Forty Days Til’ Forty, Day 38: This One’s for My Babies

As with most things in life, I was rarely the first kid to dawn the latest styles, relying mostly on a thrifty mom whose concern for the budget was greater than her concern for my vanity. We had many privileges, no doubt, but coolness did not factor in the order of priorities. So it was that as my friends were showing off their Cabbage Patch Dolls, both the official brand versions and the homemade sewn-together kind, I watched with envy, wondering when my day would come. Then one day, my mom who was prone to springing the occasional surprise, sent me up to my closet to look and see what she’d brought home for me. Stepping into the walk-in closet, there he was, perfectly-packaged and straight from the Cabbage Patch itself, my very first brown-skinned boy, complete with birth certificate, named Adam Vaughn. He was perfect.

Subscribing as I do to the belief that God is the author of my life, I think of this fondly now as one of those moments of divine foreshadowing. Today, I am the adoptive mom of two amazing, bright-eyed and beautiful kids from Ethiopia.

What feels like a lifetime ago, I once wondered when, if, how I would become a mom. I kept my grief to myself. Those kids, the ones you hold in your mind’s eye before you even know who you’ll have them with, the ones that share your eye color and your quirky disposition–I would never know them. They would never be. One day while watching the movie “Julie and Julia,” alone in a theater, I sobbed over a scene where Julia learns that her sister is pregnant. The childless Julia cries as she reads a letter from her sister with the news. My grief occasionally caught me by surprise; my own tears startled me. I had celebrated the pregnancies and births of several friends’ children by then and kept relatively quiet about my own disappointment at not getting pregnant myself. I’d also experienced the joy of bringing home my daughter just a year earlier. Thinking back on this, I now understand that this is what we humans do when things don’t go according to plan. We grieve.

Even so, whatever was of that sadness has now been lost. There is just no room for it anymore. In its place, there is love for my two radiant kids. There are prayers for their well being, that they will know in their bones how deeply they are loved. There is hope that as they reconcile with the losses they’ve yet to comprehend in their own young lives, they will find peace. And there is joy in the adventure of getting to be there with them for the ride. Fort Days Til’ Forty, and this one’s for my babies. I love you Pooka-doo and Benjiddly. So much.

sarah and kids

Rally For Hope

Slamming the door to ensure it was closed tightly, I secured the lock and sat back in my velvety, maroon-colored seat. I was humbled by this responsibility, palms sweating at the tiniest bit of daylight that occasionally made its way through the sealed door. Dad shouted, “ALL CLEAR!” just before firing up the engine to get the propeller spinning on the front of the plane. We all sat in our usual spots; Dad in the pilot’s seat; my oldest brother up front as the co-pilot; me facing my youngest brother; who sat next to my mom, facing my middle brother who sat next to my right. We were boxed in and ready to go wherever Dad had planned–a business trip to Boston, New York City, a stop in Pennsylvania to see Grandma and Grandpa or one memorable journey crossing the expanse of water between the tip of Florida and the Keys.

The air plane was fodder for memories of childhood friends throwing up due to air sickness not previously mentioned before we took flight and the science of determining whether a winter coat doth a good barf bag make; for hypothetical ponderings about the harrowing landing I could pull off in the case of a mid-flight emergency; and the cold winter night, just before Christmas my dad let me have the controls as we descended into Tennessee to pick up my grandmother so she could come spend Christmas with us.

From one summer to the next, we packed our soft-sided luggage and flew from Missouri to Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Canada, Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, and so on for fishing trips, family camps, beach vacations, and, in the case of my family, many golf outings. And while I’ve received some degree of hassling over the years from my club-wielding family about my disdain for golf, one thing wasn’t lost on me.

Only a year or so prior to the purchase of our infamous Cherokee 2174 Sierra, as I remember it being called, my second brother had suffered from a near-fatal brain tumor that brought our family all too close to the edge of what could have been a tragic loss. For my parents, this would have been a third hit, in the wake of losing their first child just weeks before she was to be born and their second to a tragic drowning three weeks before his third birthday. My parents were all too familiar with such heart ache.

And much to the chagrin of the kids in my neighborhood who hailed us as being “rich,” the airplane was more of a way to shake our veritable finger at the suffering that life brings than any show of wealth. My Dad decided to seize the day; to be grateful for the resources that enabled us with the opportunity to do so by flying across the country on family vacations that we would not have otherwise taken and to live a dream that he had to be a pilot because, after all, each of us only has today. As life would have it, he sold the plane on the heels of losing his job my freshman year of high school, but the memories had already been made, good memories.

I was thinking of this mid-lunch today with a dear friend as we talked about life and the meaning of suffering, how basically, there is no meaning to be found in suffering alone. Instead, we impose meaning upon it–to get through it, over it, beyond it. We keep living in the face of pain and death, heartbreak and loss because life is still there to be lived even in loss, even in struggle.

