by Patty Cogen
When Mei Mei first learned to say “bye bye” she would say it so loudly that it was embarrassing. Then she began repeating it, with a determination that was frightening. It was as though she had some deep need to make sure the words were heard world-wide. This went on for weeks until a new version of saying “good-bye” emerged.
The next phase included Mei Mei watching the person leave until she or he was out of sight. This often necessitated going outside, regardless of weather, and standing along side the road so that she could see as far as possible up the street.
You’re probably thinking I’m some sort of wimpy parent who can’t even say no to my three year old when it’s pouring rain outside and she wants to go stand in the gutter shouting “good-bye” a million times. Well, you’re wrong. I pick my battles. I saw was that Mei Mei became absolutely unglued emotionally when she couldn’t follow her ritual pattern. I figured there was something important going on, even if I didn’t know what it was.
After awhile the good-bye ritual included waving with two hands, kissing the departing person on both cheeks and the forehead, and being kissed similarly in return. Hugs were included. We got used to this new family routine, but I still would wonder about it. It was so overly determined, so emotionally necessary for Mei Mei. The power of her need to do this never seemed to diminish.
Then one day I was rereading the “Nap Terrors” article and I stumbled over the words, “there were no good-byes” . This was because I speculated that abandoned children were left asleep, unaware of the momentous moment of separation. In a flash it hit me that Mei Mei, with her loud, repetitive goodbyes was making up for never having had a chance to say these very important words to her birthmother (and birth father and any other family members). She was determined never to miss another separation, in case it was a final one. She was saying her words loudly enough to reach back to China and to the orphanage because there had been no real good-bye there either. She wasn’t just saying goodbye for the present, she was including the past as well.
The next week when we left for pre-school on Monday we forgot to say good-bye to Daddy. Mei Mei began to whimper as we backed out of the driveway, but because we were late I continued to drive down the street, and Daddy was left behind. The whimpering grew into sobs and the sobs escalated into howls. But I just didn’t have the patience to go back. Impatient as I was, I did remembermy new insight, so I thought I’d try a new approach.
“You really want to say ‘good-bye’ to Daddy, don’t you Mei Mei?”
“Yes,” she stopped crying long enough to answer and seemed relieved I knew why she was upset.
” I bet there was someone else you really wanted to say good-bye to, but you couldn’t.” I had her attention, the sobbing diminished. “When your birth mother left you, you didn’t get to say good-bye.” The crying stopped, and I peeked in the rearview mirror to see Mei Mei considering this thought seriously.
“China,” she said, using her single word-speech from which I would interpret her thoughts.
“That’s right, ” I followed up, “You never got to say good by to your birth mother in China; or good-bye to China when we left.”
“No good-bye, China-mama, ” Mei Mei said and I could see her face was unbearably sad.
This was hard for me. Looking back, I think I shut down her feelings too quickly by moving on to the next idea.
“I know you never saw your birthmother again, but it wasn’t because you didn’t say good-bye. You’ll see Daddy again tonight. It’s not the same.”
We rode for awhile in silence. Then I added, “When your birthmother left you it was a surprise; you didn’t know what was going to happen. Daddy and I are always careful to let you know what will happen. Even if we forget say good-bye, we will always tell you when we are going away and when we’ll be back.”
I hadn’t finished my little “dissertation” before Mei Mei was humming to herself and beginning to talk about what she wanted to play with at school.