On Mother’s Day: Two Women Remembered

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There is a quiet debate these days about the politically correct word for mothers who give birth and then place their child for adoption. It’s good to describe these adoption realities with sensitivity, but honestly, I lose track of what’s in and what’s out. As for my youngest daughter’s circumstances: instead of being abandoned, she was “left in a place where she would be found.” And instead of giving a child up for adoption, the birthmother “made an adoption plan.” And so in some circles, a birthmother is now referred to as a “first mother.” Which, in my mind, means that an adoptive mother – regardless of what you say – is a “second mother.” I’m passing on these terms, just so you know.

I have a birth mother. And I have an adoptive mother. And they are both gone, which always makes Mother’s Day a little bittersweet for me. It’s not the hardest day of the year, but it’s not one that I get gushy over either. And yes, I have children, but let’s face it: most of our kids need a little prodding in order to 1) remember Mother’s Day, and 2) do something about it. A friend of mine posted a photo of her Mother’s Day gift wrapped in toilet paper with a sticky note in kid writing that said, “Sorry.” This is so real and so perfect, and it was the only Mother’s Day post on Facebook that made me feel all warm and fuzzy. (As a side note, if Mother’s Day is a little rough for you, skip Facebook on this day.)

I lost Mom five years ago in April. I lost my birthmother hours after I was born. And I think about both of them on Mother’s Day. In fact, on most days, each of them crosses my mind at some point, either during waking hours or in my dreams. My house is filled with things Mom gave me and so I am surrounded by her with gifts and possessions passed down to me. And every time I look in the mirror or wonder why I have that little physical imperfection or notice my short stature (when I’m hanging with tall people), I think about my birthmother who passed these things to me, and then without realizing it, passed some of them on to my biological children. And yes, I miss both of my mothers and feel the empty space their passing has left in my heart.

I celebrated this day with my own children, but it feels odd to be unable to turn around and honor the woman who gave birth to me and the woman who raised me with absolute selflessness. It seems as though I should be saying Happy Mother’s Day to someone. Perhaps this is enough for me. Writing usually quells the restlessness.

To my birthmother: I know it was difficult to hand over your baby and walk away. Thank you for physical life – for taking care of yourself during pregnancy, for not being reckless with your health, and for whatever good thoughts you chose to focus on during those nine months. I have a sense that you were tenacious but calm as you waited to deliver and then give away your child. I’m confident you were strong. And I am proud to be your daughter.

To Mom: I know you wanted to live to see so many things, but you made the most of every moment that we had together. Every day, you chose a life that focused on others. You tormented me with little quotes like “It is better to give than to receive,” but you were speaking absolute truth. It just took me a long time to get it, and an even longer time to begin to learn how to live it. But I have more than adequate footsteps to follow in.

So I honor you both today, in my own way. Happy Mother’s Day my two mothers. You are deeply loved…forever.

Exactly Two Months After 9/11: New Life

While the world was still reeling and the dust still settling in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, we boarded a plane to fly across the world. Many people we knew who had booked overseas flights canceled after the terrorist strike, but we didn’t. We couldn’t. The clothes – size 12 months – had been laid out on top of the suitcase for weeks. We had bibs, shoes, toys, and an endless amount of paperwork ready to pack. For those six weeks between the falling of the twin towers and the day we stepped on the plane, I listened to the grieving families and survivors in television interviews and endured the angry tirades of people around us who believed that we should go “kick some butt” (can’t count how many times I heard this). It was a confusing, angry, frightening time. We all wondered what the world was coming to, while at the same time mourning the reality that it would never be the same.

And in the middle of all of it, we packed our bags and left our grieving country for two weeks. Our world would never be the same either.

Not once did we think about sending only one person from our family to pick up our daughter. The four of us were going, and we would fly across the ocean with that one beautiful face in our mind’s eye. It’s still amazing to me how love has the power to cast out fear, even when fear is completely justified. September 11, 2001 will always be inextricably linked to that joyous time when we met our daughter and sister. It swirls together and reminds me that life continues, even in the pitch black hours. Exactly two months after 9/11, on 11/11, we celebrated her first year of life – a day early. This little girl had been born in a world where the odds were most certainly stacked against her, in a country where it would require resilience for a female baby to survive. And survive she did. She fought her way to that first year and so we strapped a little party hat on her and celebrated. She loved the cake and clapped her hands to the birthday song. I was so proud of her and so certain that whatever ugliness the world might throw at her – at all of us – that there would always be the promise of new life.

