winter and road construction.” I reminisce on this old phrase as I sit in traffic on 35W between Minneapolis and our home base in Duluth. This is a segment of highway that should be flying along at 70 mph, with nothing more than a possible deer running across the road to slow things down. Yet here I sit, staring at the line of green fir trees bordering the shoulder on a warm day in July, trying to exercise some level of patience. The summer is almost over for us. Soon we will be returning to the school we work at in Yangon. There is still so much we want to do before we return – people we want to see and experiences we want to have. Staring at that line of trees, I avoid thinking of what I could be doing if I weren’t sitting in traffic. That would be completely self-defeating.
One of the things we still plan to do before summer is over is take the family to see a production of Billy Elliot at the Duluth Playhouse. The whole family is together this summer, so it seems like the perfect opportunity to do things like this. With one daughter out of college, one in college, and another who is a senior, I’m not sure how many more summers we’ll all be together for things like this. This summer they are home though, I think partially because they want to get to know Max. He joined our family last fall, and we received legal guardianship of him in February. Our two older daughters had never met him other than through Skype. This summer, they were discovering what it meant to have a brother added to the family.
I had just purchased tickets to Billy Elliot while we were in Minneapolis. We were at a mall, where my wife was busy checking on sales of things that were a perfect bargain, whether we needed them or not. A bench at the entrance to the store seemed designed for waiting spouses. In fact, I wasn’t the only one sitting there. I pulled out my phone. After a quick check of email and news headlines, I browsed the website to purchase tickets to the musical. A number of evenings were sold out, so I exhaled loudly when I managed to snatch up five of six seats in one row for one of the final evening performances.
The car inches forward. Music is playing, but is more background noise than anything. My wife has her seat laying all the way back. The rhythm of her breathing tells me she is asleep. I sit up straight, suddenly more focused. How many tickets did I buy? Five? I shake my head. I did it again. With Max added to the family, we are now six. This has happened on several occasions. We go to a restaurant, and I tell the host we need five seats, and then realize we need six. I count five lifejackets for the boat, and then as we pull away from shore realize another is needed. As traffic is still standing still, I pull out my phone and check the theatre website. Great! That sixth seat in the row is still available. I quickly purchase it before the car inches forward again.
The first time I forgot to include Max in our family numbers equation I felt terrible. I thought it somehow reflected a lack of attachment to him on my part, or subliminal lack of acceptance of him into our family. I don’t think that anymore. Instead, I’m clear in my own mind it is more a reflection of my age and where I am in life. We had never expected a “Max” in our lives. When he came to live with us, we were a fully established family of five, planning for lives as empty nesters in two years. Forgetting him wasn’t about a lack of attachment; it simply reflected the mind of someone whose life had been going in one direction before being knocked into another by a nine-year-old boy we hadn’t ever expected. It was simply a matter of getting used to something different. Attachment is something else entirely.
I’m not much of an athlete. Somehow, in my formative years I never developed the hand – eye coordination essential to most sports. In a related manner, I never learned how to put my body into it when throwing a ball, hitting with a bat, or connecting with a variety of pieces of sports equipment. As a youngster though, I discovered I had been blessed with one bit of athletic ability, I could run at a reasonably fast speed. This kernel of knowledge propelled me to pursue running as the singular sport I believed I could excel at. Over the years, I ran in a number of 10Ks, and even a couple of marathons. With time, running became the singular sport for which I developed some level of passion. It became the means for me to stay in shape, to focus my attention, a solace for me to escape and think things through in my own mind. One of the first things I did when moving to a new country was to find a route to run so I could develop the routine that had become a focus of my life over the years. It was on one of my first runs in Myanmar that I came across Max.
There is heaviness in the air in Yangon in August. It builds up throughout the day making it seem like you are maneuvering through a wall of water each time you step outside. At times, it will culminate in a refreshing rainfall leaving behind a few brief hours of clarity and free movement. At other times, it simply dissipates into the night, with the wall being built anew the falling day with each passing hour. Avoiding the wall becomes the goal of each daily run. This is accomplished by running early – as early as possible. First light is around 5:00 AM.
