What If?

Four years ago today, we received the response for which we’d been waiting on pins and needles. It was affirmative. Serbia was going to allow us, a crazy big family, to adopt a child with Down syndrome from their country.

Long before we were waiting to hear from them, God stirred our hearts for the estimated 15 million institutionalized orphans in the world. With a simple prayer, “God, break our hearts for what breaks yours,” uttered many years ago, our world shifted as our hearts cracked. Our knowledge increased about orphans with special needs in Eastern European countries and the terrible fate awaiting them. We were undone.

We prayed for those orphans. We began supporting families adopting them, we cheered every “gotcha day”, and read every blog post. And while we occasionally wondered what it would be like to be in their shoes, the obstacles were great and the leap of faith needed too big.

Our excuses were typical, but very real.

  • We couldn’t afford it. We’re a large family living on one income. We live within our means and comfortably, but there is not much extra and adoption is expensive.
  • We didn’t have much room. With seven kids already squeezed into a 3-bedroom home, I was unsure we’d even pass a home study. (Two words – vertical space. Kids stack well and triple bunk beds are a dream.)
  • We were normal. Meaning we weren’t superheroes or extra patient or incredibly loving or extra spiritual or anything else we thought adoptive parents were supposed to be. We liked our comfort, we valued sleep, we got short with the kids sometimes, our house was often a disaster…just normal.
  • We felt at capacity with the seven kids we already had. We forgot that love multiplies; never divides.

And they were a lot of sound reasons not to do this to overcome. So many what if scenarios playing over and over in the recesses of our minds.

  • What if…we commit to a child and then don’t have the funds to bring him home?
  • What if…we get there and find his medical issues are way more involved than they said?
  • What if…I can’t love him like I do my other kids?
  • What if…he never attaches to us and has severe behavioral problems?
  • What if…he has autism? (Yes, this was an actual fear. Proof God thinks Himself hilarious.)
  • And there were more. So many more. It was terrifying.

So while we’d been waiting for Serbia’s yes, it was really a giant, yet trepidatious, yes on our part that got us to that point. A year later we brought home our feral three-year-old with the functional skills of an infant. I’ve written much about our wild ride since then with my most noteworthy post here, written a year ago.

Our Bo has been home three years now and life is just normal. Well, our normal, anyway. I don’t think about his adoption much except on the anniversaries. But yesterday, as I was sitting on the couch watching a movie, he climbed up in my lap, rested his head on my chest and fell asleep.

For two hours, I dared not move and I scarcely breathed, lest he’d waken and the spell would be broken. I allowed myself to wonder and I wept big silent crocodile tears because…

What if?!?

What if we’d said no? 

And, oh God, my throat constricts, and my heart pounds, and the tears are running again. Because for this boy, it wouldn’t simply mean no mama’s arms to hold him until they cramped, no strong papa with whom to feel safe, no tickle fights with siblings, no toys to increase imagination, no therapy to broaden skills, no school to increase knowledge.

For this boy, and for millions like him, it would mean eventual abuse, neglect, and death. 

And, as terrifying as our yes seemed at the time, the fact that his very life hung on it, scares me that much more. Because we almost said no so many times and at so many points along the way and our reasons were so foolish and ridiculous when the life of a child hung in the balance!

Our excuses seemed reasonable, but next to a life, they were anything but.

I don’t like to think about what if, because it shakes me. It forces me to think about the others – the orphans, the homeless, the trafficked, the abused – and my seemingly reasonable excuses to sit idly by, while lives hang in the balance.

Complacency is easier. It’s comfortable and it costs me nothing. But for those to whom I’m saying no, my complacency costs everything. It almost cost my son his life.

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Swimming

boardwalkI have a deep love for the Atlantic Ocean born from yearly vacations to the South Carolina shore as a child. The wildness of the waves, yet predictability of the tides, holds great allure for a Midwestern girl like me.

