Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Here's the L-o-n-g Version

As promised last week, here is the long version of our journey to Elijah.  I apologize in advance for the abundance of details, but I wanted to write it all down for my own sake, as well as for those of you who have asked.  Also, I have written bits and pieces of our story throughout the years, but wanted to have it all in one place to show Elijah one day, so he can see how much he was wanted and loved for all these years.


John and I fell in love with a little boy who we met in China in 2010.  We were on our adoption trip to meet and bring home Ellie, and we stopped by Nicholas' former foster home for a visit. 

(Elijah is in the red and black shirt; above, Nicholas plays with the boys at his former home).

Before we met, I had seen a photo of Elijah in a newsletter sent from the American missionaries who were Nicholas' foster parents.  Mike and Elisa are a wonderful couple who gave up everything familiar to them and moved to China to serve the orphan over a dozen years ago..

Elijah was just so cute. But -- that is not all.  I think SO so many kids in China are breathtakingly gorgeous.  There was something else.

Elijah had stayed in my mind.  This was not logical nor convenient because we were in the process of adopting Ellie.  

Plus, as Mike and Elisa told us, it turned out that Elijah had no paperwork done and was not eligible for adoption anyway.  

But I dreamed about him repeatedly.  Weird.

Once we were home, I kept asking Mike and Elisa how Elijah was doing.  They asked me if I wanted to advocate for Elijah.  In other words, would I be willing to try to find him a home by talking with U.S. adoption agencies, advocacy sites, and just by spreading the word on social media etc.

(Mike with Nicholas)

They would do the work that could be done in China, and I would do the work that could be done in the States.

Of course I said yes.

Mike and Elisa worked to get Elijah's paperwork processed so that he could be one of the lucky children who are even available for adoption (so many orphans in China never even get to this step; the numbers are just too vast).  That entailed communicating with his original orphanage (who is Elijah's official guardian) and getting them to submit paperwork for him and get medical exams done.  Not as easy as it sounds in a very beurocratic system.

I called many many agencies trying to find one that would help me to find his file (once it was made), and would advocate for him.  Unfortunately the agency we worked with to adopt Ellie (which we really liked) was not willing to do this.  Quite a few agencies were not willing to do this.  We were told how unlikely it was that they would ever get Chin@ to give them a specific file.  That is not the way things are usually done.  Chin@ assigns children to agencies, and families are certainly not able to CHOOSE a child they have met beforehand.

But we eventually found a wonderful agency that said they would help us.  They emphasized that this was a long shot.  A big long shot.  

I think the phrase "needle in a haystack" was used.  

But -- if we were willing to understand that this might go nowhere - that Elijah might never get his file completed, or that another agency would be assigned his file, or that his file would be put on a Shared List and then taken by another agency, etc.-- then it could not hurt to try.

So, we got the ball rolling on our end.  That was 2010.

At the beginning, we did not really think we were going to adopt Elijah, just help him find a family.  We started the adoption process with the idea that our agency would help find a family for Elijah.  But, as a last resort, if they got his file and no one decided to adopt him, we would do so.

I will admit --we secretly hoped that we would be his family.  

During this time, Mike and Elisa emailed us with a frantic message that Elijah had been taken out of their care suddenly, with no word as to where he was going.  They were devastated.  Now, this is perfectly within the rights of his orphanage as guardian, but it just seemed so unfair to Elijah and to all who he loved, the caretakers and the other children, in his foster home.  Sadly, this is what happens to many orphans throughout the world  I wrote here about how it is so hard for kids to undergo loss and change.

There were weeks when Mike and Elisa -- and John and I -- did not know where Elijah was.  I was more upset that I probably should have been, since I had only met this little boy once.

But -- really, I still can't believe it -- Elijah ended up, out of all of the thousands of homes for orphans in China, at An Orphan's Wish, an organization for whom I had briefly volunteered a while back. I knew it was a fabulous home.  I knew he would be very well cared for, and get an education and love. What peace that gave me.

I quickly inquired about becoming one of his sponsors, and that request was granted.  How amazing!
Elijah lived there for almost a year until very recently when An Orphan's Wish closed.  During that time we were blessed with photos and updates of him, for which we are so grateful.  We were able to send Elijah a care package and got photos of him opening them**:

(**By the way, An Orphan's Wish was a home for children, but they had no part in the matching of children with parents nor with the adoption process.  While we received updates on Elijah's daily life and progress while he was there, we still did not know where his file/adoption paperwork was, and neither did An Orphan's Wish.)

One day in February of this year, I received a call from our agency.  They were calling with some not-so-good news:  they discovered that Elijah's orphanage has an exclusive relationship with an adoption agency in Italy.  In other words, his orphanage makes their children available only to this agency.  And this agency did not work with American families.