Leaving our home one of those first mornings, I pursued a slow, steady pace along our, narrow, pock marked asphalt road. Running by a gold domed monastery where the sound of brass gongs broke the morning silence, then downhill past elegant mansions and colonial homes, I finally crossed a major intersection to arrive at a park that bordered one of the city lakes. These parks live daily changes in purpose. Mid afternoon and early evening they play host to young lovers seeking some time alone under umbrellas and behind trees, while night is party time with young people playing music and drinking. Mornings though are a time of sport. A group of women gather in the parking lot to dance aerobically to pop music, and young men with muscular physics make use of the permanent exercise equipment. For my part, I joined in the line of people walking and / or running along the paved trail that snaked its way along the lake and through the park.
I was about ten minutes into my run when I noticed the runners and walkers taking brief steps off the trail ahead of me. It was unclear to me why they were doing this. Coming closer, I saw a small mound of flesh in the middle of the pavement. At first, I wasn’t clear what I was seeing, and then realized it was two small boys with arms and legs wrapped around each other in a knot, fast asleep on the cool ground. They were both dressed in worn discolored shorts. One had torn t-shirt on, while the other wore a collared button down shirt absent the buttons. They were both filthy, and I found myself wondering what they were doing there. Did they live close by and had sought refuge from the summer heat of their home, or was their existence somehow a more permanent situation? Why were people simply stepping around them as though they were some sort of mild irritation? I slowed to a trot as I went past the boys, following the lead of those ahead of me. What I didn’t realize as I went past was one of the boys appearing before me was a street boy who would come to live in our home in a few short months, and in less than a year would join our family as the boy we would come to call Max.
The exact story of how Max came to live with us is one I’ll save for another time. I will say it was something unplanned and unexpected. A decision made on a whim, which has changed our lives, for the better, forever. The first several weeks he was with us were amazing, almost surreal. We weren’t exactly sure what we were doing with him at that point, or even what future we might have with him. He very quickly became a part of our lives though. He would get up early with me each morning and go running with me. Preparing breakfast followed this. During the day he would come by the school we worked at and hang out drawing pictures, talking to people, and helping out. Afternoons were filled with playing soccer, riding bikes, and helping out with various tasks, while evenings were filled with table games and watching television. Though we struggled with his inability to speak English, we found ways to communicate as he quickly fit into our family routines. As a result, it was a shock when this came to a sudden end.
Throughout these first weeks, Max had never asked us to visit the park where he had been living when we first met him. Out of the blue, one afternoon he asked, through an interpreter, if we could go for a walk in the park that evening. Sure, I said, though it would need to be late evening, as the school holiday concert was that evening.
“The whole family?” He asked.
“Even Joey?” Our dog.
“Yes, even Joey.”
Max floated through the rest of that day. He was constantly hugging us at every opportunity. We attended the concert that evening. The stars twinkled in the sky and a soft breeze waffled through the air as the sound of children singing permeated our schoolyard. At one point I looked around for Max. He was sitting quietly with his head leaned against my assistant. She had her arm around him. All seemed well in the world of Max.
As soon as the concert was over, Max reminded me of my promise to go to the park. We went home and gathered together the family – my wife, our youngest daughter, Joey, and my daughter’s boyfriend. We strolled down our block, crossed the road to the park, and then made our way along the lake. At one point, a dirty boy in clothes dotted with tears and stains, clearly a bit older than Max, approached us. Max spoke to him, then asked me in his few words of English if he could give this boy some money. I handed over some loose change. The boy left, and we continued on our way. We arrived back home. Max was smiling, chattering and constantly hugging us. The excursion to the park had been a success.
Max and I settled into a short television show before bed. At this point, I can’t remember what the show was, nor does it really matter. What I remember is a feeling of fulfillment. A sense that somehow this boy, who had become a part of our lives, belonged with us. Everything just seemed to fit. As the show came to a close, I told Max it was almost bedtime. This had become a time where we read simple picture books, and practiced English words he had been exposed to.