Always a strong swimmer, I never fully appreciated the sea in all her strength until one summer when I was about thirteen. I was a little farther out and down shore from my family when I miscalculated a breaker and was slammed headfirst into the water. I tumbled over and over, as the waves tossed me nearly to shore and then pulled me back again. All orientation was lost to me and I had no idea which way was up as the mighty ocean dragged my face along the sand, only to pull me back and then do it again. Time stood still as I struggled, and wrestled, and swallowed salt water before I was mercifully spit upon the beach, exhausted and stunned, rethinking everything I thought I knew about swimming.

Three years ago, we embarked on the adventure of our lives to travel across the world and receive our son, on whom we had never before laid eyes. I read the blog posts I wrote in the time leading up to travel and wonder, “Who is that woman? So inspiring, so full of faith, so certain.” I barely remember her, but I wish I could be her.

Adoption, Bo, autism, medical complications…none of these are the cause of the hit my faith has taken in the last three years. They may have been catalysts, or it very well may be an easy starting point from which to mark time.  I set off on the this journey full of faith that God would see us through it, which is noble and true, and had I stopped there in my thinking, all would have been well. But, instead, I knew how God was going to see us through. I had planned it out for Him. All He had to do was follow the plan and do A, B, and C.

Only He did not do A, B, and C.

There were deep valleys, and hills, and wrong turns, and fender benders, and wild collisions, and cliff hangers. There was rejection, and isolation, and fear, and loneliness, and anger, and grief.

I embarked on this journey certain I knew how God worked. I had the formulas, the platitudes, the righteous answers all memorized. “There is blessing in obedience.” “As you sow, so shall you reap.” “All things work together for good.”

My Jesus was more cosmic karma than Father God. Deep in my core I believed that if I did hard things for Him, He owed me a good life. (Good, of course, meaning easy. I am American, after all.) So this wilderness in which I’ve been wandering came as a complete surprise and mystery to me. As one by one He stripped away my faulty core beliefs, exposing me to complete vulnerability, and in the process, raw pain, I developed my own scabs and callouses, a tough exoskeleton designed to keep me safe.

But carrying around a shell is a wearying burden.

I’ve watched my responses to other people as of late. My lack of empathy to those feeling stressed by what to them feels like a crushing blow, but to me seems minor, is startling. My judgmental sarcasm about those who have opposing views is unattractive. There is a hardness to me that mirrors anything but love.

I saw this meme and related to it, initially, before I recoiled. diamonds

I don’t want my beauty to have an edge. I don’t want to be untouchable. I want God to use my pain for His glory, so I can offer hope, grace, and love to those in the middle of it. I need to lose the exoskeleton or the diamonds or whatever hardness resides in me if I am to be free to do that.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Coming to Jesus and learning to be gentle and humble in heart is the starting point. I have no answers on how God works and very few on who He is. I’ll let my favorite quote about Aslan, the great lion in one of my favorite books sum it up:

Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Much like all those years ago on the beach, when I realized what I thought I knew about swimming didn’t really apply to the bigness of the ocean, I now see what I thought I knew about Jesus doesn’t really apply to the bigness of the world.

I’ve finally come to the understanding that while God did not do it my way, He did NOT fail me. I know this because here I stand on the shore, shaken, bruised, and dripping, but ready once again to swim.

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A Full Heart

BochairThis guy turns six-years-old today. My heart can hardly stand it. He’s been ours nearly as long as he wasn’t and I still well up to think about what that means. The magnitude of adoption leaves me breathless even as the mundane of it makes me shake my head. How can something so life changing, so utterly profound, be in reality, so completely ordinary?

As always, I remember with prayer his birth mama. May she be well today and know he’s loved.

I remember with huge smiles and much love and gratitude his foster mama today, too. I’ll never forget her showing us pictures of his third birthday. BobootsA picture of a cake flashed on the screen. Puzzled, I looked at Shawn, “Is that cake shaped like a shoe?” Clearly, I did not yet know my boy. But she did. And cared enough to make him a cake shaped like the one thing he loves best in all the world. I have no words.

