A few months ago, I was visiting friends at the courtside of a pick-up basketball game happening in our church gym. Our children were playing in the out-of-bounds area at the opposite end of the court from the game, rolling a ball and engrossed in the kind of game toddlers contrive. At one point, without me noticing, the game moved from the opposite end of the court to our end, and at about the same time, my two-year-old little girl scampered into the middle of the court chasing after a wayward ball. I saw the impending disaster at the same time the men playing basketball did. They started yelling “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” to the man who was moving backwards at full speed towards my daughter, and he began desperately trying to stop his momentum. At the last minute he did – And instead of 175 pounds of adult male crashing down on my little gal, he sort of folded over her… still knocking her over, but managing to catch her at the same time. I knew what could have been a disastrous accident was averted by his quick reaction time, and she wasn’t hurt.
But that didn’t stop the terror from taking over her face nor silence the blood-curdling scream she let out… partly from the scary situation of nearly being trampled by a grown man and partly because the person there to pick her up off the ground wasn’t a face she knew.
My first response was, of course, to run to her and assure her that everything was ok. I could feel her heart pounding as she curled into my chest. She knew she was safe, and she quickly calmed down… even venturing a small smile to the man whom she had collided with. As soon as I knew she was OK, my thoughts turned to a very strange place. I kept seeing the look of terror on her face as she searched the crowd around her in the immediate aftermath of her accident – all men she didn’t know. The confusion and disorientation brought on by the scary situation made her momentarily forget where to find me, and I saw desperation painted on her face… desperation to find just one person she knew she could trust.
It only took about 5 seconds for me to make it to the center of the circle, but the expression on her face in those 5 seconds seared into my mind. For some reason my mind immediately jumped to a busy Chinese street, chaotic with a cacophony of horns and a perpetual traffic jam. I pictured a crowd of people huddled around an abandoned toddler… and when I imagined the terror and desperation, the confusion and disorientation — the utter fear painted on that child’s face — I saw the face of my daughter.
It isn’t the first time motherhood has given an electric shock to my heart for orphans. I remember in the early months after Cora was born realizing that the newest arrival at New Day Foster Home, where we worked at the time, was a little girl who was born on the same day as my daughter. At the time, motherhood still fresh and raw and aching in my own life, I wrote about Cora’s birthday sister – and my motherhood-sister. She was an unknown woman in the story, but a woman who I knew was going through the exact same things as I was at the exact same moment in the exact same country. Our bodies were healing, but mine did so while nestling a sweet baby girl near my heart. Her arms were empty. I didn’t know what circumstances led to the abandonment of her little girl, but I knew that as a mama, her arms must have ached for the heaviness of her daughter.
Now my daughter is a busy toddler… full of the funniest things. Hotels are “elevator houses,” she asks for her “comfy cozy” pajamas at night, she often tells us she’s “a little kinda hungry,” and when we clean out her ears with a q-tip, she asks to see her “ear poop” every. single. time. (And then chortles as she screeches “EEEWWW!” like she’s an 8-year-old boy.) These are the things of toddler-hood. And as a mama, one of my jobs is to gather them all up and tuck them into my heart. To treasure the little and the big. The silly and the profound. To value, love, nurture, and be able to tell embarrassing stories to future boyfriends. But around the world right now — from our own country to across the seas — there are millions of children for whom there is no remembrance. Fingernails that haven’t been clipped, diapers that haven’t been changed, first steps that haven’t been acknowledged, birthdays that pass by unannounced, and little ones who pass away without anyone remembering the exact date. The gulf between what my child has as a loved and treasured daughter — the birth-right of every child — and what an orphan experiences is more vast than my brain can comprehend.
As we wrap up the paperwork stage of our adoption process (dossier sent to our agency yesterday! Wahooo!!!), my mind is turning towards our future child more and more. I don’t know her name or how old she is. I don’t know if part of her childhood story will be standing alone as a scared toddler on a busy street corner. I don’t know if her mama got to nestle her in her arms for 1 minute or 1 month. I don’t know if anyone is celebrating, or even noticing, her first tooth and her first word and her first steps. But my heart is starting to ache as I think of all that she’s missing… of all that I’m missing… of all that her first mama is missing…
Any adoption starts in a tragedy. Whether it’s the tragedy of a newborn being tucked into a cardboard box and left on the steps of the hospital, or the tragedy of a terrified toddler turning in wild circles on a street corner, frantically looking for at least one familiar face – the start of every adoption is brokenness. As adoptive parents, we get to be part of the redemptive response to tragedy, but it doesn’t negate the brokenness. As we refine our medical conditions checklist and talk to specialists and consider what sorts of special needs we are most equipped to handle, I find the one that all orphans share – regardless of the physical condition of their bodies – is the one that gives me the most pause. And I’m praying and trusting that God is already at work in this process… comforting her first family, protecting our little one’s heart, and equipping our family to be an instrument of healing in her life.