Our son Falcon’s adoption story began three years before he was born. We were in China adopting our first child, a baby girl, through the NSN program. Touring her orphanage, I remember cresting the top of the four flights of stairs, excited to hear the sound of little voices. We asked our guide if we could play with the babies. The director of the orphanage quickly said something to the nanny who, in turn, looked toward us with eyes cast downward as she closed the door.
“No. You cannot go in there because these children have some special medical problems.”
The shame on their faces imparted so much. What would it be like to grow up in a place where you were hidden away? As we were ushered down the hallway to the NSN baby play room, I remember whispering to my husband right then and there, “We’ll be back and we’ll do a special needs adoption next time.”
Four years went by, during which time we adopted our second and third children, both with special needs, through U.S. foster care. Our family was happy and thriving, but those kids in China behind the closed door had not stopped tugging at my heart.
I’d written our children’s names down in my prayer journal and added one more name to the list. I had envisioned adding a little boy with cleft lip and palate to our family. He would be called Falcon, and we’d keep his Chinese name as a middle name like we had done for our daughter. Since I didn’t know the middle name, out of the blue I wrote down Falcon Xin Bao.
Another year later, we sent in our application to adopt two children through China’s Special Focus program. We had fallen in love with a five year old girl we’d seen on an advocacy site. When we got her file, we learned that her name was Xin Ai. Wow. I had intuited half of her name “Xin”. We let our agency know that we also wanted to be matched with a little boy. We checked off many different special needs that we were open to parenting.
One month later we got the call. Would we be interested in a baby boy with a third degree cleft lip and palate? His name was Tian Bao. That was all I needed to hear. Bao. It was the second half of the name I had written a year prior (at a time when China had only been allowing the adoption of one child at a time)!
We opened his file to see a beautiful, stoic baby boy in a puffy blue snowsuit. He had the deepest, most soul-piercing eyes, a unilateral cleft lip and palate and a little squished nose and he was perfect!
In his file was a photo that we weren’t as prepared for, showing the inside of his mouth. His cleft was severe and complete. Later, our surgeon would share that it was one of the widest clefts he had seen in over thirty years of specializing in craniofacial plastic surgery. At the same time, he was very reassuring and confident that he could help our son.
One day during the wait, we received an update about our son that included a new photo. There he was, with his lip already repaired! Someone had done an amazing job! We’d later find out it had been repaired by Smile Train.
This was great news, as our doctors had explained that once the lip repair is done, it functions as a brace to bring the sides of the palate closer together.
We traveled to China and the day finally came for us to meet our son! He was so quiet and tiny, malnourished with a fever of 104 degrees. He looked exhausted, as if he had traveled seven thousand miles to get to us. He walked straight into our hearts. He clung to his Daddy like a baby koala.
Whenever his Daddy had to pry him off of his chest in order to take a shower, he cried and pounded his fists on the bathroom door of our hotel room. I vowed to put a smile on that face as soon as possible. It only took a dose of Tylenol and a couple hours with his family to make that happen!
In order to give Falcon time to bond, we waited seven months once we got home for his second surgery. This was to be his palate repair and placement of tubes in his ears (common among cleft- affected kids). He went in with a smile, as I choked back tears watching them roll him through the doors of the operating room. It was terrifying to bring a child all of this way and then have to let go and trust that he would recover.
It was Valentine’s Day and we couldn’t think of a better way to share our love than to have a lunch date in the hospital cafeteria waiting on our little guy to come out of surgery. This time, Falcon had a family right by his side the whole time. His big brother prepared him a bed on the couch and snuggled by his side as soon as he got home. My husband and I set up a mattress and took shifts.
Each of Falcon’s surgeries has been one overnight stay in the hospital. My husband and I alternate who stays over with him because it truly is great bonding time. His surgeries have been spread about two years apart.
Next was a palate lengthening surgery, and then a bone graft. The bone graft ended up being a little bit tougher because they took the piece of bone from his hip, which hurt more than his mouth! This kid is an amazing warrior and always bounces back within three days of surgery. Good pain management and lots of ice cream go a long way!
