how many times you gonna break my heart america

I typed in the string of letters from muscle memory: The familiar white landing page appeared, dotted with colorful images of “recommendations for me.”

Amazon should have a mom setting so that it understands the cruelty of “recommendations for me,” when 95% of “my” purchases are anything but “for me.” That day it offered me enticing discounts on Paw Patrol Band-aids, a fruit leather variety case, non-toxic ant bait.

I glanced at my handwritten list, scrawled on the back of an envelope:

Mother (25)
Father (30)
Female (1)
Female (2)

Mother (34)
Father (38)
Male (4)
Male (8)

I’d only asked for one family this Christmas and they’d given me two.

Money was tight and I thought about emailing them. But I thought, hell, I’m not going to turn this down. I'm not going to be the guy who said, "Sorry, Joe, no room at the inn."


I got the adults Target gift cards and Kindle fires. They were on a Black Friday sale so it sounds more generous than it was.


Shopping for kids you don’t know is hard and I’m always grateful when charities give you lots of specific information. This group didn’t.

I had to just assume that these kids, ages 1, 2, 4, and 8, would be into the same things that my two boys had been into at those ages.

For the 1-year-old girl, I closed my eyes and thought about Buster, my son who had been one only a year ago but was somehow impossible to imagine as any different than he was at this moment in time. In my mind, it was like he’d been born with a full mouth of teeth and a designated monster voice that he used when charging around the house with a red cape velcroed around his neck.

I pushed further back into my memory to when my now-4-year-old, Chicken, was 1. Though it was further in the past it was easier to recall. My life at the time had been challenging, but simpler. While Chicken was awake I was generally with him, watching him, playing with him, Tweeting his milestones. First-time parents, right?

When Chicken was 1 he had a set of 25 fruits and vegetables that came with plastic bushel baskets. The bushel baskets were labeled with colors, and each basket had 5 pieces of produce that matched that color. Orange: Pepper, pumpkin, carrot, apricot, and, well, orange. The carrot was Chicken's favorite, the ridged cone the perfect size and shape to fit in his hand, the plastic molded greens just right for gnawing on as his first white teeth erupted through his swollen gums.

Farmers Market Color Sorting Set. $25.99.

For the 2-year-old girl? I stepped away from the computer and peered around the wall to check in on Buster, who was, at that moment, clapping together two Mega-Bloks, the Legos that look like they’ve swelled, and are perfect for hands just beginning to negotiate the delicate fitting together that they’ll spend the rest of their lives perfecting on USB ports.

Buster frowned down at the two oversized nubby blocks in his hands. He slapped them together again with a hearty smack. Nope. I went to him, said, “Frustrated?” He nodded and grunted. I held out my hands and he pushed the blocks into my palms. I showed him: “You stick them together like this, see?” I pushed the blocks together, slowly, and then I handed them back to him and ran my hands over his, guiding him. When the blocks stuck together, a square and a rectangle, he gasped and looked up at me, his mouth a wondrous oh, his eyes shining.

“I did it!”

Mega Bloks Scooping Wagon Building Set, Red. $15.75.

 For the 4-year-old boy, I walked down the hall. Chicken was in his room, lounging on the easy chair where we read bedtime stories, one leg draped over the upholstered arm stained with a blue smear of toothpaste, his face behind a Leap Frog pad. It was one of those moments where I anticipated the pangs of future parenting. Someday I’ll walk into my teenage Chicken's room and he’ll be crumpled up in a chair just like this, his legs still too long for his body, and it will take my breath away, and my heart will be broken and when I ask myself why the only thing I’ll be able to think is “time.” I remember seeing my mother tear up at moments like this, moments when she accidentally saw me as the child who used to fit on her lap. I used to think she was so weird.

“What are you up to in here?” I asked.

“Just learning,” he said. “Can I have some chocolate milk?” When I didn’t answer immediately he peeked over the top of the tablet, his dark eyes shining. “Please?”

“Sure, baby,” I said. I hadn’t been holding out for the please; I’d just been watching him. He needed a haircut. I always wait too long to get my kids haircuts. Chicken has thick, straight brown hair and enormous eyes, and when his hair is too long he looks just like how I always imagined Peter Pan.

LeapFrog My Own Laptop, Green. $18.29.

The 8-year-old was a problem; my older son was only 4. I posted on my neighborhood parents’ group: “Giving Christmas present to 8-year-old boy! Need ideas!” The Blessed Congregation of Internet Moms provided an answer within seconds: Legos. Of course Legos. It’s always been Legos.

LEGO Classic Medium Creative Brick Box 10696. #30.64.

I also picked up 2 rice cooker/vegetable steamers, and 2 Merriam-Webster children’s picture dictionaries.

Aroma Housewares ARC-914SBD 80Cup Digital Cool-Rice Cooker and Food Steamer with Stainless Steel Exterior, Silver. $29.90 each, quantity, 2.

Merriam-Webster Children’s Dictionary. $12.59, quantity, 2.


The boxes arrived just in time – the presents were due to be turned in the next day.  I put the boys down for their naps, saying, “I’m going to pick the stories today." I picked board books of the breed that only have one word per page.

Cat, Dog, Happy, Sad, Mitten, Hat, okay have a good nap sweet dreams!

I wrapped the rice-cookers first, then the dictionaries. Next, the Mega-Bloks wagon, which made me grin with its crumpled corners and too-long strips of stuck-together tape. I’ll just say the kids wrapped it.

The slick, brightly colored box of vegetables with their bushel baskets, the Leap Frog pad, the Legos in their plastic storage case.

I wrapped the two Kindles last, and folded the printed Target gift cards, slipped them between the leaves of two cards, and wrote the same thing on both: “To you and your family, from me and mine: Welcome to America. I am so glad you’re here. We wish you health, happiness, and safety, for you and your children. You are our neighbors now, and you are what makes America great.”

I sealed the envelopes, taped them securely to the wrapped Kindles, and then I boxed up the parcels: Family 22. Family 23.

Family 22 was the one with the 1 and 2-year-old girls. We got them the play food and Mega Bloks, sloppily wrapped with crumpled corners.

They were due to arrive from Myanmar in March.

Family 23 was the one with the 4 and 8-year-old boys. We got them the LeapFrog and Legos.

They were due to arrive from Iraq next week.


I can’t stop thinking about the Lego kit, the blocks cool and untouched, wrapped in blue snowman paper. The box sits in a closet, somewhere.

I can’t stop thinking about the daughter who needs a plastic carrot to soothe her aching gums.

I can't stop crying.


They must have been happy.

They were going to come here and if they had nothing else they were going to have rice cookers and Kindles and a few bucks to spend at Target and a few toys for their kids.

I thought it was the least we could do.

Turns out, the least we could do was so much less.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so desperate to hear an update on this story.