Compelled to Help
When our second daughter, Nichole, was born, she surprised us by showing up with an extra chromosome. The diagnosis of Down syndrome was the hardest thing that Andy and I had ever faced as parents. We loved her immediately, of course, but there were endless tears and questions about her future.
Nichole would not be defined by her Down syndrome. Her natural joy and gentleness opened our eyes to the beauty of children who are often seen as broken or incomplete. She was just the child we needed.
We soon learned of the many special-needs children abandoned at orphanages in other countries. If not adopted by their fourth or fifth birthday, these children are sent to waste away at mental institutions. The thought of children being disposed of like old rags broke our hearts. Somehow, we had to help.
We intended to adopt another child with Down syndrome, but it was a little girl with cerebral palsy who stole our hearts.
We began the long, frustrating process of adopting from the Ukraine. Waiting on government bureaucracy is not easy when you're racing to adopt a child before her fourth birthday. But God directed our journey. Finally, we were told we could come pick up Nina.
We had created an imaginary portrait of Nina, based only on the photo we had. We were shocked at our first meeting. Nina seemed to have a mental disability along with her cerebral palsy. Could we handle her needs?
At first, Nina completely rejected me as a mother and would often ask for the orphanage workers. She would also seem to go into a trance when she felt insecure or overwhelmed. At night, she cried for two to three hours before falling asleep.
Other behaviors were difficult to understand. Nina would sometimes tie up her baby doll or scream when we buckled her into her car seat. As her English improved, Nina told us about how the orphanage workers would tie her to her crib when she misbehaved. While heartbreaking, this has helped us understand our daughter. We hold her close and reassure her of our love.
Before we met Nina, we felt like we loved her as much as our other children. But we needed to get to know the real Nina. Adoption is a process of falling in love, and falling in love is beautiful and difficult.
Sometimes, as Nina eats or plays with her sisters, Andy and I will look at each other with the realization that she really does belong. We face challenges every day, but through it all we witness a little girl finding great pleasure in having a family.
Earning Their Trust
We began our adoptive journey the same way many parents do — we wanted children, but we struggled with infertility. We adopted our first son, Jeremiah, as an infant. A few years later we were living in Haiti, so we adopted a 4-year-old boy, Wesly, from an orphanage.
Adopting a little boy was different from adopting an infant. Wesly had been supervised, but not parented, so he had developed an aggressive "pack" mentality to deal with orphanage life. We invested a lot of time teaching Wesly how to play nice — no grabbing toys out of another child's hands or browbeating others into doing what he wanted.
At the orphanage, Wesly was only given two meals a day, usually rice and beans. When he arrived home, Wesly often wanted to raid the kitchen after bedtime. We had to teach him that his needs would always be met, that there was no longer any reason to hoard food or overeat.
Years later — our hands still full parenting active boys — we considered a third adoption: a pair of teenage sisters who had spent nine years in a Mexican orphanage. The government was pressuring the director to move the girls into a home, and there was concern that they might be adopted for the wrong reasons. These girls needed to be rescued. We talked it over as a family. Surprisingly, the boys were excited about the idea.
Having never experienced protective and loving authority figures before, Margarita and Maria were very suspicious of adults. They would often lie to us, or, when angry, say they wanted to go back to the orphanage. We've had to painstakingly build these girls' trust in us as parents. We keep stressing to them that we are in this for their sake, that we are their family. There are still difficult days, but our daughters' hearts are healing by the knowledge that their family is never going to leave them.
A Clear Calling
We were stunned to learn that there were children in our own state, indeed in our own neighborhood, who were trapped in foster care awaiting adoptive families. My husband, John, and I had long been passionate about adoption, but learning about these needy kids gave us a clear calling. Over the next eight years, we brought home four children — two girls and two boys.