He has overcome so much and continues to amaze and bless us each and every day. His new fabulousness is calling Shawn from the other room with, “Dad? Daaaaad!” And my personal favorite response to each request with, “Okay,” even as he fails to actually comply with said request.

BobusHe loves kindergarten and is thrilled to don his backpack and trot out to the bus every morning. He returns every afternoon with a huge smile. I think he was actually offended when we let him play hooky last week and took him to the state fair with the rest of the family. He would’ve much preferred to go to school.

We finally found the right meds for sleeping and he is thriving with a full night’s sleep (as are his parents). He has not had any recurrence of ear issues since February. Probably due to both of those, he no longer has negative behaviors that plagued him for so long, either. My arms are bruise-free, and the house has been mostly free from flying objects for quite awhile. BomouthHe’s still a little guy, but a recent growth spurt has him now wearing size 4T and looking quite the little boy versus the toddler he seemed for so long.

His therapists confide that he’s their favorite which shouldn’t shock me, but knowing the lengths we came to get here, really does surprise and delight me. BoarmThe boy who once avoided all interaction, who averted eyes from contact, who ignored all attempts at connection is now charming strangers with his sweet smile and knuckle bumps and it’s amazing.

I share our story in hopes that it might encourage someone out there to realize that maybe adoption is not the giant, terrifying leap you once thought. Maybe it’s just a conscious choice toward an incredible, yet ordinary life.

And maybe, without you, a child doesn’t have a prayer of experiencing a life like that. 

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Coveting Freedom

I turned off the computer and went to bed, completely green with envy. Sleep wouldn’t come. One of my friends was jetting off to an exotic land on a missions trip with her daughter, and another on a tropical romantic get-away with her husband. Proof in pictures for both displayed on Facebook. I couldn’t stand to think about it, but could think of nothing else.

My discontent had been brewing for weeks.

While I adore these children God has entrusted me with, there is no denying that the special needs life can be trying. I had been focusing only on the trials.

Recently, the radio station I listen to has been encouraging listeners to call in to win a trip. Always up for a contest, I reached for my phone the first time it was announced. As I punched in the number, I suddenly stopped as awareness swept over me. I hit end call, instead. Even if we won a trip, we couldn’t go. There is no one who could watch Bo for an extended time.

The realization was a bitter pill. I felt stuck.

I ruminated on it every time the contest was announced. Discontent breeds discontent and soon I was wallowing in other frustrations.

I’ve long been a critic of how the majority of churches handle disability and special needs. Mostly my sense of justice wells up for other families as we’ve managed to figure it out in our own. How we’ve made it work lately is the “divide and conquer” method, meaning, I attend church (usually alone) on Saturday nights and then stay home with Bo while UpcycleDaddy takes the rest of the crew on Sunday mornings. I feel isolated with this system, but at least not spiritually shriveled like I did when I just stayed home all the time, so it works. Except when I am sick or injured and can’t watch Bo, like yesterday, and the entire family has to miss church, all because there is no place there for our son with special needs. Then I get angry and frustrated all over again.

Then there’s the driver and the aide on the special needs school bus who feel the need to tell me every single time they see me that my son’s behavior is less than stellar and sometimes he spits or throws his hat to the back of the bus, as if I have any control whatsoever over his behavior when he is not in my presence. “Frankly, ladies, I can’t keep him from spitting when he’s in my own car! I have no clue what you expect me to do about it,” I want to scream at them, but instead I smile sweetly and say, “Yep. He can be a stinker.”

Or what about the family vacation planned that is getting nearer? Unlike last year, I’m determined to limit panic attacks and to increase sleep. To that end, I’m shopping for a pup tent for Bo to sleep in to keep him contained as he wandered the house at all hours last year. He couldn’t figure out the lock to escape to the beach, but we didn’t know if the skill would suddenly emerge and whenever I did fall asleep, I had nightmares of him being claimed by the waves. We are also investing in stick-on door alarms. The entire family is looking forward to this trip with the lone exception of me, who can only conjure up fear of the dark hours, not knowing if my tricks to keep him safe will work.