And I still believe it.

The Simple Made Complicated

I’ve just finished reading the Journal of Christian Legal Thought, Spring 2012 issue. At this point, you are about to click off this post and go back to your Facebook newsfeed to see photos of cute kids and watch cat videos. Please don’t, just yet.

I fear the beginning of a divide between the good people of this world who care deeply about children in crisis, specifically orphans. To be clear, I’m defining orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents through death, or has been relinquished by a parent. I’m adamant about not getting technical when it comes to the definition of orphan because a child who is without a family feels like an orphan. Perception, folks, is reality. The Journal highlights dissenting opinions between those who defend the Christian adoption and orphan care movement, and those who believe that the theological analysis undergirding the evangelical adoption and orphan care movement is erroneous and dangerous for children and families. Put simply: it’s an argument between those who feel mandated by Scripture to care for orphans, and those who feel uncomfortable with that approach.

I come at this issue with a bias – on both sides of the dissent. My husband is Vice President of an international adoption agency – a Christian international adoption agency. Also, we have adopted internationally and, so far, our daughter is happy and thriving. Also, I think Scripture should move us to action, and I have no problem taking James 1:27 as a mandate. Oh, and because of the church I attend, I wear the label of evangelical Christian.

But I’m biased on the other side of the dissent as well. I’m a cynic when it comes to evangelical “movements” in general. I believe that Scripture can, and is, often tossed around to justify and perpetuate our own political and social agendas. Interestingly, Jesus was silent on the issues that evangelicals are most vehement about, and spoke passionately about things we stay silent about. Evangelicals sometimes embarrass and anger me. So I don’t typically jump on the bandwagon of everything that evangelicals deem to be crucial social issues.  Also, I have a bit of bias since I am adopted. It’s one of those circa mid-1960s closed adoptions, which means I have two birth certificates – one that I have seen, and one that is sealed in a court of law that I have never laid eyes on. It’s “as if” my birth mother never existed. There is little about this arrangement I find appealing, but as the adoptee I don’t have the legal right to open the sealed court records. No one does. So when those who are critical of adoption (especially closed, “as if” adoptions) speak out, I find myself shuffling over to their side.

So for me, this is complicated. But it’s also complicated for a guy named David Smolin, who is a Professor of Constitutional Law and Director of the Center for Biotechnology, Law and Ethics at Samford University’s College of Law. He writes exhaustively on this issue and comes down on the side of those who are uncomfortable with the evangelical adoption movement. And I sympathize with him. He and his wife adopted two older girls from India, only to discover after the adoptions were finalized that the girls had been trafficked. Their impoverished mother had placed them in the orphanage as a temporary solution, but the orphanage had illegally adopted them out. Trafficking is ultimately the bottom line concern of all who would seek to end or curtail international adoption. Those who have been damaged by international adoption (and many who haven’t) continue to squirm as evangelicals point to Scripture when advocating for adoption as one answer to the crisis. On the surface, James 1:27 is simple. What does God ask us to do that represents Him in the purest form? Care for the most vulnerable people – the ones others ignore or exploit. There you go. Now that’s something to sink your life into. Except…in our world today, it’s just not that simple.

Smolin brings up points that should not be glossed over in our efforts to offer up our purest form of God-honoring activities in the realm of intercountry adoption: There have been systematic abuses such as child trafficking, child laundering, and falsification of documents on the part of both some sending and receiving agencies. There are most certainly bad apples in the world of adoption agencies, and even the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has not been successful in eradicating these abusive practices. They are few and far between, but they are the squeaky wheel that gets greased, sometimes in the form of our our State Department shutting down entire countries (Nepal, Guatemala, Vietnam). And yes, it is often hard to define when intercountry adoption is an appropriate intervention – what children are truly in need? Here’s an example of that particular complication: UNICEF and folks like Smolin will tell you that if there is any kinship options available for a child in the birth country, this is the second-best option if the birthparents have died or the child has been relinquished. So take the case of one little girl in Uganda named Mary. Her parents died of AIDS and so she went to live with her uncle in a nearby village. Someone could have come along and said, “We know of families in other countries who will adopt AIDS orphans.” But those who believe that culture and kinship trump everything would shake their heads and send Mary off to live with the uncle. Which is what happened. In the course of a three-year period, Mary was raped repeatedly by her uncle and several cousins. The tiny bit of property that was rightfully hers is really what the uncle wanted. He had no interest in raising Mary, and eventually he threw her out into the streets when enough time had passed that her property became his. Mary was 10 years old. He began raping her when she was seven. She has been physically damaged so much that she will never bear children, and she has nothing left that was rightfully hers after her birthparents died. Of course, no one could have known what was going to occur when Mary went to live with her uncle, but to brush the kinship option with such broad strokes misses some cultural realities. In not every culture is kinship a sure-fire second best option. Sometimes it is, but when it isn’t, it can ruin a child’s life.

