Sunday, May 17, 2009

CHAPTER 4 France the 1st Time. ADOPTION: God sets the lonely in families Psalm 68:6

Spending his junior year in Aix-en-Provence was pivotal. The changes began immediately. It only took a few days for him to abandon ‘Rick’ when introducing himself. In the mouths of the French it sounded more like ‘reek’ and no one wants their name to stink. So almost unconsciously he began to use his full name, one with which they were immensely familiar, and which sounded chic and cultured.

In Aix the Institute for American Universities found host families and provided courses for students from all over the US. There Ricardo would study the French language and culture. His French improved and so did his confidence. As he began to think about returning to the US he realized it was time to consider career paths. What does one do with a BA in French and Spanish? Teach. To get his feet wet he volunteered at a Catholic school in the fall and at a Preschool in the Spring as a tutor in English. The 3-5 year olds at L’Ecole Maternelle Jules Isaac changed ‘Tuesday’ to Ricardo-day.

One student I can never forget, Cedric. He was 3 or 4. I was supposed to volunteer, teaching English, for only 30 minutes around 1:00. But I convinced Danielle, the teacher to let me stay and observe so that I could learn more French and more about teaching. Cedric taught me a valuable lesson. That I cannot love as Christ loves without seeking out the marginalized. Cedric was marginalised because he was mixed. His mother was white and French. Things had not worked out between her and his ethnic immigrant father. I must have reminded him of his father or represented the absence of a male role model in his life. Whatever the reason, after a few weeks, Cedric would never let me leave until he left at 6:00pm. Danielle told me he was dropped off when they opened at 7:00 am and stayed until they closed every day because mom had to work to support them. He would follow me around during those hours, sometimes pulling me behind him. Sometimes he’d go play with the other children but he would very conspicuously “keep an eye on me” to make sure I didn’t sneak away.

The most difficult part of the Cedric experience was NOT saying goodbye.

My last day with Cedric I remember that the kids had some kind of costume party. All the girls came as Princesses and the boys were Ninja Turtles and Superheroes. Danielle decided it was best for the kids that we NOT inform them of my departure. What? Not say good-bye? Not have closure?

I had to smile and play and somehow hold myself together on the outside while grieving alone on the inside. I hugged Cedric tight hoping he’d remember the unspoken love the gesture had to encompass when I did not show up the next week.

Harder was saying goodbye to the Vivaldis. The Father, Andre Vivaldi, had posted an ad seeking an English language partner. Ricardo responded to the ad in an effort to improve his French. What they all got was much more than they bargained for.

The Vivaldis lived in Marseille about an hour away from Aix. The time and distance, led Andre to invite Ricardo to stay overnight and then weekends, with his family to maximize their time together. Eventually Andre and I stopped pretending that our arrangement was academic and they adopted me into the family. Andre and Annie had 3 children. Chrystelle must’ve been about 15 or 16 and was the most reserved, attempting to resist the lure of this guy who just up and invaded their family. Eventually she warmed to him.

But from day one Claire, 8-ish, and Florent, 6-ish idolized Ricardo and accepted both his presence and his person with unconditional love and fierce loyalty. They loved to hear him sing, and made fun of his atrocious French accent. Even though there was plenty of space elsewhere they would all pile onto the couch in the family room and laugh and just be “family” to one another. Flo would beg to stay up late. Claire would draw him pictures and sing to him. Andre was like a brother teasing me and teaching me to play tennis. Annie watched it all with the smile of a mother whose greatest joy is seeing her family content. And every time he left, to return, to Aix, Ricardo would cry, and so would they. Even though they knew he’d probably be back the next weekend. Only in the last few years have I learned that God has always had a plan, even for those who grew up "lonely" but not orphaned. The Vivaldis were the fulfillment of scripture! Psalm 68:6 says "God sets the lonely in families" and He DID.

When the beginning of May rolled around and departure (at the end of May) was imminent we would just look at each other and drink in each other’s faces. Our relationship would take on an unspoken intensity as we attempted to store up memories against the uncertain future. Who knew when or if we would see each other again?

No goodbye before or since has been so purely painful. I could barely see through the tears. It felt like someone was dying, like I was attending my own funeral. In all the years I’ve never felt loss more deeply or grief more sharply. It cut me to the core, threatening to undo all the wholeness and peace that year abroad had taught me. I can still remember the final hugs. The silence as I shouldered my bags. I remember turning away and the sobs that threatened to unman me as each step took me further and further away from them.

"Ricardo" returned to the States having once again gained the love of his Aix classmates and teachers. He gave the farewell address, speaking on behalf of all the study abroad students in Aix that year, representing the entire school, and delivering the speech all in French, before the Mayor himself.

He had come to France as a shy kid named Rick but left her a confident laughing young man named Ricardo. He left France believing he could do and be anything, and finally knowing that perhaps after all he could be loved for himself.

I was actually also glad to be going home. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder and the tongue grow looser. My mother wrote to me every few weeks. And she always said she loved me at the end of the letters. Then one day I almost fainted when I opened a letter from MY BROTHER! i still have it and re-read it for the miracle it is.

That summer at home was a blur. I know I had extreme culture shock and was depressed. More than anything I knew Lancaster was no longer home, but where did I belong?

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