This rather surly and uncommunicative young man is a far cry from the hyped seven year old who set out with me for three weeks in Croatia all those years ago. The eyes are the same, though his lashes and eyebrows have darkened and coarsened with puberty. Step to his side, and the streak of white hair still flashes brightly, a reminder of his birthmother and siblings who bear the same unusual mark. His limbs are longer, and muscled, his back and neck are broad, and his skin, which was once improbably white and clear, is rough and tanned and still bristly after a week’s camping. I look at him, and I feel the pain of no longer being able to gently nuzzle his head. I touch him and he brushes me away. My son is growing up quickly.
Eight years earlier…. J went into a deep meltdown at Stansted airport, not long after we’d met my sister and her family, and as we made our way to the departure gate. His anxiety had been building steadily, and so had mine as I focused on the complexities of our planned trip around Croatia using public transport. We had booked accommodation in Dubrovnik, Split and Zagreb, as well as on the island of Vis. The adults knew exactly where we were going and Camilla and Lloyd’s girls were happy to place their trust in us to get them there safely. J had had a different and altogether more dangerous history, where adults let you down and sometimes disappeared. The past year had been spent helping him develop a sense of control over his environment, and the impression at least that he had choices. But there, that morning, J must have felt very out of control as we moved through the unfriendly and incomprehensible structure which is the modern airport. Check-in. Passport check. Security. Duty free. Rush to departure gate. He threw himself to the ground and screamed.
It was a great holiday but it wasn’t easy. The children remember running on Dubrovnik’s ramparts, our trip by motorboat from Vis to the Blue Grotto, and endless joyful fishing on the island. I remember spending a lot of time devising strategies with my sister and brother in law to try to keep J calm. Camilla and Lloyd’s lasting memory is of trying to keep ME calm. J moved from his cousins’ bedroom into mine, we set aside time each day for him to be alone with me. J repeated ‘I love you. I love you. I love you’ as he strived to secure himself to his new family.
Today is the start of another holiday, and this time we are on our way to Sorrento in Italy where once again Camilla and Lloyd and their youngest daughter Eliza will meet us. J is a very much more confident traveller these days who has recently completed the Silver Duke of Edinburgh test expedition: three days with a heavy backpack walking and camping in the Peak District…. And I can confidently say that I am no longer an anxious mum.
While we are in Sorrento we plan to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum … Except that it is Eliza who now has the morbid fear of death and volcanoes, and so it will be J’s turn now to do the calming.