In 2011, our family looked like this. We were considered a large family by our friends and family.
Dan and I had been married for 27 years at this point.
We had been through a great deal during those 27 years. Our twin boys were born prematurely, three months before their due date. Our son Kyle passed away at five days of age. His brother Codey had many severe complications of prematurity, eventually going home after more than a year in the hospital, with a tracheostomy and home ventilator.
During this time, Dan decided to become a doctor. We spent many tough years with medical school, residency, and fellowship living in an old trailer complete with the hideous ‘70s décor. I still see orange shag rugs and avocado appliances in my nightmares. Despite the stress, many surgeries, and Dan’s training schedule, we added two more children (Zach and Cassie) to complete our loving, happy family.
Rewind to 1999, quite unexpectedly, Dan fell in love with a dying baby and we leaped into the world of adoption. The baby was born with a complex heart defect which was often fatal, even with surgery. Prospective adoptive parents backed out, and the little girl had a withdrawal of support order written.
She was Dan’s patient and he just couldn’t write the order. He had developed a case of “love at first sight”. We took the leap, and our little Hope survived multiple surgeries and is now a beautiful 17 year old.
After our crash course in adoption, further adoptions were always in the back of our minds. Finally, in 2011 we decided, “If not now, when? If not us, then who?”
Were we old? Yes. But Mary Beth Chapman’s daughter’s words “Is it better for an orphan to have an older mom or no mom at all?” stung. Our lives had prepared us for hard things. God had given us the experiences, resources and skills to care for more children.
As we opened our hearts to God’s direction, we saw children, many children, fragile and complicated children – all needing parents. So again we took the leap – all the way to China.
We set out to adopt one child. We purposely chose to mark many things on our adoption agency application “Medical Conditions Checklist” (MCC) that we thought others might not check. We were matched relatively quickly with a sweet little girl who happened to be deaf.
Our agency then called us to let us know that “by the way, China was allowing parents to adopt a second child at the same time from their special focus list”. Hope wanted us to adopt a little boy with a heart defect and we started praying to find the little boy that we had nicknamed Tigger.
Ben had a complex heart defect that would have been repaired in the first week of life in the US. That isn’t how it worked in the orphanage. Several years later Ben was still extremely blue and unrepaired. Cardiologists reviewed his file and said it was too late; he was beyond the window of time for repair. There was nothing that could be done. We decided there was one thing we could do, which was give him the love of a family for the duration of his short life.
A few days after receiving Ben, we visited his orphanage. It was a very nice, modern building with cute paintings on the wall, expensive and barely used play equipment, barbed wire on the walls around the building. It was filled with hundreds of children but was as silent as the tomb.
Ben was terrified as soon as we entered. He refused to go to anyone at the orphanage and held on to Dan for dear life. He wanted nothing to do with the people who had cared for him for over three years of his life. His response shook us.
If we didn’t understand it before we did now, an institution is no place for a child to be raised.
We wouldn’t be home long before we decided to adopt again. We were both troubled by what we had seen, and so happy to have these beautiful little souls as our children. I think I knew before our plane landed that we would be going back. This time it took just a bit longer for Dan to be on board. His words went something like this. No… Maybe… And then one day he let it slip that we would need to make sure our cell phone plan was checked out before we head to China next time.
During this time Dan was learning a great deal about China, adoption, and the fate of special needs orphans. He developed some connections with doctors in China and consulted on some of these complex children.
As we started up the second round of adoption paperwork it seemed to rain children. A little girl with a metabolic disease that may be hard to place? Sure. We can do that.
A little boy that had an inoperable heart problem? Love at first sight. But because his paperwork had not yet been filed, it slowed the process dramatically.
As we worked on the morass of paperwork our adoption agency sheepishly sent us a file on another blue baby. This little girl had a single ventricle, was very tiny, blue and not likely to survive much longer. I refused to look at the file because I didn’t want to say “No” to her little face.
Dan read her file and even though everything in it told him to run the other way after much prayer the only words he could say were “Why not?”
I had seen Eli’s face and knew that he was our son but, because it was unsure when and if his paperwork would ever get done, we decided to proceed with Evie’s adoption. Evie didn’t have much time.
Dan and I had said many times in our adoption discussions that we would only take small children. The older kids were too psychologically complicated, would have more cultural and language issues than the little ones, etc.
And God laughed.
During our complicated “adoption paper pregnancy” Dan and I both read on the Love Without Boundaries about a sweet 13 year old girl who was “aging out” at 14 (no longer eligible to be adopted). I can’t explain the overwhelming emotional response we had when we saw her picture.
Despite our concerns about older children, we asked China for special permission to adopt a third child and they gave their approval.
Six weeks before we were set to travel, we were told that Eli’s paperwork was ready.
We asked China for permission to bring him home on the same trip.
Four at one time. They don’t do that.
But they did.
Due to the severity of his heart condition, and all the extra help we had at home, they agreed to send Eli home with us.
Those weeks in China we were in survival mode. Evie was much sicker than we thought with oxygen saturations in the high 40’s. At the age of 26 months she was unable to sit by herself or crawl.
We thought that our 13 year old Jasmine was in a wheelchair due to a spinal problem. Once we met her, Dan knew immediately that she had a severe neuromuscular disease, something much more complicated than we were expecting.
Lainey had a metabolic disease, as expected, but was having frequent seizures and showed severe delays and autistic like behavior… not the child we were expecting that “just needed a specialized diet for phenylketonuria”.
The only child not having issues was Eli, the child who we had been told was the sickest. He was just mildly blue and a bit cranky.
