I’ll never forget the morning I found my daughter Ava and son Daniel huddled around the family computer. The screen was blocked by their two heads…
“Whatcha doin’?” I inquired.
They both turned around to reveal a waiting child adoption site that they had been scrolling through. “Mom, look at this little girl… isn’t she precious?”
As I unwind this story — I’m not sure where the thread to finding Ella began. Perhaps it was when I was a little girl and grew up hearing about missionaries Gladys Aylward and Hudson Taylor and longed to adopt some day from China. And this thread was certainly intertwined with our son Daniel’s thread. He was adopted at age 8 from Guatemala and, although we love him just as much as our biological children, he sometimes felt like the odd man out. One day after looking at some family photos he said, “I don’t match.” We had talked about adopting again but those three words were what turned ponderings into a plan to move forward.
Guatemalan adoptions had closed but as we looked to add another to our family, the children of China shared the same beautiful dark hair and eyes that our Daniel had. As we completed our home-study and dossier we were surprised with an after-40 pregnancy and our adoption plans were put on hold. But the kids had remembered our agency telling us that once this baby was born and was a year old, we could pursue adoption again.
And so on this morning that my kids were looking for potential siblings via the internet our 5 children included Olivia (then age 15), Ava (12), Daniel (10), Brady (7), and Victoria had just conveniently celebrated her first birthday.
And so I looked at the photos and video of this then 3-year-old girl on the other side of this world and wondered if she was ours. After reading her file, we knew without a doubt that she was.
And so began the dance of adoption — that routine known only to adoptive families that starts in a frenzied choreography of paperwork and appointments and settles into a slow waltz of waiting and wondering.
I’ll never forget that first home-study appointment for Ella. This was our second time to adopt so I must confess to my ignorance in thinking I was a seasoned veteran.
Social worker: “So do you understand the issues you might encounter adopting a child from an institutional setting?”
Me (internal thoughts only… I promise): “Lady, I have a PhD in attachment parenting from the University of Bedside Table Reading. And to be honest, most days it is my ‘non-institutionalized’ children who give me a run for my money.”
Social worker: “Do you understand the challenges that can come from adopting an older child?”
Me: “We have already adopted an 8-year-old boy from hard places. We are currently adopting 24-pounds of cute… not sure she is in the weight/age classification for the ‘older child’ warning.”
Social worker: “Do you understand the issues that can come from adopting out of birth order?”
Me: “I have fought and won the Battles of It’s Not Fair, You Love Them More Than Me, and You’re Not My Real Mom. Hold my beer sweet tea. I’ve got this.”
But it was the last question that sprinkled doubt on my confidence.
Social worker: “Are you prepared for the difficulties you will face as you parent a child with physical disabilities?”
You see, Ella was born with myelomeningocele — the most severe form of spina bifida — as well as many secondary problems including clubbed feet and scoliosis. Doctors told us that she would most likely be wheelchair dependent by the time she was 7 or 8.
Me: “No, I’m not prepared. This child was born with a medical condition that I can’t spell or pronounce. I can barely change a Band-Aid without getting queasy and almost fainted when my first newborn lost her umbilical stump.
She will need surgeries and therapies that will take time and there’s already no margin in my day with my other five kids. But we already love her and feel she’s waited long enough for a family. We will just have to trust that God will equip us a day at a time.”
On September 2, 2013, we held our daughter for the first time and began the dance of becoming a family. We knew early on that she would be so easy to love. We also knew early on that her physical and emotional needs would bring us to the foot of the cross in ways we had not yet encountered with our other 5 children.
But God in His goodness knew Ella needed a buddy — a sister who would keep me from parenting Ella defensively. My inclination is to want to protect her from any activity or situation that might cause her frustration or disappointment, but having a sibling so close in age has forced us to parent her in a world without assuming limitations. While we had thought Victoria was a surprise detour in our plans to adopt again, she was actually the guide we needed to keep us from limiting Ella’s potential.
They became fast friends and partners in crime earning the nicknames Thelma and Louise or Ethel and Lucy depending on the adventure. They loved wearing matching clothing and told people they were twins. But as they grew this dance between sisters — one typically developing and the other not – becoming more challenging.
One example is when they attended the same sweet preschool which had an after-school ballet/tap program. They both wanted to do it so badly and so I modified little ballet and tap shoes to accommodate Ella’s AFOs (leg braces). They enjoyed the entire year of dance classes together so it took me by surprise when Ella fell apart the day of the recital.
As I was getting them ready for the big night, Ella began to get quiet. Then tears began to roll down her face, then a melt-down turned into rage. This storm went from Category 1 to a 5 in a matter of minutes and it didn’t look like Hurricane Ella was going to blow over any time soon.
