A couple weeks ago, as we traveled up along the North Shore of Lake Superior, my five-year-old, Baek, recoiled at the sight of a rock outcropping near the road. “A volcano,” he shrieked, “it’s a volcano! What if the hot lava gets us?”
We’ve been through this before. I blame Virginia Lee Burton. It started when we began reading Burton’s book, Life Story, with regular frequency. Life Story is expansive, covering the history of the earth from the big bang to present day. The part Baek keeps coming back to is the volcanic activity that killed off one round of dinosaurs. It’s hard to blame him. If volcanoes can kill off an entire species in a matter of a couple pages, certainly they could harm us.
Things remotely resembling volcanoes, it turns out, can be found just about anywhere, especially if you have no concept of scale. So, Baek and I have many opportunities to discuss the existence – or not – of volcanoes in our presence. This conversation goes according to script:
“No, Baek,” I say, “remember, we are in Minnesota. We’re safe here. No volcanoes.”
“But Mom, there is a volcano in Washington.”
“Yes, but remember Washington is so, so, so far away. So far that you’d have to drive a whole day and a whole night and just keep on driving to get there.”
“But the volcano can reach Minnesota.”
For this I blame his older brother, Toby, who has on more than one occasion unhelpfully pointed out that in 1980 ash from Mt. St. Helens’ eruption made it all the way to Minnesota.
“Remember, Baek, only teensy-tiny specks of ash from the volcano. That’s it. Nothing more than a little sand. Nothing from the Washington volcano can hurt you in Minnesota.”
More than once, Baek and I have sat side by side on stools at the kitchen counter, while I googled “North American volcano locations.” We both learn a lot. For example, there nearly a hundred volcanoes in the United States and Canada (unhelpful) but most of the volcanoes are along the west coast of North America, as they were created by the subduction of the Pacific tectonic plate under the North American tectonic plate (very helpful, indeed). Google reassures him that I’m right; volcanoes are far, far away from here. Minnesota is decidedly not part of the ring of fire.
But volcanoes are not the only natural disasters that worry Baek. Certainly some geologic tragedy could befall us at any moment—earthquakes, meteorites, maybe landslides or quicksand. The earthquake conversation goes something like:
“Earthquake? Is that a rumble?”
“Nope, Baek. Not an earthquake. Remember there are only earthquakes along the edges of the huge puzzle pieces that make up the earth’s crust. We live right in the middle of one of those pieces. We are safe here in Minnesota.”
I have a little more trouble when he brings up meteorites. I typically have a policy against lying to my kids, but I do make exceptions. Toby, for example, for years believed we removed our shoes at airport security because the airlines needed to check for stinky feet, which for obvious reasons are not allowed on planes. I’d feel a little twinge of guilt as he furiously scrubbed his feet in the tub the night before a flight, but that was better than talking about shoe bombs.
In responding to the meteorite inquiry, I frequently consider explaining the difference between possibility and probability, but our house is small and in the interest of a good night’s sleep, (which drives so many of my decisions) I explain that meteorites just don’t land in Minnesota. Why? I don’t know the answer to that, they just don’t. Perhaps we’ll look it up on the computer some other time.
I often wonder if Baek’s constant need for geologic reassurance stems from the fact that he experienced a seismic shift when he was nearly two years old.
He was born prematurely near Seoul, South Korea, to a mother who could not parent him. After a short time in a babies’ home, he went to a foster family who specialized in preemies – a family that was used to caring for newborns for a few months until they joined their adoptive families.
What they weren’t used to, though, was an unusually active toddler boy. He was loved, I’m confident of that, but he apparently received little stimulation. In most pictures we have of him from this time, he’s seated, head pointed down, looking at the glowing screen of a smartphone. From spending most of the first two years of his life with a bottle in his mouth, his teeth were completely rotten, four of them chipped down to the gums. Those were removed, and the rest crowned in silver a couple months after he’d join our family.
We accepted Baek’s referral when he was five months old but our adoption process was caught up in a political/social policy shift and he did not join us until he was nearly two years old. I try to picture the placement experience from his perspective. His life is sailing along in the way a toddler’s life does. He eats, he sleeps, he plays, and the people who have always been there hold him. Then suddenly a woman who looks nothing like anyone he’d ever seen before and makes sounds, constantly, that are not recognizable as words, plucks him out of this place, drags him through twenty hours on a plane and in airports, before taking him to a house full of weird smells and weird stuff, where more strange-looking people and a very large terrifying white furry four-legged thing hang out. And there he stays.
Baek’s first months with us were like chipping away at a fossil to get to the Baek contained inside. His eyes remained pointed down, even as we encouraged, then demanded, eye contact at every turn, before every snack or bottle. Even as he began understanding some English, he rarely responded. He required constant reassurance that the ground wouldn’t shift under his feet again. Nights were the worst. He’d wake up twice an hour, or even more, and whimper softly until Tim or I (whoever was “on” that night) said, “I’m right here, Baek, go back to sleep.” We tried every possible sleeping arrangement, co-sleeping with the two of us, with one of us, him in a crib, one of us on bed beside the crib, him on a bed with one of us in a sleeping bag on the floor, the couch, holding him while sitting in a chair. Until we’d finally resort to medication, nothing helped him sleep except that constant reassurance. “I’m right here. You’re safe. Go back to sleep.”
As months passed, Baek began to emerge from his protective shell. He was easier to smile, giggled occasionally, and gave hugs that appeared to be out of affection, rather than desperation. As years passed, he dropped the shell altogether. He’s unabashedly affectionate; “I love yous” tumble out of his mouth at all hours and he hugs with abandon. But, I wonder whether Minnesota, or anywhere, will ever feel like solid ground to Baek. Will the seismic shift he experienced at two reverberate throughout his life in aftershocks big and small?
What I want more than anything for Baek is to know that my love for him, his place in our family, is as solid as the ground beneath his feet. I want him to be secure enough to handle correction without shutting down. I want him to be unafraid to speak his mind, to not get a swirly stomach when it’s time to approach new kids on the playground. I want him to see change as opportunity, not a situation that triggers his fight or flight response.
We haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re eons closer to that goal than we were four years ago. What I hope is that I’m able to calm the tremors until the ground below his feet feels solid.
Sara Martin lives in Minneapolis with her husband, two sons, and their family dog. When she’s not spending time with her family or trying to sneak in writing time, she works as a public interest attorney.