Sweeping generalities about intercountry adoption – in either direction – cause us to forget that every situation is unique. Sometimes adoption is the best option for a child. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes child trafficking is obvious. Sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes God gives us clear direction on how to carry out James 1:27, and other times He doesn’t. I have felt conflicted about these issues many times over the past several years. We adopted our daughter almost eleven years ago, and then learned about the orphan crisis. Our adoption of Alison was not because we were moved by James 1:27. We just felt our family was incomplete and something kept leading us to China. Now, however, I’m deeply involved in the issue of the orphan crisis and I am passionately moved by James 1:27. But I’m often unsure what to do with that passion. I see both sides. I think intercountry adoption can be a beautiful solution, and it is most certainly a picture of how we have been adopted by God. But it isn’t the only, or even the best long-term solution to the orphan crisis in our world. Those who are passionate about caring for orphans should be equally intentional about finding a more encompassing way to do this. William Sloane Coffin Jr. said, “To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.” I think people on both sides of the international adoption discussion can agree on this one.

As an adoptive mother of a daughter from China and someone who is grieved by 147 million orphans (at least), I am concerned about the broken structures that continue to cause the orphan crisis. I want to find a way to help repair those broken structures. I believe that’s what Jesus came to do, and then He left His followers to walk the same path. Perhaps, in the end, this is the bigger picture of what it means to “care for orphans.” And maybe, this is where we find the purest form of our religion.

This Time Last Year

Two years ago, I purchased this photo display from Pottery Barn. Disclaimer: I don’t shop Pottery Barn anymore and I pitch the catalogs in the recycle bin as soon as I get them. I don’t have anything against Pottery Barn – or Eddie Bauer, Lands End, Chaco (I do send my sandals in to be re-strapped), or the stack of catalogs I used to receive. Fortunately, after enough seasons of not purchasing from catalogs, they stop sending them to your house on such an annoyingly regular basis. I’m almost catalog-free. It’s amazing how much time a person can spend in a given day browsing through the catalogs, choosing items that are suddenly deemed necessary, justifying the purchases, and then placing the orders. I’m keenly aware these days of how much energy, money, and time I spend on fluffing my nest. I’m not judging. If you catalog shop, have at it. I’m just a person who is easily sucked in by consumerism, so I’m learning to dash in the other direction and be content with the fluff I’ve already purchased.

But I digress in a big way, so back to the photo display. I got it on sale and it holds twelve 8×10 photos. It’s one of my favorite purchases and I’m forever grateful that at the time I found it I hadn’t yet been convicted about my shopping habits. My intention was to change the photos out every couple of months, but it’s been almost a year since they’ve been replaced. I couldn’t bring myself to remove the China photos. It took a trip to Ghana to force them out of the frames. I’ve stacked the photos on the dining room table because I am still not sure what to do with them. So I’m posting a few here in honor of where we were this time last year.

The 2012 Dillon China Birthland tour group leaves this Tuesday. My friend Dana, who was in our travel group eleven years ago, is taking her daughter back this year. I’m so grateful that Callie will get to see her birth country and the orphanage where she lived for a year. I want her to see the people, hear the language, eat the food, and walk the streets of the country where she began her life. If I could say five things to every adoptive parent, the second thing would be this: Return with your child to their birth country at some point. For an adopted child, every piece of his or her story is crucial. If you are an adoptive parent, you should know that there will be a moment (probably two, three, or more) when you will be asked to fill in pieces of this story. I’m not saying that a birthland tour is the only way to do this, but it’s one of the best ways. Start saving now. It’s not cheap, but it’s a much better way to spend your money than, say, catalog shopping.

