It didn't occur to me how crazy this all was until the moment they placed her in my arms, a screaming stranger, thrashing and afraid.
That's not usually how adoption stories begin, I know, but the truth of our journey - now ten years in - is more beautiful than any story that only hits the highlights. You couldn't understand the sweetness of this picture if you didn't know there was bitterness and sadness too. It would just be a nice picture. But the hard and the scary places are what make the joyful parts of the story all the more beautiful.
After all, there is no highlight without shadow.
No resurrection without death.
The first time we met our daughter was the day we left the orphanage with her. It's not the same for other countries, but for India this was our Day 1, the very beginning of the story: Racing hearts and a great unknown but a willingness to jump in headlong. Our daughter was not given a choice in the matter, though. She had never wanted to jump, and in her inability to communicate her feelings she fainted in emotional exhaustion. And the orphanage disappeared from view through the car window. There was no reason she should love that place. I cannot think of a single one. But it was all she knew, and sometimes just knowing something is there is the only comfort we have.
Day 1 began with loss for her, one great loss piled on top of another. In the midst of terrible grief and loneliness, our love was born. She just didn't know it yet.
On the plane back to America a kind, young Indian woman with a toddler of her own watched as my husband, weary from days of travel and little sleep, struggled to calm our child while I rested for the first time in days. Our daughter refused to sleep, refused to close her eyes, ever vigilant and not trusting us, but completely exhausted.
"You're a hero," the woman said to him.
"This doesn't feel heroic," he told her quietly, caught off guard with emotion. It felt more like brokenness. Like trying to find the way in the dark with a crazy kind of love set on a person who didn't want it. The hope of family and wholeness was on the other side of an ocean and we were swimming. This was Day 6.
We chose not to have balloons and signs and friends waiting at the airport. It was a quiet entry into our new world, respecting the grief and terror that she was battling inside. Stillness and reverence for her loss felt right. And she slept in her room as I willed for her to feel the sense of home that I felt lying safe in our bed. This was Day 8.
In the long, hot summer days ahead we labored, adjusting to a fifth child, along with a newborn, another toddler, a preschooler and a first grader. The timing hadn't worked out how we'd planned, but we climbed and reached for the next grip on this journey. One ledge at a time. It was steep and there weren't many stops for rest. She wouldn't eat at first and her state of malnutrition was extremely frightening. She had barely made it to the day we picked her up and there were other unknown health issues. She didn't seem to be attaching and was afraid of things like the dog and the broom, screaming wildly at the sight of them. But when I set her down in her crib, she would clutch a sock (something that reminded her of the orphanage) and sleep. This was Year 1.
She slipped easily into finding her place with her siblings. They adored her and she began to love them back. It happened quietly and without revelation. It just was. And she seemed to like being with us too. She preferred me over others, but I had this nagging sense that she would have gone home with anyone from school if the option ever arose. Her cuteness was off the charts, partly because of her small size, and strangers felt drawn to her, even picking her up without asking me. At this point she was a kindergartner who looked like a toddler - who could resist? And attachment disorder reads as friendliness and warmth to people who don't understand. So we began to set more boundaries in her life, creating a bubble that she might one day associate as her own.
For years I measured her trust by one thing - her ability to close her eyes and rest with us present. She would only sleep alone in her room where she felt in control. For years she refused to fall asleep on my shoulder or my husband's chest, or in the car on a long drive to vacation. Dark eyed and wobbling head, she would battle, looking disdainfully at us for trying to make her trust. She didn't want to. Even if I walked into her room at night to check on her she would jolt awake, ever vigilant, even in sleep. This was Year 5.
Learning is hard. We labor for each stride on this part of the journey. We gain a step and seem to lose two, and she wants to lose heart each time we try. But still we get up every morning and we work, sometimes with tears and sometimes even with responses that hearken all the way back to that dusty road outside the orphanage - the responses in the primal part of her where the raging suddenly goes silent and eyes suddenly go distant. She leaves me for a few minutes whenever she does this and she goes somewhere I can't find her. This is Year 7.
And then one day I walk into her room in the morning to wake her. "It's time to get moving. Time to start our day." But she doesn't move. And fear courses through me as I step closer to her bed wondering what I might find there. But all I see is resting eyelashes and soft breaths on her puckered lips, a clutched blankie pressed against her cheek. And I stand over her and cry, because she's asleep. And I'm here. This is Year 8.
And one day after a long time of playing and doing life together, she rests her head on my shoulder and she drifts into peaceful dreaming. And I sink into it with her, not wanting to put her down. I'll never put her down, I think.
I am different than I was on Day 1. So is she. We don't battle for the same things that we used to. There are places where gripping tightly is best, and places where open hands are best, and together we've figured out the better of the two. And we are still learning. She has always laughed, but her laugh is fuller now, less encumbered than it used to be. Maybe mine is too. And maybe the journey to rest has a lot to do with letting go. Sometimes things have to die in order to find life.
There's a science to it, you know. God made the world with a little secret inside of it: Life requires death. It's illustrated perfectly in the cycles of the Amazon rain forest. Did you know that the most fertile region on the planet is fertilized by the sandstorms of the African desert? Billions of particles are carried from the Sahara across thousands of miles of ocean on the wind. You would think they would all just fall into the sea by their own weight, but they don't. They are carried along to their destination. And inside this dust is something that is absolutely vital to the life of the rain forest. It comes from an ancient sea bed where dead microorganisms have been perfectly preserved, and inside of these dead organisms is phosphorus, an essential nutrient for plants to grow. The Amazon cannot produce enough of this to sustain itself. In other words, without these small deaths stacked up on one another, and carried on the wind, there would be no rain forest.
I think it's quite miraculous - millions of particles of our small deaths are sprinkled over the new world we are trying to create together: a million places of surrender and letting go, a million openings of the hand. And life blooms. This is the secret of the journey. And this is Year 10.
We were never swimming in that ocean between loss and hope that we had believed we were in on Day 6. All along we were carried, like the sandstorm over the sea, and all along our Heavenly Father had a plan and purpose in that storm. It turns out, I'm much like that little girl who doesn't trust her Father, who doesn't easily give in and who wants the broken way more than the new way. But God still made a way for me through His own Son's death - one death in exchange for an eternal spring of life. And He continues to carry and to move us with a purpose toward that fullness of life.
I've learned in a new way on this journey how death goes hand in hand with life. She's made me less afraid of the shadows and of the places that need a little dying. So I reach out to her and she reaches back, and we keep walking.