We thought we were done adopting until Jasmine started asking us to adopt another aging out girl. We started the process to adopt an aging out girl who ultimately decided to stay in China. During this time we saw Elyse’s pictures and began the process to bring her home.
We would ultimately add a second child, Max, who had the same condition as Maisey.
After being home for about six months, Elyse saw a little girl’s picture and knew instantly it was her sister. Dan and I drug our feet avoiding what we knew to be true – this little girl was our daughter.
We proceeded with her adoption knowing that she would most likely one day need a kidney transplant.
Then we added a second child, Liam.
And our family was complete.
Over and over again I am asked “How do you do it?”
They are for the most part really good kids. Whenever we are out people always comment about how happy they are. They all love each other and help each other. I often stand back in amazement and am overwhelmed by the love I see them share.
I don’t know how it works but it does.
Every day I look in the faces of children who have overcome unbelievable odds and have the sweetest hearts that you could hope to find.
Yes, there is trauma. Yes, there are hearts that need to be healed. Yes, there is sometimes drama. How could there not be? We have teenagers in the house.
But there is hope for children who were without hope. There is great worth in children’s lives that were told they were worthless. Our children know they will never be alone again. There are milestones to be celebrated and miracles to be praised.
Every single day I look into the faces of children that should not be here. Children that should not be healed but they are. Children who most certainly would have had horrible outcomes had they stayed in the orphanage but now live happy, loved lives.
Every single day of my life I am greeted by these miracles with a “Good morning mama! I love you!” Hugs are shared throughout my day and every night I go to bed with a hug and a good night kiss.
I may not know exactly how it works but I am forever grateful for these blessings that call me mama.
Had I listened to the words of the world I would have missed this.
Jasmine would have aged out of the orphanage at 14 and would go to an adult institution where it was survival of the fittest. For a child who is unable to move, this was a death sentence. She is now 17 and gets to go to school, drive her power wheelchair, and writes a blog where she hopes to help others understand what orphanage life is like for children in wheelchairs.
Jasmine’s dream is “A family for every child.”
Lainey (6) who had frequent seizures, raged and raged, beating her head on the wall or the floor for hours and hours every day is now the happiest, most loving child you could ever hope to meet.
Benjamin (8) who we were told could only have palliative care for his heart defect and pulmonary hypertension, had his final heart surgery this past May. He is now considered completely repaired and is doing wonderfully.
Maisey (6) who was found by New Hope Foundation at the age of six months weighing six pounds is now a happy six year old. She has been fitted with a hearing aid and is an amazing little “mama’s helper” with the sweetest personality around.
Elijah (5) who had no hope of treatment in China, had a successful 14 hour unifocalization surgery by Dr. Hanley at Stanford University. Dr. Hanley has pioneered and perfected this specialized procedure and we were so thankful that the best surgeon in the world for Eli’s problem was able to do his operation.
His heart is completely repaired. Eli is doing fantastic and even took a kid’s ninja warrior course last month. He is the cutest little guy who is naturally athletic and has killer dance moves.
Evie Faith (5) who we were told would have only lived another month or so had we not brought her home has completed her single ventricle repair surgeries and is pink and feisty.
Evie has shall we say, a big personality. She will probably be voted “most likely to rule the world”. She brings so much laughter and joy into our days.
Max (7) who was adopted at the age of 6 with no language and almost feral behavior is now signing and learning how to write his name. The boy who once sat in the corner spinning toys is now playing well with his siblings and signing for hugs throughout the day.
Elyse (11) who believed she was worthless because she was in a wheelchair now believes she can accomplish anything. She is smart and beautiful and kind and amazing. She has a bubbly personality and makes everyone feel welcome.
Liam (6) is handsome and charming and slowly adjusting to his life in America. He was well cared for by his foster parents and has had a harder time adjusting to life here. Liam unfortunately had foster parents who taught him to belittle girls and people in wheelchairs or with cognitive issues. He has had to “un-learn” these biases which has been a painful process.
Liam has learned to care for his siblings and he has learned that girls in wheelchairs are pretty darn amazing, and a bit feisty if you cross them.
This has been difficult for us, as it reminds of how our kids were treated in China. It has brought forth a number of painful memories from the kids about their time in the orphanage – memories that have been shared and weigh heavily and darkly on a parent’s heart.
And last but not least, dear little JJ (Jessica). JJ was so shut down when we met her a year ago. She was admitted to the hospital the first week we were home for electrolyte imbalance due to her kidney failure.
She weighed 24 pounds at the age of 8. Despite the medical issues, JJ has truly come to life. She has blossomed. Her beautiful and sweet personality finally has a safe place to bloom. She loves having a family.
She still is overcome at times by the simplest things.
A wheelchair – tears. She was told she wasn’t worthy of a wheelchair in China.
A doll house – tears and confusion. “Why would you spend money on me mommy?” Because we love you.
She has come so far. The joy on her face is breathtaking. She will need a kidney transplant and life still holds many uncertainties but she knows she is fiercely loved and will never be alone again.
Dan and I just celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary.
Zach and Cassie are now married.
We have our first grandchild, Nicholas.
Every day at our house is filled with thanksgiving. Every day is filled with little faces that have beat the odds. We have been blessed to see miracle after miracle in our children’s lives.
Our life has been so much more than we had ever imagined it could be. It has held much pain, but even greater love. Faith, love, and a whole lot of laughter with a whole lot of little people. It doesn’t get much better than that.
– guest post by Lisa Ellsbury