Things did not look good.  We were sure that Elijah would be matched quickly because his special need is minor (repaired club foot) and he is adorable!  On one hand, we were very happy for Elijah.  Finally, after all these years, he had a chance to find a family!  But, on the other hand, we were disappointed that he would not be ours.

This is when our agency asked us to think about what we wanted to do with our dossier (adoption application).  Do we want to wait for a while to see what happens with Elijah? Would we like to be matched with another child?  I wrote that decision it in detail here.  Basically, we thought the chances of Elijah's file ever becoming available to Americans was pretty slim, and we decided to use our file to adopt another child.  

We are so glad we did.

But we never stopped thinking about Elijah.

Just a few weeks after coming home with Christopher, I called my agency and asked if Elijah had been matched with a family.  

They called me back and had an answer:  yes, he had been matched.  He was going to be adopted by an Italian family.  This time is was final.  

I didn't have the same mixed feelings I had the time I got the initial news about his file going to Italy.  This time I was really, really sad.  Even depressed

Nothing made sense: I should have felt only happiness with my new (wonderful, perfect) baby; I should have felt relief because, really, another child right now would be very hard.  
But, over the years of advocating for him, of seeing pictures, of hearing little tidbits about him from afar, we had fallen in love.  And we were heartbroken.

 One little thing that someone at my agency had told me had stuck in my mind.  She had said she would still finish something on our dossier because "you never know...something crazy could happen..."

So I prayed like I have never prayed before.  for a miracle.  For some 'crazy.'

On August 13th, I got a call from my agency.  They got Elijah's file!

No joke.

Elijah's file had been placed on their individual list.  With no explanation from the officials in China@.  

They had been asking for this very thing to happen for years.  And never a response, until this.

I cannot tell you how I felt when I got the phone call.  I was backing out of my driveway, taking my daughter to an appointment.  I had to stop the car because I started balling.  (And I am not usually a big crier. Olivia got very concerned!)  It was just so unbelievable.  I had never had a prayer answered in such a big way before.  After waiting for so long, and after hearing how unlikely this was...

I will always remember the date because August 13th is a sad anniversary to me.  On August 13th, 2005, I lost a very much wanted pregnancy.  This was extremely hard for me and for John.  Our baby's absence is still felt 8 years later, and always will be.

What had been a painful day for me is now one of joy.  

As one of my friend's told me, "God has redeemed this day for you."  And HE has.  Again: adoption is redemption.  For the kids and for the parents.

I am so excited to watch Elijah's redemption unfold.

I am so honored that I get be part of his life.  And grateful that my own redemption story will be somehow intertwined with his.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wanna hear my secret?

We have been keeping a little secret…

We have some MAJOR news:

Elijah -- yes, THE Elijah, the one I have mentioned here, here, here and here--is going to be our son!!

I cannot tell you how excited we are, and how much in awe we are of the miracle that just took place.  We have heard for years that it was highly unlikely that we would be able to adopt this guy.  But we have been matched and should travel in about 3 months!!

And, yes, we realize that we only came home with Christopher 3 months ago.
Yes, we realize we will have some challenges adopting an older child (he is 7).
Yes, we realize that even the notion of having 6 kids is CRAZY in the eyes of many of our friends and family members (okay, in our eyes too sometimes).


The only way I can explain it is to tell you this is our son.  I have know this for 4 years, ever since I saw this photo of him from our friends in China.

(sorry such bad quality)

So, although the timing is perhaps not ideal, we are going to jump at this opportunity to parent this amazing kid.

If you want to hear the longer version of this story, I will post it soon.

It's a good one, I promise.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Doctor Appointments

Yesterday was a very long day for Ellie, Christopher, and me. 

 I took Christopher to an appointment at Shriner's hospital in Philadelphia.  It's a hospital that specializes in pediatric orthopedics, and it has been recommended to us by many other people who have limb differences or kids with limb differences.

After having the plastic surgeon recommend surgery last month to close the clefts on Christopher's feet, we met with a geneticist.  The appointment was to determine if Christopher's ectrodactyly is part of a syndrome, and whether or not we need to be concerned about any other health issues.  While we were there, I mentioned his upcoming surgery in passing.  The geneticist seemed surprised that our plastic surgeon had recommended this surgery without having any x-rays or bloodwork (and we had already had our pre-op).

This made me think twice about this surgery.  In fact, I had already wondered whether or not we should do a surgery that might affect Chris' feet's functioning, just for the sake of appearances.  And, also just in case he has issues with shoes one day.  Some people do not.

I was very glad we had made an appointment for a second opinion with an orthopedic surgeon at Shriner's.