This time last year we were in Beijing, gearing up for the whirlwind two weeks of visiting the cities of Xi’an, Guiping, Guangzhou, and Guilin. That’s four different provinces in two weeks. Be impressed. I loved every minute and cherish every memory of our trip. Honestly, I’m a little envious of the group that leaves Tuesday. I would do it again, and in fact I’m planning a return trip with Alison after she graduates high school. Alison is ready to go back, but she made me promise one thing: no pig’s feet.

The Sanctity of Every Life

I have a friend who attends quite a few pro-life rallies. She believes deeply in the sanctity of life and so she holds placards on street corners, at the state capitol, and sometimes she travels to Washington D.C. so her voice can be heard on behalf of unborn children. There are many people who do this, and their passion and zeal is undeniable. They are willing to go to great lengths to get people’s attention about the horrors of abortion for both the fetus and the mother, and they don’t shy away from the graphic images that make an effective accompaniment to their arguments for the sanctity of life. I admire their commitment to advocate for those who do not have a voice and cannot speak for themselves. However, I have a tiny problem with my friend’s rallies and placards. Maybe the best way to describe it is to tell a couple of stories pulled straight from the pages of our hometown newspaper:

On March 25th, a toddler was found dead in a car that had been stopped for erratic driving in Tulsa. Zamontay Green, 19 months old, had been dead for hours and abused over a period of time, court records show. He had subdural hemorrhage, abdominal trauma, broken ribs, multiple bruises – including loop marks around his legs, which indicates he had been whipped with a type of rope. Jazmin Williams and Mica Shoate, both 22, have been charged with child-abuse murder, permitting child abuse, and child neglect. they were taking care of the boy while his mother was staying in Arkansas, records show.

Felicia Dawn Potter, 21, was charged with child neglect on March 19 on accusations that she exposed a 2-year-old girl in her care to unsafe and unsanitary living conditions. Court filings allege she exposed the child to “marijuana, human vomit, human feces, used tampons and/or rotting trash and food.”

These, my friends, are not good stories. But neither are they unusual, isolated incidents. If you want to read a smattering of other tales that will turn your stomach, you can find them here. Okay, I know this is not a post you’re probably wanting to finish at this point, but please do. Humor me, okay? Here is why I have a problem with the very loud and pervasive conversation about the sanctity of life: I think our passions often wane when the child exits the womb. Somehow, once we’ve successfully convinced a woman not to have an abortion, then it becomes her responsibility to make it work from there – even if she’s single, uneducated, unemployed, and without a healthy family or community structure in place to help give support. So, who suffers in this scenario? Children, of course. The ones that we advocate for while they are still in the womb.

Where are the passionate souls who will charge Capitol Hill on behalf of children – now born – who are victims of child abuse? Who holds up placards for children who languish in state custody? Where are those who will march around to decry the lack of foster homes for children who, through no fault of their own, have no home?

“That’s not my responsibility,” is the unspoken justification that most of us hold out. “It isn’t my problem that mothers use drugs or allow their boyfriends to abuse their children.” “If these people can’t take care of their children, they shouldn’t have them.”

Well, it’s too late. There are approximately 8,300 children who are in state custody in Oklahoma, and over 400,000 nationwide. Some of them await adoption, many are being bounced from one foster care home to another, and far too many are living in shelters waiting for adequate and safe foster homes to be found for them. In fiscal year 2011, our underpaid and overworked DHS employees took 9,344 calls alleging abuse or neglect of a child in Tulsa County alone and completed 3,096 investigations. 1,023 of those cases were confirmed abuse or neglect. Wait, let me restate: 1,023 children were confirmed to be abused or neglected. That’s in one county in this state. Multiply that across this great nation and you have a crisis of tragedy involving the most vulnerable among us.

If you’re still hanging with me, (and if you are, thanks so much) I’m going to explain the photo.When Child Protective Services (DHS workers) are called to a home to remove the child from an abusive or unsafe situation, they give them a black trash bag and let them pack a few things before they take them to a shelter to await a foster care placement. A trash bag. On Saturday, a group of people who are generally appalled by all of this gathered at our city’s child welfare shelter, The Laura Dester Shelter. We brought suitcases to donate because we understand the state DHS is underfunded and can’t supply them for the children. And then we walked around the shelter and carried our suitcases to represent that we want to speak out for these children who cannot speak for themselves. The event is called Walk a Mile In My Shoes.