Of course, just because God has called you to something doesn't mean it's going to go as you might expect or hope. We have had many challenges with connection and bonding and with other behaviors that accompany children who have experienced neglect or abuse. But we recognized early on that we couldn't isolate ourselves. We cried out to God. We sought help from family, friends and even professionals.
It's interesting how our perspective on parenting has shifted. We've learned that often the most effective way to deal with our kids' upsetting behavior might appear to be overly compassionate, running against our "normal" parenting instincts. But I'm always reminding myself that I'm dealing not so much with defiance in need of discipline, but pain in need of healing.
Beauty From the Broken
I have a pink plastic bag from Frankie's birth mother. As she was dying, she packed a few items for her week-old son. Clothes, baby powder, a brush and comb. There is also a bottle of used perfume, given so that Frankie would always know how his mother smelled. That perfume reminds me of the journey that brought Frankie into our lives.
After our first daughter, Emma, was born, Dave and I battled infertility for three years. Finally, the doctors said they couldn't help us. The news, though devastating, gave me a strange peace because I knew that adopting a child was in our future. But in a shock to everyone, I found out I was pregnant with our second daughter, Izzie.
But our desire to adopt never disappeared. In 2008, I returned to Haiti, a country that had captured my heart years earlier on a missions trip. This time I fell in love with the orphan children. When I returned home, we started the adoption paperwork, and were soon matched with Frankie, a little boy I had met while touring the orphanage.
Adoptions from Haiti can take up to four years to finalize. Knowing that it would be a long time before our son could physically be with us, we began creating space for Frankie in our lives through conversations and stories, pictures and prayer. We committed to visiting him twice a year. We also connected with others who would be taking trips near Frankie so they could bring him gifts and relay our love.
We were two years into the adoption process when the massive earthquake rocked Haiti. The U.S. government quickly granted Haitian orphans humanitarian parole. We were overjoyed to learn that we could now fly to Orlando to pick up Frankie.
I often wonder what Frankie's birth mother would think of the journey her son has been on. The earthquake focused the world's attention on the poverty, death and destruction, but it also brought to light the many missionaries and organizations that had been heroes long before the earthquake. Frankie's arrival under such tragic circumstances is a testimony to the reality of redemption — that beauty can be made out of what's broken.
Grief and Joy
You can't escape the bitter sweetness of adoption.
When we adopted our third daughter, Ava, her birth mom wanted us involved in the baby's life from the beginning. So when Ava was born, I stayed in the hospital for two days, caring for Ava and visiting with her birth mother, Kelly. It was a precious experience. But there was also this constant, underlying reality that our time at the hospital would soon end and Kelly would say goodbye to her baby. So in the middle of the bottles and diapers and the sweetness of a new baby, there was grief.
At times, this gut-wrenching sadness hit us like a Mack truck. I would ask Kelly if she wanted me to step out so she could spend some time with Ava. "No," she would say. "I like it when you're here." So I would put my arm around her and watch her cry and wonder if it caused more pain than good.
Right before we left the hospital, Kelly held Ava close, soaking her tiny face with tears. She handed her to me and hugged me at the same time, saying, "Thank you. Thank you."
"No," I said. "Thank you."
Our tears mixed together and covered Ava's little body.
To me, it seemed like the perfect picture of adoption — two mothers, covering this precious baby with tears of grief mixed with gratefulness for the gift they received from each other.
In a short time, my husband and I went from being a childless couple on fertility drugs to a family of five. Our first child was a 6-day-old baby who had been abandoned at the hospital. We named him Joe. Within the next two years, Kimarie and her half-sister, Carolyn, also joined our family.
Life became a whirlwind of diapers and toys. Questions of discipline and finances stressed our marriage, but the kids brought joy to our lives.
When they were teenagers, we adopted Joey's half-brother, Kai. He was a sweet 7-year-old boy. He came downstairs every morning already dressed, with his hair brushed and his bed made. But we were surprised at how Kai was afraid of being left alone. He shadowed us constantly.