Max turned to me and spoke very aggressively. “No. No bed!”
Caught off guard, I said, “What? Say that again?’
“No! No bed! No happy here!”
Again, I questioned what he was saying. Suddenly, he began to hit at me with two fists. He became very tearful and started to say over and over he wasn’t happy. He wanted to return to the park. I didn’t understand and tried to question him. He became incoherent, hitting at me more, and more loudly saying he wanted to return to the park. He didn’t want to live with us any longer. I took Max into my arms and held him, trying to get him to calm down. Trying to understand what was happening. He struggled and resisted. Finally, I gave up trying to understand. I carried him to his room, where I laid with him, holding him, until he finally settled down and fell asleep.
Once Max was asleep, I sat down on the floor next to his bed. Exhausted from holding him, my arms resting on my knees, I tried to make sense of what had just happened. What had suddenly changed? Where had this come from? Max didn’t have to live with us. He wasn’t a prisoner. That had always been a clear message from us to him. Still, I wanted to understand what was suddenly happening, where this change had come from. I slowly fell off to sleep next to Max’s bed, not wanting to leave. Somehow, I felt this was a time he needed us, though I didn’t understand why.
We approached the morning with a bit of trepidation. Max awoke surlier than we had ever seen him. Our Toyota Land Cruiser was smaller than usual and the route to school was twice the distance with Max in the back seat. Every pothole was accentuated, as we seemed to inch along. At school, our head of security met us, and I asked him to translate as we tried to understand what was happening.
Max stated he wanted to return to the park to live. My memory at this moment is of him sitting in a large leather chair. His head hung forward, and there were tears running down his cheeks. A part of me wanted to simply hug him, though I held back not really sure what was happening. I said that was fine, if that was what he really wanted, but did he understand we cared about him? Yes, he understood. It didn’t matter. He wanted to go. This just didn’t seem real. What happened that had caused such a rapid change? We had clearly started to feel a sense of attachment to Max. Was it really possible he didn’t feel the same? I asked my assistant if she would talk to Max, and see if she could figure out where all of this was coming from.
Right from the beginning, my assistant seemed to connect with Max. When he stopped by school, he would usually stop and chat with her first. He drew pictures for her, and talked about her regularly. On this occasion, she pulled Max aside at her desk and talked with him. He squatted next to her chair, speaking animatedly. In a short period, she brought Max to my office and sat him down. She explained the issue wasn’t that Max wanted to leave. He actually wanted to stay with us. He was feeling torn though. When he saw his friend at the park the night before he had realized how much he missed his friends there. She explained for the past year and a half, these other boys had been like his family. He felt he was somehow letting them down by being with us instead of them.
I thought about this. It seemed completely reasonable Max would feel attached to these boys, and he would feel a need to be with them. Max could return to the streets if that were what he wanted. Perhaps there was a workable alternative though. I suggested that Max stay with us. He could invite one or two of his friends over whenever he was feeling a need to be with them. He would just need to let us know in advance. This was translated to Max. He asked a couple of questions. As I responded to each, a smile came to his face. He jumped out of his chair and wrapped his arms around my neck. In a way, I couldn’t believe this was what had caused the melt down of the night before. There it was though.