So here is the challenge: Can we believe in the sanctity of every life? The born child. The single mother. The deadbeat dad. Are there only certain lives that are precious to God? Or is every life – whether we deem it worthy or not – a life that God wants to save? And if God believes that life is worthy of saving, then perhaps I should too. Next year when we attend Walk a Mile, I’m carrying a placard.

Forty Years of Beautiful Families

I spent this past week in Washington D.C. in a hotel where my computer would not cooperate with the “free” WiFi. So my phone became my computer, but I absolutely could not bring myself to write a blog post using a touch screen the size of my wallet. I know the world is moving toward mobile, but it most certainly is a movement of people with sharper vision and more nimble finger dexterity. I like my 15-inch macbook with the command+ key.

Last Sunday evening before we took our early morning flight to D.C., we celebrated with our adoption agency. Ten years ago we adopted a dragon baby (Alison was born in 2000, the year of the Dragon), and last Sunday night we participated in a Lunar New Year dinner celebrating “Forty Years of Families.” Dillon International, our agency, was founded in 1972, hence the celebration. And, in case you didn’t know, this Lunar New Year is once again the Year of the Dragon. After twelve years of rat, monkey, horse, snake, rabbit, etc., we’re back to the dragon. The first time since 2000.

Dillon International is our adoption agency, not only because they helped us bring our daughter home and now Kyle works there (a beautiful irony), but because over 30 years ago they helped open my eyes to the beauty of a different kind of adoption. I grew up knowing the founders of the agency, Jerry and Deniese Dillon, because they were friends with my parents and we all attended the same church. As an adopted child, I knew that adoption was one way to build a family, although we rarely talked about it in those terms. There was little attention to the language of adoption and we certainly didn’t spend much time discussing it. Some kids were and most kids weren’t. That was about the extent of it. If I pressed my parents, they would remind me how special adoption was – how God chose special children for special parents. But for an adopted kid, “special” is a relative term that often is translated “different.” I knew that the Dillons founded an adoption agency, but I don’t remember talking about it with my parents. Then, a baby girl named Mia appeared in our midst. There was a small crowd in the nursery the first day her parents brought her to church and my friend Polly and I were immediately smitten by this tiny girl with the black hair and eyes. We begged to work in the baby room so we could hold her, but we didn’t meet the age requirement so we stood at the half-door of the nursery like star-struck fans.

A couple named Mike and Diane adopted Mia from Korea, a country I knew almost nothing about. I was fascinated. They had two older boys who looked like a combination of mother and father, and now they had a little girl who looked nothing like any of them. She had almond eyes that disappeared when she smiled and straight black hair that stuck up like a fountain when they clipped it in little pink bows. She was Asian and they were not, and now she was their daughter. The five of them together turned heads in those days, but everyone in our church embraced the variety of these families and people began to talk about adoption. A few more children from Korea were brought home by other families and the variety began to seem almost normal. I thought these were the most beautiful kind of families I had ever seen.

I still do.

Last Sunday night, I looked around the ballroom of the hotel where we held our dinner and saw a room full of these most beautiful kind of families. Parents that look different than their Korean, Chinese, Indian, Guatemalan, Vietnamese, Haitian, African, and African-American children. Variety. The barriers of color and ethnicity torn away so that families can be completed. Do these children have identity issues? Yes. But so do I. And so do you. When we open our arms to each other and love despite the differences, we are able to fill up so many of the holes that we carry around in our hearts – both children and parents.

I’m so incredibly grateful to our adoption agency for helping bring Alison to us. Three decades after I met little Mia, my own daughter has now taught me about loving and bonding and becoming a most beautiful kind of family.

The Joy and the Grief of Gotcha Day

Tomorrow is “Gotcha Day.” Honestly, I’ve never been wild about that title, which denotes the day when an adopted child was placed in the arms of a waiting mother or father. The term has always seemed a bit casual, almost flippant, and somewhat insensitive to the birthparents. But I digress. We observe it, albeit nominally, because for Alison the day after Gotcha Day is the real celebration – birthday. She is ALL about the birthday. Even Christmas, with all it’s kid-centered hoopla, is anti-climactic compared to the intoxication of birthday. It’s ironic, really. We have no stories about the day she was born, but we can tell endless stories about Gotcha Day.