(The kids had a lot of fun in the exam room while waiting for the doctor).

The surgeon said right away "don't do anything to his feet."  When I mentioned what our plastic surgeon had recommended, he said "only a plastic surgeon would recommend that."
(A bit of professional rivalry, eh?)

Then, he also told me what he could do for Christopher's hands.  He could separate the fingers on his left hand, and remove the one extraneous (non-functioning) finger in one surgery, instead of the 2 surgeries the plastic surgeon had mentioned.  He also had suggestions for making his thumb more opposable and therefore more functional.

I think we will be going with Shriner's.  Both on an intellectual and on a gut level, I feel like this is the right option: fewer surgeries, and only working on what is truly necessary. If we think there is a problem with his feet, we can always do the surgery on them later.

 I know it would be easier, in some respects, to do the surgery on his feet while he is younger.  People keep mentioning, for instance, that he will not remember the surgery if we do it while he is younger.  I am not entirely sure why this is important (even if kids don't remember something painful, it is still something that happened to them that forever affects them, right?  Just like issues surrounding adoption and orphan care?  Am I missing something?) But, I still think I am not confident enough that the surgery is warranted and I would rather wait than regret.

The Shriner's surgeon recommended waiting to do the hand surgery until Christopher is walking so he won't be crawling around on the very hand that is being operated on.  He guessed that about 3 months from now would be right.  (Right around the time Nicholas might be having his surgery.  That will be interesting!)

After three hours at Shriner's, we then went to Ellie's annual cleft lip and palate clinic day.  Once per year, Ellie sees a team of doctors/specialists who help her with her clefts, including a plastic surgeon (yes, the plastic surgeon who suggested the foot surgery), an ENT, audiologist, speech pathologist, pediatrician, a social worker, and a dental team.

It is a 4-5 hour affair.  But at least the kids had fun in the waiting room!

Ellie is doing really well in every area.  Hooray! Her greatest struggle is her speech articulation.  But since she is working on it very diligently -- she sees a therapist twice per week -- and has made great strides, the team was not worried.

She does not need ear tubes or another surgery in the near future.  Knock wood.

Although it was a long day seeing many doctors, it was actually easier for me than a usual day at home while homeschooling.  We started school officially on Monday, and I am just exhausted from it!.  I am going non-stop all day.  

I am sure it will get better as we get into our routine, but I am just spinning lately: my adrenaline pumping and a little on-edge.  We have a new babysitter, a new Chinese tutor, a new homeschool co-op, and a new OT starting with Christopher soon.  I am not good with beginnings.

So, a day with only 2 kids at the doctors' offices was like a vacation.  Oh, how sad.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Pictures

I have been pretty busy lately (understatement), and there are many things that are left undone.  One of those tasks was getting the disposable camera photos that we had sent to Christopher's orphanage developed.

For all of our adopted kids, we have sent a care package as we waited to complete our travel paperwork.  Included in these packages were clothes, a stuffed toy, an album with photos of the family and our home, and a disposable camera with a note attached.  In this note (we had translated into Chinese) we ask the nannies to take pictures of our kids in their current homes.  Many times, parents are not allowed to visit the places where their kids have lived all of their lives before being adopted.  We wanted to have some pictures of these places, both for us and for our kids to have some answers to their questions about their pre-America lives.

First of all, it was hard to find a disposable camera this time around.  Seriously, no one sells these things anymore!

Then it was hard to find a place to develop the film.  Target no longer provides this service.  It took way more energy than I had left over to even think where else could I look to develop film.  But, finally, I did it.  I took the camera in to a little pharmacy in our town, and then promptly forgot about it until I got the call the other day.

The photos were ready, but I was not prepared for what I saw.

Christopher lived in really shabby conditions.  I should not have been surprised by this fact.  We were told by our agency's local representative that he was from a very poor city and a very poor orphanage.  But I never got to see it in person because it was 5 and a half hours away from Guangzhou, the city in which I was staying.  It was too hard of a trip to make for one parent plus a baby, there and back in one day.  I hated the fact that I didn't get to see it, but promised myself that we would go next time we are in China.  It is hard to not know where your child has lived his entire life.

Unfortunately, it is also hard to know.

I think if I had seen the pictures while I was in China they would not have been so shocking to me.  In the States, in our abundant, sanitized, suburban existence, it is hard to understand the intricacies of life in the poor parts of China.  I see the puzzled looks people (other Americans) give me as I try to answer questions about "why they give up their kids"  -- it just doesn't make sense in the context of our culture.   It takes a whole mind-shift to get it; to get the fact that the Chinese people, in general, are very loving and adore children, but at the same time are not able or willing to take care of disabled children or kids with physical differences.  You have to grasp the whole historical, political, cultural picture (and I have only scraped the surface of all of this; such an old, complex country that China is).  But, when I am in China -- just being completely immersed in the bustling streets, the beautiful language, the smells of the food mixed with city fumes -- I kind of get it a little more.