She shared of the power we have to change our story as she had done herself. When facing the declining health and death of her brother in a way all-too-familiar to how she had lost her own father at a young age, she chose to change the story and the inner dialogue that she’d known the first time around. No longer was she a victim of life’s circumstances but, instead, a cancer-survivor herself who could lovingly support her nephews as they faced the loss of their dad. She recognized the power to change her story and re-wrote her response to the hardships that life was throwing her family’s way. Even recently, in her own recurrence of cancer, she shared of the presence of God with her when she had good reason to feel very alone.

There is no meaning in suffering, no meaning that arises alone. Meaning is made. Meaning is found by looking, not by passively letting grief and life’s disappointments settle in around us to take captive our dreams. We find meaning in reaching out to others outside of our pain to meet them in theirs. We rally for beauty to rear its head in the aftermath of our agony. We rally for joy to follow in the wake of our losses. There is light. At the end of the tunnel, there is still life. Everything doesn’t happen for just any reason. We are the reason for which everything happens, to awaken us to life in all its forms, even the life we find in death, in hardship, in loss and disappointments.

All of this circled right back around to the memory of my dad buying that plane, not your everyday purchase. We can each make a gesture, be it large or small, to live outside of our pain, to recognize the gifts that are right before us both in relationships and resources, to live life regardless of our circumstances. And in the moment we do this, we open the door to opportunities we cannot know until they are had. But they are endless; and they are beautiful. Rally for them.

Leaning In

The week before flying to Ethiopia in the spring of 2008, the adoption agency sent me a couple final pictures of my beaming baby girl. I longingly admired my baby-to-be and considered how I could not possibly have made such a radiant child. Her smile, full of cheese and delight, glowed at me through her photos. Later, when I did finally get to know her as my own, I would remark on how celestially happy she seemed. I had never known a child quite so content.

I sat at my computer and stared at the screen, the thought passing through my mind, “I’ve been kissed by God.” I ached to hold her for the first time after years of longing and months of waiting to finally bring her home.

Some time before, however, caught up in the paper trail that is the adoption process, I vacillated between hope and fear, often swept completely up in worry. “What if it falls through? What if the country changes their adoption regulations? What if . . . What if . . .”

There was a distinct point along the way, though, when I made a conscious decision to let myself get excited, to hope and prepare for this child who hardly felt like mine yet, but whose path was already inextricably linked with mine. Until that point, I attempted to protect my heart by making a disclaimer to myself every time I became “too excited.” Reciting various Debbie-Downer mantras we all have heard before when someone either wants to rain on our parade or is concerned we are going to get hurt, I would tell myself, “anything can happen; it could all still fall through; she isn’t really mine til I bring her home . . . . ” Reason was lost on me, though. An unconfirmed factoid I picked up along the way from another adoptive parent was that adoptive mothers gain 20 percent of the pregnancy hormones as expecting mothers. I was in too deep to backtrack. I had already started to hope. I gave up on self-preservation and accepted that no matter what attempts I made to intellectually protect my heart from possible disappointment, it wouldn’t hurt any less because of them. I was already in. My hand had signed the papers, and my heart had begun to grow around the idea of this little girl who would be mine. I began to prepare not just my heart but my home for her arrival.

Sometimes the only way we have to combat our vulnerability and our worry is by taking risks. We have to acknowledge the mind games we play with ourselves in attempt to spare ourselves from possible misery and lay them aside. When we try to think ourselves away from our deepest longings, the hopeful events we look forward to, we’re in a losing battle because hope has already taken root. It won’t hurt any less because we play as though we aren’t that invested in our dreams just yet.

Saying,”it’s not official yet; we haven’t signed the papers yet; we don’t have the keys yet,” doesn’t spare us from the disappointment we will feel if things don’t go as planned because you can’t put a rubber band around a heart to stop it from pumping. Hoping, longing, striving, are the forward momentum of life. They are the things that get us from January 1 until December 31 every year.

I had a choice to make, to be practical and cautious or to let go and and let hope take root. I could wait until I had the plane tickets in hand before I started to pack, or I could start a pile in my daughter’s room of clothes and diapers, bottles and baby toys that would collect for months. I chose the pile. I sat in her nursery and imagined her in it. I added to that pile regularly. One of the most memorable and sweet gifts of the adoption journey was sharing the wait with my friends who took the risk with me to hope for and eventually welcome my daughter.

On the flight home, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, I stood outside the bathrooms with my daughter in my arms. She was peaceful and content. I will never forget the moment because Charlie, another adoptive parent from our group, stood there too. Absorbing the unusual calm of my daughter who had just been whisked from the familiarity of faces and hands that had cared for her, he said, “You know you have been kissed by God.”

“Yes,” I thought, “And I’m so glad I leaned in for it.”