So glimpsing the apparent carefree travel of my friends was my undoing. Watching them just fly away unfettered and pursue adventure, left me dealing with the sin of covetousness. I called it what it was there in the dark as I was trying to sleep. I knew perfectly well that I was breaking one of the Ten Commandments with my envy. But I didn’t know how not to covet in that moment. So I whispered:

God, this is not who I want to be. I want to be the encourager, the one who rejoices when her friends rejoice. Your Word says that you will make a way of escape when we are tempted. Forgive me for being covetous of their freedom and their opportunities. Show me a way out of this. Change my heart.

And then I slept.

Until about 2:30 a.m. when the incessant banging of the boy woke both of us up. Have I mentioned that Bo doesn’t sleep much? He slept the first two months of this year and then resumed old habits. We don’t know why he started sleeping and we don’t know why he stopped. It’s maddening. He thumps much of the night. We know him well and can interpret the thumping. There’s the soft, rhythmic thud, thud, thud that tells us he’s rocking his “Moochie cow” and banging his head on the padding we have covering the walls around his bed, and would be irritated if we interrupted. This wasn’t that. This was the loud, insistent kicking the wall between the padding letting us know that he needed something. This time it was a drink. After UpcycleDaddy got him a cup and went back to sleep, I listened to him settle into the other thump he does so well, the “I-don’t-need-anything-but-I’m-awake-and-you-should-be-too” banging. I let it go for about an hour. Finally, I brought him into bed with me. No reason everyone should be awake.

As soon as I climbed into bed after him, he snuggled in close, with his head on my chest and his leg around my middle. He started grinding his teeth, so I lightly stroked his face and he stopped. Soon his breathing deepened and he was sound asleep.

There, in the quiet of the night, listening to him breathe, I was overwhelmed with emotion – love, certainly, for this little one who accepts me so fully as his own; sadness, a little, that I wasn’t there to do this for him those early years, that no one was; but mostly gratitude, that this is the life I was given. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I prayed again, this time with thankfulness and joy. I get to mother this boy. I was sent to do this! What an adventure I am living just in that!

I’m so happy for my friends. Given the opportunity, I would totally jet off to a romantic island or a mission adventure. But that is not my life right now. And my life is good! I so needed the reminder.

And tears of gratitude, too, that even in my ugliness, in my jealousy and self-pity, there is sweetness and gentle redemption. God draws near, gives me eyes to see, and changes my heart. He shows me there is grace even for that.

Two Years My Son

Two years ago, we did what, at the time, seemed like the bravest, craziest, scariest thing. We left our seven children in the care of various people, flew across the world to a strange land, and claimed an unknown orphan as our own.

alps

We look at that act now and think, “Duh. Of course we did. How else could we have gotten our Bo?”

Funny thing about the unknown. It always looks bigger than reality. It makes me wonder what things I have missed out on, dismissed out of hand because they looked too big, too scary. How many times have I let fear win and missed the “duh”? But, this time, I didn’t. I tear up just thinking about all the times I almost walked away.

It didn’t make any sense. We already had seven children, two of them still in diapers. We were packed into this tiny house like sardines as it was, with no financial plans or means to move anytime soon. I’m not terribly organized and it was a lot of paperwork to pull together and a lot of deadlines to meet. It was also a lot of money we didn’t have.

Through all of that, the one moment where I felt the most vulnerable to throwing in the towel was in Chicago O’Hare, ten minutes before boarding our flight to Frankfurt where we would board the plane to our final destination, Belgrade. After a terribly bumpy flight from Indy and a ridiculously long layover, I sat in the tiny waiting area listening to my fellow passengers speak languages foreign to me, and became suddenly aware of how foolish this all seemed. I felt very small and afraid. I checked Facebook one more time and saw my dear friend, Melody, had commented this:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” Isaiah 43:2

It was a balm to my soul and just what I needed to get me on that plane. Oh, I’m so glad I did!

