I just flew back from South Carolina. I went there to reunite my daughter with a friend that she had not seen in almost four years. The last time the girls saw each other, they were in an orphanage halfway around the world. The nannies who had raised them pressed the bewildered little girls into an awkward hug. At three years old, the girls didn’t understand that they were each being adopted – a year apart – to families in the U.S. All they knew is that they were saying goodbye.
Goodbye is how adoption begins; but, thankfully, it is not where it ends.
In the spring of 2008, my husband and I began our first adoption with all of the vigor and zealousness of first-time parents – that is to say, we were neurotic. We prepared for our first home study visit like we were expecting an attack. Checklists were followed; first aid items were dutifully purchased. If our social worker suddenly and without warning pulled back our duvet cover to determine our fitness as parents based solely on our bed-making ability, then we were ready. You could have bounced a quarter off of the bed – and us.
Between my husband and me, I’m the high-strung one. But the day of the social worker’s visit, my husband proved himself anxious for fatherhood. The social worker toured our kitchen and appeared ready to move on to the rest of the house, but, before he could do so, my husband stopped him. “Did you want to see our fire extinguisher?” Matt asked, appearing only slightly eager. I could not have loved him more.
The wait – from the day we applied to adopt until the day we met our son – was 891 days. Matt and I sat on the floor in a hotel room in Bangkok, Thailand with hands gripped in sweaty grasp. The door opened and in walked an 18-month-old little boy, wearing a too-small hat. He stopped almost in front of us, looked at the picture in his social worker’s hand, looked at us, and then pointedly avoided eye contact. We got his message loud and clear. We weren’t any better in person than we were in our photographs.
He was our introduction into grief and loss and longing – and to unfathomable love. The person I had previously been ceased to be the day he patted my cheek and said my name. He might not have been born to be my son, but I was born to be his mama.
It was on the heels of this that we decided to adopt a little girl with limb differences of all four limbs (her limbs are either absent or incomplete). Our journey to her was complicated. The unknowns didn’t just outnumber the knowns; they threatened to topple them. But trust, we began to understand, was fear’s sidekick, not its replacement part. Slowly our hearts began to comprehend how misguided our former “truths” had been.
In the lobby of the hotel where we’d met our son, almost two years later, we met our daughter. When I went to pick her up, her dark eyes filled with noisy tears. Her big brother reached up and patted her foot. “Don’t cry,” he told his new sister, “I’ll be your friend.”
If he had taught us about sorrow and trauma, then she taught us about resilience. She altered our daily existence: crisscrossing our days with occupational therapy, physical therapy, adaptive aids, a power wheelchair, and IEPs. Part of me marveled, how had we lived ignorant of these things before? But the other part of me cringed because knowledge comes at a price – and the cost was me.
It was during all of this that I would see a photo on a China waiting child photo listing. “Explorer” the caption above the adorable little boy’s profile read and, well, when you’re punch drunk and slap happy from a lack of sleep and non-stop doctor’s appointments that sounds… fun. “Explorer,” we would find out, is adoption-speak for a little boy with complex medical needs who has a panache for flushing the toilet – with his hand in it.
When we added him, even though our head count only increased by one, it felt like our ranks had swelled. He was the child we didn’t know we needed until we had him, and by then we didn’t know how we had ever lived without him.
Three times we’ve been tapped on the shoulder, and three times we’ve whipped our heads around and asked, “Who, me?” Three times adoption has been the most glorious and most grueling thing we’ve ever done.
Each adoption – with all of its procedures and waits – has depleted us of our ability to fully function like grownups. Each homecoming has felt a little post-apocalyptic. Each time we’ve grown our family, we’ve stretched and changed, often in ways previously unimaginable.
After three adoptions (one with an undiagnosed “correctable” need that has required extensive therapy and surgery and two “significant” special needs adoptions) and one month-long orphan hosting stint of a nine-year-old Chinese boy (who is still looking for a family), I had something to say – and much of it ran counter to what you typically hear about adoption (except here on NHBO, of course).
So I wrote a book, Beautiful Paradox: Musings, Marvelings and Strategies of a Special Needs Parent. The book is part how-to, part tell-all: How to handle the never-ending doctor’s appointments, the frequent surgeries, and the staring at your physically different child. The tell-all part is a raw look at what adoption and special needs does to your heart (and calendar).
The book is available on Amazon Kindle and is free today and tomorrow, September 15th and 16th.
Jessica Graham is a mom to three kids, ages 5, 6 and 7. People frequently don’t realize their children are adopted, and, given that the older two are only 9 months apart, Jessica’s husband enjoys the impression this leaves. Jessica tends to think this says more about him, than her. She writes about the art of everyday living at In Pursuit of Loud.