“Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”
― Nicole KraussThe History of Love

I woke at 3:44 AM and I thought – I knew, but I also didn’t know – today is the day. My abdomen contracted every few minutes, but there was no pain. Only anticipation.

I got up and let the dogs out and wrote lists. I fell asleep again. I woke up, and the contractions were still there.

We spent the day counting minutes and going on walks and waiting for an increase in intensity. We went to Target in the afternoon, and finally the contractions strengthened. We went home, ordered spicy Chinese food, and the contractions became painful. I went into the bathtub, a small relief. Steven came to check on me. The contractions were too hard to speak through, and I looked up from the water and said, “I think this is it.”

Steven called Krista and told me we were going to the hospital. I didn’t want to, because I feared they would check me and tell me I wasn’t dilated enough. But he insisted. Krista arrived, and we drove to the hospital. I needed a wheel chair, the idea of walking to Birthways was too difficult to consider. It was around 9 PM.

I got checked into my room on a silent floor. They said nobody else was in labor and there was only one other family that was leaving the next day. Susan arrived, and found me 6 centimeters dilated.

We spent the next few hours on the ball, working through contractions that were more and more painful. After a long time, they said they had filled up the whirlpool if I wanted to sit in it. I decided that if it were like the bath I’d taken at home, it would be a little relaxing and worth the move to the bathroom.

It wasn’t worth it. The water did not relax me, and I thought maybe going to the bathroom would help. That didn’t either. I didn’t know it yet, but I was already in transition.

Susan offered to break my bag of waters, which could speed up the process. I agreed. After she did that, I felt the warm water gushing. I sat on the ball again, and cried in pain. The nurse, Emily, told me that I had been doing very well with controlling myself and my body through my contractions, but I was starting to let the contractions control me. I had to take back control to get through the rest of labor.

Susan checked and said I was 9.5 centimeters dilated, but there was still a cervical lip in the way. She suggested that I continue by moving to a hands and knees position. Krista whispered in my ear wth each contraction how to breathe, like I were blowing out a candle. My body was taking over, forceful contractions pushing my baby out even as I tried to control my body. The pain was incredible. I would slump and rest deeply between each contraction.

Finally, Susan said I could turn over and it was time to push. Although pushing was difficult, the pain wasn’t as terrible. I pushed as Krista and Steven held my legs. I don’t know how long I pushed, but finally, I felt her head come out, I felt her turn, and felt the rest of her body slide out.

Then she was set on me, hot and wet and beautiful. They tell me she pooped and peed on me, but all I could see was her dark hair, her dark blue eyes, and her little butterfly lips. She was a little person, waiting to be nurtured into her own life.

I started talking to her. I told her about all the people waiting to meet her. And maybe other things that I can’t remember. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t pregnant anymore, and that I was responsible for this gorgeous, fragile little creature.

“Maybe the first time you saw her you were ten. She was standing in the sun scratching her legs. Or tracing letters in the dirt with a stick. Her hair was being pulled. Or she was pulling someone’s hair. And a part of you was drawn to her, and a part of you resisted–wanting to ride off on your bicycle, kick a stone, remain uncomplicated. In the same breath you felt the strength of a man, and a self-pity that made you feel small and hurt. Part of you thought: Please don’t look at me. If you don’t, I can still turn away. And part of you thought: Look at me.”
― Nicole KraussThe History of Love

 

 

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

– Hey Jude, The Beatles

How many times has she heard people sing that song? A million. At least a million in the last 10 months. And here I am, drawing inspiration. In her absence, through tears, I’m listening to The Beatles and (probably disgracefully) using a keffiyeh as a tissue.

I wrote a few times when she first got here, giddy and hyped up on a new relationship blossoming. Let me just stop right here and switch gears for a minute.

Dear Jude,

You were perfect for us. PERFECT. I know everyone has expectations about their exchange student, but I really tried not to because I wanted you to be able to be you without that extra burden of living up to being someone you are not. Just because we chose you from the many wonderful options, just because something you wrote on an application months before we read it spoke to us, just because we hoped you’d fit in with us, didn’t mean you actually would. But you did. Expectations or none, you were what we needed.