So in honor of the day that means little to Alison and everything to us, here is the short version of our Gotcha Day 2001 story:

The four of us (two kids, Kyle, and I) ate Spaghetti Bolognese with a few other families in the lobby of the Majestic Hotel in the Gaungxi Province capital of Nanning. We counted down the time until 8 p.m. when nine babies were going to be carried into the hotel lobby by nine orphanage workers and placed in the arms of nine families. The workers were driving the babies five hours from the city of Guiping. They were late.

While waiting, we were treated to several China adoption formalities: we listened to a speech by the orphanage director, which I’m certain was wonderful, but I can’t remember one word of it. We filled out more paperwork to top off the reams of paperwork we had already filled out in the past 18 months. We presented to the orphanage director a collective gift from our families – an air-conditioner, which seemed appropriate. Still, we waited. We sweated. We smiled at the Chinese adoption officials who were there. We watched the door.

Time continued to pass and we engaged in more mindless activities: checking our cameras, chatting with one another, spending time rearranging items in the bags we brought. The bags were stuffed with toys, pacifiers, blankets, burp cloths, bottles with formula, bibs, and anything else we could think of to offset the moment of hand-off. These were not infants, but rather 12-15-month old babies who would surely know the difference between a familiar Chinese face and a strange white face. We all knew that the moment of “gotcha” might not be so pretty.

More time passed and the door opened slowly. It was a hotel maid who looked at us in horror as several people stood up with their cameras pointed at her. She turned abruptly and left. We sat back down and continued to sweat.

Sometime long after 8 p.m.,the door opened again and a parade of orphanage workers carried in nine black-haired baby girls who were dressed in matching outfits: a vest, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and socks. Some of the outfits were blue, some pink, some yellow. The babies looked stunned. I quickly found Alison, but she looked nothing like the content, chubby five-month-old in the referral photo. On Gotcha Day she was thin and wide-eyed. Immediately the adoption official and our Chinese guide began calling out names and handing a baby to each new mother.

“Momma!” the official would shout at the baby, pointing dramatically at each mother as the orphanage worker placed a daughter in waiting arms. Husbands and family members stood by taking photos and trying to catch the baby’s eye. It quickly became a chorus of wailing and soothing voices. The woman who handed Alison to me did so slowly and with tears in her eyes. I’m not making that up. She watched us as we walked into a corner of the conference room with our new daughter. I handed Alison a toy, and she grabbed it and held it without  taking her eyes off mine. I was waiting for her to explode, but she just stared at me. She looked sad and confused, and in a few moments tears welled up in those black eyes and spilled out and down her cheeks. She never made a sound. Just cried silently. I can’t remember when I’ve felt so inadequate and unprepared.

“It’s okay,” I whispered and gently guided her head against my chest. “I love you.” I could feel her crying, but she still didn’t make a sound.

What, I thought, have we gotten ourselves into?

After a few moments, my new daughter fell sound asleep and didn’t wake up until we took her back to the hotel room. Her screams during her bath were comforting. I wanted to know she had a voice. And she does.

For the parents, “gotcha” may seem like the pinnacle of the adoption experience – before the parenting begins. While we wait, we envision the moment in a hundred different ways. For the child, however, “gotcha” is something very different. All of our adopted children will grieve the loss of their beginnings, whether they are infants or older children. What we view as a glorious moment is the same moment that a child is torn away from everything they have ever known. For them, while we are joyously receiving, they are inwardly grieving. For many children, this grief is short. In fact, by Day Two, Alison was comfortably settled into her new family and the strange new world around her. She was passed from mother, to father, to brother, to sister and then back, multiple times over. Her cries were now louder and more demanding (good sign) and she opened her mouth to eat anything and everything we offered her (another good sign).

For other children, the grief of Gotcha Day lasts longer. But experts that know much more than I do about raising adopted children tell us that with enough love, patience, and diligence on the part of the parent, children can overcome the grief of loss. All children are waiting to be placed – and kept – in loving arms, even if they don’t act like it, and even if they cry silently for a while. We are all created to receive love. We all long for home.

So I celebrate Gotcha Day, remembering the day my daughter was placed in our arms. I respect her moment of grief, but it is overshadowed by watching her grow into an amazing young lady full of life, joy, curiosity, and love. This is the beauty and mystery of adoption. We take into our arms children who have beginnings in other places; children who may not look like us, and children that do not share our genes. We take into our arms children who have been waiting all their short lives for the moment that someone wraps them in an eternal embrace and joyfully declares, “I’ve got you.”