The hardest thing for Falcon, and for us as a family, hasn’t been the surgeries; it has been the coping with his grief. For the first four years of his life, he struggled with speech apraxia. He didn’t have the ability to speak clearly. He had a lot of emotions trapped in there, and it was a frustration that I didn’t feel prepared for! He had severe tantrums between the ages of three and five.
One evening when Falcon was four years old (he’d been home two years at the time) my husband locked his keys in the car and needed me to meet him in his parking lot at work with the spare key. I loaded up the kids and we made the hour trip to deliver the key. Once together, we all went out to dinner at a nearby Chinese buffet. Dinner went the usual way with staff all whispering and gazing in awe at our mixed family of hungry kiddos.
When it was time to go, Falcon had followed my husband up to pay the bill. I came to fetch him on my way to the restroom because he was infamous for having to go potty at the most inconvenient times and I knew he wouldn’t last the hour ride. He refused. Using one of his only words, he said, “No,” very seriously. I went to take his hand, insisting. “No!” he said. So I picked him up and carried him to the restroom. He screamed bloody murder! It was out of place, and the stares were palpable.
We got to the restroom and he screamed the whole time in the stall scrambling like a frightened squirrel to get out. He clung to my legs for dear life. He was acting like I was taking him away forever.
Then the realization sunk in. He thought I was about to abandon him in the restroom while Daddy snuck out the door with the other children. I was broken for him.
At two years home, I had thought he was so secure in his family. Although his speech was only a few words by then, his receptive language was spot on. I knelt down and cupped my hands around his elbows, looked him in the eyes.
“Falcon, did you think I was going to leave you here?“
He peeped out the tiniest squeak of a “Yes,” his eyes brimming, his whole body shaking.
“I will never leave you Falcon, you are a part of our family forever. You are our little boy and we are Never going to leave you. We love you! You are coming home with us!”
He collapsed into me. I carried him out to the minivan and buckled him into his car seat, still whimpering. On the way home, all of the kids fell fast asleep, except for Falcon. He was a sentinel in fight or flight mode.
A thousand times he asked me wide-eyed, “Where’s Daddy?” And I’d point out Daddy’s tail lights in front of us. When we turned down our street and neared our driveway, Falcon started clapping and exclaimed one of his first words, “Home!” His voice was different, relieved, the fear had left it, and was replaced with a new and deeper trust and joy. “Home!” he repeated.
“Yes, Buddy, We’re home.”
After that, the little feeble, fearful boy vanished. Falcon became absolutely fearless. At five years old we went to camp and this pint-sized Spider Man was suited up and climbing the ropes course so high I had to hold my breath just watching him. His confidence soared.
Falcon also became a ladies’ man. At the restaurant where we frequently eat Sunday brunch, he charmed our favorite waitress. One day, he presented her with a plastic ring from the gum ball machine, and asked her to marry him. She played along happily, flattered that he didn’t mind she was fifty years his senior. Falcon’s beaming smile is recognized everywhere we go. He always makes a huge impression on people.
Something I never tire of is watching our children rally around one another. Our community pool has four sections. So far, being the youngest and smallest, Falcon had been swimming in the second section. He desperately wanted to gain the privilege to swim in the next section, which is over his head, without a life jacket. He knew in order to do this he would need to swim ten laps without touching the bottom of the pool. His big sister and big brother swam the whole ten laps, one on either side of him. With Falcon’s tenacity, and that kind of support, he can do anything he sets his mind to.
Although this article focuses on cleft lip and cleft palate, this special need is not Falcon’s identity any more than the root canal I just had, is mine.
Falcon is just a boy who happened to need some surgeries.
He is nine years old now and is preparing to get partial braces (as he’s missing two adult teeth). He still takes speech class, but can order his own food at the restaurant and is understood perfectly well. Falcon is full of joy, loves beating everyone at Monopoly, and training to one day win American Ninja Warriors. He likes watching PBS on his Kindle Fire and can floss like a boss. Falcon is very talented at building in Minecraft.
Falcon is the most adorable, caring, and obedient child. In third grade he was given an award for being the “Most Understanding”. We couldn’t be more proud of our son’s transformation. We are blessed to be continually witnessing the gift of him unfold.
And that Chinese name? It means Heaven Treasure. And that’s just what he is.
– guest post by Charmaine