You are silly and weren’t afraid to make faces. You are funny and quick to joke. You are sassy and sarcastic and kept Steven in his place. You are so much quicker to cuddle than I have ever been, but holding you on my iPad screen today, unable to reach through the glass and touch your hair and pull you close and smell your shampoo was absolutely, painfully, as literal as the metaphor can be: heartbreaking.

I have spent the last week trying to dam the tears and hold my heart shards together and pretend that I’m already over it. But you being gone is worse than any breakup. I know you are not dead, I know you are alive and well, you are happy and healthy and with your family, but in a way I am grieving your loss like you’re gone forever. I know that isn’t true. I know that! I will see you again. But my brain and my heart are unable to communicate, and it physically hurts. The silence when I walk into the house, the missing “hair mice” on the edge of the bathtub, your missing shoes, your room stripped bare. No za’atar on the counter, no shampoo or conditioner for curly hair, no Naked palettes, no easy tears, no songs on repeat, no high school gossip, no more hugs, no more sweet and crazy laughter, no more Lorde sing-a-longs. No, not no more: none for a while. But again, my head knows that – my heart is too busy shoving tears through my eyes and snot through my nose and closing my throat up so I sit here looking at old Instagram pictures and sobbing loudly. I miss you a lot and sucks.

I’ve tried to be strong about it. Before you left, I tried to make it easier for you to go by reminding you about your friends and family waiting for you. I’ve tried to be strong and tell people, “Yeah, Monday sucked, and Tuesday I cried at work, but by Wednesday I felt a lot better.” What a joke. I spent Wednesday through Friday lying to myself. I slept for 15 hours on Saturday. That’s not normal. That’s what sadness looks like. And then today, after we talked and I saw that you were sad too – I saw it in your eyes – I knew I wasn’t alone and I wanted to feel better about that but it just made me start crying all over again.

I know this seems melodramatic and I’ll hopefully be laughing at myself soon. But I know you get it. I said a few months ago as we talked about you leaving soon, “You don’t get to pull away, I’m not going to let you make this easy. You have to feel every emotion all the way until the end so that you cry when you say goodbye.” And we did that. I just didn’t know how much I was going to feel, too, in forcing you to promise me.

I love you. You are my first daughter, my first teenager, and forever, a friend. This house is always open to you. You are a part of my family, and heart. I love you and always will.

Kimbers.

Maybe that says it all.

But what I want to write here, for the world to see, is that part of the reason I’ve tried to seem “okay” is that I didn’t want anyone to see me sad and think, “That looks too hard, I wouldn’t want to host because I don’t want to be that sad when they leave. Look at Kim, she totally broke down.” Yes, I did. I am broken. But I wouldn’t change it for a thing. I will host again, because for each tear I’ve shed, there are a million fantastic memories. If love is a currency, Jude has made me rich. If anything could have convinced me to have a child, it was parenting Jude with Steven. If an experience can be life changing – and I’ve had many life changing experiences – I never expected this experience to be so transformative. This hurts, but it also makes me appreciate every moment I had with her, and I want to chase that feeling, regardless of the pain. I tried to convince myself that I only needed a few days to grieve, but my dear friend reminded me that for each year you are in a relationship, it can take about 3 months to grieve their loss. Yes, she is out there, living and laughing and chasing her dreams, but I am allowing myself to grieve her absence and relish the grief: it is proof that we loved and loved deeply.

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This is my fourth year working at IRIS, so I’ve seen a lot of students and a lot of host families come and go. Some people only plan to host once, and then they are done. Some think that, but they fall in love with the experience and end up hosting again. And some people just have a spot in their soul for exchange students, and they do it over and over again, year after year. 