It seemed we had achieved a livable solution to this problem. That afternoon, Max and I went to the park. He sought out his friend, who came to our home the next day and stayed for dinner. The experience we had the night of the holiday concert turned out to be only the beginning though. It seemed to trigger some sort of inner struggle for Max. For the next several months, he would have days when he was the most fantastic boy in the world. Then, suddenly, he would erupt into verbal and physical struggles where I would again have to hold him until he went to sleep, and often spend the night by his bed. At these times, we would find ourselves wondering what we had involved ourselves with, and questioned if it was something we could continue with. At times we felt we were walking on eggshells, wondering when the next episode would occur. When I was younger, before I went into teaching, I had worked in a residential facility with emotionally disturbed children. Many of these children struggled with issues related to abandonment and a lack of attachment. They regularly acted out physically, especially if they began to feel close to someone, out of fear of the relationship. After each episode with Max, we would take him the next day to someone to translate. Invariably, there was some reasonable reason for his behavior that was often frustrated by a lack of ability to communicate with us. Still, his behavior was reminding me more and more of the children I had worked with many years ago. When I was younger, I could deal with that type of behavior. I even appreciated the challenge of it. I’m much older now though, and both my wife and I began to wonder how much we could handle. That said, we were also starting to feel torn. With each episode we felt we were beginning to understand Max more. His protective layers were slowly peeling away and we were slowing finding ourselves more emotionally tied into him. We reached a point where we began to feel we needed to either be all in with this boy, or we needed to find an alternative solution for him.
We gradually came to know Max’s mother. She lives in the north of the country, and was clear she was unable to take Max back and care for him. With this knowledge, and given how much we had come to care for him, we made a decision to seek legal guardianship of Max. We were still struggling with some of his behavior, and still had questions about his ability to completely attach to us, but we began to believe we could make it work. We had to appear in court on three separate occasions. The first time both Max and his mother had to attend. This was one of the first interactions Max had with his mom in approximately two years. He sat and talked with her, but didn’t show any real emotion. When the judge questioned his mother, she described how her husband had passed away and she had found herself alone with five sons – Max being the youngest. Blind in one eye, she had struggled to support her sons, and gradually had sent each off to work in different labor arrangements. She no longer knew where her two oldest sons were, and had lost knowledge of where Max was when he ran away from his work situation over a year and a half ago. She acknowledged she loved her son, but couldn’t care for him. He had already been dead to her until we found him, and she was happy to have him live with us. Max listened to all of this. He wrapped my wife’s arm around himself and moved closely to her, holding her hand tightly. I remember watching him as all of this was going on. I was happy to see him seeking solace from my wife, but again I wondered about his ability to attach. His detachment from his mother didn’t fit with my worldview of mother / child relationships.
A funny thing happened after we went to court. We don’t know why, but Max changed. It was like a switch went off inside of him and he realized this situation was for good. We weren’t turning back. We watched him suddenly become more content, and the behavior challenges gradually diminished. Starting school meant the creation of routines and development of relationships with other kids other than street kids. This also seemed to settle him, and we saw him become more comfortable in being a part of our family. This doesn’t mean our questions regarding his level of attachment changed. In the months that followed, we still experienced occasional issues that made us wonder about this, but the behavior challenges seemed to go away.
This summer has been fantastic! Why? English! Max is in the U.S. with us, and the exposure to constant English has caused his language skills to take off. For me, the most important aspect of this has been the ability to begin exploring different issues with him, like attachment. Max has a real affinity for fishing. He loves to go fishing for trout and through the summer we have spent hours at different fishing holes along the north shore of Minnesota. During these times we talk. The other day I asked him about his mom and how he felt when he saw her in court. He was initially reticent to talk about it, asking me why I want to talk about these things. Finally he said, “You know, I love my mom. I know she loves me. But, I don’t like her. I can’t explain it. Maybe when I’m twenty I can explain it.”
We’ve also talked about some of the issues he had during the months before we went to court. He has explained to me that he loves us, but he was also angry with us for a while. He said that if we hadn’t come along, he would have stayed with his friends on the streets. Now, they are gone and he wonders about them and worries about what has happened to them. He tells me he is no longer angry, but he still thinks about his friends.
Having the ability to communicate with Max has made a big difference. We are now able to communicate our thoughts and feelings. He is able to do the same. We still have issues with him, like any parent. We are also beginning to understand attachment from his perspective is a more difficult concept than it is for us. He’s had many different types of relationships in his life, and it seems he is trying to fit them all together and make sense of them. What is important for us right now is we love him. We know he loves us. And we are all working very hard to be successful.
I just need to remember to think of six now instead of five.
Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog