What are you afraid of?

I’ll never forget the first time I saw my son’s face. The magnetic smile, the cocky pose, the peace sign. Something about him spoke to us; spoke to us so strongly that despite not planning for this adoption at all, we suddenly found ourselves adopting. His paperwork said that he was smart and outgoing, well-adjusted and friendly. Our agency, based on their experience with this orphanage, felt confident that he’d been in foster care since infancy, something that reassured us, considering he would be almost four years-old at the time of adoption.

Months of waiting passed with nary a glitch. One late night, I found a blog with pictures of our son’s orphanage. I’d seen plenty of pictures of the fortress-like exterior of the buildings, but had seen very few of the interior. Adoptive parents are never allowed to take photos inside, but for whatever reason, this particular heritage tour shown on the blog was given the rare opportunity to bring in cameras. I eagerly scanned through the photos, not because our child was there, because I knew he was in foster care in a village in the countryside, but because he’d spent his first months there. When these photos were taken, he would have been two years old, the orphanage walls a distant memory.
I quickly clicked through pictures of adorable infants and smiling workers and then suddenly I gasped. There he was. My son. Without a doubt, it was him. He wasn’t smiling like he was in the referral photos. Frankly, he looked….I couldn’t even think of the right adjective …..hardened? Can you even use that word to describe a two year-old?

I went upstairs, crying, to my sleeping husband. “He’s in the orphanage, ” I told him. “This whole time he’s been in the orphanage. ” The feeling of total assurance that I’d had when I first saw his referral photo was quickly slipping away. “I don’t know if we can do this,” I sobbed. “If we can be all he’ll need us to be.” My husband sat up, realizing that I was very serious. “Of course we can do this,” he said. “Were we planning on adopting a child who’s already living in a perfect situation?” My husband can be rational like that, even past midnight.
What kept me awake that night and several nights after was the question WHY? Why had he lived at least two years in the orphanage when almost all of the other children had left for foster homes as babies? Is there something wrong with him? Is there something they’re not telling us?
I contacted the owner of the blog. She was very sweet, but said she couldn’t remember him specifically. She did have another friend though, who was also on the tour, and she sent me her e-mail address. I contacted her right away and included our son’s photo. Did she remember him? Could she see any reason why he was still there? Did he seem O.K.?
The next morning, she’d e-mailed me back and included several photos. The first one cheered my heart considerably. There was the smile. There was our boy.

She ended her e-mail with a link to her blog so I could see her other photos from the trip. On the blog, I again saw the pictures of our son, but this time I also saw the woman’s comments that she’d written back in 2009. Under one photo she wrote, “I could have taken this one home.” With motherly pride I thought, of course she could have. He’s adorable. Then, under another picture, I literally rubbed my eyes, sure that I was seeing things incorrectly. She’d referred to him as, “a less-affected mentally handicapped child.” This was not his special need. This was not even hinted at in his referral information. Was his referral complete fiction? Could I trust any of it? Who was this child we were adopting and why had he been kept at the orphanage?
I called the blog owner, a kind woman with a huge heart for adoption. I asked her about the comment and she said that looking back on it, he didn’t seem mentally handicapped at all, but she’d written that because he was in a room that she’d been told was for mentally handicapped children. We talked for a long time and I was reassured. To a degree.
I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t tell my husband anything about this. I can’t believe I didn’t tell the boy’s father that he might be intellectually stunted. Maybe forever. I knew the feelings we’d had as we prayed about this little boy and I knew the doubt I was now feeling. I needed my rock to stay steady. Because for me, I was losing it. I thought horrible thoughts. Why did I tell everyone about him? Why did I have to post his picture and call him ours? If I hadn’t done that, maybe I could quietly step away and go back to our normal life. A life that didn’t include a son who might be a less-affected mentally handicapped child. And was it only to save myself embarrassment that I was following through? Is that any way to welcome a child into a family? Then I felt guilt. What was I afraid of anyway? Why wouldn’t I accept a referral for a mentally handicapped child? I knew others who had and they loved their children with a passion and were blessed to have them in their lives. I also knew that with every birth, every adoption, there was no guarantee of honor roll status or college graduation or even shoe-tying. And whatever the case, I knew we’d parent and love and cherish and adjust to a new normal.
I knew all that, but I didn’t tell my husband and I absolutely should have. As a parent, he had a right to know. I also could have contacted our agency and asked for more information from the orphanage. I composed many partial e-mails doing just that but could never click send. First, I didn’t know if they’d give us an update, and second, I didn’t want to hear their answer. Deep in my heart, despite the doubts, I wanted to adopt him. I had fallen head over heels for the boy with the mega-watt smile and the image of him that I’d created. To question his mental capabilities, even to my own husband, felt like a betrayal of the boy I was already picturing at our breakfast table. I did ask our agency to find out where he was and if he was still in the orphanage. They said he had recently been moved to foster care, “to help him learn the ways of family life.” I took this to mean basic skills.

Then, through a series of events, I was able to meet a woman on-line who had recently adopted a 13 year-old girl from our son’s orphanage. I e-mailed them our boy’s picture to see if she knew him. The daughter jumped and squealed and called him “DiDi!” (little brother). She’d known him from infancy and even helped him learn to walk. I felt blessed to have this window into our son’s life, but didn’t think it was fair to ask a thirteen year-old using a hand-held translator to assess a three year-old’s mental potential. I did ask what I felt like was an innocent question, but one that would tell me a lot, can he talk? It was two weeks before I heard a response. I wondered if the mother was delaying her reply because she didn’t know how to tell me that he was very delayed. Finally when I heard back, she said that her daughter told her that he could speak very well for a small boy. To me, that didn’t sound like a mentally handicapped child. But still, the doubt had been planted.

We met our son a little over a month ago. He walked into the Civil Affairs Office, was introduced to us, and burst into hysterical sobs. He screamed loud and long that he did NOT want us. He kicked. He flailed. It was exactly what you’d expect a three year-old boy to do under the circumstances. I knew in my heart that he was just fine. I knew in my heart that no matter what his future potential, he was still just fine. The grieving boy in my arms was suddenly human, with all the talents and challenges of any human.

When he’d calmed down enough to sit next to me on the couch, he looked quietly through a photo book we’d made for him. He paused for a long time, staring at a baby picture, his baby picture.

In a tiny but clear voice, he spoke his very first words to his mother: “Shur boo shur wo?” Is that me? He was seeing himself in photo for the very first time, while for me, that’s the only way I’d ever known him. “Shur, shur ni,” I said. Yes, that’s you. It had always been him. Meeting him didn’t change that. He was and would be what he was meant to be. Suddenly, with that knowledge, the fear departed and love took its place.

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