For the most part, IRIS’s YES students are phenomenal. I can’t imagine hosting from any other program, and that’s not just because I’m biased. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Youth Exchange & Study students come from different countries and different backgrounds. When I was in high school, the exchange students were always from affluent countries or families. And good for them – it’s great that they can afford the experience. But YES kids are from Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. They are kids who would likely never be able to afford this type of opportunity through the numerous for-fee/pay-your-way programs. YES is a scholarship, and I like that.
  • YES students give back. Since this is a scholarship, YES asks that the students give back to their communities. The students are required to do a minimum of 2 hours of community service each month, but many of IRIS’s YES students have accomplished much more; last year, we had over 10 students complete over 100 hours of community service during their 10 month stay in Iowa communities. That’s awesome!
  • YES students build bridges of understanding. Since they come from countries that Americans don’t often travel to, their presence in American schools for an academic year gives those schools and communities an opportunity to learn about more remote regions, colorful cultures, and new perspectives. And the students are encouraged to do cultural presentations throughout their stay. Plus, the bridge goes both ways – these students often fall in love with their host, community, and America, and bring that love back home with them. This promotes peace and understanding in their home countries, too.

Many people are somehow under the impression that all the exchange students who come to America each year are all basically the same. But it’s really important to do some research before choosing an organization (like IRIS) and a program (like YES). Almost all exchange organizations and programs are FOR PROFIT. That means that the student is paying the organization – usually a lot – to come to America. Because they pay, they often have high expectations and not as much interest in giving back. After all, they paid a lot of money for the program. And I’m not saying all students who come this way don’t deserve it. Many do! But there is a huge difference between people who know they will have the opportunity to travel to American again someday, and those who know that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Hosting through programs like the YES program really does become a life changing experience for the students who are chosen. They do over a year of tests and interviews, orientations and planning sessions, before they arrive in your home. They are eager to learn and eager to teach. They want to show their graciousness and thankfulness for the opportunity, and they want to make the most out of everything – as it will more than likely be their one chance to travel to America (maybe even their only chance to travel abroad in their whole life). Not every YES student is perfect, but I’d say 98% of the YES students I’ve met have spend their ten months trying very hard to have a great experience and be a full member of their host family and community. 

And as a host, I think it’s great to feel so very supported. IRIS has been working with the State Department’s YES program since its inception, so they know the ropes. They come up with activities throughout the year to bring all of their students together for team building and cultural events. Local coordinators make regular phone calls to hosts, students, and schools, and make sure things are going smoothly – and they actually help whenever there is a need. And since IRIS is an Iowa based organization working almost exclusively within the state, the families and students become part of a large network that help each other and support each other throughout the year. 

So yeah, I’m a little biased. But if I didn’t believe in this program, and didn’t respect this organization, I wouldn’t have come back to IRIS after living abroad for three years. I’m glad to work here, and now I’m glad to volunteer as a host parent, too.

I’m 28 years old. Steven is 31. Almost all of our friends are having babies.

“You better hurry up!”

“When are you going to start?”

“Don’t wait too long!”

For years, I’ve found these often well-meaning comments to be frustrating. Don’t worry, friends and family – I am fully aware of my biological clock, and either it is broken or it’s just not ticking quite yet. Either way… stop pestering me!

Last spring, Steven and I bought a house. That was a milestone we’d been looking forward to for years. And with the purchase of our first home, we realized that we wanted to fill the extra bedroom. So we decided to have a kid.

“We’re going to be parents!” we exclaimed to our friends last spring. Their faces lit up. “We’re hosting an exchange student!” Their faces froze.

“Oh!”

“An exchange student!”

“That’s… awesome!”

And yes, it is. It’s awesome.

Steven and I lived in South Korea for three years, and ever since returning to America, we’ve really missed the international, intercultural relationships that we had abroad. As English teachers, we were always around young people, always learning from them and teaching them about our culture. We wanted that back. Hosting an exchange student seemed like a perfect way to fulfill that hole in our hearts.

Over the summer, we were able to Facebook, e-mail, and Skype with our student, Jude, and her family. We got to know her before she even arrived – and the moment I saw her in real life, we threw our arms around each other and hugged like we’d been family forever. And, just like that, we really were a family.