Kids Like Us

I met a man named Peter yesterday who was born in Ghana, adopted by a teacher and his wife, and educated in the United States. He has a Ph.D., and has been a professor and educator in the States for decades. Now, in his late 60s, he devotes his life to taking care of orphans in his home country. He will return to live in Ghana in the next year so that he can do even more for the children.

He and I had an interesting discussion in the parking lot after our meeting in the Dillon offices. Peter had spent the morning and part of the afternoon sharing about his work in Ghana, the children, and his passion for making life better for them. I sat riveted in my chair and thought, I should know more things about the world and the people who live there, I really should. These are thoughts that I have quite often and so I try to educate myself, but there is something about sitting across the table from someone over a deli sandwich and chips that teaches you more about another culture than any book, video, or internet search. Here’s something I didn’t know: in Ghana, a newborn isn’t named for the first seven days – just in case. If they die before they are a week old, they are buried without a name. We don’t have any concept of that level of uncertainty about life. We are so sure that not only will our children survive, but thrive and rise to unimaginable heights. In our culture, we are a people of high expectations, no doubt about it, especially when it comes to our kids. But in Ghana parents are in touch with the reality that without an education, their kids are destined to struggle for survival. And the government is so poor that they charge families to send those children to school. And the families are poor, so sometimes they go hungry to pay for the uniforms and books. Not right. Because of this, many parents must turn to someone else to help them raise their children – or make a plan to offer those children a better life with someone else. Again, we have no concept of this. I’d die on a thousand hills before I’d give my child over to be raised by someone else. But, then…I’ve never seen my children suffer from hunger day after day, night after night. I can make loud and bold claims when we are all well-fed, well-dressed, and full of bright hope for the future.

So Peter and I had this conversation in the parking lot about those of us who are adopted (he and I have this in common), and how there is something deep within us that not only identifies with these kids who have been relinquished, but we also feel a need to do something. Peter is doing something, God bless him. I’ve often wondered about my own continual longing for home. I’ve always had a home, and across the decades they’ve been really good ones: loving parents, supportive extended family, and now a soulmate husband and the most incredible children. But once you’ve been relinquished, even if it was when you were 21 days old, you get a funny feeling when you hear about these other children who wear the label “orphan.”(By the way, in most countries this is a crummy label to wear. You get nowhere in life with it. Nowhere.) There is a connection with these children that’s hard to put into words. Peter and I struggled to give voice to it as we stood together, but all we could do was pat our hearts and nod as if to say, “Yeah, this feeling. It’s just there.”

People who are not adopted certainly have deep and real empathy for orphaned children and feel a responsibility to do something. I’m not saying that we have anything on them. We don’t. I think we simply have a desire to wrap our arms around those who have been abandoned, left behind, or relinquished because our own adoption has left us feeling quite blessed. Somewhere, deep in places we don’t even know exist, we know what it is like to long for home. Our stories intersect with theirs somehow, and so kids like us long for home on behalf of kids like them.

Peter invited me to Ghana, so it’s now on my list. Africa, anyone?

Found: 100 Good Wishes Quilt Squares

I made a discovery only a few weeks before we left for China. It was a brown box hidden far under my bed that contained within a Rubbermaid bin. You would think I was hiding it from myself. I do that quite a bit – put something in a special, hidden place to keep it safe and then completely forget where it is. We’ve lived in our house for only five years, and so this box, which I’ve had for ten years, must have been moved without me knowing what was in it. I’ve given up trying to figure out my losing and finding cycle. There’s no telling what’s hidden in my attic that I’ve forgotten about.

Back to the contents of the box: Almost 11 years ago we were waiting for our referral from China, which means we were waiting for Alison. We didn’t know her yet, and there were about 60 other parents who were also waiting for their little girls from China that I met through an Internet chat list. We spent quite a bit of time talking about our future daughters, giving one another advice, lamenting our wait (which considering wait times now for referrals seems ludicrous). It was a time when thousands of Chinese baby girls were being adopted every year by families from across the ocean and so traditions were born. One of those was a 100 Good Wishes Quilt that waiting families would provide one another. Actually, we provided each other with the material for the quilt and a wish for the baby. The process was simple: send each family on your list two 5″x 5″ quilt squares (one for a scrapbook, one for the quilt) and a wish for the baby. During one three-month period in the summer of 2001, I received 31 quilt squares (not everyone participated) and 31 good wishes for Alison. About a week after the last package came in the mail, we received our referral and the quilt project was put in a box, stored in a bin, and became something that: “I’ll get to next year.” Eventually I lost track of the box, and when we moved into our house I was certain the box had been lost in the move.