If I had seen the photos while I was in China, I would have seen Christopher's orphanage for what it is:  poor, understaffed, underfunded, but doing its best to keep their kids safe and healthy. It is not ideal, but it is just the way it is.

But, instead, I opened the envelope of photos in my Honda Odyssey, after dropping my kids at summer camp, in suburban New Jersey. After I had been parenting Christopher for 2 months, and had fallen in love with him.  It was jarring.

I have not included the photos here because I want to share them with Christopher (one day) first, and because I do not want to publicly criticize a specific orphanage, in the event that someone recognizes the pictures.

But I will tell you, it looked like a prison.  An old, dingy, dirty prison.

Concrete, stained floors.  Cracked paint on the cinderblock walls.  And sliding doors made of steel bars.

Perhaps it was just the poor quality of the disposable camera photos, but it looked so dark. Dingy and dark and dirty.

Pictures of Christopher being bathed in a large mixing bowl, and sleeping in a crib with no mattress.

No toys or bright colors to be seen.

Other kids in the orphanage looking sad and dirty and neglected.

I have seen my fair share of orphanages and foster homes in China, and I was not naive about what to expect.  I did not expect it to look like an American daycare center.  I recall, at the U.S. Embassy during my last trip, meeting a woman during who just adopted her first child from the same home Ellie had lived in.  It is a home funded and directed by a certain U.S. adoption agency.  They train the nannies about child care, attachment, and child development.  They make a concerted effort to be especially clean and to make sure the kids get adequate stimulation and nurturing and fresh air.  It is a nice place.

I said to the new mother, "Isn't it a nice place?"

She replied, "Well, I wouldn't call it nice…"

And, I thought, she's right:  I guess it isn't really that nice -- not compared to a loving home, or even a nice American school.  But, compared to what I have seen, it is what I would call "nice".  And Ellie has shown us with her easy attachment, her lack of any major sensory issues or behavioral problems, that she has benefitted from her first home.

So, all that is to say, that I see Christopher's orphanage within the context of other orphan homes in China.  I know that many kids sleep on hard board beds instead of mattresses, and that they don't get out of these beds many times each day.  I know that many kids live in depressing, dark buildings, and that they don't get the luxury of playing with toys or being read picture books.

But to see your own child living in these conditions is a whole different thing.

Christopher is really doing really well.  He, like Ellie, is adjusting very well.  He is attaching, he does not seem to have any developmental or sensory issues.  He loves being cuddled and singing songs, and playing with his siblings.  He is fine, despite his initial home.  Or maybe because of it.  Maybe the photos can't do justice to the love that he experienced within those dark walls.

I really hope so.

Its just unbearable to think otherwise.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Back at the Cape again

We are back at Cape Cod.  It is so nice to come back to the same spot every year; our home away from home.  We have debated about whether or not it would be better to go to a different vacation spot, so that we could experience different places.

But we always end up here.  

It is just so beautiful.

And has the BEST food.

(Christopher really digs ice cream.)

And this is where many of our kids saw the ocean for the first time.
So it has become sort of a tradition.

(Christopher loved it, by the way.  He is from an ocean-side city so I am not surprised.  The ocean is probably in his blood!)
And, I have to admit, it is much easier to come to a familiar place with our boatload of kids.  We know what our rental house will look like, we know all the restaurants (which ones are kid-firendly, etc.) and we also have my parents nearby.  They own a home in the same Cape town.

We spend our days playing at the ocean.

Canoeing and swimming in the lake at the beautiful Nickerson State Park.

Eating a lot of seafood.

And just chillin' at our house.

We stumbled upon this rental last year, and it is perfect for us.  It is off the beaten bath and has a huge yard.  No neighbors to disturb by our loud bunch.

It has room to sleep 12.  Perfect!  

This has been a really relaxing holiday so far.  It took a little while for John and I to switch off of our go-go-go mentality and to slow down and actually LOOK at each other and -- get this -- talk to each other.  But, we have arrived now, and it is so nice.  I really do love my husband, and it is nice to reconnect.

Last year, I was so anxious about beginning homeschooling for the first time.  I spent a lot of the time here going over instructor's guides and schedules.  But, not this time.  Actually, maybe I should pull out some school school stuff.

Nah.  I'd rather play ping pong (minus the table) with Peter.

Or be napping with Christopher

Or swimming with Ellie (brrr!)

Or building sand castles with Nicholas.

Or playing frisbee with Olivia.

I am cherishing these moments.