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Jude fits so well with us. She has a perfect sense of humor. She is sarcastic with Steven but cuddly with me. She is very motivated. She is so much more mature than I was at her age, and she’s constantly teaching me about her home country, politics, and religion. She is open minded and thoughtful, gracious and silly.

Every morning, Steven takes her to school. She is in orchestra, debate team, and will soon join Model UN. She has attended school events, and still makes time every night to do her homework and hang out with us. We cook together, clean together, shop together, and travel together. I don’t know how we got so lucky, but we really are parents, and we love our daughter so much already.

I hope to keep blogging throughout the year about our experience hosting Jude. For now, I just want to say this. You are never too young, too old, or too busy to host an exchange student. I work at Iowa Resource for International Service, the organization that was responsible for placing Jude with a host family in Iowa. I’ve wanted to host for years, as most of the students through Jude’s program, Youth Exchange & Study, are the most amazing, active, insightful, and mature high schoolers that I have ever met. And I’ve asked almost everyone I know to host a student too. I decided to walk the walk this year, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. I want everyone to be able to experience hosting one of these students, so I hope that this blog will help convince some of you to go for it. 

Jude, if you’re reading this – we love having you and I have already cried once thinking about how you will leave in June. Also, is your homework finished?

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catching-fire-usCatching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Type: fiction

Page Count: 391

TTBR Synopsis: Yeah, I read it again. I had to prepare myself for the new movie, and I’m so glad I did. I may not have noticed how close they came to making an exact movie replica of the book. And I had my doubts…

 

 

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Type: fiction

Page Count: 390

TTBR Synopsis: I couldn’t not re-read this after re-reading “Catching Fire,” could I?

 

 

 

 

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Type: non-fiction

Page Count: 333

TTBR Synopsis: I effing love this book. It freaks me out, excites me, I can’t stop thinking about Everest. I watch all the documentaries I can find, look at pictures of corpses on the mountain, and look for pictures of it online. I need to see it. I want to climb it. But I would probably die.

I’m pretty sure I read something else before the end of the year, but I think I’m possibly thinking of the two books I started but didn’t/haven’t finished until 2014.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Type: fiction

Page Count: 434

TTBR Synopsis: This is the 6th time I’ve reread this book.

 

 

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Type: fiction

Page Count: 352

TTBR Synopsis: This is the 2nd time I’ve read it. I didn’t cry as much because I knew what was coming. It’s gorgeous.

 

 

 

 

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Type: YA fiction

Page Count: 328

TTBR Synopsis: A very sweet little YA fiction about romance, family, race, domestic violence, self image, and sacrifice in the 80s.

 

 

 

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Type: I don’t know how to categorize this one.

Page Count: 369

TTBR Synopsis: Within 5 pages, I was crying from laughter. I haven’t laughed out loud so often in… years?

A Cockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Type: fiction

Page Count: 213

Received by: it’s Steven’s

Started reading: sometime in September

Finished reading: 24 September 2013

Interest level: 8 – First you have to learn a new language, then it’s fine

Recommendation level: 6 – I enjoyed it, but I’m not crazy in love

TTBR Synopsis: We are we are– the youth of the nation. Now I need to rewatch that one episode of Lost…

The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank

Type: fiction

Page Count: 336

Received by: bought a million years ago

Started reading: sometime in September

Finished reading: sometime in September

Interest level: 8 – See “The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing”

Recommendation level: 7

TTBR Synopsis: It’s the same book as “The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” except slightly different.

The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

Type: fiction

Page Count: 288

Received by: Steven scooped it out of a dumpster when we were dating

Started reading: sometime in September

Finished reading: sometime in September

Interest level: 8 – It’s a fun, easy, thoughtful read, but nothing important

Recommendation level: 7

TTBR Synopsis: Every chapter is a different quest for love.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Type: fiction

Page Count: 324

Received by: a gift from my mom from a long time ago

Started reading: sometime in August

Finished reading: sometime in August

Interest level: 10

Recommendation level: 10

TTBR Synopsis: I still cry when I read this book. Oh, Boo.