firstmeetWhile I loved him instantly upon meeting him, it was a protective, only-because-he’s-mine kind of love. I was worried about his health from his noisy wheezing, and I was so grieved for everything he’d already lost and was about to lose by becoming ours. While great gain, adoption is loss, first. We were delighted that we were able to be his Plan B, but I was heartbroken that he needed one.

bodadinsquareHe bonded to UpcycleDaddy very quickly. I think the tall, bald, gentle giant made him feel safe. I had less to offer given that I became ill with kidney stones and infection soon after we gained custody and hospitalized upon our return home. He didn’t sleep for the entire twenty-four hours of travel to Chicago, and finally slumped over on the small plane to Indy, completely missing the triumphant homecoming, two years ago today.

Sometimes, adoption is spoken of in fairy tale terms with rescues and heroes and happily ever afters.

I bought into that. The need of the orphan spoke to me. It speaks to me still, truth be told. I cannot abide by children without – without the love, support, care of a mother, without medical intervention, without anyone on their side. 

Reading blogs of other families who’ve walked a similar road set me up for some expectations. I saw how those former-orphans, now beloved sons and daughters seemed to thrive with the love of a family, making great strides. I saw the milestones and firsts celebrated in cyberland.

And I wanted that.

I wrote this last year to a fellow adoptive mom whose journey more closely mirrored my own:

Although I fell in love with our little guy instantly, I had high hopes that with the love of family and some therapy, he would make great gains. He has not. He still functions very much as a young toddler at four-years-old. I foolishly thought we could love him out of behaviors that are deeply ingrained and written somewhere in his brain. I follow the adoption journey of others and see the joyful pronouncements on Facebook of all the firsts and gains and, in trying moments, I have whispered in the dark, “We got a broken one.”

I did not have the grief or depression after Eon’s birth and Down syndrome diagnosis that you dealt with after [her daughter’s]. So imagine my surprise when all that hit after bringing home a child that I chose. This is not the child I imagined. He was what I expected initially, but I thought I could change him. Sigh. It always boils down to expectations, does it not?

I know from what you’ve shared that your adoption journey has been similar in some ways…moments of sweet breakthrough, followed by dark distance. No one has said the word, “autism” aloud, but I think it’s just a matter of time. Autism was the one thing I knew I couldn’t handle. Ha! I know you understand all this. I would go back tomorrow and bring him home again. But it has been far from the journey I anticipated it to be.

My expectations colored everything. They interfered with my ability to love the child I was given as I so desperately tried to push him to be the child I imagined.

It was, as is so much of my life, all about me.

I did so many things wrong over the last two years, I am amazed God ever allowed me to be his mother, in the first place. He deserved better. But slowly, He’s changed me. He’s helping me get over myself. Two years of very little sleep has taught me sacrifice. The first year, caring for a child that returned loving care with bruising pinches and pulled hair taught me the beauty of loving without expectation. Accepting the autism diagnosis that we finally did get, taught me how much prejudice I had toward disabilities that were outside my realm and that all lives have intrinsic value, no matter what labels are attached to them. Watching him struggle and then graciously accept unpleasant medical interventions, is teaching me acceptance of my own circumstances and to relinquish control to the One who knows better.

When people speak of adoption being redemption, I always thought they were referring to the child. But God’s cool like that. He knew which one of us really needed rescue.

bosnugglesHe helped me let go of the orphan child of my imagination and embrace Bo. I literally taught him to embrace me back and to snuggle and now it’s our favorite thing. He has truly become the child of my heart. And I love him with all of it, not the fantasy, not the ideal, not the expectation, but my Bo. (And I can say that with certainty as I had to interrupt the writing of this post to clean up a ginormous craptastrophe he painted while I thought he was napping, and still I wrote flowery words. Our life is so glam.)

There is no fairy tale or happily ever after in our story. There is only redemption (mine), beauty from ashes, and love.

And grace. It was grace that propelled me forward in the face of unbelievable fear and grace that changed my heart through my unimagined boy.

He’s my greatest “duh” and I can’t imagine life without him. He’s shown me that even when life goes against all expectations, there is grace for that. 

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