It was the dance of brokenness — equal parts anger and sorrow. She was about to perform in front of an audience of strangers in a body that didn’t move like the others.
She would later tell me that she was afraid everyone would stare at her because she was different or laugh at her if she fell down. She was a little girl wresting with adult-sized pain the only way she knew how. I hated this dance — so raw and chaotic — I became her partner in trying to calm her down. But like a person drowning — the one being rescued began to drown the rescuer.
I frantically called my husband who was picking up the older kids from their activities and had planned to meet us at the recital. We discussed what we should do, but he was too far away to help. Had it only been Ella I could have just said: “Forget the recital. Let’s get ice cream instead.” But little sister Victoria was standing in the doorway of their room in tears — dressed to dance in a recital that was quickly approaching — torn between being upset for her sister and sad that she was about to miss her own special night.
My then 10-year-old son Brady came to their bedroom to see what was going on. I guess the screaming down the hallway was a clue that ballet photos weren’t going to happen. Brady suggested what I should have thought of an hour before. “Mom, we need to pray.” As we covered her in prayer, she calmed down. She still wasn’t herself but at this point I could at least reason with her. She agreed to go to the recital to watch Victoria from the audience but insisted that she didn’t want to dance.
But once we arrived she changed her mind. She actually worked up the courage to perform with the others on that little stage — such a huge victory in many ways. I moment I cherished assuming this would be the last time I’d ever see Ella dance.
On the drive home that night, her sweet voice came from the backseat. “Mom, I keep praying to God for Him to make my legs better. Why won’t he answer my prayers?”
I gave my best “God has a plan” speech but there wasn’t much wisdom in my words since I had been asking God the same question.
Fast forward to the following year when Ella was in first grade. A new school for both girls but they also offered an after-school ballet program through their arts program. My older daughters had also danced many years at this school and Victoria so badly to continue with ballet. But I knew it would be hard on Ella to watch little sister attend class each week without her and sit through recitals each year wishing she could be part of it, too. Ella insisted she didn’t want to do it but I knew in her heart she did – and was just being brave.
I had heard that a little girl in a wheelchair had done their ballet camp the summer before so thought perhaps they might allow Ella to be part of their program, too. I inquired and the director said they would love to have her in one of their classes. She flourished among the other ballerinas and promised not to panic this year when it was time for the recital. Her precious teacher Ms. Elizabeth carried her up 3 flights of stairs to get her to the stage for every rehearsal and one last time at the recital. It was such a remarkable accomplishment; such a proud moment for her.
I wasn’t sure if she would now want to retire those ballet slippers, but after that recital she said, “Perhaps God’s plan is for me to be a dance teacher to other girls who can’t walk.” I loved her courage but unfortunately for her she was about to have a major surgery (to add a rod to her spine to help straighten it). She was in a back brace and a wheelchair the first 8 weeks of the new school year and was not able to dance with the others. But she attended every class and watched her friends so she wouldn’t fall too far behind. She persevered through all of last year and once again she prepared for the spring recital.
One day on the drive home after class she was beaming, “Mom, I don’t want you to see any of my recital dance until the night of the performance. I want it to be a surprise.” Victoria added, “Mom, you are SO going to cry happy tears when you see Ella dance.” I loved the pride this little sister had for her older sister.
I did get a preview because I was the ballet chaperone for the last dress rehearsal and stood in the wings and watched my little girl wait for her turn to dance. Just as it was her moment to take the stage she looked back at me and smiled.
I was not fully prepared for the gift that I was about to behold — a dance to a song called “Brave” that her precious teacher Ms. Lorraine choreographed – with Ella as the center and her precious classmates alongside. Such maturity in these young ladies in how they have loved and encouraged her. This dance not only included Ella but it celebrated her exactly how God had made her.
Our family got to watch it from the audience the following night. All of us sitting together, and crying all kinds of ugly but celebratory tears.
There she was on grand stage in front of hundreds… the only one in a tutu with AFOs and arm crutches.
A dance of worship before her Creator… strength in the midst of weakness and beauty in her brokenness.
I don’t know what the future holds for her or how long she will continue to dance. As she grows, it becomes more difficult and exhausting for her to walk and she’s already begun to choose using her wheelchair more and more for longer distances. But she will always have that night – and that reminder that God’s plans are so much better than our own.
We recently took a family trip to the beach. On our last night, our son Daniel watched Ella stare out into the ocean. He said, “Ella, give me your ballet pose,” and took this photo.
I can’t help but get weepy at the sight of this warrior princess looking out into the ocean. Everything in her life seems to be this vast and deep and overwhelming… yet she is not afraid.
I’m grateful that I get to be the mother of such a miracle and to have a front row seat for the dance that is her life.
– guest post by Katherine: blog || Facebook