I stood in the back of Tess’s kindergarten classroom with the other proud parents and looked on as my 5-year-old daughter performed in the class’s “holiday show”. Her part was a simple song with just a few lines and hand movements to go with it. She didn’t know all the hand movements… just like the other children. She didn’t know all the words… just like the other children. She was half the weight and height of the other kindergartners. And she wore a huge smile the whole time. But she stood there with the others so happy and proud… just like all the other children.
Unlike the other kindergarten parents, my tears rolled. Little tears in the beginning, then it moved into the big cry. As if she were my first child… and not my 6th. I cried happy tears because, you see, she was just like all the other children.
As she sang, all I could think about were the days just after Tess was placed in my arms, half way across the world. 12 months old, so tiny and malnourished. I was so so scared. Every what if and worst case scenario rolled through my head back then. Over and over again. We were prepared for a baby who had been institutionalized. But we made a purposeful decision to adopt a young child that would escape the effects of long term institutionalization. We thought we were prepared for the worst case scenario… until the worst case scenario was in our arms. We were not at all prepared for the child we were given. A child that was completely shut off. For months. A child that fell asleep in a second to escape her reality. A child that felt most comfortable alone in her crib with the door shut. A child that fondled the texture of the wall paper for an hour. A child that would rather stare at a blank wall than make eye contact with us. A child that had so little physical strength, yet used it all to wriggle from human touch.
Those first few days were so scary that we called our international adoption doctor back on the other side of the world. Was this normal? Were we looking at a lifetime of care? Would this get better? Of course he had no concrete answers.
But during that middle-of-the-night emergency phone call 4 1/2 years ago, the doctor did tell us this. For a child of her circumstances, her behavior was not unexpected. And even though there could be a host of possibilities that might cause such behaviors, it might be overcome with lots of work and therapy and time and love.
I could do that. How long we asked. Strangely he mentioned kindergarten. Maybe by the time she reaches kindergarten she could overcome her “turned off-ness.”
He said the words that I was desperately and unceasingly praying to hear… she might possibly overcome it. Her healing might be possible. I didn’t care how much work it would require. How much prayer I would need to say. How much therapy we would do, or how long it would take. Her healing was a possibility, and I committed absolutely anything to get her there. I didn’t care if she needed life-long care or had permanent disabilities. If there was a possibility that my daughter could be in a regular ol’ classroom, in kindergarten or later, I’d gladly accept it all. If she could be just like the other children.
And that was the image I kept in my head, our daughter just like the other children. It kept me going.
So there I stood in her classroom 4 1/2 years later and watched her sing every 4th word with hand gestures that were 1 step behind. And I was the proudest mama ever! The moment I had kept as a goal all those years was now upon me. There she was, a plain ol’ kindergartner with all the other children, and just by looking you’d never know otherwise. And the tears rolled down my cheeks in sheer gratitude to God for how far we had come. The best Christmas present ever.
Take that 6 therapy sessions a week for 2 years.
Take that early intervention for 4 years.
Take that physical therapy, speech therapy, occupation therapy, and cognitive therapy.
Take that doctor and counselor that said my daughter was likely autistic.
Take that pediatrician that so nicely handed us the brochure So Your Child has Autism.
Take that counselor that showed me diagrams of what an atrophied brain looks like after neglect.
Take that representative from the state that mentioned the possibility of local institutionalization.
Take that IEP that is pages upon pages long.
Our work together is far from done. But I no longer have any fear for what is in Tess’s future. It has been replaced with joy. And overwhelming unbridled pride for my daughter that has come so far. It is the best Christmas present ever.