A year ago today we had spent only one day with our daughter. After arriving in China, we spent 3 days in Beijing, visited the place she called Home for almost a year and met the women she called “mama”. Then we traveled to XinJiang, her province, tried to sleep on Gotcha Day Eve, and made our way to the Civil Affairs office in Urumqi on a sunny Monday morning. I had seen dozens of gotcha day photos and videos prior to our day; first moments of forever families in the lobbies of hotels, in front of gold or red words indicating a government office, and others in rooms filled with soon-to-be parents holding their breath. All of that giving way to tears in the moment they finally see their child face to face.
That isn’t what our day looked like. At all.
It just so happened that one of the miracles that occurred on Gotcha Day was that we were fifteen minutes early for our Civil Affairs appointment. In fact we were so early, the office wasn’t even open yet so we waited inside the van with our guide. After a few minutes our guide looked our the window and said, “I think your baby just arrived”. Narrowly avoiding whiplash, I spun my head around in an instant, looked to the end of the lot near the alley, to see a Chinese woman holding a small child.
I vaguely remember scrambling and scurrying to get out of the van. It was as if my very life hung in the balance if even an additional two seconds dared to come between me and my child. Once outside the van we saw them only about 50 yards away. After all this time of waiting, paper-pushing, planning, and travel – it really was her, all bundled up in a zebra-print fleece sleeper, followed by a fleece jacket with hearts, and pink stretchy hat.
For the year and three months prior I imagined what this day would be like. I had decided to casually walk into the building where our child would be waiting, breathing evenly and smiling as we rode the elevator up to meet our daughter. I imagined waiting in a room with other adoptive families, near bursting with excitement. Finally the door would open. I wondered if our baby would be first. I had every intention of remaining calm when I finally laid eyes on her so that I wouldn’t scare her or smother her with all of my pent up affection. I was certain I would remember every learned psychological reason to let her come to us in her time and woo her into my arms slowly and gently. I resolved to resist dumping my mothering all over her because she will be the only person among us who doesn’t know that I am her mother, and what feels like organized borderline kidnapping is legit.
Can you even imagine?
Somehow we made our way to her. A small gang of white people accompanied by one Chinese translator. I don’t remember my feet touching the ground. It would not surprise me one bit if there was video evidence of me taking flight from the van to the spot where she stood with the woman who brought her. I remember being in front of her, my eyes locked on her face, my smile reaching my ears, whole body shaking, and my eyebrows into my hairline as I barely squeaked out, “Hi Grace! Hi baby”…
…and the next thing I knew she was thrust into my arms by this sweet smiling woman, “Here is your baby!”
Then came the crying. The panic. The screaming and the blue lips, fingers, and toes.
We were in an alley, in the sunshine, surrounded by noisy traffic and a screaming cyanotic baby who had just been released from the hospital with pneumonia; and I could barely absorb that this child I had loved for almost a year – 5 of those months loving her as our daughter – was at last in my arms. I knew to expect her to cry because we were strangers. We didn’t look like people she was used to seeing, we didn’t smell like people she was used to smelling. We were all together different and unfamiliar. For the first time I heard her cry, panicked and distraught and then it turned into a scream. I still hear it when I remember that day. I hear her rattling, congested attempts at breathing, her tattered lungs from infection after infection after infection. I smelled the sweet but herbal scent of medicine. I see a terrified, traumatized, sick, confused, and oh so tiny 19 month-old. She was absolutely beside herself – and so was I. We were both terrified. She was afraid because she was losing everything she knew to be hers – and I was afraid that I was about to lose the daughter I just met but already so loved.
We had fear in common that day. We have fear in common a lot of days. The woman who handed her to me was from the orphanage that had not been home to Grace for almost a year. There was little to no chance of a relationship between them; and yet she clung to her as if she was her birthmother. Grace was desperate to be in her arms and once she turned a deeper shade of blue – I handed her back briefly to recover, for us both to recover. As she held Grace and tried to comfort her immediately Grace settled and stopped crying listening quietly as the woman said: “Why do you cry? This is your Mama and Daddy. It’s going to be ok” – all in Chinese.
