The first time we adopted from China was nearly three years ago now, but it still seems like yesterday. I traveled alone to bring home a daughter that we knew had a severe Congenital Heart Defect. I had flown for over a day, stopped in Beijing for a whirlwind tour of a lot of sights that I hoped to commit to memory and tell my daughter all about someday. I took a cramped, hot, and much delayed in country flight to the capital of her province to adopt her. After all that, I spent one long sleepless night and a very anxious morning, pacing the floor of a cold and smoky hotel, waiting to go and meet her.
My guide explained that we would meet in the lobby at 11am to go to the Provincial Affairs Office to meet my girl. I will never forget what that building looked, smelled and sounded like when we arrived. It had an elevator, but it was broken. We had to climb five flights of stairs to get to the small room where we would wait. This province doesn’t do a whole lot of adoptions. Two years later, during a subsequent adoption, the room I would wait in would be jam-packed with thirty-some families. Not this time though. That first time, there were four other families in the room, two from somewhere in Europe, and three other families from the U.S. If you asked me to draw all their faces for you, even on this day, nearly three years later, I could. I remember everything about those moments leading to her.
I remember exactly where I was sitting in the room. I remember how many times I stood up anxiously as someone entered. Four. Four other families united with their new children before it was my turn. The guide explained that it was a long drive from my daughter’s orphanage to the capital. The drive had taken longer than expected. So, we would continue to wait.
Finally, it was my time. A man and woman entered the room carrying one very tiny girl. The man spoke quickly to the guide, and all of it became a blur. Where were my questions? This was my chance to ask all about her. I couldn’t remember where I had put them. All of the sudden, they were handing her to me. That was it? You’re giving her to me? They were! They were just giving her to me! After all this time, all this waiting, all this praying, she was in my arms. Too bad she hated me from second one.
She absolutely lost it as soon as they handed her to me. She screamed, cried, and clawed to get away. She did all of this until she turned blue. I panicked a little, asking the man and woman she had come with if this was her usual color. Does she usually sound like this? Does she usually change colors when she cries? They didn’t know. They didn’t know her at all. Turns out, they weren’t her caregivers at all. This was the only nanny available, who was traveling with the Orphanage Director, who had never met my daughter prior to today. They handed me some random medication that someone had prescribed for her at some point in time, and they left, promising to see me the next day for adoption day.
Now it all gets foggy. Now I don’t remember a whole lot. We ran around the city, taking some passport pictures, filing some paperwork to get her passport, doing “stuff” I didn’t really understand. She screamed. She screamed the entire time. Nothing I did comforted her. The guide kept trying to help, but honestly, she was only freaking me out. I kept telling her ‘She’s sick. Do you hear her breathing? It’s not okay. She’s really sick.’ The guide just kept telling me to give the random medicine and that if we needed a doctor, we could do that tomorrow. I just nodded, unable to do anything but agree at this point.
When we finally got back to the hotel, the guide said goodbye to us in the lobby and I nearly clung to her. Don’t leave me with this baby! This baby hates me! But, determined to do this myself, I bit my lip, said goodbye, and decided to get to know my girl. I rode in the elevator up to our room and tried to talk to her, hold her, sing to her, rock her. I checked her diaper. Dry. All day it had been dry. She refused the bottle for the next three hours. She’s going to get dehydrated. It didn’t help that she was, very literally, dressed in eight layers of clothing. I took all that off, bathed her, put her in fresh jammies, and tried to calm her again.
For the next four hours, all she did was scream. The manager of the hotel knocked on my door at one point, asking if I was all right. I muttered something incoherent, especially to someone who didn’t speak English as his first language, and I shut the door in his face. I wanted to be hated by my new daughter in private please. Just leave us alone.
Finally, she fell asleep, out of sheer exhaustion from screaming. She did it in the hotel crib all alone. She didn’t want to be rocked, or sung to. She didn’t want a nuk, or a story. She wanted to lie there and be left alone to fall asleep. At the age of almost two years old, she was so profoundly delayed that I watched her lie there, and I just sobbed. What was wrong with her? Would she always be this delayed? Was she brain-damaged? Maybe she had some other diagnosis I didn’t know about? Did she have some sort of syndrome? Was she only this delayed because she was dying? Or maybe she would always be this delayed? Maybe I would be parenting her for the rest of her life.
Had I just adopted a dying baby? Had I adopted a kid who would never live independently? What had I done?
She woke up several times that night, howling again. She was screaming and clawing to get away, just like when we had met. Every time she woke, the cycle would start again. She would scream until sheer exhaustion would set in. She would sleep fitfully, and then, when she woke, and saw my unfamiliar face, still there, she would scream again. In this dark hotel room, a world away from anyone I knew and loved, I was alone in this horrible nightmare. This was not the way this was supposed to go. This was supposed to be beautiful.
This was awful.
It was during that night though, as I paced the floor with this 14 lb two-year old, who was, at the time, indeed dying, that I decided, ‘You are mine now, and I am yours. We’ll get there, wherever ‘there’ is, and we’ll do it together.’ I decided to put one foot in front of the other, take it one step at a time, until I could go home. Then, when I got there, I would do it again, whatever ‘it’ was, one step at a time.
Once it had been decided, once the promise had been made during that first AWFUL night, I felt lighter. It was like the fog lifted. It was almost as if she could sense how I felt, and she started to open up a little too. Finally, for what was obviously the first time in her life, she had access to as much food, love and comfort as she needed. It showed.
She started to play. She sat up on her own. She started to blossom.
By the time we reached Guangzhou, for the last leg of our journey, she was becoming truly bonded to me. She couldn’t walk, crawl or roll over, but I could tell there was change. I could tell there was progress, and there continued to be progress, all the way through China, and once we were home.
She continued to blossom. This is Tess now.
She is now 4 ½ years old. She’ll head to 4-year-old Kindergarten next week. She walks now. She talks now. She will, hopefully, live independently one day.
Even if that hadn’t been the case though, even if she had been misdiagnosed, suffered brain damage, hadn’t progressed beyond babyhood, nothing would have changed. You see, on that first night, in the darkness, when that promise was made, when she was mine, and I was hers, that meant forever.
Those first few days of any adoption are scary. My experience isn’t everyone’s experience. It definitely wasn’t my husband’s experience when he traveled to adopt our 5-year-old son the following year. Sometimes though, the day you meet your child isn’t all happiness and beauty. Sometimes, it’s not at all what you envisioned at all. Sometimes, it becomes about just making it out of China. But, what if during that dark time, you made the promise? What if you told this child that they were yours, and you were theirs, and then you took it one step at a time? Would they open up? Would progress be made? Would they blossom?
I truly believe that the answer to that is always…yes.