Ten years after I received all those good wishes, I found them again. And only a few weeks from the day that we returned to China to take our now ten-year-old daughter to visit her birthland. Irony abounds. I opened the box and began to read the wishes. Here’s a sample:

If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person. If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house. If there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world. – Chinese proverb. We wish you light, beauty, harmony, order and peace throughout your life. 

That wish was from Doug, Linda, Laura, and their future daughter. I’ve lost touch with everyone on this list since we received our referrals. I remember logging into the chat room every day in the fall and seeing the subject line: REFERRAL! We received our referral on October 1. As I read through the wishes each family gave our daughter, I realize that these prayers have been drifting above us all this time. Life has not been perfect and there have been bumpy places in the parenting road, but we have always felt held, guided, and blessed as we raise each of our children.

So now I will be working on a quilt. Well, not me exactly. I don’t sew (do buttons count?), but I’ll find someone who can help me stitch together the squares of good wishes – although now it won’t be a quilt for her crib, but will be placed at the end of the bed of a little girl who will soon be a young lady. Better late than lost forever. I better check the attic soon. Who knows what I’ll find up there.

The Red Couch

In the banner above, the babies on the red couch are eight of the nine who were adopted by the families we traveled with in 2001. Jamie isn’t on the couch, and I’m not sure why. Alison is on the far right, perhaps looking for someone to come comfort her sweet friend Chloe. Photographing adopted Chinese babies on the red couch at the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou is tradition. Everyone who adopts must pass through the port city to finalize the adoption through the U.S. Consulate and most families stay at the White Swan Hotel. The Red Couch photo is a must, but getting those babies to sit happily while we took their picture was a long process for both parents and babies. We did the best we could, but several of the girls were NOT in favor of this beloved tradition. Hence the sad faces. We tried several times on different days, but they didn’t like the red couch. In the post photo, Alison is in the denim jumper, fourth from the left. Once again, she looks as if she would like to help.

I hope to get a photo of ten year-old Alison on the Red Couch since, once again, we will stay at the White Swan on our way out of China. We’ll miss these eight little girls, who are now young ladies. They will sit with Alison in spirit as she takes her photo once again on the Red Couch in Guangzhou.

Jin Heng Ling

She came to us in a photograph first. In the conference room of our adoption agency, our social worker slid her photo across the table. This was our introduction to our daughter, Jin Heng Ling. In one moment we were connected to this beautiful baby and immediately signed the papers promising to travel to China in six weeks to pick her up. I held the photo of my new daughter and determined that I would not be afraid. Only four weeks earlier terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Everyone was on high alert, fearful, and certain that the next attack was around the corner. But Jin Heng Ling was in China and we were here, and once that photo was handed to us I felt as if we were missing someone in our family.

Jin Heng Ling was living in the Guiping Social Welfare Agency in Guiping, China. The province is in southern part of the country, near Vietnam. Guangxi province is an autonomous region, and it was our agency’s first time to receive referrals from this orphanage. Six weeks after we were handed her photo, we traveled with eight other families who were also receiving their daughters. We went through security checks at the airport like we had never seen. Suddenly the world was in a panic and everyone looked suspicious. People were still nervous and jittery, but it didn’t matter. The little girl with the rosebud lips was waiting for us, although at the time she didn’t know it. We flew across the ocean on a Chinese airline, landed in Beijing, did tourist sightseeing for three days, flew to the capital of Guangxi province, and received our daughter. She came to us in another conference room, handed gently into my arms by a teary-eyed orphanage worker. Over a week and a half, we bonded with Jin Heng Ling as we finished the adoption process in the capital city of Nanning, and the port city of Guangzhou. We left China on a Wednesday afternoon and as we lifted into the air, I looked at the city below and wondered when our daughter would return to see the land of her birth. Would she ever want to return? Would she care about the place where she was born and the culture that will always be part of her?

It has been almost ten years, and now it is time to return so that Alison can see China. And yes, she wants to see the place where she was born and lived for the first year of her life. We will leave next Tuesday for the trip of a lifetime – the second time around.