Those moments were loaded both with terror and joy intermixed in the strangest way. Somewhere inside my soul was crying out and begging God to comfort her in ways I couldn’t and be what she needed until we could be, until I could be. Praying through the business of adopting and red fingerprint signatures, that He who created her heart would keep her broken heart stable through it all. In those first moments I was begging God that she would calm and survive this trauma, this necessary trauma. She is the only one who didn’t know this was the worst moment giving way to the best moments of her life. Her noisy breathing scared us all, but she was breathing. I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t breathe at all in those first moments with Grace.
Once we arrived to the civil affairs room in a tiny office with a desk and a couch the orphanage worker handed her back to us and the crying began again. We pulled out her bear from the foster home. No reaction. We pulled out toys and books. She didn’t care. Our teenaged daughter pulled out her ipad and the crying finally subsided. Flash card after flash card of pictures that she would recognize as babies or toys or fruits provided a common ground and she slowly began to accept us; a little bit here and a little bit there. I don’t even know if she accepted us in those moments, or tolerated our presence in order to have access to the ipad, to tell you the truth. I didn’t care what the reason. It was a start. It was the beginning, it was a step. After a very long day of steps forward and back and forward again, we returned to our hotel, a family of 5. We each survived Gotcha Day, and the days and weeks after.
Families begin in many different ways, don’t they? Some bathed in joy and answered prayer and others bathed in scary circumstances, hard hours, tragedy and life changing loss. I want to be a truth teller of adoption. I want to be a voice that says: It’s not always shiny and bright on Gotcha Day: hour one. It’s not always shiny and bright at the airport when you come home, or the first Christmas, or on day 366. But I’m here to tell you that if it cannot be shiny and bright, it can still be precious and treasured and beautiful in it’s own way. In 366 days we have had our share of ups and downs, good days and hard days, moments when the joy is so overwhelming we can hardly stand it, and moments when it’s so much harder than we imagined or expected.
That’s life. That’s earth. That’s the truth. It’s true about marriage, and biological children. It’s true about jobs and education, and aging parents. It’s true in times of tragic loss, and precious births, in answered prayer and funeral services. The things we live through that are the hardest, still hold opportunities for Joy. They can and often do produce treasured memories and reminders that we really can endure and heal from things that once seemed impossible.
One of the most healing things we can do for each other as we live our lives on this earth through joy and through hard things is to tell each other the truths about the hard things as much as we emphasize the joy. There’s power in admitting when things don’t always play out as they do in our imaginations. There’s comfort in a brave voice admitting, “Me too”. There’s healing in a hand resting on your shoulder that says, “I’ve been where you are and I know how it feels.”
366 days later, by God’s grace, our Grace is thriving. Perfectly pink fingers, toes, and lips and a heart that beats beautifully. She is attaching and bonding with family and friends. She is spunky, and affectionate. She is sassy and adequately able to defend herself (ahem). She is curious and clever and so very brave. She is an over-comer, a survivor, a warrior princess who wears her battle scar with honor and pride because she is first the daughter of the King of Kings and He brought her a family who loves her like crazy. Then He brought about healing and continues to transform her daily restoring beauty from the ashes of her loss. I doubt she has vivid memories of those first hours of our new family so I will keep them alive for her so that one day she will know what I know – In the first moments there was pain and there were tears – just like every time a baby meets their Mama face to face.
In the first moments it was scary – because she was already so loved and so desperately wanted.
In the first moments it was hard to breathe for all of us – just like when her big brother and sister were born.
In the first moments, just as He does today, God was there bringing calm to each of our souls, healing to our fears, and bonding us so deeply that 366 days later it seems like it’s always been the 5 of us.
It’s not always shiny and bright on Gotcha Day. Sometimes the most beautiful part of Gotcha Day is the healing that comes in the 366 days of that first year.
Healing is a beautiful thing to celebrate.