Life was different after he arrived, from the new rules we established for Kai to where everyone sat at the dinner table. We found ourselves in constant battles with our older kids, especially the former baby of the family. The teens began to sarcastically refer to Kai as our "precious baby." The defiance was exhausting.
Eventually, the tide turned as we sought help and prayer from friends and did things as a family. We went on camping trips and vacationed at Disneyland. The older kids began to build happy memories with Kai, gradually letting go of the way things were before he arrived. Kai has let go of his fear of being left alone. He knows we're there for him.
These days our oldest, Joe, is out on his own. When he visits, I'm reminded of "The Waltons." Everyone hollers, "Joe's here!" and come running from every corner of the house. We all love each other and truly are a family.
I was 22, had been married just three years and was barely out of college when a letter came inquiring about our interest in caring for the baby of a relative. The baby girl, born to a teenage mom and an imprisoned dad, was being placed in foster care. We hadn't felt ready to start our family, but we believed God was leading us to bring this baby home.
Shela was 4 months old, bald and smiling when she came into our lives. We immediately loved her, and six months later began adoption proceedings. But after a doctor's visit that yielded some concerns, she was recommended for a series of medical tests. On her first birthday, at a hospital in Memphis, Tenn., we received devastating news. "Your daughter has a progressive muscle disease. She will never walk and will probably not live past her second birthday."
We grieved for the dreams we had for our precious baby, but moved forward with the adoption. Shela blessed our lives for 18 more years before she passed away. From her electric wheelchair, she continued smiling and giving orders to her four little brothers. With her frail body, she taught us about God's grace in weakness, about contentment in every situation and about courage in the face of painful circumstances.
—Lettie Kirkpatrick Burress
I was a young missionary visiting AIDS patients when I met a young widow, Sheila, and her 4-year-old son, Casper. Sometimes I'd take Casper out for ice cream or bring him little presents. One day, through her tears, Sheila asked if I would take care of her son if she died. I said yes, of course I would continue to take him out for ice cream and bring him presents.
Shortly after Sheila died, I received a call informing me that Sheila had left her son in my care. Nobody else had stepped up to take this little HIV-positive boy, so my husband and I brought him into our home.
Casper immediately became a blessing to us. He was so eager to learn and to please. He always wanted to help me clean and shop for groceries. In some ways, he acted as if he thought it was necessary to earn his keep.
We faced a great many challenges with Casper's disease and medical bills. But our greatest challenge was feeling powerless to help our son. "Why me?" Casper would ask. "Am I going to die?"
Several years after adopting Casper, we brought two more orphan boys into our home. Bryan was 2, and Timmy was 3.
The two boys were scared of their new surroundings, and even at such a young age, Timmy had a built-in need to care for his little brother. Timmy shared his food with Bryan, and he'd often sleep next to Bryan to protect him. Timmy would wake Bryan up during the night, and they would sneak down to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator.
The boys had some other unusual behavior patterns. They fought me when I gave them a bath, screaming when the water touched their bodies. They didn't want to use the toilet and would instead urinate in the potted plants on our balcony. We realized we needed to be patient with them and show them God's love.
Today, Casper is in college, coping with life as a young man with HIV. We are so grateful for the years he has blessed us. We pray every day that the love of God who brought him so far will heal him.
Bryan and Timmy are now thriving in our family. After 6 years of living with us, they have learned to trust and love us. More important, they understand that the loving God who gave them a home will continue to provide for their needs.
Listen to these two Focus on the Family broadcasts as Debi Grebenik discusses how adoptive parents can better empathize with their children's difficulties and Steven Curtis Chapman with his wife Mary Beth talk about orphans and related ministries.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was originally titled "Love's Mosaic." Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Stumbo, Laurie Irons, Kelly Rosati, Kim Rhodes, Amanda Kolman, Ginger Clausen, Luisette Kraal, Lettie Kirkpatrick Burress. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.
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